Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Mystery & detective  ➡  General  ➡  Action & suspense

Shout in the Dark

 

 

 

SHOUT IN THE DARK

New Edition

A thrilling chase through Europe as the Vatican and a neo-Nazi faction hunt down an ancient relic with a value greater than human life -- a relic that threatens the traditions of the Christian Church. Sturmbannführer Kessel killed to get his hands on the relic in wartime Rome. An elderly Jew risked his life to return it to a religion that was not his own. And today, Kessel's son wants it back -- to destroy the Christian Church and change the face of Europe. Someone is needed to probe the darkened web of evil. Into this explosive situation steps young priest Marco Sartini, once married, and still suffering the trauma of bereavement. The Vatican Security Services have found the perfect bait...

 

Shout In the Dark

by

Christopher Wright

 

First published in the USA in 2005 by Hard Shell Publishing ©Christopher Wright 2005

This new North View Publishing edition ©Christopher Wright 2015

 

 

Shout in the Dark is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Statements made by characters in this book may not always reflect historical fact, just what the characters choose to believe to be true. Racist statements are those of the fictional characters making them, and are essential to the plot. They do not in any way reflect the views of the author.

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner of this book.

 

The Bible verses used in this book are from the HOLY BIBLE NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® (the NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

 

North View Publishing

 

 

email: [email protected]

 

More thrillers by Christopher Wright available now,

or coming soon, from North View Publishing

 

Contents

Author‘s note

Observations

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

The 1980s

Chapter 6

The Present

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

The War Years

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

The Present

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

More Thrillers by Christopher Wright from North View Publishing

 

Author’s note

This book was written in 2000 (although not published in the USA until 2005), and reflects the political, religious and international situation at that time. The story has not been updated, and therefore still takes place in 2000 (“The Present”). The only changes I have made in this North View Publishing 2015 edition are minor edits and small additions that make some things clearer, but do not change the plot or update the technology in any way. It is important to realize that it wasn’t until later that websites like Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) became available to subscribers throughout the world, allowing users to spread information quickly and widely.

 

Although low resolution digital cameras were available in 2000, c ell phones (also known as mobile phones) had no cameras, and were purchased for making phone calls -- when there was a phone signal. Frustratingly, for many of us today with our smartphones, getting a reliable signal when we need it can still be a problem!

 

The quotations in “Observations”, by Hermann Göring and Josef Goebbels from 1935 and 1936, are genuine, translated here from the German, as are the teachings of Adolf Hitler referred to later in the book. The quotations from the writings of Eusebius (260-340 AD) are taken from Eusebius of Caesarea Church History Book VII, Chapter 18 -- a genuine historical document..

 

Christopher Wright

2015

 

Observations

“My Führer, we are unable to display our loyalty and affection to you through words. Our people, our whole nation, feel strong and happy because in you there has risen up not only the Führer of the Nation, but also the Savior of the Nation.”

Hermann Göring, Reichstag President, Nuremburg 1935

 

“The Führer appealed to the good instincts of the masses, not to the bad. His speech was like a magnet, drawing the blood and iron that still existed in the people.”

Josef Goebbels, Reichsminister for Propaganda, 1936

 

“Untold millions throughout the world know deep down that there is an intriguing and compelling personality behind the face of Adolf Hitler. Germans and non-Germans alike have been won over by the greatness that shines out from this man.”

Josef Goebbels, Reichsminister for Propaganda, 1936

 

The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, O king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face.

St John’s Gospel, chapter 19, verses 2-3

 

“I believe there is a plan for revenge that will ensnare the innocent as well as the guilty. A darkened web of evil. I beg you, Holiness, pray for the innocent.”

Josef Reinhardt, Vatican Security Services

Chapter 1

Rome

THE DARKNESS SEEMED heavy, oppressive in the summer heat that filled the city that night. Marco held Anna tightly, as though afraid of losing her.

“Marco Sartini,” she scolded with a giggle, “it’s late and we have to get to the Metro.”

Three men had been following them in the dark as they walked along the Via Sistina, towards the long flight of stone steps down to the Piazza di Spagna at the foot of the hill. Anna jumped in fright as one of the men threw a beer can noisily across the street. The group began to jeer at the embrace. Their language sounded like German.

“Ignore them,” Marco said. “We’re nearly at the station.”

One of the men came closer and called out something that Marco did not understand. Then, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?

Marco pretended not to hear.

The man raised his voice. “Lauter sprechen! All right, do … you … speak … English?” he demanded.

“A little,” Marco volunteered warily.

“This woman is Italian?”

“Yes.”

“That is good. Italian women all want one thing.” He laughed loudly as he lurched forward and grabbed hold of Anna’s arm, smirking. “How would you fancy the three of us tonight, pretty woman?”

As Marco tried to wrench the man off, the two men watching hurried forward and pinned him by the arms, holding him back.

Suddenly Anna kicked out, taking her captor by surprise. She ran quickly across the street, reaching the top of the Spanish Steps and the long descent to the piazza far below.

Marco heard her fall, the sudden stop of clattering shoes on the stone steps, the yell of enjoyment from her pursuer. He twisted violently in the hands of the two men holding him and they threw him to the ground. He lay there stunned, slowly becoming aware of the sound of a vehicle coming along the Via Sistina. It was a late night carabinieri patrol, but the vehicle drove past before Marco could stand up or even call out.

He dragged himself painfully to the top of the steps beneath the tall church of the Trinità dei Monti. The men had gone. He slid down one step at a time to where Anna lay sprawled, her long black dress pulled up to her waist. The men must have reached her as she lay defenseless. A small crowd was already running up from the Piazza di Spagna -- to watch, if not to help.

As he crouched helplessly beside the bright red pool forming in the dust around Anna’s head, it seemed that a great stillness had fallen over Rome. He screamed a silent scream, pressing her hand to his lips. The smell of Anna’s perfume would stay with him for ever.

The three men had returned to shout more abuse, more taunts from the stone balustrade where the Via Sistina overlooked the steps. Then they were gone.

“Bastards!” Marco shouted. “You’ve killed my wife!” He laid his head on Anna’s stomach. “O, God, and our baby.”

A gust of wind caught one of the empty beer cans and sent it rolling across the broad sidewalk of the Via Sistina, towards the top of the steps. It tumbled over the edge, hitting each step in turn as it fell. It stopped where Marco knelt. He jumped to his feet and hurled it back to where the men had been standing.

“Bastards like you deserve to die,” he yelled into the blackness.

 

The Present

Chapter 2

Six years later

(The Present)

Rome, Piazza Venezia

Morning

TELL ME, FATHER Marco, do you believe in the devil?”

Marco Sartini put his arm round Old Savio's shoulder. The unexpected question from the homeless man disturbed him. Asked the same thing yesterday, during the thunderstorm, Marco guessed he might have felt a shiver of fear at the probability -- the certainty. Today, wearing casual clothes with his new clerical collar, he smiled and tried to make a joke of it.

“What do you want, Savio: a full theological answer?” They often exchanged greetings by the roadside, but never had the questions been as deep as this.

“The devil used to live in Europe, Father.”

Marco looked at the man in surprise. Old Savio was sleeping rough somewhere near the remains of the Foro Romano. As usual he felt in his pocket for a few coins, aware of the deadness in Savio’s eyes. “You mean Hitler?”

“Hitler, Mussolini.” The old man coughed vigorously. “The devil Mussolini used to preach to us from the window over there.” He cleared his throat and drew a soiled sleeve across his mouth. Then the unwashed hand waved towards the drab brown building of the Palazzo Venezia, with the single balcony extending over the sidewalk. Bony fingers caught hold of Marco’s arm.

“ I believed him, Father." The old man coughed again, his eyes streaming. "I was a Koch Fascist. You can't understand it today. I had a friend. There, that surprises you -- an old man like me with a friend." He continued to cough as he tried to laugh at his own humor. "We raided churches in the war. Stole the gold and silver. My friend wanted forgiveness. He even went to work for Canon Levi. That sort of thing wasn't for me. Not then. But now? Yes, I want forgiveness now."

Marco wondered why Old Savio was wearing a coat on a day as hot as this. Filthy coats seemed to be part of a uniform for beggars, winter or summer. He remained silent as the sun blasted down on the busy piazza, overlooked by the glaring marble Vittoriano, the gigantic white wedding cake. Ruins and opulence, this was Rome, his home. Yes, long ago Germans had occupied the city -- until the Allies arrived with their tanks. The 1940s. A different century. A different millennium. School history had touched on it; his grandfather occasionally had some story to tell.

It was strange to think there were so many people still alive who had been involved in the wartime cruelty. Families, married couples like his grandparents, caught up as innocent victims. Men like Old Savio here, willingly taking part. There had been no neutrality. A few experts in European history said it could happen again, as immigrant workers took the jobs of those who could claim a national identity going back for generations.

“You’re right, Savio, there were many devils in the war.”

Old Savio’s grimy hand pinched more tightly. “But do you believe in the devil, Father?”

The only cloud in the sky started to pass across the sun as the old man spoke, and Marco fought back the feeling that this could be some sort of ill omen. Having lived through the Nazi occupation, Savio should know the answer to his own question from personal experience.

Marco nodded. “Yes, I believe in the devil. I believe in Satan.”

But Old Savio was becoming agitated. “It wasn’t only gold and silver we stole. We took holy relics. Important relics.”

“How important, Savio?” Marco noticed the deep veins showing through the ingrained dirt on the man’s scarred face.

“Important to the faith, Father.”

Marco laughed. “Surely faith is more important than any relic.”

It was a clever answer. No, it was stupid. Even as he spoke he felt angry with himself. It might have been a good answer on an exam paper at the seminary, but it was a pathetic response to a confused inquirer in the street. He reached out and touched the old man; hugged him for a brief moment. The people passing by turned their eyes away, deliberately, in embarrassment.

Marco looked up, and in black outline against the bright sky he could see the balcony on the side of the Palazzo Venezia. He could imagine Mussolini standing, arm raised in salute while the crowd in the piazza yelled and clapped and shouted in hysteria. Television sometimes showed film clips. Old Savio must have stood here with the crowds. Other priests had lived in those times of shame.

“The relic they’re showing on television tonight, Father.” Old Savio pulled at his coat as though Marco had untidied it with his touch. “They say it could shatter the Christian Church.”

Marco shrugged. "I doubt it. The Vatican only found it recently -- on a dusty shelf." Then he grinned in an attempt to lighten the situation. "I hope it isn't one you stole. I've been invited to join the studio audience at TV Roma!"

Old Savio gripped him again anxiously. “No, not that one. But I stole a lot of things. Can I have forgiveness, Father Marco?”

Marco ignored the plea. “I wish I could have found that relic. Imagine presenting the Vatican with a discovery like that.”

“ It used to belong to Canon Levi -- years ago, before the neo-Fascists murdered him. My friend ran around for him in Vatican Archives, fetching and carrying heavy books. He had to leave when the Canon was killed. I'll bet you didn't know Canon Levi had a secret daughter." Old Savio smiled slyly. "About your age, she'd be. Maybe the two of you should get together."

Marco shook his head, but returned the smile briefly. Canon Levi was now just a name from the past.

Old Savio coughed loudly as he tried to laugh. “The affair cost Canon Levi his job in the parish. That’s why they pushed him into Archives. Had to get him out of public view to save a scandal.”

The car appeared from nowhere, its tires screaming on the polished road surface. It was coming too fast for the bend into the Piazza Venezia, and the driver was clearly in trouble. In a moment of panic Marco Sartini could see exactly what was going to happen. He put his hand out to grab hold of the old man, to pull him to safety.

Old Savio glanced up but ignored the approaching Alfa. “Help me find forgiveness,” he whispered urgently.

Marco tugged at Savio’s jacket, gripping the filthy threads between his fingers as the car mounted the sidewalk. The sleeve was torn from his fingers with the impact.

As a crowd gathered, Marco bent over the lifeless form. He must pray for peace for Savio’s soul. He felt a rush of tenderness and lowered his head to Savio’s chest. A stench of urine and unwashed clothing rose from the hot ground, making him want to turn away, but he rested his head on the body. Rejected in life, Savio would not be rejected in death. Something had been on the vagrant’s conscience from the war.

Marco Sartini spoke into the blood-soaked ear. “You wanted God’s forgiveness, but I ignored you. Forgive me.” And he began to cry.

The driver of the rusting Alfa, scarcely more than a boy, stayed in the car and stared out at the bloodstained corpse. For a moment it wasn’t Old Savio on the ground, it was Anna, and he was crouching helplessly by her side in the darkness on the Spanish Steps. A terrible reminder of Anna’s death six years ago had returned to haunt him.

Marco jumped up and strode towards the driver, his tears quickly forgotten. “You stupid fool!” He wrenched open the door and grabbed the kid by the shoulders. As he dragged him from the seat he began to shake him furiously. “You’ve killed that old man.”

As he spoke, he realized that this must be the most useless start in the priesthood anyone had made. Perhaps his jeans and casual clothes were an attempt to conceal his new role in life. Why else had he used it as a disguise for his clerical collar? Until this moment he’d not realized just how much grief and anger there was still inside. Bitterness even now that burned towards the drunken gang who had killed his wife.

“Leave him, Father. The smelly old fool’s dead,” a woman shouted from the small crowd. “We’ve already phoned for the emergency services.”

Marco turned to the terrified kid from the Alfa who was being sick in the gutter. “I’m sorry … sorry I shouted at you. Here, wipe your mouth with this.”

He passed over his handkerchief and recalled Savio’s unanswered plea. Help me find forgiveness. Why had the man left it so late? Seminary never prepared you for real life. Today should have been a time of meditation, of preparation for the coming years of service in the Church. Three years of theological training, of hard work, and what answer had he been able to give an old man?

The war was long over, but evil lived on. Evil was a great survivor. He stared down at Savio.

“My name is Father Josef Reinhardt. Where is your parish, Father, Father…?”

Marco was closing Old Savio’s eyes and looked up in surprise as someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Father Marco. Marco Sartini,” he responded quickly. An elderly man wearing clerical black had come forward from the chattering crowd. “I don’t have a parish yet,” Marco explained, realizing with relief that experienced help was at hand. “I’m due to start at my first one next month.”

“Do I take it that you are only just ordained, Father Marco?”

He nodded. “I entered the priesthood late.”

Father Josef Reinhardt shook his hand, and the hold was warm and comforting. “You seem to be coping well. I will let you speak to the paramedics, Father Marco. Perhaps we can talk for a few minutes when this is over.”

“Could you please tell me…?”

But the old priest was already on his way back to join the people watching.

Marco shook his head as he hurried back to the body of Old Savio. An ambulance had just arrived. “You’re wrong, Father Josef,” he called back over his shoulder. “I didn’t do well. This man wanted forgiveness. I didn’t help him. I wasn’t listening. All I did was talk about relics.”

A carabinieri siren wailed in the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The full emergency services were on their way. This patch of instant death would soon be swept and hosed clean. Marco shook his head slowly. And things had been going so well lately.

Chapter 3

Rome

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

Afternoon

JOSEF REINHARDT shifted uneasily at his desk. What would his colleagues say if they could see the hesitation? That old Father Reinhardt, the fearless Nazi hunter, was reluctant to sacrifice a young priest? This was foolishness indeed. With a steady hand he drew a circle of red, like a sentence of death, around the name he had just written on the paper. Marco Sartini, a priest with a declared interest in relics. It had surely not been chance that had allowed them both to meet for the first time this morning.

The traffic in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore disturbed his concentration and he went across the room to press the old window firmly shut. The mixture of car engines and frantic horns still penetrated the thin glass, making it vibrate. Reinhardt felt helpless as he returned to his desk and fingered the heavy cross of rosewood and silver hanging from his neck. His was an agonizing decision. But surely the loss of Sartini’s life was nothing compared to the consequences of failure. A fascist Shrine of Evil. It must be prevented, even if it meant the destruction of what could be the most powerful relic held by the Church. And the loss of Sartini’s life.

The name inside the circle of red ink glared up at him in piercing accusation. Sartini, a young man unknown to these forces of evil. The innocent dying to save the world. The old man smiled grimly. It was hardly a new concept -- it was the cornerstone of the Church.

Like Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus, he had the power to grant freedom -- or order crucifixion. The sudden awareness of this fact gave him no pleasure. Reinhardt reached for the telephone. The Holy Father must be informed of the choice of Sartini immediately.

“It is not a question of if I see the Holy Father today, Vittorio, it is a question of when.” Reinhardt sighed, aware that he was raising his voice to the Holy Father’s private secretary. “Immediately,” he added, with no hint of apology.

As he waited, Reinhardt stared thoughtfully at the confidential staff folder on his desk. Would the Vatican turn its eyes away -- again -- and allow the fascists to change the face of Europe? Marco Sartini, age twenty-nine, and only recently ordained. There was a suggestion that Amendola had tried to block the ordination. This was, perhaps, not surprising. Reinhardt allowed himself a smile as he read Cardinal Amendola's prim wording in a letter of objection that he had wanted put on record: Sartini, a young man who once had "a certain reputation with the girls."

He continued through the notes. Here was a choirboy who had walked away from the Church at thirteen. Wasted teenage years, a succession of young women, then a stable, happy marriage to Anna Sartini. Anna Sartini, killed six years ago in Rome while being chased by a group of drunken tourists late at night, only two years into the marriage. Reinhardt turned the page. Marco Sartini a widower at twenty-three: a secondhand car salesman, drug user, and survivor. He shook his head wearily.

“Vittorio, please be as quick as you can. The matter is extremely urgent.” He closed his eyes and tried to remain patient. It was clear from Berlin that the neo-Fascists were about to mount a display of worldwide importance. Did someone have eyes on the Vatican’s newly rediscovered relic? As in the years leading up to the war, the people of Europe could again be drawn and then seduced by exciting promises from a powerful leader.

“Thank you, Vittorio, this evening at the Pope’s private suite. Yes, you may indeed assure the Holy Father I will not be wasting his time.”

He picked up the email that his contact in the civilian security services had intercepted and decoded. It was being sent by the neo-Fascist ADR movement in Berlin to their base in London. Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung. The encryption was minimal. The group seemed to be getting careless.

 

INTERCEPTED EMAIL COMMUNICATION

The Russians have agreed to sell us the two fragments that they claim are from the skull of Adolf Hitler. Please arrange for our colleagues in Oxford, England, to prepare for DNA testing. I am confident we can prove that the Russian fragments are from the same person as the larger, but partially burned portion of the Führer’s skull already in our possession.

Although these three pieces are obviously insufficient to allow us to reconstruct a complete head of the Führer, I have commissioned an internationally famous artist to create a life-size bust of great realism, using a skilful blend of bone and clay.

We will one day be able to put the bust of the Führer on public display, possibly in Berlinfor the glory of the ADR and the unity of the pure people of the world.

*

The Vatican

Evening

JOSEF, IT WOULD be most unwise to stop TV Roma’s live broadcast on the relic tonight, and probably impossible. They are a powerful organization, and could cause us considerable harm with adverse publicity if we let them down.”

The Pope’s serious expression turned to an embarrassed smile. “Please sit down, Josef,” he continued. “You make me uncomfortable as you pace the room. This carpet is three hundred years old, and since we began our talk I do believe you have added at least a decade of wear!”

Josef Reinhardt sat down reluctantly. He had been pacing the deep red carpet for almost thirty minutes. “As head of Vatican Security Services I should have been consulted on the security of this relic from the start,” he protested. “You should not risk lending it to TV Roma. Not even for five minutes.” Reinhardt stood up, realized what he had done, and sat down again.

“Then you know something, Josef?” the Pope continued.

“There is a German organization, Holiness.” Reinhardt chose his words carefully, attempting to cause maximum impact. “It is led by a man who uses the code name of Phönix. I have seen some of the neo-Fascist ADR’s intercepted emails, and it appears they have managed to collect three fragments of Hitler’s skull. They intend to embed these fragments into a bust of the Führer and display it in Berlin.”

The Pope shook his head in distaste. “I cannot imagine such a thing. Surely a display of Hitler would be illegal.”

“Rebuilding the head of Hitler may not be a criminal act in itself, Holiness. The Führer’s effigy is legally on display in waxworks around the world.”

“But a shrine, a place where racial hatred is taught, would not be allowed by the European constitution.”

“Never underestimate the power of the neo-Nazis, Holiness. I am sure they have a plan to circumvent the law.”

“Tell me, Josef, what size are these fragments?”

Reinhardt took his pen from the inside pocket of his black jacket and made a rough sketch of a man’s head on a sheet of notepaper on the desk. “Two of the fragments go here … and here.” He indicated two jagged patches each the size of an egg just above the forehead. “And a much larger piece containing the left eye socket and cheekbone goes here.”

The Pope glanced at the drawing before turning away. He swallowed. “What makes you think that people would flock to see fragments of this man’s skull?”

Reinhardt sighed. “The Church has used such a device for centuries, Holiness. What draws the people to the site of a saint’s burial? Is it the marble statue? Or is it a glimpse of the bones?”

The Holy Father reflected on this for a moment. “But the bones of the saint are good, and the bones of the Führer are surely evil.”

Reinhardt nodded. “Some would say that goodness and evil depend on the viewpoint of the onlooker.”

The Pope managed a smile. “Goodness is absolute, Josef, and well you know it. But what is the link between this sickening object and our first century bronze head of Jesus Christ?”

“ There may be no link." Reinhardt tried to move his shoulders but his body felt trapped by the luxurious padding of the large armchair. In spite of his age he preferred standing -- and pacing.

“Josef, you must not try to deceive me. Tell me what you know.”

He nodded slowly. “I have heard that one of the ADR fascist team is marching to a different tune.” Reinhardt was aware that he had the Holy Father’s full attention. “An ADR man is boasting in private that he will give Europe an experience the Church has never been able to offer. I can think of only one way he could achieve this.”

“By using the bronze head of Christ?” The Pope thought for a moment, weighing up the prospect. “Impossible. The fascists lost their opportunity in the war.” He sighed noisily. “But I can see the power it would have given them had they obtained it in the nineteen thirties. They would have remodeled the facial features. The nose especially. Christ’s supposed Aryan ancestry would have been falsely proven. Do you remember how German artists subtly changed the paintings on the walls in Schleswig cathedral in the nineteen thirties?”

“Lothar Malskat was to blame for that. And the Feys, of course. I was only a boy at the time.” Reinhardt jumped to his feet and walked the length of the room. Then he turned. “The neo-Fascists could destroy the peace in Europe with their pernicious magic.” He strode to the darkened window. “But when I first warned the Vatican, my voice was received in silence.” He tried not to make his words sound like an accusation, but suspected he had done exactly that.

The Pontiff nodded. “A lone voice crying in the wilderness?” He smiled fleetingly. “You, a man with a lifetime of danger; a one-time member of the Hitler Youth and a supporter of the Nazi Party? I regret I can find little enthusiasm within the Vatican for a battle with neo-Nazis in the new millennium.”

“At times like this I feel powerless,” responded Reinhardt bitterly. “I met Adolf Hitler personally. The German Führer came to our house to see my father several times in Berlin. The man was obsessed with the occult. He frightened me. But a greatness shone out from him that I cannot explain. Yes, a bust containing parts of his skull would have a fascination, even for me. But it is the bronze head of Christ that would provide an even greater attraction to the world.”

The Pope smiled reassuringly. “Then we can rejoice that it is safe with us here at the Vatican.”

“Safe in the Vatican, but will it be safe at TV Roma?”

“ You are over-reacting, Josef. The news you have brought me this evening is only from one source -- the contact you have in the secular anti-terrorist group in Rome. Do you consider this man's intelligence reliable?"

“ He believes a splinter group of the neo-Fascist ADR movement could be planning to shake our little set-up to its foundations -- within days." Reinhardt shrugged. "Those are his words, Holiness, not mine. A Church with a membership of more than a billion. Our little set-up!"

The Pope held his hands open, and the sweeping folds of white gave Reinhardt a little of the comfort he desperately needed. There was no smile now. “Tell me, Josef, as head of this ‘little set-up’, what do you want me to do?”

Reinhardt had his back to the window and the view of the empty courtyard. This was not the time for Vatican protocol. The Holy Father’s question was direct, and the reply would therefore be blunt. “Holiness, it is obviously too late for us to stop tonight’s live broadcast. But you should insist that TV Roma makes all future programs about the relic from within the boundaries of the Vatican. Security at their studios may be weak. The neo-Nazis tried to steal it from Canon Levi nearly twenty years ago.”

“And failed.”

“Indeed.” Reinhardt sighed. “But they managed to kill Canon Levi in the attempt.”

“Every step we make in life involves a degree of danger, Josef. Tell me about this ADR movement.”

Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung, literally Eighteen Germany Purification.”

“Is that Eighteen as in the British neo-Nazi group Combat Eighteen, Josef?”

“Indeed, yes. Eighteen: one and eight, A and H.”

“The initials of Adolf Hitler,” said the Pope quietly. “But I understand the ADR is not a youth movement.”

The Holy Father seemed remarkably well informed on the current neo-Nazi groups. “Quite so, Holiness. The movement has been around since the nineteen eighties, but it now appears to be run by powerful politicians and influential businessmen. The ADR has an extensive network.”

“You’re putting me in an impossible position, Josef. The people have been clamoring for a sight of the bronze head since its rediscovery in the Vatican.” The Holy Father smiled confidently. “And that is why the Vatican has agreed to show it to them through TV Roma.”

This was not the answer Reinhardt sought. He looked at his footmarks showing on the crimson carpet, and tried without much success to stand still. “Holiness, could the public stay away if the face of Jesus Christ was on show? If the fascists display the bust of Christ alongside the head of Hitler, they will draw more visitors than all our cathedrals and churches combined.”

Reinhardt could hear a sound outside the closed door. Vittorio, the private secretary, must be dropping a strong hint to the Holy Father about the passing time. The Pope chose to ignore the man.

“It is your responsibility to deal with this evil, Josef. What do you intend to do to counter any move by the ADR against the Church?”

Reinhardt shrugged. “We could try shouting at the devil. Shouting into the darkness. See what comes out.”

“I trust you have a more sophisticated plan than that.”

Reinhardt hesitated, aware of the enormity of the decision he had already made. “More detailed, but scarcely more advanced. I have this afternoon selected … selected someone in the Church. A man. A man to put his head up to be shot at, Holiness.”

“People who put their heads up usually get them shot off. Do I know this man?”

“His name is Sartini. I met him this morning for the first time. He is a priest just out of seminary. It is essential that we identify the parties in this conspiracy before we can act. I believe Sartini would make ideal bait to draw them into the open.”

“Sartini?” The Holy Father frowned. “I cannot say I know the name. I trust you intend to make him fully aware of his function … as bait?”

“No.”

“No?”

Reinhardt caught hold of the Holy Father’s arm, disregarding all convention and etiquette, his voice tense. “Sometimes the innocent will draw the enemy, so that he can be caught unawares. There is a country saying I remember from my boyhood: if you want to catch a wolf, you may have to lose a rabbit.”

The Holy Father’s eyes flashed briefly with a natural energy. Placing a hand on each side of his head he pointed upwards, laughing. “Marco Sartini is a rabbit?”

“With long ears? Far from it, Holiness. Like all good sayings one must not look too closely at the words. Rest assured, Sartini is a survivor. I have seen his records. However, in the end we may have to accept…”

The laughter stopped abruptly. “You will put his life at risk, Josef?”

“As you said just now, Holiness, every step we make in life involves a degree of danger.”

“Then we must pray to the Lord for his safety.”

Reinhardt nodded. “I have done so constantly, since I met him this morning. I believe there is a plan for revenge that will ensnare the innocent as well as the guilty. A darkened web of evil with a powerful man at its center. I beg you, Holiness, pray for the innocent.”

The Pope closed his eyes. “How old is Sartini?”

“Twenty-nine, and I believe he still has both his feet firmly on the ground.”

“Both feet?” The Holy Father’s smile was back in place. “Then he must indeed be a young priest in a million!”

A sharp knock at the door interrupted the conversation. “You really must excuse me, Josef, but duty calls. They are waiting for me in the Basilica.”

Reinhardt stood in front of the closed door to delay the Pontiff’s departure. “There are still many who would change the course of history. Sartini has the potential…”

The Pope placed a hand firmly on Reinhardt’s shoulder. “Josef, I know I can trust you to deal with this matter.”

Reinhardt was scarcely listening as he moved to one side to let the Holy Father pass. Marco Sartini had a critical role to play.

The circle of red ink. The sentence of death. The war was not over yet.

Chapter 4

Rome

Via Nazionale

Evening

MANFRED KESSEL looked around the cheap Rome hotel room with its shoddy and basic furniture. A shortage of funds made this place the only sensible option on his rare visits to Italy.

He sniffed in disgust at the sight of young Karl Bretz sitting on the end of the bed, listening to loud music on lightweight headphones. The youth was carefully cleaning the outside of a black Makarov handgun he had brought from Düsseldorf. The brash, disrespectful neo-Nazi must be twenty-two now.

The boy was always playing with a stupid knife. It had started out as Rüdi's paperknife. The word "big" described the son of his dead friend Rüdi Bretz perfectly. Young Karl was tall and overweight, and his appearance and manner seemed designed to intimidate. The shaved head was probably a deliberate attempt to shock. Even though he was nothing more than an overgrown kid, young Karl did have one point in his favor: he was popular with his group of friends in Düsseldorf. Karl and the youngsters in the ADR gang could prove useful here in Rome -- if violence was ever needed.

Kessel tried to detest young Karl, but felt captivated by things he wanted in his own life: a lack of fear, and a lack of concern for the future. Rüdi would probably have been proud of him. Rüdi had always been proud of his son, unheeding of the boy’s many failings. It still hurt to recall Rüdi’s death from a brain tumor.

Kessel sighed. To be here in Rome was bringing back too many memories of his childhood. Born to an Italian woman in a backstreet a few months after the liberation of Italy by the British and American forces in June 1944, he was given the name Enzo Bastiani. It had not taken him long to sense something different about his physical appearance. As he floundered into his teens he became aware of a spiritual inner difference, and the face in the mirror told him he undoubtedly belonged to a race far to the north.

At first his mother Renata merely passed off his queries about his birth, but after an increasing bombardment of questioning she had reluctantly explained about his father. Two men seemed to be contenders for the privilege -- an SS officer and a British soldier -- although his mother believed the German SS officer to be the responsible party. She had told him about it as though it were a matter of shame, as though she had something to hide.

Kessel recalled how as a boy he had constantly brooded about his unknown father, all the while drawing away from his family. He remembered his mother and his brother Bruno telling him they could stand his sullen behavior no longer, so he left home. The only clue he had to his father’s existence was a creased photograph that had belonged to his mother. It showed a group of soldiers holding an effigy of a man’s head, painted white. His mother had apparently snatched some of his father’s papers when she learned of his sudden death in the Via Tasso.

The head was small and distant in the photograph, and the white paint made it impossible to see much in the way of detail. His father had written on the back that it was the head of Jesus Christ, that it had once been seen by Eusebius, and was probably made of bronze. He’d written that it was his property, but it had subsequently been stolen from him by a Jew who then took it to the Vatican. He had never recovered it.

Manfred Kessel remembered how by 1965, when he was twenty-one, he’d managed to convince himself he was the son of a German officer of noble birth. A Jewish mother and brother in Rome were too much for him to stomach, and he was interested in learning first hand about racial purity. So he went north to try out German living, still using the name Enzo Bastiani.

“My father was stationed here in the war. He’d have been proud of me,” said Kessel suddenly.

Karl mouthed the word “What?” and pulled off his headphones. Kessel repeated the statement.

“If you say so, Herr Kessel.” Karl picked up a black balaclava from the end of the bed and tried it on.

Kessel opened his wallet and removed a small photograph, the colors muted and slightly browned over the years. “Karl, this is your father,” he said. “I took it eighteen years ago outside Saint Peter’s. Your father Rüdi and I were in Rome to recover the relic. I still miss him.”

“Yes, Herr Kessel.” Karl didn’t even bother to look at the photograph. He pulled on the balaclava and blew across the end of the barrel of the handgun. Then he looked at his watch.

“Take that thing off your head, Karl!” snapped Kessel.

Karl fired two imaginary shots at the cracked and stained washbasin, but he left the balaclava on.

“Karl, before the war, the Church in Germany taught that Christ was Nordic.” Kessel ignored the disobedience. “Unfortunately we don’t hear the teaching now. A pure religion for a pure world. We could have such a religion again.”

Karl ignored this valuable insight into the past and the future. He studied his watch once more. “What time does the TV Roma program start, Herr Kessel?”

Kessel looked at his own watch. “Nine o’clock.” He reached across the table. “I have a friend at TV Roma. A film editor. He’s arranged this pass to get you into the building and up to the studio on the fourth floor.” He handed a bright red staff pass to Karl. “Clip it to your shirt before you go in. I want you there exactly one hour before the program starts, before they let the studio audience in. This notice has to be read out live tonight.” He showed Karl a sheet of paper.

“You’ve already told me all this,” Karl complained.

“So remember everything I’ve said,” retorted Kessel. “Don’t go making a pig’s ear of things once you get inside. Canon Levi was going to sell that relic to me a long time ago, but your father foolishly killed him too soon. This is your opportunity to redeem your father’s name, Karl.”

As he spoke about the past, a tremble of excitement ran through his body. The note was sheer genius, printed by computer on an inkjet printer using a German typeface. The youth must slip past security and into the television studio, remove the relic, and leave the note. With nothing else to show on the live broadcast, the presenter would be sure to read it out to the bewildered viewers. The wording said that the ADR had reclaimed the property of the German people. It mentioned the proposed Shrine of Unity in Germany where the pure could come to worship.

“ Just think of it, Karl," Kessel said breathlessly. "The two great Saviors of the world -- Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ. If that bronze head is the likeness of Jesus Christ, then we can put an end to false teaching of his Jewish ancestry. A pure God for a pure people. Again, the Fatherland has an opportunity to cleanse Europe. Your father's visions in the hospital are turning into reality at last."

Karl pushed the handgun into his pocket. “I don’t care about religion, but everyone knows Jesus Christ was Jewish. You’re crazy, Herr Kessel. My father hated you by the time he died.”

Kessel jumped up angrily. “Watch what you say, Karl Bretz. I knew your father for a long time.”

Karl yawned, but it was a forced yawn. “It’s six-thirty and we ought to be going.” He peeled off his balaclava, stretched it, then pushed it into his pocket.

“If you don’t pull yourself together, I’ll put you on the next train back to Germany,” Kessel snapped angrily.

Karl laughed. “Don’t push your luck, old man. You need me to snatch the relic.”

Manfred Kessel felt his stomach go tight at the prospect of Karl screwing things up. “There can be no possibility of failure tonight, Karl.”

*

TV Roma

Evening

MARCO SARTINI had decided to dress informally for his part in the studio audience at TV Roma, but made his clerical collar and gray shirt a little more prominent. His was one of the special tickets that had been allocated to the clergy who were to fill the front rows -- probably to impress the viewers with the serious intent of the program. He was now hoping that he'd done the right thing in leaving his clerical black suit in the apartment.

The studios of TV Roma occupied a large glass-fronted building in the center of Rome. As he waited to cross the street, his attention was drawn to two men standing in the shelter of the trees in a small park opposite. There was something furtive about the way they were standing, and he stopped to watch them.

A heavily built skinhead looked as though he was holding a handgun, but before Marco could see it clearly the youth pushed the object into his pocket and pulled something black from his belt. The older man, with blond or gray hair, handed the skinhead a piece of paper which the youth folded carelessly and stuffed into his pocket.

Marco was intrigued. He’d arrived too early to go inside, so he crossed the street intending to get closer, while remaining unseen.

 

“I DON’T THINK you’re taking this seriously enough,” said Kessel abruptly. “The studio is on the fourth floor. Just act confidently and show the staff pass.” He sighed. “Our futures are on the line here, Karl. If we get this right we’re going to be famous.”

“You fuss too much, Herr Kessel. You brought me down here from Düsseldorf because I’m good at this sort of thing. If I have to kill…”

“There’s to be no killing tonight, Karl.”

Karl began to twist his balaclava in his hands. Suddenly he poked his fingers out through the eye holes and waved it in Kessel’s face. Kessel pushed it away angrily.

Karl grinned. “I’m going in, Herr Kessel.” He waved the balaclava again. “I don’t understand why I have to wear this thing. How can I be famous if nobody knows who I am?”

Kessel tipped back his head and roared with laughter.

Karl ended the laughter by catching hold of Kessel’s arm. “See that priest over there? He’s watching us.”

“Stay back, Karl,” warned Kessel. “We don’t want to attract attention. At least, not yet.”

But Karl was already marching forward. “Das geht Sie nichts au?” he demanded.

The man in his late twenties, wearing jeans and a light gray shirt with a small clerical collar showing at the front, stood his ground. Rather fearlessly, Kessel thought.

“It sounds like you have a problem,” said the priest quietly.

Mach die Fliege, Priester!” Karl shouted in response.

Before Kessel could intervene, Karl turned abruptly and stormed towards the studios of TV Roma, leaving the priest watching him go.

 

KARL BRETZ HESITATED for a moment outside the large glass doors. Total Training had taught him it was essential to have absolute control over people and events. Herr Kessel had told him to use the rear entrance, but for an important job like this the main entrance was suitable for someone who would surely soon be a senior member of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung.

The sun had not even set, but already the vast glass paneled front of the studios was a blaze of electric light. He could see Herr Kessel across the street, frightened to come near, but watching from the shadows like some white-headed hawk. Karl wished he had his ADR friends from Düsseldorf to help him do this job, but he had been ordered by Herr Kessel not to breathe a word of the plan. The old fool seemed to be behaving like a lunatic in his obsession for status in the ADR. Karl shrugged his broad shoulders and felt for his balaclava.

He could feel an unexpected tension inside as he checked that his Makarov handgun was out of sight in his pocket, then he began to push his way through the glass doors. A quick ciao, and a casual wave of Kessel’s fake staff pass at the security guard. The guard merely nodded. One word of Italian and he was in. Karl began to relax.

The man in dark green uniform seemed to be taking no more notice. Herr Kessel had said that the elevator was round the corner, and for once it seemed that the old Narr knew what he was talking about. The indicator showed the elevator was on the second floor. Karl pressed the button and waited.

The security man might not be as sleepy as he looked. He stood up and came from behind his desk to stand by the elevator, saying something in Italian. Karl pointed up at the indicator. Herr Kessel had impressed the Italian word for four on him, the number of the floor, so he muttered, “Quattro,” and hoped he sounded like an Italian.

The elevator came. The guard entered and stood with him. Karl pressed the button for the fourth floor. The man in uniform was watching. Total Training told Karl things were going wrong.

He stayed facing the doors, waiting for the elevator to stop on the fourth floor. Herr Kessel had explained exactly which way to go. The elevator slowed. The guard said something. Karl just replied, “Si,” and continued facing the door. As the elevator stopped he felt a hand tug at his shoulder.

He’d been found out.

With lightning reaction he spun round, Göring dagger at the ready, but the guard was too close for him to ram the knife through his heart. Karl clutched the ivory handle, forcing the blade upwards into the soft stomach, before smashing the hard edge of his hand across the back of the guard’s neck. The man grunted, sagged and subsided to the floor, his eyes wide in fear as he pressed his hands against the large patch of blood spreading across the front of his white shirt.

The elevator doors were fully open now, but not the doors through which they’d entered. In an instant Karl realized the guard had been trying to explain that the elevator doors were on the opposite side for the fourth floor.

A woman with a trolley of papers screamed at the sight of the guard writhing on the floor of the elevator. Karl pointed his gun in her face and she dropped to the ground in fear. He kicked her head and turned to the right. The Current Affairs studio should be at the end of the corridor. The alarm would be raised any minute. If Herr Kessel could be believed, there was an escape route down the back stairs. All he had to do now was get into the studio with his 9-millimeter Makarov at the ready, snatch the bronze head, and be outside -- before these sleepy Italians even knew what time of day it was.

 

FROM THE SHELTER of the small park opposite the studio, Manfred Kessel heard the alarm. He knew he’d been a fool to let the half-witted youngster barge in alone. Only a fool would believe that Total Training could benefit a moron like Karl Bretz. Without doubt the boy was making a complete mess of the operation.

Kessel was about to withdraw quietly, to disappear into one of the narrow side streets, when a car slid to a halt outside the studio. Several armed men leapt out and ran to the shelter of the bushes. Still there was no sign of Karl. Kessel guessed that two more vehicles now arriving with sirens blaring held members of the Groupe Interventional Speciale -- the crack anti-terrorist force of the Italian carabinieri.

Spotlights blazed across the glass front of the building, blasting the warm glow of evening sunshine with flashes of intense blue light. A man in combat gear shouted through a loudhailer, ordering everyone to keep back. Staff leaning from windows were told to stay inside until the “small problem” had been resolved. There was sudden activity in the entrance lobby.

Kessel’s stomach turned to a knot as he saw the skinhead Karl Bretz, the ski mask hiding his face, standing just inside the door with the relic clutched to his chest. He seemed to be frozen by the bright lights. As a product of Total Training, he was showing scant regard for the time and energy that had been expended on him. Hadn’t the cretin taken in what he’d been told about the rear escape route?

Karl had taken no human hostage -- another mistake. The GIS would not be kept waiting. They must know that the longer they delayed, the more chance there was of their target using his gun on them. A shout from the captain brought men darting from the shadows. In spite of the huge glass front to the entrance area, Karl either did not see, or could not cope with, such a sudden attack. From the safety of his viewpoint Kessel flinched as a stun grenade shattered the glass doors, sending the large youth reeling backwards.

Karl seemed to recover, but the GIS hurled two more grenades through the broken door. Karl raised the relic and pitched it forward.

A stun grenade and the bronze head crashed together in an explosive bombshell that shook the street. Manfred Kessel watched in disbelief as the bronze shattered. The head had disintegrated like pottery.

The crowd stood in horrified silence as the echo died away. The Groupe Interventional Speciale, in their black outfits with ballistic helmets and face shields, burst into the foyer without waiting for the smoke to clear. Bronze fragments lay over the green carpet tiles, but Karl had already gone.

The local carabinieri urged the crowd to move further back. Persuasion was not needed. The explosions from the grenades had frightened the onlookers. They had only gathered for the entertainment, and certainly did not intend putting themselves in danger. Kessel stayed for nearly an hour while the security forces searched the building. Suddenly he felt an arm go round his shoulder. Instinctively he tore himself free.

“Don’t be so jumpy, Herr Kessel!” The voice spoke perfect German.

Kessel turned, unable to disguise the admiration in his voice. “So, you managed to get away, Karl!”

“The rear fire escape. I told you I’d do it, Herr Kessel.”

Kessel slapped Karl hard across the face. “You stupid idiot! For nearly twenty years I’ve planned to get that relic back, and now you’ve destroyed it.”

He hit Karl again, harder this time.

Karl whipped out his knife, but his eyes were fixed on the building. “Look, Herr Kessel, it’s that dumb priest again. He’s seen us.” He pointed his knife towards the building.

“Then you know what to do, Karl.”

But as Karl went forward, a young woman appeared from a side door of TV Roma and ran towards the priest. She was dressed in a thin red jumper and long black skirt.

“Do you want me to go after him?” asked Karl.

Kessel hit him again. “Later. The press will have taken pictures of you holding the relic in the foyer, Karl. You’ll have to change out of that ridiculous black T-shirt before anyone sees you. We’ll go back to our hotel and watch the television. The TV Roma news will let us know what’s going on.”

“I doubt if pictures of me would be any good,” muttered Karl, touching his face where Kessel had hit him. “I was wearing this.” He indicated the balaclava in his hand. “At least I got one thing right, Herr Kessel,” he continued smugly. “I left the note.”

Kessel felt as though Karl had stuck the Göring dagger into him. “You did what?

 

MARCO SARTINI! What are you doing here?”

Marco turned in surprise to see a young woman running towards him. He smiled as he recognized an old friend from school -- his first serious girlfriend.

“Natalia!”

Ciao, Marco.” She hesitated for a moment and looked slightly embarrassed. “Do I call you Marco, or Father Marco, now that you’re a priest?”

Marco laughed. “I think we knew each other well enough for you to go on calling me Marco.”

Natalia pointed a finger at him, but she still managed to keep smiling. “Not that I’ve seen you since you dumped me for that blonde from Campo de’ Fiori.”

“Oh, yes, her.” Marco tried to make it sound unimportant. “I’d forgotten all about her. It must have been ten years ago. A two week nightmare. I seemed to have a succession of blondes after that, until I met Anna.” Marco noticed that Natalia’s left hand, the one pointing the accusing finger, had no engagement or wedding ring. She didn’t sound as though the memory of being dumped for a flashy blonde was too distressing.

“A friend told me you’d been ordained,” she continued. “I wasn’t sure she’d got it right.”

“I’ve changed.”

“I heard that as well. So were you here to be part of the studio audience?”

“I wanted to see the relic.” Marco pointed to the pieces still on the ground. “Is that it?” Suddenly he realized that a camera team was converging on him. He looked at Natalia and wondered if she had some connection with the News Room.

“Is this man an eyewitness?” asked the man holding a microphone. Marco recognized him as one of TV Roma’s news reporters.

Natalia raised her eyebrows and smiled sweetly. “Care to say a few words to the camera, Father Marco?”

Marco felt trapped. He laughed. “I don’t think my bishop would want his new priest to be a television star.”

Natalia smiled pleadingly. “For me?”

 

BY THE BUSHES across the street a small movement disturbed the branches. A man with a Nikon F4 twisted the telephoto lens into place and raised the camera to his eye. The focus locked onto the subject’s head.

“Well, well, look who it is.” He fired off a burst of exposures on the motor drive. “What are you doing here in Rome, you bastard?”

He fired the shutter again. What a stroke of luck. Bruno Bastiani lowered the camera and placed it carefully in the large camera bag at his feet. His half-brother, Enzo, wasn’t in Rome for sightseeing, that was for sure. Somehow he was mixed up with the raid on TV Roma. But why?

Bruno picked up his cell phone and dialed a local number. “Riccardo? Listen, I’m outside TV Roma. There’s one hell of an incident going on, and my brother, Enzo, seems to be mixed up in it.”

He put the phone down and reached for his Nikon to take another burst of exposures. He picked up the phone again to speak to Riccardo Fermi.

“ My bastard brother -- Enzo. He's calling himself Manfred Kessel now. He's here at TV Roma with some young thug in a black shirt."

He dropped the phone and took a final picture of the two men hurrying away. Throwing his camera case into the back of his battered Lancia he followed on foot. Enzo and the skinhead went as far as a cheap hotel off the Via Nazionale. He waited while they went inside. Five minutes later he called the hotel on his phone and checked that Enzo was one of the guests. Tomorrow he would come back with a plausible reason for going in. Ten minutes in Enzo’s room would be enough. If he couldn’t bug the phone and bedroom in ten minutes, he had no right to call himself an investigative journalist.

“Welcome to our spider’s web, Enzo. If you’re still up to your neck with the neo-Nazis, I’m going to kill you.”

Bruno Bastiani could feel only hatred for the half-brother. How long was it since he’d last seen Enzo? Ten years? Maybe twelve. Enzo was older now and had come to look exactly like his father in the war. Bruno was suddenly overwhelmed with a horrifying childhood memory at the age of four of watching his mother, naked, rolling around on the bed with the German SS officer and crying.

Chapter 5

Via Nazionale

IN HIS TOURIST class hotel off the Via Nazionale, Manfred Kessel was watching the TV Roma news channel. Karl Bretz had destroyed the relic and risked being caught -- for nothing. His dream of the Shrine of Unity lay shattered. The Jungling had seen to that. And then, as if the imbecile hadn’t already done enough damage, the young thug boasted that he’d left the note in the studioas planned!

Karl, I suppose you know that Phönix is going to kill us when he finds out we’re involved in this mess.”

“But you told me…”

Kessel waved his hands to silence Karl as the young priest on the television screen started to tell his story. Karl began playing with his homemade dagger. The implications of there being a possible eyewitness to his stupidity didn’t seem to register.

Kessel took in every word. This priest had seen them talking in the park, and had probably seen Karl holding the handgun. The name on the caption said Fr. Marco Sartini.

Keep still, Karl!

“So would you recognize these two men if you saw them again?” asked the interviewer.

“Absolutely,” responded Sartini.

“That verfluchter priest!” Kessel felt his Nordic skin turning red from the neck upwards.

The interviewer held up to a small fragment of metal. “You’ve seen what happened to the relic, Father Sartini. You must feel devastated by the events here at TV Roma tonight.”

“It’s a disaster.” The priest did indeed seem genuinely upset. “That relic could have been exhibited to raise money for the poor. In my opinion it should have been used to raise money for the poor a long time ago.”

“An interesting point of view.” The interviewer lowered his voice for effect as he posed the next question. “Do you think some higher force decided that the relic was not meant to be seen?”

The priest grinned wickedly. “Higher force? Do you mean God?”

The interviewer appeared disconcerted by this blunt response. “The relic survived for nearly two thousand years, Father Sartini. In mysterious circumstances. Then, just as the world at large is being given the chance to see it… Bang!”

“There’s certainly something strange about its history,” agreed the priest. “I believe the late Canon Angelo Levi owned it for a time. He was with Vatican Archives, but I’ve no idea how he obtained it. He’s a man of mystery. I heard this morning that he had a daughter.”

“A canon in the Catholic Church with a daughter? Are you serious?” The surprise in the interviewer’s voice was not just for the viewers’ benefit; it seemed to be a reaction of genuine shock.

Sartini shrugged. “Whatever. Anyway, if his daughter is still alive, maybe she could tell us how her father got the relic in the first place.”

The interviewer turned to the camera, speaking to the viewers. “So the mystery deepens by the minute. As a security guard from TV Roma fights for his life, the carabinieri want to interview two men seen hurrying from the scene. And Father Marco Sartini here could hold the key to the puzzle of why a Christian relic, said to show the face of Christ, should be so brutally and wantonly destroyed.”

Kessel flung a book at the television set. “That bloody priest. Get out there, Karl. Find him and kill him. But be more careful this time. Sartini is trouble.”

Karl tossed his knife into the air and caught it deftly by the handle. “A pleasure, Herr Kessel. But right now I’m off to my room for a lie down.”

“To play with yourself more likely.” He watched the youth heave himself from the bed. It was difficult to think that this lump could be Rüdi’s child.

In the 1980s, in Düsseldorf, he'd spent many pleasant evenings with Rüdi Bretz -- a time when his own name was still Enzo Bastiani.

 

 

 

The Past

The 1980s

Chapter 6

Düsseldorf

Early 1980s

HE WAS SITTING in a dark corner of the bar, drumming his fingers on the table.

Tall, blond and Nordic, he somehow managed to feel out of place in both Germany and Italy. A psychologist once told him it was an identity crisis. Not that the information had ever done him much good. More comfortable in Germany than in Italy, he always felt uneasy. The smoke in the bar was affecting his eyes. He began to rub them as Rüdi Bretz returned to the table with two dripping glasses of lager.

“Full in here tonight, Enzo.”

At least Rüdi sounded cheerful. He nodded, forcing a smile. “These bars are where I feel at home, my friend.”

If only it were true. Where did he feel at home? Not here -- or anywhere else for that matter. "Perhaps we should get down to business."

Rüdi Bretz laughed. “I sometimes think there’s Jewish blood in you, Enzo. I can tell by the way you say that!” He leaned forward, catching him by the nose and twisting it playfully. “I know all about that little secret you’re hiding!”

He pulled himself away angrily, before carefully raising his shoulders as though to shrug off the very possibility. Deep down inside he really hurt. If anyone in the ADR found out about his mother they would drop him from membership. He looked around warily, wishing Rüdi would keep his stupid jokes to himself.

“Have you got something on your mind?” Rüdi swung his briefcase onto the small table. “Here you are, six videos and a sixteen-millimeter film. The film is even better than last month’s.”

“That’s good.” He wasn’t listening; he was locked into his own world. One day he was destined to be accepted by the believers of the German Homeland. To be more honest, he’d find a way to accept himself as a true member.

The video trade was not for his personal benefit. It never had been. All the income he and Rüdi derived from this enterprise, or at any rate most of it, went straight into an account they had opened for the Düsseldorf Chapter of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung . They had already deposited a considerable amount of money. Making the videos was Rüdi's idea -- funding the neo-Nazis his. Together they made a great team. He took the unedited material obtained by Rüdi Bretz down to Rome where he had access to the facilities such an operation demanded.

In the studios of TV Roma a co-operative and sympathetic editor took the film and videos apart shot by shot, reassembling them with additional sound effects into a very attractive form. The market for such merchandise might be limited, but the small demand involved extremely wealthy customers with insatiable appetites for sex and sadism. The income was excellent, the security was guaranteed.

“Have you heard of a man called Phönix?”

Rüdi looked surprised. “Of course. He’s the driving force behind the ADR.”

“I met him in London last week. He sees the need for unity with other right wing groups. He’ll support my name going forward as an instructor.”

Having revealed and established the contents of the briefcase, Rüdi snapped it shut and placed it on the floor. “They’re looking for youth instructors in Düsseldorf. I’d go for it if Phönix is prepared to back you. Wasn’t your father with the Hitler Schule?

“He was an instructor.” He could talk about his father; he could never talk about his Italian mother. And never, never would any of his German friends be allowed to find out she was Jewish. “I’ve been thinking about the missing relic, Rüdi. It was handed to a Jewish Christian in Saint Peter’s in the war. His name was Angelo Levi. The man’s a canon now, working in the archive department in the Vatican. If TV Roma can prove he still has it, maybe he’ll sell it back to me, ja?

Rüdi nodded, but for some reason seemed slightly bored. “So you keep telling me. Are you coming back to my place for a drink?”

“I’d like to, of course, but it’s always the same problem. There’s only the one late night plane to Rome.” He drained his glass. “How’s the wife?” Not improved in looks at all, he could be certain of that. Helga Bretz had definitely been at the back of the queue when good looks were being given out.

“Fine.” Rüdi nodded, though without any noticeable enthusiasm.

“And the boy? Karl, isn’t it?”

Rüdi’s eyes brightened instantly. “A big lad. Nearly seven now. He’s already into military modeling. Wants to make that old paper knife of mine into a Göring dagger. He’s got a picture of one on the wall above his bed. I might let him remodel it when he’s a bit older.”

“Big, you say.”

“He’s grown up quite a bit since I took him in hand. Helga fussed over him too much. I recently found out that he was afraid of everyone and everything at school. A son of mine, acting like a babe-in-arms? Not my way to bring a boy up, I can tell you.” Rüdi laughed. “He’s going to camp this summer. That should help.”

“Good.”

Rüdi now seemed determined to share his family news, especially anything relating to his remarkable son. "The hell of it is, Enzo, I've had to buy myself a new letter opener. Got myself a real dagger for the job -- a wartime model from the flea market. Karl reckons it's genuine, but he needn't think he's getting his hands on it, the young Rowdy!” He used the word affectionately.

“I see.” He had no wish to learn anything about Rüdi’s family; he had merely felt under some obligation to inquire. Meeting in bars like this was the best way of seeing his friend. The late night plane was always a good excuse for not going home with Rüdi Bretz. “We still need to know where my father found the relic in Italy. Any luck with tracing the wartime photographer?”

Rüdi tipped back his glass for the warm remnants of lager. “Another?”

He shook his head. “Any news?”

Rüdi shrugged. “SS in Rome. I suppose there could have been a photographer with the unit. A man with a camera would have taken hundreds of pictures. Perhaps I’ll get someone working on it.”

Rüdi was a good companion, but never forceful enough. Why did the ADR see anything in him? “Do it soon, my friend. You know how much I want that Shrine.” He felt for the briefcase.

“The Eternal Shrine,” added Rüdi, although he didn’t sound especially passionate about it.

“Rüdi, you know it’s been my dream to mount a display in Berlin. The head from the statue of Jesus Christ alongside the relics of Hitler and the Third Reich. It’s what my father, Sturmbannführer Kessel, would have wanted.”

“Not a chance,” said Rüdi, wiping the beer from his mouth. “The law would never allow it.”

“If we could advertise the event throughout the world…”

“No newspaper would take our advertisements.”

“You’re right, my friend, but perhaps one day the situation will change. If we had a way to make it known, the people would be drawn in such crowds that the authorities would be powerless to stop us. Remember that night in Düsseldorf when I showed you my father’s private papers and we talked about a magnet? You and I, Rüdi, we’ll find a way to draw believers from all over Europe.”

Later that night, on the flight back to Rome, there was plenty of time to reflect on the plan. His plan -- the one way to win the approval from Phönix and the others in the ADR that he so desperately sought. By the end of the century, by the year two thousand, things would be very different if he had his way.

It had been a clever move to get TV Roma to stir things up at the Vatican. Soon he would recover his father’s property and put it to use in a breathtaking plan.

The pilot lined up for the approach to Fiumicino, the main airport on the outskirts of the Eternal City.

*

Rome

THE NEXT MORNING Enzo booked into the studios of TV Roma in the commercial center of Rome, using his regular visitor’s pass issued some time ago and renewed without question every year.

“Hot day today, Signor Bastiani.” The security guard nodded his usual lethargic greeting.

Herr Bastiani would have been better, or Herr anything as long as it sounded German. What a fool never to have changed his name!

“Message for you from the Current Affairs team, signore. The producer would like to see you before you hide yourself away in the dark with your editor friend.”

He felt himself blushing. Was nothing kept confidential any longer? “Thanks. Fourth floor, I think?”

“Straight up in the elevator, Signor Bastiani.”

The elevators were spacious and the corridors wide in this palace of the small screen. He found the Current Affairs office where the producer began waving a letter at him.

Ciao , Enzo. Bad news, I'm afraid." The man sounded almost cheerful. "I have to admit I thought you'd put us on the scent of something special. I've applied a lot of pressure on Cardinal Amendola over the past few weeks to admit the Vatican has the relic, but he can't help us. I'm sure he would -- if anyone there had it. This reply has just arrived from the man you thought was holding the relic. Canon Levi in Archives."

He took the letter. The contents were stunning. Angelo Levi. This must be the Jew who had been given the relic in Saint Peter’s in the war. The reply told him everything he needed to know. The man was lying through his teeth: he had the bronze head all right!

Three times he read the reply, signed by the Canon. The words brought out the hairs on the back of his neck.

Although such a statue of Christ is known to have existed in Caesarea Philippi, and to be contemporary with our Blessed Lord and Savior, your suggestion that a painted bronze head answering this description was recently in the possession of the Vatican authorities is outrageous. It is my personal opinion that you have been the victim of a hoax.

The producer sighed with an exaggerated weariness. “Sorry, Enzo, it would have made good viewing. Looks like we’ll have to put pressure on the Pope to get the Turin Shroud carbon dated. There’s talk of him doing something within the next few years. That’s what the viewer wants nowadays. This is the early nineteen eighties, for God’s sake. Cut away the secrecy, I say. Put these things out for full examination. If they’re not genuine, then we need to know. Why deceive people if things aren’t all they’re claimed to be? What’s happened to the Veronica? Do you follow what I mean, Enzo? What’s the real date of the picture they call the Acheropita? That’s the sort of thing we should be investigating. Yes, shame about old Eusebius and the statue of Christ he saw.”

He paid no attention. Canon Levi had the head, in spite of the denials. He and Rüdi Bretz must go to Saint Peter’s Basilica and pay the man of God a visit. He requested a photocopy of the letter, grabbed his briefcase and hurried to an outside phone. The videos could stay unedited.

“Rüdi! Rüdi! Painted head, the canon says! I’m the only one who’s seen the wartime photograph, and no one told the Vatican about the paint…. Speak up, Rüdi, there’s a lot of traffic in the background. I couldn’t phone from the studio,… Yes, of course Canon Levi’s got it. You’ll see, we’ll have the Shrine…. Come down to Rome straight away. I’ll get through to him on the phone. We need the money we’ve been banking for the ADR…. Yes, bring it in cash. We can’t bribe the man with a check. Everyone co-operates when there’s cash on offer.”

Twenty minutes later he was walking back to his favorite hotel near the Via Nazionale, oblivious to the tourists and the traffic.

The only son of Sturmbannführer Kessel.

He would see an attorney in Germany and take his father’s name. Manfred Kessel. It sounded good when he said it aloud.

Finding the right phone number in the Vatican seemed to be difficult. He studied the photocopy of Canon Levi’s letter to TV Roma. At least he knew where to start. Passed from one internal exchange to another, it was on the fourth transfer that he was given a private number.

A man’s voice informed him rather brusquely that the Canon had gone out to attend to his duties, but he would be available on yet another phone number after seven. Enzo thanked the secretary, writing the number in the notebook he kept with his wallet.

At seven-thirty that evening he tried again. To his amazement the Canon answered. “Canon Levi? My name is Enzo Bastiani. You don’t know me, not yet, but I’m interested in some research being done by TV Roma on Christian relics…. That’s right, for the television program.” Sound friendly to begin with. He knew what to do. “I think we should meet …. I’m sure I understand your position. Your reply to TV Roma…. Yes, about the painted head,… I think you know what I mean. A bronze head covered in a thick paint, possibly white? The point is, no one told you it was painted.”

He broke off to let the Canon absorb the implications.

“ My father gave it to the Vatican during the war for safekeeping. He was a Sturmbannführer in the German army stationed here in Rome. He wanted all Christian relics to be in the safe custody of the Church -- for the duration of the war. That's the sort of good-natured man he was. But he expected his own property to be returned afterwards. Unfortunately the Communists killed him in nineteen forty-four. I'm willing to pay good money to get my father's property back, even though it does still legally belong to my family."

The man began responding favorably, almost enthusiastically. This was easier than he’d expected.

“Thank you, Canon, I definitely think we should meet…. Money? Yes, I’m sure you’ve been hoping to make money from it…. Charity? You can give it all away if you want to, there’ll be plenty…. Ah, we’re in business now are we?… You would? All right, we could discuss that when we have our little get-together.”

A group of noisy Italian youths appeared suddenly, chanting and clapping down the Via Borghese. Enzo hung up quickly, withdrawing to the safety of a souvenir shop festooned with gaudy shirts. This was one occasion when he was reluctant to show off his Aryan looks. Being tall, blond and isolated right now was not an ideal mixture. When he returned to the phone, and tried ringing the private number he’d been using only five minutes before, no one answered.

The next morning, Saturday, he managed to make contact with the Canon’s secretary. The man informed him icily that Canon Levi had gone to Paris on personal business.

Three days later, after much persistence, he learned that the Canon had returned and would be willing to speak. He waited patiently to be put through on the private extension.

 

 

 

The Present

Chapter 7

The Present

ALL THAT WAS eighteen years ago, but Kessel could recall the private meeting with Canon Levi in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Rüdi’s impatience with the time the negotiations were taking.

Rüdi had argued angrily with Canon Levi. Then he saw himself leap forward and stick the knife in the man’s stomach, while Rüdi held the Canon in an arm lock. It had been a horrific day, and they had not even got sight of the relic, let alone had an opportunity to take it. At least the money was safe. That was when he finally left Rome, moving permanently to Düsseldorf to be near Rüdi Bretz.

The Italian accent slowly disappeared under intensive speech therapy from an expert in Günther Strasse. He enjoyed his friendship with Rüdi for seven more years. Then his friend died from a brain tumor, leaving an unattractive wife Helga. The skinhead lout of a son Karl was then almost fourteen, a fanatical supporter of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung.

One incident by Rüdi’s hospital bed had affected him deeply. Rüdi had pointed at him, shouting that he could see the new Savior of Germany. He turned just to be sure he was the intended recipient of the prophecy, and noticed that Rüdi’s stupid son had entered the ward. But surely Rüdi had not meant young Karl. Unfortunately Rüdi Bretz’s mind was not lucid enough to confirm the point. Within six hours he was dead.

He could remember Karl spending the first few days following his father’s death remodeling a slim wartime dagger used by the family as a paperknife. He recalled the objectionable boy pushing it towards his face, claiming it was an exact replica of a Göring dagger. It certainly had the ornate Nazi wings on an ivory handle.

Karl boasted several times how mounting the blade in the new handle required great patience and skill, but he reckoned he had come up with a real weapon -- strong enough for defense, and attack.

Kessel's thoughts came back to the present. Their problems had only just begun. The boy had brought that same knife to Rome, bragging that he was ready to use it for the ADR. More likely he was ready to use it for his own amusement. Maybe it was time to cut their losses and return to Düsseldorf -- to unpleasant questions about their unauthorized visit to Rome that would surely be asked by Phönix

 

The Vatican

HOLINESS?”

The thin man repeated his tap at the door. As private secretary he could easily enter unbidden, but it was almost midnight and the Holy Father might be resting after studying confidential files all evening. It would be undiplomatic to disturb the Successor to Saint Peter in an unguarded moment of sleep.

“Holiness?”

“Please come in, Vittorio.” The Pope slowly replaced a red folder on the wide table. “I find the Levi file rather sad,” he said as Vittorio entered. He motioned to the papers from the file that had occupied his attention for the past hour. “Canon Angelo Levi’s actions in attempting to sell the relic in the nineteen eighties are perhaps not excusable, but they are certainly understandable. He was always thinking of the poor. It must have been a privilege to know the man.”

“Quite so, Holiness.” The private secretary stood hesitantly. “Father Josef Reinhardt is outside.”

“You can show him in, Vittorio.” The Holy Father made no attempt to conceal the files. “I have finished my homework for tonight.”

“Yes, Holiness.”

Reinhardt had been watching through the half open door. Now he entered the small private room. From the high window he caught sight of the red roof tiles on the Vatican quarters lit by security floodlights. No windows overlooked this room, allowing meetings to be conducted in the utmost privacy.

As Reinhardt stepped forward he lowered his head momentarily. At the same time the secretary withdrew. Although a frequent visitor, Reinhardt’s customary bow was more than a formality: it was a conscious act of submission to the Holy Father.

“ Lovely to see you again, Josef. The relic is such a loss -- to the world as well as the Church. I think we will both be burning some midnight oil over this one."

Reinhardt nodded. “I thought at first that the civilian security forces had let us down badly this evening at TV Roma, but none of us was expecting such a violent attack. To give them their credit, the GIS reacted quickly once the alarm was raised.”

“I certainly have no complaints, Josef, although I regret the destruction of the relic. But you have news to tell me, I believe.”

Reinhardt felt excited. “The television interview with Sartini has been a blessing, Holiness. With a little help from me, our young priest has become a high profile figure. His concern for the disadvantaged will have made a big impression. He feels strongly that we do not always use our relics in the most unselfish way.”

“So it seems.”

“We have our rabbit. Now we will try for a wolf.” Reinhardt noticed the red file with Canon Angelo Levi’s name on the cover. “Unfortunately Cardinal Amendola is convening a panel of inquiry into Sartini’s behavior. He relishes an opportunity to discipline a young priest.”

“And you think the Cardinal will hinder your work?”

“He would definitely not be the man of my choice to head this panel, Holiness. I have insisted I am present at the interview with Sartini. I cannot allow anyone on the panel to wreck my plan with their petty hang-ups.”

The Holy Father shook his head. “I know that you and Luigi Amendola you have not always seen eye to eye, but for once you must put your differences aside. There is something very wrong in the world, Josef. Were the fascists really trying to use the Son of God to achieve their evil ends this evening?”

“The note they left after the raid is proof enough.” Reinhardt reached forwards and took Angelo Levi’s file from the table. He turned slowly through the contents. “Amendola is facing a certain problem with his loyalties.”

The Pope nodded. “Allow me to guess. Cardinal Amendola wishes to discover the truth about the relic, the Head of Eusebius, yet he is embarrassed by the possible outcome?”

Reinhardt smiled openly. “You also use the name.”

The Pontiff returned the smile. “The Head of Eusebius? Quite so, Josef. The name has been little used until recently. And here we are, saying it as though the relic was definitely genuine. Yet Augusto Giorgio is convinced…”

“It gets worse,” interrupted Reinhardt. “Monsignor Augusto Giorgio will be on the panel with Amendola.”

The Pope stared in astonishment. “Augusto Giorgio will certainly not be keen to dwell on the Jewish ancestry of our Savior in public.” His face suddenly lightened. “Do our two clerics have a copy of the neo-Nazi note?”

“They do.”

The Holy Father walked to the window and stared at the floodlit rooftops, his quick eyes darting from tile to tile. “And you are confident that Marco Sartini is the right man for this work?”

“Absolutely, Holiness. Sartini talked himself into the job when he volunteered to be interviewed on TV Roma.”

The Pope raised his eyebrows. “And he talked at such length. So much time to get noticed.”

Reinhardt smiled. “My contact within the television company ensured that the full, unedited interview has been repeated more than once already today.”

The Pope frowned. “I have to accept that your duties involve subterfuge, Josef, however distasteful it may seem to some members of my staff. That is not a criticism,” he added hurriedly. “I have every confidence in your abilities.”

“Thank you, Holiness.” Reinhardt looked grim. “But I still have to motivate the rabbit.”

“I will not entertain the waste of an innocent life. I trust I make myself clear?”

Reinhardt shook his head slowly. “I cannot…”

The Holy Father sighed. “Then let me put it more plainly. Sartini must be warned of the neo-Nazi involvement. If he is to work for you, Josef, I insist that you show him a copy of the note that was left in the studio.”

Reinhardt paused before nodding cautiously, unwillingly. “I will do as you say.”

“And you can assure me that you will prepare the young man for an approach by the forces of darkness?”

Reinhardt side-stepped the question. “I am satisfied that Sartini will act correctly.”

“I pray that you are right, Josef. Are you confident this panel of Amendola’s will not hinder God’s work?”

“ Amendola has selected his panel to provide an abrasive mix of views -- to help in the search for truth, Holiness."

“Truth. Yes, Josef, we must never be afraid of truth. You have served our Lord well over the years. I hear you are seventy-nine.”

Reinhardt smiled broadly. “At the end of the year, Holiness. I am a young seventy-eight at the moment.”

The Pope laughed. “Then there’s plenty of time to make a pope of you! I know you have not exercised your ordination of the priesthood since you entered the Vatican Security Services. I find myself wondering if you are wise to use the unassuming title of priest at this moment.”

“Being seen as a priest has always provided cover in my work.”

“Father Josef Reinhardt, the humble priest?”

Reinhardt smiled wryly. “Some have not always called me humble.”

“Amendola is a man who gets his own way. If you ever have any doubts…”

“Doubts, Holiness?”

“About the direction being taken by the panel of inquiry. Any doubts at all, and you are to contact me immediately. You have always operated with a low profile. Will Sartini also work like this?”

Reinhardt joined the Holy Father at the small window. “Remember why we are using the rabbit, Holiness. Wolves never come near the farm if they hear the guard dogs. It is essential for us to keep in the shadows.”

The Pope pointed to the night sky. “Look out there and what do you see, Josef? I see only blackness. But beyond the blackness you and I know that there is light. If we stand here in the morning, the sun will rise over those rooftops and sweep the darkness away.”

The Holy Father put his hands on the elderly priest’s head. “Josef Reinhardt, I charge you with the responsibility of conducting the battle against the forces of darkness. Together we must commit this matter in prayer to our Heavenly Father.”

Reinhardt had no hesitation in accepting the offer. He stayed with his head bowed. “Thank you, Holiness.”

Chapter 8

Piazza di Santa Mario Maggiore

MARCO was horrified to receive a summons from Luigi Cardinal Amendola just after midnight. He realized the Cardinal must have made the official machinery in the Vatican move at full speed, for Amendola dispatched a personal courier with a summons for him to appear before a panel of inquiry at nine o’clock in the morning.

Marco was horrified to receive it. It was not a summons to the Vatican, but to a building in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. Sister Maria had once told the class that a freak fall of summer snow in the early days of the Christian Church had been seen as a miraculous sign, requiring the construction of a building to the glory of God. From then on the huge building filling the large piazza had fascinated him.

He knew he could do with a miracle himself as he got off the bus. It might not be the Inquisition, but the tall green-shuttered building concealed an ecclesiastical panel of inquiry. The carabinieri had already questioned him at length, but the need to dress up for them had not been an issue. This morning he hoped to make a good impression by wearing his black suit, although it had meant cleaning his best shoes.

The hallway smelt of wax. Five men were assembled in a large room on the second floor, wearing various mixtures of clerical black and shades of red, making the gathering very formal. Luigi Cardinal Amendola was heading the panel. Amendola, from the Greek for an almond tree. The overpowering Cardinal hardly characterized the frail blossom of spring. Next to him sat Monsignor Augusto Giorgio, a small man who was introduced as being on a Vatican select committee investigating the remains of the relic. There were two other church officials, neither of whose names registered with Marco. Then he noticed the old priest who had spoken to him yesterday morning in the Piazza Venezia. Father Josef Reinhardt.

Suddenly Marco felt a surge of confidence. He smiled at each man in turn as he was introduced. Unfortunately the smile seemed to provoke Amendola.

“I suppose you do know why you’re here, Sartini?” The Cardinal’s bushy black eyebrows met in a shallow V, but even these were almost hidden behind heavy, black-framed spectacles sitting firmly on a large, hooked nose. Marco remembered getting a toy disguise kit like this a long time ago at a Christmas party. Everyone knew Cardinal Amendola. His family had been connected with the Church for centuries. Marco recalled a choirboy once telling him, in all seriousness, that one of Amendola’s ancestors had been a cardinal to Saint Peter!

Marco glanced round the gloomy room. Paintings of unknown clerics stared down from gilt frames, dark with age. They brought no inspiration. He spoke slowly and loudly. “It could be something I said on television last night.” He stopped, and gave a broader smile.

“ Sartini," chided Amendola, raising himself slightly in his chair so that whether by accident or design he appeared to grow taller and more menacing; "the fact is that you appeared on a public television station, apparently representing the Church, while wearing casual clothes. You admitted that you saw two men acting suspiciously outside the studios before the broadcast, yet you did absolutely nothing to prevent the seizure of the bronze head. And after the raid you spoke publicly on financial matters concerning the Church -- without obtaining permission from a higher authority. You even had the audacity to bring the personal life of the late Canon Angelo Levi into disrepute."

Marco raised his eyebrows, but decided not to risk asking from how high above permission should have been sought. “I didn’t have time to give the matter much thought, Your Eminence.”

The oldest member of the inquisition seemed to give Marco the slightest of winks. Marco had taken an instant liking to Father Josef Reinhardt yesterday in the Piazza Venezia, and the old priest seemed completely out of place in the company of these dry churchmen.

“He was only speaking the truth as he saw it,” Marco could overhear Father Josef saying to Amendola in a loud whisper. “Perhaps the young man can explain what he meant about using the relic to raise money for the poor.”

“Can you?” asked Amendola, looking up sharply.

Marco was taken aback by the intensity of the look. “Explain what I meant, Your Eminence?”

The Cardinal nodded, and began tapping his fingers impatiently on the table.

Marco shook his head. “For years the face of Christ must have been gathering dust somewhere in the Vatican, but it could have been put on display.”

“The face of Christ?”

“People would have paid to see it. Surely you believe in helping the disadvantaged, Your Eminence. I certainly do.”

An embarrassed shuffle of papers amongst the assembly encouraged Marco to continue with his disruption. He looked around. “Doesn’t everyone here feel exactly the same?” He was pushing things a little, but this lot were starting to annoy him.

There was silence. He decided to be even more blunt. “Don’t you see, Your Eminence, I was only saying what you would have said in the circumstances.”

Amendola rose from his chair, but merely snorted before sitting down again, studiously referring to his notes. The notes looked extensive. This could be a long, hard ride.

Marco half listened as the questioning and reprimanding continued, but his thoughts kept turning to Natalia. It wasn’t her fault, although she and the television interviewer had encouraged him to come out with a few maverick statements last night. And he’d been a willing enough party.

“Tell us, Sartini, why did you refer to the bronze head as the Head of Eusebius?”

“It wasn’t my name. Other people have been using it. I suppose it got its name because it was once seen by the historian Eusebius.” Marco frowned. What was Amendola up to now?

“Well, you are wrong, Sartini. Eusebius never saw this one. For it to have been from a statue he saw in the fourth century, the bronze casting would need to be more than sixteen hundred years old. Work it out for yourself, young man. And for it to be contemporary with our Lord and Savior, as believed by Eusebius, it would have to be almost two thousand years old.”

Marco wondered where this line of reasoning was leading. The mathematics were clearly not a matter for dispute, but Amendola must be intending to blame him for the catastrophe.

The Cardinal began to sink back into his chair, seeming now to shrink as he had earlier seemed to inflate, although his aura remained impressive.

“Sartini, supposing I told you that laboratory analysis of the recovered fragments reveals minute traces of synthetic resins, and a probable date of manufacture within the past thirty years. What would you say to that?”

“I’d say something like praise the Lord.” Marco felt a wave of relief.

“Would you indeed? Yes, I think I might be inclined to share in your joy.”

Monsignor Augusto Giorgio had become agitated. “We are entering unhealthy territory,” he said. “The facial features of a genuine bust would exhibit Christ’s cultural background, his Jewish looks. Such a prospect appalls me. It seems we have been reprieved from a public airing of our treatment of the Jews throughout the history of the Church.” He turned to Marco. “I want you to understand that there never was such a statue, so this discussion is purely hypothetical.”

Amendola raised himself again, obviously unhappy with the interruption.

Marco shook his head. The Monsignor’s concern over Christian and Jewish relations sounded pathetic, but at least he had not played a part in the destruction of a priceless relic. So why all the fuss? But Amendola had only said “Supposing.”

“And is that what you’re telling me, Your Eminence?”

“The inclusion of modern resins certainly explains why the object broke into so many pieces. But, Sartini, you must understand that there is still a considerable way for us to go in our inquiry.” The Cardinal turned through his papers. “Monsignor Giorgio here will be in charge of investigating the authenticity of the so-called relic.”

The small Monsignor raised his head haughtily at the mention of his name. Marco had encountered men like Augusto Giorgio before. Men who worried about their self importance.

“ Sartini, we are here today to consider your own ... position within the Church," continued Cardinal Amendola with a barely perceptible uncertainty in his voice. "I have been examining your records, and what do I find?" He paused, looked up, then returned to his notes, staring at them through his heavy rimmed glasses. "I find a young man who was connected with a woman's death in suspicious circumstances below the Via Sistina six years ago. An episode with certain inconsistencies in the evidence. You were perhaps fortunate to escape serious charges over your involvement. I find that you then became a second-hand car salesman, a womanizer -- an open womanizer, who was once married."

“The woman who died was my wife,” said Marco quietly.

“Yes, quite.” Amendola coughed to cover his confusion. “I am sorry if … if I sounded callous. But no matter the reason by which you are now free of that bond, such a man is not everyone’s idea of a priest who would be suitable to take up duties in his first parish. If you had behaved more responsibly last night, you would not be here now. Do I make myself clear?”

Marco refused to nod in the assent. He looked straight ahead.

Amendola continued with his sermon. “Very well, I must warn you that you may be required to appear here on a future occasion to answer further questions. I shall now read my provisional judgment, and we can terminate this meeting.”

The Cardinal stood, as though preparing to deliver the death sentence on behalf of the Inquisition. Marco rose with him, standing to attention.

“Marco Sartini, this is a panel of inquiry, not an official ecclesiastical court. Your position will be considered in detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, using the powers of the Holy Church committed to me, I direct that until the investigation is complete you are relieved of all duties pertaining to the ordination of the priesthood. That will be all.”

Marco stared back. Reprimands he could cope with, but the Church was now his life, and his future had just been sliced away. And he’d come here prepared to go down fighting!

Amendola almost managed a hint of a smile. “Sometimes these matters are simply a formality, Sartini. You will remain here with Father Josef, as there is apparently a matter he wishes to discuss with you. I need hardly add that you are not to make any sort of statement on today’s inquiry, either publicly or privately. And certainly not to television companies.”

It was probably an attempt at humor by Amendola’s standards. Marco refrained from responding. He stayed on his feet as the Cardinal and his entourage swept out of the chamber. Father Josef came over and put his right arm around him. The comforting hold was clearly a pledge of friendship, which Marco received with relief.

“Cheer up, Father Marco. Amendola is, I think you would agree, rather heavy on formalities. But his bark is possibly worse than his bite. Possibly. And he may not always mean to frighten. Now, we have some serious business to discuss.”

Marco wasn't going to hide his anger. Relieved of his position of assistant parish priest -- and he had not even started to be one yet! But whatever he was expecting next, he was completely unprepared for the old man's startling proposition.

Chapter 9

Via Nazionale

MANFRED KESSEL turned to Karl Bretz. “Always remember the Fatherland, Karl. How can you be a true German if you do not put the future of the Fatherland first?”

Karl’s response was to push Kessel backwards in anger. Kessel felt himself falling, but to his relief he ended up sprawled across the narrow hotel bed.

Me be a true German, Herr Kessel?” Karl stood over him, sounding and looking threatening. “You’ve done nothing but shout at me since we came to this stupid place. My father said you were born a Jew. You’re a Mischling!

The accusation was explosive. “You’d better tell me what you mean, Karl!” Kessel stood up quickly, but kept his distance.

“It’s common knowledge about you and your Jewish blood, Herr Kessel. You walk around as though you’re a true German, but you’re a bastard. A true Bastard. So don’t keep on at me about failure.”

Kessel stared at Karl, his dread of being found out finally realized. If it was common knowledge, as Karl claimed, how strange it was that he had never heard the whispers.

He responded warily. "Do you think I would have been entrusted with finding the relic -- of setting up the Shrine of Unity -- if what you're saying is true?"

“Entrusted?” Karl asked in derision. “No one in the ADR knows we’re here. Phönix would have been thrilled to bits if you’d dropped the head of a Jew on his desk!”

“A Jew? Do you really think true Christians worship a Hebrew God? If God came to Earth, it wouldn’t have been as a Jew!”

“All I know is that my father joked about you being Jewish, Herr Kessel. A Jewish Italian! Don’t lecture me on being a true German, because I am one and you’re not! In Ordnung -- all right!"

Kessel could only shake his head. “You’ve totally overstepped the line, Karl Bretz. I will personally make sure your insubordination is dealt with when we return to Germany.”

 

KARL STORMED OUT of the hotel and crossed into the busy Via Nazionale. To be honest, he was glad to be shot of Herr Kessel for a couple of hours. It was time to be alone, to become familiar with the layout of the streets.

He doubted whether Herr Kessel had the power to cause trouble back in Germany, but he wished he’d not let himself be riled by the pompous old Narr . He wondered why he'd invented the bit about common knowledge. As far as he knew no one in the ADR had mentioned it -- but on several occasions his father had laughingly accused Herr Kessel of being a Jew, though not often to his face. It might be true. The man spoke Italian too well to be an Aryan.

Once he found the priest, he knew what to do. He even knew the exact words from the training manual. Find where the target lives, then keep watch. Study the target’s movements, observe, and finally execute. They had trained him to be observant, and trained him to act on his observations. But the chances of recognizing Sartini amongst the million faces in Rome were ridiculous. Herr Kessel should contact Phönix immediately for expert help. A man like Phönix, a man at the top of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung, would be able to obtain an address for Sartini, using help within the Vatican. But the old Narr was definitely worried about Phönix. Obviously they shouldn’t have come to Rome without his permission.

Away from the security of the cheap hotel, Karl walked with an unaccustomed feeling of anxiety, in spite of his size. The hotel rooms were cramped and stuffy, but at least there was safety there. He had no particular route in mind, and no interest at all in seeing the tourist sights of this crumbling city. He needed time to think. Perhaps someone had photographed him during the raid -- although the only pictures in the papers this morning showed the outside of TV Roma and the broken glass. It was like Kristallnacht come to Rome.

The red baseball cap and blue American sweatshirt, bought hurriedly by Herr Kessel in the local market early this morning, probably provided sufficient cover for now. Back in Düsseldorf, Karl knew that dressed like this he would stand out as an undesirable foreigner. In Rome he just blended in with all the stupid people.

The perspiration began to run down his back, making the horrible American clothing feel tight and uncomfortable. His old black T-shirt had been so light. He paused to look in a jeweler’s window. He’d promised himself a gold ring with some of his father’s money. His mother had immediately taken charge of it, but there had been an account she was not aware of. Copying his father’s signature to get the money had been easy: the training weekends had shown how to do it.

On the opposite side of the street three men stood on the sidewalk out of the sun, tinkering with a black moped. A trickle of dark oil had run from the engine and was spreading slowly across the dusty sidewalk.

He watched the men’s reflections in the window of the jeweler’s. Was it possible the Italian carabinieri had put them there to spy on him? He continued looking in the window while the men joked amongst themselves. One of them lit a cigarette. Karl decided to walk on, but he’d take his time by playing the lethargic tourist. When he rounded the corner he stopped, positioning himself in a spacious doorway leading to a cool courtyard, unaware that it was already occupied.

 

DAVID SIMPSON was English, on holiday from Birmingham, and alone. After an overnight stay at the youth hostel he had come down to the center of Rome on the crowded, bright orange tram. Trams and buses were a brilliant way to travel, and he felt excited that he had managed to get around Rome all morning without buying a ticket -- an achievement high on his list of money-saving triumphs. He dumped his backpack on the ground and studied the map.

A large man in the bright clothes, dressed like an American, appeared without warning and began kicking against the backpack. As he started to open his mouth in protest, David Simpson noticed just how big the man looked. He allowed one more kick, then picked the backpack up.

“So sorry,” he muttered. “I expect it was in your way.” Discretion was the better part of velour, that’s what his mother always said. It was discreet to leave this big ape alone. He swung the backpack onto one shoulder and walked off down the street, wondering just how cheaply he could get a meal round here.

 

KARL WATCHED THE thin man walk away. Another foreigner clogging up the streets, with a great big backpack to get in everyone’s way. Stupid baggy shorts and brown woolen socks rolled down to the ankles. English for sure. Karl waited precisely three minutes, then returned to the jeweler’s window. The men were still joking, and the moped was still dripping oil onto the ground.

He realized just how much he hated Rome -- and it was all Herr Kessel's fault. Kessel? The name had not always been Kessel. When his father had first brought Herr Kessel home, years ago, he had been using an Italian name. Enzo something. Yes, Enzo Bastiani.

So, Herr Kessel really was a sham -- a Mischling. Everyone in the ADR probably knew it; his father would certainly have known it. He could remember Herr Kessel’s first visit, especially the blond hair and his ill-mannered lack of interest in the family. His father’s Jewish joke was probably true.

Herr Kessel seemed to be a man haunted by the past, always reading about the war. He had been rambling on yesterday about battles between crack German troops and partisans in the Corso d’Italia. Perhaps Herr Kessel’s Corso d’Italia was somewhere near. Without a map and unable to speak the language, there was little chance of finding it.

A McDonald’s fast food restaurant must be somewhere close. That was the third advertizing sign he’d seen. Although not a great fan of their food, Karl knew that hamburgers would be easy to order just by pointing at the menu, and they probably tasted better than some of the unpalatable garbage being served in Rome’s noisy bars.

Turning the corner again, following the McDonald’s arrow, he glanced back. The three men were still standing, laughing together as they wiped their hands on an oily rag being passed around.

He felt puzzled by his own behavior. Attacking that security guard in the elevator had been stupid. He’d over-reacted, and over-reaction was something he’d been trained to avoid. Now he was worrying about three dozy Italians with a broken moped. He clenched his fists and tightened his arm muscles.

Suddenly he became aware he was on the Via Sistina, one of Herr Kessel’s famous roads where Nazi troops had been stationed. All round here was real history. Herr Kessel had pointed out roads like the Via Sistina and the Via Tasso on the map. Never mind the shoddy Roman ruins, this could be what sightseeing was all about.

The men working on the bike had given him an idea. With transport of his own he could get from place to place, discovering where the German troops had been quartered, seeing for himself where the Nazis had been the imperial power in the heart of Rome. Possibly too much was made of past leaders. The future leaders would be stronger. After all, the Third Reich had not exactly been a major success.

The moped by the jeweler’s would be useless, still leaking oil. But there must be others around, in perfect working order, just waiting to be requisitioned.

According to Herr Kessel, local Communists and radical left wingers had used bicycles down this very street to intimidate crack Nazi forces with home-made bombs. Feeble attempts to harass highly trained and organized troops. Bombs flung carelessly, doubtless missing their targets more often than not, and occasionally even landing back in the surprised cyclist’s basket! Karl looked around, allowing himself a laugh at the idea of such incompetence.

His Göring dagger was tucked in his belt and hidden under his shirt. It would be fun finding Sartini and eliminating him. Disposing of the enemy would make the trip to this decaying city worth the trouble. It would also help redress the balance for screwing up the attack at the television studios last night, and destroying Herr Kessel’s stupid relic. The priest had annoyed him, the way he’d stood there watching.

The plan was good -- and it would be poetic justice. The Italians had used bicycles to taunt the Nazis. Well, they probably did more than taunt them, because Herr Kessel said bicycles were quickly banned in Rome. Anyway, whatever they did, this time it would be a German on the bike, and he'd be assassinating an Italian -- an Italian priest.

To test the idea he needed a moped with the key still in it. A busy shopping area was the most likely place to look. At the bottom of a long flight of crowded steps, below an old church, the McDonald’s restaurant came in sight at last, with tourists flocking in and out.

 

CARLO CARINI WAS just eighteen and considered himself better than moderately handsome. His girlfriend, his moped and his good looks were a source of pride -- though perhaps not in that order. In spite of being nearly twenty years old and having pedal assistance, the moped still looked almost new: a Piaggio Ciao, smart and black. He'd been saving for six months to get it, his first ever bike. It might be the basic model, long discontinued and second-hand, but it satisfied his one passion -- a passion for motion.

Marisa complained that he thought more of the bike than he did of her, but Carlo knew it was just the sort of thing Marisa would say. Now he had a way to impress her, and show off his prowess with the Ciao.

Marisa said she felt hungry. He bet her he could be on his bike, down the Via Barberini to the Piazza di Spagna, buy two hamburgers at McDonald’s, and be back within ten minutes.

Marisa said she was bored with all this talk of two-stroke engines and automatic clutches, and hamburgers were definitely preferable to more chatter about mopeds. So she let him go. Carlo noted that Marisa even told him, being a generous and considerate girl, not to hurry.

 

KARL OBSERVED a dark haired teenager park an old black moped amongst a row of bikes, leaving the engine still running, and hurry into the crowded hamburger restaurant. He could eat later. He stepped forward and swung himself onto the broad saddle, pushing the bike off the stand while twisting the throttle fully open. Acceleration, even with pedal assistance from this underpowered machine, was hardly dramatic. But the wheels suited him admirably.

For a few minutes he cruised around the busy narrow streets, getting used to the balance of the machine. He had once seen a film were a man was killed by a rider on a bike. Karl felt impatient to try it out for himself. One street looked narrow and dark. Few people came down here. Wonderful. The fewer the better.

Trained by the ADR to observe and to react, he spotted a suitable target ahead. It was that skinny idiot with the shorts and brown socks. With the throttle wide, he cruised down the narrow alley.

 

DAVID SIMPSON still needed to find cheap food. Silently he cursed the guidebooks that never mentioned where to buy it. They seemed to assume that everyone wanted to waste money in high-class establishments. He examined the creased street map, left on the hall table by a previous resident at the hostel.

He glanced round at the rider in the blue shirt and red baseball cap. There was plenty of room for him to pass. He pulled the backpack closer to his feet, just to be sure.

Somewhere there must be an alimentari selling bread rolls and fatty but inexpensive prosciutto. Preferably a shop a little bit away from this high-priced tourist area. Yes, he could see one ahead.

The moped rider hit him hard in the back, sending him sprawling onto the uneven stones that made up the street. The blow was hard. It was also sharp. The pain went right through to his chest.

 

KARL SHOUTED ALOUD in delight. His strategy had worked. The English tourist had been so obliging, and the only witnesses were a party of women at the end of the street. As he reached them he realized that they had not even noticed what he’d done. He turned the bike and rode slowly back to the sprawling body. Blood was already oozing across the alley, like dark oil meandering through the dust.

He reached down and deftly retrieved his knife. He would wipe the handlebars of fingerprints and leave the bike a few streets away. When he was ready to kill the Priester, it would be easy to get another.

 

IN THE VIA Barberini, a dejected Carlo Carini was wandering slowly back to his apartment, wondering if life could possibly go on without a Piaggio Ciao. He knew he would be no company for Marisa this afternoon. And she hated cold hamburgers.

Chapter 10

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

“I THINK YOU went a little far with our senior clerics.” The old priest spoke the words with what might almost be a smile. “However, at your age, Marco, I think I might have been tempted to do the same. If you can take advice from a friend, slightly more respect to Cardinal Amendola would not come amiss in future.”

“He annoyed me. He was…”

Father Josef raised a finger, and Marco could see a definite smile on the wrinkled face. “You are probably wondering why I asked you to stay behind. Let me get you a coffee.”

At that moment one of the sisters appeared with a tray, allowing Marco to relax. The old priest must have sent a signal to the kitchen. Amendola and his entourage would be well on their way back to the Vatican, and Father Josef Reinhardt was obviously friendly. Marco smiled wryly as he recalled the New Testament letter to the Christian Hebrews. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace. The first part, at any rate, seemed to be true.

The sister disappeared with a brief wink for Marco, leaving Father Josef to pour the coffee.

“I already know something of your background, young Marco,” the old priest said. “I have some work planned for you.”

As Marco looked up in surprise, Father Josef held up a hand. “Drink your coffee, while I read what Eusebius of Caesarea has to tell us in his seventh book about his trip to Caesarea Philippi, just north of the Sea of Galilee. I have here a translation of chapter eighteen. I see no reason for us to struggle with the original Greek.”

Father Josef pushed his half-moon glasses to the end of his nose as he turned the large book towards the light from the tall windows. He began to read.

For the sake of those who come after us, I do not think it right to leave out a story that is worth telling. The people here say that the woman who had an issue of bloodand who as we learn from the Gospels found healing at the hands of our Saviorcame from this place. In the city they showed us her house where there are still some wonderful reminders of the good act that the Savior did to her.” Father Josef paused to raise the gold-rimmed cup of espresso to his thin lips. “This was, I believe, written in 325 AD,” he added, taking a hushed sip.

“ And it's reliable?" Marco hardly needed confirmation. The Church generally regarded the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius as trustworthy. Certainly Sister Maria, who had taught him the catechism and ecclesiastical history at school, gave the man a good name for accuracy -- although she had definitely called some of his theology into question.

“I will read on.” Father Josef replaced the small cup in its saucer, without the slightest tremor from his hand.

On a high stone at the gates of her house we saw a bronze statue of a woman. She was bending on one knee, and stretching out with her hands. Opposite her was another figure made of the same metal, a standing figure of a man wearing a double cloak. He was reaching out to the woman. At his feet, on the monument itself, a strange species of plant was growing. It climbed up to the border of the double cloak of bronze, and acted as an antidote to all kinds of diseases. This statue, the people told us, was the likeness of Jesus. We saw it with our own eyes when we stayed in the city. It is not surprising that those people, who long ago had good things done to them by our Savior, should have made these objects. We also saw the likenesses of Christ’s apostles, of Paul and Peter, and indeed of Christ himself, preserved in pictures painted in colors.

Father Josef removed his glasses and placed the book on the dark oak table. “It is a reference to the account told in the New Testament gospels by Matthew, Mark and Luke. You will remember how in Luke chapter eight the woman thought she merely had to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak to be cured? Eusebius is telling us the statue was built by the people who had actually seen Jesus heal this woman.”

“I know the story,” said Marco. “She was one brave woman.”

“Well said, Father Marco. According to Jewish law anyone in contact with the dead or with blood was ceremonially unclean. This woman was treated as an outcast, ceremonially unclean with internal bleeding for twelve years, yet she dared reach out and touch a man.”

“No wonder she tried to do it without anyone knowing.”

Father Josef nodded. “Those people also saw Jesus bring the synagogue ruler’s daughter back to life. They heard him claim to be the Son of God. We can be certain they would have made a fair likeness.”

Marco looked up quickly. “And you really believe some of those things are still around?”

“I am sure the paintings have perished, but the statue…?” Father Josef shrugged. “The official Vatican line today is that no part of it still exists, which I find strange in the circumstances.”

“I can’t see it would tell us much about Jesus. Ancient art is very stylized,” Marco protested. “Look at the Russian icons. The figure of Christ always has a long, distinctive face that bears no relationship to nature.”

“The Orthodox style has been going with little change for over a thousand years, Marco. It is full of symbolism, but no one believes it to be an accurate portrayal.”

“Right,” he agreed. “And what about our early western art? At the time everyone told Giotto he painted in an incredibly realistic style. Realistic? It doesn’t look very realistic today. So how could people make a good likeness of a human face two thousand years ago?”

“Are the statues of the Caesars accurate?”

Marco laughed. “How would I know?”

“Well, you must have noticed that there is a remarkable similarity between statues of the same Caesar found in different places,” said the old priest. “Surely that demonstrates the ability of ancient craftsmen to achieve a precise likeness, time after time. The faces of the Caesars look lifelike so, yes, they are probably a true likeness.”

“The ancient Egyptians weren’t so clever at art. They painted the heads and legs sideways, and the bodies front on. And such big eyes. Very lifelike!”

“You are confusing style and symbolism with reality, Marco. The Greeks and Romans at the time of Christ went for extreme accuracy. We call it Classical art. It was revived in the Renaissance.”

“There are Roman mosaics in the church here in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. They’re not lifelike.”

“They are from the fifth century, Marco. Roman art developed into a type of impressionism. The early popes exerted a strong influence on style. There was no such thing as Biblical art in the time of Christ.”

“No statues?”

“Not of Jews or Old Testament characters. The Jews forbade statues, seeing them as idols, but the residents of Caesarea Philippi would not have worried about that. They lived in an independent Gentile area. The earliest Christian art in the catacombs shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And he never has a beard. I wonder why. That is something for you to think about while you’re awaiting Amendola’s final decision.”

“We’re talking about a Christian object surviving intact for nearly two thousand years,” objected Marco, ignoring the mention of the Cardinal’s panel.

“Two thousand years? If other ancient bronzes have survived, is it so surprising that just the head of this one could still be in existence? Two thousand years is not so long for a bronze article, especially if a Christian group has been guarding it carefully for much of that time.”

“Which Christian group?” Marco asked immediately.

The old priest shook his head and bit his lip. “If only we knew its history.”

“Does anyone know where this group was living?”

“In a monastery, possibly near Rome. At least, that is what I now believe. How would you like to do some detective work?”

Marco sat up. “If you think the face could look like Jesus Christ, it would affect every Christian. Maybe overturn dreams.”

“We all have our own idea of what Jesus looks like, Marco. Some black Africans see him as black, and some Asians see him as Asian, because that is how they want to relate to him. And why not?”

“You’re right, and deep down we all know our pictures aren’t correct. I remember Sister Maria saying that no one knows what Jesus looked like. A boy behind me said that he knew. He said he had a picture of Jesus in his Bible!” Marco grinned. “It will be a shock if this bronze head is authentic.”

The haunting words of Old Savio came back. A relic. They say it could shatter the Church. Not true, surely? “No wonder the Vatican got excited when someone found it in…” He stopped. “But according to Cardinal Amendola the one they found in the Vatican was a fake!”

Father Josef nodded. “True, although Canon Angelo Levi believed he was given the original during the war.”

“ The Vatican must have taken photographs -- if they had the original. Or has Cardinal Amendola been at the shredder?"

Father Josef looked surprised. “You really have it in for poor Amendola. I doubt that such a photograph exists. When the war ended, Canon Angelo Levi failed to persuade the Vatican experts to take his relic seriously. I would dearly love to look at the features on that face. Photographs of the modern head that was destroyed yesterday would be of no interest.”

“So what happened to the real one?”

“Marco, evil is like a circle. It passes by, but it comes round again. I believe history is repeating itself. We have to break that circle.” Father Josef glanced up at the painted faces in their frames high on the walls. “This room makes me uncomfortable, which is doubtless why the Cardinal chose it for the panel. Come, we will go to my apartment and I will tell you what I want you to do for me.”

The old priest carefully gathered up some papers, and rose slowly. He led the way down the staircase and along a corridor until they came to a worn, highly polished door to a small apartment. The rooms and the sparse furnishings could have been found in the senior lecturer's quarters of any ancient university -- at the turn of the nineteenth century. The apartment seemed to be located directly below the meeting room, since the view was of the same part of the piazza. At this level the traffic made the window vibrate.

“Marco, we believe a group of neo-Nazis is involved in a plan to divide and destabilize the Church.”

Marco settled into the vast leather armchair. “We? You make it sound like the secret security services.”

“You have already been sworn to silence about today’s events. That oath still applies.”

He looked around the room. This old priest was either totally mad or he was offering some interesting work. “Of course.”

“There are several bodies in the Church concerned with security. Their duties run from the personal protection of His Holiness to the defense of our faith from heresy. You understand?”

He’d learned enough about bodies like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to feel uneasy. No one went before them with a disrespectful attitude.

“Countless crimes were committed in Italy during the fascist years. The occupying Nazi forces committed some, our own people committed others. Popular belief is that the Vatican glossed over many of these crimes. It was a time of great evil. Slowly the Church is asking for forgiveness for her support of an evil right wing. We saw Communism as the greater enemy.” Father Reinhardt shook his head. “Many priests risked their lives to rescue Jews. But others did nothing. Rightly or wrongly, they saw it as their priority to protect their villages and congregations from Nazi reprisals. Very few Catholic priests come out of this without some share of blame. But you and I were not involved, so we are not in a position to judge.”

“I wasn’t even born,” said Marco. “What about you?”

“I was sixteen years old in Germany at the start of the war. And now I am part of a special body within the Church. My duty is to protect our people from the evils that remain from the war. We are, as you correctly call us, a secret security service. We serve the interests of the Church, and our existence is certainly secret. We are not, however, violent. In that way we differ substantially from national security organizations around the world today.”

Marco looked carefully at Father Josef Reinhardt, deciding to defer judgment on the old man’s sanity until later. “So how did the bronze head get to the Vatican during the war?”

“It is a complex family situation, Marco, and one I do not wish to go into at present. Over the coming days you will stay in contact with me here on the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. This is where I work as well as live.”

“Now just a minute,” Marco protested. “I was summoned here to meet the panel of inquiry, but they came across from the Vatican. It’s almost as though the main point of my being here was to see you.”

Father Josef laughed. “What can I say? These are indeed my quarters. The others you met at the inquiry were told it would be better for them to travel across the city, than for an old man like me to go to them.”

Marco studied the elderly priest’s face. Assuming the secretive body was real, and he was still not convinced about that, Father Josef was unlikely to be an insignificant member. “Can you reassure me that the bronze head at the studios was modern?”

“Rest assured, Marco, it was. Once upon a time Canon Angelo Levi had the genuine one, but it has disappeared. He was attempting to sell a fake when he was murdered almost twenty years ago.”

“A sting?”

“You mean…?”

“He switched it.”

“ Yes, Marco, it appears so. Angelo was attempting to do a deal with the neo-Nazis -- but I believe he wanted to use his deception to raise money for the poor. Unfortunately he was killed before he could tell anyone what he had done with the original. And because you made a public spectacle of yourself on television last night, I anticipate you will now be approached."

Marco walked to the window and looked out at the huge fifth century church filling the piazza. Life seemed to have suddenly become a mess. Did God often make life difficult for new priests? No wonder there was a shortage. “Approached? Who by? You’re talking as though you want me to get involved, yet according to Cardinal Amendola I made a serious mistake.”

“Marco, from when I am, you most definitely did not make a mistake. This is a photocopy of a crumpled note left at TV Roma last night, by what appears to be the neo-Nazi group called the ADR.”

“I’ve heard of the ADR,” said Marco. “Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung, or something like that. It’s to do with racial purity. They want to complete Hitler’s political plan for Germany.”

“You are wrong, Marco. Hitler and the Nazis had a clear and wide ranging political blueprint for Germany. Racial purity was only a part of it. Certainly the way they set about removing the people they saw as impure was an appalling act of barbarity. But most of the neo-Nazi movements today, like the ADR, have no political agenda. They are motivated by nothing more than racial hatred. Their sole purpose is to harass, abuse and even kill immigrant families and workers.”

“And you want me to get involved with them?”

“Like it or not, Marco, you are already involved. I have here a cell phone for you to borrow. I already have the number for it. You may use it for your personal needs, and give the number to your friends. And certainly you must use it to keep in touch with me whenever you consider it necessary.”

Chapter 11

MARCO SAT IN the leather armchair in Father Josef’s room and read the German neo-Nazi’s note through twice.

The property stolen by the Church from the German People in 1944 has now been reclaimed. The people deserve better than a shabby secrecy surrounding major relics. The true image of Jesus Christ, the most significant religious figure in the world, is now safely in the hands of the ADR, a group pledged to set up a Shrine of Unity free from the taint of Jewish tradition.

The emblem of the New Cross will be a rallying place for the pure, a fortress for the defense of the strong, and a bastion for denouncing the weak and inferior. The Spirit of the Hero will draw all people of the pure race to unity in a new Power, a new Reich.

Father Josef interrupted his reading. “The Spirit of the Hero was part of Hitler’s Weltanschauung, Marco, his search for our Indo-Germanic roots. These quickly became known as our Aryan-Nordic roots: a quest for a mythical tribe in the north, having a special relationship with God from prehistory.”

“I thought that was the Jews.”

“So it was, Marco, but the Nazis claimed the Jews were the Aryans’ enemy. The serpent’s seed. We did not want to hear true teaching in the Church in Nazi Germany. Positive Christianity we called Hitler’s ideas on religion. When I say we, I too was drawn into believing that doctrine. I know now that it is, of course, bestemmia -- blasphemy -- but it appealed to many of us at the time. The New Cross is nothing more than the Swastika. Hitler wanted to prove that Christ came from a non Jewish background. This is a revival of his New German Faith Movement."

“And you and other people seriously believed him?” Marco was astonished.

“We had been indoctrinated by experts. We wanted it to be true. Of course I can see it now as a complete contradiction of New Testament teaching and beliefs. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Jewish leader sent by God. The name Christ means Messiah. He went further than that. He claimed to be the Son of God who would die for the sins of the world. Some of the Jews accepted him. Others did not, and they crucified him. The first Christians were Jews. The Holy Spirit had to show the New Testament Church that Jesus had come for everybody, and they must go out and share their faith with the whole world. They found it difficult at first.”

Marco began to feel uneasy. “The New Faith Movement turns the Christian gospel of love and forgiveness on its head.”

“ You are right, of course, Marco. These are some of the worst philosophies of today's neo-Nazi groups. But make no mistake, if they can put the true likeness of Christ on show, many people -- good people -- will feel compelled to be present at such an event."

“How can anyone in the neo-Nazi movement hope to display a bronze head of Christ, a stolen work of art?” protested Marco. “The authorities would come down on them as soon as they opened the doors to the public. It would be like the Tate in London stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, then hanging it in one of their galleries. People are going to notice.”

“And who exactly would it have been stolen from, young man?”

Marco laughed. The answer seemed obvious. “The Vatican, I imagine.”

Father Reinhardt shook his head. “The bronze head destroyed at TV Roma was the only one our Cardinal will admit to the Church ever owning. He has even prepared a press statement for release today, denying we ever had any other.”

“Could TV Roma claim it was stolen from them?”

“It was only on loan to them, so they could make no claim.”

Marco tried again. “What about the monastery who once owned it?”

“I have no idea where it is.”

“Canon Angelo would have known…”

“Angelo Levi has been dead for eighteen years, Marco. Certainly no monastery has ever complained that they lost such a precious relic.”

“Okay,” agreed Marco, “so who does own it?”

“ I would think that the person who possesses it has a better title than anyone else. The eventual owners in Berlin -- if this fascist group succeeds in its plans -- could easily disassociate themselves from the violence at TV Roma. The political wing of a terrorist group never takes the blame for terrorist atrocities. The fascists could say a renegade group committed the crime, and claim that they now own the genuine head. And who could take legal action against them?"

Marco laughed. “Most of the Nazis would be too old to know what to do with it.”

Josef Reinhardt sighed softly. “Do not think of today’s neo-Nazis as a group of tired old men listening to Wagner, while trying to relive the so-called glory days. That sort of thing only happens in films. These people are young and powerful, Marco.”

Marco raised his eyebrows. “Who are they?”

“ Clever politicians with ambitions for a new Reich, a new empire. They want to cleanse Germany -- cleanse Europe."

Marco was on his feet. “Cleanse? Like they did with the Jews?”

Father Josef held up his hands as though to restrain Marco. “That would be their view. It is probably their sole aim. Many people throughout Europe in the Nazi years had good reason to fear for their lives. It was not only Jews who were eliminated. Homosexuals. Gypsies. The congenitally infirm. Communists. Himmler set up a center of the occult at Castle Wewelsburg with his twelve disciples. He thought Christian relics could control the future. Religion is a powerful force.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“There are over two billion people in the world today who belong to various branches of the Christian faith. Two thousand million. Many of them would be thrown into confusion by a skillful mix of Christianity and the occult. Many would expect such a relic to have mystical properties, and the neo-Nazis would be quick to exploit this expectation. Control even one part of the Church, and you could control hundreds of millions of followers. It is not an impossible dream for the fascist movement, even in today’s secular society. You can forget about old Nazis wanting to revive the Third Reich. There will be new conversions, new beginnings. ‘See,’ the people will say, ‘here is Christ, so this teaching must be part of the truth.’”

“The Church leaders would react immediately,” insisted Marco.

Father Josef shook his head. “As they did in the thirties? Oh, I have many regrets for the small part I played as a youth in assisting the Nazi system in the war. But this will go beyond the Church, Marco. Non-believers will be caught up. The face of Christ would be of historical as well as religious interest. A rallying place for the pure? What does that mean? Can you imagine the division if there is a selection process for those entitled to see the face? The humiliation of those denied access, and the pride of those admitted. Divide, weaken, destroy. The Third Reich managed to do it successfully with the Christian Church in Germany.”

“Then it’s a good thing the neo-Nazis don’t have the relic.” Marco attempted a laugh.

The old priest stared disconcertingly. “Do you really think they have given up their search?”

Marco passed the note back to Father Josef. “I think the person who wrote this is mad.”

“Mad, possibly.” Father Josef replaced it in the file. “But it is a compelling form of madness, and it could easily reignite the flames of Nazism throughout Europe. I have seen it happen before. The Church and the Nazis in tacit union. It is an obscenity.”

Marco frowned. “I don’t understand the Eternal Leaders bit. Jesus and Hitler?”

“In confidence I can tell you that there are fascist plans to reconstruct the head of Hitler, using clay and fragments of his skull. Those of us in Germany in the last war remember hailing the man as our eternal leader, forming an eternal kingdom. It is strange how many memories those words have stirred up within me.”

“Why eternal? Hitler is long dead.”

“ The man, but not his influence. There are untold numbers of his followers -- mostly young ones who never knew him -- who believe that a new world is within their reach."

“How do they hope to do that?”

“Purge Germany of foreign workers and refugees. Purge Europe of everyone they see as undesirable. Give power to a master race, with financial supremacy. The Führer may be gone, but his teachings and the teachings of his disciples live on.”

“It’s not just Europe,” said Marco, his memories now stirred. “Doesn’t America have a strong neo-Nazi movement?”

“Indeed it does. Ten years ago, eighty-five percent of the illegal neo-Nazi literature circulating in Germany came from the United States. Russia, too, has massive support for fascism among the young, with groups like RNE, Russian National Unity.”

Marco found the old priest’s anxieties contagious. “You say you were in Germany in the war. Does that mean you admit to being a Nazi?”

Father Reinhardt turned his face away. “I am German, and yes, I was a young member of the National Socialist Party. You seem surprised.” Slowly he turned to face Marco again. “For much of my working life I lived in England, the country that gave me refuge in nineteen forty-four. I quickly learned to love the English people.”

“I know England. I was at Oxford last summer,” interrupted Marco, moving so as to sit upright in his chair. “I have a friend from school who works there in a science laboratory. He’s involved with developing DNA testing techniques.” He grinned. “Too technical and boring for me.”

The old priest smiled back. “The City of Spires. I sometimes dream I am back at Oxford.”

“Would you live your life very differently if you had another chance?” asked Marco.

The smile disappeared. “I have many regrets, Marco. Of course I do. Lost opportunities that torment me still. Sins of omission. Sins of commission.” Josef Reinhardt’s eyes seemed to penetrate Marco. “Perhaps you will be able to make good some of my omissions.”

Marco felt uncomfortable. “In what way?”

“By learning from me. I have always maintained an interest in the extreme right wing in Europe.”

Marco jumped from his chair. “You’re not still a Nazi?”

“Indeed I am not. Sit down, young man. I am definitely an ex-Nazi, an anti-Nazi. Hitler was presented to us as a man of great compassion, as having divine insight, divine capabilities. He seduced me, but many of us who were under his spell have subsequently seen the light. Like you, Marco, I am now an unworthy follower of a new Master. Conversion is an apt word.”

Marco breathed out heavily and sat down again. “For a moment you had me wondering what sort of secret body was recruiting me.”

Father Josef glanced at the closed file. "I must repeat what I said earlier. I showed you the note in absolute confidence. It will not be released to the public until the affair is closed -- if at all. I am convinced that the genuine relic is still around. Amendola has chosen to take the official view that it no longer exists, and that is what he is telling the press."

“The Cardinal seems to be very much on the defensive.”

“Amendola has objected publicly to the relic being shown on TV. He said it was a forgery as soon as it came to light in the Archives last month.”

“But…”

“He was right, it was a forgery. But somewhere there must be the genuine object. It was seen a couple of hundred years after Eusebius wrote about the statue. Since then there has been silence. Caesarea Philippi was the scene of much fighting in the Crusades. If the relic went to Constantinople it would surely have become known by now. Our brothers in the Eastern Church do not keep secrets of that nature from us any longer. The writer of this note knows something about it.”

“Who is the writer?”

“It could be anyone, Marco. It is a computer printout, so no handwriting clues there. Our language experts suggest the choice of words and the grammar point to a German origin, apart from the German font, which anyone could use on a computer A German origin is of course what the note implies. However, I trust nobody.”

“Not even the carabinieri?”

“Especially not the carabinieri. The right wing doctrines are pernicious, and are being accepted by many in authority. There is a growing backlash in Italy against the Communism of earlier decades. The power of the communist unions in Italy is blamed by many for our present economic problems. And there are the issues caused by migrant workers. They are accused of stealing the jobs to which Italian families say they are entitled. Resentment is a breeding ground for hatred.”

Marco looked up. A large cross swung gently on Father Josef’s black clerical jacket. Many hours would be spent in prayer while handling that sacred silver object with its worn, dark rosewood center. A comforting thought.

Father Josef must have observed the glance. “There is power there, Marco, but it exists for those who can see beyond the wood and the silver. It is certainly not a lucky charm. You must seek the power of the risen Lord and feel it for yourself. I am mindful of words the Holy Father shared with me last night, from the letter Saint Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus. Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full Armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers…”

… Against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” finished Marco, glad of the rote learning of Sister Maria.

“Indeed, yes. The Epistle to the Ephesians.” A bell sounded deep within the green-shuttered house on the edge of the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. Father Josef raised a finger. “The sisters are telling us that our lunch is ready. There is much work to be done, so today I will forgo my siesta.”

As they left the room, Marco’s earlier question was suddenly answered.

“Marco, you asked if the writings of Eusebius are reliable? There is, I contend, independent evidence for the existence of the statue. Within a few minutes’ drive of here, in the catacomb of Santo Pietro and Marcellinus, I have seen a fresco that I believe shows the very same statue of our Lord, with the woman he healed.”

“I’ve seen it too.” Marco started down the marble stairs, while behind him Father Josef took a firm grip of the brass handrail ready for his descent. “But I didn’t realize it showed a statue. I thought it was just a picture of Jesus healing the woman. You could be right.” He turned. He had to ask, although the answer was obvious. “Father Josef, I imagine I’m not a practicing priest any more. Is that so?”

“Hurry along, my son, we must not keep the sisters waiting. To my eyes a man of God is always a man of God, and that is what you most certainly are. You cannot have your priesthood simply taken away by a cardinal and his panel, but you have certainly been prevented from taking up your duties in your first parish.”

Marco walked ahead slowly. He knew that in the short-term he must reconcile himself to a new life. This could even be the last day for wearing his suit of clerical black. At least he could stop cleaning his best shoes. He turned again to speak. “What exactly do you want me to do, to help?”

Father Josef began to make his way down. “You have to find the relic and bring it back. Before the neo-Nazis get to it.”

 

BY THE END of the afternoon Marco was keen to throw himself into the work being offered by Josef Reinhardt. Perhaps the guilty could be made to pay for their sins in this life. With his help, the killers of Canon Angelo would be found and made to suffer. Marco checked himself, painfully aware of the hatred that still bubbled below the surface. Hatred like this had nearly destroyed his life when Anna died. It still could, if he let his feelings run free.

The old priest said the work was for the protection of the Church, not for personal gratification. But if the neo-Nazis were involved, surely Father Josef would want the fascists taught a lesson at the same time. He reached the outside door, where the fast moving traffic in the piazza brought him back to reality with a jolt.

Standing in the large piazza, he was surprised to discover he was a little afraid. Why should that be? These streets were his home, the playground of his childhood, the territory of his youth. If someone was out there trying to harm him they would have to be good at it. Anyway, whenever he walked the streets he faced danger -- from customers who had once purchased his used cars! He decided to walk home past the studios of TV Roma and check up on the condition of the injured guard. And perhaps have quick chat with Natalia.

Chapter 12

TV Roma

MARCO WAVED discreetly as Natalia came running lightly down the stairs in response to a phone call from reception. She was wearing long, loose clothes -- masking a shape that had once tormented him. Of all the girls he had been with in the past, Natalia was the only one to say so-far-but-no-further, and mean it. It was an attitude hard to come to terms with at the time, and they drifted apart when Isabella, a blonde from Lido di Ostia, proved more than ready to satisfy his desires. But that was before he met Anna. He realized he was not concentrating as Natalia talked, aware that his eyes were checking out her body. He quickly brought his thoughts under control.

“How’s the security guard?” he asked.

“Dino? A deep knife wound to the stomach. The knife missed his heart. He’s still on life-support, but we hear he’s going to pull through.”

“I’ve been praying for him.” Marco looked around. “Well, the GIS certainly wrecked this place for you last night.”

Natalia laughed. “Most of the glass got broken, otherwise it’s not too bad. We’re using a temporary reception area outside the staff canteen.”

There seemed to be no resentment that he had once walked out on her. “We’re still friends, right?” he asked.

Natalia smiled warmly. “That’s fine by me, Marco. Sorry about the chairs; they’ve come from the staff break room.”

This area certainly wasn’t of the standard set by the once-luxurious foyer. The shapeless plywood seats had probably been designed for maximum discomfort, so staff would not want to sit on them for longer than the statutory coffee break. It must have been some break room!

“ I want to apologize properly -- about our past." He was still wearing his black suit and clerical collar from his meeting with the Cardinal and his panel, and sweat was starting to run down his face. He wiped it away.

“I hope you’re not still worrying about it, Marco. I’m sure Isabella was the right person for you. At the time.” And Natalia laughed again, a pleasant laugh devoid of censure. “Not that I can imagine you with her now. Not at all the right image for a new priest. I was heartbroken once.” She smiled. “You’ve changed. We both have. When we split up you’d just started selling old cars. I heard about Anna. I’m sorry.”

“Anna died six years ago. And thanks, I think perhaps I’m over the worst of it now.”

“It must have been difficult,” said Natalia.

“It was hard when the carabinieri accused me of making up the story about the attack.”

“Why would they do that?”

Marco shrugged. “They thought I was covering up a foolish accident … or worse. Those men didn’t only kill Anna. I lost a son. Anna was four months pregnant. The carabinieri suggested I didn’t want the baby, and pushed her because I wanted her to miscarry.”

Natalia put her hand to her mouth. “That’s tough. I’m amazed you went into the Church.”

Marco smiled freely again. “Meaning?”

“We knew each other well. I can’t say the Church was exactly a priority in your life. Was it because of Anna’s accident?”

“Did I find God through grief? Is that what you think?”

He noticed that Natalia's nose turned up as she talked, and good memories came back. She began to blush. "I don't mean to pry. I just didn't..." She shrugged, and as her slim shoulders moved up they tightened the white blouse around her small breasts. "Anyway, you'll make a good priest. You'll probably be even better than you were at selling cars. You'll be selling God to the people now -- Father!

“ Thanks. To tell you the truth, I'm in a bit of a mess." He didn't wish to blame Natalia, but TV Roma had rerun his interview at breakfast time, and they were likely to do it again at midday. He wanted to get Amendola off his back by being taken out of the public eye. Natalia could help -- if only she would listen. He turned away to avoid eye contact. "Can you tell your News Room to stop showing my face on the screen?"

Natalia shook her head firmly. “No way, Marco. I fixed this up to teach you a lesson: don’t take women for granted!” She pointed at him and laughed. “After today we’re quits. Let me get you a coffee.” She walked towards the machine on the foyer. “It’s not too bad, if you go for the espresso.”

 

Marco’s apartment

THAT NIGHT yet another excerpt from his interview was shown in the TV Roma news on the raid. Marco realized that Natalia had fixed things for him all right, but surely not to teach him a lesson. That had just been a joke. Natalia had never been vindictive. His door bell rang as he was looking through a book on the history of art.

A woman of about his age stood at the door. “Are you Marco Sartini?”

“Yes.” He deliberately let a note of caution show in his voice.

The woman laughed confidently. “You sound worried. I’m only a journalist.”

His caution was justified. “I can’t speak to the press.”

She was very quick with her reassurance. “Consider me a friend, Marco. I keep seeing you on television.”

“ Sorry, I'm going to have to fall back on the old cliché: no comment. I've been sworn to silence by higher forces. I don't want to get into any deeper trouble with the Church -- and I don't want to be quoted on that either."

“My name’s Laura. Laura Rossetti. There’s some important information I want to share with you.”

“You’re not after a story?”

“You’re going to have to trust me.” And she laughed intriguingly.

The young woman's voice was seductive, irresistible. He invited her in, wishing he'd tidied the main room for the unaccustomed reception of female company. His seminarian flat mates had already moved out to their first parishes. Until the fiasco with Amendola he had been packing, getting ready for the move to the presbytery. Now -- thanks to the stuffy Cardinal -- he wondered if he would ever be allowed to go into parish work. It was only when Laura Rossetti was sitting down that he remembered Father Reinhardt's warnings about the neo-Nazis.

Laura Rossetti seemed to be genuine, complete with a notebook and folder. To his consternation Marco experienced a primitive feeling of attraction. Laura Rossetti was lovely. Beautiful even, in spite of lips that were colored too brightly. He offered her a chair, avoiding meeting her eyes. But there would be no harm in simple friendship. He knew he had an easy manner with all ages and both sexes. Marriage to Anna had taught him a lot about women.

Natalia, happy little Natalia he had once tried to bed, must have aroused long-forgotten memories of other girls only too ready to comply, but he found it easy to sweep the thoughts aside. As at TV Roma, he was reluctant to dig too deeply into this aspect of his past. But Laura had Anna’s large eyes, pulled-back hair and beautifully filled pale blue jeans. Even the perfume was Anna’s. L’Air du Temps. Being in the room with Laura Rossetti unsettled him.

The resolve to stay away from women had been easily made when Anna died. No one could replace her. His subsequent vows of chastity and celibacy were genuine, and he prided himself on learning to control his once obsessive fascination with the female body. The route from promiscuous youth, to marriage, to man of God, was hopefully a one-way trip.

He sat a little way across the room, facing his visitor. “I’m not sure I can be much help.” He could feel himself blushing as he spoke, and felt angry with himself. “You’ve seen my television interview. I’m told I put my foot in it.”

“Angelo Levi,” Laura interrupted. She said the name slowly. “Canon Angelo Levi. You mentioned him in the interview. He was too good for the Church.”

“I met him several times when I was a boy,” said Marco. “Sister Maria used to take us on school trips round the Vatican museum, and Canon Levi pointed things out to us and made jokes. I don’t think Sister Maria liked his little jokes. I remember I was stunned to hear about his death. Are you a Catholic?”

Laura stood up slowly and went to the window. “Catholic? Of course I’m a Catholic.” She sounded a little peevish. Then she turned and smiled. “You have a good view of the park from here.”

Marco felt pleased by the observation. He was fond of the student apartment. Until he knew Laura better he would certainly not talk about his work for Father Josef. “Tell me how you knew the Canon.”

She took her time before replying. At last she said, “I was young when he died.”

“Close on twenty years since the murder,” Marco prompted, suddenly aware of the shape of Laura’s full breasts under the white blouse. He had already noticed there was no wedding ring.

“I must be about the same age as you. Yes, I knew him.”

“You’re not making notes. I don’t think you’re here for a news story.”

Laura returned from the window, walked past the chair she had been using, and sat by his side on the small cane settee. “Not exactly.”

Marco got to his feet, trying to avoid any appearance of obvious haste. If he felt any attraction for this visitor it was only because she brought back vivid memories of Anna. “Coffee?” The coffee was already brewing on the gas ring. “You’ve not told me how you knew Canon Angelo,” he called from the small kitchen.

“We’ll have to get to know each other first. But I have a family source that is very reliable. I’m trying to trace the Canon’s missing property.”

“The bronze head?”

“Of course. My editor wants as much background as possible.”

“What publication are you working for?”

“Publication? Oh yes, I see. At the moment I’m working for … one of the Sunday papers. I’m a freelance.”

He didn’t need to be a psychologist to detect the hesitation. “There’s obviously something personal for you in this. Is that why you’re not making notes?”

Laura raised her eyebrows, emphasizing her large eyes. She glanced at the folder on her lap. “In a way. Someone in Canon Angelo’s family is going to help me track the relic down, but they don’t want their name mentioned.”

He grinned. “And I don’t want my name mentioned either. Seems to me you might not be getting much of a story out of this.”

Laura came to stand with him at the kitchen window. Two young lovers lay under the maple tree in the small park, laughing over a private joke. He could almost hear Anna’s favorite music: I Pini del Gianicolo, the haunting tune from Respighi’s Pine Trees of Rome that brought back recollections of evening walks on the hillside above the river. Like the perfume, memories of the tune and Anna were inseparable.

The thoughts seemed too intense and he moved away. “I’ve been told by the Vatican to say nothing about this business of the relic. I feel I’m back at college, playing chess with Brother Roberto.” He laughed awkwardly. “We’re probably each afraid to make a move.”

Laura stayed gazing out of the window, then she slowly turned. Marco breathed in the perfume and stared at her large brown eyes, skillfully drawn around with fine eyeliner, and just a trace of mascara on the lashes. But the lipstick was far too bright, spoiling the whole effect.

Laura regarded him closely. “Angelo Levi was given the relic in World War Two, by his father. His father was Jewish. Did you know?”

“Father Josef told me.”

“He threw Angelo out of the house when he became a Christian, so he lived with his aunt who’d become a Christian in nineteen thirty-five. There was no possibility of Christians and Jews accepting each other’s beliefs in those… Who’s Father Josef?”

Marco pulled a face. “Just somebody I work for in the Vatican.”

Laura hardly seemed to hear the answer. She sounded very knowledgeable about Rome in World War Two. "Italy wasn't like Nazi Germany in the thirties. Mussolini wasn't a racist. The Italian fascists only persecuted the Jews half-heartedly. They mainly wanted to smash the power of the Communists and the unions. Jews who said they'd converted to Christianity were given a certificate and left alone. They were protected citizens -- until the Nazis came. Then, of course, the certificates were worthless pieces of paper."

“And was Angelo Levi’s conversion genuine?” Marco knew from experience that men and women had many different reasons for conversione, a popular one being the desire for peace from an overzealous partner.

Laura sounded annoyed. “Genuine enough for him to become a canon! Not that everyone in the Church thought he was good enough for the job.” There was an edge to that comment. It was almost judgment. “I don’t want to stay long tonight, Marco, but I need to know if you’ll work with me on this one. You must have your ear to the ground in the Vatican. See if anyone knows where the relic is hidden. I promise I’ll keep your name out of the papers. I can show you a letter that might have some bearing on the matter. Can I come round later in the week?”

“That’s fine. I suppose I should add Deo volente.” He laughed, and hoped he sounded spiritual enough. God willing. Even a suspended priest has to create a good impression.

Laura seemed pleased at his acceptance. “Do you have a cell phone?”

He nodded, wondering if Laura counted as a friend in Father Joseph’s definition of who he could give the number to. He decided she did.

She wrote it down. “Good, I’ll phone you and we can have some lunch together. I know a good place.”

“And I’ll not pass on anything you don’t want me to,” he promised.

Laura looked startled. “Pass on? How do you mean, pass on?”

He would have taken that move back if he’d been playing chess with Brother Roberto. Such a blunder would have provoked generosity in the most unsympathetic player. “What I mean is, this is between the two of us. Right?”

Laura relaxed a little. “That’s right. And it’s got to stay that way.”

He walked down to the street with Laura, as far as the corner where they parted company. Many years ago he would have encouraged an attractive woman like Laura to stay longer. Much longer. But the opportunities for sex had gone, and he had no problem with keeping his vow of celibacy. Well, there could be no harm in watching Laura Rossetti walk away. Perhaps she would even turn to wave ciao.

She did not walk far. Only as far as a parked car -- a battered, green Lancia. She got into the passenger seat. As the car pulled out from the curb, Marco edged back out of sight, embarrassed at having stayed to watch. The man driving the car looked old enough to be Laura's father. But even supposing it was her boyfriend, was it any business of his? How stupid to feel jealous over something that could never be.

 

LAURA TOOK a quick look behind as Bruno let the clutch in with a jolt.

“Well, does he know where it is?” Bruno Bastiani let go of the gear stick and put his hand on her knee.

“We’re wasting our time,” snapped Laura, pushing his hand away. “He’s a priest, for God’s sake. He’s not going to fall into a woman’s arms at the sight of red lips.” She took a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her lipstick. “I hate this stuff, and I hate what we’re doing. You want me to screw a priest so you can get hold of a Christian relic?”

“We need it, Laura. It’s going to be the answer to all our prayers.”

“Prayers? When did you ever pray?” She felt dirty. “Anyway, his faith would mean more to him than a pretty girl. I told him I was Catholic.”

“Clever Laura.”

“ If I was clever I wouldn't be mixed up in this business with you and Riccardo Fermi," she snapped. "What we're doing is obscene. If anyone has a claim to the relic, it's me -- and I say we forget about it."

Bruno responded angrily. “It’s our duty to see it through. You’re not getting out now. We want justice.”

 

RETURNING TO HIS apartment block, Marco realized he had learned very little from Laura Rossetti. No notes had been taken. Was she really writing a piece of journalism? Not that it mattered. He had enjoyed the company.

A smell of L’Air du Temps filled the room. He took the Respighi CD from the rack, held it for a moment, then put it in the player. As the music of I Pini del Gianicolo filled the apartment he began to cry, a mixture of pain and pleasure. His meetings with Laura and Amendola had disturbed powerful memories, as had seeing Natalia. He wanted his life with Anna to stay in a separate compartment. A compartment that could never be visited again.

But now the room no longer seemed empty. Anna had been allowed back into his life for an hour.

Chapter 13

Marco’s apartment

MARCO HEARD ON the early morning news that Luigi Cardinal Amendola had issued a brief press release last night, and probably believed he could suppress all further conjecture on the Head of Eusebius. Issued to the media world-wide, his statement informed news editors that the bronze head found in the Vatican was of recent origin, and therefore of no historical interest. There was no other head, and never had been.

The morning papers immediately dismissed the whole matter of the relic as a summer hoax. It intrigued Marco to watch the breakfast news on TV Roma. The television company was going out on a limb and insisting that the Vatican had got it wrong, and the original relic was still around. They claimed they had information from "a confidential source" that a bronze head was definitely handed to the Vatican in World War Two, so a bronze head less than thirty years old could not possibly be the same one. Ergo, the Vatican had the genuine article -- or if they did not, they had been remarkably careless with it since the war. Knowing something of the background to the story, Marco realized just how right TV Roma was.

The rest of the media chose to ignore this rationale from TV Roma, no doubt leaving the Vatican officials sighing with relief. Marco picked his way through the papers for two days, compiling a file of press cuttings for Josef Reinhardt. Then TV Roma came on air with a special report. In spite of Vatican opposition, someone within the Vatican was now helping them. The announcement, Marco guessed correctly, was sufficient to alienate TV Roma from further contact by Cardinal Amendola.

Father Josef phoned Marco at lunchtime to tell him that Amendola suspected Monsignor Giorgio of being the unnamed source who had unwittingly been helping TV Roma. Monsignor Augusto Giorgio had stormed out of the Vatican feeling guilty and betrayed. This stain on his virtues immediately put him in disfavor with the remainder of the panel of inquiry. Apparently he insisted on his innocence, saying that in an interview he had merely confirmed points that a TV reporter seemed to know already.

Marco suddenly realized Augusto Giorgio might be innocent. He might be the unnamed source himself, working unwittingly for Laura Rossetti. He said nothing about this misgiving to Father Josef.

 

LAURA PHONED THE next day and said she was on her way round. Marco waited impatiently for over half an hour for the doorbell to ring.

“It’s time we got down to some serious discussion, Marco,” she announced without waiting for pleasantries when she arrived at last. She dropped her purse on the kitchen table. “I want you to have a look at this letter. I think I can trust you.”

Marco felt unsure how to reply; but whatever Laura meant by trusting him, if she could not be safe in his company, where could she be safe! He laughed at his earlier fears that Laura might be using him in some way.

“I’ll make us some coffee,” he offered.

“ Thanks. It's not really a letter -- more of a note." Laura opened her purse. "Canon Levi sent it to ... to a woman he knew. It may tell us what he did with the relic."

“You’re making it sound very mysterious,” said Marco. “Who’s the woman?”

Laura smiled, but not very convincingly. “Someone I know. Don’t cross-examine me on it, for goodness sake. There’s a date at the top. Canon Angelo wrote it three days before he was killed.” She turned at the sound of escaping steam. “The gas is up too high.” She went forward and turned it down.

The small sheet of white paper contained only a few lines of Italian handwriting. I am concerned that there is a Vatican plan to stop me getting the bronze head authenticated. I have therefore decided that if they want it, they will have to look for the Living among the dead.

“I found it during some earlier research, but it didn’t mean anything to me until the raid on TV Roma,” Laura explained.

Marco looked over her shoulder, aware of the L’Air du Temps. “The last bit is a Bible quote, but the Canon got it wrong.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Gospel of Luke. You’re a Catholic, so you ought to recognize it.”

Laura went over to the window to gaze into the park where several young couples lay on the grass, a favorite summer pastime. “Don’t give me a Scripture lesson, Marco. I’ve said I didn’t know.”

Sensing the irritation in her voice he was quick to reduce the tension. “Canon Angelo has misquoted it. That’s what’s confused you.”

“So what should it be?”

He reached for his Bible on the bookshelf. “It’s from the end of Luke’s gospel. It should say, ‘Why do you look for the Living among the dead?’”

“Sounds the same to me.”

“No, Canon Angelo didn’t write, ‘Why do you look?’ He wrote, ‘Look for’. Perhaps he got it wrong deliberately. He’s telling someone they’ll have to look for the Living among the dead, which isn’t the same at all. The angel in the Bible is telling the disciples not to look there. Watch out, the coffee’s boiling again!”

Laura turned out the gas burner and opened the window for the steam to clear. “So who’s the Living, and who are the dead?”

“You wouldn’t be asking such things if you’d had Sister Maria for religious instruction.”

Laura sighed. "Well I didn't, so just tell me -- please."

Marco poured the coffee into two mugs. “The angel said it outside the empty tomb of Jesus after the crucifixion. It was the first Easter, and the tomb was empty. His disciples had come to see the body of Jesus, but of course it wasn’t there because he’d risen from the dead. So the angel asked them why…”

“Why they were looking for the Living among the dead. Okay, I get that. But what about my letter?”

“ Just look at the way the Canon has used a capital letter for 'Living'. He's talking about Jesus. It's the reverse of the Bible passage. Canon Angelo is saying that they -- presumably people from the Vatican -- must look for the bronze head of Jesus among the dead if they want it, not among the living. In other words he’s hidden it somewhere. Any ideas?” He passed one of the mugs to Laura.

She returned to the window, staring into the park deep in thought, the mug left on the table. She came away at last, her eyes bright. Without warning she flung her arms around his shoulders, giving him the biggest hug he had received since his eldest sister gave birth to her third child.

“Marco Sartini, you’re amazing. You know about the Living, and I know about the dead!”

He allowed Laura to continue the hug for a time. Then to preserve a modicum of decency he gently unwound her arms from his neck. “So?”

“It’s still at the monastery. I told my friends to have another look there.”

“What friends?” His insides suddenly felt hollow.

Laura went back to the window, turning her back on him. “Didn’t I tell you about them? I’m getting some help on this story. I’m sure I told you.” She turned round and smiled.

It was all a bit too smooth. “You never mentioned any friends. You never mentioned a monastery.” Why did he hear alarm bells?

Laura continued to smile. “Bruno Bastiani and Riccardo Fermi. Don’t look so worried, Marco, I still need your help. Canon Angelo’s father was called Levi. Israel Levi. He was hiding with his family in the monastery of Monte Sisto in nineteen forty-four, but the village priest informed the Nazis that the Christian Brothers were sheltering Jews.”

“The local priest hated the Jews that much? I can’t believe it.”

“ Or maybe he hated the Brothers. It was a terrible thing he did. They all died, even the children. Israel Levi was the only one to escape. He brought the bronze head back to Rome for his son -- his Christian son.”

“Canon Angelo? The Jew who became a Christian in the nineteen thirties?”

Laura nodded. “The Levi family were trying to get to Switzerland, but the Nazis shot them in the monastery grounds.”

“So you think they’re the dead?” asked Marco.

Laura’s eyes shone. “I think Canon Angelo took the relic back to Monte Sisto.”

“You’re sure we’re talking about the same relic, the one showing the face of Christ?”

“That’s the one, though I’m not sure how realistic it would be. Religious art is only someone’s conception.”

“ I'd believe it was realistic," said Marco with some feeling. "But only if it was made before the middle of the first century. After all, within sixty or seventy years of the crucifixion, no one was alive who knew what Jesus looked like. From then on the face was only the artist's or his patron's best guess. This is our chance to see what Jesus looked like -- in this life."

“You sound like an expert.”

He laughed. “I’ve been … reading a book.”

“You’re not the only one. Bruno and Riccardo are going through wartime records. They’re journalists. They’ve made some amazing discoveries. You’ll have to meet them. Come with me to Monte Sisto. We could see if there are any hiding places. And I could tell you more about the events that took place there. I’ve got my old car outside.”

“What, go now?”

“Why not?”

Marco thought fast. Waiting for the neo-Nazis to make contact was boring. With Laura’s help he might find the relic.

The “old” car turned out to be a silver Alfa, a sixteen-valve sports model with a black custom stripe along the doors. Marco’s background in used cars taught him to appreciate this particular edition from a local tuning company, and he felt a pang of envy when he saw it. The Alfa was barely three years old. It had collected an assortment of dents, but then no car stayed immaculate for long in Rome.

“We’ll take the old road towards Terni,” said Laura as they crawled north through the congested streets towards the ring road. The road widened and Laura pressed the accelerator to the floor. Ahead of them a glossy red Maserati was tailgating a truck, but it dropped back slightly as the driver seemed to tire of the game.

“Marco, have you ever been to Monte Sisto?”

“To be honest, I’d never even heard of the place until you mentioned it.”

“When we get there, I’ll show you exactly where old Israel Levi got the relic.”

Marco watched in fascination as the Alfa slipped with split-second timing and an inch to spare into the small space between truck and the Maserati. “You’re in a bit of a hurry.”

“No I’m not.” Laura sounded indignant as she swung out again, swept past the truck, and cut in sharply while braking hard for the approaching bend. The truck lurched close, almost touching the rear of the Alfa.

“It’s going to take us a couple of hours to get there.”

Marco swallowed. If they’d come this far in safety, the Lord would probably continue to look after them as far as Monte Sisto. He twisted round. A Maserati was wasted on that driver as it hung back. But the truck, its headlights now blazing aggressively, stayed close behind their car as Laura negotiated the bend. A clear, winding road lay ahead. Laura accelerated and left the truck far behind.

“It must be hard to concentrate on these roads. I’m not putting you off by talking am I?” he asked hesitantly.

“It doesn’t bother me at all.” And she laughed. “Cheer up, Marco. You’re a nervous passenger, that’s your problem.”

“I think you’re right.” He decided that with a couple of hours going north at this speed they’d either be dead or at the French border.

The road twisted sharply around the hills in a series of steep dips, a trivial detail that failed to slow their headlong rush. Over to the right lay the vast Monti Sabini, the famous Sabine Hills.

“Do you know much about the Nazis in World War Two?” Laura trod heavily on the brakes for a bend that sharpened up at the last minute. “Hitler was controlled by an obsession with religious relics.”

Marco felt torn between keeping his eyes on the road, ready for the inevitable accident, and wanting to be distracted from Laura’s driving by looking at her as he talked. “Father Josef, the man I work for, said he was a young Nazi in World War Two. He told me Hitler was presented to him as semi-divine.”

“Hitler was into the occult, that’s for sure.” Laura turned her head for a long look sideways. “He wanted the Habsburg Spear. Wanted it desperately. The Habsburg Regalia were some of the first artifacts Hitler took from Austria. He commissioned a special train to take them to Berlin.” She slowed the Alfa and swung it, tires protesting, onto a minor road.

“We’re not late for anything are we?”

She chose to ignore that remark. "Christians think the Jews are descended from sex between Eve and Satan -- the so-called serpent's seed. No wonder you don't respect them."

“Father Josef mentioned the serpent’s seed. I didn’t know what he meant. Is that right, the Jews are supposed to be the descendants of sex between Eve and Satan? I’ve never heard such nonsense,” he protested. “Anyway, who says Christians don’t respect the Jews?”

“What about the American Identity movement?” Laura demanded.

“ Don't blame me for them. The Ku Klux Klan, White Power, and groups who imagine they're the true Israelites who migrated west -- what makes you think they're Christians? They ought to read their Bibles a bit more. Saint Paul was a Jew. He told the Galatian Christians that 'there is neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' Perhaps Hitler should have taken up Bible reading, too!"

It was only a joke, maybe a bit of showing off of his Bible knowledge, but Laura took it seriously. “You can’t forget you’re a priest, that’s your problem,” she snapped. “Anyway, it wasn’t only Hitler. Himmler practiced black magic as well. They both thought Christian relics would bring them power and success.” She hit the gear lever into first and accelerated hard away from the bend. “I suppose they did, for a time.”

The Habsburg Regalia. The spear, a nail, relics from the crucifixion of Jesus -- some of the few genuine relics kept by the early church. Relics like this were an aid to faith, not a source of witchcraft. "I don't see why the spear that pierced Christ's side should have magical powers. It doesn't seem right."

“Doesn’t seem right?” Laura sounded hostile. “It depends what you do with these things. Fancy some figs? There are heaps along here.” She stamped on the brakes and stopped the silver Alfa under the branches of a row of wild figs growing in the shelter of an old wall.

Marco opened the car door. Without warning he had an awareness of evil. He fought down a rising fear that Laura was planning something. Why the sudden stop? Was he to be quietly eliminated out here in the wilds? It was not a feeling he could shake off. Perhaps it was because they had been discussing the occult. He could remember a night at seminary when he and a group of students had been talking about the devil until the early hours. Strange forces were stirred up, and they had gone to bed terrified.

The figs looked good. Laura picked one and tossed it over to him. He caught it and rubbed it on his shirt to remove the dust. Laura was Eve, tempting Adam.

“I hope this isn’t forbidden fruit,” he said. The reference about the Garden of Eden seemed lost on Laura. “Maybe you’re right about the spear,” he continued. “Good and evil are what people do with these things. A person can take something good and use it for evil.”

Laura reached up for another fig. “You’re right. And surely the opposite applies. A person can take something evil and use it for good.”

Marco shrugged his shoulders. “Not in my book. Why do you say that?”

Laura was already back in the car. She threw the stalk of her fig out of the window and turned angrily. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, you sanctimonious puritan. Good can come out of any action. Anything is justified -- if the motive is right." She started the engine, hardly waiting for him to get in before pulling away.

For the next twenty minutes they drove in silence, with Marco afraid of triggering a further outburst. The right time would come to find out what was troubling Laura. Maybe the strange hills were affecting them. He felt vulnerable out in the open like this.

The intense sun had long ago turned the countryside dry and yellow. Apart from the winding road and the rows of conical cypress trees, Marco could see nothing to relieve the monotony of the summer landscape. Born in the city, he was a Roman through and through, and proud of it.

“Is it much further?”

Laura said nothing and he began to feel irritable. After all, the drive to Monte Sisto was her idea. He wondered whether to talk about his past, about Anna, but decided to wait for a more suitable opportunity.

For nearly an hour the road continued in a series of tight loops, up and then down, one hill after another. Laura slowed at last, bringing the Alfa to a halt on a wide area of loose stones on one of the bends. She switched off the engine, opened the door, climbed out and stretched.

Marco turned his head to look over the sheer drop just outside his door. “This is it?”

She looked serious. “No, but we’re getting closer. I want you to see the view. Monte Sisto’s over that way. There’s a map behind my seat.”

Marco reached into the car for it and found the road they had taken from Rome. As far as he was concerned they might be anywhere in the world. Far below were olive trees: he could at least recognize them as such. City traffic was a natural accompaniment to his life. Without it this hillside seemed empty, desolate, the space blending into infinity.

Laura seemed to relax. “Is that a buzzard?”

There was not a cloud in the sky. The deep blue overhead turned to haze in the distance. All Marco could see was the silhouette of some faraway bird. It could be a seagull for all he knew. “Probably.”

“Monte Sisto is just beyond those hills.”

He looked at the map then stared into the heat shimmer. The hills just went on and on. “Are you sure?”

“You’re worried!” Laura sounded her old self again. “You won’t get lost if you stick with me.” And she smiled reassuringly.

The prospect of sticking with Laura had a certain attraction, but he quickly contained his thoughts. As they stood by the side of the road he became aware of a motorbike with a high revving engine, busy changing gear as it wound its way up the hill towards them. He felt his heartbeat rise as the bike approached, and realized just how exposed he was right now.

The bike passed, the young rider giving them no more than a passing glance. A car horn beeped a warning somewhere, and the cicadas continued their incessant chirping. These were familiar sounds in the park. Out here they sounded so clear, totally unmasked by the comfortable noises of urban life, and somehow alien.

Laura spread out the map as the bike faded into the heat haze. Marco relaxed and leaned over her shoulder. He could smell the perfume on her neck, beneath the long swept-back hair. The sight of the soft skin aroused him unexpectedly. The fine hairs around the neck were exactly like Anna’s. His emotions were running wild again and he moved away. He’d been happy with Anna, intensely happy, but those years of happiness had gone. He was ordained now.

Laura folded the map and turned, her eyes fixed on his. “Just trust me, Marco.”

The drive to the monastery of Monte Sisto only took a few minutes more. The monastery was much smaller than Marco had expected it to be. Perched high on a hill, the building of local stone was totally roofless and open to the elements. Human existence had obviously ended here many years ago.

Laura led the way up a narrow pathway, passing some ancient olive trees that struggled for survival in the rocky soil. This was like an expedition into the jungle. Flies surrounded them, and these flies were definitely bigger and more persistent than the city variety. Marco whacked at them with a stick.

Close to the ruined building they came to a smaller area overgrown with bamboo and brambles. “This was the monks’ garden,” explained Laura as she stared at the brambles twisting tightly round the canes. “I haven’t been here for years. I don’t remember it being as bad as this.”

“I know where I can borrow a metal detector.” Marco felt more enthusiastic than Laura sounded. “It will only be a simple one, but Canon Angelo wouldn’t have buried a bronze head very deep. We could whip over these graves in a couple of hours. I’ll get a small spade as well.”

“It’s an idea,” said Laura, “but the ground looks like we might need a pick-axe if we got a signal.”

Marco disagreed. “If the ground is too hard for us to dig with a spade, it means it hasn’t been disturbed recently. We won’t dig if we get signals in places like that.”

A flock of doves, with their white feathers streaked with the gray of the occasional visiting wild pigeon, took off from the red stone walls in a flutter of wings. Without the constant care and attention of the monks, every part of their little heaven on earth had fallen into decay. Marco realized how naïve he had been to dream of meeting friendly monks, and finding rows of carefully tended graves that might have once been disturbed by Canon Angelo Levi when he hid the bronze head.

“The Levi family and the monks were shot by the Nazis, against that wall.” Laura sounded deep in thought. “Stand with me for a moment, Marco.”

A somber mood came over him as he stood beside her, trying to imagine those last moments of the Christian Brothers and a terrified Jewish family. Massacred by German soldiers. What must it be like to face certain death, to know that within a few seconds the guns would fire, the bullets would hit, sending you to meet your Maker? Perhaps it was easier when the time came. Somehow he doubted it.

“Are you going to tell me?” he asked quietly.

“What do you want to know?” Laura’s eyes were wet with tears.

“Everything you know about Monte Sisto.”

“It’s Bruno’s story as much as mine.” Laura spoke slowly. “His mother was caught up in the events that started here.”

She caught hold of his arm abruptly and pulled him towards the top of the cliff. “Look down,” she ordered him. “See that narrow path we came up?”

He tried to pull himself from the edge, feeling threatened as he reached back to cling on to the branch of a small tree. “Yes.”

“How do you think the monks were feeling when they looked over here in nineteen forty-four? Lean right over, Marco. There are Nazi troops at the bottom of the hill, and they’re coming up to kill us. We can’t escape. We’re going to die before it gets dark.”

 

 

 

The War Years

Chapter 14

Monte Sisto

Tuesday January 25 1944

THE SS, FATHER?”

The bitter wind pierced the lookout in the bell tower and quickly stripped all feeling from the older man’s face. He was head of the monastic order, trying to maintain a pretence of inner calm for the sake of the young brother at his side. They had already counted twelve German soldiers climbing up the path from the valley.

Brother Antoni moved closer as they both leaned out through the window in the high wall. When the young brother repeated his question his voice became high pitched with fear. “Are they the SS, Father?”

Father Guido said nothing. The monastery of Monte Sisto had clung to the hill for five hundred years. Without the climbing soldiers and their modern weapons of war it might have stood for another five.

Father Guido struggled to control his emotions. “Brother Antoni, may the Lord not find any of us wanting in our faith.” He reached up, his numbed fingers gripping desperately to the rope. “Make your peace with God. The end is near for us all.” He regretted that the ringing bell could never be made to sound urgent. The mellow tone might be summoning the Brothers for prayer, rather than warning them of certain death from troops of the Third Reich. There was no mercy for those who sheltered Jews.

Brother Antoni refused to move, frozen by a mixture of horror and fascination. He rephrased his unanswered question. “They are the SS aren’t they, Father?”

“Indeed they are.” Father Guido gave up his attempt to hold the harsh rope. He reached out awkwardly to touch the young man’s shoulder. Never before had he made physical contact with one of the Brothers. The tears in his eyes were no longer caused by the cold wind. The embrace was an act of innocent compassion, a sharing of their mortality.

“I love you all, just as I love the Lord.” His voice shook with emotion. “If only we had been more prepared. We knew the Germans are hunting for refugees. We even knew…” But the words refused to come. He held Brother Antoni tightly, the thin body giving him more comfort than he could give in return.

Why had they been so slow to react to the reports reaching them almost daily? Not just gossip in the village of Monte Sisto, but reports from visitors describing in terrible detail the Nazis’ relentless search for victims and bounty.

Brother Antoni trembled as he gripped the small handrail. “Perhaps the door will keep the soldiers out.”

Father Guido released his hold of Brother Antoni and wiped the tears from the young man’s face with the coarse brown fabric of his habit. Only a wooden door between themselves and eternity. The end was coming for them all. In the cellar, deep within the ancient foundations, a terrified family of refugees was hiding between casks of wine prepared by the Brothers during the peaceful summer months. Father Guido took the youngest brother by the arm and led the way towards the narrow stairs from the bell tower.

“We have prayed, Brother Antoni, and now we must wait.”

They both shivered uncontrollably. The chill of the January morning was intensified by an icy fear.

 

HELMUT BAYER felt happy and lucky. Happy with his promotion to Untersturmführer-SS, and happy with his job as official SD photographer. He had also been extremely lucky while on leave with his latest girl. A clean-up operation the Sturmbannführer called today’s task, and all he had to do was take official photographs for a training manual. It might be cold, but army life was not too demanding.

Admittedly he did have reservations about these raids, because they were never clean in their cleaning-up. But they had been told -- told many times -- that an example had to be made of certain people. An example to frighten Italians who were sheltering Jews, and other refugees, into handing them over to the proper authorities. Helmut shrugged. It sounded all right when he looked at it like that. The proper authorities had the facilities to deal with these criminals correctly.

He'd never wanted to be another Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's personal photographer. Portraits of the Führer striking poses all over Europe would be just too much trouble to organize. All he wanted was a camera and a pretty girl -- and even the camera was optional.

He turned to his Sturmbannführer. “On a bright day like this I think I’ll photograph the treasures outside.”

He watched Sturmbannführer Kessel stop on the steep path and turn his blond, Aryan head upwards. The Sturmbannführer turned. “Then hurry, Bayer, or it will be dark outside as well as in!”

“The glorious Reich is somewhat short of flashbulbs,” explained Helmut, ignoring the Sturmbannführer’s sarcasm in favor of his own.

Sturmbannführer Manfred Kessel said nothing. He seemed to be in no mood for a slanging match, but perhaps he was only waiting until he could think of a suitable retort. Helmut Bayer knew that the men held their Sturmbannführer in respect. Respect was natural, given the man's background -- the background he boasted about so often. Kessel's amazing father had apparently shown great foresight in leaving the Tannenburg -- before an untimely death -- to turn to Hitler and National Socialism in 1926. Sturmbannführer Kessel reveled in recounting how in 1936 he had been specially selected to instruct the Hitler Youth in the Total Education program personally devised by Adolf Hitler. It was the only organization at that time to bear the Führer's name.

Helmut Bayer stifled a yawn. So, the Sturmbannführer’s eager pupils had been prepared for the rigors of the Adolf Hitler Schule, where squad competed against squad. Sturmbannführer Kessel boasted that his highly trained young men had invariably finished with the highest honors. Bayer removed his Leica camera from the bag at his feet and watched his leader climb without even needing to pause for breath. Little wonder the Sturmbannführer had gone on to leadership in the Sicherheitsdienst. He turned to glance behind, and saw the small group of men struggling to stay close.

Kessel waited for the trailing soldiers to catch up before speaking loudly. “The trouble is, Untersturmführer, the best things always happen in the darkest cellars. And that’s where we’re going to be. In the cellars you don’t need lights to know if there are Jews and Communists hiding. You shout, ‘Who’s in there!’ and listen for the knees knocking.”

The laughter that followed from the SD troops who had now caught up was more than dutiful. Bayer guessed that memories of earlier searches and arrests were flooding back. Each man had been involved in the October roundup of Jews in Rome; but with so many raids on farms and religious communities, the initial excitement had turned to boredom. It was rare for anything significant to happen that would lessen the monotony of the capture and execution of these pathetic fugitives from German custody. The local informers were very reliable.

Helmut Bayer blew on his fingers to warm them, then set the controls on the top of his camera. They had sent him to Köln to collect this Leica, and at the same time take part in a short training course. The modern lightweight camera, with its miniature film in thirty-six exposure cassettes, had been introduced into the military because the small negatives saved valuable film. He was about to use it for the first time -- on official work. Suddenly he could feel the blood draining from his cheeks. He had been guilty of misusing military property. The delectable Monika Schulte in Köln had been too great a temptation to try out the newly acquired equipment. Admittedly, all film was in critically short supply, but leave time was also precious. And hadn't Monika looked so enticing lying on the sofa naked apart from his army jacket, complete with the new Untersturmführer-SS insignia? And then without it.

The first ten exposures on the scarce film were of the delicious Monika. Ten valuable exposures already used up. On leaving their trucks in the valley, Sturmbannführer Kessel had announced his intention to use every one of the thirty-six shots in the Leica -- and spare film was unobtainable. He swallowed hard. The significance of the remark had finally got through.

 

FATHER GUIDO could hear persistent hammering on the old door. The ancient timbers would provide little resistance to such an onslaught. The monastery’s most precious treasure had been hurriedly covered with a mix of plaster and white paint only yesterday, when news came of Germans moving through the area. Father Guido recalled how Brother Antoni had insisted on keeping the sacred surface from the eyes of the profane, before concealing the sacred relic behind the paneling in the library. The youngest brother, for all his wild talk, had somehow foreseen this day of terror.

The remaining treasures, whose importance paled into insignificance in comparison, were already laid almost casually on the table and shelves, in the vain hope that this would divert the Nazis from a fuller search. A sudden explosion was followed by a frantic flutter of wings, as the white doves that normally found peace and solitude within the red stone walls flew upwards in confusion.

Father Guido watched his home for fifty-three years being torn apart. How foolish to think that experts like the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst, the secret intelligence group of the Nazi SS, would be content to take a few religious treasures, but leave the cellars and roof unprobed. Four soldiers were already going through the sacred gold, the silverware and the art treasures for a full inventory.

 

HELMUT BAYER screwed the large flashgun to the bracket on his Leica and accompanied the Sturmbannführer, along with five men armed with MP38s, for a search of the cellars. There were similarities between the soldiers’ machine pistols with their aluminum frames, and his lightweight camera. It was a case of specialist work calling for the latest specialist tools.

A burst of automatic fire through the wine casks sent a shower of wood splinters and splashes of blood red wine across the white walls and ceiling. The effect was immediate. A trembling family stood upright behind the casks.

Kessel turned. “Quickly, Bayer, the camera!” He spoke in Italian now. “If the garbage from the back streets of Rome stay where they are for one moment, we will take a family portrait.”

Helmut pressed the shutter release, and a brilliant flash of light froze the white faces behind the barrels. Then he fired another flash bulb as the family was lined up in height order in front.

“Come, Bayer!” ordered Kessel, making his way quickly towards the small patch of daylight at the top of the stone staircase. “We will see how the inventory is going.”

While the soldiers herded the family into the courtyard, Helmut Bayer accompanied his superior to the somber library. An excited soldier was pulling a large white bust and a small leather box from behind the smashed paneling. The other soldiers rushed forward, obviously hoping to find gold. On seeing the camera the men paused to take up a proud stance. Bayer waited until his leader nodded approval. Another flash bulb flared with a sharp crackle.

The Sturmbannführer bent down to examine the life-size head, expressing surprise at its light weight. “I thought it was stone, but it’s hollow metal. Tell me, Bayer, why would the monks take so much trouble to hide this object?”

Helmut neither knew nor cared. “Because it’s valuable?”

He watched Sturmbannführer Kessel take the head carefully, almost reverently, in his hands. "Oh yes, Untersturmführer Bayer, I believe it could be of considerable value -- to the finder."

 

BROTHER ANTONI stood in the library with his fellow monks, terrified of two soldiers holding their guns at the ready. He felt himself shaking. “Why is God allowing the Germans to touch the holy object, Father? Do they not know it is our Lord?”

“Say nothing more, my son.” Father Guido raised a finger in caution. “The German officer speaks excellent Italian.”

Outwardly Brother Antoni protected himself with the sign of the cross. Inwardly he cursed himself. Perhaps he could call up Divine intervention, some sign of disapproval from heaven; but Divine intervention might be directed against him for speaking too much. It could not be guaranteed to punish the bullying Germans.

He watched the Nazi put the head down, open the leather box, and remove a document to examine it. After several minutes, the officer looked at him, brutal eyes making contact with his own.

“You there! The one they call Antoni. Can you read Latin?”

He felt his head nod involuntarily.

“Excellent. I wish to question you.”

With his heart racing wildly, the young brother became aware of urine running down his legs. The warm liquid seemed to turn to ice as it reached his ankles.

 

IN THE HERB garden an old man was being closely watched. The black monastery cat, well fed and normally unstirred by the monastic life, had been thrown into a state of torment. Obviously terrified by the arrival of the men, it now stared angrily at the elderly intruder of its favorite garden, its tail moving slowly from side to side.

Old Israel Levi found the cat’s presence equally disturbing. He tried to ignore it. The sudden ringing of the monastery bell had surprised him. There was no need to look for the reason. An explosion and raised German voices on the steep path told him everything. He paused to consider his position. He was old, and he was Jewish. There was no future for Jews in Europe. But he had survived the Rome roundup in October, so why give himself up to the Nazis after the ordeal of the past months?

He had chosen to take the part of Moses, leading his family from Rome to the Promised Land -- the Promised Land of Switzerland, whose borders were rumored to be open to Jewish refugees. Someone in the village of Monte Sisto said the Italian-Swiss border had been open since before the start of the Christian New Year. If only they had known; if only they had made this journey a few weeks earlier.

Israel's concern for his own safety turned to horror as he watched the Nazis push his son and daughter-in-law, his daughter and his cherished grandchildren -- and the Brothers who had sheltered them -- into the monastery garden. The soldiers were lining them up against the wall. Of the remaining family, only his rebellious son Angelo was safe, because his desertion to the Christian faith had kept him in Rome.

Two Germans carried the young monk Antoni into the garden and flung him to the ground. His face was swollen, his eyes lost in a mass of blood. The man, once a source of humor at mealtimes, was surely already dead. Some oaf with a camera was fixing up a tripod. Israel crouched motionless beneath the shrubs. There was no mistaking the Nazis’ intention.

The soldiers threw spades towards the monks and ordered them to dig. Meekly they obeyed. It came as no surprise to Israel. He had seen it many times. Faced with death, the people would quietly comply and dig their own graves.

Were they insane?

The Germans continued to bring the monastery’s treasures into the open, but Israel had no doubts that the pit was being made ready for his family, not for the spoils of war. The camera on the tripod had been set to face the high stone wall. The Nazis obviously planned to record their cruelty for posterity.

His youngest grandchild looked round in surprise. “Mamma, Mamma, where’s Grandpapa?”

“Oh, my child! Sssh.”

Israel watched his daughter Nathania place a hand gently but firmly over the offending lips. But she need not have worried. The soldiers probably spoke no more Italian than little Roberto spoke German.

Israel took it as a sign. His family wanted to protect him, even in the face of execution. He could die with them -- or he could stay in hiding. No longer able to lead his family to the Promised Land, he had a duty to escape. One day he would try to tell an unbelieving world.

The senior Nazi seemed especially interested in the large bust that had been covered in a white plaster before being hidden last night by the Brothers. The officer motioned to the soldier with the camera, who shook his head. For a moment there was an angry exchange of words. The camera must have jammed or run out of film. The officer’s voice conveyed trouble in any language.

Israel stared across at the painted head. It was unlike the busts in Rome’s museums but it could be part of a statue. The Brothers said it was the likeness of Jesus the Christ, worshipped by Christians. The German officer was a thief, taking it for his personal gain. Why else had he placed it on the ground with a small leather box, away from the other treasures?

Israel could feel the onset of cramp, but if he moved he knew the Germans would see him. Mercifully the cat had wandered away. A mound of dusty red soil showed just how large a grave was being prepared. The soldiers were ordered to assist the exhausted monks in finishing the deep trench, while an unhappy-looking photographer removed the small camera from the tripod and placed it with the head.

 

MANFRED KESSEL decided it was probably just as well Bayer's film had run out -- before the executions. The Allies now working their way up through Italy would doubtless be more than interested to discover the death of civilians captured on film.

He looked again at the painted head and felt excited. If that frightened monk Antoni was telling the truth in his last moments, this was a vital yet unknown Christian relic. And in the small leather box was a document that the young monk said proved its authenticity. Excellent. His SS group could be trusted to remain silent. After the war he would get it valued and find a wealthy buyer.

The monks were obstinate, and the family was worthless. Execution was not obligatory, and Kessel knew the choice was his. He could take the Jews and monks back to Rome to stand trial, or he could kill every one of them now. It made no sense to fill military trucks with offensive sub-human cargo.

He turned to his armed soldiers, anticipation surging through his chest, and gave the order to fire.

 

THE EXPLOSION of automatic gunshot. The smell and smoke of cordite. Israel Levi put his hands to his ears to block out the sounds of the dying: his son, daughters, grandchildren -- and the monks. Little Roberto caught sight of his grandfather, his Nonno. Before he could call out and run for the safety and comfort of the loving arms he fell, his chest and stomach ripped open by the deadly bullets.

Disfigured flesh and smashed bodies lay in front of the high wall. The Nazis showed no mercy for Italians of any faith caught disobeying orders of the Third Reich.

While the white doves flew anxiously overhead, the soldiers put down their weapons of war and talked while they smoked together as though nothing of importance had happened.

A thirst for revenge filled Israel’s frantic mind. He was literally shaking with rage and remorse. That relic had meant something to the Christian Brothers. Since his arrival at the monastery, he had sensed the sacred value placed on it. To the Brothers, the object had been literally an article of their faith. If only to avenge little Roberto, he must make sure the Nazis would never have it.

He had always thought of himself as indestructible. Surviving had become the only way of life since those terrifying weeks in Rome during the October roundup. He had somehow learned to cope when his wife had been horrifyingly mutilated, and left to die without pity in the Regina Coeli prison.

Taking the Nazi property would be easy. The men were facing away as they filled in the trench. Others continued packing the sacks with their plunder. The officer and the photographer had gone inside, perhaps to make certain they had stripped every wall and cupboard of the Italians’ heritage.

Israel moved forward slowly. Dense cypress trees separated the small herb patch from the monastery garden. One more step would take him into the open. Then, without a care for his own safety he walked forward and picked up the head, the camera, and the leather box.

He hurried from the grounds and down the steep track. When the hillside leveled off he turned onto a faint path towards a small graveyard on a plateau above the olive trees. He had to get back to Rome, to find the son he had not seen for many years. Israel felt a sudden shame. Could he make peace with Angelo at last?

He pulled off his jacket as he reached the road some distance from the Germans’ trucks, and wrapped it round the bronze head. It would be a long and painful walk back to Rome; a long, cold walk without a coat. But the relic must be kept out of sight. This was a holy object, the image of their Christ, and he had just watched men die for it.

Suddenly the flash of an explosion, followed by flames, lit the darkening winter sky. The sound became a roar as it echoed between the stone walls and the bare olive trees. In terror, Israel fell face down onto the frozen soil. These Nazis were evil. Nothing was sacred to them. First the innocent people and now the monastery. This destruction was a senseless act of anger.

Retribution was always without pity.

Chapter 15

Rome

Thursday January 27 1944

ISRAEL MADE HIS exhausted way towards the Ponte Mazzini in the center of Rome. Of all the bridges over the swift-flowing Tiber in the occupied city, this was probably the safest. Anyway, he felt too cold to stand still and take note of his surroundings, and too cold to worry. The January air of the early afternoon was well below freezing, with the wind blowing strongly down the river.

For much of the journey to Rome, soldiers of the German occupying force had driven him in a closed truck. How ironic that they, the supposed master race, had been able to tell that he was Italian, and so offer him a lift as a refugee, yet had not detected that he was also Jewish. His people had always been ready to adapt. Brought to Rome two thousand years ago as slaves by the Caesars -- one hundred thousand Jewish slaves had helped construct buildings like the Colosseum -- his ancestors had quickly learned to blend into the background. It was a trick that always served them well through many periods of persecution. In other parts of Europe the Jews dressed distinctively; but to a German, a Jewish Italian with his trousers on looked just like any other Italian.

The strange metal head lay in a torn khaki bag, given by the soldiers who had joked with him in the truck about the mysterious bundle. They had even shared some of their rations. What had they called him? Israel shook his head. The scarecrow, die Vogelscheue.

He had picked up some exciting news. The Allies had landed at the coast. The German soldiers said they expected the British and Americans to be in Rome at any time. Unseasoned troops like his helpers in the truck were being rushed to defend the Holy City. Their sergeant who spoke Italian had scoffed at the idea, calling this a typical panic response by his chiefs. He predicted a considerable delay while the Allies dug in as they tried to strengthen their positions at Anzio.

Unnoticed by both the Italians and the Germans, Israel made his way along the river to the Via della Conciliazione, the wide street leading to the vast Piazza Santo Pietro. The wind made his eyes water, but in front of him stood the hallmark of his son’s faith: the massive Basilica of Saint Peter.

On the skyline, over the red and amber roof tiles of the city, the insipid blue of the winter sky gave way to a horizon of stark white clouds: a reminder again of the Promised Land he would never reach with his family. Israel felt a desperate desire to escape from this evil world, to be at rest. But his household was already there, getting ready to greet him when his time came.

The German sentries hardly gave a second glance. And why should they? Italians were always coming and going across the white line on the ground that separated the Vatican from the ancient city of Rome. An old woman in black returning from confession said something to him softly, but Israel ignored her. His thoughts were on the intimate ordeal ahead.

It felt strange to be entering the portals of the very faith that had caused him so much pain. Strange too, as a Jew, to be entering a place or worship with his head uncovered. It was many years since he had entered a Christian church. How could he look at the statues that lined the walls? To him, these aids to Christian faith were anathema.

No one came to challenge his presence. Perhaps Christians could wander freely within this vast shrine of shadows, stopping for prayer or meditation whenever they felt the need. A young man wearing the long black cassock of a priest approached briskly, sandals slapping on the marble floor.

Feeling guilty with his bare head, he nodded in the priest’s direction. “I am looking for a young seminarian. His name is … Levi. Angelo Levi.” The words were difficult to form. The name of Angelo had long been banished from his lips. “Do you know where I can find him? It is most urgent.”

The priest nodded in silence, raising a finger and beckoning. A large white marble statue towered high in a side chapel. The crucified Christ, dead, cradled on his mother’s lap. The look on the mother’s face reflected Israel’s anguish. This was the Pietà, which even a Jew could recognize as the famous Michelangelo statue. Israel shook his head. Death, terrible death, followed man every step of his life.

The priest turned, breaking into Israel’s gloom. “You are not, I think, of our faith, old man. If you are seeking protection you must not stay here. Come with me to my humble quarters. My friends can arrange safety for you and your family.”

“My family is already safe from this world.” Israel felt his voice become an involuntary whisper. “Please, I have urgent business with young Levi.”

The priest placed a hand on his shoulder. “He is here at prayer, signore. You must not disturb him.”

A young man sat in the shadow, dressed in a suit of clerical black. Israel ignored the priest and hurried to the dark, narrow bench. “Angelo,” he whispered urgently.

 

THE PRIEST FOUND a discreet position from which to watch. The two men sat beneath a massive Bernini marble monument that reached up into the dark haze of smoke from the few candles the pious could still afford. They flung their arms around each other, embracing with tears in their eyes.

“Father, my papa, forgive me.”

“ My son, my blessed son, it is both God and I who forgive you. Perhaps you will also forgive me, for turning my back on you -- for the things I thought and said."

The priest moved away. He had duties to attend to. To watch for longer would be to intrude. An hour later he passed by again. The two men were now in deep conversation.

 

ISRAEL FELT AT peace. He had delivered the relic in the khaki bag. Wearily he stood to leave.

“Papa, stay here. There’s nowhere for you to go.” Angelo reached up, his voice shaking with emotion. “You won’t be safe on the city streets. You’re a Jew.”

“And how will they know? I have the right papers. Your priests are very good at organizing passes for Jews. My papers will stand the closest scrutiny. The Germans will not recognize me as a son of Abraham.”

Angelo shook his head. “Papa, you once knew the city well, but the streets are more dangerous now. It is not the Germans you have to fear. Our own fascist gangs are skilled at recognizing Jews. Why, even the Jews have turned against each other. Informers are everywhere, watching from every doorway and window.”

Israel’s tears had made his nose run. He sniffed. “Nonsense.”

Angelo shifted uneasily on the hard seat. “That Jewish prostitute girl, Di Porto, they call her the Black Panther. She’s betrayed so many. And the Koch Fascists are growing more powerful and dangerous. There are Christian priests you cannot trust any more. Be careful; be very careful, when you go onto the streets. And remember the curfew. It’s all so different now, Papa. Please, let me fix it for you to stay here in the Vatican. We are the only two left in our family, and we need each other.”

Israel hesitated, feeling for the Leica and the small leather box concealed under his jacket. The parchment from the box was in the sack with the head. They belonged together. “I shall be back, Angelo. There are things I have to sell. I cannot allow you to provide for me; I have been too full of hatred. And if I do not return, make sure you guard that sacred treasure. The monks told me it represents the face of your Jesus, who you call the Christ.”

The sack lay half open on Angelo’s lap. Israel realized his son had only glanced at the contents. It was natural. Even a holy relic must take second place to this long overdue reunion. He smiled wryly at the sight of Angelo sitting within the safety of this house of God, then he slipped out into the streets of the Rome that had been his home before the Germans came.

His first visit to a jeweler friend was unsuccessful. The abandoned property showed signs of recent looting. He must find Ben-ami Rossetti and his family, including his attractive daughter, who lived in an apartment in a twisting vicolo near here … unless the Nazis had arrested them for transportation to Germany.

The apartment was empty, the Rossetti family gone, their rooms stripped of every piece of furniture. So many families had disappeared last October.

Israel knew that the curfew had been brought forward by one hour. Anti-Nazi partisans were bombing and assassinating German soldiers in the very heart of the city. Bicycles were banned. It was too easy for these enemies of the Nazis to slip in and out of military areas with small bombs, leaving death and devastation in their wake.

Any person found on the streets after five o’clock would be arrested instantly. Israel shrugged. It was probably all so much bluff, and no one would pay attention. He felt the chill strike through his thin clothing. Things seemed different today. The work places and shops were deserted, the citizens hurrying to the safety of their homes before coprifuoco, curfew.

Two hours after leaving the safety of Saint Peter’s, at five-fifteen, Israel was horrified to find the streets completely empty. Outlined against the damp cobbles he felt exposed. He stood anxiously on the corner of the Via di Monserrato and the Piazza Farnese.

A German soldier noticed him on the corner of the deserted piazza. As Israel was knocked to the ground and kicked, the Leica camera bearing the insignia of the Third Reich fell from his jacket.

With the gun pressing into his back, he rose painfully and stumbled ahead of the soldier to be pushed into the back of a truck and taken through the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano and into the narrow Via Tasso. The darkness amplified his fear. Here was the most terrifying address in the whole of Rome, a modern square block building -- Number 145, the Gestapo barracks and prison, filled with unlit cells where torture and death were rumored to be as routine as eating and sleeping.

 

STURMBANNFÜHRER Kessel insisted on interviewing the trembling Jew. The Leica, stolen at the monastery, was easy to identify -- and so was the small leather box.

“ We must all hope the camera is undamaged." The Sturmbannführer signaled to one of the guards. "Take this to Untersturmführer Bayer. Tell him to check it for a film -- and process what he finds. Now!

As the guard sprang forward, Kessel turned his attention to the figure crouching naked on the bare marble floor. "You will tell me, old man, exactly what you have done with the holy relic." He kicked at the frail ribs. "And tell me where the document has gone from the leather box -- pig!

It might be a childish pleasure, but he enjoyed watching the Jew writhe.

 

WITHIN AN HOUR, Israel became too weak to cry for mercy. Degraded and broken, he had watched others go through this, and no one survived. No one was meant to survive.

Sobbing with the agony of torture, he thanked God that the Christian relic was safe with his son in Saint Peter’s. Safe with Angelo, the son who had deserted the faith, but seemed to worship a God of love. And if there was any love at all in God, and many of his fellow Jews wanted to know if God was sleeping, then perhaps the Christians who risked their lives to shelter Jews were somehow in touch with him.

Whatever the pain, whatever the degradation, he would stay silent. Fear of death would not make him tell the animal Kessel where he had taken that holy relic from the monastery at Monte Sisto.

Tied naked to an iron bar on the wall, the cold and the pain at last became too great. The Vatican, yes, he would admit that the Vatican now had the relic. But the name of Angelo, the son with whom he had finally been reunited, was too precious to pass between the gaps in his teeth and his bleeding lips.

 

MANFRED KESSEL knew he had extracted all he could expect from such a feeble sample of the Jewish race. So, the obstinate fool either did not know who he had given it to, or he would not tell. Not that it mattered. The Vatican feared the German powers and would be only too relieved to return the item -- once he had applied enough pressure. Applying pressure on the Vatican would not be easy, but it could be done. He went to his rooms in the adjoining SS SD headquarters and left the old man to die.

At five-thirty the next morning the guard looked into the cell, cut free the ice-cold body, and began to hose the blood and excrement from the floor.

Kessel had too many worries on his mind to supervise the disposal of the corpse. He gave instructions for it to be taken, with two others, to the Regina Coeli. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Those left-wing Gapists were causing too much trouble in the streets with their terrorist tactics. The Communists had always been trouble, and Mussolini had let his people down by tolerating such violation of freedom in the years leading up to the war. On top of that, the dolt Bayer claimed that his camera had run out because the film was shorter than the standard length. The idiot accused the suppliers at Köln of cutting short lengths from the large rolls they received from Dresden. Could it be true? Probably not. The Untersturmführer seemed unhappy when ordered to send his film to headquarters for examination.

The coveted prize was slipping away fast. The old Jew had taken it to someone in Saint Peter’s. If he had just one clear photograph of the relic it would be much easier to confront the Vatican officials and claim it back. The single sheet of Latin parchment had gone from the small leather box. He tried to recall the translation the monk had read out to him at the monastery. The document was clearly several hundred years old. It told of a sacred head from a statue of Christ seen by the writer Eusebius, sent as a gift to a monastery by Donato Bramante. And that untermenschlich Jew had stolen the head and the document.

He walked back to his quarters at number 155 in the Via Tasso in the early evening, full of regret that he had let the old man die so easily. Who was this Eusebius? Probably an ancient historian. Surely the great libraries in Rome would have information on so important a relic. Wearily he climbed the white marble staircase and went towards his rooms.

He turned at the sound of female footsteps. The woman coming down the stairs from the next floor with her small son had been fascinating him for some weeks. A cleaner in the Via Tasso headquarters, the attractive brunette seemed curiously out of place in these squalid surroundings, where nearly every room had been turned into a hastily converted cell. Kessel smiled. She should be serving aristocratic customers in Berlin, in a Ku’damm department store, not cleaning this hellhole in Rome. Her supple body in the cheap black dress aroused him every time she passed. With his parents dead, and with no brothers or sisters, the family line would die out unless he found a wife soon. Not this woman, of course. She was Italian, and probably no better than a tramp. He called her from the doorway of his room.

“Frau Renata!”

The woman paused before obeying the beckoning finger of authority. “Signora Renata,” she corrected politely but firmly.

In his mind Kessel undressed the woman and liked what he saw. “Signora Renata,” he said with a smile, “we need to talk.”

 

RENATA BASTIANI felt the grip of fear. Was this merely a sexual advance, or had she been found out at last? Seeing her husband clubbed to death by soldiers at the railway station had been ordeal enough, but now she was terrified of losing her son. Yet she was a fighter, or she would not have sought work -- the only work available that enabled her to care for her son -- right here in the lions' den.

“The boy,” said the officer in a composed voice. “I want you to take down his trousers.”

Keep away from him!” Renata was amazed that in her fear she could shout so loudly. This man was a pervert. “You bring me in here to abuse a four-year-old?” Such behavior was beyond her understanding.

She watched the German officer shake his blond head. “Signora, please calm yourself. You know, and I know, that you have a secret. Surely you do not deny that the boy is Jewish?”

No more than a gasp passed Renata’s lips.

“And you perhaps are Jewish, too? Ah yes, it is as I thought. Well now, Signora Renata, I am left with no alternative but to turn you and your son over to the Regina Coeli authorities.”

“Oh, God, no!” Renata knew the Regina Coeli, the notorious Roman prison where the Nazis kept Jews and other unwanted citizens before shipping them by cattle truck to northern Europe. Some said they were being used to fuel the Führer’s furnaces. Regina Coeli, the Queen of Heaven. What in the name of God had the world come to?

The arrogant Nazi smiled. “Of course, signora, such a move may not be necessary. But if it is, be sure you will first tell us the names and addresses of anyone in your family we may have missed.”

Renata knew what to expect now. She could not hide her Jewishness. This German devil definitely did not have his eye on her son.

A smartly dressed soldier came hurrying up the stairs, his boots echoing loudly on the marble. It was no use appealing to him, a mere private, even if he were simpatico. The man held some photographs. “Untersturmführer Bayer sends these, sir. The monastery you visited today.”

The officer snatched at them. "Ah yes, the stupid monastery at Monte Sisto. I'm busy for the next hour. Put the photographs on my desk, then find me the relic, soldier -- and that's an order!"

But as the soldier bent down to pick up the prints thrown angrily to the floor, the officer's mood suddenly changed again. He smiled reassuringly at Renata. "Come, signora, I have my quarters here. You will have to be good, very good indeed -- if you want to save your boy."

The room seemed to be a study, with a door at the far end leading to a smaller room with a steel bed. A long ornamental dagger rested temptingly below a row of books on the desk. The officer turned his back.

Renata moved forward to snatch the knife and end her torment. She knew how to kill a man. The Gapist freedom fighters had taught her how to deal with the Nazi invaders. A sharp knife like this could cause a quick death -- or, with skill, a slow one. She would be out of the building with little Bruno before the alarm was raised, and away into the safety of the city. The Sturmbannführer turned as she reached out her hand.

“Come!” he said, his eyes bright with lust.

For nearly an hour, Renata feigned so much pleasure that the officer told her, breathlessly, he was surprised he could get so much enjoyment from a Jew. From the study, through the gap in the partially open door, Renata caught a glimpse of four-year-old Bruno watching with uncomprehending terror.

While the German dressed, he explained he had a most important letter to write, but for the sake of her son, she must be sure to be available the next evening.

“Come straight here after your other work. You have two duties to attend to now. One to these buildings of the Third Reich, and one to this Sturmbannführer of the Third Reich!”

The man began to straighten his jacket in front of the full-length mirror. Renata watched through her tears as the German threw back his head and laughed. “Tomorrow, signora.”

She turned away, nausea sweeping through her body. One day she would end this man’s evil existence. And she would do it with a knife.

*

LETTER TO LUIGI CARDINAL MAGLIONE VATICAN SECRETARY OF STATE

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL

It has come to the attention of the SS Sicherheitsdienst in Rome that on Thursday 27 January an unidentified member of the Vatican staff illegally took possession of an ancient bronze head belonging to the newly formed Department of Treasures and Antiquities of the Third Reich.

As senior officer investigating this case, I must ask that the property is returned to my care immediately. Complete confidentiality between us in this matter is essential. I need hardly add that the Führer’s proposals to move the Vatican to Germany may well be influenced in Rome’s favor by the fullest co-operation of the Vatican with the German powers.

MANFRED KESSEL,

STURMBANNFÜHRER-SS, SS SD, ROME.

*

LETTER TO STURMBANNFÜHRER KESSEL

155 VIA TASSO, ROME

The appropriate members of the Vatican Council have read your unexpected and abrupt communication. I can give you an absolute assurance that no relic or item such as the bronze head you describe has recently come into the possession of the Vatican. His Holiness Pope Pius XII is, however, concerned by the implications of your letter, which he sees as a serious breach of etiquette.

The Vatican Council is unaware of the Department you claim to represent. Baron Ernst Von Weizsäcker, the German ambassador to the Holy See, has been informed, with a request to investigate the existence of such a Department. He will no doubt also be interested in the clear threat you have made. Your senior officer has been informed and his Holiness trusts that appropriate action will be taken.

MONSIGNOR GIOVANNI BATTISTA MONTINI

VATICAN SOSTITUTO SECRETARY OF STATE

*

Twelve hours after an ashen faced Kessel received this reply, he was killed by a Gapist bomb thrown at a group of soldiers outside the Gestapo block in the Via Tasso, and thus saved from the imminent interview with his Oberstgruppenführer for abusing military authority. The Communist resistance were still able to fight the fascists.

Untersturmführer Helmut Bayer was also spared a military inquiry for, on hearing of his Sturmbannführer's sudden death, he rolled up the offending film and placed it at the back of his locker. Perhaps the world would pass him by. When he had made a set of prints of his delicious Monika he would destroy the negatives -- if there was no more talk of an inquiry. As with so many of life's intentions, he was the first to admit that this one was likely to be quickly forgotten. And after the war, if he returned to the rubble of Köln, and if the seductive Monika Schulte agreed to become the respectable Monika Bayer, he would probably still have the film somewhere in his possession.

 

RENATA BASTIANI was waiting in the Sturmbannführer’s room for the officer to arrive, so she could act out her loathsome duties. For the last three sessions, the guards had allowed her to leave Bruno in the room below. While the German had taken his pleasure each night, she watched and planned, desperate to make good her promise to end the man’s life.

When the explosion from the Gapist bomb shook the windows, and she could clearly see the reason for the commotion in the narrow street outside, she snatched a bundle of papers from the table. Sturmbannführer Kessel had been busy with his writing over the last few days. Perhaps these pages contained information of value to her anti-fascist friends. She bitterly regretted not being the one to end the man’s life. It would have been justice for the disgusting assaults on her body.

She collected Bruno and slipped through the confusion caused by the bomb, away from the Via Tasso and into the unlit Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. In the distance, gunfire from the coast lit the night sky in bright flashes. For a moment she paused to watch. The British and the Americans were somewhere over there, getting ready for their advance on Rome. That is where she would go. There might be safety for a young widow with the liberators.

*

Anzio

Two weeks later

SERGEANT JACK Gilroy had seen enough of the British army for the day. He pulled his collar high against the cold as he made his way into the wreckage of the coastal town for a night out with a few mates. There was talk of a push forward to Rome any day now. On the edge of town he came to a bar he already knew well. In spite of the building suffering extensive shell damage, the owner continued to trade. Gilroy and his fellow soldiers were already singing. All they lacked were wine and women.

By the boarded window he spotted a sad figure in black occupying a single seat in the darkened bar. An attractive dark-haired woman, she had obviously drunk too much and was surely in need of money -- and comfort. Sergeant Gilroy reckoned he could help her by paying for services rendered. He told his friends to count him out of their plans.

Later that evening he walked with the woman to her makeshift apartment in a gutted building. She told him to be quiet so as not to wake the boy sleeping on the mat in the corner. On an old blanket on the bare floor, Sergeant Gilroy shared a bottle of cheap brandy with her and had his money’s worth.

 

THE NEXT MORNING, Renata Bastiani woke to stare in horror at the old blanket. Bruno was still asleep on his mat. She crawled over to him and ran her fingers through his hair. Memories of the British soldier were vague but vivid. The room smelt of sweat and stale cigarette smoke. The air froze her body, but she was too sickened by what had happened to use the blanket for warmth. Men were disgusting, wanting only one thing. Perhaps it was not too late to change her ways. From now on, she would live her life with no sex and no drink. She would raise Bruno with love.

In April the doctor examined her and told her she was pregnant.

 

 

 

The Present

Chapter 16

Monte Sisto

The present

COME AND READ this sign on the wall.” Laura’s voice made a welcome interruption.

Shutting the terror of the past from his mind, Marco walked over to join her. “What does it say?”

“The bodies from the massacre were removed in nineteen forty-six.” She flapped some large flies away. “I know where they took the Jews for burial. There’s a memorial for them in Rome. It’s solid concrete. No one could get inside to look. I don’t know what happened to the Christian monks. If the relic isn’t here, maybe Canon Levi hid it where the monks are buried.”

Marco nodded. “I can get Father Josef looking into what happened to the bodies. There must be church records.”

Laura sounded furious. “You’re not still keeping in touch with that old priest! Does he … have you … told him about us?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Marco. “What’s my work for Father Josef got to do with you?”

“You don’t understand,” protested Laura. “It’s obvious the tragedy at Monte Sisto hasn’t affected you.”

Marco put his arm on her shoulder. “I’ve no first hand experience of what the Nazis did. Have you?”

Laura stood with her head resting in her hands. She pushed his arm away. Suddenly she wiped her eyes with her sleeve, and her eyes seemed to blaze with anger. "Eight thousand Jews died in Italy in the war. Six million Jews died all over Europe -- killed by madmen in the Third Reich. How would you feel, Marco, if they'd killed your family?”

Marco shook his head. “You sound as though you lost yours.”

“Do I?” Laura sat down heavily on the dry grass, choking on her tears. “You know nothing about me, Marco. Nothing at all. I'll tell you why I want to be here. My family died at this monastery. Aunts, uncles -- I never knew any of them. It was my grandfather who took the relic back to Rome. Canon Angelo was my father!

Chapter 17

Via Nazionale

KESSEL FELT EXHILARATED. After spending the morning in the central library, sorting through fragmented records of the German military stationed in Rome, he’d unearthed the names of several soldiers who had been part of a Schutzstaffel regiment, including his father, Manfred Kessel. Young Karl’s father, Rüdi, had always said a photographer would have accompanied an expedition to recover valuables, and one man on the list filled the bill exactly. Untersturmführer Helmut Bayer, a photographer stationed in Rome between 1943 and 1944 with the SS SD.

When he used the library computer to do a web search for professional photographers and visual arts technicians in Germany, he found the name Bayer. Otto Bayer of Köln.

An Internet directory showed Otto Bayer, a photographer, and Helmut and Monika Bayer, sharing the same address in a small town a few miles north east of Köln. Otto Bayer. It was a bit of a long shot, but the son of a photographer might follow his father’s profession. If this Helmut Bayer was the wartime photographer, he would probably remember a bronze head being recovered from behind smashed wooden paneling, and know where the monastery was.

He returned to the hotel to find Karl on the bed, playing with his home-made dagger while watching a children’s cartoon in Italian.

“Nothing,” said Karl, nodding towards the set.

“The news channel!” Kessel snatched the controller and pressed the button. “We have to know what’s on TV Roma.”

Karl laughed loudly. “I don’t speak the language, Herr Kessel. Anyway, you seem pleased with yourself.”

Kessel pushed Karl’s legs to one side to make room on the end of the bed. “It looks as though our man is called Bayer.” He was beginning to wonder if Karl’s father had been deliberately lax in not discovering the name, when he had done his own investigation some years ago. Of course Rüdi had not been well, but ill health had not prevented him making incredible plans for the future of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung; or to be more accurate, receiving incredible plans through strange visions. What a shame Rüdi had not devoted more time to preparing for that future.

“The world wide web is our friend, Karl. Your father and I couldn’t see the Internet coming, but Phönix plans to use it to tell the world to come and see his head of Hitler.”

“You mean it will be on public display?” Karl was picking his ear. “How can he do that without the German Polizei locking him up?”

“First he’ll put a page on the Internet to say the remains of Hitler’s skull will be shown somewhere in Germany, but not where. Think of it, Karl. Our friends in the American Identity movement will come over, and I can see at least a thousand activists arriving from each European country. Thousands of hard-line supporters arriving in Germany hoping to see the Führer’s head. Ten thousand minimum. But when I add the head of Jesus Christ we would draw maybe … ten times that figure.”

“A million,” said Karl, working out the sum on his fingers.

“A hundred thousand, Karl. But there could be over a million when people realize the authorities are preventing them from seeing the exact likeness of Christ. Racial purity is a powerful magnet for our cause. Over half of Germany supports racial purity. The same goes for most northern European countries.”

“Sounds like Phönix needs you,” said Karl, with what might be a note of admiration.

“He’s just not thinking big enough in only wanting the head of the Führer. You’re right, Karl, Phönix needs me. The press will be reporting the Shrine worldwide by the time our supporters are flocking into Germany. Then we use the Internet to tell them to come to Berlin. Finally, we give the exact location.”

“And the Polizei will be there waiting.”

“So they will, Karl, and a million people who see things our way will overwhelm them. There will be shootings; martyrs. That will encourage even more of our supporters to come out into the open. Ten million? Twenty? You know what Hitler called the burning of the Reichstag in nineteen thirty-three?”

“A sign from heaven.”

“And he put the blame on the Communists. The fighting in the streets of Berlin will provide exactly the result we’re looking for. It will demonstrate to the world that we have a peaceful, religious aim, and everyone will see that it is the immigrants and left wingers who are intolerant. They’ll get the blame for the trouble, and it will be like the destruction of the Reichstag all over again. The people will demand a new leader.”

“It won’t be you, I hope.”

“Phönix, Karl.” He ignored the sarcasm. “When you know the identity of Phönix you’ll understand why he’s Europe’s man for the Third Millennium.”

“So what do we do now, Herr Kessel?” Karl seemed to be showing some interest at last.

“I’m about to phone the Bayers in Köln, and inquire if Helmut was down here in the war.”

He picked up the phone and dialed the number he had copied from the website directory.

A man’s voice answered. “I am Otto Bayer,” he said in response to Kessel’s question. “Ja, my father was in Italy in the war. I forget which unit. He is old and frail now. Why do you want to speak to him?”

“I have some questions I’d like to ask.”

“Not now,” said the man called Otto. “My father is resting. I will ask him if is convenient for you to phone later.”

Karl was standing close enough to the phone to overhear the conversation and he shook his head vigorously. “We’ll go and see them, Herr Kessel. If you frighten the old man on the phone he’ll tell you nothing. But don’t let him know we’re coming.”

Kessel realized that by leaving Rome he would be out of the reach of Phönix and the senior members of ADR for a few days. Any time now they'd be contacting him to demand an explanation as to why he'd become involved with TV Roma. But as soon as he had the relic -- the real one this time -- he would be the one to call the tune.

The photographer had still not returned to the phone. Kessel replaced the receiver. “Very good, Karl. You’re being helpful all of a sudden. We’ll get the next train north and pay Herr Bayer a surprise visit.”

The youth was balancing his knife on one finger. He flicked it high into the air and caught it by the ornate handle. “I want to get back to Germany, Herr Kessel. I hate Rome.”

 

IN HIS CAR across the street, Bruno Bastiani punched the air triumphantly. He pulled the lightweight headphones from his head and ran a comb through his dyed, thinning hair. The transmitters were digital, sophisticated and performed superbly. Many of Rome’s famous names had unwittingly broadcast their most intimate conversations through his carefully placed bugs.

He glanced at his watch. Köln. It would mean an afternoon flight to get to the Bayers’ home in Köln first, but no one stayed ahead in the press game by sitting on their backsides. Enzo’s train wouldn’t arrive in Germany until early tomorrow morning. His half-brother was the slow fool he’d always been. But how did the Bayer family in Köln fit into the picture? Were there to be more flies for their web?

 

TEN MINUTES later, Kessel came back into the room. “Get your things, Karl!” he shouted. “I’ve settled the bill, and our train leaves in forty minutes.”

Karl grinned to himself. Herr Kessel was boasting that he’d tracked some old photographer to Köln. Bonn, Frankfurt, Köln: did it really matter? Anywhere on the Rhine would do, with plenty of good German food. Even one of the Ruhr cities would be better than this disintegrating dump. It could only have been for strategic reasons that Germany occupied Italy in the war.

“Hurry up, Karl!”

Karl Bretz pulled the bedroom door shut for the last time. He was glad to be seeing the back of this stuffy room that was no bigger than a cupboard, and be returning to civilization. Rome was much too hot for anyone with even half a brain.

“Karl!”

He refused to be hurried. The Central Station was only a few minutes away. But perhaps the sooner they were on the train, the sooner they could get back to civilization.

“Coming, Herr Kessel.”

 

THE JOURNEY TO Germany seemed long, just as it had on the way down, with the economy class seats still short on support. Kessel constantly shifted his position but was unable to get comfortable. The only good news was that as the evening, and then the night wore tediously on, they would be getting closer to der Vaterland -- the Fatherland.

He felt in his pocket for the notebook holding the photograph. The creased picture, showing an SS group beside broken wooden paneling, still obsessed him. When he was ten, he had found it in a drawer in his mother’s dressing table, along with some German papers she had snatched from his father’s room when he was murdered by the Gapists in the Via Tasso. On the back, the man who must be his father had written in German: Soldiers holding the bronze head of the statue of Jesus Christ, seen by Eusebius. My property stolen from me by a Jew and taken to the Vatican. When she realized what he had found, his mother became so angry that she screamed at him. He could still hear the scream now.

“Where’s that monastery, Karl?”

The big skinhead was almost asleep. Other passengers had been giving the boy distasteful glances ever since boarding the train in Rome, and frankly his looks were an embarrassment right now.

“What, Herr Kessel?”

“ If only we could go back eighteen years to the death of Canon Levi." Kessel realized he might as well be talking to himself. "That man did something with my father's property just before he agreed to sell it to us. The problem is, I wouldn't recognize that bronze head if it was staring me in the face. It probably isn't painted white any more. If the picture was clearer I'd have a better idea of what I'm looking for. The bronze head you wrecked at TV Roma was rubbish. I'm thinking that the Canon probably gave the real one back to the monks -- but I don't know where to find the monastery."

Karl shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes again. “I’m sure you’re right, Herr Kessel.”

Kessel looked across at the sleeping youth. It didn't matter that Rüdi's son had not been listening. Just talking aloud had brought the truth home to him -- if he had no idea where the genuine relic was hidden, neither did the Vatican.

Chapter 18

Germany

KÖLN STATION, at eight o’clock on a damp summer morning, was pure hospitality. The people, the announcements in German, even the posters seemed to Kessel to be here specially to make him feel welcome, like long-lost friends on a reunion.

“We’ll find an Imbiss for breakfast, Karl.” He spoke in a subdued voice. “Then we’ll get down to business.”

He took his time eating local rye bread with cold meat and gherkins, laughing and talking loudly. A German needed to eat German food and to be seen enjoying it. The rain descended in a cloud of heavy drizzle, sending streams of invigorating water down the window panes of the small snack-bar: a welcome change from the dryness of Rome.

A taxi would normally be out of the question, but with the possibility of success looming closer, Kessel indulged himself.

The tall, balding man at the photographic studio looked to be in his early fifties: too young to be Helmut, but the right age for a son.

Ja, I am Otto Bayer,” he said cautiously in answer to Kessel’s inquiries. “We were expecting you to phone again, not to call here in person. So, you think my father served in the army in Italy in the war?”

“Where is he? I must… I’d quite like to see him.” Kessel realized he was sounding a little too eager, and slowed down.

“You know him?”

“I believe my father did, Herr Bayer. They almost certainly served together in Italy.”

The small reception area to the photographic studio was hung with ornately framed photographs of wedding couples, laughing children, and formidable business men in dark suits sitting grim faced against somber library backgrounds. Advertisements for German films, German photo chemicals and German photographic equipment were spaced in carefully controlled order. The area showed the meticulous touch of an over-efficient woman.

“Then you must meet my father, Herr Kessel. He got through the war unscathed. His illness now is quite unconnected. You will excuse me for not being able to recall the exact details of his military service, but if your father also served in the same regiment you will understand the reason for that lapse of memory.” The tall, bespectacled man gave the slightest of bows, which Kessel took as a mark of respect towards his father. Mention of the Defense Echelon, the SS, was still taboo. “Quite a popular man all of a sudden. Is there some wartime reunion being planned?”

“Not that I know of.” Kessel shrugged his shoulders, anxious to meet Helmut Bayer.

“Well, you will have to come up. He is unable to use the stairs any more. Mother is up there with him. Her name is Monika. Did you know her?”

Kessel shook his head. Seen in the studio mirror, his blond hair was turning to gray now, but it was unmistakably still fair. Maybe he should have it tinted. “I don’t even know your father, but I think he may recognize me.”

The significance behind this statement was apparently lost on Otto Bayer. “Follow me,” he said curtly. He slipped the catch to the entrance door before leading the way up a steep flight of stairs to the apartment above the studio.

“Someone to see you, Papa. He says you know his father.”

“Sturmbannführer Kessel!” The shriveled man in the wheelchair attempted to stand. “Sturmbannführer Kessel! After all these years…”

The elderly woman who had risen as they entered the darkened room, restrained the old man from trying to lift himself from the seat. “Helmut, Helmut,” she admonished him. “You must not exert yourself.”

Kessel hardly gave Frau Bayer a glance. He felt elated. His mother had once mentioned an English soldier in Anzio. To be confused with his father was the confirmation he needed. Someone who had known his father thought they were the same person. A tremendous feeling like an electric shock coursed through his body. It was true! It was absolutely true!

Of course that English soldier in Anzio had not been his father. Why had his mother even mentioned him, in a moment of sharing a great load of guilt? He’d been stupid to even entertain the possibility. Rüdi’s finger had pointed at him in the hospital. He was a real German, with a prophetic destiny. The confirmation was sensational.

“I am Monika,” explained the woman. “You must excuse my husband, he gets muddled at times. I think it is the staying indoors so much that aggravates the problem. We are not able to get out much, as we cannot carry him down the narrow stairs with the wheelchair.”

Kessel could think of nothing to say to that. What a pathetic ending for a member of the SS. He recalled how the old soldier had confused him with his father, and the thought buoyed him up.

“I can excuse the mistake, Frau Bayer. My father and I are very much alike in looks. He would have been a little younger than me when your husband knew him.” His voice swelled with pride as he spoke. A pride of overwhelming intensity.

A pity they didn’t open the curtains wider. It was gloomy in the apartment, and damp smelling. If he lived here he would open both the curtains and the window, in spite of the rain. He was repelled by an overpowering medicinal odor: some sort of embrocation or liniment. No wonder the old soldier was going demented.

Helmut Bayer was more capable than his wife seemed to realize. He had only been taking his time in thinking. “Of course you cannot be the Sturmbannführer. Sturmbannführer Kessel was killed outside his lodgings in the Via Tasso. Good thing too. Never did like the man.”

Monika Bayer seized the initiative, using her tact to save an embarrassing situation from becoming worse. “You are getting muddled again, Helmut dear. You always spoke highly of your Sturmbannführer. This is his son. He has come specially to see you.”

Helmut Bayer, his cheeks shrunken and his limbs wasting away, obviously understood the meaning in his wife’s carefully pronounced words. He agreed that he had indeed been thinking of someone else, allowing Kessel to introduce himself formally.

Kessel shook the gaunt hand gently and began his carefully prepared speech. “It is a privilege, Untersturmführer Bayer. It is indeed an honor to shake a former member of the SS Sicherheitsdienst by the hand. To think that these very hands were favored with military service for the Reich.”

Helmut Bayer’s delicate body shook with mirth and Monika joined with him. Otto sided with Karl in appearing to miss the joke.

“I was a photographer,” explained Helmut, while his wife dabbed tears from his sunken eyes. “All the shooting I ever did was with my camera!”

Kessel felt obliged to join in with the stupid laughter, but when sufficient time had elapsed to get to the point of his visit, he said, “It is for that reason I have come to see you, Herr Bayer. I want to ask about a monastery that you raided during the war.”

“There were plenty of those.” Suddenly there was no merriment on the shriveled face. “I lost count of just how many we searched by the time we had to get out of Italy. Thirty, forty, as well as schools and churches. God, I regret it all now.”

“I am part of an official organization, working for the German and Italian governments.” Kessel hoped this carefully fabricated statement would not be questioned. “Shortly before the death of my father he came upon a monastery with a relic of a bronze head. Do you remember?”

“ Remember?" Helmut sighed. "Your father threatened to have me shot. Do you know, someone stole that thing -- and my lovely camera -- from right under our noses? The Sturmbannführer wanted a close-up photograph of the head, but I had already used too much of the film -- on Monika here!" The sickly man gave his wife an intimate look that told of the closeness that still existed after many years of marriage.

“Can you remember what the head looked like?”

“It was painted white,” said the old man after a moment’s thought.

“But can you describe it to me?” asked Kessel impatiently.

“All I can remember is that it was white.”

Kessel could have rung the scrawny neck, but his anger must not show. He had spent too long teaching self-control at the Total Training weekends to fail here. “Perhaps you took more photographs, Herr Bayer? Do you still have any as souvenirs?”

“I have the film!”

Otto intervened, sounding almost guilty. “Do not be silly, Papa.”

Helmut Bayer appeared weak and confused. “I had it last night.”

Otto Bayer tucked the blanket round the bony shoulders. “I think you must have been dreaming again, Father.”

“Dreaming? It is all so confusing, you know.”

Kessel produced his treasured photograph from between the pages of his notebook. “Is this one of yours, Untersturmführer Bayer?”

Helmut’s thin hands snatched it eagerly. The broad-bordered print obviously brought back memories. “Yes, yes, it is not the standard military print format. I took it with my new Leica. A model IIIc I believe. Thirty-five millimeter film. The first thirty-five-millimeter film I used for the army. It was all roll-film and glass plates for us before that, but there was not enough emulsion to spare for large negatives. See those wide borders; I did not have an enlarger set up for the miniature negatives from that first film. Sub-miniature we called it at the time. I remember doing it in a hurry specially for you in … in the Via Tasso.”

Monika Bayer smoothed his hair. “Now, now, Helmut, you are getting mixed up again. It was this man’s father.”

Kessel turned to examine the gloomy room. His own father, had he been spared the war, would be even older than Helmut Bayer. He had desperately wanted to see his father, a desire that obsessed him through his growing years. It seemed he’d been a fool. To watch his father become such a wretched, useless member of the Fatherland would have sickened him.

Kessel retrieved the photograph from the bent fingers. It was his only evidence and he did not intend to let the Bayer family keep it as a memento. “Can you remember what happened to this painted head?”

“Perhaps I never knew. Just a monastery on a hill, and Christian monks and Jews inside with fear in their eyes. We blew it up, to teach the local community a lesson in co-operation. But I thought I had the negatives…”

Quite unexpectedly Otto appeared eager to take a more prominent part in the conversation. “Herr Kessel, my father is finding sleep difficult with all the pain. He needs rest. There is no point in reviving these memories. Come downstairs with me. I must return to my studio. Business is slow and I do not care to leave the door locked during the day.”

Kessel and Otto Bayer descended the narrow staircase towards fresh air with Kessel holding firmly to the handrail in the semi-darkness. “Do you want to tell me something confidential, Herr Bayer?” He tried to sound hopeful, to prompt an affirmative reply from Otto.

“If you want to know more about your photograph, Herr Kessel, then I can help you, yes. One of your friends called here only yesterday evening.”

“A friend?”

Otto shrugged. "An Italian. He also wanted to know if my father could remember about a monastery -- a monastery where the Sicherheitsdienst found some special relic.”

Kessel stared at Otto but said nothing. He could feel his heart pumping.

“Herr Kessel, would you believe my father still had negatives of your monastery put away with his wartime souvenirs? Your print was made from one of those negatives. Some years ago, I found a roll of processed thirty-five millimeter film from his time with the military, but I didn’t bother to examine it.”

The silence in the small reception area was broken only by the snap of the latch as Otto reopened for business.

“Your father had negatives?” asked Kessel. Bad news was surely about to follow the good.

“ I told you, Herr Kessel, one of your colleagues called yesterday. He flew up from Rome. He talked for over an hour, and I remembered my father's roll of film. There were several photographs of my mother wearing nothing. Completely naked. My, she knew how to pose -- if you understand my meaning. Perhaps you would like to see them?"

Kessel drew away in horror at the thought that this man could leer at pictures of his mother stripped for the camera. The porn films he and Rüdi had bought and sold had been for the ADR, and at the time left him unmoved. Maybe he had become prudish, but this was close and it was personal. He should have been aware that something was wrong. The whole atmosphere in the building seemed unhealthy.

He wanted to get out into the street, into the open air. At least he was normal, although by choice he had never started an intimate relationship with a woman. It had been necessary to put all thoughts of sex from his mind as he grew into manhood. The chance of a child with Italian looks, or worse still with Jewish looks, was too high for a man with Aryan blood in his veins to risk. A life devoted to serving the ADR, devoid of sex outside his own hands, had been the outlet for his creative energy.

“Your Italian friend only wanted the negatives of the monastery, Herr Kessel. I am, of course, extremely grateful to him for bringing the film to light again.” Otto smiled, showing a row of regular, white teeth.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” Without waiting for permission, Kessel sat on an upright red velvet chair below a pin-sharp color photograph of a Bavarian castle. Otto Bayer was not to be trusted. “Let me get this straight. Your father had kept the negatives from which this photograph was printed?”

“He was not supposed to, but things were chaotic towards the end of the war.”

“And you’ve given them to an Italian!” Kessel interrupted the photographer deliberately, not even trying to conceal his contempt.

“Only the military ones. I think he wants them for publication. He was very generous, and my father needs the money much more than he needs a roll of old film.”

“Your father signed a contract?”

Otto remained silent for a moment. “It was cash in hand, and I am looking after the money for the moment. Of course I will bank it for Papa soon, but I do not want him to know about it just yet. He will only become agitated. The Italian says he will send a further fee when he makes use of any of the pictures. The Italian is apparently working for a publisher of wartime literature. Ah, maybe you are a competitor!” There was sarcasm in Otto Bayer’s voice.

Kessel looked at Karl in the hope that inspiration for the next move would come from the brain-dead skinhead. But Karl was fiddling with a Hasselblad camera as Otto watched anxiously, hands clenched, clearly unwilling to say anything for fear his words might precipitate disaster.

Kessel stood up slowly from the velvet chair. “Herr Bayer, the Italian and I are … both very interested in … the discoveries made in these monasteries during the war.” He cursed himself for not having thought through his story. The idea that someone had been here yesterday was shattering and certainly not a coincidence.

Karl peered down into the screen as he swung the camera around the studio. Kessel knew he would have to work this one out alone. "You are right of course, Herr Bayer, this is most embarrassing. Sometimes the right hand does not know what the left is doing. It would seem that my friend from the Italian end has been overzealous. We work for the same publisher, and this should have been my part of the investigation -- Germans working for the German department and all that." The lie sounded pathetic.

“Yes, of course.” Otto’s answer was indistinct. His mind seemed to be on the swinging camera. “Please be careful, young man, there is film in there.”

Damn Karl. “Go and wait outside!” Kessel used his voice of authority. The idiot would do some damage, and they would be asked to leave before they could get details of the Italian.

Shrugging his powerful shoulders, the youth left the shop.

Otto smiled arrogantly. “The Italian asked if I had pictures of the killings.”

“You had photographs of killings?” This was not what Kessel wanted to hear.

“No, my father had not taken any. That sort of thing could be used in war trials, so I believe.”

Who the hell had been snooping into the past -- his father's past? "And there were no negatives showing a close view of the head?"

“Only the distant shot you have already, or one very like it. You heard my father: he can remember running out of film.”

“Your father’s memory, it may not be too reliable.” Kessel tried to put it tactfully.

Otto laughed, tapping his head. “Oh yes, he is fine up here.”

“But in the apartment…”

“You saw an act, Herr Kessel. My father is afraid my mother will lose interest in him if she cannot fuss over him all the time. He lets her do it because it makes her happy.”

Kessel was not totally convinced, although it did explain some of the rational statements the Untersturmführer had made. “What exactly did my Italian colleague want?”

“He wanted me to enlarge a small portion showing the white bust, but the result was rather disappointing. I enlarged it as much as possible, and printed it quite dark in an attempt to show detail. Wartime film was not anything like the emulsions you get today.” Otto waved a hand towards the adverts for modern German film as though to prove his point. “I would know it if I saw it in real-life. Even if the paint has been removed, some of the features were so distinctive I could not mistake them. Do you know where this monastery is, Herr Kessel?”

Kessel shook his head. “It has to be near Rome. That’s all I know.”

“There were also some of views of a monastery on the negatives,” said Bayer tantalizingly. “What a shame I didn’t make copies from those negatives.”

“You didn’t make any spares?”

Otto looked surprised. “Why should I? I had a few scrap prints last night, but the Müllwagen, the garbage truck, calls early in the morning.”

“Perhaps you could let me have a description of my colleague from Rome, Herr Bayer.”

“A description? I can do better than that. I have his name, Herr Kessel, here in my diary. Let me see. Yes, Bastiani. Bruno Bastiani. You know him?”

Kessel felt the blood leaving his face. His Jewish half-brother must have bugged the room in the hotel to get here first; perhaps even bugged the telephone. Bruno’s job with the press would give him all the equipment needed.

“You want me to help find that head, ja, Herr Kessel? That surely is why you are here.”

Kessel’s breath caught in his throat, like a panic attack. “Why should I want to do that?”

“Business is slow. There might be money in it for me if I were to help you?”

“The publishers…”

“You cannot even lie convincingly, Herr Kessel. You are not here for any publisher.”

Kessel opened the door. “Herr Bayer, you have overstepped the mark!”

“Well, you know where to find me,” countered the photographer, unabashed. “I would be able to recognize the monastery and the head, if I saw either of them in real life. I have a good memory, and if I am reading the situation correctly you want to get there before Herr Bastiani.”

“My publishers will…”

“Cut the publisher crap, Herr Kessel. Yesterday you phone up asking if my father was in Italy in the war. Last night an Italian comes here and asks about a monastery. Then this morning you turn up with the same questions. My father thinks he knows you, and you say your father worked with mine in the SS. I do not have to be a genius to know you are after something. A religious relic perhaps?” He laughed loudly. “Do you think I never watch television? TV Roma is nearly as famous as our own national broadcasters right now.”

Holding the door partially open, Kessel drew himself erect, the way his father would have done if ever a subordinate stepped out of line. “So?” he snapped.

“So you will have to reward me properly if you want my help. I am not interested in all this Nazi muck, but I could do with some money right now.”

“Nothing doing!” Kessel retorted, slamming the door behind him. That would make the greedy pervert think twice before using such tactics on the ADR. But he remembered Otto Bayer’s words. Yes, if it came to it, he would know where to find him again.

Karl stood on the opposite side of the street, sheltering in a doorway from the rain. He crossed over to meet Kessel. “Well, Herr Kessel?”

“Well what?” Kessel felt angry and wanted the boy to know it.

“Do you know who’s beaten us to it?”

At least Karl had been listening while fiddling with that damn camera. Kessel wondered if he had underestimated the overweight neo-Nazi. He regarded him closely. If he had dared have a child of his own, then maybe Rüdi’s son here had some of the attributes he would have wished for. Perhaps the Jungling could become a positive member of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung.

Hesitantly he reached out an arm, withdrew it, and finally placed it on Karl’s shoulder. The act did not come naturally to him and he reddened.

“ Karl my son, this is serious. Yes, I do know who it was. I have an enemy in Rome. We grew up together, but I sometimes think he would like to kill me. So, how would you like to keep us both safe -- and kill him first?"

Chapter 19

Köln

KARL ORDERED a large bowl of Gulaschsuppe followed by Wurst mit Senf und Brot. Either meal should have been enough on its own, but Karl ate both greedily and noisily.

The smell of sausage was overpowering. Kessel watched the youth with a certain amount of disgust, relieved that he had ordered just a coffee and pastry for himself. The meeting with the Bayers had been unsettling, and was probably the reason why his breakfast gherkins had been repeating for the last two hours.

Immediately after lunch Kessel phoned the number on Otto’s business card. The man answered after one ring and sounded so eager he must have been waiting for the call. Otto offered to collect them from the restaurant in his Audi.

In spite of Otto’s shortage of faith, the new partnership could be promising. The photographer’s Audi station wagon was equipped as a mobile office. From the ADR’s point of view Helmut Bayer’s son would be seen as a failure. He was morally weak and short of funds. The idea of a Shrine of Unity for the ADR would doubtless leave Otto Bayer unmoved, but he was all too ready to close his studio for a few days at the prospect of getting his hands on some ready money.

Kessel was convinced that if the bronze head showed the features he expected, it would prove that Jesus Christ had not been a Jew at all, an idea that was popular with true believers in pre-war Germany. With hard evidence, the ADR and Church could at last accept it as fact, and unite. This truth would be the foundation stone of the Shrine. In the 1930s Professor Ernst Bergmann re-examined the origins of the Christian faith and hailed Adolf Hitler as the new Messiah. The members of the New Faith in pre-war Germany immediately accepted the Swastika as the Cross, the symbol of German Christianity, helping many in the Church to join in with enthusiasm. The Swastika could not be used today as the New Cross, but the early examples of the Kriegsflagge, the German Imperial War flag, had not been banned in all German states, as far as he knew. Even if it had, by cleverly adapting parts of it with the colors of Germany and the Christian cross, it would make a very acceptable and legal symbol of Christian unity in the ADR.

Yes, one day the bronze head of Jesus Christ would be the magnet, drawing independent neo-Nazi groups into one glorious, united whirlwind of change. Phönix would be supportive when the time came, but unbelievers like Otto could never be part of it. They were totally lacking in vision.

Kessel was beginning to appreciate that his Italian birth was not a misfortune, but an essential component of his destiny. In no way should he should think of himself as a Mischling . The neo-Nazi groups were all narrow minded, too prejudiced to understand the whole European picture. Thanks to his mixed parentage he was one of few who were able to see the need for an Aryan brotherhood with no geographical boundaries. The birth of Jesus two thousand years ago had been in similar circumstances -- born in a derelict building, with a humble family upbringing. Then, after years of preparation, the times of teaching and recognition. Disciples. Miracles. Converts and new followers: local at first, then world-wide. Finally books about his life.

He felt a surging excitement in his chest. Was this his destiny too? It had seemed possible when Rüdi talked about it as he was dying in hospital. Whatever lay ahead, there was no need to accept orders from men like Phönix.

Otto Bayer's memory of some essential information in the photographs was almost certainly deliberately vague, and no doubt it would improve if he was offered sufficient financial incentive. Kessel recognized that having Otto Bayer's help in the search for the monastery in Italy could eliminate a lot of problems over the next few days. And he already had a plan to deal with agnostics like Otto -- when the time was right.

Kessel made a rapid assessment of Otto’s Audi station wagon. It was nearly new, deep metallic red in color, and equipped with a telephone, a fax machine and personal radios. This car would become their communications Wagen, and he would be in command of all activities.

The journey back to Rome soon became tedious, with the first leg down the autobahn towards the Swiss border. Kessel insisted on an overnight stop just short of Basel where he offered to be generous with the expenses. He lay in bed that night wondering if Phönix would ever learn of his involvement with the appalling incident at TV Roma.

As they continued on to Rome the next morning, Karl Bretz put himself in the front passenger seat. The car phone obviously intrigued him. He kept lifting it from its cradle, pretending to make calls while checking that the occupants of other cars were watching. Kessel shut his eyes and tried to ignore the boy.

By the afternoon they reached the Autostrada del Sole, with Kessel in the back of the car feeling more at ease, learning to live with the discovery of Bruno’s involvement. His Jewish half-brother would be dealt with. He glanced at Karl who was still playing with the phone. That would be a task for the Jungling.

Otto turned in the driver’s seat to announce he was already remembering a lot about the monastery, from what he had seen on the photographs. And even if he failed to find it, he said there would be plenty of scenery to boost his library of stock photographs. From the way he spoke he’d brought enough film for a month.

A few more hours and they would be in Rome. Kessel tried to relax, his legs sideways across the back seat. The stupid photographer seemed to think he was coming out of this a winner.

Chapter 20

Rome

KESSEL WAS SHORT of temper. Otto Bayer seemed to be treating this trip to Italy as a holiday, wanting to photograph the sights at every opportunity.

Two fruitless days spent driving round the Roman countryside looking for deserted monasteries, with a Hasselblad camera and an equipment case full of lenses, was a shameless combination of business with pleasure: Otto Bayer’s business and Otto Bayer’s pleasure. This man was making money whether they found the relic or not. Kessel needed things to happen fast. The longer the search took, the more time there was for either Bruno or Phönix to interfere.

If the monks were still at the monastery they would surely know something about the relic. With a bit of luck they would still have it. Getting it from them was a problem for Karl to solve. Otto had promised much but always failed to deliver. So where was that monastery? The photographer was useless.

Anhalten!” Kessel gave his instructions to the short-sleeved Otto who was browning his left arm on the frame of the open window as he drove. “Give me the phone. I have to make a private call.”

Otto dutifully pulled off the road onto a dusty patch under the shadow of a row of pines. Kessel reached forward and unlatched the cell phone from its cradle. He walked a suitable distance from the car and dialed a Rome number, a dread in his heart. He was doing the thing he had vowed he would never do again; never since he had finally settled in Germany.

The phone was answered. “This is Renata Bastiani. Who is it?”

“Mamma? It’s Enzo!” How he loathed his old Italian name. The hurt went too deep for the wounds to heal, and the tone of his mother’s voice brought back vivid images of his childhood. He could feel the sweat running from his face, and it was already marking his shirt with dark patches.

He turned to see both Otto and Karl watching from the car with interest. He dabbed at his face with his handkerchief. Damn those two.

“Let me come and see you, Mamma… Yes, I’d like to come this evening. At eight?… Bruno? Is he there with you now?… No, of course I don’t want to see him. Make sure he’s gone or I… Yes, eight o’clock.”

He switched off the phone. He should have guessed that Bruno was living at home again. Bruno was always running home to Mamma. There was no way he would meet that Jewboy from his bleak childhood.

If Bruno had flown to Köln to see the Bayers, he must also be after the relic. What possible interest could it be to a left wing fanatic? Karl must not dispose of Bruno until that question had been answered.

He hurried back to the car while Karl and Otto continued to stare out at him.

“ What's the matter with you two?" he snapped. "Haven't you seen anyone use a phone before? Wake up, Otto, and get us back to Rome. I have an appointment this evening -- but first I'm taking you to see the sights."

 

Colosseum

GINA PEPINO WAS the thinnest of the Gypsy children, and the oldest. With two brothers and a sister to support, as well as a disabled father, and a mother always too busy to leave the caravans, she was in charge of the family purse. Disabled or not, her father Guido seemed nimble enough to get here every evening to keep an eye on things, and later in the evening to leave them while he went to meet his friends in one of the bars. Gina often thought it was a pity there was no work her father could manage during the day.

Earning money near the Colosseum was never a problem. In the summer there was more money around and more valuables of every sort, but in any season the pickings were sufficient for her family to exist in some luxury. She knew of other Gypsy families who were ill and dying from disease. In the winter the cold could kill any of them, but perhaps even the rich Romans found the cold of winter deadly. Now in the summer it was the heat beating down on their caravans that caused the problems.

On this day as every other day in the tourist season, Gina and two of her brothers were playing with a large sheet of cardboard by the side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The wide, straight street was Gina’s idea of an avenue up to heaven, except that instead of the celestial city this one ended at a tumbledown, circular building that attracted never-ending coachloads of rich people.

With her mid-brown hair and eyes of the darkest chocolate, Gina knew some tourists considered her cute. She heard them saying it. But her dark eyes were set deep in a face of harsh skin. Lack of care and nourishment seemed to have turned her into an old woman at the age of twelve.

She and her brothers were on the lookout for two or three tourists on their own. Laughing, her brothers would push the large sheet of cardboard at the tourists’ faces, making it seem like a game and getting the visitors to Rome to join in the fun. It was simple and it paid for food.

 

OTTO PARKED his Audi in one of the narrow roads at the back of the amphitheatre and set the alarm. It paid to be careful with a stylish station wagon in a place like this, he told Kessel.

Karl was already pushing on ahead, making his way through the early evening sightseers to cross the busy street. Kessel hurried to catch up, leaving Otto some way behind. “Tell me, Karl, do you like the car?”

“An Audi? It’s looks good enough to me, Herr Kessel.”

“Serve Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung well and a car like that could be yours. Maybe even that one.”

Karl opened his mouth and stared. “When?”

“I’ll tell you when. Quiet now, here comes Otto.”

The Colosseum was still open to visitors. “Quite staggering when you get close,” observed Kessel as they entered one of the huge arches, adding with a laugh, “The Colosseum was once a place of extermination for the undesirables, Karl.”

“Its real name is the Flavian Amphitheatre, Herr Kessel. It was like a football ground. Eighty numbered entrances and fifty thousand spectators. I’ve been reading your guide book.”

The young neo-Nazi showed a surprising knowledge. Kessel again saw Karl Bretz in a new light. Perhaps he wasn’t quite the Dummkopf he appeared on the surface.

“And it only took eight years to build,” added Karl.

Three ragged children were playing in the street, poor children without shoes. They seemed to be having fun with a large piece of cardboard, chasing each other and squealing with laughter. Suddenly the brats were at their feet.

“Spare some money for an ice-cream, signori?” pleaded the eldest.

Kessel, always suspicious of begging children, instinctively held his hand against his trouser pocket to guard his wallet. “Certamente no!” His Italian was perfect and his loud voice usually frightened beggars away.

Up came the cardboard sheet, forcing him to throw his head back to avoid being hit. To the children it was obviously just a bit of fun, making the adults raise their heads out of danger. To Kessel, unaware at that moment of the busy little hands working unseen below the cardboard, it was annoying in the extreme. Then as suddenly as they had appeared the laughing children ran off up the grass towards some bushes.

“What did they want?” asked Karl.

“Money for ice cream. Beggars on the streets! Where are the carabinieri, that’s what I’d… Those filthy kids! They’ve taken my wallet! It has details of the ADR in it!”

Karl was quick despite his lumbering frame -- too quick for undernourished Gypsy children. Gina and her brothers were just cresting the top of the grassy slope when he caught up with them. Gina screamed with terror as she took a last look at the big man before darting behind a wall.

Karl slid round the corner on the dry grass, catching hold of the wall to reduce his speed for the sharp turn. His reactions were slowed and he was unable to change from hunter to hunted. The blade slashed across his right arm. Facing him, knife at arm’s length, was Guido Pepino.

The Gypsy children cowered behind their small, dark-skinned father. Karl drew his Göring dagger before a second blow could do any damage. With blood oozing from his forearm, he deliberately dived to the ground and rolled over. His training had been sound. As his body came full circle he swept himself upright, dagger ahead, thrusting upwards with the full weight of his moving body behind it.

The Gypsy had probably not expected such skill and speed. Karl’s dagger went deep into Guido Pepino’s thigh. The Gypsy pulled himself away, horror on his dirt-ingrained face. His knife fell to the ground as he clutched his leg. Karl struck again, aiming for the stomach but hitting the lower ribs instead.

As their father fell, a scream went up from the children. Karl grabbed the terrified girl, holding the Göring dagger, bright red with blood, to her throat.

“Where’s the wallet?” he yelled, ignoring the man twisting in agony at his feet.

The children, probably unable to understand German, seemed to interpret the question from the desperation in the large man’s voice. The sight of their father’s blood on the foreigner’s knife scared them.

Si, si!” the girl replied earnestly, pulling the wallet from beneath her dress.

Nursing his slashed arm Karl returned to the main street, the wallet held tightly in his hand. The children ran ahead, pleading with the gathering crowd to come and help their father.

A carabinieri car, cruising the Via dei Fori Imperiali, did a slow U-turn to investigate the commotion. As the hysterical Gina started to cry loudly, Karl wrapped his arm in his hastily removed sweatshirt and melted into the crowd. Within seconds, he had blended in with the tourists taking an evening stroll around the Colosseum.

While the Gypsy was taken in a critical condition to the local hospital with a perforated lung, his children were probably already planning to be back the next day playing tricks with their sheet of cardboard to amuse the wealthy tourists.

“You’re a fool!” said Kessel coldly. He patted the wallet. “But, Karl, thanks for getting it back. There are too many names in there for it to fall into the wrong hands.”

“It was your own fault, Herr Kessel,” said Karl calmly. “The worst thing you can do when you fear pickpockets is to check the pocket it’s in. Those kids knew exactly where your wallet was.”

Kessel ignored him. He didn’t need lessons from this overweight youth. “Otto, I’ve had enough of this ruin. Drop me somewhere down by the Palazzo Venezia. I’ve got someone to see at eight but I want to get my hair cut first. Take Karl back to the hotel and keep him out of sight. Don’t go near a hospital: the carabinieri will be looking for a man with knife wounds.”

“That’s great!” groaned Karl. “What do you want me to do, bleed to death?”

“Find a pharmacy, Otto. Get a big sticking plaster for that arm of his, but make sure he stays in the car. I’ll give you some… Those bloody Gypsies! They’ve been in here! They’ve had my little notebook of phone numbers. And my credit card. We’re going to be short of money!”

“ Most of your money's in the hotel safe," Karl said reassuringly. "It's okay, Herr Kessel, I'll get your card stopped. You go to your appointment. I don't mind speaking to the bank -- if you've got their number."

“Of course I haven’t got the number! Um Gottes willen, Karl! I’ve just told you: the phone list has been stolen!”

“I know how to cancel a credit card,” said Otto, starting the engine of his Audi. “I always keep the number in my wallet.”

Kessel gave a dry smile and reached into an inner pocket. “Those kids missed this.” He pulled out a charge card. “There’s not a lot of money on it. I keep it for emergencies. And I’ve still got my driving license, for what it’s worth.” He wanted to appear in control of the situation. “Karl’s right, we have enough money at the hotel for a few days. We’ll be all right as soon as the new card comes. Get it sent to the hotel by express post, Karl, and I’m trusting you to cancel the old one. Those Gypsies have probably sold it by now.”

“Leave it to me, Herr Kessel.”

“Thanks.” Kessel leaned across to Karl and spoke softly to avoid Otto overhearing. “You’ll be all right, Otto’s going to look after you until I get back. But don’t ask him to show you any photos of his mother.”

Chapter 21

RENATA BASTIANI felt compelled to wear black. She had worn black since the hateful day in 1943 when the Nazis killed her husband in front of the frightened family trying to escape by train at the Stazione Centrale. She hated all Germans, and she would wear black until the day she died and could finally be at rest. Her memories of the final years of the war still made her shudder.

The looks, the whispered conversations. Those wartime neighbors had long since gone, leaving new occupants to witness … what? An elderly, unhappy woman living with one son called Bruno; while the other boy had gone off goodness knows where, and not been back here for years to see his old mother.

The same neighbors told her that Bruno, the elder of the two who was over sixty now, was always charming the women. But the relationships never lasted, and as frequently as two or even three times a year Bruno would be back seeking consolation. Renata knew the neighbors branded him the heart-breaker of the piazza, with a specialty for bored housewives, but they were unable to grasp that it was Bruno’s heart that was broken by the failed romances.

He worked as a press photographer, a man capable of serious investigative journalism. Unfortunately he only seemed to be famous for his regular photographs of high profile figures leaving nightclubs considerably the worse for drink, or in the company of women who were not their wives. She had heard from Riccardo Fermi that this led to jokes at work about Bruno putting so much effort into uncovering other people’s sex lives that he had neglected to work hard enough at nurturing his own.

He was home again now, the ageing Romeo’s affairs getting shorter as the years went by. Why hadn’t her son settled down years ago with a nice ordinary girl and got married? Renata knew that life could never be that simple, although all her neighbors’ children had done very well for themselves. Bruno was still a boy, and her boy deserved a nice girl.

The other son had caused nothing but pain. He was a curse, a reminder of all that had been terrible about the war. But it need not have been that way. If Enzo had grown up differently, and if Bruno had been able to accept him better, she would have tried -- please God she would have tried -- to put the whole damn war behind her. All she had ever wanted was a home for the boys: a home where they would bring their girls, and later their bambini.

She knew that Bruno hated Enzo. It had never been any different since the day the baby was born. It was as though the little boy had known the reason for her pregnancy.

She loved Enzo and yet at the same time rejected him. Enzo had come to look more and more like his German father as the years went on. She had loathed that evil Nazi officer. She wished she could have been there to kill him in the building in the Via Tasso, with the long knife. More than once she had shared this dreadful wish with Bruno.

 

BRUNO LAY ON his bed in the darkness. The presence of his half-brother in the apartment was making him sweat. Enzo frightened him. Enzo was calculating. Why else was he now calling himself Manfred Kessel, the name of his rapist father? Enzo was also cruel. Bruno recalled the time when Enzo had caught a fly in a wine glass and carefully pulled the wings from its back, before releasing it into the large web in the corner of the back yard. Enzo laughed to see the hungry predator slip from its place of hiding to catch the helpless insect, before wrapping it in silken strands for a later feast.

Such acts of cruelty were second nature to his blond brother, but it was to be a portent of his coming death. One day Enzo, like the fly in the yard, would have his wings removed one after the other. Otto Bayer and Karl Bretz were the wings. Both would be plucked off. Then the spider would move in for the kill.

He’d always despised his brother, and could never separate him from the overpowering memories of the big Nazi forcing himself on his Mamma long ago. The German officer walking those dark corridors and marble stairways; kissing his Mamma on the high steel bed; putting his hands, and then his body, all over her bare skin as she tried not to cry out.

Enzo had not only come to Rome with the skinhead from Düsseldorf in tow, he had now collected Helmut Bayer’s son in Köln. The three Germans had been in and out of that hotel off the Via Nazionale throughout the day, and they certainly weren’t staying there for a holiday. Perhaps Otto Bayer knew where to find the relic, in spite of his denials at the photographic studio in Köln. The sooner the three Germans were dealt with the safer everyone would be. Riccardo Fermi was right: there was only one way to deal with Nazis, old and new. It was not just his brother down there in the room talking to his mother. Part of the man was the German SS officer. His half-brother looked exactly like the Nazi monster, evil and infectious. For the good of mankind, drastic surgery was essential.

Bruno went quietly down the short flight of stairs into the hall. Seen now through the half open door, the tall fair-haired Enzo could be the bullying German officer -- the man who had done wrong things with his Mamma; making her behave in a way he had not understood until much later, but which he had sensed was bad. Even here in his own home, a grown man, Bruno felt sick with fear. Powerless to intervene.

This was his hell, the hell that ruined his life. All he could ever do with girls were wrong things. While his friends found sex to be fun, he struggled with memories that returned repeatedly to spoil his ineffective efforts at love-making.

He went back up the stairs and flung himself onto his bed, appalled by his inability to step in and save his mother. So many plans, so many grand ideas, and always a lack of power. The animal had returned from the war to haunt them both. Lying face down, he relived his time in the Gestapo building. From somewhere in his subconscious came the sound of angry voices. The German officer was shouting at one of the soldiers. The little boy clung to his mother’s black dress. The voice came again.

Monte Sisto!

He sat up in the darkened room. For a whole lifetime he had tried to forget the terrors of the big house in the Via Tasso. He listened again, realizing that the voice had not come from his memory at all. It had been real, rising from the hallway to his room. It was Enzo saying Monte Sisto.

Enzo was by the hall door. “Goodbye, Mamma, you’ve been a great help.”

“Come and see your Mamma again soon, Enzo. Maybe you and your old Mamma can learn to be friends. You be sure you come round and see me before you go back to Germany. Give your Mamma a nice big kiss.”

In the darkness at the top of the stairs Bruno closed his eyes and turned his head away. The sound of the kiss was obscene.

He waited until the door was shut, swept his fingers through his dyed black hair, and went cautiously down.

“It was nice to see my boy again,” said his Mamma.

Bruno went to sit on the floor by her side, allowing her to run fingers of comfort through his thinning hair. “Enzo asked you something?”

“Just memories, Bruno. Just memories.” His Mamma smiled. “Of all the things he wanted to know, that was the stupidest.”

“What was, Mamma?”

“The day his father first spoke to me in the war he was shouting at a soldier. They’d been to a monastery and something had gone wrong. Something about photographs.”

Gently Bruno removed the soothing fingers from his hair and stood up. From a folder on the large walnut sideboard he took several large black-and-white prints. “Photographs like these?” He stood in front of her in excitement.

She shook her head. “I didn’t see them. The two men were just arguing. Come and sit by me again, Bruno. I like it when you sit by me. You used to let me rub your hair when you were little, before … before it all happened.”

“Enzo wanted to know the name of the monastery?”

“Enzo’s father was shouting it.”

“And you told Enzo it was Monte Sisto?”

“Of course your old Mamma told him. Enzo says he’s going there tomorrow morning with his friends. I wish you had a nice girl, Bruno.”

He put his arms round his mother’s neck and let her run her soft fingers through his hair again. If he and Riccardo Fermi wanted retribution, there also had to be justice. Monte Sisto must be where Otto Bayer’s father had been involved in the massacre. He had photographs of the terrified Jews from Otto’s film, and a mass of evidence against the neo-Fascists on his files that he had chosen to keep secret for now. Justice called for judgment on the Bayer family.

“Mamma, the Nazis still have a price to pay for all they did to you. I am not alone in this. You will have your revenge on the Nazis yet.”

“Enzo’s a good boy now. All I want is peace.”

Bruno stood up. Now that Enzo knew the name of the monastery, he and Riccardo would have to move quickly. “Mamma, you shall have peace. Very soon now, I promise you peace.”

His mother reached out and took hold of his hand with her thin fingers. “You’re a good boy, Bruno. I know you’re only doing what’s best for your Mamma.”

Chapter 22

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

MARCO STARED at his uneaten breakfast and found himself yearning for Laura's company. But he was painfully aware that he was a priest, so he could never love her. Not in the way he'd loved Anna. Deep love and sex were inseparable in his experience -- and the conflict was already filling him with so much self-condemnation that he had only told Father Josef about Laura in the vaguest terms.

The beautiful release of emotions through sex would never be his again, but he could never forget the joys of marriage to Anna. It seemed impossible there could be a connection between Laura and the neo-Nazis. The danger -- if there was any danger -- was more likely to lie within the Vatican rather than with this freelance journalist.

But why had Laura decided to come round in the first place, pervading his apartment with Anna’s perfume? Desire could be very destructive. It might be better if he refused to see her again. No, that would be an absurd and unnecessary move. Anyway, he’d already seen one of his college friends and borrowed a cheap metal detector and a small spade. He needed Laura’s car to get him to Monte Sisto, but he didn’t want to seem too keen and give her the wrong ideas.

His cell phone rang at nine o’clock just as he was wondering whether to phone Laura Rossetti. It was Laura and she sounded agitated.

“Have you got that metal detector yet, Marco? I want to go to Monte Sisto. My friends don’t want me with them today, and they say I can’t even leave Rome.”

“Friends?” he queried.

“Bruno and Riccardo. They’ve told me to stay in the city, but that’s crazy. They’re up to something, Marco.”

“You’re not making sense,” he said gently.

“I want to take you to Monte Sisto, so we can dig up all the graves.”

“Not all of them,” he protested, laughing.

“Okay, okay, I don’t mind what you do as long as you bring a spade. That relic belonged to my father, not Bruno’s.”

He thought fast. Laura obviously wanted his company, and the neo-Nazis were never going to make contact after all this time. “I’ve got everything ready. When are you coming for me?”

“I’m coming straight over,” said Laura excitedly.

He smiled to himself. “I’ll be ready. I’ll wait outside. I’m a priest. The custode here will be suspicious if she sees me getting a female visitor too often!”

 

LESS THAN HALFWAY to Monte Sisto, Laura stopped the car on an open patch of ground. Marco looked at her inquiringly.

“It’s a good place to wait,” she said rather distantly.

“Wait for what? I thought we were going to dig for treasure.” He reached into the back and tapped the stem of the detector. “I’ve got a feeling we’re going to get lucky with this. I’ve been reading a book about treasure hunting. You have to move the search head slowly and…”

Laura wasn’t listening. “Do you like it here, Marco, away from the city?”

He’d already upset her once before, so he’d pretend to be enjoying himself. “It’s wonderful!”

Laura seemed to be jumping around with her thoughts like a pigeon trying to retrieve a piece of bread from a hot metal roof. “I’m not sure you mean it,” she responded, clearly lost in some sort of private reverie. She got out of the car and breathed in deeply. After a few minutes she opened the map and spread it on the car roof but only glanced at it. She stood as though listening for something.

Are you waiting?” he asked. Laura seemed to have a plan, seemed to be preoccupied.

“Waiting?” She laughed as if the idea were preposterous. “Of course I’m not. Come on, there’s a village just down the road. We’ll have a coffee there. I just love the countryside in the summer. It’s marvelous.”

“Marvelous.” He tried to sound wholehearted, but felt uncomfortable, threatened even. Something unpleasant seemed to be in the air.

Laura now drove slowly, and the aircon struggled to keep them cool. He found her unpredictable. He was trying not to be distrustful of her actions; all the same he should have told someone where he was going -- if only so that they would know where to look for his body.

Laura tucked her silver Alfa away in the shade of some trees in a small village carved into the side of the hill. The view from the edge of the piazza was stupendous, a genuine bella vista. Down below, small tracks wormed their way through silver olive groves and yellow fields. Rolling brown earth and gray hills faded into the heat. It was the middle of the day and already the locals were slowing down in preparation for their siesta.

The bar was open. They sat in the shade of a large plane tree on white plastic seats around a white plastic table. Nothing exotic, but at least it all looked clean. If Laura had been expecting better she gave no sign of it. He sipped his caffè latte and tried unsuccessfully to relax. He noticed that Laura left her cup untouched, her eyes fixed on the road. The bright red lipstick she had worn on her first visit had never reappeared. The current deep pink was much more to his liking.

Perhaps life was all right. Free from worry. Well, reasonably free. He was glad Laura had asked him out. This might not be exactly what Father Josef had in mind, but there was always the chance of coming up with something of value at the monastery. Nevertheless, he felt pangs of guilt about his friendship, his relationship with Laura.

Relationship? He shook his head. It was hardly an affair, and Father Josef had given his blessing for contacts to be made. So … he was making contact.

He became aware that a hush had descended on the piazza. Children were shouting further down the road where they played with their bikes, but no other sounds disturbed the midday peace. A red Audi station wagon sporting German license plates swept through the village leaving a swirl of dust. The children carried on with their games, and only the older inhabitants took any notice. Marco guessed that here, as well as in many other parts of Italy, Germans were still remembered as the occupiers and resented accordingly, especially in remote rural areas like this. Still there was hurt, still hatred.

Laura rummaged in her purse and dug out her cell phone. “I’m just going inside.”

Laura took her time returning. She seemed slightly more at peace now and certainly more patient. They resumed their journey at a leisurely pace.

“There’s no hurry to get to the monastery,” she explained. “I didn’t tell you before, but Bruno Bastiani has gone there with Riccardo Fermi to sort out a problem. I want to give them time to get away before we start digging.”

Marco slammed his hand down on the dashboard. “Hold it a minute. Are you playing some sort of game with me?”

Laura looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“ Your two friends are at Monte Sisto sorting out a problem, but you don't want them to know we're going there? What are they doing -- digging up the relic before we can get to it?"

“I was going to tell you something … but not now.” She shrugged. “Bruno and Riccardo are doing their thing, and we’re doing ours. They’re not digging, and they’ll be gone by the time we get there. Stop worrying.”

Marco shook his head. He couldn’t help worrying. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

*

Monte Sisto

KESSEL EXAMINED the map again. It marked the site as a ruin, but he’d been hoping to discover that the monks still maintained some sort of presence. Quite clearly the place was uninhabited. There was only the one pathway shown that would take them all the way to the top.

“Karl, make sure we’re on our own.” He extended the aerial on the radio handset. Otto’s communication equipment would be useful from now. Even if he and Karl bought themselves expensive cell phones, in places like this there would be no signal. Karl was behaving like an excited boy with a fresh plaything as he clutched one of the radios.

“Karl, go to the other side of the hill and let me know if the place is clear. If you can’t get through on the radio, come back round until you can hear me. Got it?”

He instructed Otto to stay with the Audi and report any approaching vehicle. He himself would be positioned on the top of the hill to direct the operation. In spite of the oppressive heat he felt pleased. This was the real thing: not a training exercise. Apart from Karl’s botched raid on TV Roma, this was the first time in his life he had been in command of an operation. His father must have stood here on this path commanding members of the Sicherheitsdienst. The attendant at the garage a few miles back, where they stopped for fuel, thought that a SS Nazi raiding party from Rome had blown the place apart in 1943 or ’44, which tied in perfectly with the account given by old Helmut Bayer in Köln.

.As Kessel reached the top of the narrow track, standing breathlessly under the blazing sun, he could see that the main building looked surprisingly small for a monastery. The monastic order that once occupied this place must have been a minor one.

Brambles and bamboo overgrew the hilltop making progress difficult. Fire had once raged through the stone structure, leaving it roofless and open to the elements. Perhaps the monks had destroyed it in an attempt to thwart the Germans.

Picnickers had left their usual litter -- empty plastic mineral water bottles and brightly colored wrappers scattered amongst the ruins. His people would never treat landmarks of German history so casually. The Italians had no respect for the past. A slight breeze shook the clusters of canes growing round the monastery walls, making a sound like running water.

“Can either of you hear me?” He asked the question quickly, seeking the reassurance of a German voice in this Hinterwäldler place.

The radio hissed and the broken speech told him that Karl was close, although Otto remained silent.

“Try and get more out into the open, Karl, then stay there. And don’t forget you’re acting as lookout while I search around.”

Kessel moved his position constantly as he tried to receive a signal from Karl or Otto, his finger poised over the speech button. Then Karl’s voice on the radio made him jump. The reception was clearer now.

“No one round this side, Herr Kessel.”

Kessel hid his concern. “Then come up to the top and stay with me.”

Ten minutes later Karl had not shown up and the radio only hissed with static. Otto still failed to respond, although the greater distance to the car made this more understandable. The photographer’s radios were no better than toys from the market place.

The huge doorway to the main building was empty, the wooden door having long since been taken away, along with anything else visitors could lay their hands on. The monastery had been raped. He found it extraordinary that he should find himself identifying with these monks.

Nearly thirty minutes passed before Karl appeared at the top of the hill, breathless and sweating. “Something bothering you, Herr Kessel?”

“I have a feeling we’re not alone.” He suppressed his worry. “And where have you been? You didn’t answer my radio.”

As Karl shrugged his broad shoulders, Kessel could see dark bands of sweat showing in patches on the youth’s black T-shirt. The large sticking plaster that covered the Gypsy’s knife wound was now dirty and peeling at the edges.

“What’s the matter, Herr Kessel? Did you want me to look round or not?”

He let the lack of manners pass. Karl was useful, so the matter would not be mentioned again. He ordered Karl to go down into the darkness and search the cellars while he looked around up above.

The library, stripped of the wood paneling, might have been a former barn rather than a place of sacred learning and study. Only the dark lines on the plastered wall, where rows of shelves had once been fixed, gave away its original function.

“Herr Kessel, come down.” Karl’s voice echoed up from the cellars.

The uneven steps disappeared into the blackness. He stumbled his way down. The only light reaching the main cellar came from a ventilation shaft high in the wall, and it took him a minute or so to identify the objects on the floor.

“Clothes,” said Karl unnecessarily. “Someone might be camping here.”

“Damn! We need a flashlight, Karl. Go back to Otto. I know he has one in the glove box.”

Karl had only just got to the top of the steps when he turned in alarm. “Someone’s coming, Herr Kessel.”

“We’d better get down the hill and find Otto. Damn his pathetic radios!”

 

MO WAS SIXTEEN, unwanted and rejected. He had learned his name from the jeering children in the village. “Scemo Bambino!” they would call whenever he appeared. He knew himself by no other name than his own corruption of Scemo , the foolish one -- the village fool. It was one of the few words his misshapen mouth could utter.

Many years ago he had believed his name was Pietro. But that was before he tried to play with the other children in the village and join in their games. Now he was Mo, the only part of his name he could say easily.

Mo had never known the love of a mother, for it was his mother who had rejected her illegitimate son, seen as a punishment from the devil for her fun and games with the boys. With an unidentifiable father and an uncaring mother, he had found shelter with a farmer’s family until his early teens.

The problem for Mo in a superstitious backward community, reared for generations on old wives’ tales, was that he was unable to communicate in the conventional sense. The occasional garbled utterance was all he could manage, and to the villagers he appeared to be so mentally retarded that no one had imagined there was a possibility of teaching him to write. And even if there was a possibility, such a gesture would be pointless because he could not move his limbs in co-ordination, so there was little chance of his fingers grasping the pencil he had never been offered.

The Scemo Bambino had been tossed aside, an embarrassment both to his mother and the small community. The words he knew, but which he could not communicate aloud, had been learned from the farm children who accepted him for what he was, and gave him the occasional hug when he managed to say a word correctly.

The farmer eventually grew suspicious of Mo. The boy’s voice, the voice that could say few words apart from his name, became deeper as the hair on the upper lip grew thicker. The farmer’s daughters were getting older and he felt that in some way they were at risk. They were certainly at risk from the able bodied youths in the village of Monte Sisto.

Mo now lived in the ruined monastery, sleeping in the cellar while seeking shelter from the sun in the summer and the cold in the winter. The farmer’s wife still provided food, without her husband’s knowledge, for which he made the demanding trek down the steep path every two or three days.

He knew when the children would be home. He could sit with them as long as their father was out in the fields. The bad village was the place he was told he must never visit. The mother he could hardly remember was married now, and as far as she was concerned he was some dreadful, forgettable, part of her past. Her one horror was that some day the devil’s child might reappear and cast a blight on her virtuous life.

Mo had noticed the smart red station wagon arrive. Trippers like these were cattivo -- bad. Everything and everybody strange were cattivo. He could pronounce the first syllable strongly, mouthing the other two with an inward groan. The people with the car were bad. Cattivo. The people in the village were bad.

But strangers were very bad.

Mo waited until the two men went up the hill, then his curiosity became too strong to resist. Just one man sat in the big car now. If he was careful he could go close to the red car and still be safe. And if the bad man did see him he knew exactly what to do.

 

LAURA PARKED her Alfa under some trees near a small track that ran across the fields to the houses in the village.

“Let’s not climb the hill yet,” she suggested. “Leave the detector in the car. We’ll cut across the fields and ask in the village if anyone knew Canon Levi. He may have discussed the relic with someone there. It’s not far. I can see the houses.”

Marco felt isolated as they walked down the track. The small village of Monte Sisto seemed to be officially closed for the day when they reached it. Unofficially it had probably been closed to visitors for centuries. He wondered how the local priest in the war had felt after his act of betrayal of the Brothers and Jews to the Nazis. He must be dead by now. Had he died penitent? The place pervaded an air of despair. The little church looked disused.

The barman behind the counter of the village bar stared at them suspiciously. The few men at the unwashed tables watched them in a way that deterred Marco from asking questions.

They examined the graves outside the village church. Most were plain and simple, but a few had been constructed as elaborate works of art in the form of Lilliputian buildings. There was no way of looking inside these, and at the old manse Marco was told that a neighboring parish priest now served the village. As a welcoming tourist resort Monte Sisto scored a definite zero -- even in the high season.

 

KESSEL HAD ALREADY fallen twice on the steep path back to the car. Each time he fell he sat on a rock to recover, still trying to contact Otto on the radio. The man was probably asleep, or listening to one of Karl’s noisy tapes on the car stereo.

Karl reached the bottom of the path first. He disappeared for nearly half an hour before running back anxiously. “Herr Kessel, Otto’s gone! And the Audi!”

Kessel had always known the boy was a fool. Obviously he’d been looking in the wrong place. “The station wagon’s in the small quarry by the road. You’ve missed it, that’s all.”

“I’m telling you, Herr Kessel, Otto’s gone. So has the Audi.”

Kessel sighed. “He’s probably driven to the village to get chocolate or cigarettes. Give him five minutes and I’ll try him again on the radio.”

Ten minutes passed, then twenty, during which Karl roamed around looking for what he called clues. He returned with the news that he had discovered a silver Alfa with a black stripe, parked further round the hill. The engine was still warm and there were some tools on the back seat.

“There’s no sign of the driver. I could get in and start it, Herr Kessel!”

“So?”

“So we could both go back to Rome and give Otto a fright. He deserves it.”

Kessel tilted his head back and laughed. “You are right, Karl. We have waited for Otto Bayer long enough. Come, we will do it straight away.”

 

ARE YOU SURE we parked it here?”

The resignation in Laura's voice revealed that she knew perfectly well they had. She tried her cell phone but was unable to get a signal. Marco found the same problem -- obviously a major drawback of living out here in this place.

“Stay here, Laura. Let’s hide the detector and spade in the bushes here, and I’ll run back to the village to phone the carabinieri. I saw a phone in the bar. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

He had not gone far down the track across the fields when he heard the sound of car tires turning on the gravel. Concerned for Laura’s safety, he hurried back.

He was surprised to find Laura talking to the driver of an old green Lancia with dented doors. Both the Lancia and the driver were familiar. He tried to recall where he had seen them before. The driver, a man of about sixty, had black hair that looked dyed. Laura behaved as if she knew him.

As he reached the car Marco glanced down inside. Now he remembered. This man had collected Laura outside his apartment on the first evening.

Ciao,” Marco said, trying to sound sociable. “Laura’s Alfa has been taken. I was going to Monte Sisto to phone the carabinieri.”

No! I’ve just been telling Laura: whatever you do, don’t report it. I’ll take you both back to Rome. It’s not safe for either of you here. Anyway, what the hell are you two doing?” He had an unpleasant edge to his voice. “I told Laura to stay away from Monte Sisto today.”

“Sorry,” said an embarrassed Laura. “This is Marco Sartini.”

Marco would have shaken hands but the driver kept a firm grip on the wheel, looking straight ahead.

“I asked Marco to come with me,” Laura explained.

“And which of Laura’s friends are you?” asked Marco, trying to put on a brave face in this embarrassing situation.

“I’m Bruno.” The man wouldn’t turn his head as he spoke. “Bruno Bastiani.”

Chapter 23

Via Nazionale

KESSEL WASTED no time in checking under his bed as well as inside the telephone for bugs. In spite of finding nothing suspicious he told the manager he required new rooms.

Throughout the evening he tried Otto Bayer’s cell phone number, and every time the recorded voice of the operator gave the same reply. “The number you are calling has failed to respond. Please try again later.”

He did try again later, many times, with increasing frustration. The disappearance of Otto and the Audi was disturbing. Even if Otto had driven to the village of Monte Sisto for a drink, and if his car phone failed or was out of range, he would certainly have come back to the hotel here in Rome by now -- or at least contacted the hotel if he was having trouble with his vehicle.

“I don’t know why you’re worrying, Herr Kessel,” said Karl cheerfully. “Otto probably got fed up with being ordered around by you. I expect he’s driven back to Köln.”

“He had nothing to gain, Karl. The man is short of money. I haven’t paid him anything yet for his time and trouble. All I’ve given him is cash for fuel.”

“He took plenty of photographs,” observed Karl bluntly. “They’ll be worth much more than the few Italian lira you were going to give him. Let’s go and find something to eat.”

Kessel ran the comb through his hair and felt no resistance. The haircut in the Via Nazionale had only emphasized its sparseness. “You’re right, Karl, I can try Otto’s phone again when we’re out. But it puzzles me why he doesn’t answer, even if he is on his way back to Germany. With a car phone like his you can pick up a signal anywhere.”

Karl didn’t sound as though he cared. “Just think of all the money you’ve saved, Herr Kessel.”

“If you think…!” Kessel stopped as a thought hit him. The youth had been gone a long time at Monte Sisto, and that was when Otto failed to answer the radio.

“Now what’s the matter?” Karl asked.

Kessel knew he must choose his words carefully. The skinhead had already demonstrated he was a killer, and he had no intention of ending up impaled on that damn paperknife. “I’m wondering about Otto’s Audi.”

“What about Otto’s Audi?”

“I promised you a station wagon like that.”

Karl stood up. “You promised me that one.”

Kessel tried to speak softly. “But you are not concerned that Otto has taken it away?”

Karl shook his head, looking self-conscious. “I didn’t know what you meant, Herr Kessel. Otto wasn’t going to give it to me willingly. I thought maybe you planned to blackmail him.”

“Blackmail? How do you mean, blackmail?” Kessel felt a little more secure now.

“Well, you know, a perverser Mensch like that must have plenty of things he wants to hide.”

“Then you don’t mind about the Audi?”

“ What's happened has happened," said Karl without feeling. "Look, Herr Kessel, even if you're not hungry I am. You can stay here -- I'm going to find some food."

Karl stamped from the room. Kessel stayed behind, making one last attempt to reach Otto. As the receiver buzzed in his ear he wondered where Karl really was going. Perhaps he was on his way back to Monte Sisto to collect Otto’s Audi. Perhaps to bury the body. Maybe the youth was just hungry.

The recorded voice repeated the all-too-familiar message.

Kessel felt exhausted. He slammed the telephone back onto its rest. The more he tried to assume total command, the less control he appeared to have. Damn the boy! Damn Otto! Damn the ADR!

*

Marco’s apartment

MARCO WAS ONLY just back from seeing Father Josef, and about to undress for a shower when the doorbell rang twice -- one long and one short. It was Laura's special ring. He stuck his head out of the window. She was standing back in the street, and he waved to her before running down the central stone staircase to the front door.

“Who’s the old dragon who keeps looking out of the window when I ring the bell?” Laura asked.

“That’s Signora Silvini. She owns the place. She’s probably suspicious that you keep coming here to visit a priest.” He winked. “Come on up.”

Laura was wearing a low-cut evening blouse of white silk, and a short black skirt, which might have raised Signora Silvini’s suspicions. “I want to apologize. I’ve been a bit ratty with you lately. Wrong time of the month, if you know what that means.”

Even without Anna, without sisters and female cousins, Marco would have known of the monthly suffering -- what his father once called the monthly suffering endured by males the world over. This could be the right time to let Laura know something about his past.

He laughed. "Of course I know what it means -- I've been married." It was so easy to say. Why had he been putting it off?

Laura looked up quickly. “You sound as though you mean it.”

Marco sat down and breathed in slowly. “It’s true. Her name was Anna. We got married when I was twenty-one.”

“But…”

“ Three drunks killed her in a racist attack at the Spanish Steps. Six years ago. Two years of a happy marriage -- and then a life alone."

“O God, I’m sorry. All my crass remarks…”

“ Thanks. It's silly, but I didn't know how to tell you." He looked down at the carpet, trying to hide his face. "It was like the end of my life. Slowly, I came back to the Church. That's when I decided to become a priest -- of sorts." He felt the adrenaline kicking in. What had he meant by that? His failure to become a practicing priest? It couldn't be anything to do with Laura. His suppressed desires seemed to be speaking without his control. The adrenaline kicked harder now.

“You’re certainly full of surprises, Marco.”

Laura seemed to be looking with an increased awareness, as though acknowledging a shared experience of sex. Or was it his imagination? Time to change the subject. “I’ve met Bruno Bastiani now, so how about meeting Riccardo Fermi?” he asked.

A smile flashed across Laura’s face. “I came to tell you. Riccardo is working with me on this story.”

“And you’re sure he doesn’t mind me being around?”

“ Of course not, I have to work with men all through the year." Laura laughed and sounded her old self. The month must have ended abruptly. "Riccardo Fermi is a journalist. He would never be jealous of me working with a priest -- even an ex-priest," she added with a mischievous grin.

“He’s not outside in the car is he?” Marco asked quickly.

“ No, we're meeting Riccardo and Bruno later. That's why I'm all dressed up. We're going out for a meal, and Riccardo's treating us on expenses. Bruno won't be with us until later. He's a press photographer. I expect you've seen some of his work in the gossip columns -- if you look at that sort of trash. He's sorry he was rude when he picked us up at Monte Sisto. I think you'll find he's in a better mood tonight."

“Then I’ll look forward to the meal. I’ve only just got in. I’m sure those flies from Monte Sisto are crawling all over me. I haven’t even had a chance to take a shower.”

While Laura read a magazine, Marco stood under the cool spray and tried to clean away the worries about the day. The water and the shower gel removed the dust, but did nothing to dispel the impression that all was not as it seemed.

As he turned off the taps, Marco decided he would have to be careful what he said during the evening. The feeling persisted that someone was setting him up, perhaps someone within the Vatican.

 

Via del Tritone

Rome

THE DARKLY LIT restaurant was like hallowed territory for Marco. For the past three years his student allowance had never stretched to such luxury. Here were candles on the tables, and smartly dressed waiters ready to attend to every whim. From his days in the used car trade he knew that the darker the restaurant, the more the food would cost. A quick look at the menu confirmed the accuracy of this conclusion. As for the company -- Riccardo seemed pleasant enough.

Earlier in the bright light of his apartment he’d noticed Laura’s low-cut blouse. Here by the dim candlelight he became aware of just how much bare skin was showing. He knew of two reasons why he must divert his eyes and his thoughts from Laura’s substantial cleavage. One was a moral one; the other was the presence of her observant boyfriend Riccardo.

“You and Laura are seeing a lot of each other,” Riccardo said, pouring them all a generous glass of Frascati and savoring a long sip. “Good choice of wine. I think I can trust a Catholic priest to behave himself with a beautiful woman, though I don’t know if Bruno would agree. He’s Jewish.” He laughed loudly, making diners at other tables pause in their eating.

Riccardo was of the good-looking breed of Italian. Marco studied him idly. Was he being too cynical in believing it was all show? The tanned skin, passionate eyes and carefully controlled hair were straight from a clothing catalogue, intended to excite women into believing that their clothes could transform a drab husband or boyfriend into a Roman god.

Marco kept his thoughts to himself as he returned Riccardo’s smile. He would try not to show his growing dislike of the man. Perhaps he was a little jealous. The sharp smell of Riccardo’s cologne contrasted annoyingly with Laura’s L’Air du Temps. With some pleasure he noted the beginnings of a receding hairline.

He said, “Laura had her car stolen today.”

Laura added, “Bruno gave us a lift back.”

Riccardo was not particularly interested. “You were lucky we were there, my friend. It’s a long way back from Monte Sisto.”

The comment appeared so casual. We? If Riccardo had been at Monte Sisto, why hadn’t he been in Bruno’s car? At that moment Riccardo stood up and waved across the crowded restaurant. “Here he is!”

As with Laura, Bruno Bastiani’s humor had improved with the coming of evening. Bruno shook hands with Marco. “Ciao, it’s splendid to see you again so soon. I’m sorry to be late, but I had to go out of town to finish off a job.”

Riccardo embraced Bruno. “Hot work, I expect,” said Riccardo, and both men roared with laughter.

Marco waited for an explanation, but Bruno sat down and studied the menu, still laughing. He pulled his chair closer to the table and turned to Marco. “I’ve heard a whisper that a group of fascists want to put on some sort of display.” He looked over the top of the menu he was holding in his hands. “Is this something to do with your relic?”

Marco hesitated and Laura interrupted. “He’s sworn to secrecy!”

“I’ve heard something.” Marco was not going to be answered for. “The Vatican certainly wants its relic back, before the neo-Nazis find it.”

“You mean the head of Christ?” Riccardo had already started on his antipasto. “Two weeks ago your people thought they had it. They were pushing it on television. Now they’re denying they’ve ever seen it. It’s a funny old world isn’t it? The Vatican can’t seem to make up its mind.”

The waiter brought a second bottle of Frascati. Marco twisted the bottle around to read the label. Not a good year. The year that Anna was chased to her death below the Via Sistina for being an Italian woman.

“Don’t be too hard on the Vatican,” Marco said abruptly, dropping the bottle back onto the table. “Laura’s grandfather gave it to her father in the war in Saint Peter’s. We think her father switched it for a modern fake in the early nineteen eighties and tried to sell it.”

“He wasn’t doing anything wrong, Marco.” Laura sounded defensive. “Millions of Jews suffered in the war. Their families still need help today. You ask Bruno about it.”

“I gather you’re Jewish,” said Marco, leaning back in his chair and looking at Bruno.

Bruno pulled a face. “Only by birth. My mother never mentioned God in our household. Sure, I’ll tell you about the Nazis and the Jews, Marco, but not tonight. If you knew half of what the three of us know, you’d want to give the Canon a medal. Laura’s father was a good man.”

“I’m all for helping the poor,” agreed Marco, “but don’t you think we should forget the war?”

Laura’s eyes blazed. “Forget the war?” It was almost a shout. As heads turned at the surrounding tables she lowered her voice. “Don’t keep taking such a bloody moral attitude, Marco. The Nazis did terrible things to the Jews.”

“Not just Jews,” interrupted Riccardo; rather bravely, Marco thought. “The SS tortured my grandmother and she wasn't Jewish. They questioned her about an attack by partisans on the barracks near her home. They didn't ask about her religion. They dragged her outside into the street and made her watch while they shot my grandfather. And then they took her uncle and aunt away for deportation. Her teenage son didn't come home that evening. She never found out what had happened to him. She went mad. She didn't know anything about the partisans so she couldn't tell anything. I still have bad memories of my parents spending all their time trying to cope with her while leaving me alone. It was Nonna must have this, and Nonna must have that -- every moment of the day and night. What sort of childhood was that for me?"

“Yes, okay, not just Jews,” said Laura, pushing her plate away. “There are plenty of other people who want revenge.”

“Laura, you’re not suggesting your father wanted retribution?” The prospect appalled Marco. “He was a canon in the church.”

Laura relaxed a little. "No, but he wanted money from the neo-Nazis. He was planning to give it to the families who suffered because of the war. That's not revenge -- that's my idea of justice."

Marco felt uneasy at this statement. “It didn’t work, though. He got killed for his troubles.”

Laura shook her head. “You’re not going to tell me you see it as some kind of divine retribution, are you?”

Marco looked around with a certain amount of embarrassment. Faces glanced up from time to time, eyes glinting in the light from the candles. They were attracting too much attention. “Whatever the reason, someone murdered him.”

Bruno put down his glass and leaned forward. “We think one of the men who did it is back in Rome. More wine?” He poured some for himself but Marco declined. “We’ve been keeping an eye on a couple of Germans. They want the relic for some sort of Nazi religion nonsense, if you can believe it. You’d know more about it than I would, you being a priest.” Bruno raised his eyebrows but no one smiled.

“I think they want to show that Jesus wasn’t Jewish,” said Marco. “But he was, of course.”

“That’s not what some Christians have said for the past two thousand years,” snapped Laura. “You say that the Jews killed Jesus, and use it as an excuse for persecuting them. What do you think Jesus was, for God’s sake? Some sort of blond Aryan?”

“Of course I don’t think that,” retorted Marco. “I totally condemn the persecution of Jews. I’m just as much to blame for Jesus’ death as anybody who was there at the time. He’s the Savior of the whole world, and that includes me personally, and the Jews. You must have heard the story of the scapegoat, the innocent animal that took the blame for the sins of the Old Testament Israelites. That was a sort of picture language to make a point. Christians believe that Jesus took our sins. He was the sacrifice. What right have we to give the Jews a hard time?”

“Leave it, Marco.” Bruno raised his hands. “You’ll be standing on the table and preaching a sermon in a minute. I’m going to show you some photographs of our main suspect. Perhaps you can recognize him. We think he’s one of two men who killed Laura’s father.”

Marco regretted declining the second glass of Frascati. He reached for the bottle. Being with these journalists, on the inside so to speak, was exciting. “They might jog a memory,” he agreed. “I’ll do anything to get those men into court. They deserve to be hanged.” He could feel the return of his bitterness, but was excited by it.

“You’ve left it too late to find one of the two Germans who killed Canon Levi,” said Bruno. “His name was Rudi Bretz. He died a few years ago. A brain tumor. And don’t tell anyone I’ve shown you these pictures.”

The first two color photographs showed a large youth, a skinhead, standing by an older man with either white or very fair hair. The high glass panels in the background looked like the studios of TV Roma. Another showed the same two men standing with a third outside a hotel. Marco paused, halfway through his first mouthful of chicken. Surveillance photographs. All these questions.

“Of course I know who the first two are. I saw them before the raid. You’re not journalists. You’re either the carabinieri -- or the secret service!"

The laughter sounded authentic as well as loud. Several diners looked up from their meals again, turning in their direction.

Bruno stopped laughing and shook his head. “We’re journalists all right. Look, Marco, I have my press card here.”

A press card would be easy for the security people to come by, but the laughter convinced him. “All right, you’re journalists.” He jumped to his feet. “I’m taking these pictures to the carabinieri.”

“Sit down.” Bruno snatched the photographs from his hand. “You promised you’d keep this to yourself. If you want justice to be done, don’t talk to the carabinieri. Half of them are fascists.”

“Only half?” asked Marco, in mock disbelief.

“Yes, well, don’t take that literally. But there are enough fascists in the carabinieri to make trouble for us.” Bruno was becoming increasingly agitated. “You could blow the whole thing. You have to trust us over this.”

Marco sat down reluctantly.

“Believe me, these two men in the photographs will be caught. They’re like filthy flies. And they’re coming to a spider in his large sticky web.” Bruno lowered his voice and Marco had to lean forward to hear him above the noise of the restaurant. “The flies are now paying for their evil.”

He had no idea what Bruno meant but it sounded splendid. Was this the effect of too much wine? He wiped the condensation from the date on the bottle and poured himself another glass. The events of the last few days were releasing something that had been dormant until the death of Old Savio in the Piazza Venezia. His mind was in turmoil. Punishment for the guilty. Yes, it was good to meet Laura’s friends.

*

Monte Sisto

MO WAS UNABLE to sleep. The effort of the day had been too much, and his contorted body was now full of pain. He lay on the sacking at the edge of the cellar floor beneath the monastery and groaned. The noise echoed back off the cool stone walls.

Bad people had been in here today. “Cattivo!” The word, gasped and groaned aloud, filled the room.

Cattivo!” They were all bad.

He had been glad of the farm food today. The weather was too hot to go down there every day. His legs were weak. They hurt now. Hurt badly. His legs were cattivo. His whole body was cattivo. He tried to say the word aloud, listening to the sound coming back from his surroundings.

The man in the red station wagon was bad. The bad man was not here now. All bad men must go away.

“Man bad. Bad man dead now.” The words were in his mind but could never be formed on his lips. Just one word came out, the sound welling up from his chest, before passing through the twisted teeth of his open mouth.

Morto!

The bad man in the red station wagon was dead.

The bad man had burned in hell.

Chapter 24

The Vatican

THE PRIVATE SECRETARY coughed discreetly. “Holiness, Josef Reinhardt is here.”

Reinhardt caught sight of the Holy Father and immediately slipped past Vittorio into the private sitting room where the Pontiff was standing. This room was new territory. The Holy Father waved him towards an upright chair, one of a pair obviously prepared to receive his visitor on equal grounds.

“My little retreat,” said the Pope, as though explanations were required. “I’m glad you could come, Josef. You’re seeing the young priest Sartini later this morning, I believe.”

“For a progress report, Holiness.”

“Then maybe our meeting here is somewhat premature. I had hoped for news.”

“You know of Laura Rossetti?”

“Rossetti…?”

“Laura Rossetti, Holiness. Canon Angelo Levi’s daughter. It seems she has been in contact with Sartini.”

“Yes, Rossetti. Young Laura Rossetti.”

“It could be excellent news. Laura Rossetti’s knowledge and Sartini’s energy may enable us to recover our property.”

“And the good Monsignor Giorgio is behaving himself on the panel of inquiry?”

Josef Reinhardt allowed himself a smile. “I think I know how to keep Monsignor Augusto Giorgio in order.”

“I only wish I had your skills with the senior clergy, Josef. Perhaps you could give me lessons some time.” The Pope laughed easily, turning as a sister entered the room with a tray. “I assume you will join me for a coffee.”

Reinhardt felt surprised by the hospitality, for this should have been a short meeting. “Thank you, Holiness, Coffee would be very welcome.”

“Coffee and prayer, Josef. You must stay long enough for both. I insist on it. I am becoming increasingly concerned for young Marco Sartini. You really should give him more of the facts.” The laughter had gone now.

“Facts?” said Reinhardt. “There are no facts to give. We have sent him out on a fishing expedition, if you remember.”

The Holy Father nodded. “Ah, the bait.” He frowned. “I think we may be mixing our metaphors. I thought we were after wolves, not fish.”

Reinhardt grinned. “I am looking on this as a period of initiation. I believe Sartini has a great future serving the Church.”

“Elijah and Elisha?”

“Holiness?”

“I sometimes think you are like the Old Testament prophet Elijah, looking for the young Elisha to replace him in his old age. I would dearly love you to pass your mantle on to a successor of your choosing. But right now I want you to brief Sartini more thoroughly.”

“ Holiness, most people think they can act out a part of innocence, but rarely can they do it convincingly. For the moment, Sartini must remain trustful of those around him, and they must trust him -- for the sake of the relic."

The Pope stayed silent for a moment before becoming more relaxed. “I bow to your experience, Josef. But I want you to know that I do so reluctantly. I have been reading the files you lent me on the three journalists.”

Reinhardt watched the Pope raise the bone china cup to his lips. “Then you are aware, Holiness, that the Nazis destroyed each of their families.”

The Holy Father replaced the cup in its saucer and carefully dabbed his mouth with a white linen napkin. “That was in the past, Josef. You seriously believe the three of them are involved in this affair?”

Reinhardt stirred his coffee slowly. “Almost certainly. Though not enough to stake my life on it.”

“Yet you would stake Sartini’s life?”

“A sacred relic is up for grabs, as they say, Holiness. In the hands of today’s fascists it could become an overpowering attraction for many in the Church.”

“Forces of evil, Josef.”

Reinhardt held his cup steady, without drinking. “I doubt if the top powers in the fascist movement were involved in the events at TV Roma, and for that reason I believe Marco Sartini is still our best hope for retrieving the bronze head. The Lord willing, we can bring about the end of at least one neo-Nazi group at the same time.” He recalled the circle of red and took a sip of the dark coffee. “If Sartini becomes fully aware of his role, he will shy away from associating with certain people. At present he is gaining their confidence. Tomorrow I may be able to tell you more.”

The Pope nodded. “Perhaps I feel just a little more easy in my mind now. A few days ago you spoke of losing the rabbit in order to catch the wolf. You were not serious, were you?”

Josef Reinhardt took a deep breath. He could not lie. “Totally serious, Holiness.”

*

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

AT ELEVEN-THIRTY, Marco let himself be jostled out of the congested bus. Outside the ancient church several tourist coaches were unloading their cargoes of foreign visitors. Last night had been a disaster. Enjoyable at the time, but on waking he realized that his darker side had been fed a diet of hatred.

He pushed two tourists aside and entered Father Josef's building. He envied these crowds. Life must be so peaceful for them, transported from place to place. For a moment he was caught up in a fantasy with Laura -- or was he with Anna? It was definitely Anna. Waking up together again, getting aboard a coach and being taken off to a new destination. Away from Rome; away from the Church.

Father Josef was in the meeting room standing with his back to the bright window. A hazy silhouette like a holy shimmer surrounded the black clothing. Marco felt in no mood for any unusual or interesting visions at this moment. He moved so as to place himself between his host and the window.

“I had a terrible time with Laura’s friends last night,” he said wearily.

Father Josef sat down and beckoned Marco to do the same. Seen with the light from the window shining on him, no longer in visionary form, the old priest looked his usual down-to-earth self.

“There were, I imagine, things you heard that did not please you.”

Marco sat heavily in Amendola’s throne-like chair. “Why did Canon Angelo try to sell the relic?” he demanded angrily. “He wasn’t just selling it to anyone, he was selling it to the neo-Nazis!”

Father Josef waved a thin hand, almost in the manner of a blessing. “Are there perhaps things about Laura Rossetti that you wish to share with me?”

Could shrewd old Father Josef have divined his confused feelings towards Laura? Sister Maria had always seemed able to read his mind, but surely Father Josef was not blessed with the spiritual insight of the old nun. Sister Maria's reputed ability to read minds had kept his thoughts very pure as a growing boy -- while on Church property at any rate.

“There’s nothing in it,” Marco found himself protesting. “I know Laura’s attractive, but I intend to honor my vows of chastity.” Now he had said more than he meant to, more than he had even admitted to himself.

Father Josef raised his eyebrows. “Oh dear, I did indeed warn you to be careful, but I did not intend my warning to cover infatuation. You must most certainly honor your vows. However, although I cannot condone it, there are perhaps worse sins than a little passion pausing on its way through your mind. Consider the hatred and lack of forgiveness in the world, Marco. I had it in my mind that these were the evils against which you would be doing battle.”

No reprimand there, no lack of sympathy. Marco started to feel more at ease. Father Josef could so easily have made him feel foolish for the way he spoke of Laura, but no, the elderly priest was a person of understanding, a wise man filled with love. “I’m angry that a canon of the Church could set out to trick two men, even if they were neo-Fascists. It’s almost theft.”

“But if he wanted the money to repay those families that suffered in the war under the extreme right, is that a sin, Marco?”

“ We're talking about a holy relic, Father Josef -- about Church property!"

Father Josef stood up. "We are all the Church; but the Church, as you call us, had no wish to possess this particular relic. Canon Angelo did indeed try to hand it to the authorities after the war, while it was still covered in white paint or plaster. Maybe both. I have learned from Monsignor Augusto Giorgio that it was discredited as being nothing but a mess, and returned to him immediately. Even in those days, the Monsignor was concerned to shield the faithful from the Jewish roots of our faith -- the faith of Abraham as well as the faith of Saint Paul."

“The Brothers at Monte Sisto would have known what the relic was.”

“Ah yes, Monte Sisto. I did some homework last night, while you were out dining with your friends, young Marco.” He broke off and smiled. “That is not a rebuke. You are allowed to enjoy yourself while working for me. The community at Monte Sisto was never an accepted part of our Church.” Father Josef shook his head. “The Order at Monte Sisto was considered by many to be nonconformist, though not in the Protestant sense. Our Brothers there, may the Lord grant their souls peace, were not well received by us.”

“Laura said that the local priest betrayed them to the Nazis,” said Marco quietly. “Did he?”

“I am ashamed to say he did. The priest and the villagers thought they were doing their duty. The Vatican arranged for the bodies to be reburied after the war. Christians with Christians, Jews with Jews. I have still to discover where the Brothers’ bodies were taken. I am having the matter investigated.”

“But you do not condemn the Order?”

Father Josef smiled. “Indeed I do not. But I want to warn you that Monsignor Augusto Giorgio will be calling here shortly, so please do not mention Monte Sisto when he comes. I think he is now rather repentant, even embarrassed that he rejected the relic in nineteen forty-five at the end of World War Two. I know he returned it to Canon Angelo with some rather ungracious comments. The name of Monte Sisto is a painful one for him. This is confidential, of course.”

Father Josef glanced behind him, as though to make sure the room was empty. Only the dark faces in the heavy frames stared down, silent witnesses to this indiscretion. “Many in the Vatican are now becoming inclined to the idea that the bronze head, brought to Saint Peter’s by Canon Angelo’s father, may truly have been from the statue seen by Eusebius.”

“Is that why you want me to find it?” Marco could not believe that the infighting amongst the Vatican staff could be quite so small-minded. “Do you want to embarrass Monsignor Giorgio?”

“Indeed I do not, Marco. I want to stop the neo-Nazis from promoting a dangerous lie. But if this object is genuine, and I say if, then we could have a wonderful indication of the visual appearance of Jesus Christ. It would be considerably more distinct than the image on the Shroud of Turin that many still believe to be our Lord’s features. There have, of course, been other holy relics allegedly bearing the imprint of the Savior’s passion. Objects like the Veronica, the sweatcloth from the sixth Station of the Cross.”

Marco rose from Amendola’s throne and walked to the window. The traffic below was as busy as ever. “Why are we calling it a relic? Part of a statue can’t be holy.”

“An interesting opinion, Marco, but relics are not necessarily the remains of a holy person. Articles that the saints touched in their lifetime are often considered to be relics. The people who made the statue knew our Savior. He healed the woman of her internal bleeding when she dared reach out and touch his cloak. Subsequently, according to Eusebius, people were healed when they touched the statue. The Holy Father shares my opinion that there is no problem in considering the head of that statue to be a sacred relic.”

Marco felt surprised. Father Josef was speaking as though he knew something firsthand of the Holy Father’s views.

“Marco, do you know what the poet Dante said about the Veronica, when he saw the imprint allegedly left when Christ wiped his face on the way to the cross? He stood in awe and wrote the words: ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, very God, was this then Your true semblance?’” Father Josef gave a broad smile as he leaned over, lowering his voice slightly. “Tell me, Marco, would you not like to see that face while still in this life?”

“And Canon Angelo tried to sell it! He tried to sell it to those … those maledetti! Excuse me, Father.”

Father Josef spoke softly. “Can we sit in judgment? He knew what he was selling was just a copy of the real article. The money was to be reparation for the dreadful suffering inflicted on the Jews by the Nazis.”

“Laura said the same sort of thing last night. You both sound as though you hate the Germans,” said Marco.

Father Josef sighed. “Then I am sorry. Germany is the country that gave me birth, and I love my people. My passport is German. The vast majority of German people today are totally opposed to a fascist revival. A few years ago I was one of three million Germans who marched by candlelight as a protest against the extreme right.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“ A shrine -- a so-called Christian shrine -- holds considerably more attraction than a political creed. I will just have a look. I can hear my countrymen saying it. Once inside, the seduction would start. Names taken for a register of those interested in further contact. Danger indeed, Marco. The insidious lure of mysticism. People are always drawn by the promise of something new and powerful. Such promises led many of us astray in the war.”

“Laura told me the Nazis shot Canon Angelo’s family.” Marco closed his eyes. “Against a wall. I was taught we had to leave vengeance to God. Now I’m not so sure. Vengeance is a powerful force, Father Josef.” He felt uncomfortable, walking from the window to the table as he spoke.

The old priest shook his head. "Powerful, yes, but also destructive. Do not wish the judgment of God upon anyone, Marco -- not even upon your most evil enemy. Try instead to pray for their forgiveness. Can you do that?"

Marco had a vivid picture of Anna lying on the steps. His anger at the three drunken tourists and the terrible craving for revenge. His anger at being falsely accused by the carabinieri of involvement in Anna’s death. The hatred, the bitterness that had twisted into his heart like a knife. His ruined life, the long nights, the tears.

“It’s hard. I’ve never prayed for the men who killed Anna. Yes, perhaps I should.”

“Life is hard, Marco. You must remember: God’s forgiveness is a free gift, through the death of Jesus on the cross. No one can earn it. I have always thought that it is easier for God to forgive than it is for man. We find it hard to forgive and offer love at the same time. God offers his forgiveness because he loves us, but because of pride many do not take it. Do not judge Angelo Levi too harshly. I cannot believe he would have allowed the neo-Nazis to bask for long in their new-found glory. He would surely have come into the open with the genuine relic, and completely discredited them. They could hardly ask for their money back, and he would be free to give it away as he thought best.”

“Perhaps,” Marco conceded somewhat reluctantly.

Father Josef laughed. “It might not be divine justice but it would certainly be good enough for me.”

Marco looked down into the piazza. A figure was marching purposefully towards the building making passers-by jump aside. It was Monsignor Augusto Giorgio, his black cassock flowing. He was sailing along like a dark pirate ship in a storm ready for battle.

“You’re talking as though you know something of Canon Angelo’s motives, Father Josef.”

“Perhaps I do. Even senior figures in the Church require someone to confide in.”

“Then if you…” Marco paused. It would be insubordinate to suggest that Father Josef had been party to a conspiracy. And would he admit to it anyway?

The Monsignor had already entered the building. A further question might help, but Marco knew he must be quick. Laura had asked it first, by the fig trees. “Can the motive make the action right?”

Before Father Josef could answer, the black clad Monsignor thrust himself into the large chamber, cutting short any further speculation on divine condemnation and forgiveness.

Chapter 25

LAURA CAME ROUND in the early afternoon to say that her car had turned up near the Via Nazionale. The Alfa had become the center of attraction for the stradale, the traffic police, who had found it illegally parked. Laura said she was pleased to be reunited with her car, and Marco responded that he was pleased to be reunited with Laura. They walked together to recover it.

“ I'll see if I can get it going," he offered as he got inside and studied the broken steering lock. "I know a thing or two about hot-wiring." He laughed. "It's my background in used cars. If the detector's okay, can you take me back to Monte Sisto for one more look? It's what we went there for yesterday -- before you had your car stolen. We need to find the bronze head and we're desperately short of time."

Laura hesitated before agreeing, as though making an important decision. Then she gave him a firm but slightly self-conscious hug. "We'll go now -- if you can start the engine."

Ten minutes later Marco wiped his hands and put the key in the ignition. The engine fired immediately. Laura would need a new steering lock but it had been easy to put the wiring back correctly, and there was no rush to get it fixed. The person who had hot-wired the Alfa certainly knew his job.

“ I learned to do this in the trade." Marco climbed across into the passenger seat. "It was legal -- most of the time. Drive gently, Laura, I've had a bad morning with Monsignor Giorgio. The Vatican can't seem to make up its mind what I should be doing. First I'm told to look for the relic, then the Monsignor turns up shouting that I've got to stop."

He wanted sympathy from Laura. Augusto Giorgio was a difficult man to get on with; but Father Josef, although being significantly outranked by a monsignor, had made good use of the telephone. It would be easy to believe that the old priest had power considerably beyond his status.

“Three more days, Laura. That’s all they’ve given me to wrap this up, and then I’m being moved on to other duties.”

Laura said nothing as she swung the silver Alfa into the fast-moving traffic, slipping between a row of vehicles waiting at the first street junction. Marco shut his eyes. Laura, even when not in a hurry, made good use of the accelerator and considerably less use of the brakes. “I told Father Josef we went to Monte Sisto yesterday. He’s contacted someone in the records department and they confirm that the Vatican arranged the reburial of the Christian Brothers after the war.”

“And?” Laura turned to face him, apparently oblivious of the rapidly diminishing distance between their car and the one in front. There was something hostile about her attitude.

Marco shrugged. “It’s somewhere in Umbria. The records are badly filed. They’re looking into it.”

“You weren’t meant to tell anyone what we're doing." Laura sounded furious and raised her voice. "You've broken a confidence, Marco -- and you still don’t know where the monks are buried!”

“Don’t start on at me, Laura. I don’t need to say sorry,” he protested. “I still think Canon Angelo took the bronze head back to Monte Sisto and buried it there. The neo-Nazis are after it, so we can’t afford to waste time.”

Laura sounded repentant. “Yes, well, I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but I don’t want Riccardo finding out what we’re doing. He and Bruno can get very hot-tempered. They’ve gone off somewhere together. Maybe it’s not Monte Sisto.”

Marco felt a chill in the car. "Maybe? What do you mean -- maybe? You should have told me this before we went to get your Alfa. You're sure Bruno and Riccardo aren't trying to find the relic first?"

“I told you yesterday, they’re doing something quite different. They’re planning to smash the fascist movement.”

“At Monte Sisto?”

“Forget about them and enjoy the drive.”

Marco felt for his seat belt fastening and made sure it was firmly latched. “I’ll try. I’ve been thinking: there are bound to be older graves somewhere on the hill. The monks must have been burying each other for centuries. The few graves at the top of the hill are almost as old as the monastery. No one’s been digging there. So where are all the other graves?”

 

Monte Sisto

THEY PARKED in a small disused quarry beneath the hill from where they could walk up between the ancient olive trees. The path would take them to a level patch to one side of the main route up, well below the high rock where the monastery was built. Marco carried the spade and Laura took the detector. Although the path climbed gently, the ascent in the heat exhausted them both. As they paused for breath, Marco noticed the small cemetery.

The monks had buried one much loved brother after another on a level patch of the hill. The small garden up at the monastery could never have held all these graves.

Marco extended the telescopic stem and switched on the detector. The small loudspeaker squealed loudly. With the tuning knob turned down and the circular search head set at a comfortable angle to the ground, he began to swing it from side to side in gentle sweeps. Laura threw a handful of coins on the grass while he adjusted the sensitivity until the detector gave a short blast from the speaker every time the search head passed over them. It even worked on a single coin.

“Impressed?” he asked. “I just have to be careful not to pick up the metal crosses on the graves.”

Neat rows of iron crosses were now overgrown with tall grass and brambles. Here was the final resting place for each member of the spurned order of Monte Sisto, betrayed by the official Church. Marco looked up to see the ruins of the monastery perched high above. He kicked a stone down the slope and watched it bounce until it fetched up against the broken stump of an olive tree. Then he swept the detector over the first grave in the row and the speaker beeped a continuous note.

“There’s iron all around the grave,” said Laura. “It’s not just the cross.”

They moved to the next grave and the same thing happened. “The Jews shared a shelter with Christians and they shared a common death,” Marco said tensely, “but the leaders of the two religions said they couldn’t share a final resting place. I find that deplorable.”

“If you think Jews can be buried on Christian ground, you’re naïve!” snapped Laura.

The detector was totally confused by the iron. “I know it’s the rules, but I bet the community here wouldn’t have wanted it that way. Nor would your family.” He wouldn’t get into an argument. He smiled wryly. “Every grave is covered in metal bits and pieces. It’s going to be the same at the top. And look at all these thorns. It’s like nature gone wild.”

“That’s because nature is wild,” said Laura grumpily, hitting the brambles away from a grave with a short stick. “We’re city dwellers, that’s our trouble.”

Rocky outcrops and dark shrubs broke through the grass on the steep hill, the rock face folding back in places to make the smallest of caves. These crevices seemed too narrow to provide shelter even for sheep, but there were enough of them to make the search for the missing relic an almost impossible task. He pushed the detector search head into a few at random. The speaker remained silent. They would need pegs to mark the off the holes as they searched them. They were going to need far more than the three days allowed by Monsieur Giorgio.

“We’ll start here and work our way up the hill,” said Laura.

“I don’t suppose the relic has to be buried,” said Marco. “Your father didn’t say anything about it being buried. He just said the Living was amongst the dead.”

“That’s sounds like a grave to me.”

“And me. Ask Riccardo or Bruno if they can borrow a couple of metal detectors that tune out iron. We can search the graves properly with good detectors.”

Laura shook her head in alarm. “I told you, they don’t even know we’re here. I don’t see why…” She broke off and listened. Down below, someone was blowing a car horn with long blasts; a strong, vibrant tone. “It’s Riccardo!”

“Are you sure?” Yesterday Bruno had turned up; now Laura’s boyfriend was here. This was not chance. They probably were after the relic.

Laura shook her head in dismay. “I’ll go down and find out what he wants. I expect he’s seen my car. I thought we’d hidden it well in the quarry. Riccardo will be all right if he doesn’t know you’re with me. Just make sure you stay out of sight with the detector.”

Laura’s bare arm felt soft as he gave it a gentle squeeze. He sounded more cheerful than he felt. “I’m not bothered about Riccardo. I can stand up for myself if I have to. I’ll tell him I talked you into bringing me here.”

“Not a good idea. Just keep away.”

“He’s not jealous is he? I’m sure he trusts us to behave ourselves.” It was a clumsy joke and he immediately regretted making it.

“I should hope he does.” Laura sounded unexpectedly hostile. “You surely can’t think we’ve got anything going together. I’m Riccardo’s girl.”

The words hurt. “I’ll give you ten minutes, then I’m coming,” he said curtly.

He watched Laura hurry down the hill, holding on to the long branches of the olive trees to swing herself from one level of ground to the next. Towards the bottom he could see stone walls and traces of early terracing, but years of neglect had taken their toll. Laura was having trouble getting through the undergrowth in places. He could have kicked himself for what he'd said. He'd spoiled the friendship -- whatever sort of friendship it had been.

There was no way he was going to hide because of Riccardo. There seemed to be an alternative route to Laura’s car from this plateau of graves. It would be longer, but he was in no hurry. If he could judge the mood of a driver from the way he sounded his horn, then a meeting with Riccardo Fermi should be avoided. This was an unhealthy place. The feeling might be irrational, but there was a sensation of death in the air. He picked up the detector and spade. He was waiting no longer.

Close to the road he passed a low stone barn, a building in a poor state of repair with no roof. Around the walls he could see smoke stains, fresh and black against the red, weathered stone. A sharp unpleasant smell made him choke. A mixture of burning plastic and… He sniffed deeply as he got closer. The smell was not unlike that of a barbecue.

The wide doorway to the roofless barn contained the smoldering remains of a station wagon. A large Audi, probably once dark red, stood on massive five-spoke alloy wheels, its tires melted in the intense heat. The fuel tank must have gone up in a ball of flame shattering the car’s windows. A glow of warmth struck him in the face. He put the detector down but held the spade defensively.

Then he saw the charred body bent over the distorted steering wheel, its wrists bound to the rim with thick wire.

“What the hell are you up to, Sartini?”

He spun round. Riccardo stood in the doorway.

“This is horrible. I feel sick.” Laura stood white faced at the open door to the old barn, holding tightly onto Riccardo’s arm.

Riccardo looked as smartly dressed as he had been in the restaurant. He spoke angrily to Laura. “You’re a stupid cow. Vacca! I can’t think why you came back, and I can’t think why you had to bring him!” He seemed to have no interest in the body in the Audi as he jerked his thumb at Marco.

Marco ignored the contempt. “Is this a suicide?”

“You’re mad, Sartini. Haven’t you noticed?” Riccardo kicked some dust from the doorway against the warped registration plate. “This is a German vehicle.”

It might be nothing more than a coincidence but Marco remembered a red Audi station wagon driving this way yesterday with German plates. The stench of burned plastic and flesh clung to the inside of his nose. Wherever he stood the smell of violent death hit him with each intake of breath.

Laura gasped something that Marco was unable to hear. Whatever it was, it made Riccardo put his arm round her. Riccardo’s voice sounded more gentle now. “It’s too late, Laura. Look at him, there’s nothing we can do to help.”

“So who do we tell?” Marco spoke more to himself than to the others.

Laura tried to whisper something to Riccardo but he shrugged her off. “This is a German car, Marco!”

“So?”

“ A German car at Monte Sisto. You still don't understand, so I'll explain. There are plenty of people in Monte Sisto who remember the war. People who had their lives ruined, their families tortured, their children taken. Every village around here has horrifying stories of Nazi brutality to tell. They fought the German occupiers secretly. They set ambushes and killed them. You can be sure they still know how to kill them today." He flung an arm out in the direction of the unfriendly village. "There are still partisans -- and that’s where they come from!”

Marco blew his nose violently. The smell seemed less disgusting. Either that or he was growing accustomed to the tang of scorched flesh. “I can’t believe local people would kill an innocent German tourist. It’s ridiculous!”

Laura held tightly to Riccardo’s arm as he whispered in her ear. Then she said, “It might be true, Marco. Terrible things happened in the region. Maybe they’re still happening.”

Riccardo turned away from the burned Audi. "She's right. If you don't believe us, walk to the village, or go down to that farm. Go on, report this death -- and see what they do to us. We've got to think of Laura."

Marco stared at the funeral pyre. A sudden cracking noise from the bodywork made him jump. It was only the metal contracting, but it made him realize there could be people prowling about. Someone had taken Laura’s Alfa yesterday afternoon. The hill of Monte Sisto seemed an odd place, though the little village was odder still.

“So what now?”

Riccardo was already outside with Laura leaning on his arm. “We just get the hell out of here, Marco. Rapidamente! And for Laura’s sake we keep our mouths shut.”

A sudden breeze blew a cloud of acrid smoke and warm air from the stone doorway. Marco moved into the open air but the smell was still there. His imagination was too vivid to allow his stomach to lie inactive any longer and he went round the corner of the barn to be sick.

Riccardo Fermi had been strangely unmoved by the sight of the corpse gripping the wheel. Marco returned for a further glance inside. The blackened corpse looked set to drive the shell of the station wagon from the stone building; the gaping mouth of brown, even teeth shouting for the way ahead to be cleared. But it was easy to see that the shackled figure had never stood a chance once the first tongues of flame licked up eagerly.

“ You're a priest, and you're scared to look at death?" Riccardo's voice was full of scorn. "If you want to be afraid of anything, Marco, be afraid of the partisans -- the people in the village who did this. Come on!

Marco felt ashamed of his behavior. He was still a priest. He had neglected the brief prayer for peace for a man’s soul in order to find peace for himself.

“I was only joking,” called Riccardo as Marco strode back into the barn. “That man was a stronzo . Bastards like that don't deserve mercy -- alive or dead. They thought nothing of burning whole communities alive in the war."

Marco returned to the doorway. “This stronzo as you call him could have been an innocent tourist. Surely you don’t see every German as a Nazi?”

Riccardo spat on the grass in contempt. “Stronzo! Bastard! This man was contaminated by Nazi filth! If you go near him you’ll be contaminated, too!”

“You knew him?” It seemed the only possible explanation for Riccardo’s outburst.

Riccardo turned away from the barn. “I’m taking Laura away from here.”

Laura was crying, whispering into Riccardo’s ear again. Riccardo tried without success to comfort her.

Marco felt compelled to return inside and pray with the body. “You two go on back to Laura’s Alfa. I’ll join you soon.”

“You’re not going to do anything stupid?” Riccardo sounded anxious.

“Stupid?”

“Like going to report this death. It’s nothing to do with us. Nothing! Someone will find the body soon enough, and I don’t want Laura to be involved. Even if you’re not bothered about your own life you’ve got to think of Laura Rossetti. Partisans never want witnesses.”

Laura looked up, her face still pale. “Do what you have to do, then go back to the quarry and wait. Riccardo says his car is with mine. It’s dark blue.”

Marco carried out his ritual over the burned body, but the words were empty. This was not loveable Old Savio on the sidewalk in the Piazza Venezia. The harsh words of Riccardo about Nazi guilt made the prayer for peace sound a sham, a finzione.

 

MO WATCHED FROM the dense shelter of the fig trees that grew wild and neglected at one side of the old stone building. He liked the man who had gone back into the barn. He was a man who would show some kindness to a scemo bambino. But the kind man was going away. Mo’s breath came quickly, his misshapen chest unable to keep up with the fast intakes. Bad people had come back. The bad man who hurt the driver of the big red station wagon. Maybe there would be another fire. Another look into the doorway of hell.

He felt tired. His body was all pain. He needed rest. He needed food. The rats had eaten his food last night. The bad man and the woman were talking loudly. He listened, taking in some of the words and sorting them into simple phrases.

The woman was saying, “You kill him. Bruno kill him, too. You come here yesterday to kill him.”

The bad man sounded very angry, “We all want him dead.”

The woman said, “You want to kill more people. You bad.”

The thoughts and the words went round in his mind in a muddle. The bad man said the woman must help kill more men. The woman was saying no. The woman walked away then came back. She said she no idea the body was here.

Woman and bad man started shouting.

Woman cry.

From the shelter of the large leaves Mo felt moved to comfort the woman crying such big tears. Slowly he dragged himself from the fig trees.

Cattivo!” The sharp first syllable followed by the long drawn out gasp of the other two made the bad man and the woman look up in fright.

“Bad! You bad!”

Behind Mo, the ground fell away steeply. There were thick bushes down there by the side of the road. His body hurt. Bad man look at him. Woman cry out. Bad man pick up stone. Bad man come to him.

Bad man cattivo.

Exhausted, twisted, and wracked with pain, Mo tried to drag himself away.

The man brought the stone down on his head. A light of dazzling intensity made him cry out just once as he fell backwards over the rock face.

The pain vanished and the white light filled his mind.

 

MARCO WAS RELIEVED to discover the two cars in the old quarry. He waited impatiently for Laura and Riccardo to catch up with him. Riccardo was right: Monte Sisto was not a secure place. Anyone might be in the bushes watching, ready to claim a further victim. He had already heard a shout in the distance. But the carabinieri had to be told about the body in the barn. And they had to be told today.

He became aware of a sound amongst the bushes. A breaking branch. Someone was coming along the edge of the hill. The leaves shivered.

To his relief he heard Laura and Riccardo talking and saw them emerge from the narrow path. Laura looked even more pale, if that was possible; her large brown eyes empty of life.

“It’s a bad place this,” said Marco, wondering if Laura was as sensitive to the atmosphere as he was.

“That’s because terrible things happened here in the war.” Laura sniffled, still holding Riccardo’s arm.

Marco added, “Yesterday as well, by the look of that body. Do you honestly think someone killed him because of the war?”

Laura burst into tears. “That man was a German, Marco. He deserved to die.”

“Then you must know something I don’t,” snapped Marco. “I can’t get a signal on my cell phone. Whether you like it or not, I’m going to that farm over there to report the body.”

“Then you’d better take Laura’s car back to Rome. We’re not hanging around. And don’t mention our names.”

 

THE FARMER TOOK a dislike to the man who came banging on his farmhouse door, claiming to be a priest. He called himself Father Marco, but no priest wearing jeans and without a clerical collar had ever set foot in Monte Sisto before. If this was the modern Church it might as well close down tomorrow. It made him feel good to think that he had given up going. But he sensed an urgency about the man’s manner that was compelling, and he went with him reluctantly to the barn.

He stood there in front of his barn with the stranger. Never before had he seen such a grim end to a life. Last night Mo claimed he had seen something that obviously frightened him. Mo had turned up at the farm talking about flames, but he was used to the youth’s stupid behavior by now and had taken no notice. The barn was nothing but a shell, and would need good money spending on it before it could be used in the autumn. Perhaps there would be insurance.

He turned away in frustration. He didn’t want people nosing around his property. Before the authorities came, he would have to hide the drums of surplus fertilizer that were neatly stacked in the yard behind the house. Surely this young man wasn’t with the plain clothes carabinieri, spying on his private dealings.

That body in the barn couldn’t have been there for more than a day or two. This man who said he was a priest told him to call the carabinieri. He’d phone the press first. After hiding things he didn’t want seen. There was money to be made from the press. And from the television.

He was worried. One of his daughters had walked to the village earlier to see a friend. Not many vehicles used this road, but those that did were often driven too fast. It sounded as though someone was lying injured in the bushes. Then came the sobbing moan, the half formed words he knew so well.

The bushes, mostly buckthorn and junipers, grew thickly with no easy way between the branches. The priest was already pulling back some of the growth. The farmer moved slowly forward then stopped in horror.

“Mo? Is that you, Mo?”

 

MO LAY ON his back, feeling saliva running down his cheeks. The noise of the voices made him cry out again. The pain in his head was terrible, greater than anything he had suffered before. The shapes of the people were like clouds with no detail. He looked at the two men, not knowing who they were, not knowing if they were friend or foe. One of them sounded like the children’s father. The people in the village were enemy. Bad people. Cattivo. He was afraid of them.

 

MARCO SQUATTED down at the youth’s side. Why had Riccardo and Laura driven off so quickly? Riccardo had been very anxious to get away from Monte Sisto, and he didn’t seem to be doing it solely for Laura’s safety. Surely they didn’t know about this teenager lying injured in the bushes. He shrugged. Riccardo had been in such a bad mood that he could easily have been left here stranded without a car. At least they’d told him to take Laura’s car back to Rome when he’d finished with the carabinieri. Well, the carabinieri would have plenty to do now.

He gently touched the youth’s blood-stained forehead. It felt hot and feverish. This was going to be a long day, and he could do with Laura’s company right now. Laura would have been able to offer comfort to the disabled youngster while the farmer returned to his farm to phone for help.

“You’ll be okay,” he whispered. But he couldn’t say it convincingly.

Chapter 26

Via Nazionale

ON THE WINDOW SILL were small packets of instant coffee, an electric kettle, and white plastic cups -- all courtesy of the hotel -- and a revolting synthetic creamer in tiny brown plastic pots. Kessel switched on the kettle and ripped the top off a sachet of coffee. The television kept pumping out idiotic programs, but he felt obliged to keep watching TV Roma in case they announced that the relic had been found, or gave a news-flash on the fate of the missing photographer. But every news headline turned out to be nothing but a catalogue of non-events. Otto would never ring now. The pervert was history, but surely he would have kept in contact with his precious mother.

“I could murder that Otto Bayer!”

Otto still wasn’t answering the cell phone number. The photographer’s radios had been pathetic. Probably his phone was just as feeble, and it was now dead.

Karl was also useless. He had made no serious attempt to track down Sartini, but there must be some way to find the priest. He opened the small notebook that had been with his wallet. Karl had done well to get at least something back from the Gypsy dross.

The loss of the members’ names and phone numbers was a catastrophe. The list had been put together over the years, added to whenever someone let classified information drop. No one knew of its existence. Some of those numbers could lead an inquisitive person straight to the senior members of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung. Phönix would be furious if he ever found out who was behind the raid on TV Roma, and even more furious if he discovered his name was on the list stolen by the Gypsies. And why hadn’t the bank sent a replacement card? Karl kept insisting that the old one was cancelled and a new one was on its way to the hotel by express mail.

Kessel flicked through the pages of the bedside phone directory for a list of Vatican numbers. He would probably be passed from switchboard to switchboard in the search for Sartini’s address, but at least he could speak Italian.

Karl had gone out immediately after lunch claiming he would easily find Sartini. Kessel sighed. More likely the boy had gone out in search of a woman, and was spending the ADR’s money on selfish enjoyment rather than on the promotion of the sacred Shrine.

He picked up the telephone again. He’d not wanted to contact Otto’s parents but it had to be done.

Ja, spricht Monika Bayer.”

The voice brought back the smell of damp and embrocation in the gloomy apartment. The curtains would still be almost closed, with rain dripping down the window.

“Kessel here. Manfred Kessel.”

“Herr Kessel, where are you?” Frau Bayer sounded frantic.

“Do you know where Otto is, Frau Bayer?”

“He is not with you?” she asked in alarm. “Otto has phoned us every evening; but we did not hear from him last night, and we have not heard from him today. We have been so worried, Helmut and I. Tell me, Herr Kessel, is Otto well?”

“Very well.”

“Yet you do not know where he is?”

“He is working out of town, Frau Bayer,” he lied easily. “If he phones, tell him to ring us at the hotel immediately. I will give you the number now.”

The old witch seemed pretty sharp. She wrote it down correctly first time. The call over, Kessel kicked off his shoes and lay on the bed smoking one of his last German cigarettes. “Damn Karl!” He hoped the boy would do whatever he had gone out to do quickly, and get back to this miserable hotel.

The problem was resolved with Karl’s distinctive tap at the door.

Kessel went to unlock it. “Well, young man, any luck?”

“What a woman!” Karl didn’t need to say anything more. The clenched and raised fist, and the look in his eyes, said that Sartini had been able to spend the afternoon in safety. But Kessel was in no doubt that one of the local whores was now counting a handful of ADR money.

Money would be a grave problem soon. He should never have shared the cash from the hotel safe with Karl. It was no more secure with this young hooligan than it was with the Gypsies.

“You did phone the bank and arrange a new card, didn’t you?”

Karl said nothing as he walked to the washbasin, rinsed his hands, and dried them on the white cotton towel.

The thought of what might still be on the boy's fingers was nauseating. "I hope you washed thoroughly -- that's my towel."

“Any news of Otto, Herr Kessel?” Karl began cleaning his fingernails with the point of his Göring dagger, then confirmed an afternoon spent in the pursuit of happiness by flopping backwards onto the bed exhausted.

“Go and lie in your own room. And if you want some advice I’d have a long, hot shower. With plenty of soap.” There was no humor in his voice. No tipping back of the head, no reason to laugh. Sex was always disgusting. But in the daytime? Karl Bretz’s attitude to life was repulsive.

*

Renata Bastiani’s apartment

BRUNO, WHY DON’T you go out and find a nice girl? Why don’t you do that for your old mother?”

The room was getting hotter by the minute as the stagnant evening air from the courtyard drifted in through the open window. The smell from the drains from the yard, and the drone of heavy traffic broken by car horns recalled the summer evenings of childhood. Bruno Bastiani knelt on the rug beside his mother, letting her run gentle fingers through his hair. The hair got less each year, yet the fingers brought the same comfort, the same reassurance that he was wanted. Lately he had become aware of a change in Mamma’s manner. Sometimes it seemed she was confusing the past with the present. The doctor said it happened a lot with elderly people, the old memories being the ones most deeply etched in the mind.

“Why don’t you talk any more to your Mamma about the girls, Bruno?”

“Please, Mamma, not now.” At sixty, he had more important things to do than waste his energy on futile affairs. “Laura Rossetti is helping me investigate the neo-Nazis with Riccardo Fermi. All we want is justice.”

“I like Laura, but I don’t like Riccardo. He’s no good for you, that man. He’ll lead you into trouble.”

Bruno sighed. “Riccardo works with me in the newspaper office, Mamma. He has every reason to hate the Nazis. His family has suffered dreadfully. That madman in the Via Tasso turned his grandmother insane.”

“Be sure you ask Laura round here again soon, Bruno.”

“I’m sure she would like that.” He moved his Mamma’s hand down so she could rub his shoulder. “The new Nazis ruined Laura’s life nearly twenty years ago, just like the wartime Nazis ruined ours. One of them killed Laura’s father when she was just a child.”

“You have to stop thinking about things like that, Bruno.”

“The war was bad for us, Mamma.”

“You must forget about it, Bruno. You were only a little boy in the war.”

“I can’t forget it, Mamma, not now.” His Mamma understood nothing. “I did it for Laura at first. She asked me to look in the newspaper files to see what we had on the SS in Rome. Sturmbannführer Kessel destroyed other families apart from ours. There are so many documents in the office.”

“You’re a clever boy at work, Bruno. You deserve to do well.”

“Please, Mamma, a coffee.”

He moved aside, allowing her to go to the kitchen to attend to his wishes. She would do anything for him. He and his mother had that special understanding. He was always the favorite.

“Your coffee won’t be long, Bruno.”

“Thank you, Mamma. You’re good to me. I’m glad it’s only the two of us here tonight.”

“Don’t do anything to bring shame on the family, Bruno.”

He laughed. The killing of Enzo's team had started. The driver of the red Audi had been as scared as hell yesterday afternoon -- screaming for pity while his two friends were out of the way at the top of the hill. But there was no pity. The zoticone, the skinhead lout called Karl Bretz would be next. He could prove difficult. But Enzo would be easy to kill. His half-brother was a fool.

The freshly ground coffee tasted excellent. His Mamma bought it specially for him from a little stall in the mercato. He sat at the table and made some notes, resting the sheet of paper on the television magazine so as not to mark the highly polished surface. Mamma had taught him to be house-proud.

The carabinieri had found Otto's body too soon. The visit today had been to confirm that everything was ready for the next stage of the trap at Monte Sisto. The web had caught its first victim, but Sartini had blundered in and put their plan in jeopardy. Unfortunately Riccardo had failed to convince Sartini to keep quiet -- even for Laura's sake. That young priest was too moral. Most men would do anything for a pretty woman.

Bruno began to write. No longer could they set a trap at Monte Sisto. Riccardo must phone Enzo at the hotel in the Via Nazionale tonight, telling him to come to the Colosseum in the morning -- to the upper level, high above the arena in which so many bloody scenes had been played out in the past.

He recalled something Riccardo had said earlier. “He’ll be identified by the carabinieri as your brother.”

He’d nodded, almost in relief. “Half-brother. Perhaps it will be good for me. Purge me of the demon for ever.”

“And your mother?”

Bruno looked up now as his mother came into the room with the coffee in his favorite cup. Yes, his mother would be purged of the demon too.

He sat back. Laura had done well by making friends with the young priest. Sartini had fed them bits of information straight from the Vatican. The spider’s web was secure, and soon it would catch all the guilty. Young Karl Bretz was next, and then Enzo. Two deaths at the Colosseum.

“Open the window wider, Bruno. There seems to be no air. Laura is young, but she would be so right for you. Don’t let Riccardo Fermi have her.”

“ No, Mamma." But there could soon be a problem with Laura and Marco Sartini. Laura was setting her sights on the priest -- in spite of her vehement denials. She'd not wanted him at first. He was merely a tool in their quest for revenge. And then she learned of his marriage and the death of his wife called Anna. For some reason that made her become obsessed with him. Not that Riccardo minded -- or so he said. That was probably true: Riccardo Fermi had only started dating Laura to make her feel committed to the group.

He let out a long sigh. “Laura is just a friend, Mamma.”

Laura was not so useful now. Antipatica! The silly bitch claimed she didn't know there would be a killing. What did she think they were going to do -- smack the German driver on the wrist? Laura couldn't agree to be involved and then stand to one side. Of all the three, by losing her father, she had the deepest motive for revenge.

“Enzo Bastiani, or Manfred Kessel as you’re calling yourself, we’re coming for you.”

“What did you say, my son?”

“Nothing you need distress yourself about, Mamma. I’m going out to see Riccardo.”

“You be careful, Bruno. He’s a bad man.”

“Riccardo Fermi is a good friend, Mamma.”

Riccardo was a killer. He had killed Otto Bayer slowly with a knife as he screamed for mercy. Only then had they hidden the Audi in the barn, tying the body to the steering wheel. Riccardo wanted to set fire to the car with Bayer still alive, still screaming. It would have been interesting to see Enzo’s reaction when he ran down the hill, drawn by the smoke and the flames. But with Marco in the area, the risk was too great.

Bruno laughed to himself. The fire had gone well in the darkness, when he’d slipped back there to set light to the car last night before the meal. The grasping farmer had obligingly called the TV station as well as the carabinieri when he’d found the burned body. Enzo and the skinhead Bretz would see the news on television tonight, and they’d think their friend had fried to death.

Local partisans! Brilliant! Riccardo was right: there were partisans -- three of them -- aided by a young priest who had no idea of his role.

“Mamma, I have a plan. You will be proud of me.”

The plan was perfect. He stood up and clapped his hands. “Buona notte, Mamma. I may be back late.”

He gave his Mamma a long, long kiss.

*

Via Nazionale

KESSEL SLAPPED his thighs and laughed aloud. The last of several phone calls to the Vatican produced an address for Marco Sartini, although the woman in the staff office cautioned him that the address might be an old one. According to her records the man was about to take up a parish appointment.

“Karl, you can go round later tonight and check out this address. If the priest is there, get him to let you into his room, and kill him.”

“Trust me.” Karl had slept until the evening, but now seemed back on form, apparently keen to get on with the work he had been selected to do.

“Make sure there are no mistakes this time. If you kill the wrong priest, we’ll alert Sartini.”

“Me? Make mistakes? I’m going to get some beer.”

Karl banged his way from the room in a huff. Kessel turned up the television volume and waited for the headlines. The opening shot was from a camera zooming in on the remains of a burned-out station wagon. The caption said Monte Sisto. He knew at once that the vehicle was an Audi, knew that the charred carcass behind the wheel was Otto Bayer. He went to the sink to be sick.

He sat in the chair and began to shake. The pervert was dead. Evil was on the loose. He sat there for nearly an hour, until the ring of the telephone made him jump.

An Italian man’s voice said, “Signor Kessel? I expect you’ve heard about your friend’s tragic death.”

“I can’t believe it. Someone killed him. Who…?”

“I understand how you feel, Signor Kessel. Believe me, I’m a sympathizer of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung here in Rome. You need not concern yourself. My friends and I will make sure that justice is done. Otto gave me a large package which is for you. Something he found at Monte Sisto. Something you are looking for, he said. We can meet tomorrow morning and I will hand it over.”

“I want to know…”

“You ask too many questions, my friend. It is better that you do not know too much. You can leave justice to us.”

“All right. Where do we meet?”

“How about the Colosseum? Ten o’clock. We’ll all be safe there. Go up the stone steps to the top level. On the side facing the cross in the arena, and wait for me.”

“How will I know you?”

“Do not worry, my friend, because I will know you. Have your young companion with you, but do not come before ten.”

“Tell me who you are.” But the man at the far end had already ended the call. He swore loudly. In Germany he could have arranged for an electronic trace to be put on the call. Unfortunately the ADR’s powers did not yet extend to Italy.

The object he was looking for at Monte Sisto? There could be only one large object of interest from the derelict monastery! He clapped his hands together. In spite of Otto’s appalling death, nothing would stop him going to the Colosseum to regain his family property: the bronze head of Jesus Christ.

He stripped off the bedcover Karl had lain on earlier and stretched out on the bed. He could never be too careful. But Karl had his uses in spite of his distasteful habits. The boy would be back soon. He would have to be told about Otto, and they would go out and rent a small sedan. With the relic in their hands tomorrow morning, it might be necessary to make a quick exit from Rome. Maybe go into hiding somewhere in Italy until Otto's murderer had been caught -- until Phönix could be persuaded to see sense. He checked his wallet again. The Gypsies hadn't taken his driving license.

Chapter 27

MARCO HESITATED before writing his report on the day’s activities. Whatever the reason for the burned body in the Audi, even if there really were partisans still active in the area, he’d done the right thing in telling the carabinieri.

As he wrote the report for Father Josef he hoped that the carabinieri would keep Laura’s name out of their press release as they’d promised. If her name became public she could still be in danger. Laura had been behaving oddly, but perhaps for good reason. When he’d taken her Alfa back she’d refused to see him, saying she was too upset by what had happened at Monte Sisto. He’d put the key through the letter box and walked back to the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

The last few days had been stifling, but this was the hottest night he could remember for a long time, and the noise of traffic seemed unusually loud. All he wanted was sleep, but Father Josef had warned him not to neglect his spiritual life. He knew he was rushing through each day without the depth of personal prayer and Bible reading that had helped him in the past. His ordered existence had taken a sudden, confusing turn with the death of Old Savio.

Never get drawn into relics, Father Marco.

It was a bit late now to heed the words of a homeless man in the Piazza Venezia. But he could spend time in prayer. Quickly he got on his knees, making the sign of the cross. But his mind kept turning to the sight of the grinning, charred corpse strapped to the steering wheel of the Audi. And to the kid lying in pain in the bushes. Mo, the farmer said he was called. The paramedics hadn’t held out much hope for him. They thought his skull had been badly fractured.

Most of all, Laura’s admission affected him more than he had realized at the time.

Canon Angelo was my father!

It was a shattering admission. A well-loved and respected Canon in the Church of Rome had once had a secret affair -- and the result was Laura. The revelation was still hard to digest. And Father Josef seemed to know about Laura Rossetti and her father, but had chosen to say nothing. What else had the old priest not revealed?

Canon Angelo was a fallen angel. He was seeing the Canon in a new and judgmental light. Father Josef could be right -- it was definitely easier for God to forgive than it was for man.

An unbidden vision of Laura swept away the memory of the burned body. Rossetti must be her mother’s name. It would be helpful to have a close friend at times like this. Sharing a bombshell with a fellow priest was beneficial, but to have a woman to share with was so much better. He had shared many things with Anna in their small apartment in the Piazza San Cosimato.

Laura could never replace Anna, but Laura had an innocence about her, a joy for life that he wanted to be part of, even though this desire was in painful conflict with his calling. He got up from his knees and sat on the bed staring at the ceiling, as though to get inspiration from heaven.

Canon Levi had clearly been a good man, although on at least two occasions he had stepped outside the lines of acceptable behavior for anyone in the Church. First there had been the affair. And then, later, the Canon had tried to sell a fake relic. The lovely Laura was the result of the first transgression; a vast sum of money for the needy had been the motive for the second. Transgression or not, few men in the Church, pillars of respectability, could hold a candle to the goodness that had clearly flowed from Canon Angelo’s life.

His intended time of prayer forgotten, he stood up, sweating profusely from the overbearing heat. He looked at the clock: just after twelve. Too late to phone Laura. He felt a yearning for her but knew he was behaving stupidly. Forbidden fruit? Perhaps this was what Laura meant when they stopped to pick the figs. Was there such a thing as right and wrong if you really wanted something badly enough -- if the goal was good?

There was no question of an intimate relationship with Laura. But would a close friendship, and nothing more than that, be immoral? Any daughter of Canon Angelo would have to be a gift from heaven. He could unwrap that gift just a little. The thought made his heart pump, and he began to check back through his report.

As he finished the last page someone shouted in the street. From his room he had a clear view of Signora Silvini, the owner of the apartment block, opening her window across the courtyard.

Under the light a large youth with a shaven head called up. “Sartini! Marco Sartini!

The voice had a German accent.

“Go away!” scolded Signora Silvini. “Everyone here is asleep!”

Marco Sartini!” The skinhead was not giving up on account of the signora.

I’m Marco Sartini,” Marco shouted down.

He was about to run downstairs and confront the youth, when a carabinieri patrol car turned the corner. The skinhead jumped into a small red Fiat and accelerated up the street in a screech of rubber. The carabinieri car stopped at the large house opposite and the driver rang the bell. A young woman quickly appeared at the door and the driver went inside. The youth had been frightened off by something as trivial as the officer’s regular rendezvous with Pippa, who everyone knew as the local hooker. Marco pulled his head back into the room, a thrill of excitement in his stomach. A German, a German skinhead. Exactly like the one outside TV Roma.

He made sure his cell phone was handy. Yes, the enemy had finally made contact!

He waited for over an hour, but the youth did not return. It was long past time for bed and it looked so comforting, even though it was empty. He crashed down into it and was soon asleep.

 

HE SAT UP QUICKLY. Anna was facing away from him, slowly removing her clothes, her skin soft and beautiful. She turned and it was not Anna at all: it was Amendola with bushy eyebrows and heavy glasses.

Marco Sartini!” Amendola shouted, pointing at the bed.

The bedside clock said almost six-thirty. With dreams like this it was definitely time to get up. Dreams of Anna being back were always painful. The events of last night immediately filled his mind. The young German in the street had looked like the skinhead outside TV Roma. Did Bruno know what he was doing when he insisted that he keep quiet about the photographs? The carabinieri could easily identify the men from the pictures taken outside TV Roma. He would give the Bruno the benefit of the doubt for two days, then he would have to give serious consideration to passing the information on to the carabinieri.

The report on the trip to Monte Sisto lay on the table, and he decided to deliver it to Father Josef immediately -- to Father Josef Reinhardt, the self-confessed former wartime member of the Nazi Party. He hesitated. Father Josef would not be party to any conspiracy, but there were others in the Vatican who might be guilty. People like Monsignor Augusto Giorgio who wanted all investigations stopped at once. If the Monsignor was involved with the local fascists, he could have sent the skinhead round last night.

The two journalists, Bruno and Riccardo, made him feel uneasy. Their working relationship seemed to go considerably deeper than two men helping each other with a newspaper story. He pulled on his jeans and noticed just how flat his stomach was. The daily workouts in the seminary gym for three years had got him into good trim. Just as well, if there was to be a fight.

Laura!

Laura was the answer. How stupid he’d been not to have tried to contact her again last night. Laura was the one person he could count on to give good advice.

When he tried Laura's phone it was answered by a recorded message. Possibly she was still in bed. He poured a second glass of orange juice -- a rare lapse into self-indulgence -- and wondered whether to phone Father Josef this early.

At seven-thirty the machine was still answering Laura’s telephone.

“Laura, Laura, where are you?”

She might have gone round to Riccardo’s for the night. For company or for safety. Well, it was no business of his. He tried to push the thought of Laura and Riccardo in bed together from his mind.

A scream in the large hallway startled him. From the landing outside his apartment door he had a clear view over the ornate iron banister rail that ran down to the entrance hall in a sweeping circle. A woman was screaming on one of the landings. Residents from each apartment flung their doors open and hurried out to discover the source of the piercing sound.

He recognized the woman responsible for all the noise as Lina, the donna di servizio, the cleaner who came twice a week and had once caused such mayhem with the study papers that his friends barred her from the student apartment. He ran down. The source of the screams seemed to lie in the first floor apartment, the home of Signora Silvini.

“She was such a good woman,” Lina was sobbing. “She kept herself to herself and was so particular about not letting strangers in.”

Marco pushed his way past the wailing cleaner. His services as a priest seemed likely to be needed. But the body was very much alive, sitting in a chair with blood and bruising covering her face.

“A doctor,” Marco shouted at Lina. “Have you sent for a doctor?”

Si, si, the doctor is coming.”

Signora Silvini seemed to be more frightened than injured. When she saw Marco she tried to get up. “Father Marco, he was trying to get upstairs to find you.”

“Who was?”

“A German I think. A lout, a zoticone. A nasty young man with his hair shaved off. He came last night and said he must talk to you. I would not let him in.” Signora Silvini was proud of her duties as custode. It was almost impossible to come and go without her knowing. Everyone said it was her way of keeping in touch with the affairs of the residents.

The donna di servizio pushed Marco to one side, demonstrating considerable strength in her stout arms, and announced firmly, “The doctor, he is coming soon, Signora Silvini. You must keep still.”

Neighbors crowded round the doorway, though none seemed inclined to enter the apartment. “When did he do this to you, signora?” Marco tried to keep a safe distance between himself and the arms of the muscular Lina. “You haven’t been like this all night have you?”

“No, Father Marco. The young German went away last night, when the carabinieri officer called to see his fancy woman in the house opposite. He came back this morning very early. I thought it was the postino.” She began to cry again. The defensive donna moved to stand between Marco and her employer.

“And where is he now?” Marco asked.

Signora Silvini let out another deep sob, almost a laugh. “He told me to show him your room. He said that he would kill me if I refused.” Signora Silvini sobbed, putting her hands to her face but gasping at the pain as she touched the bruised and raw skin. “You can be sure I didn’t tell him. He was an evil bastard, Father Marco. An evil bastard.”

Lina came forward to intervene but Signora Silvini waved her away. “I keep a small pistol by my door,” she said quietly. “My father brought it back from the war. It doesn’t work, but the zoticone didn’t know that. He ran away like a frightened cat when I managed to get hold of it.”

Marco stood aside as the inquisitive neighbors stopped talking long enough to usher the doctor into the room. They seemed pleased that there was some action at last. The neighbors moved to let Marco leave, before closing back around the doorway to continue their noisy chatter.

The situation had become serious. Until now the neo-Nazis were little more than an intriguing diversion, but in reality they had brought violence and a threat of death. Father Josef had warned that the investigation could prove dangerous. He must take a chance and have a long heart-to-heart with the ex-Nazi priest. He phoned the building in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Father Josef ordered him to speak to no one, not even the carabinieri, and come straight over with the report. Marco put the telephone down and packed a bag with spare clothing and a few personal possessions. He’d be foolish to remain in the apartment for another night.

The best way to the bus stop would be past the shops. He did not intend to meet the large skinhead in some lonely vicolo. Keeping an eye open for a tail was easy enough. Remembering a scene from a thriller he’d watched on television only last month with his seminary flat-mates, he dodged into the local food store and out through the rear entrance to the street market.

By the time he jumped on the bus for the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, he knew that only an expert team of shadows would still be with him. Even so, he snatched the opportunity to change buses at the next stop and was relieved to see that no one else left his bus when he did.

Chapter 28

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

WOULD YOU LIKE a coffee?” Father Josef seemed to be delaying Marco his opportunity to tell his story.

Marco nodded. “As strong as you can make it. I’m sorry to be direct, but you have to tell me exactly what’s going on.” He watched the black coffee being poured into the small white cup with great precision by steady hands.

The old priest replaced the heavy pot on the ornate silver tray. “There are some who see a belief in the devil as an outdated superstition. They obviously have not witnessed the evil I have seen in life. Sometimes when I look around the world I think it is easier to believe in the devil than it is to believe in God. What do you say, Marco? If you believe in one you have to believe in the other. We cannot expect to find light in the world, without finding darkness in the corners.”

Marco detected a hard experience behind Father Josef's philosophy. In Nazi Germany this man must have encountered some appalling atrocities. "I had no dealings with the powers of darkness -- until I met you, Father Josef."

“I know your background, your conversion. Were not the powers of darkness there when your Anna was killed? Believe me, Marco, I need you in this work. If I fear evil you must fear it too, but you must remember we have a power that is greater. The power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The devil and his demons flee from that power.”

The coffee tasted reassuringly strong. Father Josef seemed to be acting deliberately vaguely. “You’d better read this.” Marco pushed his report across the table. “I went to Monte Sisto yesterday with Laura Rossetti. That’s when we found the body.”

“I saw it on the news.”

“The man was burned to death in a German station wagon. Riccardo Fermi was there. He said if we reported it, Laura could be in danger from local partisans. I nearly didn’t do anything. I was thinking of her safety.” Here in the shelter of this huge building in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore his fears sounded foolish.

Father Josef stared silently through the large window. “You like Laura Rossetti?”

“Of course!” He immediately regretted sounding so positive.

Father Josef became silent, deep in thought.

At last he said, “I certainly did not expect such an immediate rapport. Dear me, you were married once. I hope you are managing to abstain from thoughts of a sexual relationship.”

“It’s difficult,” Marco admitted.

Father Josef raised a finger. “It would be foolish to pretend these desires do not exist. It has frequently been a battle for me too.” He picked up the folder, looking embarrassed. “Come, let me read your report.”

*

Via Nazionale

KARL BRETZ was getting increasingly frightened, as well as angry with himself. Some bastard had killed Otto at Monte Sisto. Herr Kessel had been knocked out by the news, and insisted on going out last night to rent a car, so that they could get away from Rome quickly if they had to.

He and Herr Kessel had produced their driving licenses at the rental agency, where Herr Kessel put his card on the counter -- the card for emergencies the Gypsy children had missed. There was just enough on it to pay for a small red Fiat, and cover the security deposit.

“The sooner I get the replacement for my main card, the better,” Herr Kessel had muttered, just loudly enough for Karl to hear. Karl remembered grinning to himself.

When it was nearly midnight he had driven alone to the priest’s apartment block. He’d managed to identify the priest’s window, but the carabinieri car turned up, making him hurry away. He seemed to be behaving like a little school kid, frightened of everyone. He’d never acted like this before. Had Otto Bayer’s death really affected him this much? Very early this morning he had returned to complete the job with the priest.

He kept thinking about the old witch with the handgun. The woman in the apartment block had been too inquisitive. The main bell seemed to ring in her room, for it was the old troll who had thrown open her window last night, and it was the same old troll who had come to the door this morning. He cursed the way the woman had withheld the information he needed. And why was an old hag allowed to have a gun? Well, she would be too ashamed of her damaged face to poke it out of the window again. What a coward he’d been to have turned and run away from a woman. What was he, Karl the Kindergarten kid?

Unfortunately the priest would be alerted to his presence now, for it had definitely been Sartini calling down from the window last night. But priests were stupid people and this one would make an easy target. His only fear now was that Herr Kessel would find out about his attack on the old woman.

“Bring the car round to the front of the hotel, young man. We’re going to the Colosseum.”

Herr Kessel’s sudden command made him jump. He got up slowly. “It’s too early to meet your phone contact,” he protested.

“I want to be early, Karl. And you’re going up first. It could be a trap.”

*

Colosseum

BRUNO LOOKED AT his watch. It was a little after nine and the Colosseum had only just opened to visitors. A rough patch of shrubs and grass separated the Via Celio Vibenna from the Colosseum, a huge oval nearly two hundred yards by one hundred and fifty, its ancient walls towering over the surrounding parks and streets. From their hiding place close to the Arch of Constantine, he and Laura and Riccardo watched a red Fiat city car being parked in a disabled space close to the entrance. They had been expecting the two Germans to arrive on foot, but the young skinhead was driving this car, with Enzo sitting tensely in the passenger seat.

Laura was in a state of confusion. She had clearly been sickened by the sight of Otto’s charred body tied to the warped steering wheel yesterday, and today she said she was overwhelmed by the enormity of what they were taking on.

“Let’s stop,” she begged. “Haven’t we done enough?”

Bruno also wondered whether to shout stop, to put off the killing of this unloved member of his family. Killing Otto Bayer had meant nothing because there was no blood tie there. The television broadcast showing the discovery of Otto’s body in the barn would have terrified his half-brother Enzo and the young skinhead. They’d spend the rest of lives knowing someone was out to kill them. Always looking over their shoulders. Perhaps a life of anxiety would be a sort of justice.

If only his half-brother had stayed as Enzo Bastiani; if only he had not become obsessed with his German father. But by using the name of the Sturmbannführer, Enzo had chosen to become the new Manfred Kessel, a man without a spark of humanity. A hated man. Eighteen years ago Enzo and this skinhead’s father had murdered Laura’s father.

Bruno felt the sickness passing. Enzo was an unrepentant murderer. Today in Rome he would receive an appropriate justice.

“I hate it here,” Laura whispered urgently.

Bruno signaled to her to be silent. “Riccardo, you’d better go to the upper level. Wait for the young German thug, the zoticone. Use your knife. Enzo will hear the commotion and go up to see what’s happening. I want him to find the body. I’ll follow him up and put a knife in his back in all the confusion.”

“Don’t be a fool, Bruno,” snapped Riccardo. “We’re not playing games. We just want these scum out of the way. Who cares what order we do it in?”

Bruno shook his head. “This is how I planned it. I’m here to pay back Sturmbannführer Kessel for … raping … my Mamma.” He felt another wave of nausea. Just saying the words was painful. “Riccardo, we want revenge. Of all people, Laura, you should want Enzo dead. Don’t you want to plan and then savor his moment of death?”

“Just get on with it.” Laura was shaking now. “You’ve both got knives.”

“I think you’re yellow, old man,” said Riccardo, putting his arm on Bruno’s shoulder. “You can’t bring yourself to do it.” He smiled. “If the task is too difficult, leave it to the young ones, eh.”

“ I'll do it," Bruno insisted, his breathing fast but controlled. Enzo had grown up to be evil. Looking now at Enzo who was in the street, staring up at the outside walls of the Colosseum, he recalled the white marble stairways in the Via Tasso; the uniformed soldiers talking in strange foreign voices. He could never hear a German voice without seeing the high steel bed -- the Sturmbannführer with his Mamma. He shuddered. The Sturmbannführer and Enzo looked so alike.

One moment he was hearing strident voices in the Gestapo Headquarters in the Via Tasso, the next he could see his little brother running in from the yard at home clutching his favorite blue knitted sailor doll. Had he really hated Enzo so much in those early days?

Riccardo stood up. “I can’t see the young one, but your brother may have gone inside. I’m going to find them. I’ll kill them both if you like.”

Bruno jumped to his feet and grabbed hold of Riccardo roughly.

“You stupid fool, you don’t have a clue. That zoticone has gone up to see if it’s safe. He knows about Otto Bayer. He’s probably armed.”

“And if he is, I suppose you have some clever plan,” scoffed Riccardo.

Bruno smiled. “I’m going to talk to the skinhead. He wouldn’t shoot me in front of the visitors. I’ll lead him into one of the side rooms on the upper gallery where it’s dark. Then I’ll stick a knife in him when he’s least expecting it. You two don’t understand how it’s done in the streets. I should have come here alone.” He closed his eyes. From his jacket he produced a long, highly polished stiletto, one of a beautiful pair he had bought many years ago. The sun flashed from the slender blade.

Once inside the Colosseum, Bruno watched Laura turn to Riccardo, fear in her eyes. “Take me away,” she pleaded. “If Bruno wants to risk his life, that’s up to him.” A sudden sound of a passing siren broke through the noise of traffic. “The carabinieri,” she said in panic. “They’re coming for us.”

Riccardo’s voice was raised and angry. He caught Laura by the arm and held her tightly. “This bimbo’s not going to run away,” he protested to Bruno. “She’s in this as deep as we are. Let’s go up and… Hell, the skinhead’s already up there! He must have used the other stairway while we were talking.”

Without a further word he pulled Laura with him towards the steps to the upper gallery. Karl Bretz was leaning over the railings, studying the people below.

 

KARL BRETZ WAS growing impatient waiting for Herr Kessel to join him. What did the old fool want him to do: check every alcove and passageway for bogeymen? The place looked like a derelict railway viaduct with huge arches, or an abandoned factory from the age of steam. It was a wonder anyone came here, the place was in such a mess. He moved away from the railings and went to the top of the staircase to look down. A man with swept back hair waved to him as though he knew him. Karl felt uncomfortable. No one in Rome would know who he was. The man had a woman with him, and they were climbing his way. He decided to stand back in one of the archways and see what happened next.

As he entered the darkened area he stopped. The man and the woman were coming with him into what he could now see was a small room. The woman was attractive, with dark hair down to her shoulders. The man was a typical Italian, smartly dressed, with thinning hair swept back to reveal a high forehead.

He felt paralyzed, like the time his mother caught him with his hands inside his pants. The man shouted something in Italian. The words meant nothing, but the way they were said sounded like a threat. He shook his head. Whoever these two were, they had no business with him.

Suddenly the man produced a knife and lunged forward with a yell, a stream of Italian words pouring from his mouth. Karl stumbled back, trying to stay on his feet. There was no way he could get his handgun from his pocket in time, but he could deal with a knife attack. As the man came forward he caught him by the wrist, bringing the man’s hand high above his head. He twisted the arm and brought it down on his shoulder. The man dropped the knife. As Karl looked down, the woman ran forward and kicked him in the crotch. He swore as he made his way out into the bright sunlight, his eyes streaming from the pain.

Karl knew he had to get out of this place. There were several exits and he went for the nearest. The fools pushing their way up the stone steps were in his way, but their shouts of protest as he knocked them aside made the people below let him through. Herr Kessel was nowhere to be seen.

A quick run across the grass brought him to the red Fiat. He wrenched the door open and slid in, fumbling with nervous fingers to put his key in the ignition. The pain in his crotch was pounding in time with his rapid heartbeats. As the engine fired he put his foot hard on the gas and turned into the main road, driving away from the danger. He wasn’t running away out of fear, but common sense told him to forget about Herr Kessel. The Italian man and woman with the knife were insane. The last he saw of them they were standing on the grass on the other side of the road, looking helpless.

 

LAURA FELT Riccardo keeping tight hold of her arm, but she pulled herself free and ran across the busy street. A tram was coming, packed with passengers. She cleared the orange front of the tram by inches and ran into a bar. Riccardo had not come with her. She sat at the back and stared at the shelves of bottles. A drink was essential. As she got up to order a brandy, she caught sight of a phone on the wall. Marco would come and rescue her. For perhaps the first time in her life, apart from the talks she’d had with her father, she was feeling the need for a priest’s advice. Her hands were shaking as she pressed the buttons for Marco’s number in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

“This is Laura Rossetti, “ she gasped.

“Hi Laura.” The voice sounded so calm.

“Marco? Thank God you’re there. I’m at the Colosseum. Something dreadful is happening. I’m caught up in a terrible situation. I…”

“Slow down, Laura.”

Marco’s comforting voice was having the required effect. She felt more composed now. “Marco, can you get a taxi and come here straight away? Bruno and Riccardo… Hell, Riccardo’s here now. He wants me… Let go!

 

MARCO PRESSED the receiver close to his ear. He could hear someone shouting, and a woman screaming his name into the phone. Was it some sort of trick, or was this a genuine cry for help?

“Laura,” he called into the mouthpiece, “Laura, can you hear me?”

The phone was dropped with a crash. A few seconds later, an unknown man’s voice spoke clearly. “If you’re Marco, you ought to know that your fancy woman has been taken away.” The voice became sarcastic. “What are you, some sort of useless lover? Her husband is in one hell of a state. Take my advice and stay off the nest for a few days. You could be in trouble if he catches you.”

There was a roar of raucous laughter from the bar as the other customers shared the joke. Marco put the phone down. Riccardo and Laura in a fight at the Colosseum, and Laura urgently asking for his help? He had enough cash for a taxi. He just hoped he’d be in time to prevent Laura getting hurt.

 

RICCARDO WAS squeezing her arm so tightly that Laura screamed out in pain.

“Who the hell were you phoning?” Riccardo demanded.

“A taxi. I want to go home. And let go of my arm, you’re hurting me.”

Riccardo slapped her across the face. "Liar. There are taxis waiting over there if you want one. You were phoning your priest. What did you want to do -- confess?"

“I don’t want to be mixed up in this anymore. And I dropped my phone back there in the bar.”

“You can get your phone. We don’t want to leave any evidence behind. We’re not mixed up in it anymore. Bruno doesn’t want us. He told us to go.” He caught hold of her other arm as well. “I’m taking you straight back to your apartment, and then I’m going to work. Make sure someone sees you when you go in. If Bruno kills his brother, you’re going to need a good alibi.”

Chapter 29

Colosseum

IT WAS A RELIEF to know that Laura and Riccardo had gone. Bruno sighed. Enzo had made his way to the top level and seemed unaware that his young minder had run off. The whole amphitheatre was the web, with the big fly now securely trapped in it. There would be only one winner in Rome today: the spider.

Bruno paid his entrance fee and walked towards the stone staircase that would take him to the upper floor. When his half-brother’s new name was published, the killing would cause panic among Mussolini’s elderly followers. There were plenty of them still around, men who had gone on to be members of the now disbanded MSI, the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the successor to Mussolini’s Fascist Party. They were living outwardly decent lives while hiding their extreme right-wing past. Bruno thought about the list he had compiled over the years, many of the names formerly in prominent positions, now spending their retirement in tranquility. Every surviving person on the list had been identified and photographed. The files on his computer at work had a disturbing story to tell.

Within days he was going to expose the senior members -- men who had secretly supported the Nazis and later done so much damage to the unions and the workers. They would spend their last days living in terror of retribution from the people they had wronged. When he published Enzo's Nazi background, everyone would understand the motive behind the killings, but no one would suspect him of masterminding the revenge. No, not revenge, he had to remind himself. This was punishment -- justice.

Massive brick supports ran up from stage to stage of the crumbling amphitheatre, reaching almost to the top of the high outer wall. These supports had once held row upon row of marble seats, stepped up so that each line of eager spectators could have a clear view of the blood sports in the arena below. Following its partial collapse in earthquakes in the ninth and thirteenth centuries, generations of builders had used the Colosseum as a quarry, taking the cut marble for palaces, churches and humble dwellings. The brick vaulting that had supported each tier of seats now looked like sloping buttresses and arches, still preventing the remains of the enormous oval amphitheatre from falling in on itself.

Enzo was standing by the railings, looking down into the central arena. For a crazy moment Bruno wanted to rush forward and tip him over, sending his half-brother crashing onto the stone walls that made up the floor below. But although it was early, there were visitors crowding the walkway. Enzo turned, attracted by the shout of a child. He saw Bruno and came forward.

“I thought you’d be here,” he said quietly.

Bruno pointed at him. “You’re a murderer,” he taunted. “A monster. The Shrine of Evil will never be yours!”

“I’m not afraid of you, Bruno.” His brother’s voice sounded remarkably calm, the Italian accent flawless. “I have only to call for help and the security guards will arrest you.”

“You do that, Enzo, and I’ll tell them you murdered Canon Levi eighteen years ago.”

He caught hold of Enzo and pulled him roughly to the shelter of one of the deep alcoves that surrounded the walkway, confident in his ability with a knife. In the center of the alcove was an exquisitely detailed model of the Colosseum on a stand. An older man and a young woman were standing in the darkness in a guilty embrace. They moved out quickly as Bruno pushed Enzo through the doorway onto the floor. Enzo lay where he was for a moment, concentrating on the blade in Bruno’s hand. Slowly he lowered his hand and closed his fingers round the dust beneath the display.

Bruno was unprepared for the sudden movement in the darkness, the cloud of dirt flung into his face. Half blinded he twisted backwards. With lightning speed Enzo ran past him towards the high walls, clawing his way up the first stage. A party of women nearby began to scream.

His hands damp with sweat, Bruno held the knife tightly as he squinted in the daylight. “You’re dead, Enzo. Dead!”

Enzo was on the move again. Bruno realized his life of ease had taken the edge off his once healthy body. He no longer kept up his physical exercise. Enzo was getting away. He knew the muscles were there in his legs. With sheer effort he forced himself to relive his younger days, ignoring the crowds who were turning in his direction. His body could provide all the power he once had. He had only one more mission to accomplish in life -- the death of his evil brother.

He watched Enzo stumble, feet kicking wildly for a firm grip on the steep climb of the walls. The vaulting was jagged and riddled with holes where ancient bricks had been removed. Enzo began using these as hand and foot holds, climbing rapidly from one level to the next. But Bruno could see his half-brother had made a fatal error. Soon Enzo would reach the top, and have nowhere left to go.

With his heart pounding in his chest, but oblivious to the pain, Bruno dragged himself up the gigantic brick construction using his hands to pull his body forward, gaining on Enzo all the time.

Enzo reached the top, resting in an open archway that overlooked the wide Via dei Fori Imperiali. He turned over, obviously not realizing how close Bruno was, leaving his whole belly exposed. “No, Bruno! We loved each other once!”

“Love? You’re an evil bastard, Enzo. I always hated you!” He raised the knife.

Then he drove the blade home, releasing his hold on the handle.

Enzo gave a long scream of agony, and Bruno watched his half-brother attempt to pull the blade from his stomach. He and Mamma were finally rid of the name of Kessel.

He looked down at the sea of upturned faces and began to laugh at the irony of it. The carnival scene was being played out in reverse. The spectators were in the arena, watching two combatants fight to the death on the terraces.

Then came the pain.

He felt his chest erupt in a searing fire. He tried to breathe. The world about him was ending. The pressure was unbearable. A crushing pain spread from his chest into his arms. He had driven his heart beyond its limits.

And Enzo was still alive.

 

MARCO PAID THE taxi driver, his eyes on the outside walls of the massive Roman amphitheatre. Somewhere around here Laura was in trouble, but he had no idea where. People in the street were looking up and he stopped to see where they were pointing. High in the wall, perhaps a hundred feet up, silhouetted against the sky in an open archway he could see the figure of a kneeling man. The crowd shouted in alarm each time the man tried to stand, but he kept falling back onto his knees. It might be an attempted suicide.

Marco hurried round to the entrance. There were signs of panic among the visitors and staff. It was time to pull rank.

“I’m a priest,” he said loudly. “I have to offer help, maybe even a prayer.”

The man in the pay booth looked him up and down, obviously seeing no clerical collar. “Better wait for the carabinieri, signore,” he advised. “They’re on their way. You have to stay…”

Marco shook his head and ran up the steps before the man could protest further. As he emerged at the top he realized there were two figures: one in the archway, the other sprawled full length on a brick buttress on the high part of the amphitheatre. Two security men were busy holding the people back from the walls, but they didn’t try to stop him as he hauled himself up from the walkway and started to climb the mass of broken brickwork. He reached the first man and stopped in horror. It was Bruno Bastiani. “Bruno! Has there been an accident?”

Bruno’s face was deep blue, almost purple, his eyes staring wildly. “Marco? Marco Sartini?”

“Hold on. There’s help on its way.”

“The man up there, Marco, is he still alive?” Bruno’s voice was indistinct, and Marco had to bend forward to hear the words.

The other man kneeling in the archway was clutching his stomach. The edge of the wide stones was stained bright red with blood.

“He looks bad, Bruno, but he’s still alive. He’s bleeding from his stomach.”

Bruno gave a low moan. “Kill him for me, Marco. His father raped my Mamma.”

“You can’t kill a man for that!”

“You don’t know anything about him, Marco. Everything about him is evil. He killed Laura’s father in Saint Peter’s. We want him dead!”

“We? You mean Riccardo? Not Laura. No, not Laura! Have you seen Laura? She phoned me from here.”

“Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand anything?” Bruno sounded confused. “That man is my…”

The exertion of the speech proved too great. A large blood clot, forced forward by the rapid heartbeats, caught on an artery wall, blocking the flow to his overstressed heart. His mouth opened but there was silence. Within seconds he was dead.

Marco felt numb. Bruno had said he was Jewish, but as a Christian himself, he felt under an obligation to say a prayer, to commend the man to God’s mercy. He did it quickly. It was not for him to judge Bruno’s life.

Standing up he looked down at the crowd. There were cameras pointing at him. Some holiday makers would return with an album of macabre prints, and others with gruesome videos as a holiday memento. He could hear vehicles with sirens stopping in the street below as he clambered past Bruno, up to the fair haired man whose life was oozing away in a red stream. It was the older man he had seen outside TV Roma talking to the skinhead.

“My name is Marco Sartini. I’m a priest,” he called. “Do you want me to pray with you?”

The man stayed silent.

A sudden thought occurred to Marco. “Did you know Bruno Bastiani?”

 

MANFRED KESSEL CLUTCHED his stomach in an attempt to stop the flow of blood. “That man was a Jew, Priester . I am a German!" His knew voice came out faintly, but he tried to put on a show of confidence. He had no need of a priest's help. There was power in the Shrine -- a mystical power. Soon it would be his to control.

The agony of the knife wound made him cry out.

He stared at the blood that covered his clothing and watched it spread across the ground. The hurt was too much. Were his plans coming to nothing? The loss of blood made his head feel strange. Then the deep pain in his stomach stopped and remarkable apparitions began to form before his eyes. Were these what Rüdi had witnessed in the hours before his death?

“There will be a Shrine of Unity.” He spoke the words aloud but not to the young priest. “Yes, it will be done.”

The priest was looking at him. “Shrine? You mean the Nazi shrine?”

The rapidly diminishing blood in his body was making coherent speech almost impossible. “You look for the final return of your Leader, Priester, and I look for mine.”

The priest leaned over and wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. “Help is on its way,” he said reassuringly. “But if you’re expecting Adolf Hitler, he’s not coming back.”

Kessel raised himself on one elbow and tried to explain. "Rüdi's finger pointed -- but not at me. Someone is coming in my place ... to continue the eternal work. Someone young and fearless. Someone like Karl Bretz. But supposing the Führer could come back.”

His voice was gaining strength. The figures in the vision were still here. The return was imminent. “Just think what our two leaders could do together. Look! Over there, Priester! I can see them working hand in hand, arm in arm, to set up the most powerful kingdom ever.”

The pain was coming back, worse than before. The visions passed, as reality firmly took their place.

He started to panic. He felt like a vulnerable child again.

“I’m dying, Sartini. You’ve got to help me. My name is Enzo Bastiani. Please, Priester, please pray for me.”

 

MARCO COULD SEE two carabinieri climbing his way. Were they the men in the vision?

“Why should I help you, Enzo? The Son of God and Hitler? Bruno was right, even your thoughts are evil. Don’t try to move; the carabinieri are nearly here.”

He felt disgust for the man. Nothing would persuade him to offer spiritual comfort now.

As the two men in uniform reached Bruno’s body he felt shame overwhelm him. He put a hand gently on the man’s shoulder.

“We’ll pray together for forgiveness, Enzo. Don’t die in hatred. There’s forgiveness from God for everyone who asks.”

He watched as the man tried to speak, the deep wound in his stomach making him shiver uncontrollably. For a brief moment their eyes met. Marco was shattered by the look of fear in those eyes.

The voice was faint now. “I’m not a religious man, Priester. My mother told us nothing about God. I want to confess. I killed Canon Levi. I told people it was Rüdi Bretz who did it, but it wasn’t. It was me. I wanted the bronze head. I wanted to prove that Christ was not a Jew, to prove that the pure could come to him. Now I’m dying and I don’t know what to do. You have to pray for me. I want peace.”

Marco felt far from being at peace himself. Like the thief dying beside Jesus on the cross at Calvary, this man who had caused so much evil was asking for instant forgiveness. It was the greatest test ever of his faith, but he would do it. As Marco leaned forward, his heart pounding, the injured man screamed out in terror.

High above, with a flutter of troubled wings, a single pigeon flew up from the ancient walls.

His eyes wide, Enzo slipped sideways. Marco grabbed at the man’s hand but the blood made it too slippery to hold. Enzo rolled down the slope to where Bruno lay, leaving a red trail glistening on the ancient bricks that had once witnessed so much blood.

 

Chapter 30

LAURA?”

Si? Oh, Riccardo, Riccardo!” Laura had not immediately taken in the familiar voice. Her mind felt in a daze as she picked up the telephone. “Tell me what’s happened to Bruno?”

“I guessed you’d be home. It’s bad news, Laura. Have you been drinking?”

Si, but only a little. It has made me sleepy. Tell me the bad news.”

“Bruno’s dead. I’m at the paper now. It’s one hell of a story that’s buzzing about. Something… Laura?”

“Come round, Riccardo. It makes me frightened to hear you say these things. How did Bruno die? Was it the zoticone?

“We don’t know. It happened at the Colosseum after you and I left. Listen, I’ll see you soon, but I can’t just walk out on the job. Bruno was our star photographer. Our paper’s going to run the story of his death front page tomorrow morning. We’ve bought some good pictures from an American tourist who was at the Colosseum this morning. He had a telephoto lens and for once he knew how to use it.”

“It was Bruno who killed Enzo, wasn’t it?”

“Probably, but it’s good that Enzo is dead. It’s what we both wanted. We’re not calling him Enzo in the paper, we’re using his German name. He had papers in his pocket with the name Manfred Kessel. We mustn’t give the Italian name away. The editor doesn’t know yet he was Bruno’s half-brother.”

“Does anyone suspect us?”

“Don’t sound so tense, Laura. The carabinieri don't know anything. Just be careful what you say. If anyone asks what we've been doing, tell them you're helping me investigate the neo-Nazis. That's not a crime. Even if someone saw us at the Colosseum this morning, we can say we were there for our work. Manfred Kessel is dead, so we got what we both wanted. It will be all right, Laura -- just trust me."

“Please come, Riccardo. The more you talk, the more scared I feel. I wanted Kessel dead, but I can’t believe it about Bruno. Are you sure?”

“I have to go, Laura. Yes, I’m sure. Bruno and his brother are both dead. It’s up to the two of us now.”

“What do you mean? Don’t put the phone down. Tell me what you mean.”

“We’re going to find that bronze head. Then we’ll use it to kill the enemy.”

“You mean Karl Bretz?” The memory of the big skinhead made Laura shudder. “It’s over now, Riccardo. Bruno’s gone. We have to stop.”

“We can’t stop. We owe it to Bruno. It’s like killing snakes. I remember what my uncle used to say about the Germans in the war: when you’ve killed a snake you don’t put your hand in the hole. There’s another down in there, and it’s always more dangerous.”

“Karl Bretz is dangerous,” said Laura.

“Which is why we have to kill him. Get in touch with Sartini again. Tell him your phone call was a mistake. He’s so innocent he’ll help us all the way. If we don’t move fast, the zoticone will have a chance to fight back.”

“So what do I say to Marco?” She felt the effects of the wine wearing off rapidly.

“Arrange to meet him again. He spotted a clue in that letter. Persuade your mother to let him see all your father’s letters. There could be more clues. Hell, Laura, I don’t care what the bronze head is, but we need it to attract the fascists.”

“I told you, I’ve had enough of killing.”

“ You promised to help, Laura. We don't have to kill them. When the fascists know we've got the relic, they'll come running to us -- and that's when we expose every one of them. You'll understand when you've sobered up. Got to go. I'll phone you later this evening. Go back to sleep."

“I haven’t been to sleep.”

But Riccardo had put the phone down.

Chapter 31

Via Nazionale

AT SEVEN THE next morning, Karl finished his frantic packing in the small hotel bedroom. The pictures on the early morning television news had been devastating. No wonder Herr Kessel hadn’t come back last night. He realized that if he’d been watching the news yesterday evening, instead of spending the time with an older woman in her hotel room, he could have been well on his way back to Germany by now. But the woman he’d met in the bar had been good and obviously appreciated fit young men.

Frantically he zipped Otto’s case shut. He must clear every trace of occupation from the three rooms. Paying the bill could be a problem, but hopefully the desk clerk would not be around this early to ask for payment. The sooner he was out of the place the sooner he could get home, away from the killers of Herr Kessel and Otto. His turn might be next.

“Goodbye, Rome!” He held Otto’s case in one hand, his own in the other. Herr Kessel’s case was already in the boot of the little Fiat. Damn! A young receptionist had come on duty.

“Off so early, signore? How do you wish to pay?”

Karl opened his hands in a helpless gesture, hoping to indicate that he was unable to speak Italian. The young clerk, probably used to foreigners staying at the hotel, merely pointed to the total on the bill. The man was not one of the daytime staff, so he was unlikely to know any of the guests by name. Without a word, Karl slapped Herr Kessel’s credit card on the high wooden counter littered with sightseeing leaflets.

“Manfred Kessel?” The clerk stared at the card. “I thought…” He stopped, as though realizing the young German would not understand. Karl knew that since the booking had been made jointly, one of them was in the register as Kessel. Payment was payment, and Karl guessed that this rundown hotel needed money, not trouble.

Uno momento.” The bill was large. He smiled reassuringly at the large guest and went into the office, presumably to check the card by telephone. Discreetly, of course.

Karl had been taught not only to appear relaxed but to feel relaxed deep down. The TV news just now had been a real shocker, in spite of being all in Italian. The pictures of the dead men were enough to tell him he was now on his own. First Otto burned to death at Monte Sisto, and now Herr Kessel killed in the Flavian Amphitheatre by a knife.

“Please enter your PIN, signore.”

He’d seen Herr Kessel’s entering the PIN often enough, and tapped it in confidently. He could forge the signature as well if he had to. The telephone check must have proved satisfactory, which meant the card was still creditworthy. Well, he knew it would be: there was no reason for it to have been cancelled. He reckoned he’d been pretty smart the other evening at the Colosseum, while hurrying back with his slashed arm wrapped in his shirt, to have extracted the card and the list of names and phone numbers from Herr Kessel’s wallet.

“Thank you, Signor Kessel. Bon giorno.”

He couldn’t help smiling as he walked slowly out to the rental car. It wouldn’t do to be seen leaving in a hurry. He laughed as he climbed into the driving seat of the Fiat, feeling for the piece of plastic in his shirt pocket. If Herr Kessel was alive he would still be waiting in vain for the replacement card to arrive from Germany.

He drove slowly down the Via Nazionale. The rental office where he and Herr Kessel had collected the Fiat should be somewhere down here on the right.

It was a different woman on duty. “I want to extend the rental on the car. Two days. Two? Due? Si?” He felt pleased with his grasp of the language. He pointed to the laden Fiat in the street and placed the card on the table. A visual clue might help as he made a pretence of writing with his finger, looking up at the attractive girl in the company uniform.

The card went through the till check without a hitch, and the girl beamed the company smile as she presented him with a rental agreement revised for a further two days.

Reaching the little Fiat he punched his fists in the air in elation. The car was now legally his, so the carabinieri would not be looking for it. The Fiat would be safe all the way to Germany. But Herr Kessel had spoken of an enemy in Rome. Rome could be full of enemies. Unfortunately, so could Germany. Associating with the old Jew had been bad enough. To be part of a seriously failed mission was a disaster. Perhaps he would do well not to hurry back to the Homeland.

He decided to get fuel at the first opportunity, then leave Rome on the Autostrada del Sole, going north. With a full tank he could drive this toy for the whole morning without stopping. Once on the autostrada there was a risk, albeit a small one, of being followed -- and a chase was not the time for fuel to be running low.

While the attendant filled the tank with sensa pombino he went to the kiosk to pay with Herr Kessel’s card. He saw a rack of daily papers on sale and one in particular caught his attention. It had a picture of Herr Kessel on the front page, obviously copied from the photograph the man always carried in his pocket, complete with the crease mark across his neck and shirt.

Dropping the paper on the counter he indicated to the cashier that he wanted it added to the fuel bill. Never before had he been allowed unlimited spending. But soon he would have to report that the card had been stolen -- along with Herr Kessel's private papers.

The attendant put the card in the holder and ran the roller over it. He handed the copy to Karl to sign.

Danke.” He signed with Herr Kessel’s signature and waited for the receipt. This authority was something to be savored. It could not last for long, or his purchases would lead all the way back to the Fatherland like footprints in the sand.

Herr Kessel had come to Italy to find fame and glory, boasting that the bronze relic would give him power. Not the head blown up at the television studio. Herr Kessel had explained that one was a modern head, and it was annoying to think that the old Narr had let him risk his life for it. Somewhere out there was the genuine relic. It had been so irresistible that Herr Kessel had rushed off to the Colosseum to look for it -- and ended up with a knife in his Bauch.

The newspaper was all in Italian, and beyond his grasp of the handful of words gleaned over the past few days. Whatever the report said it took a lot of space to say it. He showed a finger to the impatient driver behind him at the pump and stayed put. Testa might or might not be Head, but Eusebius had to be Eusebius.

He flung the paper onto the back seat and let the clutch in, the high revs making the tires screech as the tiny Fiat shot forward. The attendant refueling an old Lancia at the head of the line had to jump back as he shouted abuse, but Karl was beyond caring. He need not go back to Germany yet.

Power.

Not the power of the plastic card. If he could get the relic he would no longer be looked down on as a Düsseldorf thug, he would surely be given a position of command. He swung the car round in the street, narrowly missing a young stud showing his girlfriend just how rapidly his silly yellow sports car could accelerate. Stupid driver.

With the relic he would have power all right. Everyone in Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung would thank him if he could return to Germany with the head of Jesus Christ on the back seat. He could throw Herr Kessel’s credit card away. He could throw Herr Kessel’s old suitcase away at the same time.

The ADR would be so grateful they would overlook his association with Herr Kessel. They might even offer him a position marching at the front at rallies. The Parteitage -- torchlit rallies. Karl felt excitement in his chest, but recognized that he was getting carried away. If he wasn't careful he would be a joke figure like Herr Kessel. That man had been nothing but a Dummkopf. He had even died a Dummkopf. It would take real style to get to a position of trust in the ADR.

The Priester Sartini probably knew where to find the relic, and fortunately he was still alive. He only had to find Sartini and make him tell. The man would be a pushover.

“My father had visions!”

The electrifying thought came suddenly. Here he was, driving around in the city like a headless chicken, and all the time some outside force seemed to be controlling his mind.

He had never really thought much about his father’s death in hospital. The nurses kept his father drugged. Sedated, they called it. Herr Kessel had visited occasionally, pushing himself on the family, eager to hear the foolish ramblings. It was all so embarrassing at the time.

Papa knew that Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung would soon become powerful. Papa always believed the two Germanys would be united -- years before it happened. He lived long enough to watch the Wall come down. The future of that unity had been part of the visions. Die Heimat -- the Homeland -- the envy of the world. And Papa had seen his son as the new leader. He had pointed feebly at him in the hospital to say that he was... What? The New Savior. And that idiot Herr Kessel thought the words were meant for him!

He wanted the comfort of a sympathetic voice. He felt in his pocket for Herr Kessel’s list of telephone numbers. Many of them belonged to covert members of the ADR and could never be used. They would take extreme action to recover this list and keep their names secret.

In a vacant parking slot he flicked through the small notebook.

Some of the members’ names were familiar, but others had been written in unrecognizable abbreviations. The trick would be knowing which names were safe to contact for support, and which had to be avoided. The name Phönix had a number with a dialing code for England. Herr Kessel had mentioned Phönix, talking about him with a certain amount of anxiety. Herr Kessel once said something about a Phönix being a dead bird that built its nest in a fireplace. He shrugged. It was an odd name for a leader.

He jumped from the car and ran across the street to the telephone. He could try giving Phönix a call. Perhaps the man would be able to find out where Sartini went in the daytime.

“I want to speak to Phönix.”

There was a hesitation at the far end of the line. “Who are you?” The voice sounded restrained.

“ Karl Bretz. I'm a friend of Herr Manfred Kessel -- but he's dead." He waited. Hearing no response he decided to continue. "I found a list of phone numbers and I thought Phönix might be able to help."

“There is nobody called Phönix here. We already know that Herr Kessel is dead. Were you with him in Rome?”

It felt scary being in touch with the top of such a powerful organization. “Let me speak to Phönix.”

“That’s impossible. Tell me where you are.”

“A call box.”

“A public call box? What country are you in?”

“I… I…”

“Who gave you this number, Herr Bretz?”

He’d made a mistake in trying to contact anyone in this book. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Stay by the phone, Bretz!” The man spoke unexpectedly sharply. “I’ll get back to you. Give me your number.”

He replaced the receiver. He could feel his heart beating wildly as he looked round to see if anyone was watching. Surely no one could trace an international call this quickly. He had to get away and find Sartini, and make him talk. He would wait within sight of Sartini’s apartment and hope that the old troll hadn’t recovered yet.

Chapter 32

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

LAURA PHONED MARCO and said she wanted to see him again. Marco explained that he had just received another summons to one of Amendola’s friendly little panels, so unfortunately she would have to wait.

Before she rung off, Laura apologized for not being at the Colosseum when he got there. She said that the burned body at Monte Sisto had upset her badly and she’d wanted company, but had decided to go home rather than wait for him to turn up in a taxi.

Marco knew that there must be more to it than that, but Laura made him promise not to talk about it again. He kept trying to convince himself that she had nothing to do with the murder of the man in the burned-out Audi.

The summons to Amendola’s panel of inquiry had been as sudden and as unexpected as the first. Inside the dark chamber in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, Marco felt confident that he had already gained some skill in dealing with the higher echelons in the Vatican. The first panel had obviously been set up to intimidate, but with this one he felt more at ease. The hastily reassembled clerics, complete with Augusto Giorgio, sat along the dark oak table in a row. Father Josef’s warning to go easy on the Cardinal was not the first thing on his mind.

“In your own words, Sartini, tell the panel why you have been disobedient.” Amendola did his earlier trick of drawing himself up in the high backed chair.

At the end of the long table Father Josef sat motionless, apparently thinking of other matters and certainly not offering any support.

Marco returned his attention to Amendola, “Your Eminence, I set out to find the genuine bronze head for Father Josef. You agreed to the plan.”

“I understand from Monsignor Augusto that you were not alone in your escapade.”

“No, I had some companions. We went to Monte Sisto…”

Monsignor Augusto Giorgio was nodding his head vigorously. “Who were these companions, Sartini? That’s what the panel needs to know.”

Since the Monsignor already knew the answer, why was he asking the question? Was he getting enjoyment out of making mischief?

Marco glanced first at Father Josef then at Amendola. He could glean no comfort from either of their expressions. “I was carrying out my search in conjunction with three journalists.”

“And were … these people … friends of yours?” Monsignor Augusto’s slow and deliberate voice sounded sympathetic.

It was obviously a trap. “I only got to know them because Laura Rossetti came round to my apartment.”

Monsignor Augusto Giorgio stood up quickly and leaned on the polished table. Damp patches began to appear around his hands. Perhaps he was nervous. More likely he was sweating with anticipation.

“A woman?” He made it sound as though the greatest scandal ever to rock the Church was being unfolded. “You discussed Vatican business with … a woman?

Marco looked over at Father Josef but the old priest was staring at the table. It would be hard to forgive this silence. “Yes, Laura Rossetti is helping me look for the relic. I thought it would be a good idea if we teamed up.”

Teamed up?” The Monsignor made it sound as though teaming up involved a carnal act at its most sordid.

“Laura had a letter her father sent to her mother. She thought it might tell us where he’d hidden the relic. I expect you know her father was the late Canon Angelo Levi.”

It was a calculated move, like chess with Brother Roberto at the seminary; and it was paying off by putting the major pieces on the board under pressure. The oppressive gloom lifted instantly. Even the faces hanging on the high walls looked less severe as Marco breathed out heavily. The reference to Angelo Levi and his daughter was enough to transfer all guilt to a suddenly defensive panel of inquiry.

Monsignor Giorgio sat down. “I see no reason for us to pursue this particular line of questioning.” He turned to the Cardinal.

Amendola rose from his high backed seat. Father Josef looked awkwardly at the floor as though he already knew what was coming.

“Marco Sartini, you have been ordained into the priesthood of the Church of Christ. At present, we do not believe you are either fit or ready to take up duties in a parish. It is the unanimous decision of this panel, set up at the request of the Vatican Council under whose authority we operate, that your provisional suspension is formally confirmed as from today. The suspension will be continued for a minimum period of six months.”

Marco had expected something like this, but he had hoped for a small protest from Father Josef.

The pitch of the Cardinal’s voice changed to a mellow, almost caring tone: “Marco Sartini, you will, I am sure, find this a difficult decision to accept. In the intervening period you can report to Father Josef. I want him to attempt to knock some commonsense into you.”

Father Josef glanced up but did nothing to acknowledge this invitation, not even giving a brief smile.

Amendola continued. "Marco Sartini, you will be called to appear again before this panel in six months' time, when your case will be reviewed. Maybe when that time comes, you will prefer to continue working with Father Josef -- if Father Josef is willing to entertain the prospect."

There was a trace of humor in the Cardinal’s voice but Father Josef showed no sign that he found the suggestion the least bit amusing. Rejected by the senior clerics, Marco stood with his head bowed until the panel left the room.

“Try and smile, Marco!”

He looked up to find Father Josef beaming over his wrinkled face.

“I don’t understand.”

Father Josef clapped a thin arm round his shoulder. “I’m so glad, so very glad.”

“Glad? About what? Where were you just now when I needed you?”

Father Josef let out a shrill laugh that Marco had never heard before. “I was praying I would be allowed to have you working for me.”

“But when the panel…”

“Panel, nonsense, you must credit me with more sense than that. I had a little game to play. If certain members had even the smallest suspicion that the Cardinal’s plan was to my liking, they would have argued most strongly against it. You still have a lot to learn about manipulating senior members of the Church.” He laughed again. “Even the Holy Father takes lessons from me. Now, we really must get down to finding the bronze relic. Welcome to my staff, Father Marco.”

 

KARL WAITED RESTLESSLY in his car at the far end of the street where the old troll lived. Hopefully he would see the Priester either coming or going to his apartment. He felt for the comforting bulge of the Makarov in his pocket. This time Sartini would not get away.

*

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

“IS IT ALL RIGHT if I still see Laura? Only I wouldn’t like to be responsible for the Monsignor getting a heart attack.” He had nearly finished his early supper in the big house.

Father Josef nodded his assent. “I can see no harm in that. After all, Laura’s father was fully approved by the Church!”

Again the shrill laugh Marco had not heard before today. Perhaps the old man had previously found no occasion for laughter. He seemed remarkably relaxed. Monsignor Augusto Giorgio, had he been present, was unlikely to have shared the joke.

“This security group of yours: do I get to meet the others?”

There was a momentary silence. “That will not be possible for some time. I am part of a larger team, with members placed in many parts of the Church. We are not here to spy on the clergy, of course. I would like to think that the business of the Church is more open since the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps it is. My particular task is to protect the Church from external subversive influences.”

“And my task?”

“ Your task is still the same, Marco. Recover the relic -- and if you are not able to recover it, destroy it. The Holy Father would rather the object did not exist than it should fall into evil hands. I must repeat my earlier warning. You are to trust no one: not the carabinieri, and not even the Vatican staff. Do I make myself clear?”

Marco nodded. Locating the relic might still be possible with Laura’s help, but he would find it hard to destroy such an incredible part of history even if the situation demanded it.

This new role could be a solution to his personal dilemma. Working for Father Josef he wouldn’t need his clerical collar any more. He shook his head. He was still a priest. Father Josef had made that plain. But surely he was being given a chance to think again about his calling. Maybe it had been a mistake as a previously married man to take the vow of celibacy and chastity. But if he had a job that… He was being ridiculous. For the past few days he’d caught himself indulging in immature teenage fantasies. Yet Laura… No, this was not a route he should even think of going down.

“Excuse me, Father.” He folded the napkin that had been carefully embroidered by the sisters for their guests, and pushed his chair back on the polished floor. “Is it all right if I make a phone call? Laura wants to meet me, so I’m going to ask her to drive me to my apartment to collect a few things. I want my portable CD player and some more clothes. I’m bringing them back here, then Laura and I might go for a drive.”

 

KARL FELT his patience running out. The street by the troll’s house had parking restrictions and the stradale approached his car several times, but the Roma license plates aroused no suspicion as he moved the little Fiat on without needing to be told. Suddenly a silver Alfa came down the street, dodging in and out of the traffic. The custom black line on the doors was distinctive. He of all people should be the one to recognize it from the drive back from Monte Sisto, when Herr Kessel wondered where Otto…

He started the engine. Otto and Herr Kessel were in the past. It was important to concentrate. He had been trained to think only of the job in hand.

The Alfa stopped outside the block where Sartini lived. The driver was the woman he had seen at the Colosseum. She and Sartini must be mixed up with Herr Kessel’s death.

The priest ran into the high building while the woman waited in her car. As Karl was wondering whether to follow, the priest hurried out with a bulging hold-all. He climbed into the woman’s car which shot into the evening traffic, swinging sharp right into the main street without slowing.

Karl followed in the little red Fiat.

 

“I’M GLAD TO be leaving that place,” said Marco. “Thanks to that skinhead I’d never feel safe there again. Signora Silvini is still in hospital.” He was getting used to Laura’s driving by now, and even managed to sound relaxed as he talked.

Laura turned her head to the right, glancing across at him -- a rather disconcerting habit in all this traffic. "I want you to meet Mamma. She's going to let us examine all the letters from my father."

Laura’s mother. It had been hard enough to accept that Laura had Canon Levi for a father. Laura was simply Laura, and she existed without the apparent need for parents.

At the next intersection Laura squeezed her car between two buses waiting at the lights. “We’re going to see her tomorrow morning. Riccardo’s coming with us.”

It was a simple statement , but the mention of Riccardo Fermi's name irritated Marco. "I know Riccardo's a friend of yours, but I think he had something to do with the death of the man burned to death in the station wagon at Monte Sisto. I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but Bruno Bastiani definitely did. I'm sure he was going to name Riccardo Fermi when he was dying at the Colosseum. Stop seeing Riccardo -- please.”

Laura cleared the line of buses without getting a trace of orange paint on the Alfa. “You’re jealous.”

“No, I’m not!” He knew his face had colored up.

Laura was waiting for the first sign of a green light so she could be away before the black Peugeot on their left. From her attitude at the wheel she was about to make a breathtaking turn across the front of it.

Marco braced himself. “Where are we going?”

“We’re meeting Riccardo for a drink. You should show him a bit more sympathy. Bruno was his best friend.”

He recoiled at the prospect of socializing with Riccardo. He was suspicious of everyone at present, perhaps even of Laura. “I told you, I don’t think we should trust Riccardo Fermi.”

“Are you jealous of his good looks?”

“Why should I be jealous of his looks? He’s nothing special.”

She laughed. “Prove you’re not jealous. Come and meet Riccardo again. I won’t tell him what you said. You worry too much, that’s your problem.”

The lights changed. Laura accelerated -- and turned sharp left.

 

KARL BEGAN to shake with nervous energy. The Alfa slipped between the buses. The gap closed, leaving him stranded. Brake lights came on and a few cars sounded their horns, but the priest and the woman were getting away.

He had no choice but to cut left across two lanes of fast-moving traffic. Somehow the audacity of the maneuver stunned even the toughest Roman drivers and they let him go. The woman’s Alfa was bouncing rapidly through intersection after intersection, but always the lights remained green long enough for him to keep it in sight. Finally the Alfa stopped in front of a building with old green shutters, in a piazza dwarfed by the most enormous church he had ever seen. It didn’t take the priest long to unload his stuff.

Suddenly there was a tap on the window. A large woman in uniform was telling him to move on. An orange bus was trying to come through and he was blocking the way. It would only take a minute or so to do a quick circuit. He let the clutch in as soon as the lights went green. Cursing his luck he waited in a long line, but the Italian drivers were in no hurry for once, and the lights went red again before all the cars got through. By the time he came back to the building with the green shutters, the woman’s car had gone.

He waited for a few minutes. He’d lost his opportunity this time. His best bet was to get some more beer and return to his new hotel where the clerk, having seen him write Manfred Kessel in the register when he booked in, kept calling him Signor Kessel. It was weird but it was necessary to go along with it if he wanted Herr Kessel’s plastic to pay for the room.

The hotel was of a much higher standard than the old dump Herr Kessel had booked them into. If Herr Kessel had been blessed with intelligence he would have stayed in a place like this. Karl knew he would soon be too useful a member of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung to stay in backstreet hotels. He was using Herr Kessel's card wisely, and it was unlikely the senior members of the ADR would mind -- even if they found out.

He stretched himself on the large bed and opened a bottle of beer. A bed like this deserved to be fully occupied. Maybe he could find a woman and bring her back for the night. A woman like the one with the silver Alfa. That would be a lot more fun than having the old Narr snoring on the other side of the thin partition in that cheap hotel off the Via Nazionale. He had enough money left to find a woman. Rome was not such a bad place after all.

Early in the morning he could throw the Hure out and go back to the tall house with the green shutters to wait for Sartini. He counted out the last of Herr Kessel’s cash and went for a walk.

Chapter 33

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

MARCO HAD HIS shower before an early breakfast at his temporary home in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

This was going to be a good day, and Laura had promised to collect him early. Marco opened the massive front door as soon as he saw the silver Alfa stopping in the piazza.

Ciao,” Laura said breezily. “Ready?”

As he settled himself in, Laura started the engine and turned sideways long enough to establish eye contact, but looked forward in time to avoid the oncoming moped as she pulled away from the curb. “We’re picking up Riccardo. He wants to meet my mother again.”

This was ridiculous. “Riccardo Fermi? I’m not having him stuck with us today.”

“It’s what we agreed.”

I didn’t agree to anything.”

Laura changed gear clumsily. “There’s nothing wrong with Riccardo. We’re journalists, and journalists are bound to be in places where the news is happening.”

He wasn’t going to hide his feelings. “Listen, Laura, if Riccardo gets into this car, I’m getting out. That man is bad news for both of us.”

Laura passed a line of stationary traffic using a non-existent lane up the inside. “You’re serious aren’t you, Marco?”

“Too right, I’m serious. I’ll only go to your mother’s house on condition Riccardo Fermi keeps away.”

The car slowed. “Then you can tell him yourself. This is Riccardo’s apartment.”

Marco nodded. “I don’t mind. It doesn’t bother me what he thinks.”

Riccardo, all gold rings, smiling teeth and immaculate hair, swept out of the house. “Ciao, Laura.” Laura received a kiss and a wink.

“Marco’s got something to say to you.” Laura looked awkward.

Ciao, Marco. Good to see you, my friend.”

“Laura’s taking me to see her mother,” said Marco.

“The lovely Signora Rossetti.” Riccardo smiled broadly as he got into the back seat. “We’re all going there.”

“No,” said Marco firmly. “Just me and Laura.”

The Alfa accelerated into the moving traffic.

Laura twisted round briefly as she drove away. She put her hand out to Riccardo. “It’s okay,” she said softly, “I’ll drop you at the bus stop. Go to work and see what you can find out.”

Marco felt compelled to take a dig at Laura’s boyfriend, her ragazzo. “Laura’s talking sense, Riccardo. You’re a reporter. You ought to be investigating what went on at the Colosseum yesterday.”

The ragazzo put his hand on Marco’s shoulder and leaned forward, smiling. “You’re right, my friend. The story will go dead if I’m not in the office. Let us hope you can find the relic. The best of luck with the signora’s letters.” He turned to look out of the back window, his arm still on Marco’s shoulder.

Laura had been glancing in her rear-view mirror. “There’s a red car close behind. I’m sure it’s following us.”

Riccardo was already looking. Marco didn’t like to turn as well. “It’s a small red Fiat,” said Riccardo. “Go left at the end here, across the piazza and out at the far corner. But don’t hurry. Okay, left now … and right. This will take us back to the main street.”

Marco knew that by turning to look, he would make it obvious they were suspicious.

The Fiat must still be with them, although Riccardo said nothing as Laura turned the car sharply back onto the Via Catania.

“Now what?” Laura asked.

“Do you know who it is?” asked Marco.

“It’s the car we saw near the Colosseum, when Bruno was killed,” said Riccardo.

“You were there?”

“We’re reporters, Marco,” said Laura curtly. “Anyway, I told you I don’t want to talk about it.”

Riccardo stayed with his arm over Marco’s shoulder, but the tightened fist spoiled his relaxed manner. “He’s … another reporter. Probably hoping we’ll lead him to a good story. It happens all the time.”

Whoever the driver was, he certainly wasn’t from the media. Riccardo’s hesitation had been the give-away. Marco guessed he was watching a little play being acted out for his benefit by two worried journalists. He had no idea why. It concerned him to think that Laura and Riccardo had been near the Colosseum when Bruno died, and Laura was still refusing to talk about her phone call.

Laura swung the car round a tight corner, tires squealing. “Riccardo and I know who it is. Bruno warned us about him, and we don’t want him following us to my mother’s apartment.”

The driver of the little Fiat stood no chance of staying with the Alfa. Born in Rome and totally familiar with Roman driving, Laura was able to slip in and out of the busy traffic. Marco breathed out a long sigh of relief as they turned undetected into a side street where Riccardo got out.

 

KARL CURSED THE priest and his friends. If all he had to do was kill Marco Sartini, then he could do it quickly. But he needed the priest to lead him to the prize.

He drew into the side of the street and opened one of the bottles of local beer he’d bought last night. He pounded the side of the passenger seat. “Look what happened to those two Schwachsinnige who came with me from Germany!”

People who were passing by stooped to look into the car but he took no notice. They were of no consequence. He drained the bottle and opened the next one.

He’d been doing a lot of thinking. Hitler had made a pact with the spiritual forces. This was one of the first exciting facts they’d taught him at the Total Training weekends. He remembered the long discussions in the bar with his personal instructor. Herr Kessel had said very little about the Shrine, but enough to hint that it would be in Berlin where the people would call for a new leader.

In the Movement’s footsteps must lie a deluge of blood and destruction.

A good one. His instructor’s favorite Nazi teaching from the 1930s. There were others.

Losses sow the seeds of human greatness.

Hitler was right: losses could never be too high.

It is not possible to have power without sacrifice.

More of the Führer’s teaching. He could remember a lot from those Total Training weekends.

The silver Alfa had gone -- and so had the Priester. He laughed aloud and tipped the bottle back. What the hell, he could be a leading sower of the seeds of human greatness. One day the ADR might ordain him as the chief priest. Power came through possession. He and his friends in the ADR could set Europe ablaze. Fire bombs, Internet hate mail, beatings, killings. He already owned the sacrificial knife. Chief Priest. It was a precious title. With new leadership there would have to be important roles on offer.

Exactly what were the visions Papa had seen in hospital? He’d taken little notice of his father’s inane chatter at the time. Herr Kessel would probably be able to remember, but the old fool was dead. He finished drumming on the wheel and spat out of the window. The beer was putrid. He rammed the small Fiat into gear.

Otto dead. Herr Kessel dead. The blood was flowing, though not yet in the right direction. He let the clutch in with a jolt and joined the traffic to make his way to the house with the green shutters. Sartini had emerged from there this morning, so he would probably go back there sometime today. He had to wait somewhere, and it was safer to wait in the piazza by the big church than by the old troll’s house.

 

Signora Rossetti’s Apartment

SIGNORA ROSSETTI lived in an old apartment block of crumbling plaster and stained walls on one of the narrow, cobbled vicoli in this area that had once been the Jewish quarter, teeming with devout families until the war.

Marco detected a homely smell of herbs in the cool air on the bare stone stairs. In the large rooms of the apartment the aroma turned to a less pleasant blend of damp and coffee. The overweight and elderly Signora Rossetti was sitting in a deep red armchair, surrounded by brown velvet cushions that were trimmed with cream lace.

“And who is this handsome young man, Laura?”

Laura’s mother looked far older than Marco had expected, at least seventy, and must have been in her early forties when Laura was born. Canon Angelo had obviously not been having a fling with some young showgirl. Several chins of fat rested on an expanse of bare flesh on the old lady’s upper chest, making it hard to imagine that this woman had seduced, or maybe been seduced by, a man of Canon Angelo Levi’s standing.

“This is Marco, Mamma.”

Marco bowed his head in a formal greeting. In Signora Rossetti he felt there must be something of the Canon’s spirit. Then he noticed the ornaments in the room. “You’re Jewish!”

The words made a strange greeting but he was unable to contain his astonishment. Canon Angelo had been a Christian and Laura said she was Catholic. He knew Laura’s mother was Jewish by birth, but he’d not expected to see the six-pointed star of her faith above the fireplace. But there was no Menorah and no picture of Jerusalem. This was probably the home of a nominal rather than a devout Jew.

Laura must have noticed him staring rather too closely at the faded furnishings, and she looked awkward.

“This is how Mamma wants it to be, Marco. I’m always threatening to buy new furniture but she prefers it as it is. It’s the Rossetti family home. Once upon a time all these apartments were full of Jewish families.” After a slight pause she added, “Until the war.”

“Laura’s a good daughter, Marco. She wants nothing but the best for her Mamma.” Signora Rossetti smiled and showed no resentment to the hasty remark about her faith that probably sounded more like an accusation than a statement. “Laura’s father was Jewish by birth, so do not be surprised that he had many Jewish friends like me, Marco. He was a very loving man.”

If she intended two meanings, Signora Rossetti’s eyes did not betray the fact. Marco felt overwhelmed by thoughts of the past, but he could understand something of the thread of love running through wartime families in Italy, binding them tightly together. Christians sheltering Jews, and Jews risking death for one another. In demonstrating his part in this thread of love, the Canon had surely shown a devotion that exceeded the commitment required of a priest.

“I knew your … knew Canon Angelo.” His heart skipped a beat. What had he been going to say? Husband? Lover? Boyfriend? It was difficult to find the right words.

“He was a good man.” Signora Rossetti made Canon Angelo sound no more than an acquaintance.

Laura went close to her mother and adjusted one of the cushions. “Marco has come to look at Papa’s letters. You promised to show them to us.”

Marco wondered just how the family had worked. Laura and Signora Rossetti must have lived in a single parent relationship, for surely Canon Angelo would not have been able to keep his post at the Vatican while living here. Yet Laura referred to him as Papa. Well, a loving man would have wanted the family provided for. Perhaps he’d left enough money for Laura to go to college for her journalism.

There had been occasional whispers of such scandals, running like fire through the college. Strangely, scandal became more defensible when the characters turned out to be real people rather than figures of gossip. Laura’s mother was speaking to him.

“Tell me about your work, Marco. I’ve always been interested in the clergy.”

“Take your time,” said Laura. “I’m going into the bedroom to phone Riccardo at the paper.”

 

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

KARL READ THE brass plate beside the doorway. This building belonged to a religious order of Sisters with a very long Italian name. He wanted to ask them to phone him at his hotel as soon as Sartini returned, but he couldn’t speak the language. He parked the little Fiat at the top of the piazza, where he grew tired and hot-tempered. He knew that if the stradale knocked on the window to tell him to move on, there could be trouble.

He reflected on how quickly the spiritual vision had come. Two days ago he'd been nothing more than a hired hand -- a nobody in Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung. And now he was the one chosen to make use of the relic. It was all part of his father’s prophecy. It must be some sort of divine revelation.

Sacrificial Priest? He was appointing himself to the position.

He smiled. Such a Held must think nothing of heat and suffering -- even in a foreign land. He opened his last beer. This afternoon he would get hold of some more money and try to find a German brew.

 

Signora Rossetti’s Apartment

LAURA SPOKE QUIETLY into her cell phone. “Riccardo, I’m sorry Marco seemed so anti this morning. He’d made up his mind you couldn’t come with us, so I had to agree.”

“That’s okay. Play along with him. Without his help, we can’t trap the rest of Enzo’s group. Do you still fancy him?”

Laura felt herself hesitate for a moment. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Then pretend you do. Stay with him until we know where that jam pot is. Then you can drop him. In the meantime, play on his emotions.”

“What do you mean, play on his emotions?”

Riccardo laughed. “Undo your top buttons and lean forward so he can see inside. And sit with your legs crossed so he can look up your skirt. Lead him on a bit. Let him think he can have it with you any time he wants.”

“He’s not like that, Riccardo.”

“All men are like that,” insisted Riccardo. “He’s been married, hasn’t he? I bet he misses it. Tell him all he has to do is raise a finger or something, and you’ll oblige. I’ll make it up to you in bed later.”

“Riccardo, you’re sick.”

 

MARCO WAS BY the window, looking into the central courtyard when Laura came back into the room. She blushed red as she gave him a friendly smile. He wanted to rush over and hug her. The top button of her blouse had come undone and he felt aroused. He was glad that Riccardo had taken the hint and decided not to come. His dislike of Riccardo Fermi might be jealousy, but whatever the reason he wanted to be alone with Laura.

Laura reminded him so much of Anna. His feelings for Laura were growing deeper each time they met. Her legs were not as slender as Anna’s, but they looked good.

 

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

KARL SAT IN his rental car and waited, his thoughts turning again to future plans. He felt sleepy after that revolting Italian beer. In his hand he held his favorite possession, the Göring dagger. He attempted to lessen the boredom by balancing it by the point on the end of one finger. The sacrificial knife.

Only through sacrifice is it possible to have power.

The teachings of the Führer were a favorite declaration of faith at the ADR training weekends. This one would also be his, the personal motto of the new Chief Priest.

He watched the sun glint on the graceful blade. His father had given him the future. The prophecy was already coming to pass. The sacrificial knife. What power had inspired such a beautiful object?

Chapter 34

Signora Rossetti’s apartment

“HE PHONED ME to say he was going to Paris. He made it sound urgent.”

Marco turned quickly from the ornate sideboard. The dusty photographs and the showy ornaments were of little interest anyway. He had been hoping to see a framed photograph of Canon Angelo, perhaps arm in arm with the old lady. “When was this, signora?”

“Oh, I do so like visitors.”

Signora Rossetti reminded Marco of an overweight canary as she chirped away, ignoring his question. Maybe she was trying to inject some interest into a life of loneliness in this cage. “You have many friends, Laura. How tragic to hear about Bruno’s death. Of course, I never did like that man. Too old for you by a long way.” She paused for breath.

“Mamma, you always think of my friends as amanti -- as candidates for marriage."

“Now, now, Laura, you’ll be embarrassing young Marco here.”

Laura laughed, rather unkindly Marco thought. “He’s not my amante. He’s a priest!”

“So you said, my dear, but I wonder if perhaps the wheel is going round in a full circle.” Signora Rossetti said the words without expression, with no hint of humor.

Marco decided to break the silence that followed. “Laura wants me to help with her work.” Was that all he could say? Could it be that Laura felt nothing for him? No, that was impossible. The ready smile, the occasional friendly gestures. Laura was being cautious in front of her mother, although the way she had arranged her skirt as she sat cross-legged in the chair opposite was provocative. He could give up his calling if… He tried not even to think about such a move.

Married to Laura? Signora Rossetti would become his mother-in-law and this apartment would be a second home. He wanted to kick himself for letting his imagination run away with absurd fantasies. No wonder Origen, tormented by passion and sex in the third century, was believed to have taken a knife and castrated himself. He winced at the thought. Such an action was far too extreme. But it was impossible to contemplate a relationship with Laura -- unless they shared a common faith. Her father would have wanted it that way.

“Please clear up a puzzle for me, Laura. Your father was a Catholic, your mother here is obviously Jewish, but you told me you’re a Catholic. Is that true?”

Signora Rossetti held her hands up. “Laura my child, what have you been telling this young man? You are as Jewish as your old mother.”

Laura seemed ruffled. “I may have said something about being a Catholic, Marco, but does it really matter? I’m not Jewish and I’m not Catholic. My religion says people get what they deserve.” She wagged a finger at him. “And I know two people who have already got what they deserve.”

Whatever response he gave, Laura would say it was a sermon. He’d be wise to pass for now on her bizarre declaration of faith. “Okay, so I know why you didn’t recognize the New Testament quotation in the letter.” He looked at Laura and laughed, hoping to restore some order after the sudden outburst.

Laura became defensive. “I told you, Marco: Jewish or Catholic, does it really matter?”

“It doesn’t stop us working together.” He had to say something more. “But, yes, it matters.”

Laura was silent for a moment, then she smiled unexpectedly and came over to stand close. “Marco, I want us to be friends. Don’t let’s have a silly argument.”

“It’s not silly to me. One day I’d like to have a sensible talk about what I believe. In the meantime we can still be friends.”

“That’s good.” Laura took hold of his hand, though not very positively.

“ Of course you can both be friends," chirped Signora Rossetti. "Our family has always had friends in the Church. My father, Ben-ami Rossetti, was a great friend of Israel Levi. Our two families spent many happy times together … until the Germans came to Rome. After the war I returned alone to this apartment from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, to find all my family and friends gone. Angelo was the only surviving Levi in Rome. He heard I was back and came from the Vatican to look for me. When he found me we became very close -- as I'm sure you've already guessed, Marco." And she winked.

At last there was an indication of humor, a warmth about the old lady. Life had not taken her sense of mischief away. Whatever storms she had ridden, the past had been unable to keep her down. It amazed Marco that a person could live through such wartime distress yet have the capacity to survive and bounce back into the present world. Laura let go of his hand.

“Signora Rossetti, you said Canon Levi phoned you to say he was going to Paris.” Somehow it seemed correct to refer to Angelo Levi formally.

“And so he did. But as soon as he got back to Rome he went to meet someone in Saint Peter’s. That’s when he was killed. There wasn’t any connection of course, or so the carabinieri said. The letters are a very precious part of my life, but there is no point in keeping them private for ever. Laura has already shown you one of them. It was very brief and it told me so little. Just that nonsense about the Living and the dead. I wondered at the time what it could mean. There was a piece of paper. Like old parchment. Angelo thought it proved the authenticity of the relic. Augusto got angry. They argued about it. Augusto said it would be most unhelpful if anyone saw it. He said there had been enough trouble between Christians and Jews in the Church’s history.”

“Where is the old parchment now?” Marco had to know.

“I’ve not seen it since the head went missing. Perhaps…”

“The letters, Mamma,” interrupted Laura.

Signora Rossetti bent down beside the ornate sideboard and pulled her skirt high, revealing bulging thighs and a network of thick varicose veins. He found himself wondering if Laura’s lovely legs would one day end up like this. From the cupboard she removed an old tin decorated with a painting of red and cream roses. She picked up the top letter and handed it to Laura.

Laura turned it in her hands to make sure the writing was on one side only. “I am concerned that there is a Vatican plan to stop me getting the bronze head authenticated. I have therefore decided that if they want it, they will have to look for the Living among the dead.” She shrugged. “You’ve already seen this one, Marco.”

“You didn’t tell me Canon Levi was in Paris when he wrote it.”

“How was I to know it came from Paris?” Laura snapped. “It’s very short and there’s no address at the top.” She started to skim through a few. “I’ve never been allowed to see all these. They’re … well, they’re like love letters.”

“Of course they’re love letters, Laura my dear. Your father cared for me, as you well know. There’s nothing I’m ashamed of in there. Find the first letter from Paris.” Signora Rossetti turned to Marco. “My Angelo had gone to Paris to see his friend Claude at the Louvre, but he worried about Augusto trying to put a stop to him.”

Marco would have loved to ask about the relationship. “My Angelo” and this pile of letters conveyed considerably more than an overnight affair. “Augusto? Is that Monsignor Augusto Giorgio?”

Signora Rossetti nodded. “That’s him. He was plain Father Augusto Giorgio then, but he’s a monsignor now so I believe. Laura’s father became very friendly with him, but they fell out over something. I know it happened almost as soon as Angelo brought him here to meet me.”

Marco waved his hands in an attempt to halt the chatter. “Angelo Levi went to Paris just before he was killed. Yes?”

“ Nineteen eighty-two. TV Roma was putting a lot of pressure on Cardinal Amendola -- all to do with a television program on relics -- and in the end the Cardinal dropped everything onto my Angelo and told him to put a stop to TV Roma's interference. So Angelo wrote to TV Roma, and also to a man called Reinhardt who was the Papal Representative in England. They were friends a long time back, and he needed someone to confide in. Then a German phoned Angelo at work and made threats. That upset him. I think everyone wanted to know about the relic -- except your Church." The signora sounded completely out of breath now.

Marco looked up. “Reinhardt? Is that Josef Reinhardt?”

“It was a long time ago. Angelo knew the man.” The signora’s voice was little more than a gasp.

Marco shook his head. “It can’t be my Josef Reinhardt. He’s not a Papal Representative.”

“ You mean the old priest you're so friendly with at the Vatican?" asked Laura. "Sounds like the same man to me -- if he's interested in this relic."

Signora Rossetti was breathing deeply and noisily. “He told Angelo he hoped to come back from England to work here in Rome. Something to do with stopping the fascists.”

“Perhaps it is the same man,” agreed Marco. He tried to put the details of the Canon’s relationship out of his mind. “Where’s this other letter?”

“Is this it?” Laura dug deeply into the tin. “There’s a French stamp on the envelope.”

“Paris has to be important,” said Marco. “I wish we’d known the first letter you showed me was sent from Paris.”

Again Laura was defensive. “Mamma, it would have helped if I’d known.”

“You never asked. You never take any interest in your old mother until you need her for your work. All day long you work and forget your Mamma.”

Marco had encountered plenty of old mothers filled with self pity and knew how to deal with this one. “Laura talks about you such a lot, Signora Rossetti. She was so excited to be bringing me here to meet you.” Not the exact truth, but Laura had been excited -- perhaps more for the letters than for the opportunity of showing off her Mamma.

The signora obviously saw through this attempt to pour oil on the waters. In an unexpectedly cold voice she said, “Laura will read the letter from Paris, Signor Marco.”

Laura studied the page. “It’s long. There’s some private news, and then Papa says, I am worried that the two Germans may have followed me to Paris. I still cannot understand the real purpose behind their approach in Rome, although they clearly represent the neo-Fascist movement. In the circumstances I am canceling the visit to my old friend Claude at the Louvre. The two Germans who phoned me in Rome have offered good money for the relic. In spite of Augusto being so negative about the provenance, I now believe it to be genuine. My one wish is that I had pursued the quest for authentication many years ago. Imagine my excitement when I came across a bronze bust in the small market near the rue de Rivoli while walking from my hotel today. I am sure that the deceit will be forgiven in the circumstances. It will be marvelous to exchange this bust for the money so badly needed by the Friends of the Poor. I feel an overwhelming burden to help not only the Jews, but the disadvantaged of all faiths who suffered under the heel of the Nazi jackboot in our dear Italy.

“I don’t know what to say.” Marco waited a suitable time. “But then I don’t pretend to understand what you all went through.”

Signora Rossetti nodded in approval at his statement. “You are too young, Marco, to know the excessive brutality of that regime. They dragged us from this building and marched us all to the Stazione Centrale. I remember being forced into cattle trucks and taken to Poland, a journey that took days with no food or water. People were crying and children were screaming for hours on end. I was the only Rossetti to return. I am still sad but I feel no bitterness now. I have friends who suffer still. The money from the modern Nazis would have been a small recompense for that suffering. Not that I seek revenge, Marco. Laura’s father and I both learned something of forgiveness, even to our enemies. Do you ever nurture thoughts of revenge?”

“I…” He hesitated. “I’m still working on that one.”

Signora Rossetti smiled briefly. “Then keep working on it, Marco. There’s more in the letter, I believe.”

Laura said, “He’s going to put flowers on a grave for someone.” She looked quickly up at Marco. “The dead!”

“Go on.”

Laura’s hands were shaking. “I have promised to visit the grave of the Giorgio family for Augusto, and put flowers on it. He is concerned that it has been neglected over the years.

“And?”

Laura blushed and put the letter face down on the tablecloth out of his reach. “That’s all. The last bit is too intimate.”

“It’s not a lot to go on.” Marco tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling for inspiration. A large crack ran through the dirty white plaster from wall to wall. This was a dreadful old apartment in a crumbling building. He remembered what he had read of the Jewish persecution in Nazi Rome. Saturday October 16 1943, the day of the big roundup, when these rooms must have been filled with the cries of terrified families. It started in the darkness of the early morning, when Signora Rossetti and all her family would have been asleep. Now the stark walls echoed the memories of the few surviving inhabitants who had been witness to the horror.

“He didn’t bring the same bronze head back with him. I know that for a fact.”

Both Laura and Marco looked at the signora.

Signora Rossetti nodded. “I think he must have left the original somewhere in Paris.”

“You’re right,” agreed Marco. “He left it in a cemetery. He left it at the Giorgio family grave.”

“There must be a lot of graves in Paris.” Laura’s initial excitement was quickly giving way to disappointment.

“Montmartre.”

“How do you know, Mamma?”

“I remember him telling me before he went.” Signora Rossetti lifted herself wearily out of the chair and went to the sideboard where she studied the photographs. “My Angelo called round on the day he left and we had a good laugh about it. The Giorgios were called Georges once. That’s a French name. He said Augusto Giorgio’s family were all buried in Montmartre. I said that Montmartre was where the dancers showed their attributes. We laughed a lot about that.”

Marco could see from the light in Signora Rossetti’s face that she had a good sense of fun, albeit fairly well hidden until now. The mother glanced across anxiously at her daughter, as though the presence of one had a sobering effect on the other. Then the signora turned, her eyes firmly on him.

“Montmartre. The Moulin Rouge. We laughed so much at the thought of the stodgy priest coming from a family of strippers!”

The mother’s sense of the ridiculous had failed to rub off on the daughter. “I’m going to buy a map of Paris,” Laura said abruptly. “This isn’t the right time to be fooling about. You stay here and keep Mamma happy, Marco. You seem to be as silly as she is. If there’s a cemetery shown on the map at Montmartre, that’s where we’re going to find the relic.”

“We’ve upset her now,” said Signora Rossetti with a wink as Laura slammed the door shut. Padding her way over she threw her arms around him in an enormous hug. His instinct was to draw away from the large woman, but she held him too firmly. He could smell alcohol on the old lady’s breath, making him turn his head away.

“ Oh, Marco, I like you. You're not like Laura's other friends -- you enjoy a little laugh. What a pity you're a priest!" The words made her burst into giggles of laughter, and if she was not clinging to him tightly she would have fallen.

“I’m glad I came. You’re fun.”

“I like you, young man. How about we have a little drink together?”

Marco felt repulsed yet amused by the old woman. She had lived here since returning after the war. She would have found many of the adjoining apartments filled with Gentile faces, replacing the Jewish families who were never coming back from the terrors of the camps.

He gave the big soft face a kiss. “Just a small drink.” Signora Rossetti might enjoy a drink or two, but she was not in need of pity.

“Strippers!” The old signora shook all over with laughter. “That stuck-up Augusto Giorgio came from a family of strippers. Monsignor Augusto Giorgio. Oh, my, my; I wonder if he still carries on the family tradition and entertains the nuns!”

Chapter 35

LAURA OFFERED, somewhat grudgingly, to drive Marco back to his new apartment in the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. She was obviously still in a bad mood as she braked violently outside the large front door. Her driving was as volatile as her temper.

As she hauled up the handbrake, Marco said coldly, “I can’t believe you, Laura. There’s no way Riccardo Fermi is coming with us to Paris.”

I found the letters.” Laura glared at him. “I’ve already phoned Riccardo. He wants to go with me to Paris. He won’t want you with us, but if you insist on coming, okay -- but you don’t dictate the terms.”

He opened the car door. “I suppose you know Riccardo’s mixed up with the neo-Nazis?”

“And what about your old priest?” retorted Laura. “Papal Representative? That man’s up to something but you can’t see it. There’s a Vatican conspiracy in this. Remember how my father was afraid of Augusto Giorgio? So don’t start telling anyone at the Vatican about Paris, or they’ll stop us going.”

He paused with the car door partly open. “Okay, but I still think Riccardo Fermi was mixed up with the deaths in Rome.”

“We’re journalists, and that’s all.”

“I trust Father Josef more than I trust Riccardo.” He thought about it for a moment. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to contact the old priest. I’ll go on your terms.”

Laura wagged a finger in his face. “Riccardo will be mad about it, so don’t blame me if he doesn’t speak to you. I’m going over there to park while you get your things. That stupid coach is right behind us and the driver won’t pull round.”

The coach driver leaned on his horn.

Laura wound her window down. “All right, all right!” she screamed in exasperation.

Marco went inside to pack an overnight bag. At times there seemed to be two different Lauras.

 

ALERTED BY THE coach horn, Karl raised himself in the driving seat of the Fiat. He was just in time to see the woman wave to the Priester, a half-hearted wave, before driving further down the piazza to park. He slipped discretely from his car and made his way across the street on foot, keeping in the shelter of the sightseers. A man on a white scooter squeaked the hooter and swerved expertly. Karl made an obscene gesture. The man squeaked his hooter again: an act he probably repeated a hundred times a day.

The woman stayed in her car, making a call on her cell phone. She looked at her watch before unfolding a map with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. Karl felt conspicuous hovering close by. The window was down, but it was difficult to hear the Italian conversation, let alone understand it. The woman kept her finger on part of the map while chattering excitedly about someone or something called Parigi, one of the words on the cover.

Parigi could be anything, but the name Paris was also there, and the map was obviously a street plan.

The little Fiat was full of petrol. Now that he had stupidly tried to contact Phönix, Herr Kessel’s credit card would soon be cancelled. The accountants in the ADR were not stupid. They would get Herr Kessel’s bank to run a check, then they would notice where the card was being used.

Paris.

He must get cash. Cash could never be traced. There was a large bank with an ATM across the street. The stradale had gone and the woman was still making her call.

The machine accepted the number and the monitor lit up, asking what language he wanted to use. Karl smiled as he pressed the German key and was told that money could be withdrawn. He tried for the maximum indicated, listening anxiously to the whirring sound inside the machine. Within seconds he was pulling a wad of the new euro notes from the delivery slot. Better than Italian lira, these could be used anywhere in Western Europe. Even better, he still had the card. One day the leaders of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung would be grateful for his resourcefulness. He returned to his car.

Sartini appeared on the doorstep and signaled to the woman who had finished her call. A squeal of tires and the silver Alfa reversed all the way back to him. The Priester got in and with another shriek of rubber the car joined the traffic. Karl allowed another car to pass before he followed. He had been spotted once before, but this time he would stay with them all the way to France if necessary -- without being seen. Whatever lay in Paris must be worth the journey. The woman had looked so excited as she held the map.

The Alfa halted without a signal by a smart apartment block on the west side of the city. The couple went inside and closed the door.

“Is this your place, pretty lady? The more I see of you, the more I want you. I would have paid you a visit one dark night if I’d known where you lived. But it doesn’t matter, because you and your Priester friend will soon be dead.”

A dark blue Peugeot drove up. A man got out and walked over to the Alfa carrying a small overnight case which he threw into the back of the woman’s Alfa. This was the Italian who had tried to attack him with the knife at the Colosseum yesterday. Sartini was not just a simple priest after all. He was mixed up with criminals.

 

MARCO WAS IN the front passenger seat, studying Laura’s map and a guidebook of Paris.

“I don’t think we should stay in the center,” he said. “If the gendarmes or anyone from the Vatican come looking for us we’ll be harder to find in the suburbs. I know a couple of hotels near La Porte de la Chapelle where I used to stay with … where I used to stay sometimes. That’s near enough to Montmartre.”

The other two agreed, telling him to work out the route. He drew a circle on the map to mark the cemetery and noted the best way off the northern section of the Périphérique. Putting the map and guidebook away he looked out at the countryside. There were amazing hilltop villages and monasteries perched high above the autostrada. Presumably the SS would have raided all these during the war. From time to time he turned to look out of the back. Only later did he become aware of the little red car keeping its distance a long way behind.

“That red Fiat’s been with us for ages. It’s like the one yesterday in Rome.” He had no intention of causing alarm, but they definitely didn’t want anyone following them to Paris.

Laura in the driving seat shrugged her shoulders. “It drops back from time to time, but it never goes past.”

Riccardo turned round quickly in the back. “You stupid cow, Laura, we’re being followed. Now what do we do?”

Marco flinched at Riccardo’s words and suggested they stop as soon as possible for a coffee. Riccardo’s attitude to Laura was objectionable. She should never have let him come. When the next area di servizio came in sight Laura signaled right -- and the Fiat continued on its way.

The crowded bar served dry rolls filled with thin slices of dark, tasteless prosciutto. Marco disliked the hard bread of northern Italy, but the choice of prepared food here was extremely limited. When they returned to the car Laura said she weren’t going to travel through the night. She needed to look for a motel. Marco reckoned that in two hours they would reach Aosta near the French border, which would split the journey to Paris roughly into half.

Laura turned to speak to Riccardo who was now stretched out on the back seat. “Is your paper still planning to run Bruno’s series on the war? Only I wondered, with Bruno dead.”

Marco was taking his turn at driving. The 16-valve Alfa felt competent on the autostrada, but high revs were needed for overtaking. “Series on the war?” he asked.

“Laura was talking to me,” snapped Riccardo. “Anyway, the answer’s yes. We found Bruno’s work on his computer. It’s going to cause one hell of a stir. There are pics of guilty men and women in his files, and I mean good pics. The roll of negatives he brought back from the Bayer’s house in Germany the other day shows scenes that have never been published before.” His voice rose in pitch and volume. “My paper is going to expose the fascist innocenti . Bruno's been busy for the past twelve months taking close-ups of every one of them -- without them knowing of course."

“Should be interesting.” Marco checked the rear-view mirror for the red car.

“There are some foul people around, my friend.” Riccardo sounded calmer now. “Not that you’d know anything about it. You’re a priest; I expect you’ve lived a sheltered life.”

Marco said nothing. He kept his speed down as they entered a succession of tunnels. The carabinieri were often ready to pounce on speeding cars at the exits.

Riccardo broke the silence he had started. “The Nazis were scum.”

The car went quiet, leaving Marco to concentrate on the road and think about Riccardo's accusation. His life had definitely not been as sheltered as Riccardo seemed to imply, although the Sartini family had escaped almost unscathed from the war. These last few days had brought about an introduction to a hatred that still simmered dangerously in many lives. He was also becoming aware of the bitterness still filling his own life -- hatred still for the drunken gang who had killed Anna. He should have dealt with it a long time ago. He even felt hatred for the killers of Canon Angelo, and for the young driver of the rusty Alfa who’d smashed into Old Savio in the Piazza Venezia.

Perhaps the pain of losing Anna would never die.

For such a flavorless ham, the prosciutto was leaving a remarkably strong taste of stale fat in his mouth.

They continued in silence with Marco driving, until he said, “I think it’s time we stopped for the night.” He was already looking out for a service area with a hotel. Aosta was only a few miles ahead. “Okay?”

Laura agreed.

Riccardo, half asleep on the back seat, didn’t answer.

Laura said that anywhere with a bed would suit her, and Riccardo mumbled something that was probably a yes. In the rear-view mirror Marco saw a small red Fiat. He pulled over to the emergency shoulder and came almost to a halt. The red Fiat slowed, and then speeded up to go past, disappearing into the evening haze now settling over the autostrada. Marco had time to notice the driver, a large man with a blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.

“ Right," he said, "we're definitely stopping at the next service area -- while that Fiat is still ahead. It had Roma plates."

Chapter 36

IN THE MORNING, Marco felt far from refreshed. He sat in the front of the Alfa, with Laura now taking a turn in driving. The motel had been too close to the autostrada for anything more than occasional snatches of sleep. Laura had requested separate rooms for the three of them. This was a surprise; Marco had assumed Laura would be sharing with Riccardo, but it seemed unlikely the two had stayed apart simply because he was with them. Maybe Laura wanted it that way because Riccardo was in such a foul mood. He could tell that Riccardo still resented his presence.

Laura pulled out to pass a large tanker that was rapidly losing speed on a long climb. “Mont Blanc Tunnel coming up. Get the credit card out of my purse for the toll, Marco.”

Marco had been staring in fascination at the huge mountain covered in ice and cloud. He said he would pay, the Vatican would reimburse him, but Laura insisted it would come out of her writing expenses. With the tanker safely behind, she dropped a gear to get by a whole convoy of trucks, the engine buzzing sweetly at high revs.

“We’ll stop for a coffee in about an hour,” she said. “We’ll be somewhere near Geneva by then.”

“Good idea.” Marco was only half listening. The credit card had a small photo of Laura on it. It was a pleasant picture, if on the small side. But below the card was another photo of Laura. He felt a chill run down his arms. He had found a security pass for TV Roma [_ -- in Laura's name. _]

Riccardo might be a newspaper journalist, and Bruno had probably been one as well, but this was a pass issued by TV Roma for their permanent staff. It even had a payroll number on it. It meant that Laura worked full time for TV Roma. She had lied -- she was not a freelance journalist.

Slowly he zipped the purse shut and passed over the credit card, hoping his consternation was not apparent. Was it too much to think he could still trust Laura? Looking across at her now, he had an almost irresistible urge to move behind her and put his hands over her breasts, and kiss her on the neck -- never mind about Riccardo watching in the back.

But Riccardo seemed more interested in a black Opel keeping pace with them a few cars in front.

*

Paris

IT WAS EARLY evening in the north of Paris, and Karl knew he could relax for a few minutes. He’d made it.

The journey had not been easy, but at least this part of his Total Training seemed to have been based on the practical rather than the theoretical experience of the course leader. He had just watched the Priester and his two friends book into a modern hotel north of the Périphérique, by a place that was signposted La Porte de la Chapelle. The Périphérique was one hell of a crazy road.

The three Italians were now in the hotel restaurant having a meal, so he had enough time to find a food shop. He patted his pocket and grinned. Cash in Rome from Herr Kessel’s card had bought fuel and food, as well as paying for all the road tolls. With a bit of luck it would see him through the next few days, so no one could trace him here.

Paris seemed considerably cooler than Rome, more like Germany, and it was good to be away from the oppressive heat. He felt confident that he’d stayed out of sight on all three stops on the French autoroute, the hand of destiny keeping with him all the way. In the early morning at the service area, while it was still dark, he’d watched an elderly couple arrive and book in for the night. He’d quickly hot wired their Opel Vectra, transferred the contents of the Fiat to it, then driven up to the next rest area to wait for the woman’s silver Alfa to come by.

The Opel wouldn’t be reported missing for ages, because the old people would be sure to sleep late and wouldn’t discover its disappearance until they came to leave. Wearing a straw hat and sunglasses purchased while he waited, he knew he’d merged in with the busy traffic on the autoroute, and presented a lower profile appearance since exchanging the red Fiat for the Opel. Today, sometimes in front and sometimes behind, with the passenger sun blind filling the side window, he had been invisible. His instructor was right when he said a black car was inconspicuous.

He parked the Opel near the gates of a small industrial area where some children were playing on a mound of sand outside one of the units. Three youths sat under the trees, laughing loudly and calling to two girls who were pretending to ignore them on the other side of the street.

He felt hungry from the lack of proper meals on the drive up from Italy. Further down the street was a late shop that probably sold bread, cheese and fruit. He had plenty of money from the cash machine in Rome, but spending his cash wisely was essential because the card might have a stop put on it at any moment. Two youths lounging outside the shop eyed him up as he entered.

They were saying something to each other in French and sniggering as they looked at him, but the humor was lost on Karl. As he peeled off some money to pay for the food and a French telephone card, the larger of the two put his hand close to his mouth, passing information to his friend.

As Karl walked away from the shop, unwrapping a bar of chocolate, he was aware that the boys were following. He could look after himself. He’d been trained to show no emotion. As the smaller boy grabbed his arm, the tall youth in the black jeans moved round to the front, evidently preparing to bring a knee up into his crotch.

The maneuver was pathetic. While still allowing the smaller boy to hold his right arm he butted his head forward sharply, before the tall one had a chance to raise his knee. The youth reeled back with a smashed nose. A fast turn to the surprised kid behind allowed him to raise an extended hand and bring the side of it down on the boy’s neck.

Karl stepped sideways and crashed headlong over the bleeding and screaming teenager on the ground. He tucked his head in as he fell, rolling over on the sidewalk, and was quickly on his feet to move clear of both boys.

Dumm Hooligans!” he shouted as he walked away, leaving the two seriously injured would-be muggers to be collected by the gendarmerie. It would obviously be some time before either boy could give a coherent statement of what had happened, and he’d be well away by then.

He felt pleased with his performance because it proved that he had not lost his nerve for a fight. In Rome he’d behaved stupidly, but he was already over Otto’s death. And over Herr Kessel’s as well. But the fight had reinforced the difficulty of running this operation alone. Coping with those dim-witted kids outside the shop had been easy enough, but he felt exposed. First Rome and now Paris, both of them foreign cities, and no hope of speaking the languages. He needed help, but not from the people at Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung in London.

Common sense told him to go home and forget about Herr Kessel’s relic. But possessing it would put him in a strong bargaining position. It might even save him if the leaders were planning to punish him for disobedience. He decided to phone one his ADR friends in Düsseldorf.

Karl noticed that the children had left the sand and were running over to stare in fascination at the two youths moaning on the ground. Other people were joining them and probably rejoicing to see these local troublemakers get their reward.

Feeling under his shirt he was horrified to discover that the handle of his Göring dagger had been twisted sideways in the fall outside the shop. The blade came from a genuine German military knife of high grade steel, and when his father died he had ground the shaft to a thin section so it would go into the ivory handle. It would need to be bent back carefully or it would break at the weakest point. He swore silently. The dagger had been his father’s, and it was now a cherished possession.

The phone card worked in a kiosk further down the road, out of sight of the screaming hooligans. Several ads for massage services were tucked behind the phone. Karl took a bright pink one showing a generously proportioned woman called Zeta. As he kissed the clumsy line drawing his call was answered.

“Erich, this is Karl. Herr Kessel is dead.” He wanted to sound confident. “I’m in Paris on a special mission. Things are dangerous and I need some backup.”

“Paris? What the hell are you doing in Paris, Karl? You told us you were going to Rome. The leaders already know about Herr Kessel, and have been asking lots of questions about you.”

“Don’t tell any of them where I am.” He steadied his voice and explained what had happened.

“All right, I’ll get as many of our gang together as I can,” Erich agreed, obviously appreciating the difficulties. “We’ll be with you sometime tomorrow morning. I think the station in Paris is called the Gare du Nord. Ring me later and I’ll give you the time. And you’d better be there to meet us.”

Karl replaced the phone and grinned as he retrieved the card. He had been so sensible not to withdraw any money since leaving Rome. Certain members wouldn’t want Herr Kessel’s card traced to any particular part of Europe, and nor would he. He shrugged. He was only showing the skills of a great leader.

It was exciting to be meeting Erich and the old gang again. The notebook from Herr Kessel's wallet could prove valuable -- should he need to bargain with the ADR. He patted his pocket and laughed.

Meanwhile he’d go back to the Italian’s hotel and keep the young Priester and his two friends in sight.

 

GASTON MERLES was almost home from work. For the past six months the energy needed to get to work at Gennevilliers from his apartment in La Porte de la Chapelle -- even on his old Peugeot moped -- often proved too much. Only forty-three and considerably overweight, Gaston had been told by the doctor that his heart was overdue for an extended rest, and the first fat-free diet of its life.

He was returning from his rotten office job which entailed copying endless entries into registers, the information from which would shortly be computerized anyway. Hand-written records would then be obsolete, but everyone said he was too old to pick up computer skills. Twenty-five years of painstaking work seemed pointless. Life seemed pointless. Even his wife was unfaithful. Gaston put the blame for that on the nightly need to rest his tired heart.

 

IT WAS GETTING dark as Karl walked back to the Opel. He spotted a man bending down, peering into the silver Alfa through the driver’s window. It was the dark-haired Italian from Rome. The Italian newspaper was on the back seat, and it had Herr Kessel’s photo on the front page. There was also a map of Paris, which could come in useful.

The Italian unlocked the doors. Karl stayed in the shadows. The man turned before getting into the car, as though to make sure no one was watching. Karl knew he would never have acted this foolishly. His training had taught him how to get into a vehicle without hesitating without attracting attention.

This was the man who had tried to knife him at the Colosseum, and it was time to pay him back. But if he tried to walk over he’d be seen, and the man would get away. He felt for his Makarov and his knife. Whichever weapon he chose, cunning was essential.

 

GASTON MERLES paused for breath. The moped seemed exceptionally heavy as he struggled to get it onto the high sidewalk outside his apartment. The large scruffy youth with the shaved head looked helpful as he indicated his willingness to park it for him off the street.

Whether his death was caused by a fall resulting from the shock of seeing the moped taken, or whether Monsieur Merles had been struck a blow, Karl thought that the coroner would probably be unable to say. But it was ironic that Gaston became more valuable at his death than he had ever been while working, thanks to a generous life insurance payout.

Not only had Gaston’s life been pointless, but even his wife would be unlikely to grieve. Her lover would move into the apartment immediately to stake his share in the instant wealth. And she would be glad never to find that old bike blocking the hallway again.

 

KARL REVVED THE moped, checked the brakes, and rode past the Italian and back again, wondering whether to use the dagger. No, the blade was bent at too much of an angle to go into the man’s back. When practicing in Rome with the English tourist it had been simple, but there would be no second chance here so close to the hotel.

This might be a good time to use the handgun. The Makarov 9-millimeter automatic was for emergencies only. Borrowed without permission from the ADR in Düsseldorf, one thing was for sure: no one could ever trace it back to him. There was no serial number. But he would have to ditch it immediately, because to be caught carrying the automatic after killing the Italian would mean trouble. The police would be able to match the bullet with the barrel of this gun.

In spite of his caution he felt excited. A gun was an efficient way of killing, and this was the right occasion to use it. His victim was walking away slowly in the dusk, reading a large map by the streetlight. The hunter should be allowed to relish the thrill of the chase -- but the Italian was making it too easy.

 

MARCO was standing in Laura’s small hotel room, and they both jumped when they heard the shot. At first they thought it was a backfire from the traffic, but the screams from people walking by quickly brought them to the hotel window. Within two minutes they reached Riccardo, to find him writhing in agony on the sidewalk surrounded by nervous Parisians. The bullet had entered the right side of Riccardo’s chest and blood was spreading across his shirt in unremitting spurts.

“ It's that young German -- the bastard." Blood poured from the corner of Riccardo's mouth.

Laura went to bend over him, but reared back as Riccardo’s mouth disappeared under a mass of red froth.

“Kill that German, Laura.” Riccardo started to choke. “You’ve got to kill him.”

Laura shook her head and screamed. Then without another look at her boyfriend she grabbed Marco’s arm, her eyes wide in panic. “For God’s sake, Marco, I’m scared. Take me somewhere safe.

Chapter 37

DON’T GO TO the police.” Laura’s voice shook as she pleaded with Marco when they were back in her hotel room. “Promise me you won’t.”

Below in the darkened street, a barrier of yellow tape marked the site of the killing. Marco felt a strong desire to protect Laura, even though he had been appalled by her lack of concern for Riccardo. Perhaps she was right to leave the scene quickly. Riccardo was obviously dead.

“The gendarmes are still down there.” He stood well back from the window. “We can’t hide up here forever.”

“Don’t let them see you, Marco. I don’t trust the French gendarmes. I don’t want them to know we came here with Riccardo. He and Bruno were killers; I can see that now.” Laura pulled him away from the sight of people in the street.

Marco put his hand on her shoulder, feeling her hot skin. “You weren’t involved were you?” He tried not to shiver. That sense of evil was back.

“You surely don’t think I could do anything like that.”

The violence sickened him. “How should I know what to think? You wanted Riccardo to come with us to Paris. I told you he was involved in something bad.”

“I’m so frightened. Someone wants to kill us, and you don’t even trust me.” Laura’s protests turned to tears.

In the presence of tears Marco always felt powerless. “You’ve been mixed up in something terrible.”

Laura wiped her eyes with a crumpled pink tissue from her sleeve, smudging the dark eyeliner. She fell back onto her bed and made no attempt to halt the flow of tears.

Marco sat by her side. “I don’t think you’ve been telling me the whole truth.” He said the words gently.

Laura was staring past the open curtains to the blackness of the night, and her eyes suddenly lit up with hostility. “What do you mean? Do you know something?”

Marco realized it was time to face up to his discovery. A close relationship could never succeed if there was a lack of trust. “You told me you’re a freelance journalist. You’re not. You work full time for TV Roma. Why did you lie to me, Laura?”

She looked so helpless and vulnerable on her bed, but he had to know. If only he could tell the innocent from the guilty. He felt ashamed for asking.

“I’m sorry, Marco.” She lay back with her head on the pillow. “My producer thought you’d lead me to the relic. He heard you telling your story in the Newsroom interview at the studios. He told me what to say to you. You’re the ‘confidential source’ that TV Roma boasted about. I didn’t want to deceive you; I wanted to tell you the truth when we first met in your apartment. Honestly I did, but I knew you wouldn’t see me again if I explained everything.”

“I’m not bothered about TV Roma. I’m more worried about the gendarmes down there, and your involvement with Bruno Bastiani and Riccardo Fermi.”

Laura rolled onto her side. “I’ve known Bruno and Riccardo for ages. All our families suffered in the war because of Sturmbannführer Kessel. Bruno and Riccardo kept talking about revenge. They called it justice. At first I didn’t think they were serious and I certainly never wanted any killing. I told them I wouldn’t mind helping with an investigation. I was a fool to get mixed up in it.” Her speech became faster. “You’re right about Riccardo. He was as guilty as Bruno. That German skinhead is behind all this. Riccardo tried to kill him at the Colosseum, but he’s followed us to Paris. It’s all Riccardo’s fault.”

Laura’s long, dark hair felt beautiful as he ran his fingers down it and leaned over her face. He could smell her warm breath. “And was Riccardo really your boyfriend?”

“Is that what you think?”

He pulled his hand away. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking. You don’t seem to be missing him much.”

Laura turned onto her back again and looked at the ceiling. He had a strong desire to caress her body.

“I liked Riccardo a lot, but that was before I saw what he was really like. Riccardo and Bruno wanted to destroy the neo-Nazis.”

“You still haven’t told me why you phoned me from the Colosseum. I can’t help thinking they must have shared their plans with you.”

“No!” She sounded very certain. “They never discussed any details in front of me. I thought we were going to get revenge by exposing the fascists in the media, not kill them. I phoned you to come and take me away. It was a cry for help.”

“Did Bruno and Riccardo kill the man in the Audi at Monte Sisto?”

Laura just nodded. The tears began to clear. She was still looking at the ceiling. “You remember the first time we went to Monte Sisto?”

He had fond memories of that journey. “You drove like a maniac.”

She laughed through the remaining tears, looking at him for the first time. “I always drive like that.”

“The second time we went you drove more slowly,” he reminded her. “There must have been a reason.”

Laura looked serious. “Bruno told me to stay in Rome. I had to phone him on his cell phone and let him know as soon as the Germans left their hotel.”

“So you were part of the plan.” Laura’s silky hair trickled through his fingers. He could sit here in her room and do this for ever.

“Marco, listen. Would I have taken you to Monte Sisto if I thought Bruno and Riccardo were going to kill someone there? But you’re right, I knew they were planning something horrible. I think perhaps I wanted an alibi. If anything went wrong you’d have been able to speak up for me.”

“But it did go wrong.” He stood up by the side of her bed. “Now I know what Riccardo meant when he joked in the restaurant about hot work. They burned the German to death in his car, and probably beat up that poor kid in the bushes. I can’t believe you didn’t know anything about it.”

Laura reached up and took his hand. “I was caught up in something terrible. Believe me, Bruno and Riccardo took the whole idea of revenge much too seriously.”

He held her hand tightly. "I'll get you safely back to Rome -- and we don't talk to the gendarmes in Paris. That’s a promise. But we report Riccardo’s death as soon as we get home. In the meantime, I’m going to the cemetery at Montmartre. Perhaps I should have brought the metal detector and spade.” It was a poor attempt at humor. As he watched the tears running from Laura’s large eyes, he could feel her body shaking.

“Don’t leave me alone,” she pleaded.

“We’ll go to Montmartre together.” He felt a great rush of love. “You don’t seem to realize that I want to stay with you. Can’t you see that?”

Placing his hands behind Laura’s head he pulled her up slowly, to meet her lips with his. Then he began to run his hand slowly up her back beneath the loose blouse.

 

RICCARDO HAD taken the map on his walk, and there was no way of recovering it now that he was dead. Marco found a page in Laura’s guidebook that mentioned the cemetery they were looking for. The cemetery was described as a landmark, glimpsed only fleetingly by tourists in passing coaches. It was near the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge, below the white Basilica of the Sacré Coeur. So Laura’s mother had been right about the strippers!

In the famous cemetery of Montmartre, according to the book, visitors could see miniature shrines which it irreverently referred to as marble dog kennels and Gothic dolls houses. Bizet and several other composers were interred in the cemetery. It was here that visitors could view the grandiose depositories for the dead of Paris from another age. Marco closed the book. In plain words it all came down to ornate graves filling the valley by the rue Caulaincourt in the 18th Arrondisement.

He wished it could be daylight. The German skinhead was in Paris with a gun and had already killed Riccardo. Laura could be next, and the prospect appalled him.

He turned around slowly. The dark alley might be a trap. It would be so simple down here in the darkness -- and no one would find their bodies for hours. Laura and the neo-Nazis? The idea was ridiculous. She wouldn't have let him kiss her like that if she didn't want him. He could still taste her lips on his, the salt from her tears. He recalled the softness of her body and the anticipation of sex as he began the foreplay. Then the sudden rebuttal of his advances and the unexpected relief he felt when Laura had told him to stop.

All he wanted now was to make sure that Laura stayed safe. She’d been right to persuade him not to contact the authorities in Paris. Every city had fascist sympathizers, and Father Josef had warned about the dangers of talking to the wrong people. He had heard there were over one hundred thousand extreme right-wing supporters in France. Only a few of these admitted a neo-Nazi agenda, but there was no way of telling which officials were involved with the fascists. Even less extreme organizations like the National Front had received ringing endorsements from the far right in Germany. Karl Bretz, the zoticone, might have high-up connections. The sooner they could check out the cemetery and find the grave of the Giorgio family, the sooner they could recover the relic -- if it was there -- and get back to Rome to make a full confession to priest and state. Rapidamente.

Riccardo’s death would need explaining, and so would their decision to leave the scene of the crime. Their evidence could have helped catch the killer, but until they got back to the safety of the Vatican, Laura was obviously in great danger.

The poorly lit steps disappeared steeply down from the rue Caulaincourt, into the darkness of the avenue Rachel. Over the high green fence Marco could see the tombs, exactly as described in the guidebook. Grotesque, scale-model chapels running down the hill in tightly packed rows. The orange streetlights glinted on the marble slabs and added to the sense of foreboding. They stood on the steps in awe. To the left the graves became a sea of Gothic horror, even more crowded and all in disarray. The guidebook had been too restrained. This cemetery resembled a nightmare.

Laura looked at him. “I keep thinking about Riccardo. If only he’d not gone out alone, he’d be here with us. Don’t go in there, Marco.”

They turned the corner. The gates were locked. Marco pointed. “There’s a sign. They open at eight tomorrow morning. We’ll find another hotel for the night. There are plenty around here, and we can share a room for safety. If you want to.”

“But all our things are at La Porte de la Chapelle.”

“We’re not going back there,” he insisted. “The zoticone may be waiting.”

“Good,” said Laura. “With a bit of luck, he’ll hang around there all night and keep out of our way.” She sounded worried. “But we’ve got no luggage.”

He held her arm as they climbed the steps away from the gloomy graveyard. “Leave your Alfa on the main road. It will be safe enough under the lights. Hotels round here don’t expect all their visitors to have luggage. Some of them let rooms by the hour as well as the night.”

“Just because I let you kiss me, you needn’t think…”

He took hold of her hand. “I’m not expecting anything.”

“Good, because you’re not getting it.” There was a surprising lack of emotion in Laura’s voice. “It’s not going to be easy to be friends, Marco. There are things you don’t know.”

“About your family?”

“No.”

“About the killings in Rome?”

She took her hand away. “You don’t understand. You hardly know me.”

“You don’t know much about me, either. I haven’t always been like this.”

“What does that mean?”

“After Anna died, I lived my own life. I messed with drugs, hoping to forget the false accusations and innuendoes by the carabinieri before the inquest. I’m not proud of how I behaved. My local priest eventually talked some sense into me. You’re seeing a reformed character now.” He tried to put his arm round her shoulder. “But we can still be close friends.”

She pulled away, snubbing his advances. “You don’t know anything about my past!”

Then the tears started again. Laura was still crying when they managed to find a hotel with a vacancy. She didn’t stop crying until long after midnight.

They had agreed to share a room for safety; perhaps for more than safety. The desk clerk obviously thought it odd that two Italians, both young and healthy and both without bags, wanted a room -- with separate beds? Marco shrugged. Anyway, he’d heard that the French always said the Italians had strange tastes.

Laura was right, the past could never be easily forgotten. Anna’s life had been taken away by three drunken maniacs who were never caught. But his Christian faith was now important to him. And so was love. Laura’s mother seemed to understand more of forgiveness than he did. In spite of all his sanctimonious talk, he was living a lie when he spoke of forgiveness in his own life.

What sort of relationship could he offer Laura? He looked at her, taking in the shape of her body. The Church taught that sex outside marriage was a sin. Here he was, a priest who must remain chaste and celibate, lying on a bed in a hotel room watching a woman remove her earrings as she began to undress. This was the start of the nightly ritual he had shared so many times with Anna.

There could be no half-way choice: it was either chastity or full sexual sharing. Deep inside Laura, his body one with hers. He felt a desperate desire to be in bed with her, their bodies together night after night. His thoughts conjured up a vision of a future that was impossible. He found himself hardening, again thinking the unthinkable -- excited by it.

Laura started to remove her blouse. He had no sense of awkwardness, no feeling that he should turn away. She was wearing a white lace bra but she got no further than her underwear. With a rather forced smile she said goodnight and slipped between the sheets.

“Just stay in your own bed, Marco. I mean it.”

He turned out his bedside light and hoped there would be other opportunities, other nights. He lay on his back and thought about the kiss that could so easily have gone much further. Memories of Anna, and the sight of Laura undressing, brought powerful memories of lovemaking.

He ached for Laura. Literally ached for her. He had to face up to his predicament. Priest or lover. He couldn’t be both.

 

Chapter 38

KARL HAD ALREADY identified the Italians’ rooms at their hotel, but their windows stayed in darkness all evening.

Around the wide Paris boulevards the silver Alfa had been too fast to follow on the old man’s moped. Not that it mattered: if the Italians struck lucky with the relic they would return here with their trophy. Let them do all the hard work, then he could capture it from them. He was not the only one waiting. He could see a French gendarme in the lobby of the hotel reading a newspaper to pass the time.

As he stood in the shadow across the street he kept wondering how to get inside the hotel. The gendarme could only watch the main entrance, and there must be a rear door to slip through. Breaking into a hotel room was child’s play. But the man and woman weren’t there, so what could he do if he got in? The leaders of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung, men like Phönix, would almost certainly know what to do.

He phoned Erich in Düsseldorf again, to find out when he would be arriving in Paris. Then he thought of something stimulating he could do, although Herr Kessel would not have approved of spending more of the ADR’s money on a woman. The old Narr had been fussy enough in Rome. A picture of the Italian woman in the silver Alfa kept coming to his mind. Late twenties and far more attractive than older women. He should have found her apartment in Rome a few days ago. What would it be like to run his big hands over her soft flesh while she tried to fight him off? An inner urging needed to be satisfied. Killing the Italian had given him an enormous sexual appetite.

He had the pink card from the phone booth with the address of Zeta the masseuse, and the dead Italian’s map to show the way into the city. This could jeopardize the whole mission, but the craving for sex had become too great to resist. He would visit Zeta and dump the Makarov automatic on the way there. The two Italians weren’t likely to come back yet.

The ride on the old man’s moped took only fifteen minutes. Once there, the whole activity took even less time.

Back outside the hotel in La Porte de la Chapelle he felt inside his jacket pocket. The brief moment of sex, paid for in advance, must have coincided with the few seconds the pimp needed to remove his money and replace it with strips of paper. But he still had Herr Kessel’s credit card, and the list of names and phone numbers was safe in the pocket of his black jeans. With the map he could easily find Zeta’s brightly lit doorway in the red light district again. Taking his feelings out on the noisy moped he headed back to the city, the engine screaming at high revs. When the whore and her keeper saw the knife they would quickly return his money!

Stopping to check the way in the wide boulevard Magenta, he opened the map he had taken from the Italian and rested it on the handlebars to check the way. An area on the map had been circled in black pen: a patch of green labeled Cimetière de Montmartre. The map looked brand new, so whatever the Cimetière was, the Italians had marked it recently. Maybe they were there now.

There were far more important things in life than threatening some stupid French pimp -- though it would have been fun to hear the tart squeal. Surely the dead Italian's map held the key to the mystery. He found Montmartre easily. Then he noticed the silver Alfa on Roma plates parked in the main street called the rue Caulaincourt, within the circle drawn on the map.

He could feel a light drizzle in the air, so he would shelter in a doorway and wait for the Italians to come back to their car. It felt unbelievably cold for mid summer, especially after the intense heat of that mad Italian city. He regretted not bringing warmer clothes from the stolen Opel. Even if he had time to get it from the car now, the gendarmes might be there watching. He’d seen films where that sort of thing happened.

Sartini and that woman had to be nearby, probably scared out of their minds. Well, wherever they were, they would have to come back for their Alfa. He slid the Göring dagger into a gap between the stones on the doorstep and slowly bent the blade at the narrow section until it looked straight. It bent back surprisingly easily, so the damage couldn’t be too serious. The drizzle was getting heavier and the dark streets felt depressing.

He spent the night in a state of restless sleep. At eight-thirty the next morning he was sitting like some homeless drunk in a shop doorway when he heard the Alfa doors slam. As the engine started he leapt to his feet, jumped onto the moped and pedaled furiously.

The Alfa only went a couple of hundred yards. He followed it across the wide bridge and down into a narrow street. The Cimetière was a creepy graveyard with rows of stone buildings no larger than garden sheds. What a place to be coming to at this time of the morning. He parked the bike under a tree and followed the Italians through the high gates into the weird burial ground. He had never seen anything like this world of the dead. What the hell did Sartini and the woman want with this place?

The main street ran overhead on a wide, noisy bridge of iron girders. The graves directly beneath the bridge, almost lost in the darkness, seemed even more eerie. The Italians stopped at a notice board just inside the large green gates.

He stood and watched the young priest point past the bridge to where the graves ran away out of sight. A large cat stalked past, black, with the appearance of Satan himself. It stopped, turning slowly, staring with unblinking eyes.

For a moment he felt his heartbeat quicken, excitement rising in his throat. This must be an omen. There was to be death, violent death in this garden of the dead. He felt for the Göring dagger. His favorite weapon would be the instrument, the sacrificial knife.

The cat was joined by its mate, an even larger beast with a bent and torn ear. The cats were studying his every move. He stared back, sensing an attempt at communication, some message he was unable to interpret. This was a beautiful place. A thrill ran through his body. He would dispose of the woman first.

 

MARCO TURNED again and listened. The cemetery had been open for over half-an-hour, but so far they had seen no other visitors. With luck the zoticone would still be outside the hotel in La Porte de la Chapelle. Laura had complained all the way here about the noise in the hotel during the night. Guests kept banging doors until the garbage collectors took over the task of keeping everyone awake at five-thirty. But because they had got so little sleep in the hotel on the noisy autostrada the previous night, he and Laura had stupidly dropped off to sleep again and not woken until well after eight.

As they made their way through the maze of tombs, Marco caught hold of Laura’s hand. Touching Laura, his amica, gave him comfort. He could see that the graves ran in avenues, with a grid reference to each one listed on the board by the entrance. It took them nearly five minutes to find the name Georges, the French name of the Giorgio family.

Very few families appeared to visit these ornamental sepulchers.

Caring relatives had once filled the insides with vases and religious artifacts, but it seemed many of them had now left everything to become overgrown and encrusted with dirt. An object could be concealed in one of these places for years without attracting attention.

Laura began to count the rows. “It must be that one.”

The builders had tried to distinguish the Georges’ tomb from its immediate neighbors by decorating the outside with blue tiles and polished stone panels. Through the iron grill that served as a doorway Marco stared into the gloomy interior. There was just enough room for a person to sit, should they be brave enough to do so. The family vault would be deep below.

As his eyes adjusted he could make out a shelf with a corroded metal cross and two stone vases, all thick with dirt. Wind-blown paper and sweet wrappers littered the floor.

Then, half hidden in the darkness, out of reach on a low shelf, he could make out the outline of a human head.

The heavy iron grill to the small chamber was firmly locked.

 

KARL TURNED FROM his communion with the cats, suddenly knowing for certain that the bronze head was here, and it had to be purchased with a sacrifice of blood.

From their excited voices the couple must have found the relic already. Their blood, spilt in this dwelling place of the dead would open the door to a future of absolute power: a perfection of power. He drew the Göring dagger from his pocket. The spilling of blood was essential to complete the consecration.

The crazy priest was pulling noisily at the grill and would soon attract attention. Karl moved closer, watched only by the large black cats on the stone steps, their tails waving rapidly from side to side in anticipation.

As he reached the grave he rushed forward and smashed the edge of his hand across the back of the priest’s neck. The woman screamed and started to run. He reached out, grabbed her coat and slammed the dagger into her back. The blade went in effortlessly, the handle twisting in his hand as it did so.

The woman fell forwards against a high stone cross, both hands scrabbling for a hold. Her head hit the stone with a sharp smack. Without a sound, she slipped to the ground. He raised the precious dagger to administer the sacrificial blow to the young priest as he lay against the tomb. But his hand held an empty handle. The blade must be stuck in the woman who lay motionless beneath the cross. The final use of the knife had been beautiful.

He moved forward and pulled her up. Through her clothing, he could feel the softness of her breasts. It was an attractive body, and yesterday he would have had her. But last night he had seen enough of women for a few days, and unresponsive female flesh held no attraction to a real man. He draped the body over the arms of the cross and stood back, laughing at the sight.

Near the floor, in the darkness behind the grill, he could see the object that had caused the raised voices. It might be metal or marble for all he knew, but it was a head, white like the one in Herr Kessel's old photograph -- and it was what the Italians had come to get. He wrenched at the grill but it was immovable.

He started to panic, desperate not to leave here without the key to his future. Without the relic he was in deep trouble with the leadership. Fighting to control his anxiety he guessed there would be a wheel brace in the woman’s Alfa. He could easily prize the grill from the wall.

Breathing deeply and deliberately, fighting back his panic, he ran towards the high green gates.

An attendant stood just inside, talking to two French gendarmes, while pointing over the crowded graves. They must know something. Perhaps they’d come to search the cemetery. If so, they would soon find the Italians.

Standing close to the wall he tried to stay cool. His training, he must remember his training. The woman was dead, but the Priester could still be alive. There had been no chance to use the knife on him. Hell. The man would be a witness. One of the gendarmes called him over.

 

Chapter 39

MARCO HAD AN extraordinary feeling of being surrounded by … death. His soul was arriving in heaven. He had not imagined there would be so much pain in heaven.

Opening his eyes he could see Mary standing in a haze, beckoning for him to come forward to the foot of the cross. This was no vision: this was reality. Reality in a spiritual world. So this was what it was like to pass through death to eternal life.

Mary moved her hand slowly. In the morning light of heaven this experience made the troubles of life seem as nothing. Except for the pain.

Marco,” she called.

The vision ended as Laura raised her arm and slid heavily to the ground. “For God’s sake, Marco, help me!

As Marco became fully conscious, the pain in his neck seemed too intense to bear. By crawling he might be able to reach Laura. “Keep still. I’m coming over.”

“There’s something in my back, Marco. I think it’s a knife.”

He put a hand on Laura’s jacket and withdrew it instantly as he touched the cold, broken metal. “Stay where you are.”

“I’ve hit my head … I can’t get up.”

“I’ll get help.”

“No, don’t leave me. I’m scared of dying.”

“Laura, you’re not going to die.” He reached out to touch the end of the knife again. The metal felt jagged. “I have to get help.”

“It feels more comfortable now.”

He knew that deep knife wounds often felt like minor injuries. He’d say nothing. Laura’s life could be slipping away.

Reaching round to her back. Laura began to pull at her jacket. The blade came away in her hands.

No, Laura, don’t!

“It wasn’t in me. It was stuck in my coat.”

The pain pounded through Marco’s head. He had to act fast to save them both from another attack. The prospect of a deep wound was difficult to face. “Let me … let me see.”

The blade had broken just below the handle as it entered Laura’s jacket. Her skin was bleeding but the wound looked shallow. The large swelling on her forehead was serious. “We’ve failed, Laura.”

“Was it the skinhead?”

He tried to look around but the severe pain paralyzed his neck. This graveyard was certainly not heaven. “We know the zoticone is in Paris. He killed Riccardo.”

Laura shouted in surprise. “Look, the relic is still there!”

He felt sick with pain as he tried to focus his eyes. “Father Josef said I had to destroy it rather than let the Nazis get it.”

“If we could get in there to destroy it, we could just as easily take it with us.” Laura let out a long groan. “My head is hurting badly.”

“I’m calling an ambulance.”

“We don’t go near the authorities. They’ll connect us with Riccardo. Get us back to Rome and then we can think what to do next.”

Marco looked at the low iron railings surrounding a nearby grave and noticed that one of the short uprights appeared to be loose. “If we want the relic, you’ll have to help me.”

Laura stood up unsteadily, supporting herself on the high wall of the grave. Together they pulled the bar free and placed it between the grill and the wall. Marco put his weight against the end, using it as a lever. The grill came away after a few attempts. He smiled in spite of the pain. Laura was alive -- that was all that mattered. Laura was more important than the relic.

“I’m taking this. It might come in useful.” He pushed the iron bar into his belt. It would provide some protection against the large neo-Nazi. He crawled forward to reach into the tomb, his fingers closing on the ancient object.

The exhilaration gave him the strength he needed. He gripped the cold metal and pulled the relic from its resting place. The head of Jesus Christ was back in the hands of the Church.

“I love you, Laura.” He pulled the bronze head into the open. “I really do love you. I thought you were dead.”

 

KARL SHOOK WITH anger as one of the gendarmes demanded some identity and then had the insolence to search him. The other gendarme held his handgun in a threatening manner, and the wire lanyard made it impossible to snatch.

The ivory handle of the Göring dagger caused a predictable reaction, but it was blood-free, and without the blade it was hardly evidence of being armed. Fortunately his Makarov automatic was deep in the Seine, dumped on his way to see the loathsome Zeta last night. His only hope of being allowed to go free was to act the innocent tourist and co-operate with these two clowns in uniform.

As he listened to the endless babbling in French, shrugging his shoulders to make them see he was unable to understand a word, he saw a movement amongst the graves. The two Italians had survived and were making their way cautiously to the entrance gates -- carrying his passport to recognition and fame.

He wanted to shout. He wanted the gendarmes to turn and make an arrest. Theft from a grave should be enough reason to detain them. The woman must have missed death by some miracle. There was no way she could walk far with a blade in her back. The man and the woman looked his way but stayed silent. For some reason they were afraid to call out for help. He watched them walk out of the cemetery with the relic.

Total Training told him to wait until the right opportunity came. These two bored gendarmes, looking for some excitement to brighten an early morning patrol, were not likely to give him the right opportunity.

 

JACQUES HAD TO admit that random questioning rarely produced results. Incidents like this did little to make the life of a gendarme interesting -- especially on a damp, drizzly morning. It was all very well for Alain; he would be out soon on a good pension.

Jacques felt he had received a rough deal from life. Always unlucky and never in the right place at the right time. Colleagues got special mention for their achievements. All he got was the early patrol -- and unshaven skinheads to question.

More than likely the German peasant had been sleeping rough amongst the graves. He certainly looked scruffy. Mercifully there wasn’t a group of them to deal with. It was easy to show contempt for one kid on his own. In a gang, even with Alain to help, these skinhead troublemakers could be very difficult to handle.

They had no option but to let the youth go. He was alone and he’d not been making any sort of trouble in the cemetery.

Allez vous en!

 

AT THE GREEN gates, Karl saw the silver Alfa pulling away. If Sartini and the woman planned to drive straight back to Rome he could make a phone call and get the vehicle stopped on the autostrada by sympathizers in Italy. Phönix and his team would know how to call up the necessary help -- if he was brave enough to phone him.

Unarmed, and with nothing better than the old Frenchman’s moped for transport, he could do no more than try to follow the Italians. It was already after nine, and Erich and the gang from Düsseldorf would soon be here in Paris at the Gare du Nord. They would just have to wait. He accelerated into the boulevard Clichy with the silver Alfa still in sight.

 

MARCO SAID IT was out of the question to drive the Alfa back to Rome with their injuries, and Laura readily agreed to the train. If they had any sense they’d be going straight for a medical check-up, but some chief of gendarmes, sympathetic to neo-Nazi aims, could already be tipped off that they had come to Paris with Riccardo. His men could be waiting for them to turn up at a Paris hospital. The zoticone had been talking to the gendarmes in the cemetery, and they had no idea what he had been saying. He could have been telling them about his plans, and if the neo-Nazi network was as extensive as Father Josef reckoned, anything was possible.

Marco still found it difficult to turn his head. “I think there’s a large supermarket bag behind my seat. Put the relic in there.”

“In a carrier bag?” Laura sounded incredulous.

He tried to smile. “We have to keep it out of sight on the train.”

The agony in his neck persisted, making driving extremely painful. The courtesy of the Parisian drivers surprised him -- compared to the drivers in Rome at any rate. It was pleasant to drive with occasional rather than constant sounding of impatient horns.

He recalled that the Gare de Lyon was the main station for the south. The Paris one-way traffic system seemed dreadful. Even with the street map in the back of Laura’s European road atlas, finding the Gare de Lyon wasn’t easy.

They left the Alfa in the open car park by the side of the station. Laura said it would need to be recovered within a few days, before the overstay fine became greater than the value of the car. He told her not to worry; it was TV Roma’s problem. The huge clock on the tower outside the entrance said nine-forty.

Laura climbed slowly from the passenger seat. “I’m frightened, Marco. What do we do if the zoticone is already here?”

“Get me the iron bar from the back seat. It should be strong enough to break his skull.”

Laura put her hand to her mouth. “You wouldn’t?”

“ I would -- if I had to." Laura's aversion to a bit of self defense was unexpected, considering the violence that had surrounded her in the past few days. "Just trust me. Anyway, the skinhead wouldn't dare do anything in front of hundreds of travelers."

At the ticket office a railway official said a train to Rome was leaving in just under an hour-and-a-half. There was no need to hurry.

Marco shook his head. They wanted to leave at once, he explained.

The official said a train was leaving shortly to the city of Lyon, and they could catch the Paris-Rome train from there later. Marco agreed. He sighed with relief as Laura’s credit card was accepted, opening the way to Rome and safety. Men were renovating part of the entrance hall, and the way ahead was blocked off with red and white tape. For a moment he wondered if this was a trap, then realized that all the passengers were making a simple detour.

 

KARL BRAKED THE moped to a halt at the station entrance just in time to see the two Italians going inside. It was obvious the Priester and his girlfriend were hurrying back to Rome, with the relic in a supermarket carrier bag.

He would be able to carry out the killings on the train, but he would plan it with more care this time. It should be simple with all his experience. All he had to do was eliminate the opposition and recover the Nazi property. Destiny still held his hand.

While in the line for his railway ticket his thoughts were on his friends in the ADR who would be arriving at the Gare du Nord in less than an hour, expecting him to be there to meet them. He could forget meeting up with them and stay with the crazy couple. Phönix would surely appreciate this initiative.

Cette carte, M’sieur!

Was ist los?

The booking clerk held the card behind the glass partition, shaking his head with an exaggerated movement.

There was some sort of problem with the card. To his surprise the man slipped it back through the security glass. As Karl moved out of the line, the clerk was busy with the next customer. He laughed to himself. The card was still his, although from now on he could only use it for minor purchases where checks would not be made. Even so, getting the card back had to be providence, had to be a sign.

As he pushed through the crowd of travelers he could see the priest and the woman already on the platform, standing by a group of luggage trolleys and looking indecisive. Karl grinned. No need to get on the train at all. He moved in, regretting that he no longer had the knife or the gun.

The Italian woman saw him and screamed. He hesitated as the two ducked behind the high trolleys. Several people turned to watch, but no one followed.

Behind the trolleys he would be screened from prying eyes. He could deal with the pair quickly, with no witnesses. As he pushed his way through, the woman appeared from behind a pile of cases and stuck her foot out. He was too close to avoid her and they both fell heavily. The stupid bitch should have died in that cemetery.

Sartini threw the bag to the woman and began to lash out with a metal bar. As Karl rolled sideways to get to his feet, a hard blow crashed across his shoulders. He twisted away in pain. Then another strike as he tried to get up. Escape would soon be impossible. The Priester was so strong, a hit on the head could be fatal. The woman’s shoulder bag was on the ground. He rolled over and grabbed it as he scrambled to his feet.

Two officials spotted him as he ran across the lines, and they blew their whistles.

 

FABIEN TURNED wearily to his colleague in the railway police. Something had happened amongst the luggage trolleys. It looked like a bag snatch. A Code Twelve. They would not pursue the hoodlum, le voyou, across the track. They had radios to communicate with Security Control. This way was effortless as well as safer.

Railway security was all a matter of following procedures. There were no prizes awarded for over-exertion. Fabien made his Code Twelve report and returned to the entrance hall to await instructions. Whatever had happened amongst the trolleys, the passengers seemed calm again now. The voyou with the bag was already out of sight. Control should be monitoring his whereabouts on closed circuit television.

Fabien lit a cigarette. It was someone else’s problem now, and he was overdue for a smoke.

 

MARCO AND LAURA came out from behind the trolleys to find everyone staring across the track at the fleeing skinhead. No one seemed to notice them as they boarded the train to Lyon and found seats in an empty compartment. Marco looked at his watch. Unless the railway police delayed the train, they would be on their way in about ten minutes.

“You were fantastic, Marco. I didn’t realize you had it in you.”

The admiration in Laura’s voice made him feel embarrassed. “I thought I was fighting a devil.”

“You were, and it’s not over yet.” She looked anxiously out of the carriage window and began to tremble. “That devil can still get on the train. He’ll kill me. I know he will.”

“He won’t dare come back. The railway police are watching out.”

“He’s got my purse.”

Marco sank back in the seat, his neck too stiff to turn. “But we have the bronze head, and that’s all that matters.”

“My credit card was in my purse.”

“We don’t need it. We already got our tickets, and I’ve enough money for food.”

Laura felt cautiously at her forehead. “The zoticone could use the card to get a train ticket.”

“Here, don’t touch that with your fingers. Use a tissue. Don’t worry, it’s got your photo on it. I can’t believe he’d try to use a woman’s credit card!”

 

KARL REACHED the main road and ran into a side street. Quickly he tipped the contents of the bag into a doorway. A small amount of money, a TV Roma pass, and a credit card with the woman’s picture on the back. The money and the pass went into his pocket; the credit card and the rest of the junk went into the bin. It wouldn’t do to be searched with all this rubbish on him.

He hurried back to the station. With Herr Kessel’s card invalid, and with insufficient cash to buy a ticket, he would have to find another way to get on the train. At the station entrance he could see signs of increased security. Bag snatching should surely an everyday occurrence, but the railway police seemed to be taking this one seriously. Sartini had turned out to be a nasty surprise with the metal bar. He wasn’t exactly the frightened pushover Herr Kessel said he’d be. The man had totally the wrong attitude for a priest.

After waiting for a few minutes he made his way round to the station entrance where he checked the timetable and his watch. The platform was empty. The train had already left. He cursed himself for acting like a frightened rabbit. Reluctantly he mounted the moped and rode down the station approach to the main road. Erich and his gang would need him soon at the Gare du Nord. Everything was going wrong. He had only slept for a short time in the doorway last night. He was not the Held of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung he had imagined himself to be. Perhaps Oberpriester? Even an ordinary Priester had somehow got the better of him.

If the stupid knife hadn’t broken it would all be different.

 

“I’M GOING to get the head out of the bag and have a good look at it,” said Marco, as the train pulled out of the Gare de Lyon.

He already had the bag open on his lap. The head was upside down, showing the hollow inside, black with age. A piece of paper had been pushed into the space. The metal felt rough, almost jagged as he reached in and withdrew what seemed to be a piece of parchment.

“It’s some sort of deed,” he announced. “I think it’s in Latin.”

“I thought priests learned Latin,” said Laura.

“I can’t say I was exactly brilliant at it. Besides, the old fashioned script is a bit of a pain to read. I can see the name Donato Bramante. Good old Bramante, the vandal architect of Saint Peter’s. It says he’s…” The lettering was too elaborate to decipher with any certainty.

“Yes?”

“He’s giving away a bronze sculpture to … to an unnamed monastery. It’s to be a gift.” He looked at Laura in surprise. “I’m amazed Donato Bramante gave anything away. The man tried to sell most of the statues and relics from the old Basilica of Saint Peter’s, and the rest ended up as hardcore for the new building. At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. Il Ruinante they called him. No wonder. That man squandered so much of our Christian heritage. It was a case of out with the old and in with the new. This document will need an expert to look at it, but it seems to give provenance to our relic.”

Laura was pulling impatiently at the bag. “Get the thing out so we can see it.”

A woman sat down heavily in the seat opposite, followed by a breathless man carrying a large suitcase. Marco carefully pulled the top of the bag closed. The head was covered in too much white plaster for him to see any detail on the face. A hasty attempt to remove it could wreck the surface underneath. He closed his eyes and the pain felt worse than ever. He hoped they’d still be awake when they had to change trains at Lyon. Once they got to Rome he could take the relic to Father Josef for expert attention. It would be interesting to hear what Amendola had to say when he read the document.

 

THE NOISY GROUP arriving at the Gare du Nord made Karl feel excited, even optimistic, in spite of severe bruising on his shoulders from the attack by Sartini with the iron bar. When Erich and the gang heard what had happened, they clearly saw him in a new light and were ready to take orders. There was no reason why he should feel shame for his past failures. He smiled. Destiny again. He certainly was not about to tell how he had let the prize be carried away. He could manipulate the truth. Manipulation of the truth was part of propaganda. His instructor was strong on the value of propaganda.

“ We're taking the next train to Rome," he shouted, receiving a great thrill from giving orders in German -- and knowing that for once he would be understood. And obeyed. "Has anyone got enough money to buy me a ticket?"

 

JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT, Marco and Laura alighted sleepily from the train at the Termini in Rome, to find Monsignor Giorgio and three armed carabinieri waiting for them on the platform. Marco guessed they had traced the use of Laura’s card to buy train tickets to Rome.

Chapter 40

Rome

RENATA BASTIANI had been drinking. She no longer felt old. How could she, when men were still turning their heads for her? The sudden and violent death of her two boys in Rome, and their funerals earlier this morning, had brought about a new birth. She had lived with terrible memories for sixty years, and now they were all gone. Wiped out.

She stood in the ferramenta, the hardware store, examining the pans. She would cook a meal of celebration, making just the dishes she liked. With no one else to care for, she could pamper herself. Poor Bruno, he had never found the right girl.

After buying the utensils she would go to the Via della Maddalena and choose her first colored clothing since the start of the war. Then she would go home and have another drink.

A crowd of young men, laughing and shouting, pushed each other into the shop. They were Germans. Their noisy voices sounded like the soldiers in the house of torture in the Via Tasso. She tried to look inconspicuous. These Germans kept coming to Rome, and still they thought they owned the city.

 

ALFREDO WAS SERVING alone. This was normally a quiet time, when most of the shops were getting ready to close for the afternoon. He wished he’d pulled the shutters down early today. One large German youth, the largest by far, pointed to the knives in the glass cabinet. His friends, all with shaved heads and clearly all part of the same gang, began to pick up goods in various parts of the shop. Alfredo realized he needed eyes like a spider.

He did think twice before opening the knife cabinet, but he should be safe. Access to it was from behind the counter only. With some misgivings he removed the black handled knife the gang leader had his eye on. The blade was long and slender. It was a popular line. Many of his customers apparently bought them for use as paper knives, in spite of the top quality steel that was reflected in the high price tag.

The German skinhead indicated that he wanted it. His friends were probably helping themselves to all sorts of attractive items. Alfredo realized that the sooner he made the sale, the sooner they would leave and he could attend to the old woman.

“Identity?”

The youth hesitated for a moment before producing a credit card.

Alfredo read the name aloud. “Manfred Kessel. This is you?”

The big skinhead nodded.

“Passport?”

The skinhead shook his head.

The company insisted on name, age and address for the records with youths like this. But this would have to do. Only a fool would risk antagonizing this gang. The youth smirked as he retrieved the card and paid cash.

 

RENATA LOOKED UP sharply from her deliberations. Time was confusing and she found the voices muddling. The noisy Germans intimidated her. That name. Who was this man using the name of Manfred Kessel?

She knew she should have killed him that first night in the Via Tasso with the knife from his desk. Then Enzo would never have been born. Poor, unhappy Enzo. The carabinieri said her son Enzo was using the name of Manfred Kessel when he died at the Colosseum. In God’s name, was her bastard son such a depraved being as to take his father’s identity? Perhaps Bruno knew the reason, but it was no use asking Bruno. Bruno was dead.

That knife looked familiar. Bruno had one like it at home, with the same ebony black handle. One of a pair, a birthday present a long time ago. Knives could be dangerous; you could kill someone with a knife. Bruno had been a bad boy. The carabinieri were keeping the knife he’d used in his foolish fight with Enzo. Nothing was safe with the Germans around. Now Sturmbannführer Kessel was back.

She must find Bruno’s knife and keep it in her bag in case the Germans came looking for her. The alcohol made her fearless. On an impulse she reached forward and snatched the long knife from the big German. She took the man by surprise and he leapt back.

“I kill you, Sturmbannführer Kessel!” she screamed.

The assistant caught hold of her wrist and the knife clattered across the wooden floor. “Not now, signora.” He sounded sympathetic. “You should be home. Come back when you’re sober.”

The young man sneered at her before walking out of the shop with the knife thrust down his belt, as if he expected to need it in a hurry. The others followed, laughing and exchanging wisecracks in their loud voices.

Stronzi!” Renata screamed, but the Germans took no notice.

 

MARCO CALLED AT the hospital to visit Laura in the evening. She was already dressed, sitting in a chair while waiting for a final check-up. She let him take hold of her hand, but not with any detectable enthusiasm. It felt cold.

Marco smiled at her. “The carabinieri held me for hours this morning, asking questions. They’re not at all happy with what we did.” He let go of her hand and walked to the table, picked up a handful of grapes and put some in his mouth. “These are good.”

“Have they caught the skinhead?”

He shook his head before emptying his mouth. “Not yet, but at least the relic is safe with the Vatican.”

“Thanks to your pigheaded Monsignor Augusto Giorgio!”

He recognized bitterness in Laura’s voice. “Don’t get worked up about that again.”

“It was mine more than the Vatican’s. That parchment said the Vatican was giving it away. My grandfather and then my father had it once. We should have got out at Firenza and come to Rome on a local train.”

“We left too many clues behind in Paris,” said Marco ruefully. “It was bound to go wrong for us when French gendarmes found our cases at the hotel, and contacted the civil authorities in Rome.”

“My producer is furious. He says the least we could have done was take a photograph.”

Marco shrugged. “Monsignor Giorgio was too quick. Anyway, there was nothing to see. The coating was more like plaster than paint. Perhaps the monks thought they were unworthy to see the face underneath it.”

Laura raised her voice. “That’s foolish. Insensato. People need to see it. You did the worst thing possible, handing it over at the railway station.”

“I didn’t have much option.” The last of the grapes had gone. “The carabinieri had guns. Anyway, you told me there are fascist sympathizers on the staff at TV Roma.”

“I know.” Laura let out a long sigh. The patch on her forehead looked as though it kept pulling at her skin. “I just don’t know who’s on my side.” She sighed again, deeply. “I wonder if it was worth it, Marco. I once had other plans, but Riccardo Fermi and Bruno Bastiani are dead.”

He pulled a spare chair across the floor and sat close to Laura. “What sort of plans?”

Laura looked down at the thin blanket covering her bed. “Terrible plans. Punishing the Nazis. Not that you’d understand.”

“What sort of punishing?” It seemed that Laura was keeping something back.

“Forget it, Marco. It wouldn’t interest you.”

He squeezed her cold hand gently. “Yes it would. The Vatican betrayed me. I wanted a parish, not violence. I could make changes to my life for you.”

Laura looked surprised. “For me?”

“We’re a good team, Laura. And I love you.” The words came out quickly. “We can make it together. We’re opposites in some ways, but your father was in the Church. I’m prepared to give up the priesthood.”

Why did he get the impression Laura was trying to pull away? On her own admission she had felt nothing for Riccardo, and even if she had, Riccardo was dead. So was Bruno. And two of the Germans. Father Josef Reinhardt had warned about a battle, but Marco knew he’d not been prepared for it.

Laura picked up a magazine from the table and began to turn the pages. “You don’t understand. We’re finished, Marco. We’ve nothing in common. Nothing. I’m going back to work tomorrow. Please don’t try to see me again.”

Chapter 41

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

EARLY THE NEXT morning, Josef Reinhardt sent one of the sisters with a message to Marco’s room to say that he must come at the earliest opportunity. Marco had slept badly, hearing Laura’s rebuttal over and over again in his head. He tried to console himself with the thought that she was still in shock and unable to think rationally. But perhaps he was the one incapable of rational thought.

Father Josef was waiting impatiently. “Have you seen today’s paper, Marco? If not, have a look at the front page.”

“The relic?”

Father Josef shook his head as he held out the paper. “Bruno Bastiani. You know he was a journalist? Yes, of course you do. Well, his paper has printed the start of a major series on the wartime Nazis, and today’s neo-Nazis.”

“I knew it was coming. Riccardo Fermi mentioned it in the car going to Paris.” Marco took the paper. EUROPE’S SICK SECRET screamed the headlines. He read the explosive details. “These are prominent names. They’re not going to like it. The carabinieri think Bruno and Riccardo were in some anti-fascist plot together.”

“ They were certainly first rate journalists. See for yourself, Marco. Bruno Bastiani recently obtained wartime negatives showing a raid on the monastery at Monte Sisto. The paper has put two of the pictures on the next page. In one, there is a family that has been identified as the Levis. They must be Canon Angelo Levi's people -- Laura Rossetti's family."

Marco turned the page. The quality of reproduction was excellent. A row of frightened adults and children stood in front of wooden barrels, the women wearing head scarves. The harsh shadows from the single flash gave the photograph a grim texture of reality. “Laura didn’t say anything about this last night. I don’t think she was very close to Bruno and Riccardo.”

Father Josef put his glasses down amongst the clutter on the desk. “It hurts me to say this, Marco, but I am afraid I deliberately kept details of Laura Rossetti’s friends from you. It was vital you acted the part of an innocent priest, or they would not have confided in you. We had to retrieve the relic, and Laura’s friends certainly had no intention of helping the Vatican.”

“I’ve already worked that out,” Marco replied wearily.

“The outcome was gratifying, young man, expect for one thing.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

“I am unhappy at the way your friendship with Laura has developed so fast. I wonder if it is wise for you to continue.”

“It’s over.” He tried to make it sound as though Laura’s refusal to see him was of no consequence.

The old priest put a hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad, but I hope you are both still on speaking terms. You will be meeting Laura Rossetti tomorrow afternoon before the program.”

“What program? I thought I’d finished my work for you.”

“Just a few more days, Marco.”

“I’d like a break soon. I think even Cardinal Amendola would agree I’ve earned it. I’ve been in touch with my friend in Oxford to see if he can put me up for a few days. I’ve told him a bit about the excitement we’ve had here with the neo-Nazis, but only what’s been in the papers.”

Father Josef moved to the table to pick up a letter, his hands steady. “You certainly deserve a break, Marco, but I can’t let you go yet. You come over well on television, and TV Roma has asked for permission to use you in an interview tomorrow evening. Cardinal Amendola is lending the bronze head for everyone to see.”

“I didn’t realize there was another Cardinal Amendola.”

“Now, now, a little more respect please. It is the same one, Marco, but I have to admit that Amendola has undergone a remarkable transformation. He says he may have made a slight mistake in refusing to admit the existence of the relic. He found Monsignor Giorgio trying to conceal the parchment that was inside the head, and discovered it was a most revealing document. But the decision to let TV Roma investigate the relic on live television is not his alone, Father Marco.”

“Why are you calling me Father Marco? The Church has taken away my position.”

“Only for six months, and it is indeed possible that your splendid work will cause the panel to reconsider before that.”

“You don’t understand. I need time to think through my calling. This has been a traumatic introduction to the priesthood. Perhaps I want to be free.”

Father Josef replaced his narrow glasses on the end of his nose and looked over them sharply. “A problem with your faith?”

“ No, of course it's not my faith. My faith has never been stronger -- in spite of all that's happened. Or perhaps because of it. I've learned something about God's forgiveness for the first time. But there's something else..." He hadn't intended to hesitate.

Father Josef said quietly, “You are still sexually attracted to women. It is a battle fought by many priests. I understand how you feel.”

Quite probably the old priest did understand. He was a man of great empathy.

 

KARL HEARD THE publicity for the forthcoming program. It seemed that everybody knew of the discovery that could turn the Christian Church on its head. The preliminary broadcast would be syndicated live, with commentators on hand for all major languages. He was trained and ready, and so were his friends -- ready for the ultimate in publicity, for their moment in history.

With a bit of luck the leaders of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung would be watching to see how well he could cope in a crisis. He had been trained to lead men who would fight for their beliefs. Men who were prepared to lay down their lives. Herr Kessel had been nothing but a pompous old Narr driven by hang-ups from his Jewish past. Erich had confirmed that the ADR in Düsseldorf never regarded the man as anything but a joke, and only tolerated him because of his father’s SS connections.

Karl smiled to himself. Thank God for Herr Kessel’s contact in the editing suite at TV Roma, a sympathizer who was prepared to help the ADR. The video editor said he was compiling a documentary on the relic’s discovery in the cemetery in Paris and its connection with the monastery at Monte Sisto. The relic would be taken to the studio in a security van three hours before the broadcast. It was to be TV Roma’s reward for Laura Rossetti’s part in the recovery. An exclusive, a world revelation. Karl laughed aloud. The world would soon be even more amazed!

The noisy bunch from Düsseldorf were hopeless. For the snatch operation they needed to be more disciplined, and their training had obviously been anything but thorough. A first class leader should be given first class troops, but he accepted he was not getting better than this in the time available. He tried to make himself heard as he addressed the gang in the park, but they kept shouting to each other.

Why had they bothered to come? Where were the million supporters Herr Kessel had boasted about?

“Let’s have a fight,” shouted Klaus, a real Rowdy known to everyone as a crazy troublemaker.

“You can have your fight in the studios tomorrow,” Karl shouted back, angry at the interruption. They would fight, too, given half a chance.

“We’ll fight the Eyeties!” Leo now joined in the barracking.

Then Karl got his best idea ever, the sort of idea to be expected from their new leader. “You’ll be fighting tomorrow night,” he yelled back. “You’ll be fighting each other. And that’s official!”

Chapter 42

TV Roma

A BLACK STRETCHED Mercedes picked up Marco to take him to TV Roma. Laura was already in the back, looking a little embarrassed to see him. It seemed that the plan was for them to be seen arriving together. A huge crowd of several thousand people had already gathered in the street outside the studios, and there were still two hours to go before the broadcast. Laura sat silently by his side in the back of the huge limousine, and Marco desperately wanted to know her thoughts.

“I think there’s going to be a riot outside the TV studios.” The driver turned round and grinned. “A gang of skinheads have come down from Germany. They’re animals. They’ve daubed a few swastikas around, but they seem to be more interested in fighting each other at the moment. I suppose it’s their idea of fun. The carabinieri will sort them out before we get there.”

The words were probably intended to reassure his passengers, but they rang warning bells for Marco. A fascist skinhead -- the zoticone -- had tried to kill them in Paris.

They stopped close to the front entrance to be met by Paolo, one of the TV Roma security guards. Out in the street there was chaos as the carabinieri tried to maintain order and keep the skinheads away from the genuine sightseers. The youths began to chant loudly. Some of the crowd had been allowed to the gates but no further.

“Sorry about the disturbance, signorina,” Paolo shouted to Laura above the noise. “That noisy lot won’t be bothering you. The Current Affairs producer wants to see you before you go up. He’s around here somewhere.”

Laura sounded fully recovered and she began to laugh. “Thanks, Paolo. We thought the crowds had come for us!”

An overweight man in a white shirt and fawn baggy trousers was directing a cameraman. “The package is already here, Signorina Rossetti,” he wheezed. “Cardinal Amendola sent it an hour ago by armed guard. I know it’s not how it happened, but before you go up I want to pretend you and Father Sartini have just arrived with it straight from Paris. You can be handing the box in at the security desk. Look tired and anxious. The camera’s over there. All right?”

Marco went through the charade willingly, although his stiff neck made movement embarrassingly awkward. Looking tired and anxious was not too difficult.

“Good, good,” the producer called. “Now open the box just a bit and tantalize the viewers. Don’t look so worried, Father: the carabinieri have checked the building.”

The partially repaired and floodlit reception area felt like a stage. When Marco started to open the box for the camera he became aware of a reaction from the gates. The people who had been allowed to stand there could see everything through the repaired glass frontage. They started to clap and cheer enthusiastically. Overcome by the occasion Marco raised the box above his head, much to their delight. Then he pointed to Laura and joined in the clapping. If it were not for Laura’s part in recovering the relic, permission for the program would never have been granted so readily, apparently by the Holy Father personally, with some unexpected support from Luigi Cardinal Amendola.

He and Laura finished their pretence at the reception desk and moved towards the elevator. The smile Laura gave him was probably an act as well. But perhaps not. He pressed the button for the fourth floor. The doors slid open immediately. Laura stepped in first. A large security guard in a peaked hat pushed his way in with them. Paolo called in alarm from behind his desk.

Uno momento!

But the doors were already closing.

 

KARL BREATHED DEEPLY in excitement. Every move he made, every detail of his plan, it was all so perfect. Last night everything had gone smoothly. With help from Herr Kessel’s editor friend he had obtained a studio guard’s uniform, then found a hotel where he spent a couple of hours superimposing his photograph on the woman’s staff pass. In the early morning, when the breakfast guests were coming and going, the editor had met him behind the studios to admit him through the rear staff entrance. It was all much more efficient than Herr Kessel’s laughable arrangements that first night.

He had been in the building for nearly ten hours now, relying on Erich and the gang outside to cause the maximum distraction they could, without getting arrested. Thousands of people were gathering in the street outside. Herr Kessel had been right: the people would come. Leo sounded as though he was putting on his best performance ever. Total Training. No more failure. Sartini and the woman, here with him in the elevator. And they didn’t even know.

 

MARCO HELD THE box tightly. He felt strangely anxious as he reached out and pressed the button for the fourth floor. As Paolo shouted his warning, Marco saw the long blade in the guard’s right hand. Then he realized who this large man was. Laura started to scream as he struggled to protect her from the frenzied knife blows. The large skinhead wearing security uniform was insane.

As the knife slashed across his arm, Marco kicked up hard between the man's legs. The German was vulnerable -- he'd proved it in Paris with the iron bar on the railway platform. The zoticone yelled in pain and let the knife fall.

Marco tried to kick it away, but the big skinhead dived to the floor, snatching at the black handle and rolling over in the confined space to come up, knife ahead at arm’s length, thrusting upwards powerfully into Laura’s chest.

Marco dropped the box and moved across to shield her from a second attack, kicking out and smashing his foot into the side of the German’s head. The knife fell as the elevator stopped on the fourth floor. Laura slipped from his arms. The doors opened on the far side, throwing the large youth into confusion. Marco knew what to do. He slammed his foot over the knife and pressed the button for the foyer, desperate to get the elevator down in time to save Laura’s life. The neo-Nazi picked up the black box and stared warily, with his back to the far wall of the elevator.

Marco could feel the warm blood running down his hands from where he had held Laura. Laura’s blood mixed with his. As his arms became weaker she fell to the floor, twisting in pain. He covered the knife with his foot and watched the skinhead for any sudden movement. The security guards in the foyer would stop him getting away.

The elevator jerked. The doors opened into the reception area. The zoticone in the TV Roma security uniform ran out, holding the large black leather box containing the relic. The guards ignored him and rushed forward to help Laura.

 

RENATA BASTIANI had been outside TV Roma for more than an hour, wearing her new clothes from the Via della Maddalena. She’d been drinking all day; drinking to forget her lifetime of sorrow. A neighbor said her Bruno was involved in making a fantastic discovery. Bruno was a good boy, and all he needed was encouragement. Bruno would be pleased to see her new clothes. The colors seemed so bright, so cheerful. She’d always known she could look high class if she put her mind to it.

She recognized the large German with the shaved head. He had been in the shop with his friends, buying the sharp knife, calling himself Manfred Kessel. He was in uniform now. Was it Nazi soldier’s uniform? Manfred Kessel was a terrible man, torturing and raping innocent women.

So many memories. The missed opportunity with the knife in the Gestapo building in the Via Tasso. The shouting, the German voices all around her in the street. It was just like the war. The Gapists were brave fighters, and she would join with them tonight. She would be worthy of the partisans. If Manfred Kessel was still alive then he must die. She had one more chance to make everything come right.

The large German in uniform came closer, his face white, running in fear of his life. In his arms he held a large black box. She pulled Bruno's favorite knife from her purse -- one of the pair she had given him. Poor Bruno, he was too small a boy to be mixed up in this war.

Manfred Kessel came closer, pushing his way through the crowd at the gates. At last she could make amends. As the huge body pressed forward, she forced the knife up into the broad stomach. It went in easily. The knife was sharp, ever so sharp. There was such a look of surprise on the German’s face. She was proud of this moment. The Gapists would be proud of her, too.

 

JUST FOR A MOMENT, Karl thought he was free.

Then with horror he understood the reason for the pain, the intense pain that caused him to lean forward, to bend double in the desperate search for relief. A knife. An old hag had stuck a knife into his stomach.

He fell to the sidewalk. The destiny that had driven him this far told him he was dying. But death was impossible. His Papa had looked at him and given the prophecy, and prophecies always came true.

The crowd began to close in round him. Excited foreigners were bending over.

Only through sacrifice is it possible to have power.

The words of the Führer filled his mind and he felt humiliated, let down. Papa had failed him. The revelation in hospital had been nothing but a sham. Dreams of a glorious revival were fading away with his life. The Rallies, the Parteitage, enormous torchlit parades all over Europe. Aryans united in a new age of power. And these foreigners could only stand and jeer.

Blood. Far too much blood. The horror of death was numbing his stomach. No, not death. This was a healing. A miracle. He tried to stand. Destiny was still here. He raised his hand.

A divine being was at his side. He was going to rise from the dead. The people would bear witness.

“Papa! Papa!” But the words would not come out.

An old man in black reached down and took the box now lying at this side. Then came blackness.

 

JOSEF REINHARDT no longer felt the people pressing against him as he stooped to retrieve the leather box. It had been a hard battle to get this far through the crush.

He put his hand inside the young man’s pockets and removed a slim notebook. The crowd would not protest. They were good Catholics. They would respect his clerical clothes and collar.

 

MARCO LOOKED UP for the first time. The whole of Rome’s carabinieri seemed to be in the foyer of TV Roma. Some were trying to hold back the surging crowd, while a first-aider applied an emergency pad to Laura in an attempt to slow the loss of blood. An ambulance was coming. He could hear the siren. Laura was still conscious, her eyes large and bright. He put his head by hers and cried with all the compassion he could find.

“I love you,” he whispered.

Laura looked away. “Don’t say it, Marco. We’re different. You can never hate people. Maybe you could once, but it isn’t in you anymore.”

He cradled her head against his chest. Anna’s perfume was here. He was aware of Laura’s blood coming through his shirt as he felt the warmth of her trembling body. “Hatred and forgiveness. There’s always forgiveness.”

She sounded bitter. “There you go again, Marco. People get what they deserve.”

“Don’t say anything. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

“I’m dying, Marco. I don’t want your forgiveness and I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Laura began to sob, gasping for breath. “Run your fingers through my hair, like you did in Paris.”

The siren slowed. The paramedics rushed in. Marco held Laura gently, tears running down his cheeks. Her hair was soft and damp against his face. She would understand one day.

“God’s forgiveness is free, Laura. There’s nothing we can do to earn it, but we can ask for it and accept it because Jesus died for us on the cross. All our good deeds count for nothing. We have to come to God just as we are. I didn’t understand it once, but it’s true.”

The blood around Laura’s mouth looked like bright red, smudged lipstick. She tried to speak as a paramedic pushed a clear plastic mask against her face.

“We’ll do what we can, Father.”

The words chilled him. Marco looked at Laura’s face. “She’s not going to die,” he insisted.

Slowly he released his hold as the ambulance crew took charge.

 

THE NEWS ROOM was preparing for a news flash. The film crew had been recording the neo-Nazi riot for the evening news. They pushed their way back to the building with hastily gathered cameras and lighting, to grab video of the woman being rushed to the ambulance on the stretcher. They already had tape of the dead ringleader in the street outside, and the producer was deliberating whether to use shots inside the reception area with so much blood this early in the evening.

Natalia watched anxiously from the staircase. She had seen Marco with Laura; now he was sitting alone on the floor. Did no one care about him? They had been close friends once, and at this moment he needed her sympathy -- even her love.

As she pushed her way across the foyer, a voice called out loudly. “Natalia, you’re wanted in the News Room. It’s urgent!

She turned. “In a moment,” and continued to push her way through the crowd.

A uniformed man put out his arm. “Sorry, signorina, no one is allowed through here.”

“I want to talk to the priest.”

“Go back to work,” the man advised.

“He’s a friend,” Natalia protested.

Natalia!” The voice called again from the stairs. “You’re wanted!

A paramedic bent down to talk to Marco. Natalia turned away and ran up the wide stairs to the third floor, her eyes filled with warm tears. The News Room would be a frantic place right now and she had work to do. She stopped and looked back as she reached top of the staircase. Marco Sartini was looking at her. It might still be possible.

Chapter 43

LETTER TO MONSIGNOR AUGUSTO GIORGIO

THE VATICAN

CONFIDENTIAL

This is a formal statement informing you that Marco Sartini is to be retained by my section in the Vatican Security Services. Sartini is proving invaluable in my work and he has all the makings of a fine member of staff. With his agreement, I have requested a permanent transfer to this effect starting immediately, and Sartini therefore will not be appearing before your panel again.

I am sure you join with me and the whole Church in rejoicing at the discovery of a long-lost relic. I trust that your experts will soon feel able to make a positive pronouncement to the waiting world, both Christian and non-Christian. In the meantime, we all wait eagerly for a look at the features on the face.

You may rest assured that my services are always at your disposal.

JOSEF REINHARDT

PIAZZA DI SANTA MARIA MAGGIORE, ROME

 

LETTER TO FATHER JOSEF REINHARDT

PIAZZA DI SANTA MARIA MAGGIORE, ROME

EXTREMELY CONFIDENTIAL

With reference to your letter, let me comment on the first part briefly. Excellent news. Perhaps Sartini will be better able to serve the Church faithfully as a member of your staff.

Regarding the discovery of an “alleged relic” in Paris, it is now obvious that a rather premature decision was made to show the item on secular television. Our hasty gratitude to TV Roma for their assistance in the recovery led, in my view, to the tragedy at their studios last week. It is indeed fortuitous that no photographs of the head were released to the press, in spite of strong pressure on His Holiness, who in turn has placed certain members of my staff under even stronger pressure to come up with a report within the shortest time possible.

It would seem that due to Sartini working against my express wishes, a minefield has been laid. (Off the record, I have to concede that to some extent this complaint is offset by the part Sartini played in preventing the neo-Nazis from obtaining the object for their profane purposes.) I have already spoken to the Council, warning of the serious consequences should TV Roma ever again be allowed to treat such a potentially holy relic in a sacrilegious manner.

Ponder the reaction from ordinary Christians. Have you considered the serious effects this discovery could have on their faith? For generations our Church has become accustomed to a perceived image of our Savior; an image which is seen as a familiar countenance in all our churches; an image that is obviously Christian and instantly recognizable in paintings and on statues. We have to be mindful that the reality may be very different to the established viewpoint. If this proves to be so, our existing art could lose its value as an aid to faith and worship.

I am currently preparing a statement for the world press, to put on record the views of the Vatican Special Investigative Committee being set up at this moment.

I regret to inform you that my Special Investigative Committee does not require your services in this inquiry, although it appreciates the gallant work you have performed for the Church over the years.

May God bless you and Sartini in your work together,

MONSIGNOR AUGUSTO GIORGIO

THE VATICAN

 

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE VATICAN

Within the past few days, there has been considerable speculation on the authenticity of a bronze head that was recently handed over to the Vatican in Rome, in tragic circumstances already widely known. The statement that follows reflects the official view of the Vatican Special Investigative Committee relating to this matter.

Many historians and theologians accept that the writer Eusebius of Caesarea saw a bronze statue of our Savior, believed to have been made by eyewitnesses to the person of Christ when he visited the region. We have no record of this statue surviving the last sixteen centuries. The Church, however, is always anxious to authenticate the relics within her charge. To this end a Special Investigative Committee has appointed a team of experts to carry out the most exacting scientific and artistic evaluation possible.

This is the second time that a bronze head has come into the possession of the Vatican, alleged to be the likeness of Jesus Christ, and the highest level of security is now operating. The examination will be thorough, and no further statements can reasonably be expected for several months. It is not the custom of the Church to study her history hastily or lightly.

It is impossible for anyone to give an opinion on authenticity at this stage. The thought of such a find being genuine is naturally exciting, but the Committee will not let enthusiasm stand in the way of truth.

STATEMENT AUTHORIZED BY MONSIGNOR AUGUSTO GIORGIO

VATICAN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE

 

MARCO FELT HIMSELF shaking with rage as he knocked on Father Reinhardt’s door clutching the morning paper. Did Augusto Giorgio and his circle of clerics really think they could get away with it?

Josef Reinhardt answered the door with his own copy of the paper in his hand. “Marco, I can tell from your face that you have already seen the appalling press release.”

Marco held up the front page. Long-term internal investigation of a possible relic were the vague words used by the Monsignor in the interview. It was obvious to anyone that the Vatican would never release the results of the tests. The headlines screamed of a cover-up.

“It must have come as a shock to you, Marco. I did at least have advance warning.”

“Amendola and his holy men have hidden the head away and slammed the door in our faces. I knew we couldn’t trust any of them.”

Father Josef nodded. “Not Amendola. He is still supportive of the program. You feel upset because you risked your life to get the bronze head into the light.”

Upset?” Marco could feel his anger growing. It was surely a righteous anger. “Just look how many people got killed along the way. Do those deaths mean nothing? Even Laura was seriously injured because she tried to help us, and she's refusing to see me in the hospital. We bring the relic back from Paris -- and what happens? Monsignor Giorgio grabs it from us at the railway station. Then the neo-Nazi skinhead snatches it from me at TV Roma. You take it from him in the street and give it to the carabinieri. They hand it over to Monsignor Giorgio, and the Monsignor kicks it out of sight forever. Yes, I’m feeling upset!”

“The carabinieri also arrested me among the fighting skinheads outside TV Roma. They were not initially aware of who I was, and thought they were acting for the best. That is when the black leather case with the bronze head slipped away from me into their hands. It was certainly not what I planned. But do you really find it remarkable that the Monsignor has hidden the relic away?”

“No.”

“Neither do I.” The old priest’s tone became gentle. “You saved Laura Rossetti’s life, so you have no reason to reproach yourself.”

Marco said nothing, but was grateful for the understanding. He was glad that Laura was now out of danger. Mo, the disabled youth at Monte Sisto, had not been so fortunate. He was still critically ill. He felt sad about that, and sad for the farm children who had stood tearfully in the road as the ambulance drove away.

Father Josef suddenly raised his voice. “This Vatican statement by Augusto Giorgio is of course, sciocchezze, absolute nonsense. Truth? Trust me, Marco, the end has not come yet. When I was your age I was known as Reinhardt the Militant. You and I are going to jump over the heads of this so-called Special Investigative Committee.” A faint smile appeared for a moment. “Unfortunately I have to be in England tomorrow.”

“You should think about retiring.”

Father Josef laughed. “I am far too old to retire.”

“You used to work in England didn’t you, Father?”

“Papal Representative in London. My battle is now with the extreme right. I have a list of names I took from the young German outside TV Roma. It contains a register of top neo-Nazis.” Father Josef lowered his voice, although they were alone. “Many of them are familiar to me. One is a British Cabinet Minister, and there are details of several men and women with high posts in the European Parliament. We also have the identity of the key figure in the ADR who goes under the code name of Phönix. The civil security services have decoded a mass of encrypted email. Much of it is between senior members in the neo-Nazi movement, and someone using the identification PX.”

“Phönix?” asked Marco.

Father Josef nodded. “Phönix seems to have taken his eye off the ball in allowing the Düsseldorf members of Achtzehn Deutschland Reinigung to have free rein in Rome, but we would be foolish to assume he will be so careless next time.”

“You think there could be a next time?

“Undoubtedly. But I cannot miss the meeting in London. This is where Church and State have to work together to root out evil. When I was a young man I thought I could take on the wrongs of the world single-handed.” Father Josef smiled. “I could not, but for over half a century some would say I have not stopped trying. And now, like the prophet Elijah, I am preparing to put you on an intensive training course. You are still young, but I would love to think that one day you will be able to wear my mantle.”

Marco shook his head. “I’m not sure I’d want it.”

“I am giving you a glorious opportunity, Marco. I want you to help get a team from TV Roma into the Vatican so they can present the relic to the world. Get them in secretly, of course.”

That’s a glorious opportunity?” He could feel a mixture of excitement and doubt.

“Most certainly it is.” Father Josef laughed his shrill laugh. “Do you want to stand back and let men like Augusto Giorgio get away with this sort of secrecy? His Holiness is out of Rome for a few days, and has authorized me to act in the way that will best serve the future of the Church. I believe we have preserved secrecy for too long in a misguided attempt to protect our flock.”

“And?” It seemed very convenient that the Holy Father happened to be away.

Father Josef rubbed his wrinkled hands together in elation. “The experts have already removed the coating from the surface of the bronze, and it appears to be the genuine article. Tomorrow the world will know the truth.”

“Tomorrow? But you’re going to be in London,” Marco pointed out, realizing as he said it that Father Josef had a devious plan.

The old priest smiled. “Which is why I am deputizing you to show them in. The team from TV Roma will record every detail of the relic for the world to see. The Monsignor’s plans will come to nothing. That, Marco, is definitely a glorious opportunity.”

Alarm bells were ringing. “Not TV Roma. Laura said there are fascists on the staff. It’s not worth the risk.”

“Then you would rather the relic stayed locked away for your lifetime, and the lifetimes of all the young priests who will follow after you?”

“Of course not. But can you … can we, trust TV Roma?”

A knock on the door made Marco jump. A sister peeped round cautiously. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Father, but the young lady is here.”

The door opened further, revealing the visitor standing with a smile on her face, her small body concealed by a long navy skirt and a loose red top.

Marco jumped to his feet. “Natalia!”

Natalia’s smile broadened and she pointed a finger at him in mock accusation. “I guessed you’d be part of this, Marco.”

He turned to Father Josef. "The News Room! You're going to use the TV Roma News Room! All right, you go to London -- and I'll take over here."

Father Josef closed the door and spoke quietly. “Now, young lady, I understand there will be just one cameraman?”

“An absolute minimum crew, Father Josef. I’m sorry that you can’t be with us, but you can rely on me.” Natalia sounded well in control of the situation. “We’re using a shoulder-mounted camera and battery lights. That way we won’t waste time checking for power sockets. We have to draw up a rough script and a shooting schedule with you tonight. We also need to arrange to get the team into the Vatican early without raising suspicion.”

“Wait a minute!” Marco held up his hands. “This is official, isn’t it?”

Marco!” Father Josef sounded hurt but his voice was firm, almost stern. “It is all exactly as I have said. Natalia has already been of considerable use to me. There is more than one type of sympathizer within TV Roma. Do not look so shocked. It would be impossible to operate without such people. I think you two already know each other. Perhaps you will get to know each other better.”

This was said almost as an aside. Marco wondered what the old man had in mind. Even though Natalia was so clearly a Christian, she could never replace Laura. For a few days, Laura had become everything he wanted. He glanced at Natalia then turned away abruptly. Given time, Laura might change. Love could heal their bitterness. They could share their past unhappiness, and some day share a common faith.

Father Josef sat forward in his leather armchair, looking over his half moon glasses. “Marco, we must not underestimate the difficulties if certain persons become aware of our scheme.”

Marco smiled. “I know a way to get the television unit into the Vatican. We can miss the Swiss Guards and go through the Basilica.” He grinned guiltily. “It’s a handy trick a choirboy once showed me when I was at school.”

Father Josef shook his head and smiled. "I do not think we need rely on the devious practices of choirboys, Marco. I have arranged official entry permits -- by a trick known to elderly priests."

Marco felt that maybe everything was coming right. "You really think TV Roma can have it all on video for tomorrow evening -- before anyone at the Vatican knows what's happening? Sounds good to me. We'll present the world with the truth."

Father Josef winked at Natalia. “Excellent.”

The wrinkled face showed an excitement. Marco wondered if this was to be the old priest’s reward for a lifetime of service to the Church.

“Marco, I notice you failed to add the words, ‘for once’,” Josef Reinhardt observed dryly as he removed a piece of paper from an inner pocket of his black jacket. “I want you to take this and promise to dial the number if things get out of hand.”

Marco took the paper. The telephone number meant nothing to him. “And who’s going to be on the other end?”

Father Josef looked surprised at the question. “His Holiness of course. Who do you think has been the driving force in our plans to reveal such a sacred relic?”

Marco tried to smile. “This is the Pope’s private number where he’ll be staying? You’re off to London, and I’m doing this on my own? Just tell me once more: this job is authorized?”

Josef Reinhardt held Marco’s arm, his eyes alert. “Trust me, Marco, I think you are about to cause a few ripples.”

Chapter 44

The Vatican

AT THREE MINUTES after seven in the morning the television crew of three were gathered around the black leather box in a small room below the Sistine Chapel.

“I’ll be over in a minute,” Marco called to the cameraman. He gave Natalia a friendly hug. It helped him draw strength. “Are you excited?”

There had been no opportunity for a private viewing of the contents. Natalia returned the hug, though he hardly noticed. His heart felt as though it was pushing pure adrenaline round his body. The bust was on the table, revealing the newly cleaned features of a bronze head skillfully modeled by an ancient craftsman.

One of the TV crew moved a light, and the face seemed to come alive as the shadows danced on the nose and the eyes. The expression changed from one of gravity to laughter. Marco bit his lip then smiled. The face of Jesus Christ. This face had been fashioned by a skilled artist who had seen Jesus talking to the people, and had probably seen him heal the woman of her internal bleeding, making her acceptable and clean in her own eyes and the eyes of the people. This face had been seen by Eusebius, and over a thousand years later it was given away by Il Ruinante, Donato Bramante.

Jesus of Nazareth, revered by the Brothers at Monte Sisto for centuries.

The features showed a younger man than Marco was expecting: a man of about thirty. An extremely short beard. Deep set eyes. Very definite mid eastern features. An expression that captured something that he could only describe as a look of laughter and love. This was not the sorrowful face of an older man seen in so many Western churches. Theologians and historians believed that Jesus was only thirty-three when he was crucified. So why the older man in subsequent images? The program tonight was going to cause more than ripples.

He heard raised voices outside. Monsignor Giorgio flung open the doors to the Vatican apartment and stormed into the room, followed by two members of the Swiss Guard in their red, blue and gold Renaissance uniforms.

The TV crew looked on as the Monsignor shouted, “How dare you! How dare you do this in secret!” He sounded so emotional that he was trembling. The Swiss Guards waited tensely for his instructions.

Marco pushed the TV Roma camera aside. This contretemps was not the sort of thing that should be shown to the world. He raised a hand in an attempt to restore some peace. “Father Josef will explain, when he comes back from London,” he said firmly. “He thought this was the best way to do it.”

The best? The best for whom?” cried Augusto Giorgio.

“Father Josef arranged it with the Holy Father.” Marco walked forward, keeping his voice steady under the withering glare of the Monsignor. He had a shiver of doubt. Please, God, let it be true.

“I’m holding you responsible for this, Sartini.” Augusto Giorgio’s voice could have filled the Basilica without need of the sound system. “His Holiness is out of Rome this week. He could not possibly have given any sort of permission.”

Marco tried to sound calm but was finding it hard. “I think we should talk with the Holy Father. The phone is over there.”

“And I suppose you have his number?”

Marco pulled the crumpled paper from the back pocket of his jeans. Going to the black telephone on the table at the end of the room he lifted the receiver and dialed.

A sudden noise outside the shuttered window made everyone turn. Pigeons, startled by the arrival of two more members of the Swiss Guard, were rising quickly into the early morning air.

Marco thought of the doves at Monte Sisto. The bitter sound of dispute in the room became a loud clatter of frantic wings.

A flutter of wings. Climbing, above the rocky outcrop, above the ruins.

High into the open skies, searching for peace.

Natalia moved close to take his hand. He stared across the room at the face looking from the open box. Old Savio had surely been wrong in the Piazza Venezia. A relic that could end the Church? Not the Church. This face would destroy the neo-Nazi doctrine that Christ had not been a Jew. The Church would weather the storm. Natalia tightened her grip, seeming reluctant to let him go again. The telephone was answered with a voice that Marco recognized immediately.

“Holiness? This is Marco Sartini. Father Marco Sartini. I think I can handle it, but I’m having a small problem with a member of your staff. Monsignor Augusto Giorgio would like to speak to you.”

*

Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

MARCO WATCHED THE evening news special on TV Roma, fascinated as religious and secular experts were wheeled on to outline their pet theories on the development of Christian art.

Cardinal Amendola was in the studio, smiling benevolently from behind heavy, black-framed spectacles. Occasionally he would nod wisely as though the recovery of the bronze head was due to his persistence. Monsignor Giorgio was unobtainable for interviews, refusing to issue any further press statements.

Everyone in the studio quickly dismissed the possibility of the head being an example of ancient Byzantine art, except one young professor of oriental illustration. A senior expert of the Renaissance thought it to be a missing work by Leonardo da Vinci, while an authority on the Baroque disagreed violently. It was obviously … well … possibly by … or from … the school of Bernini. A Spanish historian knew almost for certain it had been produced by an Iberian metal worker of the late Renaissance. A close-up shot of the parchment heralded the appearance of an authority in mediaeval documents, who was prepared to stake her reputation that it was genuine.

By the next morning one or two of the experts who had so far been quiet, probably taking the opportunity to think things through a little more carefully, were prepared to admit the obvious: that the style of the bronze was Classical, not neo-Classical, and could definitely be contemporary with Christ. One even risked his reputation by going so far as to say that it might actually be Christ.

An American professor of microbiology, an active believer in the Shroud of Turin, was interviewed live by satellite. He pointed out that the difference in beard length between the two images proved nothing. Jesus could easily have grown his beard longer in the period leading up to his final journey to Jerusalem. A New Testament scholar agreed that this was not only possible, but likely. A close-up of the bronze face filled the screen. Marco realized that the ripples were turning into shock waves. The arguments alone sounded as though they would reverberate around the Church for decades.

A political commentator predicted that over a million people would arrive in Rome over the next forty-eight hours. They were coming simply because they wanted to be near the likeness of Jesus Christ. The interest throughout the world was extraordinary. Marco knew that the Church could no longer keep the relic hidden from public view. Numbers like this would exert real influence. His cell phone rang.

His friend from England was on the line. He believed that a senior member of the laboratory staff in Oxford was deliberately falsifying DNA tests on bone fragments from Russia. The deception was connected with an announcement on the Internet of a special exhibition in Berlin to celebrate the birth of the German Führer. Since Marco was already mixed up with investigating the neo-Nazis, was he interested in coming straight over to hear the full story?

The carabinieri had interviewed him several times, but no one had told him to stay in Rome. He still had his passport. Marco decided to leave immediately, before Father Josef could return and give him other instructions. This time he’d keep his movements to himself.

His cell phone rang again while he was packing his overnight bag, and he let it ring several times before answering. It was a message from the hospital. Laura would like to see him. He looked at his watch, realized he had plenty of time to catch the plane if he went by taxi, and told the nurse he’d be straight round.

He finished his packing and made a quick phone call to Natalia at TV Roma. Could she meet him at Fiumicino airport with her passport at two-thirty? If she was willing to fly with him to England, he could guarantee her something special in the way of a story.

 

 

THE END

 

Please tell your friends on social media about this book.

 

See next pages for more thrillers by Christopher Wright available now,

or coming soon from North View Publishing.

 

 

 

 

AVAILABLE NOW

EAGLE OF DARKNESS

New Edition

Martin Kramer's ambition is to become a deputy director of the CIA. But he brings the threat of nuclear war when he launches Operation Oracle, a personal campaign of hate against Israel. Sam Bolt gets caught up in Kramer's plans when he meets the mysterious Panya Pulaski from Unity Through Faith, a group trying to bring peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims in order to get aid and medicine to the Middle East. Sam is in trouble. With his children in care, and his partner missing with the lottery winnings, he is suspected of murder. And a relentless newspaper reporter refuses to leave him alone. When Sam hears of a wartime Gestapo officer buried in a Berlin cellar, he reluctantly flies to Germany to investigate. The body holds the key to an ancient prophecy that could blow Kramer's plans sky high. But all Sam wants is his children back. Eagle of Darkness -- a chilling chain of events running through America, England and Germany, coming to a gripping finale in the Red Mountains of Egypt.

 

 

 

COMING SOON

HANDS OF THE TRAITOR

A Matt Rider thriller #1

New Edition

 

Private investigator Matt Rider wants to find out if his grandfather killed Sophie Bernay, and uncovers an appalling international secret. Domestic Chemicals, a New York company owned by the Heinman dynasty, made poison gas for Nazi Germany. And now the past is back to haunt them – like the bloated corpse Frank B Heinman saw rising to the surface in the East River as a boy. Matt Rider in England and Frank Heinman in New York are on a collision course. The ex-president of Domestic Chemicals will make sure no one stays alive if he sees them as a danger to the company. Matt Rider just wants the truth. Hands of the Traitor is the first Matt Rider detective thriller.

 

 

 

COMING SOON

SHROUD OF THE HEALER

A Matt Rider thriller #2

New Edition

 

Archbishop Valdieri from New York is impatient to get the Pope to the Clinic of the Little Sisters of Grace in Avignon, France, for treatment. The surgeons at the American-owned clinic are eager to treat the Pope, but the Archbishop suspects there's a problem. Matt Rider, an English PI, is on holiday in Avignon with his girlfriend Zoé. They get talking to a local nurse in Avignon. She tells them that all is not well at the American clinic up on the hill. Matt thinks the nurse is crazy -- until her husband calls with devastating news. To investigate the clinic, Matt needs some bugs and a phone tap. But he doesn't know that the national security forces are involved, and he doesn't know that one of the surgeons will soon want Zoé dead. Shroud of the Healer is the second Matt Rider detective thriller.

 

 

 

COMING SOON

ACADEMY OF THE DEAD

A Matt Rider thriller #3

New Edition

 

Matt Rider is made an offer that seems too good to miss. Go to Prague, find some priceless music manuscripts -- and share in a fortune. Unfortunately, even for a confident backstreet PI, the clues are rather thin on the ground. All Matt knows is that a young Jewish girl called Hana Eisler had the manuscripts in Prague in 1942. Using old records from the Helios Music Academy in England, Matt tracks Hana's movements to a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic. And there the trail seems to end. The American violin teacher at the Helios Academy claims to know something about Hana's family. And so does the Academy dean. Matt decides to contact Hana in a séance. Taking place in England and the Czech Republic, Academy of the Dead is an exciting hunt for lost treasure. There are big stakes to play for -- and maybe not everyone can be trusted. Academy of the Dead is the third Matt Rider detective thriller.

 

 

 

COMING SOON

EYES OF THE INNOCENT

A Matt Rider thriller #4

Brand New Publication

 

Matt and Zoe’s baby, Jack, needs urgent treatment in a New York specialist hospital. Before treatment can start, Baby Jack is snatched. Has Jack been taken for ransom, for body parts, or by a powerful sect for indoctrination? An ex-cop offers to help, as does Simon Urquet (from Hands of the Traitor) and Archbishop Stephano Valdieri, now ex-Archbishop Stephen Valdieri (from Hands of the Healer). Finding the baby still alive means a race against time. Zoe thinks that her mother's instinct will lead them to baby Jack, but she has to admit that she and Matt are, in her words, chasing the wild goose. Matt believes he has the answer, annoyed with himself for not putting the clues together sooner. But even that lead seems to finish at a dead end. And all the time the clock is ticking because Jack is not getting his urgent treatment -- assuming he's still alive! Eyes of the Innocent is the fourth Matt Rider detective thriller.

 


Shout in the Dark

A thrilling chase through Europe as the Vatican and a neo-Nazi faction hunt down an ancient relic with a value greater than human life -- a relic that threatens the traditions of the Christian Church. Sturmbannführer Kessel killed to get his hands on the relic in wartime Rome. An elderly Jew risked his life to return it to a religion that was not his own. And today, Kessel's son wants it back -- to destroy the Christian Church and change the face of Europe. Someone is needed to probe the darkened web of evil. Into this explosive situation steps young priest Marco Sartini, once married, and still suffering the trauma of bereavement. The Vatican Security Services have found the perfect bait...

  • Author: Christopher Wright
  • Published: 2015-11-11 13:20:37
  • Words: 109576
Shout in the Dark Shout in the Dark