The Words of the Prophets Written On Subway Walls
Noah Larkin had spent the night alive and well and living in hell.
Each one of his personal demons were within arm’s reach. There was a bottle of thirty-year-old McCallan scotch whiskey on the nightstand, a plastic cup beside it. The bottle’s top lay on the nightstand beside the bottle. The cheap hotel room beside the Rome Stazione Termini reeked of alcohol. He had drunk a third of the bottle but felt like he had downed the lot. He sat on the windowsill, watching the girls out in the street. It would have been easy to call down, and one of them would come up to help him take his mind off things. Sometimes that was all he wanted.
He had music playing simply because he couldn’t stand to be alone with his own thoughts. It got like that some nights. The dead started talking to him with the voices of his imagination. The music helped to drown them out, but it didn’t silence them completely. That was what the drink was for.
The girls on this side of the world were the same as the girls back home. They congregated on the street corners and in doorways and walked up and down the street, advertising their wares. Every creed and color was out there to be bought. A car trawled the gutter, driving slowly from woman to woman as they walked up toward the rolled-down window. Watching was uncomfortably voyeuristic and made Noah feel distinctly dirty. He poured himself another slug of whiskey before he went back to the window. He thought about Margot, the middle-aged whore he’d found in Kings Cross.
He’d paid her to stay off the street for a night. She wouldn’t, of course. She was one of these creatures. This was her life. It was all she knew. Like the song said, it was a hard habit to break. But that was what the money was all about. It wasn’t about the sex. He hadn’t enjoyed sex for a long time. Now he used it to punish himself. He’d given up on the dream of beautiful flesh and candles and soft music and all of that nonsense. It was hard to lose yourself in beauty when inside your own head it was so ugly. He knew his own psychology as well as anyone could.
He looked at the clock blinking red beneath the small portable television set, with its little round aerial poking out from the back: 2:47. The night was slipping remorselessly into morning. He had a little under seven hours until he was supposed to meet Dominico Neri’s man from the Vatican. He could sleep. He could drink. He could screw. The truth was he didn’t feel like doing any of that.
He decided to go for a walk and picked his coat up off the bed.
Rome at night was a dangerous creature, but what city wasn’t. The mood Noah was in, if any local boy had decided to push his luck, he would have ended up hospitalized.
He took the stairs down to the lobby. It was another personal quirk. He had no love of elevators. It wasn’t the confined space, he wasn’t claustrophobic; and it wasn’t the height, he didn’t suffer from vertigo. But somehow, with the two put together, all he could think about were the metal cables above sheering away and the elevator car plunging, so he took the stairs.
Noah walked all the way down the hill of Via Cavour to the ruins of the Forum. Even in the dark, Rome was a spectacular place. But like the prostitutes at the top of the hill, there was something worn down and seedy about the place. It had seen better days. Almost two thousand years ago to be precise.
An occasional car cut through the streets, heading down toward the Coliseum and Constantine’s Arch. He walked in a circuit, following the beaten tourist tracks along Via Teatro Marcello and over to the Pantheon and then back around toward the hotel. He heard the revving engines of boy racers, proving that Rome was just like any other city in the Western Hemisphere- full of idiots with fast cars. The entire circuit through the old Rome took him the best part of three hours. The area around the railway station was the one part of the city that didn’t sleep. News vendors were up already, pasting up the day’s headlines.
One of the girls walked toward him, her smile and the sway of her hips inviting.
He didn’t see her.
He only had eyes for the thick black ink of the headline.
One word: Veleno!
Rome had fallen silently while he drank his whiskey and watched the whores. He had been looking for fireworks. An explosion on the horizon. Something big. Bright. Bold.
He felt sick to the core.
He turned his back on the woman as she started to ask if he wanted company for the long, hot night.
Despite the drink, Noah was suddenly clear headed.
Noah could see Monsignor Gianni Abandonato was anxious. He shuffled about from foot to foot. He stood at the top of the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. Behind him the white travertine stone of Maderno’s facade gleamed in the morning. The statues of Jo the Baptist, Christ himself and the eleven Apostles looked down on the Monsignor. Noah couldn’t help but look around himself at the Baroque stonework marvels Bernini had fashioned. There was something truly awe-inspiring about the approach to the cathedral. Bernini had somehow managed to balance heaven and earth in his grand design of a split plaza, with its elliptical circus and trapezoid courtyard. It had soul.
In contrast, Maderno’s facade seemed flawed. Instead of inspiring awe and reverence it smacked of mankind’s vanity. While Bernini had reached for the heavens, Maderno’s work lacked line and symmetry-and its cardinal sin… it lacked any form of vertical feature to draw the eye as the pilgrim approached the holiest of holies. That was left to the dome in the distance.
Noah squinted against the rising sun. The attic where the statues stood watch over the great square was too cluttered with detail for its relative lack of height, he realized. It was trying too hard to force grandeur into the white stone. But then Maderno had been frightened by the notion of original thought, almost as though by definition it became original sin, and had clung to the proportions of the rear of the basilica drafted by Michelangelo.
Noah walked slowly toward the Monsignor, who stood across the piazza. He was suddenly at a loss as to how he was supposed to greet the man. Did he call him Father? Eminence? Excellency? Just Monsignor? Gianni? Piazza di San Pietro itself was empty save for a few early morning tourists up with the crows. He counted five crows in the dry basin of the fountain as he walked past it. That made one crow for every early bird. There was no water in either of the fountains. They had been drained at first light, as had every other fountain in the city.
Noah hadn’t been able to reach Neri, which was hardly surprising. The Carabinieri man had been working all night, dealing with the effects of the poisoned water. Rome was a city under siege.
The Witness, the ancient Egyptian obelisk that had supposedly seen the crucifixion of Saint Peter, cast its shadow all the way to the dry fountain. Noah crossed the shadow. It felt as though he had passed some sort of boundary. On the other side, this world of God and Saints and Souls seemed so much more real.
He took the opportunity to study the man on the steps. He was wearing the robes of his office but lacked the serenity of a man at peace with his place in the world. Noah recognized the telltale signs of a man on the verge of breaking. How much was he risking by meeting with Noah? Surely not so much as to be looking over his shoulder every few seconds? Noah wondered who was back there, hiding in the shadows? There was someone back there, he knew. One of the Swiss Guard perhaps? Another holy man? Who would he be more frightened of? The archivist was obviously eager to sweep him away from prying eyes and into the labyrinth of the cathedral itself. Curious then that he would choose such a public place to meet, especially as the doors wouldn’t open for pilims for a few hours yet. He held up a hand and waved in greeting. He reached the stairs a few moments later.
“Gianni. This way please, Mister Larkin,” he gestured not toward any of the three doors that led through to the nave, but rather toward another smaller passage that led toward the barracks of the Swiss Guard.
“A propitious name if ever I heard one. Some of us are not so blessed,” he shrugged slightly. They turned one corner and then another, walking along the side of a narrow, yellow painted wall. There were a number of small doors set into the stone. He opened the fourth they came to and led Noah through into a small vestibule. It lacked the grandeur of the main basilica, but this was part of the administrative buildings not the holy face. “As you can well imagine, being called ‘The Forsaken’ in this place can prove rather, how shall I put it, convenient for jokes.” He looked up at the ceiling. It was a very theatrical gesture, practiced no doubt over many, many years. It was a long-suffering “why me, Lord?” look. Noah found himself rather liking this nervous priest.
Noah followed the Monsignor through a number of narrow passageways, and then the nature of the building seemed to change. For want of a better phrase, Noah thought it went from functional to holy. The ceilings raised. Plain walls became exquisitely painted with frescos, and every raised detail seemed to have been gilded with pure gold. Instead of being beautiful, it was staggering; instead of being calming, it was intense. Like Maderno’s facade, there was just too much going on, too much for the eye to see. Did the priests believe that by owning every single work of art they could prove themselves most holy? Most worthy? Was that what it was? Noah could suddenly understand the attraction of minimalism.
He felt very, very small as he followed the priest across the marble floor. Every few feet they crossed a new geometric shape laid into the stone. The sun streamed in through the windows set high above his head. Because of the angle of the sun, they didn’t reach the floor, but lit somewhere halfway down the wall on the right side of the passageway. Dust motes danced lazily in the beams. Noah half-expected to hear monks chanting in the distance somewhere or choirboys practicing their harmonies, or something. He knew he was getting his denominations all muddled up, but it felt like there really ought to be singing of some sort, even if it was only a single voice raised in hallelujah.
“Terrible business, this thing with the water,” Abandonato said, leading him onto a long, straight passageway that seemed, almost like some optical illusion, to go on and on and on into the vanishing point of the distance. “All these people poisoned. Have many died?” Before Noah could tell him that he didn’t honestly know, the Monnor continued, “How could anyone do that? I don’t understand. How could anyone knowingly poison all of these helpless people?” He had a handsome face, black hair swept back in a widow’s peak, and dark circles under the eyes. His skin had a vaguely waxen tint to it that suggested more than just a passing familiarity with the library stacks and darker corners of the Holy See.
“I think we’re having this conversation backwards, Gianni. I’m meant to be the one asking how can something so horrible happen, and you’re meant to be the one assuring me it is all part of God’s ineffable plan.” Noah smiled slightly to show he was joking. The archivist looked uncomfortable despite the gesture.
“Sometimes it is hard, even for us,” he admitted. “Our faith can be tested in the most surprising, and sometimes most human, of ways. What man could think of all those children queuing at the water fountains, thirsty for a drink yesterday, and not feel angry that today they are fighting for their lives and losing? But yes, the innocents will find their way to His side, where they will be safe and welcome. There is comfort in that, but the man in me still smarts, Noah.”
Noah wasn’t certain what he had expected, but he wasn’t comfortable taking Abandonato’s confession. He thought about making a joke about everyone inside the Holy See being fine because obviously they could just have a word with the Big Guy and get him to do his water-into-wine trick. Thankfully, he played it out in his head before he said it, realized exactly how flippant it would sound and thought better of it. It was one thing to share a wry observation-it was quite another to mock the man’s faith-especially when he wanted something from him. Instead, Noah tried to steer the conversation in another direction, asking about Nick Simmonds and what he had been doing during his tenure at the library.
“Nicholas is a good man,” the Monsignor said, defending the dead man even though he hadn’t been asked to. It was obvious he suspected Simmonds was accused of something. What other reason could Noah have for digging into his background? “He has a good heart. He has been with us for almost two years now, I think. He is quiet, keeps to himself, but then that is rather a bookish trait, is it not?” Noah nodded where he was expected to. “Obviously young Nicholas shares our passion for the preservation of literature. I find it hard to imagine he could have done anything wrong.”
“Well, with all due respect, Gianni, didn’t you also just say you found it hard to believe people could poison the same water children drank? Sometimes ours is not to reason why.”
“Indeed,” Abandonato said through tight lips. He gestured to one of the side passageways. “We have been going through something of an upheaval here. The Biblioteca Apostolica has been closed to the public for the best part of three years now. It is undergoing some significant restorative work. Nicholas has been helping us with that. Not the restorative work, obviously,ght=”0″›
“Incunabula means ‘cradle,’ as in a baby’s cot, or beginning. Think of it as the first traces of anything, that spark of life where it all began. In this case we are talking about the first printed books, even single-sheet manuscripts, anything that wasn’t handwritten. You would be surprised how many-or perhaps how few-of these first printings have survived. In the library we preserve extant copies of the very first books manufactured by your countryman, Caxton, for instance. Some of our texts are utterly unique, but in many cases several copies have survived. Take the Gutenberg Bible, perhaps the most famous of all ‘first books.’ There are almost fifty copies of this known to exist still-forty-eight or forty-nine depending upon who you believe-making it a fairly common book, but of course quite valuable. We have the original hand-written cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradisio as well as La Vita Nuova. Then we have Codex Vaticana, the oldest extant Bible, and Libri Carolini, King Charles’ response to the Second Council of Nicaea. It is more commonly known as “King Charles against the Synod,” which probably tells you all you need to know about its contents. The library contains the single most important collection of books in the world. Believe me when I say it really is quite some collection.”
“If books are your thing,” Noah said with a shrug. He managed to keep a straight face. “I’m more of a movie guy myself.”
“And even if they are not,” Abandonato said, “it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of everything within these halls, as you will soon see. We need to employ over eighty staff here just to oversee the protection and preservation of these works of art. Eighty people!”
The narrow passage led into what must have been a part of the library itself. There were no bookcases, but at various intervals across the floor there were simple straight-legged wooden tables with glass cases displaying various irreplaceable books. These were perhaps the least ostentatious of the long room’s furnishings. Every other table was over-wrought with gold and bore expensive vases, themselves almost certainly every bit as irreplaceable as the books. The room was a headache of colors, reds and oranges and rich blues with a black-and-white checkerboard floor.
Noah didn’t know what he had expected, but considering Abandonato’s boast, it seemed odd that he couldn’t actually see any bookshelves, just lots of paintings of robed people holding books open.
“And it isn’t just books,” Abandonato continued. “We are responsible for over one hundred thousand prints, drawings, engravings and maps, as well as three hundred thousand papal coins, medals and so forth.”
Gianni Abandonato led him through two more corridors, these opening into a final room that finally looked like it ought to be part of the world’s most extensive library. Banks of card index files went back into the distance. Each one probably catalogued twenty-five thousand items. The banks went back as far as the eye could see. Two tiers of shelving and a gantry filled one wall, each tier packed floor to ceiling with abstracts and indices and other leather-bound texts bearing surprisingly uniform binding. No doubt they were books about the books the library housed. There were reading lecterns arranged conveniently along the gantry and booths set aside for scholarly study. There was an unerring uniformity to everything in the room.
“I had heard,” Noah began, looking around to see if anyone was in listening distance, “that the Vatican library had the largest collection of, ah-okay, this is going to sound stupid no matter how I say it-I had heard that you had the largest collection of erotica in the world?”
Abandonato burst out laughing. He had a deep, rich, laugh. It reached all the way down into his belly and came out of his mouth, filled with proper mirth. The sound swelled to fill the entire chamber, echoing off each of the walls. He looked immediately contrite and seemed to shrink about three inches in height. When he continued, his voice was barely above a whisper. “Someone has been pulling your leg, I am afraid, Noah. Unless you are willing to consider the odd Renaissance nude as pornography? Our tastes are far more prosaic.
“Now, Nicholas, Nicholas. What can I tell you about his work here? Nothing particularly glamorous, I am afraid. Nicholas is one of nine volunteers we have working in the archives at the moment. With the renovations we have been forced to transfer many of the Lateran and Pre-Lateran texts down to the subterranean archives. Moving this many books, many of which are so fragile they can be damaged by the merest touch, is a monumental undertaking.”
“Ah, we divide our texts up into five historical periods for ease: Pre-Lateran, marking the earliest days of the Church; Lateran, wh lasted up to the reign of Boniface the Eighth in the 13th century; then there are the Avignon texts-there was a time from 1370 onwards when the Popes were in residence in France; Pre-Vatican, and Vatican, when, in 1488, the library moved here. From then until now the collection remains unbroken. But of course you didn’t come here to listen to me wax lyrical about old books. It is difficult. I could talk for hours about this place and what happens here. Nicholas has been helping with the preservation and storage of some of the oldest Hebrew codices.”
“Like the Dead Sea Scrolls?”
“Like the Nag Hammadi codices, yes, though obviously not those particular texts. The scrolls are housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, after all.”
“Ah, show’s what I know,” Noah admitted. “I thought they were locked away down in the deepest vaults because they proved the bloodline of Jesus?” Noah offered Gianni Abandonato another lopsided grin.
“I’m not quite sure what you believe we’re hiding down here, but it isn’t all the Da Vinci Code, I’m afraid. We aren’t keeping earth-shattering secrets from the world.”
That the archivist had a passing familiarity with the popular novel only made Noah like him all the more. “Not that you would tell me if you were,” Noah said, tapping the side of his nose with his finger. “They’re secrets, after all.”
“Quite. The library houses several-more than several-of what we would call heretical texts. These are what I am assuming you are talking about. They aren’t all grimoires bound in human skin, though. You won’t find incantations for summoning the Devil or whatever else you might have heard, despite the persistence of such rumors. In the early days of the Church vast amounts of materials were gathered to be destroyed because they preached what were considered heresies. Of course, it should come as no surprise to hear that a great many of these texts were never destroyed, but were in fact brought to the library. The library existed even then to preserve knowledge, not destroy it. The surviving documents are almost entirely stored in the Pre-Lateran and Lateran archives.”
“Which is where Nick Simmonds was working?” Noah said, following the conversation right back to where it began.
“So what you’re saying is Simmonds was working with these heretical texts?” Noah licked his lips, thinking. “Could he have been looking for someng directly? There’s a lot of stuff here. Could he have come in looking for something in particular?”
“I am sorry, I don’t follow.”
“I’m trying to put several pieces together at once,” he said, and then an idea came to him. He had no reason to think it might be true, but he asked it anyway. “Would any of these works be from Israel, around the time of the Sicarii?”
“No doubt there are copies of Josephus, who, as I am sure you know, was the preeminent historian of the time. As to anything else, I am afraid I couldn’t even begin to guess. No doubt there are testimonies and such, but you have to remember that very little from that time was written down. I haven’t read close to a hundredth of all the ancient texts. I doubt anyone has. Many of these texts have not even been looked upon in decades. It is not like picking up a book to read down on the beach. In translation each word, and how it sits beside the next, can lead to varying interpretations of the precise meaning of every sentence. Miracles can happen rather unintentionally if someone decides the preposition is on instead of beside, for instance, which would make the miracle of Bethsaida slightly less miraculous.”
Noah didn’t really follow, but nodded because it seemed like Abandonato expected him to. “How about Simmonds? Was he comfortable enough to read something like that and understand the significance of the linguistics?”
“I couldn’t possibly say. Sorry.” The Monsignor shrugged. “We did not work that closely. As I said, we are all very solitary people down here. We work our own specialisms and keep to ourselves.”
Which translated in Noah’s head to: of course he could, and he could have walked out with any text he wanted, because this whole place functioned around trust. “Do you know what books, precisely, he was working with?”
“As I said, Pre-Lateran and Lateran Hebrew codices.”
“Right, and you have a list of these books?”
“Yes, of course, but as I said, the library is undergoing a massive refurbishment. It would be almost impossible to ascertain one way or another if an individual text were missing; and it would take weeks to be sure. AsI am sure you can understand; nothing is where it is supposed to be right now.”
“Great,” Noah said, barely keeping his frustration from bubbling over. Simmonds’ working with Hebrew texts couldn’t be a coincidence. Nothing else he had learned in the last four days had been, so why should this be? He needed to think of everything as though it was all connected, not strings of random events. It was pointless asking if any books had gone missing recently; the Monsignor had already said it would be nigh impossible to tell. And there was nothing to say the book was a recent find. Simmonds had been working in the library for the best part of two years. He could have found it at any time.
Noah pursed his lips, wondering how best to proceed. There was only one thing left to say and he knew it. He blew out a sharp breath. “Nick Simmonds committed suicide four days ago. You might have heard about it. He set fire to himself in the main square outside.”
“Unfortunately there’s very little of that out there anymore, Monsignor.”
“And you think his work here had something to do with his killing himself?”
“It’s a distinct possibility,” Noah said. “Would he have recorded somewhere what books he had already prepared for the move?”
The archivist nodded. “Another of the volunteers has developed a computerized ledger system for the move. Every book, as it is prepared, is entered into the system.”
“So everything he laid his hands on ought to be registered in the system?”
Noah sat with Abandonato in a small walled garden in the heart of the Vatican. The Monsignor had offered to show him the Sistine Chapel and other treasures to help pass the wait, but Noah didn’t feel like feigning interest louds that had been painted in to preserve the modesty of the angels by men far more prudish in nature than those who had commissioned the work of art in the first place. But wasn’t that the truth of all occasions? It seemed indicative of the modern world that any amount of violence was fine so long as it was cartoonish in nature, like the Road Runner dropping that anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s unsuspecting head from a great height, but a flash of genitalia needed to be covered to protect the fragile innocence of the young, lest they become sexual delinquents. He could almost understand the reasoning of the Muslim men who wanted to hide women behind burqas to avoid temptations of the flesh. Almost. Next to painting over angelic dangly bits to preserve the piety of the chapel, it seemed positively reasonable.
Instead, Noah decided to talk to the priest about the suicides, and more specifically, the messages that pointed toward Rome.
“You are aware, of course, that every generation has its own apocalypse it believes is going to wipe out mankind? Some cite Mother Shipton who claimed the world would end in 1881, some the Mayan Prophecies who give us until 2012, others Nostradamus. This isn’t something new to us. According to Josephus, Theudas declared himself the Messiah in AD44. He was beheaded. In AD53 the Thessalonians believed they’d missed the Rapture. Hyppolytus calculated the world had only six thousand full years, and should have ended in AD600. Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and Rabbi Hanina both predicted the Second Coming would be around four hundred years after the fall of the Temple in AD70. Adso of Montier’s Treatise on the Antichrist in AD950 prophesied an end-of-the-millennium apocalypse. In AD964 Cartulaire de Saint-Jouin-des-Marnes wrote: Dum saeculum transit finis mundi appropinquat… As the century passes, the end of the world approaches. Millennial end-of-the-world panic has always been rife.
“Abbo was another AD1000 End of Days advocate. And of course everyone was seeing signs: monstrous children, famine, and mortality. The pale rider was sighted in the sky-a comet no doubt. Of course when nothing happened, when Christ did not return, it led to an outbreak of heresies in France, Italy and the southwest Mediterranean regions, which in turn were believed to be the unleashing of Satan as written in the Book of Revelation. These predictions go on and on, all ultimately useless. There’s no evidence of the new star supposedly sighted in heaven, or the rain of blood as the sun turns red and fails to shine for three days, or the natural disasters of the world returning to its natural chaos. Believe me, Noah, none of this is new to us.
“In AD1186 the Letter of Toledo warned everyone to hide in the caves and mountains because the world would be destroyed and few saved, and yet we’re all still here. The Taborites of Czechoslovakia predicted every city would be annihilated by fire and only five mountain strongholds would survive. Again, this great burning failed to take place. And of course your own people believed 666 was the end of all times, hardly surprising given the bubonic plague and the Great Fire struck in the same year; and the presence of the ‘number of the beast’ in the date did little to help allay their fears, but that’s all they were, fears.
“In 1914 the only reason the world did not end was that Michael had defeated Satan in heaven, if you believe Jehovah’s Witnesses, that is. The Tribulations began again in earnest in 1981, and continued rather hysterically all the way until the new millennium. We’re no less superstitious as a people now than we were in AD1000, and no less gullible, it would seem. Now, it appears, the next ‘great event’ is actually prophesied in the Pentateuch, and predicts a comet will crash into the earth in 2012 and annihilate all life. The Church preaches calm in the face of all this insanity, Noah.” He spread his arms wide.
“Is that why it withheld the third secret of Fatima?”
“Ah, yes. Sometimes a date is just a date, and no man can tell the will of God. But to answer your question, yes, the Church did officially withhold the third secret of Fatima long beyond 1960, when they believed it would be better understood by the world. But no, it doesn’t foretell a single event. The first secret was merely a vision of Hell; the second has been interpreted to mean the Virgin appeared to warn of World War II. The third talks of prayer as the path to salvation for our souls. But of course, by its withholding, it made the so-called revelation so much more controversial. That is the way of things, is it not? If people believe you are hiding something, they want to discover its secrets all the more.”
“True, certain quarters believe that the Church has not in fact released the third secret at all, because the text released in 2000 does not contain any words from the Virgin; neither does it talk about a crisis of faith in the Church. People can and will see conspiracy in every corner. It is the way of man. After so much anticipation it is only natural they believe the Church is still withholding things from them.”
Noah was very careful about how he phrased his next question. “Could the third secret foretell the assassination of the Pope?”
“Ah, the Bishop in White? As I said, these things are always open to interpretation. The most recent I heard was that the Bishop in White was Ximenes Belo, and the city trembling in ruins was in fact Dili in East Timor. Of course the secret falls down because Belo was saved from certain death, but almost anything can be squeezed into these prophecies and predictions if the interpreter is looking to make a point. While the Church will not openly acknowledge these interpretations, let’s put it this way, she won’t take any unnecessary chances with the safety of the Pontiff. Roman Pontiff bewg, theyyour approaching, of the city where two rivers water, your blood you will come to spit in that place both you and yours when blooms the rose. That one is the work of Nostradamus,” Abandonato said. He couldn’t have known he had just repeated Nicholas Simmonds’ last words. It was the one quatrain of Nostradamus that Noah was familiar with.
“It’s suitably vague that it could mean just about any Holy Father in any city of two rivers. There’s nothing to date it, nothing to make it even remotely insightful.” Abandonato breathed in slowly, then looked around the small garden as though he was about to whisper some heresy of his own. “However, in 1999 John Paul II intended a pilgrimage to Ur, birthplace of Abraham, to meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Iraq is a land between two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. That pilgrimage was cancelled. Subsequent pilgrimages in 2000, 2001, and 2003 were also cancelled despite His Holiness’ desire to visit Ur. I am not saying they were cancelled in response to Nostradamus’ quatrain, but they were cancelled just the same. The city of the two rivers could just as easily be Paris, fed by the Seine and Marne. Should we cancel the Pontiff’s visit to Paris? Or is that a step too far? Are we jumping at shadows?
“There are similarities, of course. Both so-called prophecies refer to the rose. But is that rose a way of saying springtime and grounding the prophecy with the time of blooming? Or could it be a person? Some have tried to say the rose was Princess Diana, England’s rose. It is a possible interpretation, just as Hitler was a possible interpretation of Hister and ‘from the roof evil ruin will fall upon the great man’ could relate to the Kennedy assassination. His only outright and correct use of a name was in the quatrain relating to Franco.
“And for all the similarities there are glaring and irreconcilable differences. The third secret of Fatima talks of a city almost destroyed while Nostradamus sounds like a pleasant papal visit in spring. You tell me, because your interpretation is every bit as valid as mine, Noah. Are you seeing the problem with accepting prophecies here?”
“I think I’m getting the picture,” Noah said. In truth he was. He might not have understood even half of what Abandonato had told him, but he didn’t need to. The priest was doing a damned good job of convincing him that fate was fickle, unpredictable, and basically everyone and his aunt had predicted the end of the world a dozen times. But that didn’t change the fact that four times the Vatican had cancelled the Pope’s pilgrimage to Iraq due to fears for his safety. Fears almost certainly put there by scaremongers pointing at the Nostradamus prophecies and asking why tempt fate? Of course this was different; the secret and the quatrain had been used not to predict an attack on the Pope but to threaten one.
Noah was about to explain when a third man bustled into the small garden. He shuffled with his head down and hands clasped. Hi feet brushed over the stones. As he came closer Noah realized the young priest was holding a printout. “The results of the search you requested, Monsignore,” he held the paper out for Abandonato.
“That will be all, thank you,” the priest said, taking the sheet and reading through the list of codices Nicholas Simmonds had signed off on during his time in the library. The young librarian shuffled back out of the garden. There were eighty-seven texts listed by name. Abandonato pursed his lips as he read through them quickly. Reaching the bottom of the page, he shook his head. “As I said, he was working on the Pre-Lateran and Lateran Hebrew codices. There’s nothing here I wouldn’t expect him to have handled.” He turned the sheet over and continued to skim the list of titles. Midway down something caught his eye.
“Well now, perhaps this is something. You mentioned the Sicarii zealots, yes? According to this, Nicholas worked with one specific text that would be of interest for several reasons, The Testimony of Menahem ben Jair. If it is the text I am thinking of, it was in a dreadful condition when it was brought in a few years ago. I would need to check the precise date, but I believe the bequest came to us after it was discovered in an earthquake in the Masada region of the Dead Sea. I would need to check with my colleagues to be sure. I do know that our restoration team have been working on reassembling the original papyrus for quite some time.”
“2004,” Noah said, as another piece of the puzzle slotted softly into place. Simmonds had been sent in to look for this book. Noah was certain of it. It made stone cold sense. Not only that, it was the only thing that made sense. The testimony had been recovered from the site during the Masada dig. Now Mabus wanted it back. What could it possibly say to make it worth all of these lives? “You said there were several reasons people might be interested in this testimony?”
“Indeed. Ordinarily I would say with something like this the main interest has to be the historical nature of the find. Any document from the time helps provide us with a picture of the world as it was. Let’s not forget that even the most highly educated of men were not in the habit of recording their thoughts in writing. Thoughts were for thinking, for speaking, but not for writing down. Wisdom was passed on from father to son, in parables and stories. Anything that adds to our understanding of the time is precious. But, discoveries like this? Something like this doesn’t just cast a little light on the final days of the assassins’ cult, though that in itself is a priceless gift to our generation. No, this is far more because it was written by Menahem himself. And why was Menahem important?” Abandonato asked rhetorically. “I’ll tell you, Menahem ben Jair was important because not only was he the leader of the Sicarii zealots, he was also the grandson of Judas Iscariot. Tell me, who wouldn’t want to know the final mortal thoughts of this man? His secrets? Everything he held dear and wanted to set down for time immemorial? I know I would.”
Noah thought about it as he followed the Monsignor back through the labyrinth of illuminated corridors toward a door that led out to Rome proper.
“So, what do you think the testimony says?” Noah asked.
Abandonato shook his head. “Truthfully, I do not know. I would not expect much wisdom-the man was a killer, his band of zealots little better than terrorists, though they would have called themselves freedom fighters, like the IRA, no?”
Noah could see the comparison. The Sicarii wanting Judaea for Jews wasn’t dissimilar to the IRA wanting to reclaim Northern Ireland for the Irish, but sectarian attacks and bombs at Bishopsgate and Warrington and Canary Wharf, where children and two shopkeepers, ordinary decent people, died, made it difficult for Noah to think of them as freedom fighters.
He made a noncommittal gesture.
“Perhaps Menahem’s testimony was nothing more than a list of his beliefs? A manifesto of sorts so that anyone who found it could pick up his cause and fight for an unoccupied Judaea?”
As a guess, it made sense, but Noah wasn’t entirely sure he believed the priest when he said he hadn’t read it. Skepticism was natural, but at some point it shifted into paranoia, surely?
“So it wouldn’t be like finding a new gospel, then?”
“In one sense, possibly. The word gospel is derived from the Greek euaggelion. It means quite literally ‘good news.’ In the sense you mean, though, the gospels include the four canonical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as some extra-biblical gospels written in the second century. These gospels are the ‘good news’ written about Jesus the Anointed and organized as connected narratives that focus upon the kerygma, that which is proclaimed, and the Sitz im Leben, the situation in life. What motivated the gospel writer to put down his words? The intentions of the author arefundamentally important in the gospels,” Abandonato explained.
Noah vaguely remembered the uproar surrounding the Gospel of Judas when it was recovered. The Judas Iscariot of his own gospel was both the betrayer of the Bible the world knew and simultaneously the hero of his own life. It was that aspect of the story that captured the imagination of the world-from being the most infamous traitor of all time Judas was suddenly presented as the most loyal and faithful companion, the only one who could be trusted to make the great sacrifice.
It was the same with all of the so-called Gnostic gospels. They seemed to paint everything we knew in a different light. In Thomas, God didn’t need great houses of worship, since Thomas promised that God was beneath every stone and in every split piece of wood. God was in the details. God was in the stuff of life. That was the nature of His creation, and it was there in the middle of it, beneath the heavens, that He should be worshipped, not in houses of brick and stone.
It was as Abandonato had said, subtle changes in translation of an existing text, or a subtle shift in the message of a “new” one could send tremors out through the world.
Did the Church really want a sympathetic Judas?
Wasn’t it easier for him to be vilified as the betrayer, motivated by greed and jealousy and all of these most human of sins?
Did the martyring of Iscariot change the importance of the resurrection and the other miracles central to what had become the day to day faith of Christianity? Noah wasn’t a theologian, but it seemed to him that it did. It was a subtle shift, but it was a shift just the same. And then the natural extension of that line of questioning became: was that enough of a change for the Vatican to bury the secret?
Noah wanted to think it was, but surely, then, Abandonato wouldn’t have mentioned the Testimony of Menahem ben Jair at all? He didn’t have to say Nick Simmonds had had anything to do with the document. After all, it was easier to hide something when no one knew it existed. Abandonato had broached the subject himself, suggesting that some people believed the third secret of Fatima had been doctored before its publication. Why wouldn’t the Church do something like that? And if it would do that, why wouldn’t it hide any documentary evidence that might prove dangerous to its fundamental belief systems?
Noah’s head was spinning with it all.
The only thing he knew for sure was that Nick Simmonds had been on the dig at Masada, where the Testimony had been unearthed, and he had followed it here to the Vatican two years later. That went beyond circumstance into still-hot smoking-gun territory. The rest was irrelevant.
“Here we are,” Abandonato said. “If there is anything else I can do, you only have to ask.”
“I’d really like to know what is in that testimony,” he said, knowing he was asking the impossible of the priest.
ne of the Swiss Guard stood watch over the exit. He was dressed in his regular-duty uniform of simple blue with a flat white collar, knee-length black socks and a brown leather belt. He wore a black beret tilted slightly to the right. The simple uniform marked him as a newer recruit to the Guard. The blue was a lot less gaudy than the red, yellow, orange and blue motley of the Guard’s official dress. Of course, had he been stationed on the other side of the door, that is exactly what he would have been wearing, along with a ceremonial sword and halberd like something stepped out of Renaissance Rome. The guard’s face was impassive to the point of being sorrowful.
Abandonato didn’t answer him. Instead he opened the door.
The guard nodded slightly to the priest and stepped aside to allow Noah to leave.
Noah wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing at first, but instinct quickly took over.
The door opened onto the piazza, a little way beyond the two dry fountains. Noah had expected to slip out of the same small side door he had entered the Vatican through. This door led out into the grand piazza of San Pietro. He was aware of the long snake of tourists lining up to go into the basilica, but that wasn’t what he was looking at.
Noah stared, fixated at a man as he lurched through the line of shadow The Witness cast across the center of the piazza. The man wore a long flapping raincoat completely out of keeping with the season. The coat was open and his body seemed to bulge disproportionately beneath it. The man clutched something in his right hand. Noah couldn’t see what it was. Something about the way the man was moving set all sorts of alarm bells ringing inside Noah’s head. He held his hand out in front of him like whatever he was holding was contagious. Noah saw the C4 strapped to his body before he saw the fear in his face. The packages of explosives were strapped around his belly with thick bands of gaffer tape. Noah couldn’t see the wires from where he was, but he knew that the device in his hand had to be a detonator. He didn’t hesitate. He couldn’t afford to wait for the Swiss Guard to react, and he had no idea whether they had a means to take the suicide bomber out anyway.
He stepped out into the piazza. The sun streamed down, suddenly, horribly bright after the darkness of the Vatican’s endless corridors.
“On your knees! Get down now!” Noah yelled, drawing his Heckler and Koch USP 9mm and pointing it straight at the bomber’s chest. He tensed, ready to pull the trigger. He couldn’t allow himself to think, not with hundreds of people in the piazza queuing up to file into St. Peter’s. Judging by his misshapen body, there was enough C4 strapped to the bomber to make a hell of a mess. One life for many; it wasn’t even a question.
The man stumbled forward another step.
And then another.
People in the square were starting to look, drawn by the sound of Noah’s voice. Even if they didn’t understand his words, their delivery cut across the chatter and stopped them dead in their tracks.
“You don’t have to do this!” Noah shouted at him, moving a step closer to meeting the bomber halfway. “Just put down the detonator, get down on your knees and put your hands behead your head!”
He locked eyes with the man, willing him to open his hand and drop the detonator. But the man didn’t. He took another step closer to Noah. Noah could see the red of the button poking out from his clenched fist.
“This doesn’t have to end this way!”
The man shook his head violently. Noah could see the strain in every inch of his body. He was wired. Sweat peppered every inch of his skin, streaming down his face. He looked down at his hand and started to raise it.
Noah dropped him. Three shots punched a neat triangle into the area around the bomber’s heart. The man jerked and spasmed, his body thrown into a violent pirouette. He twisted and hit the ground hard, face first. Blood spread around his head where his nose had opened up from the sickening impact. Noah walked toward the bomber, his H amp;K still aimed directly at him. He wasn’t taking any chances, not with the detonator still clasped in the man’s hand. All it needed was the slightest twitch and the whole place would go up.
He didn’t hear the screaming. He didn’t hear the shouts of the Swiss Guard yelling for him to put the weapon down.
He knelt beside the would-be bomber and pulled open his coat. There were wires sticking up from the blocks of C4, but they didn’t go anywhere. They were cut. The C4 wasn’t connected to the detonator in his hand. There was no way the bomb could have gone off. Noah tried to pry the detonator out of the man’s fist but couldn’t. It had been glued around the detonator. He couldn’t have dropped it if he had wanted to.
Everything about this stank.
He had killed an innocent man.
Noah couldn’t afford to think about it.
Even as he knelt down to rifle the dead man’s pockets, looking for a wallet or some form of identification, he knew he was missing something. Something important. Why did he keep walking? All he had to do was kneel down. He couldn’t detonate the C4 strapped to his body, so why did he carry on walking? There was only one reason for that: someone made him. Noah scanned the piazza. There were literally thousands of people, and they were all looking his way. One of them had scared this man so much he had carried on walking even though he knew the next step would be the death of him. Which meant it had to be more than fear for himself that kept him moving. Noah scanned the faces closest to him as though he might be able to pick the monster out of the crowd. Real life wasn’t like that. As long as the real terrorist in the square did nothing to reveal himself he could have been any Tom, Dick or Harriet looking at him.
“Close the square off!” he barked over his shoulder. He twisted to see the guard. The man stood rooted to the spot in shock. “Snap out of it! I need you to close off the damned square. The man who poisoned the city’s here!”
“Where-” the guard started to ask when Noah cut him off.
The Guard snapped to attention and stepped back through the door. He picked the radio up from the table and called in what had just happened.
No one seemed able to believe what they had just witnessed. The bloodshed had shattered the sanctity of the place. Two more of the Swiss Guard had left their station and were running across the square toward them. He saw otherso ming, gesticulating that the piazza should be closed off. Behind him, Abandonato was rooted to the spot. A look of abject horror twisted his face. This was not in his philosophy. This kind of madness made no sense to the holy man. It was, however, the world in which Noah lived.
Noah used the frozen moment of shock to get things done.
He found a wallet and went through it quickly. There was no driver’s license, no credit cards, no store cards or Blockbuster cards, nothing that might identify the man. The only thing in the wallet was a single piece of folded paper. He teased it out and opened it up. It had two short lines written on it: Wehave tested your faith. Today we break it.
He stood up and looked around the square again, slowly, his eyes moving from face to face. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he hoped to hell that he’d recognize it when he saw it. Horror? Fear? Shock? He chewed on his bottom lip. He had three thousand, four thousand possible suspects, and they were all just milling around like little lost sheep.
Then, halfway across the square, he saw a solitary figure leaning against The Witness. Their eyes met for half a second and, smiling, the man saluted him. The gesture was laced with irony so thick it smacked of loathing. The man, dressed simply in jeans, plain white sneakers and a gray tee-shirt and blue hoodie was utterly unremarkable with his close-cropped, dark hair and five o’clock shadow. He had wanted Noah to see him. He pushed away from the obelisk. He was well built, muscular. The gray material of the tee-shirt strained across his pecs and biceps. Possibly ex-military, Noah thought, watching the way he moved. The notion was only reinforced by that mocking salute. He turned and started to walk toward the thickest part of the crowd.
“Call Neri,” Noah shouted, taking off after the man. He knew it was a trap, but he really didn’t have a choice in the matter. He wasn’t about to leave it to the jesters of the Swiss Guard in the motley to chase the man through Rome, and he wasn’t about to let him disappear into the crowd. So even if it meant chasing him all the way into whatever trap he had waiting, that was exactly what Noah was going to do. “Tell him I’m about to get myself killed!”