Prologue – An Act of God

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With the evening sun setting behind him, Father Hernandez hurried through the narrow twisting streets, his feet sore from pounding the cobbled passageways. He stumbled slightly and silently cursed his tight fitting cassock before quickly offering a penitent prayer. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and patted the dust off his sweating brow. Temperatures were soaring this summer and lavishing Rome with a sweltering heat. He tightened his grip on the large, leather-skinned envelope given him by his masters; his latest task.

Without warning, the strident blast of a horn sounded. He looked up and saw a large US Army troop transport racing toward him; he had absently strayed onto the road. Reacting instinctively, he leaped backward onto the path. The truck glided past, inches from his nose, billowing a plume of grit in his face.

He froze, breathless, his eyes clamped shut. Sweat oozed from pores all over his body, making his garments feel uncomfortably claustrophobic. He squinted one eye open to the sound of an evaporating ‘sorry Padré’. He looked to his right and watched the truck bounce on without having slowed down. It rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. He placed a hand on his forehead and let out a controlled breath, before blessing himself; the prayer he’d offered only moments ago had obviously worked. Threading carefully, he waddled across the road and continued on.

He arrived at a busy five way intersection with the ‘Ponte Principe Amedeo Savioa Aosta’ off to his left. Beyond that, he looked across the Tiber toward his meeting point on the eastern side of the city. A nearby church bell tolled which was echoed moments later by several others a little further afield, letting him know he had twenty minutes to spare. He spied a café nearby. Outside, a waiter was gathering some chairs together, tidying up after a day’s trading. Hernandez decided to freshen up with an iced-water and lemon slice garnish before they closed up for the night

Sitting on a rickety wooden chair a couple of minutes later, he glanced across at a young arguing couple. He caught snippets of the disagreement between swears. From what he could deduce, the young man was begging forgiveness for an indiscretion, the details of which, Hernandez couldn’t quite make out. At one point the man threw his arms in the air and looked around as though seeking vindication from anybody who’d agree with his point of view. He spied Hernandez and slipped him a panicked glance before turning back to the girl and continuing a quieter plea for clemency.

Hernandez’s gaze shifted to his glass still more than half full. He watched the moisture droplets sliding gracefully down its side. He touched some and licked his fingers. He took a sip and sat back into his chair and listened to the Eternal City as she began to close her eyes for the night. His hand brushed against the envelope on his lap.

Although a devout and obedient cleric and the possessor of many virtues, Hernandez struggled to control one in particular: curiosity. It had gotten the better of him on every one of his clandestine trips beyond the confines of Vatican City. It teased and tortured him, tempted him to sneak a peek into the unsealed envelopes he carried. What he had discovered when he’d looked hadn’t shocked him, in fact, he had expected it.

This envelope though was different. It had been sealed, which was a first and not just by a slick flick of the tongue but secured in place by a thick, burgundy-coloured, wax blob adorned with an embossed seal. He stared at it now, struggling to recall where he’d seen it before which only served to heighten his intrigue.

Then it hit him.

He hadn’t recognised it immediately because it was usually accompanied by four, much larger and more notable symbols. He smiled and stifled a half-laugh before a frown clouded his face. He looked at it again, rubbing a finger along the seal’s circumference.

It wasn’t the most famous seal in all of Christendom, in fact, if he were to make a guess, he would say that few inside even the Vatican would recognise it let alone anybody outside. Realising the envelope couldn’t be resealed if it were opened he sighed and tossed it onto the table. He stole a glance at the couple as they got up and walked away, the woman snatching her hand away as the man tried desperately to hold it.

He shook his head and wondered what could possibly have them so worked up. The murder that had plagued the continent had ceased since Germany’s surrender a few days ago and fascism in Europe was as dead as Mussolini. While the Allies were busy carving up what remained of the Reich, he knew there were Vatican strategists even now thinking how best to position themselves in the brave new world. He smiled to himself. All that effort; trying to anticipate and influence the major powers, play the same game that had been played since time began. He lifted his glass to take another sip and noticed that the envelope’s seal had inadvertently popped open. He stared at it for a moment. Hernandez wouldn’t have classified it a miracle, but there it was: God had found a way to satiate his urge.

Unable to restrain himself, he reached forward and, glancing around, gingerly pulled the flap back. He slipped his hand in and withdrew two documents, leaving what he knew to be a falsified passport, untouched at the bottom.

The first was a letter, which he hurriedly scanned. It hadn’t come as a surprise, as all the other envelopes he had couriered had included a similar introductory document, referencing the unknown holder to be of excellent character and standing. He turned his attention to the second document; four pages, held together by a staple in the top left hand corner. His eyes sifted through an itinerary, a dossier, and what appeared to be a detailed set of instructions to be executed as soon as the recipient arrived at his final destination.

Hernandez drew a sharp breath, his eyes widening. Slowly, he raised a hand to his open mouth. He glanced back at the letter, rereading the addressee’s name even though he knew it to be an alias. Mesmerized, his gaze darted to the signature at the bottom of the page.

He whispered a gasp, his head shaking slightly.

He had expected it to be that of the person whose family seal he’d recognised; a man he had come to know very well. But, the signatory was infinitely more eminent.

His pulse quickened, and he immediately understood why this particular envelope, above all others, had been sealed the way it had. He quickly dropped the documents back into the envelope and pressed down, praying it would reseal. He waited a few seconds before lifting his hand.

It held momentarily, but then moving slightly and popping open

Hernandez grimaced. A wave of panic began to effervesce in the pit of his stomach. He checked his watch.

10.17pm.

He only had a few minutes. Not knowing what else to do, he wetted the underside of the wax with his sweating fingertips and reapplied the pressure, hoping it would hold this time.

With his hand still held firmly on the wax blob, he stood and looked around. He crossed the road and waited at the riverbank. As Rome’s magnificent architecture cast elongating shadows, the usually rampant city sounds had almost completely faded. Hernandez surveyed the length of the river. It had become the city’s life blood as it weaved its way from source to mouth. He peered into the rippling water brushing against the bricked bank.

The sound of an approaching vehicle followed by the screeching of brakes wrenched him out of his dream. He turned and saw another U.S. Army transport truck pull neatly up to the kerb. The passenger door opened and a soldier wearing a Military Police uniform hopped out. He walked around the front of the truck.

“You have something for me?” He glanced at the envelope in Hernandez’s hand.

Hernandez nodded and, praying the seal would hold, handed it to the young man.

The soldier took it without speaking, completed an about turn and walked briskly back to his side of the truck. Hernandez expected to see the door open and the soldier hop back in, but instead he watched nervously as the MP walked back around the front of the truck again.

“Is everything alright?” Hernandez asked, placing his hands as calmly as possible behind his back. His eyes darted down to the envelope and the loose flap that the MP was flicking with his thumb.

In one swift movement, the MP unbuttoned his holster and withdrew his sidearm. Without hesitating, he aimed and fired a single shot into Hernandez’ chest.

The priest staggered back against the low wall that guarded the river. The soldier walked up to him and, laying a hand on his head, gave him a gentle push.

Father Hernandez’ soul had already departed before his lifeless body hit the water some twenty feet below.

 

A young Swiss Guardsman stood rigidly to attention before the Vatican Guard Commandant, having delivered a terrible message only moments ago. He could feel his skin pale and his mouth run dry. He watched Michael Valent’s face redden and nostrils flare and prayed to be dismissed.

Valent drove a clenched fist onto the surface of his teak desk with a force that made the office windows reverberate.

The young Guardsman’s heart skipped a beat. He glanced down, expecting to see a crumpled hand such was the impact, but instead saw only a few drops of blood, the glint of a ring and the imprint of the same symbol that had sealed Father Hernandez’s fate no more than thirty minutes ago.

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