Temperatures had soared and bathed Rome in a sweltering summer heat, bringing with it a tide of renewed hope, optimism, and opportunity that had displaced more than a decade of fear, intimidation, and hate which had fed an ideology that had thrown, at first a continent, and then the world into yet another war.
But Father Felipe Hernandez did not share the joyous mood openly displayed by the majority of those who’d survived. The dying declaration of a frail man’s lifetime of experiences had haunted him ever since it’d been uttered. ‘We are born without sin, a pureness that becomes eroded each day we live our lives.’
With the evening sun setting at his back, he hurried along the narrow, twisting streets, his feet sore from pounding the cobbled passageways. He stubbed his toe and stumbled slightly, quietly cursing his new shoes and tight-fitting cassock before quickly offering a penitent prayer. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and patted the dust from his sweating brow. He tightened his grip on the leather-bound envelope given him by his master and walked on.
As he made his way toward the river, he wondered how long this would continue and, more importantly for him, the repercussions should he get caught. In recent times, an air of suspicion and mistrust hung heavy over the Vatican. He felt it every time he walked along the marble and parquet corridors. Usually, a quiet and serene place of tranquillity and thoughtfulness where the only sounds were that of respectful whispers; it seemed that the atmosphere had changed. Now, small groups of clerics huddled in corners, glancing warily at those who happened by, their fraught discussions abruptly ending whenever he strayed too close. They would nod reverently, pass on their blessings, and disperse quietly with bowed heads; their eyes fixed on the open prayer books resting on their palms. He wondered if he’d been reading too much into it; a consequence of heightened paranoia borne of what he had done in the past and what he continued to do.
The blast of a horn sounded, ripping him from his thoughts. His head jerked up, and he saw a large, US Army troop transport barrelling toward him. Instinctively, he leaped back onto the path, scrambling for a safe foothold. The truck glided past only inches from his nose in a blur of green and white decal, billowing a plume of grit into his face.
He froze, his eyes clamped shut.
Sweat oozed all over his body, his claustrophobic garments sticking, making him feel muggy and breathless. He squinted through an open eye 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 was gone. He placed a hand on his forehead and let out a controlled sigh, before blessing himself; the prayer he’d offered a few moments ago perhaps saving him this time. An old man passing touched his elbow gently and asked if he was alright. Hernandez nodded with a grateful smile and thanked him before looking both ways and scurrying across the road.
He arrived at a busy five-way intersection with the ‘Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta’ off to his left. He looked across the Tiber toward the 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 – he had some time to spare. He spied a café nearby where a waiter gathered chairs from outside, tidying up after the day’s trading. Hernandez slacked his tongue inside his parched mouth and slipped across the street to quench his thirst before the café closed for the night.
He sat on a rickety, wooden chair and watched the moisture droplets slide slowly down the side of a glass of iced water. He touched one and licked his fingers. Taking a sip, he sat back and listened as the Eternal City began to rest, closing its eyes for the night.
A young couple, in their late teens perhaps, argued a few tables away, their voices breaking the quiet in waves. He glanced across without trying to make it look obvious, trying to catch the tenet of their conversation. From what he could deduce, the young man was begging absolution for an indiscretion, the details of which, Hernandez couldn’t quite make out. But, it sounded like there might have been another girl involved. At one point the man threw his arms in the air and looked around as though seeking vindication from anybody nearby who agreed with his point of view. He spotted Hernandez looking at them and slipped the cleric a sheepish glance before turning back to the girl and continuing a quieter plea for clemency.
Hernandez smiled to himself.
After all, the Italians had endured over the past few years under Mussolini’s dictatorship and the subsequent German occupation, the struggles of only weeks ago appeared now to have been quickly forgotten and replaced by nuisances of far less importance. It never ceased to amaze him how his flock seemed to continually seek earthly torment when contentment through the divine was so easily attained, but then he wouldn’t have much of a job if it were any other way.
His thoughts drifted to his troubles, and his face grew dark.
He had been caught. A Cardinal Sin, and an abomination against the Church – worthy of immediate defrocking. Although he had always known that on some basic, moral level what he’d been doing was wrong, such were his urges, he couldn’t help himself. Sins of the flesh it seemed were not exclusive to those outside the Church. He had even heard of others performing similar acts with apparent impunity and so believed he was immune to persecution. Thinking back, maybe what it had been a mere rumor, innuendo perhaps, designed to flush out and cleanse the Church of sinners.
He had been a fool.
But, he had been given a second chance, an alternative to a public defrocking and that was why he found himself delivering the envelope which lay on his lap. His hand brushed across the top of it.
It was smooth to the touch and identical to the others he had delivered, although he knew, containing different versions of the same documents. He ran his tongue across his top lip and stroked his chin. 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 each of the clandestine trips that’d taken him beyond the confines of Vatican City. It teased and tortured, tempting him to sneak a peek into each of the unsealed envelopes he carried. What he discovered hadn’t shocked him. In fact, he had half expected it. An assortment of official documents, providing new identities to those who needed them most and, more importantly, was willing to pay.
But this envelope was different. It had been sealed, which was a first, and not just by the slick flick of a tongue, but secured in place by a thick, burgundy-colored, wax blob stamped with an embossed seal. Hernandez gaped at it now, struggling to recall where he had seen it before which only served to heighten his intrigue.
Then it hit him.
He smiled and stifled a half-laugh. He looked at it again, rubbing a finger along the seal’s circumference. It wasn’t the most famous seal in all of Christendom and, if he were to guess, he would say that few inside even the Vatican would recognize it, let alone anybody unconnected with the institution.
Realizing the envelope couldn’t be resealed once opened, he sighed, tossing it on the table. He stole a glance at the couple as they got up to walk away, the woman snatching her hand away as the man tried desperately to take hold of it. Hernandez shook his head, still wondering what could have them so worked up.
He lifted his glass to take another sip, his eyes dropping to the envelope and noticed the seal had inadvertently popped open. He stared at it for a moment, his heart beating a little faster. 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 peeked in. 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 stapled 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 wide. He raised a hand slowly to his open mouth, and glanced back at the letter, rereading the addressee’s name even though he knew it to be an alias. His gaze darted to the signature at the bottom of the page. He whispered it with a gasp, his head shaking slightly. He had expected it to be that of the person whose family seal he had recognized; a man he had come to know very well, the man who had caught him all those months ago and then placed him in this dreadful position. But, the signatory was infinitely more eminent.
His pulse quickened, and he immediately understood why this particular envelope had been so tightly sealed. He quickly dropped the documents back into the pouch and pressed down, praying it would reseal. He waited a few seconds before lifting his hand. It held for a moment, but then popped back open. Hernandez grimaced, and a wave of panic began to fizz in the pit of his stomach.
He checked his watch – 10.07 p.m.
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 meeting point by 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 that brushed against the bricked bank below.
The sound of an approaching vehicle followed by the screeching of brakes wrenched him out of his reverie. He turned and saw a U.S. Army truck nestle gently against the curb. 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, withdrawing his sidearm. Without hesitation, he aimed and fired a single shot into Father Hernandez’s chest. The priest staggered back against the low wall that guarded the river, his hand over the bullet hole, blood oozing through his fingers. The soldier walked up and, placing a hand on Hernandez’s head, gave him a gentle push.
Father Hernandez’s soul had already departed before his lifeless body hit the water some twenty feet below.
A Young Swiss-Guardsman stood to attention before the Vatican Guard Commandant, having delivered the message a few moments ago. He could feel his skin prickle and turn pale, and his mouth run dry. He watched Michael Valent’s face redden, and his nostrils flare, and he prayed to be dismissed before his superior took his anger out on him.
Valent drove a clenched fist onto the surface of his teak desk with a force that made the office windows resonate.
The Guardsman’s heart skipped a beat, his breathing quickening. He glanced down, expecting to see a crumpled hand such was the force of 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.