December 31st, 2011: Midnight
Scant stars dimly lit John and Genevieve’s walk back . At some time during this trek, something dawned upon John, something that he had been previously been vaguely aware of, but not with the current certain clarity that could no longer be ignored; his life was in danger.
He tried to attribute his heightened paranoia to the discussion he had just had with the decrepit man they had just encountered. Maybe the priest’s self-preservation over all else mantra had caused John to consider his own mortality more seriously than normal, but he was sure that this notion wasn’t just in his head.
Eyes were watching him. A disembodied menace he felt emanating from the very streets of Rome was coming for him. Someone was trying to kill him.
Walking these streets during the day on their trip into the Vatican had hardly seemed safe, and making the return trip in the dead of night suddenly seemed like a bad idea. With no taxis around, there were no better options available and it was too late to turn back now, especially with nowhere to turn back toward. John felt something tugging on his hand while weighing all this, and looked up to see Genny embracing their only remaining choice, trudging down the empty street to meet their destiny, whatever that may be, head-on.
The roads were as empty as they had been earlier, but the street was not quite asleep. Light streamed out in slits from behind barred windows. John could feel the eyes on them, following their every movement down the gauntlet of buildings towering high above them on either side. Indistinct voices of the Romans within filled the air with an ambient, raucous, almost insect-like buzzing.
Genny continued to march straight ahead, eyes straight ahead, intent on maximizing the progress of every step. John was not as focused, his attention and step constantly meandering until she was practically dragging him in tow. They approached an alley entrance and Genny jerked him out of the street without breaking stride.
She grabbed him hard, and he in his oblivious shell shocked state smiled and tried to kiss her. She slapped him back into reality, the quick strike across his cheek reawakening his languid senses.
"Don’t say anything. Don't look around. Don't listen to what's being shouted. I need you to think about just one thing: getting us the fuck out of the streets and back to the hotel as quickly as possible. Ok?"
John nodded, grinned and let a hand wander down the curve of her ass. She slapped him again. "I said keep your mind on one thing."
Genevieve turned on her exquisite heel and was off. John, now convinced that acting deliberately was a better strategy for surviving than being dominated by fear, matched her stride for urgent stride until he was a half step ahead, slightly shielding his girl from whatever danger might be lurking just ahead. Just as they both felt secretly certain that they were hopelessly lost, they mercifully spied the familiar neon sign.
Entering the small restaurant adjacent to their lodgings, Genny frantically looked around until her eyes settled on her father, he already standing at his table and heading in their direction. Buster caught her in a hug and looked concernedly back and forth from her to John and asking seriously, "You two ok?" They assured him that they were just hungry and exhausted, but that they had certainly had an interesting evening.
"I imagine so. I thought you would know better than to stay out so late," he said clearly addressing his daughter. "I was beginning to worry."
"Well, daddy if you would get a cell phone already we could have called you or sent you a text to let you know we were running late."
Audibly scoffing at this he replied, "Right, if we wanted the whole world to know you were running late. If you, daughter would take your internal exercises more seriously and become enlightened already you could have sent me a telepathic text.”
The change of environment had an immediate impact on John’s disposition. The frigid chill, smell of cold fear and the bleak cityscape had been replaced with the hazy warmth of crowded bodies, the aromas of Italian cuisine, and smiling, familiar faces. He gradually forgot about the people in the shadows stalking him and began to feel a little bit better about life in general. He met eyes with Genny, she looking back for him, several steps ahead of him arm-in-arm with her dad, and smiled back warmly at him.
"Sit, sit and eat.” Buster announced once they had reached the table. “I had an authentic Italian meal waiting for you, although I fear it may be a bit cold now. Perhaps we’ll have a glass or two of, well, tomorrow is another important day, I guess we shouldn't drink. But, this restaurant has the most delightful marsala. There is no wine in the world quite like a cheap house marsala at a Roman restaurant. Why deprive ourselves of such an opportunity? Just a bottle or two with our meal, then some espresso for dessert, of course."
At this invitation, John and Genny sat. While Genny launched into recounting their night to her father, John attacked the plethora of plates of pastas smothered with an immense variety of meats and cheeses. John let her do most of the talking, only adding in a detail here or there that she had forgotten or napped through while she paused for a bite to eat or sip of wine.
About an hour later, Genny was wrapping up her journalistically detailed tale with their harrowing walk home, graciously leaving out John's brief freak out, while sipping hot highly caffeinated fluids out of small porcelain cups. The triangle of table space that lay between them was littered with empty wine bottles, tomato sauce smeared china, and cigarette butts stuck in any odd place they could be stuck.
Around this time, John noticed that a fourth person had joined their midst. He had seen the man exchange some whispers with Buster and sit down, but he initially took him for part of the restaurant staff, maybe the manager or even the proprietor.
This was mostly due to the man's use of Italian, his simple but neat, sharp clothing, his meek manner and the familiarity he showed with their companion. In a second, John had surveyed and judged the new comer, decided who and what he was, and unconsciously determined that the man’s existence wasn’t important enough not to ignore. He remained only as part of the background music from John’s perspective until the man spoke in English and shocked him out of oblivion.
"So you found old Pete huh?" John heard the gruff, unmistakable voice of a tough old man say. Genny replied coolly, apparently not surprised by this, "finding the spider is never hard. The trick is escaping the web."
Just a moment ago, John felt he had a pretty good grip on the situation, but these few short sentences turned his world again on its head. Several realizations flashed through his mind at this time, all things he felt he could have known had he been a little more observant.
Among them were: “This man does not work here." "He has to be a part of this whole thing as well, and might be one of Buster’s sources,” “Genny knows about him at least, even if she doesn’t know know him.” “She was not randomly wandering around those chambers tonight; she had a plan all along and had chosen not to share the details with me.” More and more of these epiphanies progressively dawned upon him and the consequent emotions; anger, confusion, hurt, shame, began to flood his system.
John rested his head in his hands, face down toward the table. Instantly feeling embarrassed, he faked a half-yawn and looked sheepishly back up from the table. The restaurant was now completely empty except for these four and the remaining staff who were now casting furtive dirty looks in the party's direction.
Buster, noting the troubled look in John's eyes, finally decided it was time to introduce his friend.
"Where are my manners?" he began, with a sly cat grin, as if he knew exactly where his manners were, "This is my good friend Father Alvoy, Librarian of the Vatican, the Curatorio Magnifico, Chief Archivist of the Bibliotheca Catholica."
"That's enough, Buckles," the man said severely, but from a mouth wearing a flat but nonetheless betraying smile.
"Father, may I present my daughter, Mademoiselle Genevieve Buckles."
"Nice to finally meet you, padre," Genny interjected, shaking hands across the table with him.
"And her escort, Mr. Jean-Luc Chippewa Burns."
John took his hand next. It was not the hand of a normal priest. It was a strong shake, but not in the subtle, hidden strength way that Buster's was. This man's hand belied raw power. It was rough, calloused, definitely not manicured, with thick veins and coarse hair popping out at the beginnings of his fore arms.
The man's age was impossible to guess. He could have been anywhere his late 50's to early 70's. The only features that really betrayed his somewhat advanced age were the wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes, and a hairline that was no longer receding, but retreating, abandoning the head altogther. Other than these minor inevitabilities, Father Alvoy seemed to be a man firmly in control of a very sound mind and body.
"You two must be very brave to follow this old fool across the globe," he said quietly and over-seriously. Buster roared in laughter at this, slapping his friend on the back. John, feeling about to succumb to exhaustion, incomprehension and a full belly, tried to keep his focus and turn the discussion back to more serious matters.
"So the memo from the library came from you then? You are Buster's source inside the Vatican?"
Father Al replied, "I am an old friend of Mr. Buckles. I likewise try to work for the forces of good in this world," meeting John's eyes with an icy glare that seemed to gaze all the way down into the depths of John's soul.
"I'm sorry," John said a bit flustered, "I am just a little caught off guard by all this. At first, I thought you were just the owner of this place or something."
"An assumption I was aware of and pleased to allow you to harbor, John," Buster cut in, the wine making him more boisterous and ebullient than usual. "If I had introduced him when he arrived, than you would have felt less comfortable and would have never told your story as completely or as candidly as you did. You may feel deceived right now, but you were both the self-deceiver and the deceived who allowed it to happen."
"Just great," John thought.
It seemed every interacton with a priest lately was likely to burn up the processor that was John’s brain. "Ok," John continued when he felt he had a little better grip on the situation. "So, why are you helping us then? I mean, why betray the church when you pledged your life to it? Don't you depend on it?"
John thought he had asked a reasonable question, but Father Al was looking at him incredulously. "Do you think I became a priest for the cushy robes and all you can eat communion wafers?"
Buster and Genny laughed at this, but the maker of the joke did not chuckle, but kept his penetrating glare on John.
"But, if the Catholic Church breaks up, what would you do then? How could you continue being a priest without a church?"
"John, you're starting to sound like that old fool we met tonight," Genny chastised him in a playful tone. He just gave her a pained scowl kind of look, but the two older guys' interest seemed to perk a little.
"Is this the kind of things you and Cardinal Peter discussed?" Buster asked in a tone a bit more serious than his previous one. Genny had told them about their encounter in the enclaves but glossed over the exact nature and subject of their conversation in her story.
"Yeah, he said a lot of things. I guess I'm still trying to digest most of it,” John answered.
"Would you please summarize his general argument as you see it?" The priest asked politely but in a way that for John called to mind an overbearing school teacher.
"Well," John began, then hesitated for a moment to gather his thoughts. "I guess his main point was that preserving the Church for the future is the most important issue. So, any action taken to achieve this objective is justifiable. Anything that can be done, must and will be done."
“And you agree with this, then?"
John felt he was about to fall into a trap the way the two Buckles were presently smirking at him, but continued on.
"I'm no priest, I haven’t even been a practicing Catholic in a long time, but I suppose that if you think something has great value to humanity, then measures should be taken to protect it. It's like evolution, or our animal nature, I guess. Live long enough to pass your genes or legacy or name or whatever on to the next generation; that's the basic point of life, right?"
"It is a well thought out argument," Al conceded smiling slightly once again. "However, when applied to this particular subject there is one problem; Jesus Christ. He willingly gave up His life for everyone else. He didn't preserve His own life at all costs. He didn't think that He, above all others, was too important to die. The example that He set, the essence of Christianity if you will, is sacrificing yourself in order to serve others more perfectly. Conquering the animal side of our nature and aspiring to a higher existence. What you propose is the exact opposite."
A silence passed over the table like a slow moving cloud. It fell to the apparent librarian to disperse it.
“Let me tell you the story of how I became a priest. I had already been a grandfather a long time before I decided to take the cloth. About fifteen years ago, I lost my wife of over thirty years to cancer. The kids grown, I had just retired a few years ago, and all of a sudden, my world was torn asunder. My whole future that I had planned for; to travel, rest, grow old and live out the rest of my days with the love of my life, all of it was gone. It shattered me.
“The only thing that got me through this dark time was the support and compassion I received, well, from my family, of course, but also from my parish and the local Knights of Columbus chapter, of which I was a member. They helped me so much that I eventually decided that all I wanted to do with my remaining days was to serve others. The best way to do this, it seemed to me, was to join the Church.
“Most seminaries do not accept new candidates of my age, so I came to Rome after hearing about a special program for people seeking a life transition like me. After completing my training, I was assigned to the library, cleaning and restoring old documents and artifacts.
"This is not what I had in mind, but I didn't get frustrated. I set myself to these humble tasks, and found other ways to help people. First, by setting up literacy programs and Bible readings, then by handing out food and other necessities once the civil unrest began.
"I soon found out there was another motive to my assignment. Prior to becoming a priest, I was a department head at The Bureau, or what you probably refer to as the FBI. I was given this post in the Vatican City so that I could work for the Holy See discretely as a researcher and consultant.
“This is not the life I had envisioned in the church, but I saw it as a chance to use my own unique skills to better serve God."
“So why help us now? I still don’t understand,” John impatiently cut in.
“They tried very hard to keep me in the dark about what exactly they were planning,” the priest went on, “but as more and more puzzle pieces fell into place one thing became clear to me; the Church leadership had become compromised.
"They are not being guided by Scripture or Church doctrine, but by the desire to maintain their place in the world. I have heard them brazenly say as much.
"The factions taking control of the Church are not concerned about what is happening to the people, nor preserving the teachings of Christ. It is clear to me that they are only interested in keeping their own influence and affluence in the turbulent times ahead. Once I determined all this, I knew that I was not serving the Lord by serving them."
"How did you become the head librarian of the library if you've haven't been a priest your whole life?" Genny asked, ever observant as she was curious.
"Only by default, Miss Buckles. As you two pointed out, there are very few people left in the Holy City. Anyone deemed useful for the future has been relocated. After I informed my handlers, to use a term from my previous life, that I wanted to do what I could for the people of the city and no longer had any interest in their special projects, I was informed that I could remain in the city and share in its fate if I so wished. I am the last employee, priest or otherwise, currently working in the Vatican Library."
John took a moment to consider the man's story. "This is making a lot of sense to me, and it took a lot less time and pretty language to get there than with the last priest."
Buster laughed at loud at this. "True words are rarely eloquent, eloquent words rarely true."
Genny, cutting through her father’s laughter, asked Father Al, "Who exactly is this Peter? Why is he still in Rome then? Why was it so important to find him?"
"The man you met tonight is Cardinal Petreus, commonly called Peter the Roman. He will be the next and most likely, last pope of Rome,” the good father stated gravely.
“Him? How? Why? What?” was all John could muster in reply.
“As he himself told you, the Church is relocating anything and anyone important outside of Italy. Benedict will soon step down. Although a pope has never done this before, they will say he is no longer able to fulfill the office due to health problems and he will be allowed to retire.”
“Why would he of all people agree to take the fall for the Church?”
“To men like Petreus, the gratification of their ego is all that matters. It is vanity to the greatest possible degree. He’s old, blind, knows that he’s near death. He covers for his masters and distracts attention away from them for a few months. In exchange, he gets to be the last Bishop of Rome, the lifetime citizen who stayed in the Eternal City as it fell around him. He will be a very famous man in history despite never really accomplishing anything much during his long, long life.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“The question is what are you going to do? I am going to continue to do what I came to Rome, what I joined the Church in the first place, to do. There are a lot of suffering people in this city. My mission to preach and practice the Way of the Christ will go on. I, like Old Pete, am too stubborn to change now.
"What I am also willing to do, however, is get you into the library.”