God's Lions - House of Acerbi (5 page)

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
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Tall buildings loomed overhead as the train reached the East River and made a final downward plunge into the tunnel that ran beneath its dark, frigid water. From the openness of the countryside into the claustrophobic dinginess of the underground world beneath the city, the train began to slow as it clattered toward mid-town Manhattan and finally screeched to a stop alongside a brightly-lit platform in one of the busiest rail stations in the world—New York’s Penn Station.

Located below Madison Square Garden, beneath the uninspired and unimaginative glass and steel office tower known as Pennsylvania Plaza, Penn Station was a gigantic subterranean railway hub that connected with the New York City subway system and served almost 600,000 passengers a day at a rate of up to a thousand every 90 seconds. These incredible numbers made Penn Station
the
single busiest passenger transportation facility in North America.

Amid the din of constant arrivals and departures, Sarah exited her train and walked down a flight of grimy concrete stairs to the subway platform below. There, she would wait for the subway train that would whisk her to her final stop fifteen blocks away.

As a casual observer of all things beautiful, Sarah winced as she looked around at her drab surroundings. Closing her eyes, she thought back to what had happened here in the past. She knew that this space had once been the site of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and that its senseless destruction fifty years earlier had been the catalyst for the entire architectural preservation movement that had sprung up all across America.

Before the present, modernist-inspired station was built in the 1960’s, this space had once been home to a much grander Pennsylvania Station. The original structure had been a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture and had been heralded around the world as one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. Built in 1910 of pink granite and surrounded by a colonnade of Corinthian columns, the spectacular building was a breathtaking, monumental entrance to New York City.

Its massive waiting area was approximately the same size as the nave in Saint Peter’s Basilica and was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. The grand station encompassed one of the largest public spaces in the world, covering more than 7 acres, and to build such a magnificent structure today would cost in excess of 2.5 billion dollars.

Of course, in all its corporate wisdom, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided that, in an effort to save money on upkeep and thus make more profit, the stunning fifty-year-old building, designed by some of the most famous architects in the world, should be torn down and replaced with a more modern structure. When it finally fell to the wrecker’s ball in 1963 amid widespread international protest, the public labeled its demise as a monumental act of corporate vandalism. With the knowledge that something irreplaceable had vanished from the land, a revolted nation was quickly united into action against the demolition of other historic structures throughout the country.

Sarah was at least buoyed by the fact that the horrific destruction of the old Penn Station had stopped the demolition of another beautiful New York City landmark, Grand Central Station, but it had taken a huge court battle against a major corporation to accomplish it. Just like the stunning Baths of Caracalla that had stood for over four centuries before being destroyed by the Barbarians, modern corporate barbarians had erased one of the most beautiful buildings on earth only fifty years after it had been built—a fact not lost on modern New Yorkers and others across America who were watching their architectural history collapse into piles of rubble on a daily basis.

Bringing her thoughts back to the present, Sarah positioned herself next to a blue and white graffiti-covered pillar and watched her fellow commuters as they began filling the concrete platform. Scanning the growing crowd, Sarah noticed a brightly-colored food cart advertising samples of whole wheat crackers made from organically grown wheat. Obviously, one of her advertising competitors had secured permission from the transit authority to use a public subway platform filled with commuters to introduce a new product to the public.
Not a bad idea.
In all likelihood, most of her fellow commuters had rushed from their homes without eating, and this location at this time of day was the perfect choice for launching a new brand to a swelling crowd of bored and hungry people.

Taking one of the samples, Sarah munched on the salty treat as her eyes drifted over the crowd and settled on a man with jerky dark eyes and a scraggly black beard. The man was wearing a wrinkled white dress shirt and gray slacks that were one size too large, making it necessary for him to cinch them up with a thin, black, patent leather belt. His nervous demeanor, along with his just-off-the-boat choice of clothing, marked him as a recent immigrant—except for the shoes.

Sarah’s advertising firm had just finished doing an ad campaign for a famous designer brand of Italian leather dress shoes. Sarah had even purchased a pair for her father as a birthday present, and she knew they weren’t cheap. As she stood next to the pillar, munching on a cracker and wondering how a man who dressed so poorly could afford to buy a pair of shoes like that, she noticed that he was standing right against the yellow line painted at the edge of the platform. Looking closer, she noticed that his eyes were darting quickly back and forth as he kept looking up and down the track, then down at his watch, then back at the track.

Maybe he was just late for an appointment,
Sarah thought.

The bouncing headlight of a distant train approaching from the darkness of the tunnel caused Sarah to look away for a moment before turning her attention back to the man on the platform. Right away she noticed that his dark eyes were darting about even more feverishly than before as he looked over his shoulder and scanned the crowd before inching forward past the yellow line and stepping right against the concrete edge of the platform.
Oh, God ... was this guy a jumper?

With the sound of the approaching train now filling the station, the man withdrew a small canister from his pocket. To Sarah, the object resembled the silvery glass liner of a thermos bottle, and as the man clutched the shiny cylinder tightly to his chest, he appeared to be mumbling something to himself as he looked down the track before fixing his eyes on the approaching train.

Against the sound of screeching brakes, the train entered the station in a blur of speed and light, but before the front of the train passed the spot where the man was standing, he reached out and tossed the cylinder onto the tracks. The faint pop of glass breaking under pressure preceded a white, dust-filled cloud that swirled off the tracks just as the push of air from the arriving train blew it over the platform and through the tunnel ahead.

Sarah was jolted by the sight.
Why did he do that?

With the threat of terrorism still deeply fixed in the minds of every New Yorker, Sarah looked on in horror as the hazy, vapor-like cloud of dust descended over the mass of people now crowding the platform. Due in part to the usual dirt and debris stirred up by arriving trains, no one except for Sarah seemed to notice the drifting, talcum-like powder that now entered the eyes, noses, and mouths of everyone around her, and as the tiny white particles floated down their throats and descended into the sponge-like cavities of their lungs, the fine powder triggered a brief cough reflex among those standing on the platform.

The substance fell like a dry rain, swirling under the glare of the florescent lights overhead until it came to rest on every surface—including the fibers of the clothing worn by the commuters as they stepped into the waiting subway car for their ride to the next station.

Sarah looked down at her coat in horror and began to frantically brush away the dust.
That only stirred it up more!
She glanced back up to see what had become of the man who had thrown the object.
He was gone!
Like a ghost, he had disappeared into the crowd, and like the lingering aroma of a strong perfume, the strange powder-like residue was all that remained of his visit.

Instinctively, Sarah knew she was in trouble—that everyone around her was in trouble.
But how would she tell them?
She couldn’t just go running through the crowd like a crazy woman, yelling and screaming that she thought they were all going to die from a cloud of white powder that came from a mysterious bearded man. Or could she?
Maybe that’s exactly what she should do
.

Sarah stood frozen on the platform, not knowing what to do next as people flooded into the waiting train. With a sudden hiss of air, the doors closed and the train moved away from the platform, leaving a shaken and bewildered Sarah Adams alone and shivering in the now empty station as the mysterious white powder was sucked along with the train into the subway system below the streets of New York City. By all appearances, it seemed that Penn Station was about to undergo its second great catastrophe.

CHAPTER 4

From his vantage point beneath the rust-colored umbrella that shaded his outdoor table, Cardinal Leopold Amodeo sipped coffee from a small porcelain cup and gazed across Rome’s
Piazza Navona
. Something about the scene wasn’t quite right. This area of town, usually filled to capacity at this time of day, was strangely void of the camera-encrusted tourists trying to capture the beauty of Bernini’s fountain in a digital image that did little to convey the noise and sights and smells of one of Rome’s most famous
piazzas
.

The cardinal’s intelligent green eyes squinted in the early morning sunlight as he clicked through a mental checklist of the day’s appointments and finished a hot
cornetto
, the Italian version of a croissant. Placing his napkin on the white linen tablecloth, he looked around at all the vacant tables nearby.
Was today some kind of holiday he had forgotten about?

Cardinal Leopold—or
Leo
, the name his friends used—had just returned from a week of much needed solitude at Bishop Anthony Morelli’s country estate south of Rome. The two men were close friends and had known each other since they had studied together at Georgetown University back in the 1970’s. Following graduation, both men had been accepted to the same Jesuit seminary in Maryland, at a time when becoming a priest made every mother proud and people looked upon the man behind the Roman collar with deference and respect.

Although all Jesuit priests took vows of poverty, Leo, along with almost everyone else at the Vatican, was privy to the fact that Morelli had made a small fortune in the stock market. In view of this fact, most of the bishop’s money went to charity, but the pope had allowed Morelli to keep two luxuries for himself—a beautiful
palazzo
in the country and his beloved, bright red BMW two-seat sports car. This rare papal dispensation was due in part because of Morelli’s generous donations to the Church and his vital role as the Vatican’s Chief of Archaeology, but others knew that the pope also believed in rewarding those who served him well.

After months of watching Leo go about his new duties as a cardinal without stopping to take a day off, Morelli had insisted that his good friend spend a week alone at his country estate. The offer came with the caveat that the Cardinal would receive no communication from the outside world. At first, Leo balked at the idea of a vacation, but after a month of continual pestering from Morelli that resulted in a papal command, he finally accepted the fact that a short sabbatical might be in order.

After the decision had been made for him, Leo had begun to look forward to some time away from his tedious administrative duties, and that time had arrived the week before on a bright Sunday morning. After presiding over an early mass in one of the basilica’s side chapels, Leo had returned to his small Vatican apartment and changed into a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt before making his way downstairs to his tiny white Fiat. Within minutes, the dome of Saint Peter’s had faded in his rear-view mirror as he sped through the maze of heavy traffic on Rome’s narrow side streets. An hour later, he had found himself all alone, motoring along a quiet, twisting road in the valley below the ancient hilltop town of
Sermoneta
.

Turning into the shaded tree-lined driveway that led to Morelli’s seventeenth-century house, Leo gazed up at an immense reddish-colored structure that was the size of a small
palazzo
. Fronted by a gravel driveway that circled a four-hundred-year-old fountain topped with a weathered statue of an angel, the house had been built among the ruins of the medieval village of
Ninfa
during the Renaissance. The family who had once owned the property had converted the entire area into lush gardens fed by clear streams that ran throughout grounds surrounded by crumbling ruins.

Stepping from his small car, Leo spotted the burned remains of a medieval tower to his left. The sight brought back memories of events that had transpired here the year before. He paused, staring at the tower and breathing in the fresh country air before grabbing his backpack from the trunk and making his way inside.

For the next week, Leo had swum in the pool, read, and walked alone in the lush gardens. He had sat among the flowers next to the bank of a wide and shallow stream, thinking of nothing in particular while he watched the crystalline mountain water flowing over green, moss-covered rocks.

This luxurious time spent alone was a precious reminder of how little time he had to himself now that he had inherited the title of
Cardinal
. A year earlier, he had been quite satisfied with his role as a Jesuit priest who taught history at Boston College, and he had begun to miss his students and the intellectual give and take of the wine-lubricated philosophical discussions that ran late into the night at a local pub.

In the twelve short months since the pope had made him a cardinal and transferred him to Rome, Leo’s life had changed dramatically. His workload had increased ten-fold, but it was not the sort of academic work he preferred. Instead, his new position as a Prince of the Church consisted of endless meetings and bureaucratic details, not to mention the constant demand for him to attend various ceremonies and church functions.

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
4.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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