God's Lions - House of Acerbi (6 page)

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
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Now that he was away, he had come to realize that this break from the politics at the Vatican had been good for him. He felt refreshed, both physically and spiritually, but the time had passed too quickly and he wished that he could spend a few more days alone, just reading next to the rushing water of the stream while the birds chirped mindlessly in the trees overhead.

He spent the final night of his short vacation sitting up late and writing in his journal before waking at three in the morning. Dressing quickly in a black polo shirt and tan slacks, he closed the front door of the palazzo and stared back at the house wistfully before jumping into his little car for the short trip back to Rome in the early morning darkness.

Arriving at the Vatican just before dawn, Leo showered in his small apartment and dressed in a black, floor length cassock edged with red piping. He then draped a scarlet, watered silk fascia around his waist and donned the signature red skull cap of a cardinal before looking into the mirror, but the reflection still seemed foreign to him. Despite the scarred left eyelid and blunted nose from his days on the boxing team in high school, he was having trouble recognizing the face staring back at him. It seemed as if time had made some sort of cosmic leap since the days when he had been a young college student at Georgetown—to the times when he had to use a fake ID when he went out drinking with his buddies and their manic Jesuit professor who enjoyed watching philosophic theological discussions turn into bar fights. Who would have thought—Leo Amodeo—a cardinal! The absurdity of his meteoric rise within the Church forced him to smile as he hurried from his apartment and out into the city for coffee and a bite to eat at his favorite
trattoria
.

Now, as the sun rose higher, the cardinal breathed in deeply before lifting his tall frame from a reed-backed chair. Tossing a generous tip on the outdoor table, he walked out into the empty
piazza
, moving over the smooth cobblestones until he came to a covered wooden produce cart and stopped to admire the fresh offerings of a street vendor.

“Your vegetables look beautiful today,” Leo said.

“Thank you, Your Eminence.” The normally talkative vendor cast his eyes down at the ground. He seemed quiet and withdrawn, as did the other vendors nearby, who stood clumped together in groups, casting furtive glances and talking in whispers.

Leo studied the odd scene momentarily before crossing the
piazza
and entering an alley-like side street still trapped in early morning shadows. The torrential rain storms of the past few days permeated the air with the smell of damp earth as his robes brushed the cool pavement and he continued along the narrow street lined with pastel-colored shops.

Stepping from a doorway, a local baker blocked Leo’s path. His eyes darted from side to side and his hands seemed to tremble as the frightened-looking man practically begged the cardinal to say a prayer for his family.

“Is everyone well at your house, Signore?”

“For now, Cardinal.”

The baker then turned and rushed back into his small
panetteria
without making the usual small talk required in polite Italian society, especially when speaking to a Roman Catholic Cardinal. Looking out from his bakery, the man quickly closed his door.

By now, alarm bells were going off in Leo’s head.
Something was definitely wrong
. He started to follow the baker into his shop before changing his mind after he realized his questions would be better answered at the Vatican. For the past week, he had been totally out of touch with the world, and in that short period of time something had changed—people seemed frightened. He backed away and headed up a slight incline until he reached the spot where he had parked his bright red Vespa motor scooter.

Swinging his tall frame onto the small seat, Leo ran his fingers through his long, gray-streaked black hair and pressed his red skull cap down tightly over his head. With the flick of a switch, the tiny motor came to life and the scooter jerked around the corner and up the
Via Del Coronari
. Gathering speed, the cardinal’s long black cassock billowed in the wind as he glanced up at a second story window and waved to a smiling group of children who had become accustomed to seeing a Roman Catholic Cardinal speeding through the streets on a small red motorbike.
At least the children were smiling today,
Leo thought.

The rapidly warming air brushed Leo’s face as he approached the river Tiber and sped over the
Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II.
Weaving his scooter through the sparse traffic, he looked to his right and spotted the imposing structure of the
Castel Sant’ Angelo
. He lifted his eyes for just a second, focusing on the ancient castle’s summit and the enormous bronze statue of the Archangel Michael, frozen in the act of sheathing his sword with his right hand. The cardinal murmured a silent prayer. It was the same prayer he always offered when he passed the image of the very angel who had protected him and his friends the year before. Turning his attention back to the street, he quickly swerved to avoid a collision with a slower moving vehicle. Shaking off the momentary rush of adrenaline, he leaned to the left and shot up the
Via Della Conciliazione
toward the Vatican.

Whizzing around the outskirts of Saint Peter’s Square, Leo approached two thick arches that served as an entrance into the Vatican from the
Via Di Porta Angelica.
Speeding through the ancient portal, he brought the scooter to a stop in his personal parking space next to his car.

Walking out into the sunshine, Leo paused for a moment and peered through Bernini’s columns at the world’s largest church. Conceived by Michelangelo, the immense Renaissance structure was one of the most pictured sites in the world. Between Leo and the church lay the
Piazza Di San Pietro
, the Square of Saint Peter. For centuries, the stones of the square have covered the ruins of one of ancient Rome’s most notorious sites—the Circus of Nero, where the first organized and state-sponsored martyrdoms of Christians occurred in AD 65. It was also on this spot where, two years later, Saint Peter, along with thousands of other Christians, shared the same fate.

Walking out into the large square, Leo realized the scene here was also odd. The famous square, usually overflowing with people this time of day, was strangely quiet. In fact, the place looked deserted. On any normal day he would have been besieged by throngs of tourists who wanted their picture taken with the famous cardinal whose face had appeared on the cover of almost every newspaper and magazine in the world for the past year. But today it was as if the whole world was taking a nap, and the Swiss Guards, who were usually forced to come to his rescue when he was swarmed by admiring visitors, stood frozen at their posts with grim-looking expressions clouding their faces.

“I see you are back, Cardinal,” a familiar voice called out behind him.

Leo smiled as he turned to see a pudgy, red-headed bishop walking in his direction.

“Good morning, Anthony.”

Leo noticed that Bishop Anthony Morelli’s signature smile was absent as he glanced around the square and stopped to catch his breath.

“Thank God I found you, Leo. I’ve been calling your apartment all morning. You need to come with me ... right away.”

“What’s up, Anthony?”

“I’m afraid your normal schedule has been cancelled today, Cardinal. We have an urgent meeting with the pope ... and we’re running late.” Morelli looked around once more before taking Leo by the arm and leading him in the direction of the Apostolic Palace.

“The Pope?”

Morelli looked down at the ground and continued leading Leo. “There’s been an incident.”

“An incident? What kind of
incident
?”

“I don’t want to discuss it here, Leo.”

“Who else is going to be at this meeting?”

“There will be one other. Now come ... we must hurry.”

Leo stopped and squinted in the bright sunlight as he raised his head and let his eyes follow the curved outline of Bernini’s colonnade and its 284 columns supporting 162 immense statues of saints. The silent marble images seemed to be studying him, as if they were wondering if this new Prince of the Church would one day join their ranks.

“I’m not taking another step until I know who’s going to be at this meeting.”

Morelli turned, exasperation showing on his face.

“An old friend ... Lev Wasserman. He just arrived from Israel this morning on a private jet. Really, Leo ... we must go.”

Passing under the colonnade, Morelli avoided a group of nuns walking with their heads down as he led the cardinal across the
San Damaso
courtyard and passed through the guarded doorway into the Apostolic Palace. From there, two silent men in dark blue suits accompanied them down a side hall until they reached the darkened alcove that concealed the pope’s private elevator.

Leo folded his arms and looked straight ahead as he waited for the gleaming metal doors to slide open. “This is just a wild guess, Bishop, but since Lev’s involved, I’m thinking this meeting has something to do with the code.”

The elevator doors slid open and the two men stepped inside.

Morelli turned to face his friend. “The code is involved ... yes ... but ...”

“But what, Anthony?”

“You’re not going to like it, Cardinal.”

CHAPTER 5

Sarah Adams awakened to a constant beeping sound that seemed to match the rhythmic beat of her heart. Bags of clear liquid appeared to be floating above her head, while moving shadows could be seen beyond the thin, gossamer-like curtains that separated her from whatever lay beyond.

When she inhaled, the machine beside her gasped with escaping air, and she was thirsty, desperately thirsty, as if she had been walking in the desert for days without water. Her nose itched, but when she moved to touch her face she found that her hands seemed trapped.
They were tied
! Her eyes widened with fear as she struggled against the restraints holding her in place.
Where in the hell was she!

A soft, female voice at the foot of her bed called out to the moving figures on the other side of the curtains. “She’s waking up, Doctor.”

Sarah strained to lift her head, but it was no use. She twisted and turned until finally, the face of a young woman appeared nearby, and she could hear a voice that seemed muted and far away. “It’s ok, Sarah. You’re in the hospital, sweetie. You’ve been very sick.”

Sarah felt a cool, damp cloth press against her forehead as the nurse wiped away the beads of sweat threatening to roll down into her eyes. Something was pressing against her lips and running down inside her throat, making it impossible for her to talk. Her terror-filled eyes darted about the room, prompting the nurse to move in closer and give Sarah’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “There’s a tube in your throat that goes down into your lungs. You’re on a breathing machine. Don’t try to talk right now ... it will only make your throat hurt worse. Try to relax. Hopefully, we can take the tube out later today if you continue to improve. You’re our miracle girl, Sarah.”

For the first time, Sarah realized that she wasn’t seeing an entire face, that the nurse’s blue eyes were all that were visible over the top of the yellow surgical mask stretched across her nose. In addition to the mask, her hands were clad in purple-colored surgical gloves, and her light blue scrubs were covered by a yellow paper gown, signaling to Sarah that her caregivers were being cautious—cautious of coming into contact with something—
something
that had already come into contact with
her
. Frantically, Sarah tried to think, but she remembered nothing.

From the other side of the curtains, gowned and gloved medical personnel flowed in and out of her room as a very tired-looking doctor moved to the head of her bed. Her vision blurred in and out of focus, but with some effort, she was able to tell by the way the doctor’s skin crinkled at the corners of his eyes that he seemed to be smiling.
Always a good sign when you were looking up from a hospital bed.

“Good morning, Miss Adams.”

Sarah could only nod her head as she watched the doctor warm his stethoscope with his gloved hand before gently placing it against her skin. He closed his eyes briefly as he listened to the air rushing in and out of her lungs. The day before he had heard the sounds of rhonchi, the sonorous indication of fluid trapped in the larger airways of the lungs. Today, only the clear rush of air filled the doctor’s ears as he opened his eyes and glanced over at the nurse standing across from him. “You’re right. Her lungs sound much better today. Let’s plan on weaning her from the ventilator and getting that tube out this afternoon. I think we’ll be able to move her out of ICU to the medical floor tomorrow if all goes well.”

The doctor then shifted his attention back to Sarah. “You’ve been through quite an ordeal, but you’re getting better. We’ll talk more after you get that tube out of your throat this afternoon.” With that, the doctor stripped off his gloves and yellow gown before stepping outside her room. Sarah could hear him talking in hushed tones to the nurse on the other side of the curtain.

“That’s one tough girl. Did you know she survived an airplane crash in the Mediterranean last year?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She was involved with that group that discovered the code in the Bible.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Don’t know. I think she’s a flight attendant or something. She’s still young ... I’d really like to see her make it. Has anyone notified her family?”

“Her father called. He’s a pilot for a rich oil man in Texas, but all of the airports in New York are closed right now. We’re keeping him informed by phone.”

The voices faded away as Sarah drifted back to sleep. Outside her room, the doctor crossed the hall, where he would don another yellow gown before seeing his next patient, one not doing as well as Sarah.

Yellow was the international medical color of isolation. From the yellow isolation cart parked outside Sarah’s ICU room, to the masks and gowns worn by the doctors and nurses, the color yellow was a warning to all who entered that the patient was the repository of something contagious. Beyond the curtains lay an invisible, lethal entity that appeared to be viral in nature, and whatever it was, it was proving to be extremely virulent.

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
8.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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