Authors: Daniel Silva
Donati added, the Order of St. Helena had been trouble from the beginningâthe year of our Lord 1928, the midpoint between the end of the first world war and the beginning of the second, a time of great social and political upheaval and uncertainty over the future. In the southern German state of Bavaria, an obscure priest named Father Ulrich Schiller came to believe that only Roman Catholicism, in partnership with monarchs and political leaders from the extreme right, could save Europe from the godless Bolsheviks. He established his first seminary in the town of Bergen in Upper Bavaria and quietly recruited a network of like-minded political leaders and businessmen that stretched westward to Spain and Portugal and eastward to the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The
lay membership of the Order soon dwarfed its priestly cast and was the true source of its power and influence. The names were kept secret. Inside the Order, only Father Schiller had access to the directory.
“It was a leather-bound ledger,” said Donati. “Quite beautiful, apparently. Father Schiller entered the names himself, along
with the secret contact information. Each member was assigned a number and swore an oath, not to the Church but to the Order.
It was all very political and quasi-military. The Order wasn't terribly concerned with doctrine during those early years.
They saw themselves first and foremost as holy warriors, prepared to do battle with the enemies of Christ and Roman Catholicism.”
“What was the origin of the name?”
“Father Schiller made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early twenties. He prayed for hours on end in the Garden of Gethsemane
and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It's built on the site where Helena, the mother of Constantine, was said to have found
the exact spot where Jesus was crucified and buried.”
“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel. “I happen to live not far from there.”
“Forgive me,” replied Donati.
Father Schiller, he continued, was obsessed with the Crucifixion. He flogged himself daily, and during the holy season of
Lent, he pierced his palms with a nail and slept wearing a crown of thorns. His devotion to the memory of Christ's suffering
and death went hand in hand with his hatred of Jews, whom he viewed as the murderers of God.
“We're not talking about doctrinal anti-Judaism. Father
Schiller was a rabid anti-Semite. Even during the earliest years of the Zionist movement, he was alarmed by the prospect of Jews controlling the sacred Christian sites of Jerusalem.”
It was only natural, Donati resumed, that a man such as Father Schiller would find common cause with the Austrian corporal
who seized power in Germany in 1933. Father Schiller was not an ordinary member of the Nazi party; he wore a coveted golden
party badge. In his 1936 book
The Doctrine of National Socialism
, he argued that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis offered the surest path to a Christian Europe. Hitler read the book and admired
it greatly. He kept a copy at his mountain retreat in the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden. During a contentious meeting with
the archbishop of Munich, he cited Father Schiller's book as proof that Catholics and Nazis could work together to defend
Germany against the Bolsheviks and the Jews.
“Hitler once remarked to Father Schiller that when it came to the Jews, he was merely carrying out the same policy the Church
had adopted fifteen hundred years earlier. Father Schiller did not dispute Hitler's interpretation of Catholic history.”
“Do I have to ask how the Order conducted itself during the war?”
“I'm afraid it remained loyal to Hitler even after it became clear he was determined to murder every last Jew in Europe. Priests from the Order traveled with SS Einsatzgruppen units in the Baltics and the Ukraine and granted the murderers absolution each night when the killing was done. French members of the Order sided with Vichy, and in Italy they supported Mussolini to the bitter end. The Order also had ties to the clerical
fascists in Slovakia and Croatia. The conduct of those two regimes is an indelible stain on the history of the Church.”
“And when the war was over?”
“A new war began. A global contest between the West and the godless Soviet Union. Father Schiller and the Order were suddenly
very much in vogue.”
With the tacit approval of Pope Pius XII, Schiller helped dozens of fugitive German and Croatian war criminals escape to South
America, which the Order regarded as the next battlefield in the war between Christianity and communism. Funded by the Vatican,
it established a network of seminaries and schools throughout Latin America and recruited thousands of new lay membersâmainly
wealthy landowners, soldiers, and secret policemen. During the dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s, the Order once again sided
with the murderers rather than the victims.
“In 1987, the year of Father Schiller's death, the Order was at the zenith of its power. It had at least fifty thousand lay
members, a thousand ordained priests, and another thousand diocesan clergy who were members of something called the Priestly
Society of the Order of St. Helena. When Lucchesi and I moved into the Apostolic Palace, they were among the most influential
forces within the Church.”
“What did you do?”
“We clipped their wings.”
“How did they react?”
“Exactly as you would expect. Bishop Hans Richter loathed my master. Almost as much as he loathes me.”
“Is Richter German?”
“Austrian, actually. So is Father Graf. He's Bishop Richter's private secretary, acolyte, and personal bodyguard. He carries a gun whenever the bishop is in public. I'm told he knows how to use it.”
“I'll keep that in mind.” Gabriel showed Donati the photograph he snapped when they were lunching at Piperno in Rome.
“That's him. He must have followed me from the Jesuit Curia.”
“Where might I find him?”
“You're not to go anywhere near him. Or Bishop Richter.”
“Hypothetically,” said Gabriel.
“Richter divides his time between his palazzo on the Janiculum Hill and the Order's headquarters in the village of Menzingen
in Canton Zug. The Order relocated there in the 1980s. In case you're wondering, the bishop does not travel commercially.
The Order of St. Helena is extraordinarily wealthy. He has a private jet at his disposal twenty-four hours a day.”
“Who owns it?”
“A secret benefactor. The man behind the curtain. At least that's the rumor.” Donati took up the Holy Father's letter. “I
only wish my master had told you the name of the book.”
“Are you familiar with the
Donati nodded slowly.
“Would you be able to find it?”
“That would require gaining access to the Manuscript Depository, no easy feat. After all, they're called the Secret Archives
for a reason.” Donati looked at the composite sketch of the man who had questioned Stefani Hoffmann. “You know, Gabriel, you
really should consider taking up painting for a living.”
“Is he a member of the Order?”
“If he is, he isn't a priest.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because the Order would never send one of their priests to question someone like Stefani Hoffmann.”
“Who would they send?”
At five o'clock
the following morning, Bishop Hans Richter was awakened by a gentle knock at his door. A moment later a youthful seminarian
entered the room bearing a tray of coffee and a stack of newspapers. The boy placed the tray at the edge of the bed and, receiving
no additional instructions, withdrew.
Richter sat up and poured a cup of coffee from the ornate silver decanter. After adding sugar and steamed milk, he reached
for the newspapers. His spirits sank as he opened
. The news from Florence was splashed across the front page. It was obvious the vague statement issued by the Sala Stampa had not played wellâespecially with Alessandro Ricci, the paper's star investigative reporter and author of a best-selling book about the Order. Ricci saw evidence of a conspiracy. Then
again, he usually did. Still, there was no denying that Niklaus Janson's death was a disaster, one with the potential to threaten Richter's ambitions at the coming conclave.
He turned to the papers from Germany. They were filled with stories and photographs from the market bombing in Hamburg. The
embattled German chancellor had ordered antiterrorist police to stand guard outside all major rail stations, airports, government
buildings, and foreign embassies. Even so, Germany's interior minister had predicted that another attack was likely, probably
within the coming days. A new opinion poll showed a sudden surge in support for Axel BrÃ¼nner and his anti-immigrant National
Democrats. BrÃ¼nner and the chancellor were now locked in a statistical dead heat.
Richter set aside the newspapers and rose from his canopied Biedermeier bed. His apartment was three thousand square meters,
larger than any of the Vatican lodgings occupied by the most senior princes of the Church. The rest of the room's luxurious
furnishingsâthe chest of drawers, the armoire, the writing desk, the occasional tables and framed mirrorsâwere resplendent
Biedermeier antiques as well. The paintings were all Italian and Dutch Old Masters, including works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt,
Van Eyck, and Van der Weyden. They were but a small portion of the Order's massive collection, most of which had been acquired
for investment purposes. The collection was hidden in a vault beneath the Paradeplatz in downtown Zurich, along with much
of Bishop Richter's vast personal fortune.
He entered his luxurious bathroom complex. It featured a shower with four heads, a large Jacuzzi, a steam room, a sauna, and a built-in audiovisual system. To the accompaniment of
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, he bathed and shaved and moved his bowels. Afterward, he dressed not in his usual magenta-trimmed cassock but in a tailored business suit. Then he pulled on an overcoat and a scarf and headed downstairs.
Father Graf was waiting outside in the forecourt next to an elegant Mercedes-Maybach limousine. He was a trim, athletic priest
of forty-two, with an angular face, neatly combed blond hair, and bright blue eyes. Like Bishop Richter, he was of noble Austrian
descent. Indeed, the blood that flowed through both their veins was midnight blue. He, too, was dressed in business rather
than clerical attire. He looked up from his mobile phone as Richter approached and in German bade him a pleasant morning.
The rear door of the Maybach was open. Richter slid into the backseat. Father Graf joined him. The car passed through the
Order's formidable stone-and-steel security gate and turned into the street. The umbrella pines were silhouettes in the first
sienna light of dawn. Richter thought it was almost beautiful.
Father Graf was staring at his phone again.
“Anything interesting in the news this morning?” asked Richter.
“The Polizia di Stato released the identity of the young man who was shot to death in Florence.”
“Anyone we know?”
The priest looked up. “Do you know what would have happened if Niklaus had crossed that bridge?”
“He would have given Pope Accidental's letter to Gabriel Allon.” Richter paused. “All the more reason why you should have
removed it from the papal study.”
“It was Albanese's job. Not mine.”
Richter frowned. “He is a cardinal and a member of the Order, Markus. Try to show him at least a modicum of respect.”
“If it wasn't for the Church, he'd be a bricklayer.”
Richter examined his reflection in the vanity mirror. “The bricklayer's
has bought us some valuable breathing room. But it is only a matter of time before the press find out where Niklaus was working
the night of the Holy Father's death, and that he was a member of the Order.”
“In six days, it won't matter.”
“Six days is an eternity. Especially for a man like Gabriel Allon.”
“At the moment, I'm more worried about our old friend Alessandro Ricci.”
“As am I. His sources inside the Curia are impeccable. You can be sure our enemies are talking to him.”
“Perhaps I should have a word with him, too.”
“Not yet, Markus. But in the meantime, keep an eye on him.” Richter looked out his window and frowned. “My God, this city
really is atrocious.”
“It will be different after we take power, Excellency.”
Indeed, thought Bishop Richter. Much different.
The Order's Gulfstream G550 w
as waiting on the tarmac outside Signature Flight Support at Ciampino Airport. It delivered Bishop Richter and Father Graf to Salzburg, where they boarded an executive helicopter for the short flight across the German border. Andreas Estermann, a former German intelligence officer who served as the Order's chief of security
and operations, waited on the helipad of the compound outside Berchtesgaden, his gray-blond hair twisting in the wash of the rotors. He pressed his lips to the ring on Bishop Richter's proffered right hand, then gestured toward a waiting Mercedes sedan.
“We should hurry, Excellency. I'm afraid you're the last to arrive.”
The car bore them smoothly up the private valley to the chalet, a modern citadel of stone and glass set against the base of
the towering mountains. A dozen other vehicles lined the drive, watched over by a small battalion of armed security men. All
wore black ski jackets emblazoned with the logo of the Wolf Group, a Munich-based conglomerate.
Estermann escorted Bishop Richter and Father Graf inside and up a flight of stairs. To the left was an anteroom filled with
aides and dark-suited security men. Bishop Richter handed Father Graf his overcoat and followed Estermann into the great hall.
It was sixty feet by fifty, with a single enormous window gazing northward across the Obersalzberg. The walls were hung with
Gobelin tapestries and several oil paintings, including what appeared to be
Venus and Amor
by Bordone. A bust of Richard Wagner frowned at Richter from its perch atop a plinth. The longcase clock, which was crowned
by a heraldic Roman-style eagle, read nine o'clock. Richter, as usual, had arrived precisely on time.
He surveyed the others with a jaundiced eye. They were, without exception, an unappetizing lot, scoundrels and grifters, each and every one. But they were also a necessary evil, a means to an end. The laborites and secular social democrats were the
cause of Europe's calamitous plight. Only these creatures were prepared to undertake the hard work necessary to undo the damage of seventy-five years of postwar liberal twaddle.
There was, for example, Axel BrÃ¼nner. His fancy suit and rimless spectacles could not conceal the fact that he was a former
skinhead and street brawler whose only claim to fame was a distant blood relationship to the infamous Nazi who had rounded
up the Jews of Paris. He was chatting with CÃ©cile Leclerc, his comely counterpart from France, who had inherited her anti-immigrant
party from her father, a moron from Marseilles.
Richter felt a warm blast of coffee-scented breath and, turning, found himself shaking the oily paw of the Italian prime minister,
Giuseppe Saviano. The next hand he grasped was attached to Peter van der Meer, the platinum-haired, putty-skinned Catholic
from Amsterdam who had promised to rid his country of all Muslims by 2025, an admirable if entirely unattainable goal. JÃ¶rg
Kaufmann, the camera-ready Austrian chancellor, greeted Bishop Richter like an old friend, which he was. Richter had presided
over Kaufmann's baptism and First Communion, along with his recent wedding to Austria's most famous fashion model, a union
Richter approved with considerable misgivings.
Presiding over this menagerie was Jonas Wolf. He wore a heavy roll-neck sweater and flannel dress trousers. His silver mane
of hair was swept back from his face, which was dominated by a bird-of-prey nose. It was a face to be stamped on a coin, thought
Richter. Perhaps one day, when the Muslim invaders had been cast out and the Roman Catholic Church was once again ascendant,
it would be.
At five minutes past nine, Wolf took his place at the head of the
conference table, which had been placed near the soaring window. Andreas Estermann had been assigned the seat at Wolf's right hand; Bishop Richter, at his left. At the German's request, Richter led the assemblage in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
“And may you grant us the strength and determination to complete our sacred mission,” intoned Richter in conclusion. “We do
this in your name, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever.”
“Amen,” came the response along the table.
Jonas Wolf opened a leather folder. The conference was now in session.
The mountain peaks
were receding into darkness when Wolf finally gaveled the session to a close. A fire was lit, cocktails served. Richter, who
drank only room-temperature mineral water, somehow became entangled with CÃ©cile Leclerc, who insisted on addressing him in
her impenetrable French-accented German. Richter managed to decipher every fourth or fifth word, which was a blessing. Like
her father, CÃ©cile was no intellectual. Somehow she had managed to acquire a law degree from an elite Paris institution of
learning. Still, one could easily picture her behind the counter of a ProvenÃ§al
with a bloody apron around her ample waist.
Therefore, Richter was relieved when Jonas Wolf, perhaps sensing his discomfort, cut in like a dancer on a ballroom floor and asked whether they might have a word in private. Followed by Andreas Estermann, they walked through the unpopulated rooms of the chalet to Wolf's chapel. It was the size of a typical
parish church. The walls were hung with German and Dutch Old Master paintings. Above the altar was a magnificent
by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Wolf genuflected and then rose unsteadily to his feet. “All in all, a productive session, don't you think, Excellency?”
“I must admit, I was a bit distracted by Van der Meer's hair.”
Wolf nodded sympathetically. “I've spoken to him about it. He insists it's part of his branding.”
“It's a modern word used to describe one's image on social media.” Wolf gestured toward Estermann. “Andreas is our expert
on that sort of thing. He's convinced Van der Meer's hair is a political asset.”
“He looks like Kim Novak in
. And that ridiculous comb-over! How on earth does he maneuver it all into place?”
“Apparently, it takes a great deal of time and effort. He buys hair spray by the case. He's the only man in Holland who doesn't
go outside when it rains.”
“It conveys a sense of vanity and deep insecurity. Our candidates must be above reproach.”
“They can't all be as polished as JÃ¶rg Kaufmann. BrÃ¼nner has his problems, too. Fortunately, the bombings in Berlin and Hamburg
have given his campaign a badly needed boost.”
“The new polls are encouraging. But can he win?”
“If there is another attack,” said Wolf, “his victory will be all but assured.”
He sat down in the first pew. Richter joined him. There followed a companionable silence. Richter might have despaired of the rabble upstairs, but Jonas Wolf he truly admired. Wolf was one of the few men who had been a member of the Order
longer than Richter. He was its most prominent layman, a coâsuperior general in everything but name. For more than a decade, he and Richter had been engaged in a clandestine crusade to transform Western Europe and the Church of Rome. Sometimes even they were astounded by the speed with which they had succeeded. Italy and Austria were already theirs. Now the German Federal Chancellery was within their grasp, as was the Apostolic Palace. The seizure of power was nearly complete. Lesser men would serve as their public standard-bearers, but it would be Jonas Wolf and Bishop Hans Richter of the Order of St. Helena who would be whispering in their ears. They saw themselves in apocalyptic terms. Western civilization was dying. Only they could save it.
Andreas Estermann was the third member of their holy trinity. He was the Project's irreplaceable man. Estermann dispersed
the money, worked with the local parties to hone their platforms and recruit presentable candidates, and oversaw a network
of operatives drawn from Western European intelligence services and police forces. In a computer-filled warehouse outside
Munich, he had established an information warfare unit that flooded social media daily with false or misleading stories about
the threat posed by Muslim immigrants. Estermann's cyber unit also possessed the ability to hack phones and crack computer
networks, a capability that had produced mountains of invaluable compromising material.
At present, Estermann was pacing silently along the right side of the nave. Bishop Richter could see that something was troubling
him. It was Jonas Wolf who explained. The previous evening, Archbishop Donati and Gabriel Allon had traveled to Canton Fribourg,
where they had met with Stefani Hoffmann.