Read The Psalter Online

Authors: Galen Watson

Tags: #FICTION/Suspense, #FIC022060, #FICTION/Historical, #FICTION/Thriller, #FIC014000, #FICTION/Mystery and Detective/Historical, #FIC030000, #FIC031000

The Psalter

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The Psalter

Galen Watson

THE PSALTER
Copyright 2012 © by Galen Watson

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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To Susan, my wife, who was there at the beginning

For great is the value of deceit, provided it be not introduced with a mischievous intention. In fact action of this kind ought not to be called deceit, but rather a kind of good management, cleverness and skill, capable of finding out ways where resources fail, and making up for the defects of the mind.

—Saint John Chrysotom, Archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church

Prologue

Mike Romano slipped into the confessional. The screen behind the lattice grill slid open. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“For the love of God, Romano, not again.”

“Will you hear my confession, Father?”

“No.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you haven’t sinned. You didn’t sin yesterday or the day before, last week or last month, and you haven’t sinned today.”

“How do you know?

“I’m playing the odds.”

“I need absolution.”

“No, you don’t. You need some fun. Go have a beer, see a movie, take in a comedy show. Do some damn thing that’ll make you laugh.”

“It’s your job. You have to do it.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I absolve you from your imaginary sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Get lost.”

“That’s not right. It’s not the whole thing.”

The priest slammed the sliding screen shut.

1
Father Mackey

Father James Mackey exorcised the
should
or
shouldn’t
doubts from his mind. In their place, a simple Latin phrase whispered and made him shiver.
Alea iacta est
. Not from scripture or even pre-Vatican II mass. Just a few words uttered by Julius Caesar as he led his army across the Rubicon River, defying the Roman Senate and breaking the law.
The die has been cast
.

Clutching a floppy leather briefcase, he slipped from an apartment on the top floor of the Papal Palace and rushed down the long corridor. At the elevator, he inserted a key in the lock to call it up but decided to take the stairs instead. He exited next to the Post Office into the winter drizzle and pulled his overcoat together, leaning against the breeze-blown spray. Droplets stung his cheeks as he hurried past the Palace of Gregory XIII that housed the Secret Archives. He rounded the corner at the Hall of Bramante and trotted up wet stone steps to enter the Vatican Library.

A stooped, white-haired priest waited inside, hugging a rectangular bundle wrapped in wax paper. Father Mackey received the old priest’s outstretched hand, kissing his cardinal’s ring and the man’s sunken cheek. The elderly cleric spoke in an unsteady voice. “You’re taking a great risk. I beg you to reconsider.”

Mackey gazed into the cardinal’s eyes. “Surely, you of all people know why I must do this.”

Tears seeped into the aged priest’s rheumy gaze. “For once, I wish you could be less of a man, but then I wouldn’t love you as I do.”

Taking the bundle from the cardinal’s hands, Mackey lifted the edges of the wax paper and opened the cracked leather cover. “I don’t know how I missed this one.”

“It hid from us all in the Secret Archives. I knew I had seen it many years ago when I worked there,” the old man said with a smile, “but I couldn’t remember where.”

“How did you get it?”

“When you’ve reached my age, you have many friends; hopefully, more friends than enemies. I still have one or two in the Archives.”

Father Mackey folded the paper around the ancient book and stuffed it in the satchel-like briefcase. He touched the cardinal’s cheek with the palm of his hand and said softly, “Don’t wait up. I won’t be back tonight.”

Mackey hurried along the lane behind Saint Peter’s Basilica. A jogger approached, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled low. Father Mackey gripped the briefcase tighter and veered away. The runner followed. Mackey stopped dead in his tracks. “Christ, Romano. You scared me.”

“I’m just jogging. Can you talk?”

“I’ve got an appointment.”

“I’ll walk with you,” Romano said.

“No. Did you get that beer?”

“Not yet.”

“Don’t show your face again until you do.” Mackey took a few steps, stopped, and turned back. “Listen, Romano. Chafing under a heavy yoke is no sin. We all bristle from time to time”

“I’ve read things I shouldn’t have read. I feel like I should do something about it.”

“You didn’t write the words.”

“But I can’t forget them.”

“No one’s asking you to,” Father Mackey said.

“Are you sure? Why are they hidden?”

“Stop blaming yourself. And for pity’s sake, take the target off your back and people won’t shoot at you. I’ve got to go. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Father Mackey walked by the guard station manned by a lone officer of the Vatican State police. The officer nodded as he passed through the blue steel gate in the Leonine wall. Uniformed and plainclothes
Carabinieri
milled around the priests’ and employees’ entrance, chatting as they scanned the road. They paid no attention to the priest, although it was well after the hour when people entered or exited. Only a sergeant on duty gave the priest an odd look when he didn’t turn toward the city. Mackey avoided his eyes as he headed up the hill. Hardly anyone went that way, and certainly not at night.

Father Mackey passed long stretches along the isolated western wall where he could spot a tail. He reached the summit, turned on the
viale Vaticano
, and started down the rain-soaked road on the other side.

A black Mercedes Benz S600 with Vatican City license plates sat idling next to the ninth-century buttress that separated the gardens from the street. The priest stepped into the middle of the narrow road to get around the car, uncertain in leather-soled shoes that slipped on the drenched asphalt. The window of the Mercedes lowered as he passed, and a half-smoked cigarette fell to the ground.

The priest tried to hurry on the slick surface. He thought about crossing the street since there was no sidewalk next to the wall and drivers drove too fast down the grade. But at this hour, he hadn’t expected any cars, and his mind had blocked out everything except the package he carried. He edged closer to the massive barrier.

Mackey heard an engine rev and wheels spin. He turned to confront the car. The Mercedes fishtailed, gained traction and lurched forward. The side mirror slapped the sparse ivy that clung to the rock. The bumper scraped the stone blocks. Disbelief contorted the priest’s face. He forced his back against the unyielding wall as the speeding Mercedes slammed into him.

The impact launched Father Mackey’s body into the air. It hovered for a long moment, arms and legs contorted in unnatural shapes, then plummeted to the pavement with a sickening thump. The large sedan screeched to a stop. The wheels spun in reverse, and the car whined backwards. It stopped beside the crumpled body shrouded in a black overcoat. A dark-skinned man in blue jeans and an olive-colored jacket stepped out. He knelt over the broken priest whose dying hands clawed at the satchel.

A hundred meters up the road, a woman shrieked. The tall man holding her hand sprinted toward the accident. The killer glared at them for an instant, the corners of his lips curled in a sneer. He pried the leather satchel from the dying priest’s hands, slid into the driver’s seat, and stomped on the accelerator. He didn’t see the man pull a cell phone from his raincoat pocket and dial one-one-three. The Mercedes careened right at the
viale Dei Bastoni de Michelangelo
and raced into the
Piazza del Risorgimento
. The plaza was lined with palm trees and colorful apartment facades, and was deserted at a little after midnight. The driver skidded to a stop. He unfastened the briefcase and pulled out the bundle, ripping away the wax paper. One hand fished a piece of stationery from his jacket pocket while the other lifted the cracked leather cover. He compared precise handwritten notes with the first few words of the book’s ancient text. A gratified smile widened as he realized he had accomplished God’s mission.

His self-satisfaction turned to alarm as a siren blared. His eyes darted to blue flashing lights atop a Police Alfa Romeo racing for the
piazza
. The killer tossed the heavy book onto the passenger seat. He yanked the shifter into gear and raced out of the square, toward the center of Rome, the low-slung Alfa right behind.

The Alfa would be no match for the powerful Mercedes on the highway. But the ninety-degree turns every few hundred meters gave the Alfa Romeo, with its sharp turning radius and rapid acceleration, a definite advantage. Then again, the killer knew the route and the police did not. He had practiced for a week, calculating possible outcomes and memorizing the side streets that led to escape.

The whining blue and white Alpha lost ground on the Mercedes down a half-mile stretch of
via Cola di Rienzo
. They shot across the Tiber River on the
Regina Margherita
bridge. The assassin swerved left and the tail end slipped. He spun the wheel in the other direction, trying desperately to make the right on
Piazzale Flamino
. The Benz overshot and plowed into the opposite lane. It lost traction and hydroplaned sideways. The killer had scarcely an instant of horror to think,
oh God no
, as flashing yellow lights rocketed toward his face.

2
The Grand Inquisitor

A soft ringing chimed in the distance, then silence. Mike Romano tried to defend himself against the blows raining down on his small child’s face. He was paralyzed, unable to lift his arms to block the flying fists. He needed to run, escape. The electronic tone grew nearer. He willed himself to move with all his puny strength, but a heaviness held him frozen. The artificial bell insisted, tugging him from the hideous crone whose form blurred around the edges then dissolved into murky vapor.

Romano jerked into consciousness steeped in sweat. The green glow on his clock read two forty-nine a.m.
Who would telephone at this hour
, he wondered? “Hello,” he rasped.

“Father Romano?”

“Yes, this is Romano.” His voice awakened although his mind struggled to cast off the drowsy haze.

“Cardinal Keller calling.”

“You mean Keller’s office,” Romano said, rubbing an eye with his fist.

“No, Father. I am Cardinal Keller.”

Romano snapped to attention. Why would the Defender of the Faith be calling him? The Defender of the Faith was the modern name for the historic Grand Inquisitor. Many still called him that privately and fearfully. Tonight, in the wee hours, the Grand Inquisitor, a man Romano had never met, was on the telephone.
What had he done now
? he wondered.

Romano had run afoul of the Inquisition before. Two years, earlier he had published an interesting little tract, not his own words but those of a controversial medieval theologian, papal biographer and anti-pope, Anastasius. He had not even provided a commentary, only a brief foreword explaining his translation and a short biography of the author.

Romano had followed the rules to the letter. He sent the tract to the censor and was given the official
Nihil Obstat
proclaiming the contents free of doctrinal error. Then he received the
Imprimatur
declaring the text acceptable reading for Roman Catholics. Finally, the church issued the thin booklet an authorization to be published.

A few weeks after publication, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith revoked the
Imprimatur
. Romano appealed, but received no response. A month later, an ultimatum arrived by mail: either he withdrew the booklet or he would lose his job at the Archives. In the end, Romano submitted to the Inquisition.

Then there were the requests from various outside groups, especially Jewish organizations, that the archives of controversial wartime Pope Pius XII be opened to the public after he had been beatified, the third of four steps to sainthood. Romano, along with many activist priests, supported the openness...publicly. The Inquisition fumed that an administrator in the Secret Archives would take such a stance in opposition to the Vatican’s official one.

Anonymous Inquisitors had contacted Romano’s cardinal demanding that he change his position. He refused.
After all
, he reasoned,
priests were allowed opinions even if they didn’t agree with the authorized ones
. He heard nothing further.

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