Kohler was sickened by the opulence of the Hallway of the Belvedere. The gold leaf in the ceiling alone probably could have funded a year’s worth of cancer research. Rocher led Kohler up a handicapped ramp on a circuitous route into the Apostolic Palace.
“No elevator?” Kohler demanded.
“No power.” Rocher motioned to the candles burning around them in the darkened building. “Part of our search tactic.”
“Tactics which no doubt failed.”
Kohler broke into another coughing fit and knew it might be one of his last. It was not an entirely unwelcome thought.
When they reached the top floor and started down the hallway toward the Pope’s office, four Swiss Guards ran toward them, looking troubled. “Captain, what are you doing up here? I thought this man had information that—”
“He will only speak to the camerlegno.”
The guards recoiled, looking suspicious.
“Tell the camerlegno,” Rocher said forcefully, “that the director of CERN, Maximilian Kohler, is here to see him. Immediately.”
“Yes, sir!” One of the guards ran off in the direction of the camerlegno’s office. The others stood their ground. They studied Rocher, looking uneasy. “Just one moment, captain. We will announce your guest.”
Kohler, however, did not stop. He turned sharply and maneuvered his chair around the sentinels.
The guards spun and broke into a jog beside him. “Fermati! Sir! Stop!”
Kohler felt repugnance for them. Not even the most elite security force in the world was immune to the pity everyone felt for cripples. Had Kohler been a healthy man, the guards would have tackled him. Cripples are powerless, Kohler thought. Or so the world believes.
Kohler knew he had very little time to accomplish what he had come for. He also knew he might die here tonight. He was surprised how little he cared. Death was a price he was ready to pay. He had endured too much in his life to have his work destroyed by someone like Camerlegno Ventresca.
“Signore! “the guards shouted, running ahead and forming a line across the hallway. “You must stop! “One of them pulled a sidearm and aimed it at Kohler.
Rocher stepped in, looking contrite. “Mr. Kohler, please. It will only be a moment. No one enters the Office of the Pope unannounced.”
Kohler could see in Rocher’s eyes that he had no choice but to wait. Fine, Kohler thought. We wait.
The guards, cruelly it seemed, had stopped Kohler next to a full‑length gilded mirror. The sight of his own twisted form repulsed Kohler. The ancient rage brimmed yet again to the surface. It empowered him. He was among the enemy now. These were the people who had robbed him of his dignity. These were the people. Because of them he had never felt the touch of a woman . . . had never stood tall to accept an award. What truth do these people possess? What proof, damn it! A book of ancient fables? Promises of miracles to come? Science creates miracles every day!
Kohler stared a moment into his own stony eyes. Tonight I may die at the hands of religion, he thought. But it will not be the first time.
For a moment, he was eleven years old again, lying in his bed in his parents’ Frankfurt mansion. The sheets beneath him were Europe’s finest linen, but they were soaked with sweat. Young Max felt like he was on fire, the pain wracking his body unimaginable. Kneeling beside his bed, where they had been for two days, were his mother and father. They were praying.
In the shadows stood three of Frankfurt’s best doctors.
“I urge you to reconsider!” one of the doctors said. “Look at the boy! His fever is increasing. He is in terrible pain. And danger!”
But Max knew his mother’s reply before she even said it. “Gott wird ihn beschuetzen.”
Yes, Max thought. God will protect me. The conviction in his mother’s voice gave him strength. God will protect me.
An hour later, Max felt like his whole body was being crushed beneath a car. He could not even breathe to cry.
“Your son is in great suffering,” another doctor said. “Let me at least ease his pain. I have in my bag a simple injection of—”
“Ruhe, bitte! “Max’s father silenced the doctor without ever opening his eyes. He simply kept praying.
“Father, please!” Max wanted to scream. “Let them stop the pain!” But his words were lost in a spasm of coughing.
An hour later, the pain had worsened.
“Your son could become paralyzed,” one of the doctors scolded. “Or even die! We have medicines that will help!”
Frau and Herr Kohler would not allow it. They did not believe in medicine. Who were they to interfere with God’s master plan? They prayed harder. After all, God had blessed them with this boy, why would God take the child away? His mother whispered to Max to be strong. She explained that God was testing him . . . like the Bible story of Abraham . . . a test of his faith.
Max tried to have faith, but the pain was excruciating.
“I cannot watch this!” one of the doctors finally said, running from the room.
By dawn, Max was barely conscious. Every muscle in his body spasmed in agony. Where is Jesus? he wondered. Doesn’t he love me? Max felt the life slipping from his body.
His mother had fallen asleep at the bedside, her hands still clasped over him. Max’s father stood across the room at the window staring out at the dawn. He seemed to be in a trance. Max could hear the low mumble of his ceaseless prayers for mercy.
It was then that Max sensed the figure hovering over him. An angel? Max could barely see. His eyes were swollen shut. The figure whispered in his ear, but it was not the voice of an angel. Max recognized it as one of the doctors . . . the one who had sat in the corner for two days, never leaving, begging Max’s parents to let him administer some new drug from England.
“I will never forgive myself,” the doctor whispered, “if I do not do this.” Then the doctor gently took Max’s frail arm. “I wish I had done it sooner.”
Max felt a tiny prick in his arm—barely discernible through the pain.
Then the doctor quietly packed his things. Before he left, he put a hand on Max’s forehead. “This will save your life. I have great faith in the power of medicine.”
Within minutes, Max felt as if some sort of magic spirit were flowing through his veins. The warmth spread through his body numbing his pain. Finally, for the first time in days, Max slept.
When the fever broke, his mother and father proclaimed a miracle of God. But when it became evident that their son was crippled, they became despondent. They wheeled their son into the church and begged the priest for counseling.
“It was only by the grace of God,” the priest told them, “that this boy survived.”
Max listened, saying nothing.
“But our son cannot walk!” Frau Kohler was weeping.
The priest nodded sadly. “Yes. It seems God has punished him for not having enough faith.”
“Mr. Kohler?” It was the Swiss Guard who had run ahead. “The camerlegno says he will grant you audience.”
Kohler grunted, accelerating again down the hall.
“He is surprised by your visit,” the guard said.
“I’m sure.” Kohler rolled on. “I would like to see him alone.”
“Impossible,” the guard said. “No one—”
“Lieutenant,” Rocher barked. “The meeting will be as Mr. Kohler wishes.”
The guard stared in obvious disbelief.
Outside the door to the Pope’s office, Rocher allowed his guards to take standard precautions before letting Kohler in. Their handheld metal detector was rendered worthless by the myriad of electronic devices on Kohler’s wheelchair. The guards frisked him but were obviously too ashamed of his disability to do it properly. They never found the revolver affixed beneath his chair. Nor did they relieve him of the other object . . . the one that Kohler knew would bring unforgettable closure to this evening’s chain of events.
When Kohler entered the Pope’s office, Camerlegno Ventresca was alone, kneeling in prayer beside a dying fire. He did not open his eyes.
“Mr. Kohler,” the camerlegno said. “Have you come to make me a martyr?”