Dawn came late to Rome.
An early rainstorm had washed the crowds from St. Peter’s Square. The media stayed on, huddling under umbrellas and in vans, commentating on the evening’s events. Across the world, churches overflowed. It was a time of reflection and discussion . . . in all religions. Questions abounded, and yet the answers seemed only to bring deeper questions. Thus far, the Vatican had remained silent, issuing no statement whatsoever.
Deep in the Vatican Grottoes, Cardinal Mortati knelt alone before the open sarcophagus. He reached in and closed the old man’s blackened mouth. His Holiness looked peaceful now. In quiet repose for eternity.
At Mortati’s feet was a golden urn, heavy with ashes. Mortati had gathered the ashes himself and brought them here. “A chance for forgiveness,” he said to His Holiness, laying the urn inside the sarcophagus at the Pope’s side. “No love is greater than that of a father for His son.” Mortati tucked the urn out of sight beneath the papal robes. He knew this sacred grotto was reserved exclusively for the relics of Popes, but somehow Mortati sensed this was appropriate.
“Signore?” someone said, entering the grottoes. It was Lieutenant Chartrand. He was accompanied by three Swiss Guards. “They are ready for you in conclave.”
Mortati nodded. “In a moment.” He gazed one last time into the sarcophagus before him, and then stood up. He turned to the guards. “It is time for His Holiness to have the peace he has earned.”
The guards came forward and with enormous effort slid the lid of the Pope’s sarcophagus back into place. It thundered shut with finality.
Mortati was alone as he crossed the Borgia Courtyard toward the Sistine Chapel. A damp breeze tossed his robe. A fellow cardinal emerged from the Apostolic Palace and strode beside him.
“May I have the honor of escorting you to conclave, signore?”
“The honor is mine.”
“Signore,” the cardinal said, looking troubled. “The college owes you an apology for last night. We were blinded by—”
“Please,” Mortati replied. “Our minds sometimes see what our hearts wish were true.”
The cardinal was silent a long time. Finally he spoke. “Have you been told? You are no longer our Great Elector.”
Mortati smiled. “Yes. I thank God for small blessings.”
“The college insisted you be eligible.”
“It seems charity is not dead in the church.”
“You are a wise man. You would lead us well.”
“I am an old man. I would lead you briefly.”
They both laughed.
As they reached the end of the Borgia Courtyard, the cardinal hesitated. He turned to Mortati with a troubled mystification, as if the precarious awe of the night before had slipped back into his heart.
“Were you aware,” the cardinal whispered, “that we found no remains on the balcony?”
Mortati smiled. “Perhaps the rain washed them away.”
The man looked to the stormy heavens. “Yes, perhaps . . .”