Flashlights were no match for the voluminous blackness of St. Peter’s Basilica. The void overhead pressed down like a starless night, and Vittoria felt the emptiness spread out around her like a desolate ocean. She stayed close as the Swiss Guards and the camerlegno pushed on. High above, a dove cooed and fluttered away.
As if sensing her discomfort, the camerlegno dropped back and lay a hand on her shoulder. A tangible strength transferred in the touch, as if the man were magically infusing her with the calm she needed to do what they were about to do.
What are we about to do? she thought. This is madness!
And yet, Vittoria knew, for all its impiety and inevitable horror, the task at hand was inescapable. The grave decisions facing the camerlegno required information . . . information entombed in a sarcophagus in the Vatican Grottoes. She wondered what they would find. Did the Illuminati murder the Pope? Did their power really reach so far? Am I really about to perform the first papal autopsy?
Vittoria found it ironic that she felt more apprehensive in this unlit church than she would swimming at night with barracuda. Nature was her refuge. She understood nature. But it was matters of man and spirit that left her mystified. Killer fish gathering in the dark conjured images of the press gathering outside. TV footage of branded bodies reminded her of her father’s corpse . . . and the killer’s harsh laugh. The killer was out there somewhere. Vittoria felt the anger drowning her fear.
As they circled past a pillar—thicker in girth than any redwood she could imagine—Vittoria saw an orange glow up ahead. The light seemed to emanate from beneath the floor in the center of the basilica. As they came closer, she realized what she was seeing. It was the famous sunken sanctuary beneath the main altar—the sumptuous underground chamber that held the Vatican’s most sacred relics. As they drew even with the gate surrounding the hollow, Vittoria gazed down at the golden coffer surrounded by scores of glowing oil lamps.
“St. Peter’s bones?” she asked, knowing full well that they were. Everyone who came to St. Peter’s knew what was in the golden casket.
“Actually, no,” the camerlegno said. “A common misconception. That’s not a reliquary. The box holds palliums —woven sashes that the Pope gives to newly elected cardinals.”
“But I thought—”
“As does everyone. The guidebooks label this as St. Peter’s tomb, but his true grave is two stories beneath us, buried in the earth. The Vatican excavated it in the forties. Nobody is allowed down there.”
Vittoria was shocked. As they moved away from the glowing recession into the darkness again, she thought of the stories she’d heard of pilgrims traveling thousands of miles to look at that golden box, thinking they were in the presence of St. Peter. “Shouldn’t the Vatican tell people?”
“We all benefit from a sense of contact with divinity . . . even if it is only imagined.”
Vittoria, as a scientist, could not argue the logic. She had read countless studies of the placebo effect—aspirins curing cancer in people who believed they were using a miracle drug. What was faith, after all?
“Change,” the camerlegno said, “is not something we do well within Vatican City. Admitting our past faults, modernization, are things we historically eschew. His Holiness was trying to change that.” He paused. “Reaching to the modern world. Searching for new paths to God.”
Vittoria nodded in the dark. “Like science?”
“To be honest, science seems irrelevant.”
“Irrelevant?” Vittoria could think of a lot of words to describe science, but in the modern world “irrelevant” did not seem like one of them.
“Science can heal, or science can kill. It depends on the soul of the man using the science. It is the soul that interests me.”
“When did you hear your call?”
“Before I was born.”
Vittoria looked at him.
“I’m sorry, that always seems like a strange question. What I mean is that I’ve always known I would serve God. From the moment I could first think. It wasn’t until I was a young man, though, in the military, that I truly understood my purpose.”
Vittoria was surprised. “You were in the military?”
“Two years. I refused to fire a weapon, so they made me fly instead. Medevac helicopters. In fact, I still fly from time to time.”
Vittoria tried to picture the young priest flying a helicopter. Oddly, she could see him perfectly behind the controls. Camerlegno Ventresca possessed a grit that seemed to accentuate his conviction rather than cloud it. “Did you ever fly the Pope?”
“Heavens no. We left that precious cargo to the professionals. His Holiness let me take the helicopter to our retreat in Gandolfo sometimes.” He paused, looking at her. “Ms. Vetra, thank you for your help here today. I am very sorry about your father. Truly.”
“I never knew my father. He died before I was born. I lost my mother when I was ten.”
Vittoria looked up. “You were orphaned?” She felt a sudden kinship.
“I survived an accident. An accident that took my mother.”
“Who took care of you?”
“God,” the camerlegno said. “He quite literally sent me another father. A bishop from Palermo appeared at my hospital bed and took me in. At the time I was not surprised. I had sensed God’s watchful hand over me even as a boy. The bishop’s appearance simply confirmed what I had already suspected, that God had somehow chosen me to serve him.”
“You believed God chose you?”
“I did. And I do.” There was no trace of conceit in the camerlegno’s voice, only gratitude. “I worked under the bishop’s tutelage for many years. He eventually became a cardinal. Still, he never forgot me. He is the father I remember.” A beam of a flashlight caught the camerlegno’s face, and Vittoria sensed a loneliness in his eyes.
The group arrived beneath a towering pillar, and their lights converged on an opening in the floor. Vittoria looked down at the staircase descending into the void and suddenly wanted to turn back. The guards were already helping the camerlegno onto the stairs. They helped her next.
“What became of him?” she asked, descending, trying to keep her voice steady. “The cardinal who took you in?”
“He left the College of Cardinals for another position.”
Vittoria was surprised.
“And then, I’m sorry to say, he passed on.”
“Le mie condoglianze,” Vittoria said. “Recently?”
The camerlegno turned, shadows accentuating the pain on his face. “Exactly fifteen days ago. We are going to see him right now.”