War had broken out in St. Peter’s Square.
The piazza had exploded into a frenzy of aggression. Media trucks skidded into place like assault vehicles claiming beachheads. Reporters unfurled high‑tech electronics like soldiers arming for battle. All around the perimeter of the square, networks jockeyed for position as they raced to erect the newest weapon in media wars—flat‑screen displays.
Flat‑screen displays were enormous video screens that could be assembled on top of trucks or portable scaffolding. The screens served as a kind of billboard advertisement for the network, broadcasting that network’s coverage and corporate logo like a drive‑in movie. If a screen were well‑situated—in front of the action, for example—a competing network could not shoot the story without including an advertisement for their competitor.
The square was quickly becoming not only a multimedia extravaganza, but a frenzied public vigil. Onlookers poured in from all directions. Open space in the usually limitless square was fast becoming a valuable commodity. People clustered around the towering flat‑screen displays, listening to live reports in stunned excitement.
Only a hundred yards away, inside the thick walls of St. Peter’s Basilica, the world was serene. Lieutenant Chartrand and three other guards moved through the darkness. Wearing their infrared goggles, they fanned out across the nave, swinging their detectors before them. The search of Vatican City’s public access areas so far had yielded nothing.
“Better remove your goggles up here,” the senior guard said.
Chartrand was already doing it. They were nearing the Niche of the Palliums—the sunken area in the center of the basilica. It was lit by ninety‑nine oil lamps, and the amplified infrared would have seared their eyes.
Chartrand enjoyed being out of the heavy goggles, and he stretched his neck as they descended into the sunken niche to scan the area. The room was beautiful . . . golden and glowing. He had not been down here yet.
It seemed every day since Chartrand had arrived in Vatican City he had learned some new Vatican mystery. These oil lamps were one of them. There were exactly ninety‑nine lamps burning at all times. It was tradition. The clergy vigilantly refilled the lamps with sacred oils such that no lamp ever burned out. It was said they would burn until the end of time.
Or at least until midnight, Chartrand thought, feeling his mouth go dry again.
Chartrand swung his detector over the oil lamps. Nothing hidden in here. He was not surprised; the canister, according to the video feed, was hidden in a dark area.
As he moved across the niche, he came to a bulkhead grate covering a hole in the floor. The hole led to a steep and narrow stairway that went straight down. He had heard stories about what lay down there. Thankfully, they would not have to descend. Rocher’s orders were clear. Search only the public access areas; ignore the white zones.
“What’s that smell?” he asked, turning away from the grate. The niche smelled intoxicatingly sweet.
“Fumes from the lamps,” one of them replied.
Chartrand was surprised. “Smells more like cologne than kerosene.”
“It’s not kerosene. These lamps are close to the papal altar, so they take a special, ambiental mixture—ethanol, sugar, butane, and perfume.”
“Butane? “Chartrand eyed the lamps uneasily.
The guard nodded. “Don’t spill any. Smells like heaven, but burns like hell.”
The guards had completed searching the Niche of the Palliums and were moving across the basilica again when their walkie‑talkies went off.
It was an update. The guards listened in shock.
Apparently there were troubling new developments, which could not be shared on‑air, but the camerlegno had decided to break tradition and enter conclave to address the cardinals. Never before in history had this been done. Then again, Chartrand realized, never before in history had the Vatican been sitting on what amounted to some sort of neoteric nuclear warhead.
Chartrand felt comforted to know the camerlegno was taking control. The camerlegno was the person inside Vatican City for whom Chartrand held the most respect. Some of the guards thought of the camerlegno as a beato —a religious zealot whose love of God bordered on obsession—but even they agreed . . . when it came to fighting the enemies of God, the camerlegno was the one man who would stand up and play hardball.
The Swiss Guards had seen a lot of the camerlegno this week in preparation for conclave, and everyone had commented that the man seemed a bit rough around the edges, his verdant eyes a bit more intense than usual. Not surprisingly, they had all commented; not only was the camerlegno responsible for planning the sacred conclave, but he had to do it immediately on the heels of the loss of his mentor, the Pope.
Chartrand had only been at the Vatican a few months when he heard the story of the bomb that blew up the camerlegno’s mother before the kid’s very eyes. A bomb in church . . . and now it’s happening all over again. Sadly, the authorities never caught the bastards who planted the bomb . . . probably some anti‑Christian hate group they said, and the case faded away. No wonder the camerlegno despised apathy.
A couple months back, on a peaceful afternoon inside Vatican City, Chartrand had bumped into the camerlegno coming across the grounds. The camerlegno had apparently recognized Chartrand as a new guard and invited him to accompany him on a stroll. They had talked about nothing in particular, and the camerlegno made Chartrand feel immediately at home.
“Father,” Chartrand said, “may I ask you a strange question?”
The camerlegno smiled. “Only if I may give you a strange answer.”
Chartrand laughed. “I have asked every priest I know, and I still don’t understand.”
“What troubles you?” The camerlegno led the way in short, quick strides, his frock kicking out in front of him as he walked. His black, crepe‑sole shoes seemed befitting, Chartrand thought, like reflections of the man’s essence . . . modern but humble, and showing signs of wear.
Chartrand took a deep breath. “I don’t understand this omnipotent‑benevolent thing.”
The camerlegno smiled. “You’ve been reading Scripture.”
“You are confused because the Bible describes God as an omnipotent and benevolent deity.”
“Omnipotent‑benevolent simply means that God is all‑powerful and well‑meaning.”
“I understand the concept. It’s just . . . there seems to be a contradiction.”
“Yes. The contradiction is pain. Man’s starvation, war, sickness . . .”
“Exactly!” Chartrand knew the camerlegno would understand. “Terrible things happen in this world. Human tragedy seems like proof that God could not possibly be both all‑powerful and well‑meaning. If He loves us and has the power to change our situation, He would prevent our pain, wouldn’t He?”
The camerlegno frowned. “Would He?”
Chartrand felt uneasy. Had he overstepped his bounds? Was this one of those religious questions you just didn’t ask? “Well . . . if God loves us, and He can protect us, He would have to. It seems He is either omnipotent and uncaring, or benevolent and powerless to help.”
“Do you have children, Lieutenant?”
Chartrand flushed. “No, signore.”
“Imagine you had an eight‑year‑old son . . . would you love him?”
“Would you do everything in your power to prevent pain in his life?”
“Would you let him skateboard?”
Chartrand did a double take. The camerlegno always seemed oddly “in touch” for a clergyman. “Yeah, I guess,” Chartrand said. “Sure, I’d let him skateboard, but I’d tell him to be careful.”
“So as this child’s father, you would give him some basic, good advice and then let him go off and make his own mistakes?”
“I wouldn’t run behind him and mollycoddle him if that’s what you mean.”
“But what if he fell and skinned his knee?”
“He would learn to be more careful.”
The camerlegno smiled. “So although you have the power to interfere and prevent your child’s pain, you would choose to show your love by letting him learn his own lessons?”
“Of course. Pain is part of growing up. It’s how we learn.”
The camerlegno nodded. “Exactly.”