The six pompieri firemen who responded to the fire at the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria extinguished the bonfire with blasts of Halon gas. Water was cheaper, but the steam it created would have ruined the frescoes in the chapel, and the Vatican paid Roman pompieri a healthy stipend for swift and prudent service in all Vatican‑owned buildings.
Pompieri, by the nature of their work, witnessed tragedy almost daily, but the execution in this church was something none of them would ever forget. Part crucifixion, part hanging, part burning at the stake, the scene was something dredged from a Gothic nightmare.
Unfortunately, the press, as usual, had arrived before the fire department. They’d shot plenty of video before the pompieri cleared the church. When the firemen finally cut the victim down and lay him on the floor, there was no doubt who the man was.
“Cardinale Guidera,” one whispered. “Di Barcellona.”
The victim was nude. The lower half of his body was crimson‑black, blood oozing through gaping cracks in his thighs. His shinbones were exposed. One fireman vomited. Another went outside to breathe.
The true horror, though, was the symbol seared on the cardinal’s chest. The squad chief circled the corpse in awestruck dread. Lavoro del diavolo, he said to himself. Satan himself did this. He crossed himself for the first time since childhood.
“Un’ altro corpo! “someone yelled. One of the firemen had found another body.
The second victim was a man the chief recognized immediately. The austere commander of the Swiss Guard was a man for whom few public law enforcement officials had any affection. The chief called the Vatican, but all the circuits were busy. He knew it didn’t matter. The Swiss Guard would hear about this on television in a matter of minutes.
As the chief surveyed the damage, trying to recreate what possibly could have gone on here, he saw a niche riddled with bullet holes. A coffin had been rolled off its supports and fallen upside down in an apparent struggle. It was a mess. That’s for the police and Holy See to deal with, the chief thought, turning away.
As he turned, though, he stopped. Coming from the coffin he heard a sound. It was not a sound any fireman ever liked to hear.
“Bomba! “he cried out. “Tutti fuori! “
When the bomb squad rolled the coffin over, they discovered the source of the electronic beeping. They stared, confused.
“Mèdico! “one finally screamed. “Mèdico! “