Rome, Italy—The Vatican
Father Parenti had a problem with swearing, and this morning in the Vatican’s sanctum sanctorum of sacred books was no different.
“Porco diavolo!” he muttered to himself, cursing the devil. Then he furtively looked around to see if anyone was within earshot.
The little Catholic priest had fallen onto the ancient floorboards and knocked himself near unconscious when a makeshift shelf he’d napped on collapsed under his weight. A stabbing pain that ran from the small of his back to the base of his neck was so intense that he struggled to breathe. He lay amid a sprawled heap of priceless books. Once his perch had tumbled, three massive rows of shelves in line with it had fallen like dominoes and spilled forth an even greater avalanche of tomes that now lay in the aisle between the stacks. He was in agony, half-buried by splintered shelving and mounds of medieval volumes, some with pages irreparably torn. A musty smell, freed from hundreds of newly awakened texts that had been undisturbed for centuries, wafted into the surrounding corridors.
“Porco diavolo!” he swore again as he gasped for breath and attempted to get up.
“Porco diavolo?” A voice boomed the question from behind a bookcase that still stood thirty feet from the wreckage. “This is the end of it! The end of it, Father Parenti! The second time this year!”
Parenti looked up from the cold library floor toward the wraithlike figure in priest’s vestments that glared down at him in disgust. He closed his eyes and prayed for a miracle, knowing there was going to be real trouble this time. Of all the librarians to stumble upon this disaster, it just had to be the prefect himself.
Six feet five inches tall and all of 140 pounds, Father Antonio Barsanti had been a Brother of the Charitable Order for forty-two years and prefect of the Vatican’s library for ten of those. But the attitude he displayed toward his flock of beleaguered researchers had proven to be anything but charitable, Parenti thought.
“I think I’ve hurt something. I’m sure it’s my spine,” he groaned, desperate to gain sympathy from the dark silhouette that towered above him.
“Rise up, gobbo,” the prefect demanded as he leaned in only inches from Parenti’s nose. The smell of his cheap cologne and a trace of Communion wine on his breath enveloped them both, and Parenti could only cringe.
He could tell by Barsanti’s choice of words that his punishment was sure to exceed the crime. He was, indeed, il padre gobbo—the hunchback priest. But this was the first time the prefect had hurled the epithet that had been only whispered by others since Parenti left the seminary years ago. He cast his gaze slightly over the prefect’s shoulder and focused his eyes on a distant square of brilliant light for inspiration. It was one of the magnificent stained-glass windows near the library’s ceiling, one he had studied a thousand times before. The glass bore the image of the Third Station of the Cross, that of Jesus falling for the first time as he ascended Calvary toward crucifixion. Parenti considered for a moment the similarity to his own predicament and began to gather his strength.
He turned his head defiantly from the prefect and flailed his arms to free himself from the mountain of books. Parenti could tell that Barsanti watched in amusement as he struggled in vain to wriggle off the books that surrounded his misshapen back. He was like an overturned tortoise, stuck on his shell. After several futile attempts, he was yanked by his throat and felt himself being elevated from the back of his nooselike collar and pulled into a kneeling position by the prefect’s sinewy hands. He knew what was coming next and dared not look up. He had been warned about naps on the job before, and his swearing only doubled the trouble.
“You will gather several archivists to help repair this, Parenti. You will personally inspect every shelf. Every book. Every page!” Barsanti said, his voice chilly and imperious. “And when you are done, you will meet me in Cardinal Ponti’s study for reprisal. You will beg for forgiveness, gobbo. It will not be granted. And before evening vespers, the Papal Palace will be only a memory to you.”
Parenti raised his head and watched in terrified silence as the lanky priest turned and slowly faded into the dark distance. Then Parenti slumped to the floor, quietly considered his predicament, and cursed his luck. Rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes, he looked around him. What a beautiful, miserable prison, he thought. At least I will finally be rid of it.
Flanked at its entrance by the pope’s colorfully festooned Swiss Guard, the Vatican Library held more than fifty miles of shelves, stacked in narrow rows thirty feet high, that he navigated like a mouse in a maze. From floor to ceiling, they formed an endless, twisting puzzle filled with priceless knowledge beneath a canopy of splendid frescoes that rivaled those in the nearby Sistine Chapel.
Parenti would often roam the stacks on lonely research errands and crane his deformed neck as best he could toward the glorious heights, sometimes losing his way in the labyrinth below the biblical scenes that peered down at him from above. Of the many divine spectacles painted resplendently across the ceiling from wall to wall, he had chosen three favorites. There was the terrible sight of Joseph, thrown by his family into the hands of the Ishmaelites. He had the audacity to dream and was sold into slavery by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In this, the dwarflike priest saw his past. There was also Daniel’s miraculous taming of the lions. He stood arms akimbo as they bowed before him. In this, Parenti hoped to see his future. But the one that delighted him most, the creation of Eve, was nearly lost in the shadows of the northern corner of the ceiling. Fresh from Adam’s rib, Eve stood naked before him with a wanton expression on her face that had the power to transfix the wayward priest for hours.
Here, in the massive library built for the Court of Rome five centuries before, he had wasted away. Accessible only via an obscure winding staircase that led to its home in the Tower of Winds, it was a comfortless place. For eight long years, Parenti had been an apprentice archivist, an indentured servant, buried in endless research tasks for clerics, cardinals, and religious scholars he would likely never meet. By his estimation, his present backlog of assignments would take more than a year to complete. He was surrounded by his silent companions: more than five million books and a half million manuscripts bought, borrowed, and even stolen by the Church for its collection over a span of a thousand years. In the adjacent secret archives, countless more papal manuscripts were stored under lock and key. They were off-limits to all except those personally granted special access by the pontiff himself. The archives towered above him like ancient sentries of knowledge and contained a collection, indeed the collection, of some of the rarest documents known, and unknown, to man.
There were nearly nine hundred priests fortunate enough to work in the Vatican, but only a select few earned the privilege of working among this extraordinary collection. The library’s holdings had made it a center of the revival of classical culture that became the Renaissance. Hundreds of thousands of priceless originals and first printings were there. Among them, the entire collection of pristine-condition Greek and Latin classics, ancient Roman, and Chinese manuscripts rarely seen in the modern day; the earliest known versions of the Gospels ever discovered, dating to within a century of the life of Jesus; and the entire collection of the Gnostic “Lost Gospels,” including the Gospel of Judas ordered burned by Bishop Irenaeus in AD 191.
There were also the more “modern” texts. All the known edicts of the emperor Genghis Khan; the manuscripts from the trials of the Knights Templar in 1308; every record in existence from the Spanish Inquisition; the documents of the excommunication of Martin Luther in 1521; a letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, addressed to Pope Sixtus, written the night before she was beheaded; the love letters of Henry VIII, along with the papers that annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon; hundreds of rare letters that contained Michelangelo’s writings and drawings known only to the Vatican; and a collection of unknown writings by Voltaire. More recently, enormous, locked cabinets had been installed to house voluminous records of the Holocaust that included exchanges of letters between Pope Pius XI and Adolf Hitler himself.
Given that his crooked stoop placed him at only four feet eight inches tall, Parenti knew there was little justification for his assignment by Cardinal Ponti to the cavernous Papal Library filled with such magnificent works. Between his height and crippled form, he could barely reach his fingers above the fourth of the twenty ornately hand-carved shelves that seemed to approach the heavens. Balancing safely on the hundreds of ancient wooden ladders that stretched to the ceiling required fervent prayer. His fear of heights made every laborious trip for a book in the upper regions of the shelves a torturous endeavor. Often, when on a particularly difficult retrieval assignment for a book in the higher reaches, he would nervously wobble and cling to the ladder for hours, warily ascending and descending the rungs and cursing every frightening inch of the perilous heights.
His imprisonment in the library had been determined when he made the terrible mistake of boasting to the cardinal that he had an appreciation for books. He bragged that as a child in various orphanages in Sicily, he had even taught himself to read. Within a day of his rhetorical strut, he had been placed under the stewardship of Prefect Barsanti. Parenti knew with certainty there were others in the Vatican court with far better qualifications to serve in an archivist role. It was obviously a job for only the most studious of priests. But while no one of authority had ever confessed it, he was certain that His Eminence had made the assignment for another, unspoken reason. A secret library, far from the public spaces of the Vatican where only a handful could venture, was as good a place as any to hide the spectacle of a decrepit, hunchbacked priest. Here was a crypt where he could live out the remainder of his years as entombed as the ancient books around him.
This was not the life he had imagined. Born the seventh son of a seventh son, Parenti’s family—and the entire Sicilian village of Nicolosi, nestled on Mount Etna, where he was born—had near mythological expectations of him. According to ancient belief, such a son was to be endowed with supernatural powers of healing and the gift of prophecy. Tragically, what no one could foresee for the Parenti child at the age of six was the onset of a severe form of Scheuermann’s kyphosis, a pathological curvature of the spine. One of the cruelest deformities, his spinal hump stemmed from a rigidity of the thoracic vertebrae causing a severe bowing of his upper back. It was so disfiguring that the simple act of breathing was often painful. Before the age of eight, the handsome boy, once the source of great promise for Nunzio and Maria Parenti, found himself branded il gobbo—“the hunchback”—of the rural mountainous village. His destitute parents had been warned by a local priest that the deformity of their seventh son was a sign of disfavor from God. Others deemed it a curse on the entire village.
By the time Parenti was ten, his persecution had become unbearable. Shunned by others and often pelted with stones like a stray dog on the treacherous walk home from school, he was forced to end his education. The only kindness he could remember from this sad time had come from a young girl his age named Pepina. A neighbor from down the street, she had taken pity on the boy and often stole away with him to a nearby meadow to recount what had been taught in school each day. There, they would spend hours reciting poetry and practicing storytelling until the sun would cruelly set. When her parents discovered the friendship, an eruption normally reserved for the ancient Etna volcano spewed forth.
For the young Luca Parenti, it was off to the first of several dismal orphanages scattered across the rural island. They would raise him until a monastery in Palermo mercifully took him in at the age of eighteen. These had been lonely times for the disfigured boy, with painful memories so haunting that he would never return to see the family who had abandoned him or the kind Pepina again. While the Church, and eventually the Vatican, had provided refuge to the crippled priest for years, the menial tasks he was often relegated to had created a lifetime of boredom, trouble, and even mishaps like the debacle he had just created.
• • •
Near exhaustion from the repair work, Parenti glanced at the handful of volumes that remained to be stacked. It had taken a team of resentful librarians seven hours of heavy lifting to replace the broken shelving and return the books to precise order. They left together, having chatted about their evening plans while Parenti glumly finished the work in his customary solitude. Each time he bent over to retrieve a book, he craned his head upward. As he did, pain coursed through his spine like molten lava. The scene that stared down on him from above offered no solace. The sole fresco from which he routinely averted his gaze, it pictured the fabled battle for heaven. Frightened by the sight of the war between God’s angels and Lucifer’s fallen “Watchers,” he increased his pace. He was desperate to be finished with the ordeal.
He contorted his back to reach a book containing the voluminous writings of Pope Alexander VI. Then he noticed a small, triangular-shaped protrusion under the base of a bookcase. It appeared to be the corner of an errant book that had slid under a bottom shelf during the calamity. He reached his fingers into the sliver of space between the floor and the shelf and gently pulled on the tome. It wouldn’t budge. He leaned over once more and tugged at the volume impatiently. Again, it would not move.
“Porco diavolo!” he said. His eyes instantly darted up and down the aisle to check for others who might be lurking nearby.
Wherever the book had come from, he thought, it was safe to say it had not simply fallen there when the accident occurred. That was impossible, given how tightly it was wedged beneath the shelf. He dropped to his knees and craned his neck as best his crooked spine would allow and peered into the crevice, where he presumed the book could have been lodged for centuries. He was deeply weary in both body and spirit and decided the easiest solution would be to shove the book back into its centuries-old resting place. What do I care? Soon, I am to be humiliated before His Eminence and exiled to a remote parish in Hungary or Albania to serve out my years. Let that tyrant Barsanti deal with it another day. He pushed with all his might, but the book would not budge.
Defeated, he rose from his knees to gather the other books to be shelved. Then he hesitated and bent over the volume once more. He closed his eyes and examined the cover again, this time with just the touch of his childlike fingers. What his years in the Papal Library had taught him with certainty was that the stubborn book did not belong anywhere near this section of texts. It had the feel of a truly ancient book—indeed, a much older codex. Stranger, it was missing the protective vellum that covered nearly every volume in the library.
He sat down once more and braced his feet against the bottom of the bookcase. He strained to arch his pitiful back and pulled on both sides of the book as hard as he could. To his amazement, the volume finally broke free with a loud snap. He clung to it fiercely and was propelled backward until his head slammed squarely against a shelf behind him.
“Porco diavolo!” he cried out from the sharp pain. This time he didn’t care if the pope himself could hear him from the Papal Apartments nearby.
After he paused for several seconds to let the dizziness fade, he sat up and steadied himself. A bump the width of his thumb had already grown on the back of his head. He ignored the pain and grasped the rescued codex to stare at its cover. Truly ancient, he thought. As he held it up and turned it from side to side to examine it in the dim light, he was surprised when a tattered cloth fluttered from the book and fell directly into his lap. He picked it up and studied it carefully.
The size of a kerchief, it was spotted and worn and had been folded several times over and pressed between the pages of the codex. When Parenti turned the fabric over, his eyes grew wide with amazement. The sublime, frontal image of a face, beaten and bruised but seemingly tranquil, appeared in stark relief against the fragile cloth. His heart jumped and then began to race at the sight. If there was even the slightest possibility the cloth, which looked to be as old as the codex itself, was what he suspected it might be, his fortune was sure to change for the better. He had the potential to change his miserable life, but he had to hide and protect his find no matter the cost. He looked about to ensure no one was watching, carefully folded his fragile prize into squares, and slipped it into his vestment pocket; he could study it later, safe from the prying eyes of others.
As he turned his attention back to the book, he could see that a worn leather cord with a tassel crudely bound its cover together. The crumbled edges of the pages opposite the delicate binding were familiar to him. Definitely papyrus, he thought, which dated the work to the third century AD at the latest.
Curious, he ran his fingers across the smooth, titleless cover that appeared to be ancient animal skin. He paused, took a long breath, and wondered what rare work he held. Then he removed the leather fastener tied to the binding and opened the book that would change the world forever.
The Shroud Conspiracy
In this intense thriller, a forensic anthropologist sets out to prove that the Shroud of Turin is a fake, but quickly discovers the opposite—and must race to stop the evil forces who want to use traces of blood in the fabric to clone Jesus Christ and bring on the second coming of their own design.
Throughout his career, forensic anthropologist and outspoken atheist Dr. Jon Bondurant has investigated many religious artifacts said to be real, but he knows better. Only weak minds rely on such obviously false relics to maintain their silly, pointless faith.
So when he is invited by the Vatican to examine the Shroud of Turin, said to be the burial cloth that covered the body of Christ—and the most revered of all Christian artifacts—he is delighted for the opportunity to prove once and for all that the Shroud is a fake. But when he meets Domenika Josef, the beautiful and devout Vatican representative who finds him arrogant and self-important, he realizes his task will not be as straightforward as he once imagined. Domenika believes that the relic is real, and wants nothing more than to rescue the tarnished reputation of the church by announcing the good news. As Bondurant and his team examine every element of the Shroud, he and Domenika begin to see each other in a whole new light. And as the evidence about the origin of this highly contested piece of fabric starts to pile up, he begins to realize that he’s been seeing a lot of things incorrectly.
But when a sample of the blood from the Shroud—believed to be the real blood of Jesus Christ—vanishes, he realizes his problems are just beginning. The DNA traces in that sample could have earth-shattering consequences if they fall into the wrong hands. When Domenika vanishes too, Bondurant is caught in a globe-spanning chase to rescue the woman he loves—and stop the evil forces who have their own motives for bringing on the Second Coming.