"The Holy Father wishes to learn the whole truth about that attempt on his life," Monsignor Romain de Sainte-Ange announced quietly in his French-accented English.
The monsignor, the pope's private secretary, paused for effect, fussed with his rimless glasses, brushed an invisible speck from the front of his elegantly tailored cassock and the violet sash, and leaned forward to fix the American Jesuit with a trusting, conspiritorial stare.
Father Timothy Savage nodded pleasantly, uncertain of how else to respond. He had no idea why he had been summoned so urgently by Sainte-Ange, whom he had never met before, and why he was now being informed of this wish of Gregory XVII. But the corpulent monsignor with soft features, a pouting mouth, and diamond-hard black eyes, was the pope's closest adviser and confidant -- and the most powerful man at the papal court. Everything he did had a precise purpose, and Tim Savage assumed that it included his own meeting with Sainte-Ange this morning.
"You see," the Monsignor went on, shooting his gold-and-diamond cufflinks as he spoke, "the Italian authorities decided last week to discontinue their investigations of the assassination attempt because Parliament chose not to extend the period of the investigatory mandate, as required by law. Do you know why?"
"No, Monsignor, I do not know," Tim replied, increasingly perplexed by what he was hearing.
"It was because in the years since the attempt the Italian investigators have failed to come up with any new clues or evidence to indicate who had ordered the attack on His Holiness -- and why," Sainte-Ange said. "As you know, today is the fifth anniversary of that attack, and we still know absolutely nothing of what was behind it. This is not acceptable!..."
The private secretary took a deep breath and continued: "Yes, the culprit, that demented Turk, is in prison serving a life term, but, apart from confessing, which he later recanted, he told the Italian tribunal absolutely nothing. And when the Holy Father visited him in his prison cell to forgive him, the Turk insisted he was Jesus Christ. And you know what?"
Tim shook his head, watching the monsignor turn red with anger.
"I am almost convinced that there is a conspiracy of some kind to prevent the discovery of the truth," Sainte-Ange hissed. "Everybody seems afraid of the truth. Despite President Reagan's promises, your Central Intelligence Agency obviously has made no real effort to help the Italian investigating judge. The same goes for Interpol. Can you understand that?"
"No, I can't," Tim answered. He was completely at sea. This was a surreal conversation, he thought, on a subject he had utterly ignored and that was none of his business. But, mysteriously, it was being made his business.
"For five years, we've been stuck with the same tired old theories nobody can prove," the monsignor told him. "That the Turk did it because he's a Muslim and Muslims are supposed to hate Christians. What nonsense! Or that the Turk had been sent by the Bulgarian secret police on orders from the KGB, which is idiotic, too, because nobody in the Kremlin is mad enough to want to kill the pope. My God, we are in secret negotiations with the Russians!"
Tim nodded again, praying for an explanation of what his meeting with Sainte-Ange was all about. In all his years at the Vatican, he had never had an experience even remotely resembling today's. Still, the Vatican was famous for strange and mysterious happenings.
Now the monsignor had regained his calm, smiling encouragingly at the American Jesuit across a small table from him in the minuscule but beautifully appointed square sitting room next to his office on the second loggia of the Apostolic Palace. It was one of the magnificent loggie designed by Raphael in the sixteenth century when St. Peter's Basilica and the adjoining holy edifice were being rebuilt after the Sack of Rome. An antique Venetian clock ticked on a marble-top table in a corner. The scent of Saint-Ange's expensive aftershave lotion, probably Hermés' Equipage, wafted richly around him. Tim thought idly that it was more pleasant than the smell of incense that seemed to permeate permanently the great halls and galleries of the Apostolic Palace. The odor of piety.
"Under the circumstances," the private secretary declared in a solemn voice, "the Holy Father has determined that we must rely on our own resources to discover the truth. He feels morally and legally that we must do what must be done. It is vital that we fully understand the dangers that may face the Church in the future, that we know who is the enemy...As in the past..."
He paused again and his smile was beatific.
"And," he said softly, almost seductively, "we have selected you to undertake this mission on behalf of the Holy Father. To find the truth. We hope that you will accept..."
Tim Savage stirred uneasily in his chair, trying desperately to dissemble the shock produced by the monsignor's words. He knew, of course, that the Vatican had its own secret service and even a department of "dirty tricks," but he had always succeeded in keeping his research work apart from subtle papal intelligence enterprises. And now this! At forty-four, Tim thought, he had lived through all imaginable surprises, yet he had been wrong.
And there was no way he could turn down Sainte-Ange's "invitation." As a Jesuit, he had taken a vow of obedience to the pope. He felt he was dreaming, that he was living a fantasy, that he had suddenly been trapped in an iron cage. A thousand alarms sounded in his mind: It was like the Kennedy brothers decades ago, murders never definitively solved, like Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations secretary general, whose death in a fiery plane crash in Africa may or may not have been an accident, like the much loved Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, shot by unknowns in the street. What chance did he, Tim Savage, have to succeed in investigating the attempt on Gregory XVII?
Tim slowly inclined his head in assent. A minute had not elapsed since Sainte-Ange had spoken the fateful words.
"Yes," he said, "I am always at the service of the Holy Father. But why me? I'm just a simple American Jesuit working in Rome. I know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the assassination attempt. You have the wrong person."
"No, we have the right person in you," the monsignor replied firmly, pointing his immaculately manicured stubby finger at Tim. "Please believe me, Father, that much thought has gone into our decision to entrust you with the investigation. Much thought and deliberation. We are very familiar with your background, your special talents, and your experience. You are not 'a simple Jesuit...' Ah, it is a case of 'it takes a thief to grab a thief,' as you Americans say..."
"Actually, we say, 'to catch a thief,' " Tim Savage remarked politely, wondering immediately what made him correct the older man and realizing it was a silly little stab at asserting himself in this impossible situation.
The monsignor ignored it, making a steeple of his tiny hands and lowering his voice to a whisper as he continued to address Tim:
"I am so glad that you have accepted the mission. But your investigation must be conducted in the most confidential, not to say top-secret, manner. Your profile must be very low. That's why it must be a one-man investigation. As you are doubtless aware, the Vatican has its own prosecutor and Civil Court, but we have chosen to bypass them as well as the secret agents of the Swiss Guard. And we do not propose to take any action if we -- you -- discover the truth. We just want to know the truth.
"There is very little we can tell you to get you started," Sainte-Ange went on. "Just the obvious things. Because the Turk who fired the bullets, Agca Circlic, is a Muslim and a dedicated terrorist, we must envisage a Muslim connection, whatever it may be, though it's nothing more than a theory. But this is where your knowledge and background make you so perfect. And your special type of experience may fit some of the other theories kicking around to this day. Besides, few would suspect an American Jesuit scholar to be a detective for the Vatican..."
Tim again inclined his head in agreement. There was no point insisting on his uselessness as a sleuth for the Holy See. The pope and Sainte-Ange had decided his destiny. Well, so be it, he told himself. Others had done it before.
"One more thing," the monsignor added with a frozen smile. "You will be completely on your own. You can work any way you choose. Should anyone learn of your mission, or suspect it, we shall simply deny that you have anything to do with us. Our Press Office director, the Spanish psychiatrist, is unaware of your assignment anyway and he won't be lying in his denials. He'll say that you are a crazy American with delusions, a renegade priest...On the other hand, you will naturally have logistical support from this end through special channels I am creating. In fact, let me start you immediately."
Sainte-Ange picked up the telephone, whispering a few words in French.
"Just a moment," he said to Tim.
There was a discreet knock and the door behind Tim opened. He looked back, rose from his chair, and experienced his second shock of the day, a greatly more pleasing one. Standing before him was a petite nun in a white habit, smiling modestly.
"Father Savage," the monsignor said without getting up, "this is Sister Angela. She belongs to the order of Augustine Sisters of Notre Dame of Paris and, like me, she is French. She has been with the Papal Household for quite a few years, helping with the Holy Father's English-language paperwork and, sometimes, with foreign visitors because she speaks such excellent English. And this is why I decided to designate her as your direct contact with me. The sister has been briefed about your mission and she will be the liaison between us -- you will see me only in emergencies or on special occasions. Sister Angela will provide you with funds, documentation, and anything else you need. You will have her direct telephone number and you will call her as required. If necessary, you may come to her office, but try to keep your visits down to an absolute minimum. You shouldn't be seen around here too often."
Listening to Sainte-Ange, Tim stared with total fascination at Sister Angela. He had instantly decided that she was uncommonly pretty, reminiscent of a delicate Matisse painting. And he decided, just as quickly, that she could be no more than in her early thirties. He liked the way she looked calmly and directly into his eyes as the monsignor made the presentations. Most European nuns Tim had met tended to stare intensely at their feet or their hands in the presence of a man, even a priest. Damn impure thoughts, he told himself -- it's the price you pay for being a man as well as a celibate. But he had to say something to her, to break the silence after the monsignor had introduced them. Sainte-Ange had already raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Tell me," Tim asked her, "where did you learn your English?"
"I went to school at the Convent of the English Augustine Sisters in Paris," Angela replied in accentless English. She had a pleasant, low voice.
"English sisters in Paris?" he inquired incredulously. "I didn't know they had a convent there."
"Oh, yes," the sister answered. "It's on the Left Bank, in Faubourg St. Germain. It was established in 1653 by Augustine sisters who fled England to escape the persecution of Catholics by Cromwell. You know, he wrote that the great question was 'whether the Christian world should all be popery.' Anyway, the convent has been there ever since. George Sand, the famous novelist of the nineteenth century, studied there."
"But how did you wind up there?"
"In my case," Angela said, "it was because of my parents. My father was English, an expatriate in Paris...He was a Jew. My mother came from a long line of devout Catholics. They met during the German occupation; she fell in love with him and helped to hide him from the Nazis. Then they were married and I was born ten years later. My father died when I was a little girl, my mother brought me up as a Catholic, and the rest must have been predestined...But here's my telephone number, Father. Don't hesitate to call if you need anything."
She bowed to Sainte-Ange and left the room. The monsignor stood up, extending his hand to Tim Savage.
"Thank you so much for coming," he said. "I know the Holy Father will be most gratified...Please bear in mind that if you don't track down the truth, the pope will never be safe. His enemies will never give up. That's why your mission is so vital in immediate terms. It's not simply historical research."
* * *
"What did you think of the American?" Gregory XVII asked Monsignor Sainte-Ange. "Is he really the man for the job?"
They sat in the pope's private study on the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, enjoying the quiet of the late morning before the noontime meal. Gregory XVII had bidden farewell to his last visitor of the day -- there rarely were audiences in the afternoon -- and Sainte-Ange had come up after Tim Savage's departure from his office. In the distance, they could see the sun's rays lighting golden fires on Rome's roofs across the Tiber as far as the Aventine Hill.
"Yes," the monsignor said. "Yes, I think he will do fine. I liked what I already knew about his past, and he made a good impression on me. My instinct tells me that we made the right choice."
Gregory XVII trusted Sainte-Ange without reservation. He was his oldest friend. It had been forty-five years since both entered the seminary at the age of twenty-one, near Clermont-Ferrand in the Vichy-governed zone of France. They remained there when, soon afterward, the Germans occupied that part of the country too. Both men discovered to their surprise how many priests sympathized with Vichy, collaborating with its police and subsequently with the Gestapo; many had denounced to the authorities Jewish families hiding in the countryside and maquis Resistance fighters defying the Nazis. Because neither the future pope nor Sainte-Ange was willing to join the right-wing "integrist" priests' organizations, they were shunned and isolated in the seminary. But, in the process, they learned much about the French Church's many hidden faces. They never forgot it, even when Church integrists paid homage to Gregory XVII upon his election to the papacy.
Now, at the age of sixty-six, the pope and his private secretary formed a perfect team, oddly paired and seemingly unmatched as it was. While Gregory XVII, tall, thin with a regal bearing, was cerebral, visionary, and immensely captivating, Sainte-Ange was purely pragmatic, and essentially cold. He was the classic French homme des coulisses, more comfortable in background shadows than in the limelight Gregory XVII adored, and a genius in the manipulation of power, which he exercised, often mercilessly, in assuring the Roman Curia's unquestioned obedience to his master and friend. It was logical that Sainte-Ange alone had devised and managed the investigation of the 1981 assassination attempt, convincing the pope of the urgent need for it, and, in effect, discovering Timothy Savage for the mission. In all of the Vatican, only Sister Angela, who had to perform the vital function of liaison and whom the monsignor decided he could trust, largely because of her own personal background, knew about the Timothy Savage undertaking.
"Well, I'm glad the mission is now under way," Gregory XVII said, savoring a sip of his favorite Gavi di Gavi white wine. "But does the American know about de Marenches' warning and that it was not heeded?"
"No, I thought it was premature," Sainte-Ange replied in his careful manner. "He has to do a lot of homework before he can understand it and all its implications. But I hope that our Father Savage will not be wasting time. You're never certain of being safe, perhaps more now than ever."
"True," the pope told him. "This is why I ask Our Lady of Fátima for protection in my every prayer."
Even as Gregory XVII and Sainte-Ange chatted in the papal study, two men greeted each other warily at a small table set against the wall at Roberto, a busy restaurant on Borgo Pio, just three blocks east of the Sant'Anna Gate, the principal entrance to the Vatican. Borgo Pio, a narrow street of eateries and small shops, starts at Sant'Anna Gate and is commonly known to Romans as the "Vatican Ghetto." Roberto is patronized mainly by foreign tourists and foreign priests, especially Americans, working at the Vatican.
The two men arrived at the restaurant within minutes of each other. The first was a solidly built, grizzled man with a malevolent face, its hard features frozen like a Notre Dame gargoyle, and bloodshot eyes. He looked to be in his mid-sixties and seemed to be more accustomed to a military uniform than the ill-fitting brown sports jacket and flowery shirt he wore today. He had commandeered the table by the wall, and now he rose at the approach of a much younger man in a well-tailored dark suit.
"It's a lovely day, isn't it, Mister Kurtski?" he said in English, which he spoke with a pronounced French accent. "And it's a pleasure to see you again."
"Sure," the older man replied curtly, "but you're not here to talk about the weather." His English came with an Eastern European accent and intonation.
"Then let us get down to business and waste no time," the Frenchman suggested. "When we first met in Paris, I told you how impressed we were with your reputation."
"Yeah, let's talk business," Jake Kurtski said. "But first, I want a cold beer. And what do you have in mind, anyway?"
"It is simple. We wish to see the pope dead," the elegant young man explained. "And we understand that you would know how to go about it."
Kurtski's expression did not change. The waiter had brought the beer and the old soldier took a deep draft from the bottle.
"Never mind what I know," he said. "Tell me your ideas..."
The Frenchman smiled engagingly. "Let me quote from your famous compatriot, Joseph Conrad, on the subject: '...The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy,'," he told Kurtski. "And Conrad was alluding to bombs. That's from Heart of Darkness...That's our idea."
"I don't know who the fuck Conrad was," Kurtski announced gruffly, pronouncing "fuck" as "fock." He went on: "So you want to blow him out of the sky? You want me to bomb the plane when the pope next goes traveling?"
"That's right," the young man said. "We want to blow him right into heaven. Can you do it?"
"I don't know. I have to think about it. You know, it's not all that easy with all the security around him and the airplanes," Kurtski observed.
"Oh, we understand. That's why we're offering you a million dollars if you make it happen," the Frenchman whispered.
"I'm not sure I can take it seriously," Kurtski told him. "You guys, whoever you are, seem to fock it up every time. "Your Turk focked it up on the square. And I know that you tried and failed to get a bomb aboard the Alitalia plane when the pope was going to Portugal: It was really stupid to stick the bomb in the food that was being loaded on the airliner. Of course, it was found. And wasn't that crazy Spanish priest with the bayonet at Fátima one of your people?"
"Well, yes, and that's why we're now turning to professionals," the younger man said. "And we also know that, as they say at the Vatican, patience is a cardinal virtue. So we can wait for your answer and your detailed plan as long as necessary. I'll contact you in exactly one month to arrange for another conversation."
Kurtski nodded and walked out of the restaurant without a word. Passing a fruit stand in front of a food store, he grabbed a clementina and began to peel it.
As the sun set over Rome, the Frenchman locked himself in his hotel room a block from Roberto to compose a long coded letter. Then he walked over to the tiny Vatican post office to mail it to an address in a small town in the south of France, not far from the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, a region where road signs read Pays des Cathars, the Country of Cathars -- those "pure" thirteenth-century battlers for religious freedom.
Naturally, it never occurred to Tim Savage or Kurtski that they were in Rome at the same time, so near one another -- and again on a collision course. Vietnam, after all, was such a long time ago.
Copyright © 2000 by Tad Szulc