Helena Visconte first saw Father Matteo Pintozzi when he stepped out of the sacristy into the deserted curved colonnade that led to the Vatican Museum. She had no way of knowing that within a few minutes, the priest would arrive at his destination, and both their lives would change.
By now tourists would normally be milling about, but a fluke June thunderstorm had just ended, leaving a vaguely musty smell rising with the vapor from the hot stone pathway. Father Pintozzi glanced to his right and then to his left and looked relieved as if he were grateful no one was in sight. He quickly swept past the Vatican courthouse, the Eagle Fountain and the Papal Academy of Science.
Her three-year-old son Luke took advantage of her distraction, gave a yell of unbridled glee, darted from behind the pillar and ran headlong into the flowing folds of the Father’s black cassock. Helena was hard on his heels. She approached Luke from behind, crouched down, and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him away.
“Forgive my son, Father,” she apologized in Italian. “He is overexcited this morning.” She straightened, turned towards the priest and stood transfixed, staring at him. She brushed her thick auburn hair away from her face to see him better.
He looked young and virile, not more than thirty. His dark curly hair, huge brown eyes, sculptured Roman features and full sensual lips made him resemble a dark Apollo come to life. The graceful drape of his cassock, cinched with a purple sash, hinted at a well-formed body underneath.
She noticed he was aware of her stare. His eyes flashed with life and intelligence, and with a spark of amusement. He knew the impact of his looks, and she was sure he was gently mocking her.
She tried to recover her composure. “Your blessing, Father.”
He gave the barest hint of a nod, bowed his head for a long moment and then raised it again. His earlier playfulness had vanished. He looked solemn, yet peaceful. Helena bowed her head and gently touched Luke’s hair as he imitated her gesture. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,” Father Pintozzi said, making a graceful sign of the cross. “Amen.” His blessing wasn’t rushed but Helena noticed him shift his weight as if he were eager to leave.
“Thank you, Father.” She watched him hurry away. He walked like a trained athlete, his stride energetic yet graceful, his back strong and straight.
A few more steps took Father Matteo Pintozzi out of the Vatican into the streets of Rome. He looked around to make sure he was out of sight of the mother and son. Satisfied, he strode past some closed banks and gelaterias. With the thick slanted high wall enclosing the Vatican on his left, he followed the twisting path up the Viale del Vaticano to the entrance of the Musei Vaticani.
Although the museum was not scheduled to open for another five minutes, he pushed through the door. He stepped inside, once more on Vatican soil.
He looked up as he ascended the spiral ramp, just as everyone did. A twentieth-century addition to the museum by Giuseppe Momo, Father Pintozzi’s art historian friends dubbed it “the DNA” because of its double helix shape. The ramp suited the museum, adding to the anticipation of entering the largest, and most valuable and comprehensive collection of classical art treasures in the world.
But Father Pintozzi’s feeling of anticipation had nothing to do with art. His heart thudded gently in his chest, and beads of sweat formed on his temples and upper lip. He looked down the curving ramp but saw no one. Still, someone could be hugging the shadowed walls, out of his sight. He heard nothing either. Of course, he wouldn’t if they didn’t want him to.
He came to another door at the top of the ramp, and his hand trembled as the door slowly swung open in response to his pressure. The museum was immense, its chambers and alcoves filled with paintings, mummies, statues, furniture and frescoes.
Moving more cautiously now, he passed through the vestibule. He needed no map; he knew this palace of art as well as he knew his childhood home. He ignored the staircase on his left leading to the Sistine Chapel and walked out to a small open-air courtyard. For a moment he turned to his right and gazed at the dome of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, which overlooked the lusciously groomed Vatican gardens. The gardens looked serene and empty as if they were enjoying a few moments of peace before the hordes of tourists descended.
Pintozzi passed through another closed corridor and then into the open courtyard of the Pigna with its incongruous modern-looking globe of brass.
He walked through the long marble corridor of the Chiaramonti Wing, filled with busts and statues of Greek and Roman gods and nobles. As always, he imagined the statues subtly moving to greet him as he passed. He belonged here. He wondered if he looked like one of them, a chiseled piece of black marble come to life.
His tension lifted. He loved the sound of his sandals slapping on the marble beneath his feet, the comfortable coolness that radiated from the smooth stone. Most of all, he loved the absence of people.
He paused for a moment to take a breath before he arrived at his destination, the Braccia Nuova, the new wing. After he dealt with the transaction to occur, he planned to see Father Herzog, the head of the Jesuits. He needed to persuade the Superior General to help him.
Father Pintozzi opened the final door, and the impact of the familiar sight beyond made him step back a pace. The yawning gallery was filled with shadowed niches, each of which contained an ancient marble statue on a pedestal. Ancient mosaics on the marble floor depicted scenes of Roman daily life. The towering ceiling was embellished with carved rosettes framed by fluted squares that led up to skylights.
He was late, but he saw no one as he scanned the room. No one, he thought, except Julius Caesar, Augustus, Demosthenes and other ancient personages who stared at him from their respective alcoves.
His sandals made a soft scraping sound on the marble as he came to a stop. He paused and then walked around the eight-foot statue of the Nile river god that reclined against a small sphinx. He stood in a twelve-foot semicircular area that couldn’t be seen from the main hall.
He waited and listened, but he still heard nothing. A minute went by, then another. His thoughts wandered. Father Pintozzi knew every dark sin the Society of Jesus was hiding. He knew most of the Vatican’s other secrets as well. Which was why he needed Herzog’s help. He knew he had made mistakes. He knew he was under suspicion. But once Father Herzog understood the situation, Pintozzi was sure the old priest would help him make everything right.
Pintozzi barely noticed the soft whisper of air behind him. A shimmer of silver passed in front of his eyes, gone almost before it registered. “Traitor,” someone hissed.
The priest’s eyes widened. He recognized the voice. He was about to say something when he felt a pinch, followed by a cut, as a thin wire sliced through the soft flesh of his neck. He felt blood pumping in spurts from beneath his chin, a spreading wetness. He felt more confusion than pain as it cascaded down his cassock and spilled onto the floor.
He slumped to his knees, his body no longer under his control. He fought for breath but choked as he inhaled foamy red liquid. As he crumpled onto his side, the cool marble floor felt like a soothing hand against his cheek. Colors deepened, then vibrated and danced. He watched a thick red pond ooze over the small triangular patterns inlaid on the floor. Pintozzi wondered whether the mosaic was porous enough to be stained by his blood. A shame if it were.
Above him, the statue of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, gazed down at him from her alcove. She seemed to be laughing. Yes, he thought, I haven’t been wise at all. He tried to laugh too, but the remaining air in his lungs bubbled up in a death rattle. Even that didn’t prevent him from smiling at the irony. He had made a mistake. It was all a ridiculous mistake.
He realized he had only seconds left and summoned all his willpower for the Jesuit test of consciousness. His last conscious intent would be for the benefit of his killer. In silent prayer, he gave his final absolution: “I forgive you.” Pallas Athena grew dimmer, and a profound weariness overtook him. She was calling him to go back, or was it to come? Yes, I’m coming, he thought. I’m coming, but slowly, since I am so very tired.