Basilicaby William D. Montalbano
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Vatican City, the dawn of a new century: a lone priest trudges up the winding stairs to the top of St. Peter's Basilica, only to be helped to a sudden and permanent route down. With this death, an ever-more complex chain of events is set in motion in a new kind of thriller: a story of Vatican politics and obsessional revenge, of violence both spiritual and physical, of two men shaped and scarred by a common stormy past. One is the new Pope, nicknamed Tredi, the first from Latin America, a young, audacious risk-taker ready to shake up the old guard, even if it means making dangerous enemies. The other is Brother Paul, a former Miami homicide cop, still recovering from the horrific deaths of his family and brought to Rome as an informal investigator for the Pope, a Vatican Mr. Fixit drifting unsteadily in the shadows of the giant church. When the priest dies in the Basilica, it is Paul who is asked to find out what it means, and soon his days are torn between new alliances and old enmities, as the threats multiply, the ghosts of the past stalking the ancient streets of Rome, circling in upon both Paul and Tredi. In a multilayered surprising thriller, filled with mystery both religious and corporeal, they find that it is not so easy to change an institution, just as it is not so easy to change a life. Though a life is easy to lose...
The priest with a shady past is almost as ubiquitous in certain types of thrillers as the prostitute with a heart of gold was in Westerns of a particular vintage, but in Montalbano's story Paul Lorenzo never actually made it to ordination: "Once I was an on-the-edge cop, but now I'm a Roman Catholic brother, a kind of not-quite priest kicking around in the back alleys of the world's largest church." Paul heads the Vatican security office, a long way from the Miami homicide beat he used to walk. In Miami, he first met Pope Pius XIII, his current boss, back when His Holiness was still a Latin American bishop known as the "Cocaine Cardinal" for his fearless denunciations of the Caballero drug cartel. Paul foiled an assassination plot and saved the future pontiff's life, only to have his wife and children killed by the Caballeros in retaliation. Now the Pope needs Paul on the job again. A priest has fallen to his death from the dome of St. Peter's, and all the evidence points to murder. The victim, Monsignor Caruso, was seen as a leader of the new wave of liberal thinkers welcomed by the Pope into the Vatican, and Paul's investigations lead him to the threshold of the Keys, an outfit bitterly opposed to all modernizing trends and secretly linked to the Caballeros. Is this Paul's last chance for revenge? That's not supposed to be on his mind, but sometimes a man's got to do what he's got to do-even if he wears a cassock.
Formulaic and hackneyed, but written with plenty of action and a good, crisp pace: the sort of book you don't put down until it's finished-and then promptly forget it.
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The giant cobblestoned square was deserted in the dark pool of Roman night, but he felt no unease. He knew the route well. Before him stood the Basilica, huge, immutable, encompassing, an embracing refuge for the saints and popes who lay in its crypts, and for sinners who begged on bended knee for peace and understanding. He was one of them, a man of internal contradictions, of flawed and sometimes wayward faith.
He climbed the broad esplanade of steps up to the giant bronze doors, then turned and walked to a darkened side entrance, the insider's secret passage to the world's largest church. Everyone who needed it knew where the key was. It is one of the many company secrets of the tiny religious state within the heart of Rome. The key clicked and the door yielded silently.
Inside, banks of vigil candles flickered yellowly and a swatch of gray from moonlight leaking through windows high up framed the main altar, but their effect was to magnify the darkness eerily. Shadows cast by a single blue flame played across Michelangelo's Pietà, the Madonna cradling her dead son. He stood quietly for a few minutes before one of history's landmarks, listening, feeling, thinking.
In the echoing stillness, he heard the shuffle of feet across the marble floor and a muffled cough from one of the side altars. Every night the men of God came to seek succor in the black bosom of their church. Each night that he had come, there had been others, the whisper of footsteps, the click of beads, sometimes a half-seen figure groping through the dark on its private mission ofatonement.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Undulating through the gloom, the formal opening statement of a Catholic's confession eased his passage. He was not the only sinner there.
Although he could always sense their presence, he had never before spoken with another night visitor. Tonight would be different. Tonight he would meet a fellow supplicant.
There were hundreds of silent nooks in the church where a visitor could pray: pews, confessionals, quiet corners, stands of candles and flowers, at the base of statues, before or behind side altars. None of them suited him. Only one place could bathe his soul.
Walking softly down the right aisle, he came to an unmarked door, as never-known to casual visitors as the one that had granted coveted night entry into the Basilica.
This door, too, opened at a touch. Beyond it the darkness was complete. That was an integral part of his ritual. He reached his right arm out as far as it would go and then edged patiently to the right until his questing fingers touched the curved stone wall.
It was cold and compelling. With the wall as his guide, caressing it like a woman's cheek every black step, he began the long, breathtaking climb, a holy man on a private mission. At the top he would find fulfillment. He would refresh his soul, renew his commitment.
Seldom did anyone else challenge the spiraling passage. It was a secret within a secret, to be savored. And, that night, to be shared.
Patiently, but with growing confidence, he wound his way up the cold stone walkway. Near the top it grew lighter, as tentacles of false dawn fingered through the age-spotted windows. There, he was able to distinguish the dark bulk of the person who had asked to join his vigil, kneeling, head bent in prayer, further out along the Dome gallery than he himself usually ventured.
But he had a good head for heights, and soon the two figures were kneeling side by side as growing light crept into the crown of their church.
"God bless you, and ease your passage," the visitor whispered.
"And may light renew your faith," he replied. Such is the private litany of the keepers of the night.
Side by side they addressed the silence, a penitent and a murderer.
There was not long to wait, and when the light broke, it came with a flood. Standing tall, he thrust out his arms, and threw his head heavenward in appeal and abnegation, begging God for His love and forgiveness.
But he found death instead. A vicious shove; a panicked, futile clawing to deny that fatal plummet. An instant of pure lucidity, eternity beckoning, undeniable. Then nothing.
That is the way it must have begun.
Later, I myself made that black climb. Something in the darkened church, on that never-seen and seemingly never-ending circular walk to domed majesty, pricked the hairs on the back of my neck.
When I, too, stood prayerfully as the first rays of a new day ignited the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica, I felt awed and fulfilled.
Once I was an on-the-edge cop, but now I'm a Roman Catholic brother, a kind of not-quite priest kicking around the back alleys of the world's largest church. Across the centuries, brothers have been the church's hewers of wood and drawers of water, more practical than spiritual; the callused blue-collar counterpoint to yeoman priests and high-dome theologians.
I had come to the church and to the Vatican late in life after some painful detours and a personality retread, so I especially welcomed the low-stress lifestyle. My job was to keep the peace at a residence of seminarians where I'm sort of a combination father figure and sergeant at arms. Beyond that, mostly I drift along, staying out of trouble, keeping my internal debris at bay.
But every now and then people around the Vatican with unchurchly problems ask me to help them. Which explains why I sat one soft Sunday morning in the garden at the seminarians' house called St. Damian's with an ice pack on my right shoulder reading the Vatican Police report of a mugging.
Across from me, one giant hand wrapped around a cappuccino, Luther chuckled, "My, but he does turn a phrase." Luther was a monk and a full-fledged priest. Like me, he had found his way to the church's bosom later rather than sooner. He didn't talk much about his en route stops either
Luther was my second best friend in Rome, and he was one page ahead of me in the report that the Vatican cops had sent over To tell you the truth, Luther was often a page or two ahead of me.
The report was as straightforward as bureaucracy ever approaches in Italian. It detailed an attack against an American professor named Frederick Worth after a day's research at the Vatican Library. The most rewarding part of the report was the victim's statement, written in tight, angry English. Worth was a medievalist of some note, and he expressed himself with the preachy pomposity you'd expect from a cultured man who'd spent his life rummaging among centuries-old manuscripts in ornate lettering and musty Latin. As liars go, he wasn't too shabby, though.
Professor Worth complained that he had left Vatican City through the Sant' Anna gate and had been crossing the street to a bus stop when he had been attacked from behind by two men on a motorbike, a motorino of the garden variety breed that is as much a trademark of Roman life as Catholicism. The two men had struck silently and were gone in an instant, the professor said, taking with them a briefcase that supposedly contained "research materials of inestimable academic importance but no commercial value."
The M.O. was classic Roman. The driver had maneuvered the motorino close to the victim and the rider on the back had snared the briefcase with a powerful yank. Professor Worth said he had managed to slug his assailant; to no avail, alas. Victims almost always say that, but it was usually not true.
"Both men were wearing helmets, making precise identification impossible," the professor wrote, "but the man who grabbed my briefcase was a stocky, almost apelike individual in a blue windbreaker I had the impression that the driver, who was tall and well muscled and wore a sports shirt, might have been black, though I do not in any way wish this to be construed as a racist remark."
According to an accompanying list in Italian and English, the briefcase contained research notes on two yellow pads, a couple of magazines, a pair of reading glasses, an address book, a pocket knife, and a plastic bottle of antacid tablets.
Luther was watching with a grin as I finished reading.
"They'll never catch these guys, will they? Black Tarzan and his fat monkey?" he asked.
"Be a shock if they do." I shrugged the ice pack off my shoulder and gingerly swung a scuffed brown briefcase over to Luther "Take a look."
Luther neatly spread the contents of the case we had stolen from Worth across the garden table. It was just as the not-so-good professor had said. Everything was there: pads, scholarly magazines, address book, notes, pocket knife, glasses, tablets. Luther, smart man, went right for the magazines. In each he found a manuscript page that had been lovingly illuminated by a monk dead now for nine centuries.
"Twelfth century, from the Gospel of Luke. Copied at an abbey in France. So says Father Albright at the Library."
Luther gently held the pages the way a father might cradle an injured child, concern crowded by anger.
"Albright says they're from the manuscript that Worth was studying. Looked as if the folios had been cut out with a razor, Albright said." Or the blade of a pen knife.
"Now what, Paul?" You could have cut a diamond with the edge in Luther's voice.
"I suggested to Albright we pay another short, sharp visit to the professor, maybe as he's walking back to his hotel one night after dinner."
"Good idea. You drive this time, take care of your shoulder."
"`No way,' Albright said."
Luther sighed noisily. "Me a priest, you a brother We know he's right. Turn the other cheek; even if it stings. But what does Albright want? Ban the professor and forget about it? Pretend it never happened?"
What could I say? One of the earliest lessons anybody ever learns about the Vatican is that there are ways, and there are ways.
"Father Albright wants to give the good professor back the briefcase. Everything but the manuscript pages. The professor's a crook, but he's no dummy. He'll get the messagenever to be seen again around the Vatican, Albright says."
"You buy that, Paul?"
"I think he's right as far as he goes, so we'll give the case back. But I'll confetti all the notes, though. In case they really are valuable."
Luther nodded, but he was not happy.
So I said what he was thinking. "Yes, it would be more satisfying to smash the asshole professor's nose and break his scissor fingers. To give him a couple of hospital days to reflect on his sins."
"You told Father Albright we wouldn't."
"That's what I told him."
"But we might anyway."
I shrugged. Some things are better left unsaid.
Luther is A strange name for a Catholic monk, but Luther was a strange monk. We'd met at a pickup basketball game one afternoon. He was from someplace in West Africa; hard to miss and harder to beat on the court. He looked like one of those giant veldt trees that grow into the sky with branches broad enough to obliterate the horizon. Take a rebound off Luther? It'd be easier to nail a list of grievances to the Vatican's bronze doors. Luther was as old as I was, and he'd once told me he had spent more than ten years at sea, but his beard was still black, his belly was still more or less flat, damn him, and with his great height, he made a patriarchal sight striding the streets of Rome in gray monk's robes and open-toed sandals. Not so much Moses on the mountain; more Moses as the mountain.
Luther was a preacher in a city full of priests, all of them preachers in one form or another, all of them coming to personal terms with the church that gripped them in the same and different ways. Some claimed they were born to religious life. Others struggled with doubts from the first day. Some never made it.
A few, like me, like Luther, trundled through life on another track, only to discover one day that a quiet itch suddenly demanded serious scratching. Luther told me once that he'd decided to become a priest because he had done everything else and so much of it seemed empty. My own imperfect vocation had arrived amid more anguish than conviction. I lived with that recognition, suffered with it, even: the present as penance for the past. Like the past itself, it is an essence that never strays far from me.
It was there that morning, pressing and depressing. Luther and I left the problem to marinate of suitable justice for Professor Worth, the manuscripts drowsing safely in a locked suitcase under my bed, and set off for our weekly stroll through what is probably the world's best walking city.
We walked a couple of hours most Sunday mornings after mass, wandering more or less aimlessly through ancient cobble-stoned streets, but usually pointing for the weekly papal blessing at St. Peter's. It was a pleasant, uplifting ritual for me, but marred quite accidentally that morning by a bunch of kids playing with stomp rockets in a piazza near the Tiber. They were jumping on squat plastic bellows that sent a column of compressed air into thin plastic cylinders, hurling them fifty or a hundred feet into the sky. A harmless amusement, I agree, and we stopped for a few minutes among a clutch of pedestrians attracted by it.
But the rockets whistled. As they lanced up, each gave off a thin shriek. It was part of the fun for everybody else. But I don't like whistles, and, no, it's nothing trivial, like hearing chalk scrape across a blackboard. For me, it's painful; a sudden, shocking reminder of the whistling sound that spells death.
If Luther noticed my discomfit he didn't comment, and within a few minutes we had reached the Vatican, where there were less hurtful things to talk about. Most Sundays, a few thousand people gather to glimpse the pope, but among the pilgrims that day protesters' banners made angry exclamation marks among the usual thickets of national and religious flags waved by tourists to attract papal attention. "History Cannot Be Rewritten" read one. "Save Our Saints" said another in rebuttal to a blood-red banner proclaiming "We Are All Saints."
"The debunkings," Luther grunted.
A few days before, the pope had stricken a long list of historic figures from the registry of saints. Artillery rounds would be landing for weeks among those who thought he had gone too far, and those who were sure he had been too timid. Around the Vatican, everything a pope does gores somebody's pulpit. This time the blow had been softened by saying that the debunked saints could still be regarded as figures of local esteem. But the pope had made plain he was spring cleaning his personal gallery of church heroes.
Gone the way of St. George the Dragon Slayer and St. Christopher the travelers' saint were the likes of Venerius and Homobonus, Crispin and Crispinian, Ludwyna and Arthur. Gravediggers, servants, tailors, tanners, locksmiths and swordsmiths, weavers and the falsely accused would henceforth all have to shop around for a new patron. In his wisdom, though, the pope had not also dismissed icons beloved of other groups of Catholics, including secretaries, paratroopers, undertakers, skaters, skiers, canonists, carpenters, ecologists, epileptics, dryers, or the dying.
"I can see the man's point," Luther murmured as we watched the piazza ballet, "but it's a shame to lose all that tradition, isn't it?"
Sometimes Luther wandered across minefields his namesake had visited all those centuries ago. Luther would say that while the teachings of the church were never wrong, Catholics would have to engage their own consciences in deciding how to obey them. That was anathema, of course, to the tight club of aging males that ran the Vatican. At least that was the way it had been since back into the reign of the Inflexible Pole. His replacement had cast no shadow, altered nothing, and impressed nobody. In another few years nobody would even remember his name, but after a pontificate as brief as it was undistinguished, Pope Nobody had done his church a mighty service by swiftly dying.
His successor was still new after only a couple of years in power, butlike the new centuryhe had the benefit of novelty. The new pope was the Americas' great pride and joy; the first pope, after two thousand years, to spring from the New World. His election had been a breathtaking surprise. Conclaves of cardinals at which new popes are elected are one of the Vatican's deepest secrets. Like everybody else, I knew the conclave had started as a head-to-head between a holy African from the Curia and a dynamic pastoral bishop from northern Italy.
It was a deadlock, apparently, because it had taken one hundred and eleven aging prelates ten days and who knows how many secret ballots to elect one of their number as the new pope. He had been a compromise candidate, a tall, polyglot, and photogenic cardinal who had been an activist leader of his church at home and had matured into an effective, if low-profile, head of one of the Vatican congregations in Rome.
The new pope had named himself Pius XIII, and "thirteenth" in Italian comes out as the hard-to-pronounce "tredicesimo." So "Tredi" he had instantly become to broadcasters, headline writers, and Catholics alike around the world. Always excepting, of course, the beads-tolling Holy Father-His Holiness crowd around the Vatican for whom no name was too hard to say and no change easy enough to accept.
The newest Bishop of Rome, latest pope in line of direct succession from the Apostle Peter, was the youngest and most vigorous pontiff in centuries. Just as well, too, for he had inherited a divided and fractious church, a difficult-to-govern community of believers more than one billion strong and active in virtually every country on earth.
Tredi, I knew, had played two sports at college, a fact neatly obscured by Vatican biographies for one simple reason: while the new pope undoubtedly hailed from Latin America, which has more Catholics than anywhere, he happened also to have gotten his college degree in the United States before going home to enter the seminary. The last greatest truism of the Catholic church is that there will never be an American pope. Tredi was as close as any pope hador couldcome.
Still, more than two years after becoming head of a mammoth but internally troubled church, Tredi's visage had made more impact than his policies. The sight of a vibrant pope striding purposefully hither and yon had dimmed memories of his doddering forebears. And even if Tredi hadn't done anything exactly revolutionary, there was a clear sense around the Vatican that fresh winds were blowing. Clean sheets had begun to appear on musty balconies. Some of the more obdurate and entrenched Curia cardinals had found themselves transferred to hinterland archdioceses. Pronouncements had lost the You Shall Never edge of John Paul II, and the Let's Pray Together fuzziness of a successor who had been intimidated by big shoes he couldn't fill. It was still early in his reign. Tredi had chosen his own name, and would go his own way. I'd bet on it.
I wouldn't have said there was exactly an atmosphere of menace in St. Peter's Square that morning, but certainly more tension than at any prayer meeting I've ever been to. I saw a hawk-nosed man in a black suit with a splash of purple at his collar and a heavy cross dangling from his neck standing a bit back from a chanting group of protesters. He might have been an observer, a prelate who just happened to be walking through the square, but I didn't think so, for saint-savers who were leading "Salvai Santi" chants twice drifted back to confer with him. Somebody had a bishop for an ally.
I didn't get it myself. "Luther, if you can pray to God, why waste time with saints?"
It was the sort of thing that only a simple brother could dare ask, of course. I'm not a priest and probably never will be. We brothers are helpers. Typically, a brother is somebody who wants to live a religious life but lacks the intellect and education to become a priest. That describes me to a Roman collar. Back in medieval times the brothers harvested the grapes, repaired the monasteries, and chased milkmaids while the smart monks sat close to the fire, illuminated manuscripts, kept learning alive, went blind, and generally pursued assorted spiritual delights.
Nowadays there are many fewer brothers than priests, but we run high schools in some places, and we administer a fair number of church institutions: a German brother manages the Vatican's biggest print shop, and brothers from a Spanish order man Rome's biggest soup kitchen.
We brothers take vows, the poverty, chastity and obedience thing, which makes us part of the Vatican team, all right, We wear the same uniform, but we're not technically clerics like priests. I can't say mass, or hear confessions.
Which is fine by me. Being a brother quenches my thirst without drowning me. I've got all the religion I want, but I haven't surrendered all my freedom. Sure I sin. Okay. But somehow I think it's less important than if I were a priest doing it. Maybe that's an illusion, but it's the way I feel.
At the end of a dark tunnel of years that I still find too painful to talk about, I did a two-year novitiate to become a member of the small American order called the Brothers of St. Matthias. In case it's slipped your mind, Matthias was the thirteenth apostle, elected by lot to replace the traitor Judas. And like Matthias, we came late to the supper: converts, widowers, guys like me who do other things they decide to chuck. Back in the States, we had lawyers and computer wizards and a doctor; businessmen, and a sprinkling of guys who never could get their lives together. We were men who didn't fit in the outside world, or no longer wanted to. Here in Rome we Matthians were just a handful of brothers with different jobs who hardly ever saw one another.
I was in charge of the St. Damian's residence, went to classes, mooched around, and sporadically made myself useful around the Vatican. Think of that as a carefully vague way of describing a discreet and faceless figure who straightens out problems that never officially occur. When indelicate things needed prodding, usually it was a quiet phone call that brought me with a stick. The heavy thinking I left to truly smart people like Lutherand the new pope.
"The church has always made saints important," Luther was saying as though to a slow student. "All Catholics are raised with pictures and stories of saints to ask for special intercessions."
"Sure. The big-favor figuresa key game, a make-or-break exam. But why would the pope mess with them now?"
"I'm only a poor monk, but I think maybe the pope has decided it's time to separate myth and the modern church. Get rid of the saints who were often only mythological figures anyway. Many of them were an early-days' Christian concession to polytheism: necessary then, but only a clutter today. The same thing is true in Africa today. In fact, I'm one of the pro-saints types who think they are more useful than harmful."
"That's pretty deep, Father Luther."
"I am a deep poor monk, Brother Paul."
There was a sudden swirl in the square where protesters behind a "Tradition Must Be Respected" banner were sassing some counter-demonstrators. The hawk-nosed bishop was gesticulating, waving his fist in the air. It looked like he was urging them on. The church is chary of political prelates, but Hawk-Nose was about as neutral as an Uzi.
We watched a file of cops lance into the melee, and for a minute I thought they would need reinforcements, but it was pretty harmless stuff, really, and in the midst of it a banner-draped fourth-floor window opened in the Apostolic Palace facing the square and a tall figure in a white robe appeared.
Tredi was only a foreshortened flash of white to most of the crowd below, but he was enough. Pilgrims cheered noisily, waving their banners.
The pope was a big, heavily built man in his fifties. His face was square-cut with a crisscross of small scars above his eyes. Depending on the angle, the scars could make him look quite fierce. And the pope was, in fact, a man accustomed to having his way. Tredi's eyes were black. They dominated his face, and nearly everyone he met. The eyes were his strongest featurenot counting the unflinching will.
All popes have commanding presence, but in Tredi's case there was a good-humored magnetism that seemed to scour the square of contention.
"God bless all the saints," the pope said into a pencil-thin microphone, "and all the people of God."
By the time Tredi had finished the brief Angelus, even the angry bishop seemed content to wander off with the rest of the crowd in search of Sunday lunch.
I went, too, for I could sense no threat that day except from my own memory.
Why did I care?
Because the most important reason I had come to the Vatican was to watch out for danger back along the bumpy trail Tredi had followed from the Americas to St. Peter's. We had traveled some of it together. I had been there when the scars on his face had been born in an angry explosion of glass. The new pope, too, understood about whistling death.
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This was NOT a book that I could not put down. I felt like Catholicism was shown in a worse light than it actually deserves, and I am not even a Catholic. The depiction of the pope seemed a bit far fetched, although it did show a more human side to someone with such a high position.
I am afraid that I would not recommend this book to anyone......
I just read Basilica from the library and I will buy a copy for myself. I was hoping to write to the publisher and ask that a sequel be done before I found out that Mr. Montalbano had died. The characters were just so interesting and real to me. Perhaps Mr. Hiaasen can write a sequel. 4/20/00 Dolores
The book is certainly a good read and is fun. But the main problem I had with the book is that the storyline has virtually everything happen to the main character. In the end, you think to yourself 'What now will happen to him?' Also, the author cannot help but make those sympathetic to Catholic reform the good guys and the traditionalists those in black hats. Lastly, the main character is not even really someone you find yourself able to admire or like. He is a murderer, breaks his vows, has vengence always on his mind, and is not completely stable. The story is fun, but in no way uplifting or even believable.
A gripping thriller which monopolizes one's time until it is finished. Although plot elements could sometimes be seen coming, the author successfully maintains and builds tension throughout the novel. The author's 'behind the scenes' perspective of life in the Vatican comes across as enlightening and authentic. The heart of the novel, and probably its best feature, is the development of its central character, Brother Paul. At various points in the novel, the protagonist comes across as warm, likeable, insane, and dispicable - often several of these at the same time. But above all, Brother Paul seems like a sympathetic everyman caught in unusual circumstances. A highly recommended read.