The heat was palpable, alive. Sara Farnese sat at her desk in the Reading Room of the Vatican Library and stared out of the window, out into the small rectangular courtyard, struggling to concentrate. The fierce August afternoon placed a rippling, distorting mirage across her view. In the unreal haze, the grass was a yellow, arid mirror of the relentless sun. It was now two o'clock. Within an hour the temperature beyond the glass would hit one hundred four degrees. She should have left like everyone else. Rome in August was an empty furnace echoing to the whispers of desiccated ghosts. That morning, the university corridors on the other side of the city rang to her lone footsteps. It was one reason she decided to flee elsewhere. Half the shops and the restaurants were closed. The only life was in the parks and the museums, where stray groups of sweating tourists tried to find some meager shade.
This was the worst of the summer. Yet she had decided to stay. She knew why and she wondered if she were a fool. Hugh Fairchild was visiting from London. Handsome Hugh, clever Hugh, a man who could rattle off from memory the names of every early Christian Codex lodged in the museums of Europe, and had probably read them too. If the plane was on time he would have arrived at Fiumicino at ten that morning and, by now, have checked into his suite at the Inghilterra. It was too early for him to stay with her, she knew that, and pushed from her head the idea that there could be other names in his address book, other candidates for his bed. Hugh was an intensely busy man. He would be in Rome for five days, of which two nights alone were hers, then move on to a lawyers' conference in Istanbul.
It was, she thought, possible that he had other lovers. No, probable. He lived in London, after all. He had abandoned academia to become a successful career civil servant with the EU. Now he seemed to spend one week out of every four on the road, to Rome, to New York, to Tokyo. They met, at most, once a month. He was thirty-five, handsome in a way that was almost too perfect. He had a long, muscular, tanned body, a warm, aristocratic English face, always ready to break into a smile, and a wayward head of blond hair. It was unthinkable that he did not sleep with other women, perhaps at first meeting. That was, she recalled with a slight sensation of guilt, what had happened to her at the convention on the preservation of historical artifacts in Amsterdam four months before.
Nor did it concern her. They were both single adults. He was meticulously safe in his lovemaking. Hugh Fairchild was a most organized man, one who entered her life and left it at irregular intervals which were to their mutual satisfaction. That night they would eat in her apartment close to the Vatican. They would cross the bridge by the Castel Sant'Angelo, walk the streets of the centro storico and take coffee somewhere. Then they would return to her home around midnight, where he would stay until the morning, when meetings would occupy him for the next two days. This was, she thought, an ample provision of intellectual activity, pleasant company and physical fulfillment. Enough to keep her happy. Enough, a stray thought said, to quell the doubts.
She tried to focus on the priceless manuscript sitting on the mahogany desk by the window. This was a yellow volume quite unlike those Sara Farnese normally examined in the Vatican Reading Room: a tenth-century copy of De Re Coquinaria, the famed imperial Roman cookery book by Apicius from the first century a.d. She would make him a true Roman meal: isicia omentata, small beef fritters with pine kernels, pullus fiusilis, chicken stuffed with herbed dough, and tiropatinam, a soufflé with honey. She would explain that they were eating in because it was August. All the best restaurants were closed. This was not an attempt to change the status of their relationship. It was purely practical and, furthermore, she enjoyed cooking. He would understand or, at the very least, not object.
"Apicius?" asked a voice from behind, so unexpected it made her shudder.
She turned to see Guido Fratelli smiling at her with his customary doggedness. She tried to return the friendly look though she was not pleased to see him. The Swiss Guard always headed for her whenever she visited. Guido knew-or had learned-enough of her work in the library to be able to strike up a conversation. He was about her own age, running a little to fat, and liked the blue, semimedieval uniform and the black leather gun holster a little too much. As a quasicop he had no power beyond the Vatican, and only the quieter parts of that. The Rome police retained charge of St. Peter's Square, which was, in truth, the only place the law was usually needed. And they were a different breed, nothing like this quiet, somewhat timorous individual. Guido Fratelli would not last a day trying to hustle the drunks and addicts around the Termini Station.
"I didn't hear you come in," Sara said, hoping he took this as a faint reproach. The Reading Room was empty apart from her. She appreciated the quiet; she did not want it broken by conversation.
"Sorry." He patted the gun on his belt, an unconscious and annoying gesture. "We're trained to be silent as a mouse. You never know."
"Of course," she replied. If Sara recalled correctly, there had been three murders in the Vatican in the course of almost two hundred years: in 1988, when the incoming commander of the Swiss Guard and his wife were shot dead by a guard corporal harboring a grudge, and in 1848, when the Pope's prime minister was assassinated by a political opponent. With the city force taking care of the crowds in the square, the most Guido Fratelli had to worry about was an ambitious burglar.
"Not your usual stuff?" he asked.
"I've wide-ranging interests."
"Me too." He glanced at the page. The volume had come in its customary box, with the name in big, black letters on the front, which was how he knew what she was reading. Guido was always hunting for conversational footholds, however tenuous. Perhaps he thought that was a kind of detective work. "I'm learning Greek you know."
"This is Latin. Look at the script."
His face fell. "Oh. I thought it was Greek you looked at. Normally."
"Normally." She could see the distress on his face and couldn't help being amused. He was thinking: I have to try to learn both?
"Maybe you could tell me how I'm doing sometime?"
She tapped the notebook computer onto which she had transcribed half the recipes she wanted.
"Sometime. But not now, Guido. I'm busy."
The desk was at right angles to the window. She looked away from him, into the garden again, seeing his tall, dark form in the long window. Guido was not going to give up easily.
"Okay," he said to her reflection in the glass, then walked off, back down to the entrance. She heard laughter through the floor from the long gallery above. The tourists were in, those who had sufficient influence to win a ticket to these private quarters. Did they understand how lucky they were? Over the last few years, both as part of her role as a lecturer in early Christianity at the university and for purely personal pleasure, she had spent more and more time in the library, luxuriating in the astonishing richness of its collection. She had touched drawings and poems executed in Michelangelo's own hand. She had read Henry VIII's love letters to Anne Boleyn and a copy of the same king's Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, signed by the monarch, which had won Henry the title "Defender of the Faith" and still failed to keep him in the Church.
From a professional point of view it was the early works-the priceless codices and incunabula-which were the focus of her attention. Even so, she was unable to prevent herself stealing a glance at the material from the Middle Ages on. In a sense, she felt she had listened to Petrarch and Thomas Aquinas in person. Their voices remained, like dead echoes on the dry vellum and the ancient stain of ink they had left on the page. These traces made them human and, for all their wisdom, for all their skill with words, without their humanity they were nothing, though Hugh Fairchild would probably disagree.
There was a noise from the entrance, a half shout, not loud in itself but, given the setting, disturbing. No one ever shouted in the Reading Room of the Vatican Library.
Sara raised her head and was surprised to see a familiar figure walking toward her. He moved briskly through the bands of sharp light that fell through the window, with a swift, determined intent that seemed out of place in these surroundings, wrong. The air-conditioning rose in volume. A chill blanket of air fell over her and she shivered. She looked again. Stefano Rinaldi, a fellow professor at the university, carried a large, bulging plastic bag and was crossing the empty Reading Room with a determined stride. There was an expression on his round, bearded face which she failed to recognize: anger or fear or a combination of both. He was wearing his customary black shirt and black trousers but they were disheveled and there were what looked like wet stains on both. His eyes blazed at her.
For no reason, Sara Farnese felt frightened of this man whom she had known for some time.
"Stefano . . ." she said softly, perhaps so quietly he was unable to hear.
The commotion was growing behind him. She saw figures waving their arms, beginning to race after the man in black with the strange, full supermarket bag dangling from his right hand. And from his left, she saw now, something even odder: what appeared to be a gun, a small black pistol. Stefano Rinaldi, a man she had never known to show anger, a man for whom she once felt a measure of attraction, was walking purposefully across the room in her direction holding a gun, and nothing she could imagine, no possible sequence of events, could begin to explain this.
She reached over, placed both hands on the far side of the desk and swung it around ninety degrees. The old wood screeched on the marble floor like an animal in pain. She heaved at the thing until her back was against the glass and the desk was tight against her torso, not questioning the logic: that she must remain seated, that she must face this man, that this ancient desk, with a tenth-century copy of a Roman recipe book and a single notebook computer on it, would provide some protection against the unfathomable threat that was approaching her.
Then, much more swiftly than she expected, he was there, gasping for breath above her, that crazy look more obvious than ever in his dark brown eyes.
He sat down in the chair opposite and peered into her face. She felt her muscles relax, if only a little. At that moment, Sara was unafraid. He was not there to harm her. She understood that with an absolute certainty that defied explanation.
"Stefano . . ." she repeated.
There were shapes gathering behind him. She could see Guido Fratelli among them. She wondered how good he was with his gun and whether, by some unfortunate serendipity, she might die that day from the stray bullet of an inexperienced Swiss Guard with a shaking hand that pointed the gun at a former lover of hers who had, for some reason, gone mad in the most venerated library in Rome.
Stefano's left arm, the one holding the weapon, swept the table, swept everything on it, the precious volume of Apicius, her expensive computer, down to the hard marble floor with a clatter.
She was silent, waiting, which was, his eyes seemed to say, what he wanted.
Then Stefano lifted up the bag to the height of the desk, turned it upside down, let the contents fall onto the table and said, in a loud, commanding voice that was half insane, half dead, " 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.' "
She looked at the thing in front of her. It had the consistency of damp new vellum, as if it had just been rinsed. Apicius would have written on something very like this once it was dry.
Still holding the gun with his left hand, Stefano began to unravel the pliable thing before her, stretching it, extending the strange fabric until it filled the broad mahogany top of the desk then flowed over the edges, taking as it did a shape that was both familiar and, in its present context, utterly foreign.
Sara forced her eyes to remain open, forced herself to think hard about what she was seeing. The object which Stefano Rinaldi was unfolding, smoothing out so carefully with the flat palm of his right hand as if it were a tablecloth perhaps, on show for sale, was the skin of a human being, a light skin somewhat tanned, and wet, as if it had been recently washed. It had been cut roughly from the body at the neck, genitals, ankles and wrist, with a final slash down the spine and the back of the legs in order to remove it as a whole piece and Sara had to fight to stop herself reaching out to touch the thing, just to make certain this was not some nightmare, just to know.