Read an Excerpt
Shrouded in Silence
By Robert L. Wise
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Robert L. Wise
All rights reserved.
September 1, 2008
Murky shadows spread down the streets of Rome and darkened the narrow lanes winding through ancient thoroughfares. A heavyset man in a trench coat trotted down the steps of La Metropolitana, the metro system, not far from the Fontana di Trevi. When he turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs, the smell of hot pizza offered by a vendor near the metro entrance slowed him, but he didn't stop.
The fountains always attracted a bevy of tourists with cameras flashing like machine guns. They fluttered around the statue of Neptune in his shell-shaped chariot surrounded by a court of seahorses and giant tritons. Cold had already permeated the stone. The stout man walked at a quick clip as if he could distance himself from the chill of the evening. The press of late-night tourists strolling through the quaint streets only helped cover his movements.
A few people milled around the platform, looking indifferent. Leaning against the back wall, oblivious to the crowd, a young man stood locked in an embrace with a black-haired Italian woman. No one looked at them for more than a few seconds.
A rush of air surged out of the murky tunnel and signaled the arrival of the train. The roar of steel wheels clattered against the rails and telegraphed that the speeding vehicle would stop in a matter of moments. Waiting until the last second, the heavyset man jumped into the coach just before the train left the station and settled into a seat at the rear.
At this hour, there weren't many people traveling in his direction — only those who had worked hard all day. The men wore pullover long-sleeved jerseys underneath worn sport coats; tired women in wrinkled dresses paid no attention to him.
A surge of anxiety swept over him when he realized that his hands were sweating. Beads of perspiration popped up on his forehead. Never had he done anything like he planned. His face appeared calm, but his stomach churned. He gnawed at his bottom lip.
All the trains stopped running around 1:30 a.m., but that should give him plenty of time to set up in the tunnel just outside of the termini in the Piazza dei Cinquecento. Without moving his head, his eyes roamed around the car to make sure the police hadn't followed him.
He thought about Rome and how it had pushed the present moment into the tiny cracks left from three thousand years of history. It was a tight fit, particularly when the objective was to destroy a portion of the city. He remembered reading a historian who called Rome a palimpsest: a piece of parchment used again and again with the present day squeezed between the lines or written over the top of the faded original. Yet, the city really wasn't so hard to decipher. Central Rome was contained in only two and a half miles from the Basilica de San Pietro to the termini station as the crow flies, but for three millennia an entire world had been crammed into the small space.
The train suddenly lurched back and forth, jolting his body. Gingerly, he ran his hand down the side of his coat, feeling with a tender touch. Too much was at stake to risk an inadvertent disaster caused by an erratic train.
"Got a match?" a male voice said.
A worn young man in his late twenties appeared in front of him, wearing a black leather jacket. A cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth. It was illegal to smoke on the subway, but this wasn't the time for a lecture or an argument with an Elvis retread.
"No," he said flatly and looked the other way.
With the cigarette still hanging from his lips, the youth walked on up the car, but no one else responded affirmatively either.
The train slowed as it pulled into the next station. Signs along the wall read Piazza dei Cinquecento. Doors opened. The few remaining people filed out, leaving him alone at the rear. The crowd started up the steps toward the exit. He allowed them to move along in front of him before darting into a dim corner next to the wall. Reaching through the slit in his trench coat, he cradled the Glock 9mm pistol strapped in a holster on his hip.
The sound of shoes trudging up the cement steps died out, and in a few moments the platform emptied. Jogging on quiet soles, he rushed to the end of the tunnel as soon as the train left. One last glance around the area revealed he was alone. With a quick hop, he leaped from the platform down to the subway floor and hurried into the tunnel. Not ten feet in, the darkness swallowed him.
From rummaging around in the basement of the public archives, he had found the remnants of the plans for the metro system, which revealed that forty feet down this section of track there had been a storage area in the side of the tunnel. The architectural renderings indicated the area to be the size of a small room that would serve his purposes well. Feeling along the wall next to the steel tracks, he found that the plans were correct. Once inside the chamber, he pulled out a flashlight and made a quick inspection of the space. An old pickax stood against a blackened wall. Small hunks of volcanic rock covered the ground and made a slight crunching sound under his feet. With lights still beaming from the station, he could detect the subway tracks well enough to work quickly.
Settling against the brick wall, he unzipped the lining of his trench coat and pulled out the paper-wrapped briquettes that he set in a row in front of him. The plastic explosives should not detonate until the blasting caps were ignited, but he was no expert, and the narrow clay-like bars made him anxious.
In the dim light, he studied the packages of C-4, the same material terrorists used when they attacked the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000 and killed seventeen sailors. In his other pocket, he carried the materials for the detonator that would set off the bomb. Expanding plasma from a small explosion of foil would drive a metal piece called a "slapper" across a gap and a shock would be detonated, exploding the C-4 with a bang about the size of Mount Vesuvius. From what he had learned, it should all go off like clockwork when the next subway coach rolled by in about three hours during the early morning commute.
Lights along the station platform flashed off, plunging the entire area into blackness except for his flashlight. It shouldn't take him long to set the C-4 on the tracks. His hands began to shake, and sweat poured down his face. The detonator mechanism wasn't fragile, but his unsteady hands were a liability. Leaning over the bars of plastic explosive, he took a deep breath and unwrapped the first paper package.
A single, piercing light suddenly appeared on the platform in the darkness, sending a beam down the tunnel. Probably a night watchman, maybe a polizia, making a final check for the evening. The stout man clicked off his flashlight and hugged the wall. His glimmer of light might have been spotted from the terminal platform. If so, he was in trouble. Pulling the Glock from his pocket, he dropped to one knee and aimed at the entrance to the tunnel. If whoever had the flashlight entered, one shot in the man's chest would end the threat, but it might also ruin his plans. He caught his breath and waited. The light bobbed his way, and then it stopped.
"Anybody down there?" a man yelled.
He released the safety, ready to kill.
"Anyone in the tunnel?" the voice called again.
A trickle of sweat ran down the side of the terrorist's corpulent face. Yelling down the tunnel was beyond stupid. The guy must be an idiot. If he had to kill a cop, then he would leave the body in the tunnel and hope the stiff went unnoticed until the bomb went off in a few hours. No one would find him in the debris. If the guy walked into the tunnel, he had signed his death warrant.
The flashlight stopped searching the walls of the tunnel and turned back in the other direction. The bomber started to breathe again.
After the light disappeared, he hurried out on the tracks and quickly assembled his bomb next to the rails. Once the detonators were positioned, he hurried out of the tunnel and climbed back on the arrival platform. His calculations suggested that the explosion might collapse the subway entrance and shut down the entire connection at this terminal. If not, the blast would certainly block the tunnel when it destroyed the front portion of the train. Either way, the blast would make a statement that Rome would never forget.
It wasn't that he hated Rome itself; it was the American presence and their constant interference in European commerce that had to stop. Uncle Sam's long, skinny fingers kept dipping into his business, messing up the ice market, fouling his imports, and screwing up Italian politics. The politico big boys wouldn't listen to someone like him, but a few of these explosions around the city, and they wouldn't need a hearing aid to tune him in. He wanted to sting them so badly that they would think twice before doing any more business with the Yanks. Uncle Sam had already gotten away with way, way too much. Now it was time for the Italians to wake up or go down the toilet in one giant flush.
Grabbing his flashlight and a can of white spray paint from his trench coat pocket, he rushed toward the subway wall. Since this was only a first sting, he'd leave a mark to let the police know they were messing with a poisonous snake that would return and bite again. He made a large sweeping arch on the brick wall with the paint. Quick, bold movements designed a wasp's stinger. Standing back with his flashlight, he assessed his artistic creation waiting in the midst of imminent destruction. This design would be his signature for future projects as well.
Once finished, he jumped back down to the tracks and started walking into the opposite tunnel, which would enable him to exit through a manhole cover several miles away. It should cover his tracks. After all, he had all night to reach his destination.CHAPTER 2
September 3, 2008
The glaring headlines of Il Messaggero sent Dr. Jack Townsend diving into the newspaper story. The bombing in the subway terminal had disrupted the metro system that brought commuters in underground to avoid Rome's congested streets. Terrorists had set off a bomb just outside the termini in Piazza dei Cinquecento, blowing the subway train off the tracks and killing a dozen people while injuring countless others. Because Rome had not been the victim of attacks as London had, the city erupted in an uproar with citizens demanding immediate action.
With close-cropped brown hair and a Matt Damon boyish face, Dr. Jack Townsend didn't fit the usual expectations for an academician. Looking far more like an athlete, the forty-year-old scholar disliked violence of any sort, but particularly feared his wife's reaction to the news. During the time Jack and Michelle finished their PhD studies in biblical research in Tübingen, Germany, he had seen fear in her eyes more than once when terrorists attacked American embassies. He and Michelle had come to Rome to pursue a project that could grab the entire world's attention, but her apprehension about terrorist attacks could derail their work.
When she was five, Michelle's parents had been on a vacation on the coast of Bari, Italy. After a weekend of fun and sun on the beach, the family started back to Rome. They had turned at Cerignola toward Naples and were winding over the mountains when a semitrailer truck bore down the highway out of control and crossed the centerline. Michelle's family ended up in the ditch upside down when the car rolled. The truck exploded in a blast of fire. Since that afternoon collision, she had struggled with an extreme fear of explosions.
Jack read the newspaper story a second time. No one seemed to know who set off the blast, but a group the police dubbed as "The Scorpion" had etched a design on the subway wall that looked like the stinger on one of the dreaded creatures. Reporters had invented the label and as best the journalists could tell, there didn't seem to be any obvious links with international terrorist groups. Local discontents were thought to be behind the attack.
"More coffee?" The bushy haired waiter sailed by holding a large silver pot aloft. The intensely inviting aroma curled around the patrons.
Jack shook his head. "No, Luichi. Thank you. Hard to say no, but I've had enough."
The waiter bowed graciously and hurried off with his white apron flying and the silver coffeepot held high. Luichi fascinated Jack with his artistic flourishes. Jack liked the Dar Poeta sidewalk café partly because of the unpredictable waiters and mostly because of the artichoke dishes like the alla giudia cooked in a Roman-Jewish style. The restaurant was not far from the Tiber River and the Amadeo bridge that led into Borgo Santo Spirito street leading him back to the Piazza San Pietro of the Vatican where he often worked in the library.
People fascinated Jack Townsend. Curiosity had always been one of his strongest traits, and that's what fueled his passion for researching the Greek Scriptures. But watching the unusual forms bouncing down the street totally hooked his interest. Fat ones. Skinny ones. Voluptuous. Ugly. Gorgeous. They were all out there, and he loved watching them go by. Jack folded the paper and put it under his arm. Leaving a tip on the white tablecloth, he walked out onto the sidewalk.
"Ah, amico!" a familiar voice called out. "Wait!"
Jack turned to discover Tony Mattei waving at him. The heavyset Italian could turn up in the strangest places, and Vicolo del Bologna street was certainly one of them.
"Tony, good morning! What are you doing on this side of Rome?"
"I simply happened to be walking down the street when I saw you. I was concerned you might have been hurt in that awful explosion."
Jack studied the jewelry merchant and diamond broker. Always a flashy dresser with two or three sparkling rings on each hand, Mattei's thick, black hair hung across his forehead like a schoolboy coming in from recess, but this was no naive child. Tony Mattei's eyes constantly shifted back and forth taking in everything in sight. Jack noticed that Mattei's broad smile and his hard probing eyes didn't quite fit together.
"In this city of a billion people you should run into me on the street?" Jack said. "Surprising."
"I am a blessed man." Tony beamed a broad smile. "The gods have smiled on this humble Italian. But my question is about the bombing. Did it frighten you?"
Jack nodded his head. "Sure. I'm appalled. No one wants to be in a city when some terrorist starts killing innocent people."
"But fortunately, not hurt?" Tony turned his head sideways and narrowed his eyes. "I see no signs of injury."
"No. We're all right. Why would you think we were hurt?"
"No reason. No reason. Ah! That is good. Well, my friend, keep your eyes open. We are living in dangerous times."
"You're right about that." Jack waved. "Got to get back to the office." He started walking away. "Take care."
"I will." Tony Mattei waved. "Be careful, my friend."
Jack hurried down the street toward the Amadeo bridge. Strange. Tony Mattei had always been one of those characters who had a way of showing up out of nowhere. When he made one of his appearances at a café, the man drank enough black coffee to float a boat down the Tiber River. He was rumored to drink an equal amount of wine on other occasions. Tony Mattei remained one of those local institutions that made the ancient city of Rome always seem unique and quaint.
He glanced at his watch. Michelle would probably be irritated at him for squandering his time drinking coffee.
"Taxi!" Jack held his hand high in the air. "Taxi!"
* * *
The cab driver pulled up in front of Santa Maria della Concezione Church on Via Vittorio Veneto. Jack paused for a long look at the majestic structure of the old church. Somewhat diminished by the construction of Via Veneto, the sixteenth century edifice had originally been part of a Capuchin convent. The relationship to the Capuchin order gave the church an unusual twist. Having walked through the building a hundred times, he couldn't resist another look. The draconian features of the large church captivated his attention.
Capuchins monks had broken from the Franciscan Order in Naples in 1525 in a desire to fulfill St. Francis's original vision of helping the poor and helpless. Taking on a lifestyle of extreme simplicity, the new order set out to minister to the outcasts of society. In time Cardinal Barberini, originally a Capuchin monk, built the structure that also became the cemetery for the order. Jack Townsend opened the heavy front door and started down the dark hall.
Excerpted from Shrouded in Silence by Robert L. Wise. Copyright © 2011 Robert L. Wise. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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