Responding to an urgent summons from the Vatican, Harvard professor of religion and archaeology, Cal Donovan, flies to Italy to interview a young priest who has developed the stigmata of the crucifixion. Stunned to discover that the priest’s condition may be genuine, Cal determines to uncover the cause of the mysterious wounds.
But Cal is not the only one. When Giovanni is kidnapped from his church at dead of night, Cal comes to realize that the priest holds the key to an earth-shattering secret: a secret which a shadowy nationalist organization is desperate to control. Teaming up with Giovanni’s sister Irene, Cal must unravel the mystery and track down Giovanni in a perilous race against the clock … before an apocalyptic catastrophe is unleashed.
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Syria Palaestina, 327
The relentless Jerusalem sun had baked the earth hard as stone. Despite the midday heat, the leather-skinned laborers swinging heavy picks dared not break their cadence. The lady was close by, watching their every move, listening to the musical pings of iron striking the hard concretion.
She sat, shaded by her tent, on a flattened mound of detritus overlooking the excavation. Unsmiling Roman soldiers stood guard at each corner of the open-sided enclosure. These men and their comrades, who encircled the site with a ring of steel, were no ordinary legionnaires, but an elite cohort of centurions chosen by the emperor himself. It was not as if there were specific threats against the lady's person or even a general sense of menace. In truth, most of the people of Jerusalem were supportive of her actions and appreciative of her generosity to the poor. But there was no room for a cavalier error. One malcontent with a sling could have wrought disaster. This was the emperor's mother, an empress in her own right.
Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta.
The tavern girl who was consort to an emperor, Constantius Chlorus, and birthed a greater one, whom history would come to know as Constantine the Great. The man who defied centuries of Roman tradition, sweeping aside the gods and embracing Christianity.
If Constantine did the sweeping, then Helena was the broom.
So enamored was she with this young Christian religion, that at the age of near-eighty – when most noble women in extreme dotage were being carried from room to room in comfortable Roman villas – spry Helena was making pilgrimages to distant lands in search of the relics of Christ.
Arriving in the holy city of Jerusalem with her entourage, she astonished the ordinary populace by walking among them in their markets and churches, asking what they had learned from their ancestors about the location of Christ's tomb and Golgotha: the site of his crucifixion. The oral history was strong. Three hundred years in a land so ancient and rich in storytellers was but a grain of time. Now, two years into her expedition, the end was in sight and Helena's success was staggering. She had churches built on the site in Bethlehem, which she deemed to be that of Christ's birth, and on the Mount of Olives, the place of his ascension. These discoveries were but a trifle compared with the enormous task at Calvary: the site most often mentioned by locals as Jesus's burial place. Two hundred years earlier, Emperor Hadrian had undertaken a reconstruction of Jerusalem following the violent and destructive Jewish revolts. At Calvary, he covered the mound with earth and erected a large temple to Venus and it had fallen to Helena to take that building down, block by block.
The venerated Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem was Helena's constant companion, spiritual advisor and it was he who had chosen the spot for excavation, once the ground was laid bare. A team of pick and shovel men (Syrians and Greeks for the most part) led by the foreman, an unctuous Syrian named Safar, had soon found an old, Jewish-style rock-cut tomb. Safar helped Macarius descend a ladder into the excavation pit and when the old bishop returned to Helena's side he tearfully proclaimed it to be the Savior's very tomb. Weeks later, at a nearby location, the diggers unearthed three sets of decayed and petrified timbers. Lifted from the pit and laid out for Helena's inspection, she and Macarius joyfully declared them to be the crosses of Christ and the two thieves. But which one was Christ's?
Macarius proposed a solution to the vexing problem.
Pieces of each cross were taken to the bedside of a cachectic woman dying from tumors in her belly. Firstly, one piece of wood was placed in her hand. Nothing happened. Likewise a second piece had no effect. But the third piece was miraculous. Clutching the splinter, her color went from yellow to pink and the swelling of her belly receded. She sat up, the first time she had been able to do so in ages and smiled.
They had found the True Cross.
Now Helena had one final quest before she could bundle up her relics and journey back to Rome. She sent the diggers back into the pit to find the nails of the crucifixion.
'Will there be three or four?' she asked Macarius.
The bishop sat beside her in the tent. 'I cannot say, my lady. Some executioners preferred a separate spike for each ankle. Others speared both ankles with a single one.'
'I do wish they would hurry,' she said. 'I am an old woman.'
The bishop dutifully laughed. He had heard her say the same countless times.
Down in the pit and hidden from view, Safar watched his men scrape away at the earth beneath the spot where they had found the True Cross. His keen eye spotted something. He pushed the nearest man aside and continued the task with his handpick. Digging on his knees he exposed a large spike, black with oxidation. It was as long as a man's hand, quadrangular, with an intact, flat head. He was about to pull it out when his eye settled on a black dot a short distance away and soon he had exposed a second nail, this one shorter, with a broken tip. Then a man several feet away called out to him in Syrian. He had unearthed another nail and while Safar was cleaning along the shaft he noticed yet another trace of black. Soon four nails were exposed. The last one was missing half its head, apparently sheared off in its insertion or removal from the cross.
'The lady will be pleased, no?' the worker said to Safar.
'I am sure she will be most pleased,' Safar said, looking up at the pale sky. 'Her work is done. She will leave us now.'
'Will she give us coins?' the worker asked.
'She will give me a bag of coins and if you keep your mouth shut then I will give you a nice share.'
'Keep my mouth shut about what?'
'She will receive three nails only.'
'What of the fourth?'
'That one is mine,' he said, pointing to the last found, the one with the broken head. 'I have long endured laboring under the yolk of a woman.'
'She is an empress.'
'She is still a woman. This is my reward for the indignity. Besides, it is broken and she will accuse us of causing the damage. I will sell the relic. If you talk, you will die poor.'
Safar used his pick to loosen the dirt around the fourth nail, until he could pry it out. He greedily closed his fingers around it to feel its heft but he loosened his grip at once. There was a tingling sensation in his wrist, a slightly unpleasant warmth, and he quickly shoved the nail into the front pocket of his robe.
The other worker climbed from the pit and ran over to Helena's tent.
'Safar has found the nails, your majesty!' he declared.
Helena's wrinkled face lit up at the news. 'How many?' she asked, as Safar approached. 'Three or four?'
Safar gave her a gap-toothed grin. 'Three, your majesty. Only three.'
Asunción, Paraguay, 1955
He was a sensitive eleven-year old, prone to flinching when his father was beastly which only made the towering figure angrier.
'Be a man, goddamn it! Don't whimper!'
His father was like a volcano. When the pressure inside him redlined, he would erupt. Otto Schneider's isolation was so complete that there was no one on the receiving end other than his wife and son. But for every ten times his father threatened young Lambret for some real or imagined transgression, he smacked him only once. This restraint quotient of ten to one was so uncannily accurate, young Lambret would know when it was time for a bruise and steel himself. His mother couldn't bear corporal punishment, so when it was imminent she would flee the room in tears and come back when it was over to offer kisses and a piece of tea cake. And when she was the recipient of an open hand or worse, the boy would emulate her kindness and bring his mother sweets.
'I hate him.'
'He doesn't mean it, Lambret. You must love him. He's under a lot of strain. He was a general, a big man. Now he's, well, he's your father. We must understand.'
The boy wasn't enrolled in school. His father refused to allow him to learn Spanish, which he considered a degenerate language, and the fewer people who knew that the family in the modest house were German, the better. His mother had been a language teacher back home and she was the one who dealt with the world outside their garden gate. She homeschooled Lambret six days a week, five hours a day, longer if his father thought he was having it too easy. He received a steady diet of Latin and Greek along with German literature and culture. The only subject in which Otto took an interest was history. The trials and tribulations of the Aryan race were particularly important to him. The boy needed to know the truth, not Zionist propaganda and claptrap. The boy had been born in Berlin in late 1944, as the war effort was going from bad to worse. Otto had named him Lambret, meaning 'light of the land' in old German, a ridiculously optimistic gesture given the darkness descending on Deutschland. There was a photo kept locked in his father's study desk of Himmler planting a kiss on baby Lambret's cheek.
That desk was the source of endless fascination. Over their years in the house, the boy had seen his father unlock the desk drawers and examine all manner of wonderful artifacts. When he'd ask about them he was always angrily rebuffed, until the time his father finally told him that one day all the treasures in the desk would be his.
'When I'm dead.'
'When will that be?'
'Soon enough, if the bastards have their way.'
Lambret didn't know who these bastards were but he quietly rooted for them.
Of late, when his father napped in the afternoons and his mother prepared supper, the boy began to surrender to his curiosity about the contents of the big desk and made forays into the study to look for the drawer key. It was a large room with many possible hiding places. There were hundreds of books, ashtrays, pipe racks, regimental and decorative beer steins, and bric-a-brac. It was even possible that the key was always on his father's person. But Lambret was not deterred. He would spend no more than five minutes a day on the furtive search. The consequences of being discovered rummaging in the forbidden room were too great to contemplate.
Lambret tried again. Glancing repeatedly at the pendulum clock on the study mantelpiece, so as not to lose track of time, the boy looked inside and under every beer stein although he had covered this ground before. A neighbor's dog barked. The pendulum clock chimed once for the half hour. It occurred to him that he'd never inspected the clock. Pulling a chair over, he climbed up and carefully lifted the glass-domed clock down and rested it on the desk. There was writing on the brass base: an honorific inscription to his father from his regiment and a swastika inlaid with small ruby-red stones. He raised the clock to have a look underneath and there it was! The desk key held in a leather loop.
The dog barked again.
Trembling, the boy took the key and inserted it into the keyhole in the top drawer. Turning it, he heard a satisfying clunk as the mechanism unlocked the side drawers. In the distance he heard his mother placing a heavy pot on the stove. Half his exploration time remained. He went straight for the lowest drawer on the right. The one he had long ago seen his father remove an artifact from which, to this day, fevered his imagination. Inside was a single long object wrapped in blue velvet.
It was heavy.
He sat in his father's chair, placed it on the desk and slowly unwrapped it.
It was just as he remembered.
The spearhead was two-feet long from its sharp tip to its empty socket. At its widest it was two inches across. The steel was dark, almost black. He was transfixed by its weight and embellishments. A thin sheath of beaten gold, so shiny it hurt his eyes, was wrapped around the midsection of the blade. Above the golden sheath, a thin, black spike was occupying a central cavity cut into the steel. It was held in place with four separate coils of tightly wrapped silver wire. The spear seemed the embodiment of physical strength and, as the boy cradled it in his small hands, he could almost feel its destructive power.
'What are you doing?'
Lambret almost dropped the weapon.
His father was standing at the door in his stockinged feet.
'I'm sorry,' the boy stammered.
'You know you're going to be severely punished, don't you?'
Lambret knew he was due for a beating and by rights it was going to be a bad one. But there was a disconnect. His father seemed entirely too calm for the circumstance and that unnerved the boy further.
The boy's mouth was so dry the words almost didn't come out. 'I know.'
'I heard the dog bark,' his father said absently. He stepped into the room. For a fleeting moment Lambret considered defending himself with the object in his hands. 'Do you know what it is?'
'A lance, actually. The head of a Roman lance. It's a replica. Do you know what that means?'
'That it's not real?'
'It's real enough. It means it's not the original, but it's still quite special. It's a replica of the Lance of Longinus, also called the Spear of Destiny by some. Ever heard of it?'
The boy shook his head.
'Longinus was the Roman soldier who used his lance to finish off Jesus when he was on the cross. Christians say the lance is holy.'
'I don't know about that, but it possesses certain powers. The real one, that is.'
Lambret was emboldened by the fluidity of the conversation. Usually, a quick volley of shouts and curses preceded a punishment. 'Where did you get it?'
'It was given to me in the last days of the war by Heinrich Himmler himself. You do know who he was, don't you?'
'Himmler had the real Holy Lance but it was too valuable to show off, so he had this replica made by a famous Japanese sword maker, who came to Germany all the way from Kyoto. At the end of the war, Himmler gave it to me for my service to the Reich. It was a proud moment.'
'Where's the real one?'
'Ah, I will have that conversation with you when you are a good deal older. I have high hopes for you, Lambret. I intend for you to live up to your name and restore light and hope to our crippled Fatherland. I believe it is your destiny to one day find ...'
There was a short scream from the kitchen. Hearing his mother's cry, the boy dropped the spearhead onto the rug.
Otto Schneider ran to the study window and parted the curtain. A black sedan was idling at the curb.
Lambret heard heavy footsteps beating down the hall.
His father spat out the words, 'Israeli swine. It's finally happened,' and covered the distance from the window to the desk in two strides. He opened the center drawer and grabbed a small black pistol, the same Walther model that Hitler had used on himself. Lambret saw him raise the gun to his temple.
'Don't look away!' his father shouted. 'I will not have you look away! This will make you into a man!'
The study door flung open and an intruder yelled, 'Don't!'
Lambret did as he was told and watched his father blow out his brains.
Abruzzo, Italy, present day
The young priest, Giovanni Berardino, awoke from his afternoon nap damp with sweat. The shutters were closed and his room was dark and uncomfortably warm despite the whirring table fan. Even the simple act of switching on his bedside lamp had become difficult. He had already taught himself how to get out of bed without using his hands by throwing his legs down with speed and using the momentum to stand. Once upright, he hesitantly inspected his gauze-wrapped wrists. They were stained through with fresh blood. Choking back tears, he gingerly placed his palms together and bowed his head in prayer.
The painful bleeding had begun a month earlier. So far, he had been able to hide it from his new parishioners in the medieval hill town of Monte Sulla, but he feared he would be found out and compelled to see a physician. Already the nuns and a few parishioners had noticed that the jovial disposition he'd displayed on his arrival had turned sour and tongues were wagging. Was he upset about something? Was he facing the self-doubts that plague many a young man in the early days of priesthood? Or was there something about his new brothers and sisters that displeased him?
The priest's house was directly across the piazza from the ancient church of Santa Croce. His small room had an en suite bathroom and there, after donning his black trousers, he slowly unwrapped the gauze. He didn't like to look at the wounds. They were deep and bloody, the diameter of a two euro coin. He applied some ointment and rewrapped them with the last of his fresh gauze. He would have to get more at the pharmacy that afternoon. The pharmacist had made a light comment about his need for so many bandages: 'Are you making a mummy, padre?' He dreaded the scrutiny but what was he to do? He couldn't ask Sister Theresa or Sister Vera to make the purchase for him.
Despite the heat, he had been forced to eschew his short-sleeved, black clerical shirts in favor of long-sleeved ones. He slipped one over his undershirt and began the slow, difficult task of buttoning it. When he was done, he flinched as he slid the plastic Roman collar into the tab on his shirt.
Excerpted from "Sign of the Cross"
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