Saturday, 26 January 2008

Dark Mirror

[Earlier that day : Seventh Secure House#5, Pontavecchio.]

The hand-delivered letter was slipped under the american's door just after midnight.
He failed to notice it until he had risen,showered,shaved and "dressed to impress" in his lightweight armani.
Intending to have an early breakfast with his new-found friends [he never once questioned the bodyguards' cover story of being Nuncio Liaison];he could hardly wait to try out his Italian [An intensive two week course on CD] on "the natives".

A brief note from "a friend" - whom did he know in Rome ? Apart from the obvious, but he would not have sent a note .Maybe it was someone from the american college ? Or a US bishop who knew he was seeing the Cardinal this evening? Whoever it was, it was certainly a stroke of luck...

A single sheet of foolscap, typewritten:

His excellency Cardinal Athanasio is an avid amateur Chess-player and will expect you to play tonight; through which he'll attempt to assess your character. It's a minor eccentricity but worth your while to be aware of it. You will play black .He Invariably opens using the Giucco Piano. This will help you win:

1: e4 e5
2: Nf3 Nf6
3: Bc4 Nd4??
4: NxP Qg5??
5: Nxf7 Qxg2
6: Rf1 Qxe4+
7: Be2 Nf3mate

good luck,
a friend.

The american slapped his thigh and grinned. Clutching the piece of paper with both hands he kissed it and looking upwards whispered
"Thankyou. Whoever you are!" He had played chess in school and college, usually won too, but this was gold-dust !!! Something seemed to be hanging round the back of his mind...a chess-game, Rome, Kiel...No, that was when Kiel played the pope wasn't it? that must have been in Baltimore ?
What was it Napoleon said ? If you are born without luck make sure you surround yourself with lucky friends...
The aroma of breakfast wafted up the staircase. The american neatly re-folded the sheet and placed it safely inside his jacket pocket.
Whistling a Puccini aria he descended the stairs : always better to announce one's presence - What joke can I use about a night's sleep? Do they have smores in Italy?

Janicular Hill, Seventh Secure House #4

Cardinal Listener's eye was causing him some discomfort. He'd dislodged his contact lens during his appearance before the pope and had been given no opportunity to either remove it or slide it over the iris. By the time he had placed his signature on the twenty-third document he had the onset of a severe migraine. Luck ensured he had pocketed his supply of ergotamine medication and thus was able to alleviate most of the Pain and Nausea..
It was typical that one of the most significant nights of his life should have been encumbered with social embarassment.

The bedroom had that "new carpet" smell and the lightswitch worked the wrong way - one flicked it up to turn it on, just like the US ?
He kicked off his shoes without untying the laces, and even though his father was hundreds of miles away, felt guilty for doing so and untied them to placate his absent parent.
Plush sage-green carpet. Cool chequerboard bathroom tiles underfoot.His white sports socks had been blackened by the new oxford shoes he'd bought for the journey. Low toilet with a metal bar for a handle connected to the pipe not the cistern - like america again ? This could be the american college? Possibly, but why american-style fittings? Must have been expensive...
Gazing into the frameless bathroom mirror he readjusted his lens...
Once his eye re-focussed he caught a glimpse of the roman collar, he was unworthy to wear such a thing and wrenched it from his throat in defiance.
"I should have said no", he whispered.
He reached for his suitcase, scrambled through it to a beaten copy of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and retrieved the photograph he'd been using as a bookmark.
Falling on the bed ,clutching the photo to his chest, he lay silently for a few minutes until tears flowed. He fumbled in his pocket for something to wipe his face and instead withdrew the Jet Rosary given to him by Bishop Ponti. He eventualy found a tissue,blew his nose loudly and blessed himself.
Kneeling down at the bedside he began to recite his prayers : An Our Father, Three Hail Mary's and a Glory Be for the intention of the pope.
The encounter with the Pope had been brief but left him awe-struck. The little servant to over a billion he had previously only viewed as a tiny white spot saying Mass for thousands in a sports stadium.
It was like leaving Plato's cave - too real to endure.
The Pope himself had touched his hands and kissed his neck, reassuring him that his incardination was a temporary formality and nothing to fear.
...and the nails? wrapped in linen and velvet - were they the real nails...Oh my God if they were real !?
His mind wandered onto speculations regarding the Spear of Destiny for a few moments; then he returned to his rosary.
Was it still Monday ? or past midnight ? Better say the Joyful and Sorrowful mysteries just in case....
He wished he could stop shivering....
Halfway through the seventh "hail mary" while meditating on the mystery of the visitation the young cardinal's muscles relaxed into sleep....

He awoke with a start. It was still dark outside and he'd fallen asleep with the lights on [another pang of guilt]. He removed his trousers, folded them less than neatly across the overpadded green armchair, removed his over-sized shirt - part of the clerical garb Casaregna had thrown at him in the car on the way to the Lateran - and detected the smell of adrenaline and cheap deodorant in the nervous sweat.
From the suitcase he removed a white t-shirt and toilet bag, briefly looking around for a clock that wasn't present, he headed to the bathroom. It was twenty minutes later when he went to switch off the bedroom light that he became aware of the letter.

The cardinal was one of those aggravating individuals who took little, if anything, for granted.
With a verging-on-paranoid interest the young man inspected the letter.
A typewriter ? who uses a typewriter these days? and blue ink ?
Feeling the uneven ridges at the back of the paper it was obviously the work of a non-typist. Wait a smear, this is a carbon copy -this is crazy...
Chess notation? There is no way will I be able to work this out without a board...what's this ? hold over the bedside lamp, no still not clear ,use a pencil? no, cigarette ash will have to do - wait till later...
The English was too English. Obviously not a native speaker but not African or Latin American. Chinese? Not clinically poetic enough. Differing lengths of sentences hinted at either french or eastern european but the French would have been more articulate and generally the eastern european would have been less conspiratorial. That's it ! This note has been composed by two people ; one british or canadian,the other european.
A friend ? I don't know anyone in Rome. Not now...not since Martin left...Well there is ? No , not friends
What's this indentation on the envelope? the imprint of vertical handwriting on the left hand side...3...1..4. that's my room number...

The young cardinal sat on the edge of the bed, thoughts rolling over each other like a storm at sea.
Not a typist, not from a pc where a printout gets saved on a hard disk, a carbon copy implying two...
Eight minutes later he jumped up and stated stentoriously as if he had an audience :
"I wonder....?" .
There was the slightest off-chance that the courier of the note was a tiny bit reckless.
Cautiously opening the door he exited and descended the flight of stairs. On the Mezzanine were a few doors, pot plants, a drinks machine, two armchairs and a clock reading 3:17 a.m. No, it wasn't here...maybe on the ground floor?
Halfway down the stairs he noticed it. A Waste-Paper bin : Quite large with an ashtray for a lid standing alone just to the left of the entrance doors. Through the frosted glass panes he also saw the shadow of the six-foot four gorilla [who'd brought him here with the Bishop and Monsignore] standing guard.

He ran back to his room , grabbed his lighter and cigarettes and hastened to the entrance.
The security guard was quite affable after the cardinal offered a cigarette ,and Listener was glad the man knew a little english; for Listener's Italian was pretty near non-existent.
After a few minutes Listener yawned, shook the guard's hand and surprised himself by blessing him too. Emulating a cleric was too easy,he'd have to watch himself that it didn't become too sacrilegious. He had been a priest for many years now ; but he was yet to feel a true one.
He said a polite "bueno noche", wondering if that was Spanish and not Italian, but the guard gave no indication, so he returned to his room; but not before removing the contents of the rubbish bin and nesting them in his t-shirt. There was an off-chance he'd find...well? don't tempt fate.
The guard sighed and allowed himself a brief smile. He had seen many things over the years; but never a cardinal sharing cigarettes on a doorstep in his boxer shorts !

Upon entering his room, he commenced rummaging through the litter, Listener found exactly what he'd suspected. Luck had been with him ! Two small pieces of paper, a larger envelope and a handwritten note. He couldn't understand the Italian but naturally assumed it was a request for someone to deliver two identical letters. It was signed Mgr Lovec and this monsignor had been daft enough to use headed notepaper. One slip of folded paper had his name and address on it, the numbers matching exactly the indentations on the envelope.. With the cigarette ash he'd retained he gently rubbed his ring finger over the written impression on the Lovec note.
Papa dormante - Dad's asleep ? Sleeping Pope ? The sleeping pope was an urban myth wasn't it ?
It was the name on the other slip that made his heart skip a beat.
"What's that bastard doing here? Maybe he'll be there at the meeting this evening? Ah well ! Any familiar face is better than none I s'pose"
As for this chess ?
He returned to the bathroom to urinate. While drying his hands he caught his reflection in the mirror.
"You're a cardinal now, well at least for today - bloody act like one !!"
He stared judgmentally into his reflection's eyes. Closing them he rested his forehead against the cold glass.
"Please God?" he sighed ; "Just this once, please, don't let me screw it up again ?"

Crawling under the sheets, he hoped to read a couple of chapters of his book by the light of the bedside lamp...the big feather pillows were far too enticing for him not to descend rapidly into a dream-filled sleep.

It was now 9:10 and the cardinal had still not condescended to join them for breakfast; despite being awoken fifty-five minutes ago.
Bishop Ponti decided to fetch the young man to avoid any grief with Casaregna and cold eggs - the monsignore was as wide as he was tall and he begrudged ever missing a meal outside Lent.
Ponti found the room door open and Listener kneeling down on the bathroom tiles surrounded by articles of clothing and other objects.
Clutching a piece of paper in his hand, the new cardinal turned to Ponti and beamed.
"Good morning Bishop - did you sleep well ? is it nine O'clock already ? I'm sorry it's just I never wear a watch..."
"Eminence ? Could you possibly be playing chess with your belongings? "
"Yes Bishop - and I think I've got it ! It's the Tinker Jim scam !"
"Eminence I really think..."
Being slightly overfamiliar, propriety being clouded by solving the puzzle, Listener put his arm around the Bishop and escorted him downstairs.
"Allow me to explain over breakfast, if I am right I think I'm going to like Cardinal Athanasio. How much do you know about chess ? I'm useless !!"

The american had an excellent breakfast, he recited a North American Indian "grace before meals" to the "Great Spirit", polite conversation followed, various jokes and stories which regularly ended with the ridicule of a haughty cleric, a "dressing down" of a bishop by a devout overweight black woman [the comedic stereotype - the priest usually found the name "Bernice" brought the best laughs] or a child bringing someone "up short" with an innocent,poignant comment, an array of others with some ascerbic punchlines or "socially meaningful pauses for thought". The american felt he had held his audience "in the palm of his hand" until there was an awkward lull; during which his "hosts" invited him to "visit the wonders of Rome" later that morning.
He accepted enthusiastically and retired to his room to "pray his office".
The Gold-Trimmed Divine Office was more a fashion accessory than a clerical prayer book ,it was a gift from the parishioners of his Childhood home in Ireland. It had been opened more times by others, merely to read the pietistic but heartfelt inscription on the first page, than by the american. Back home in the US he was Chair of the Liturgical advisory commission which proposed an overhaul of the prayers of the church. Out with the archaic and irrelevent ramblings of the Gregories,the Clements and other long-winded saints whom no-one remembers except from stained-glass windows. In with Oscar Romero, Dr King, Hermann Hesse,Thomas Merton and Carlo Carretto, and at last a host of women religious writers !! In these groundbreaking ecumenical times what was required was a more embracing eastern mysticism of Bede Griffiths which reverts back to the simplistic house-church times ; before the Constantinian Patriarchal Autocracy. A return to the personal meditative relationship with the "man of galilee". He also mentioned in his speech to the commission names like John Cassian, Don Bosco and the socially relevant "gay saint" John of the Cross ; never having investigated who these people were; he was aware of their influence; what is more they sounded good!!!
Extracting his walkman from his briefcase, he inserted a CD of contemporary liturgical "Music for the Hours", fitted the earphones and flipped open his laptop computer. Please be aware of the psychological significance : Rather than tell a blatant lie about his recitation of the prayers of the church- as the majority of the clergy would- the priest had found an accommodating less irksome compromise which seldom challenged the remnants of the conscience he still possessed. Relatively speaking ,the priest was more authentically loyal to his clerical vows than most of his contemporaries.

A brief internet search revealed the pertinent details regarding cardinal Athanasio and the minor office he ran for the diplomatic service.
It was all pretty mundane and frankly over-pietistic. Mission Schools, Charities,support for minor re-development programmes. Long-winded names for causes that nobody really cared for in these days of the global village and pressure-group politics, except isolated little old ladies ,spending their days reciting the rosary and putting their quarters into boxes with pictures of little black babies on the side. This brainwashing was contemptible .These vatican departments were the kind of thing that continued to make the catholic church an anachronistic embarassment. These countries needed the entrepreneurial spirit, a cultural infrastructure, the opportunity to participate in the cyber-technological revolution, social empowerment. They needed condoms not catechisms ! When truly unifying catholic democracy arrives through de-centralisation , the self-enabling power of conciliarity, a real community of autonomous churches where specific heterogenous socio-cultural and ethnic considerations were made manifest ; on that day Athanasio's department, indeed the whole corrupt eurocentric vatican bureaucracy, would be defunct , surplus to requirement...
"Speed the day" , thought the american.

He looked at the skeletal figure in red on the computer screen. Athanasio had not aged well, yellow about the eyes. Possibly an alcoholic? Not a pleasant-looking individual. Probably a sexually repressed fascist who had to walk barefoot to Lourdes every time he had a wet dream ? Or worse , a holy joe who thinks the world is all Frank Capra and Hallmark Movies? Still ? He was doing his bit to help the "lepers of Surinam" [he laughed to himself "sounds like a heavy metal band" ] and at least the guy was making sure the native kids were learning english which could help them get a job in IT , so he couldn't be all bad...
"Wonder why he wants me ? Probably promotional and fund-raising work...he's heard what I've done in the US and wants an expert without having to pay for one."
The american placed the walkman on the computer keyboard and, carrying them both,ensuring he didn't get entangled in the various wires and adaptors, sat back on the bed and rested the laptop on his stomach...
After twenty or so minutes he clicked the icon which removed the cyber-chessboard from the screen. The Internet search revealed to him that the moves detailed in the letter were officially known as the "Blackburne Shilling Gambit" and it was popular amongst post-war con-artists trying to fleece the odd franc, deutschmark or sixpence from passers-by in the larger cities of western europe. The GrandMaster Alekhine compared the moves of the black queen and knight to those of Catherine the Great and Potemkin...
The american was becoming bored...he'd memorised the chess-game and after several unsuccessful attempts to access his e-mail address he switched off the laptop and searched through his wardrobe for something "tourist-y but still clerical" to wear.
Had the priest read on he would have discovered that the chess permutations were also known colloquially as the "Black Widow".

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