Saturday, 26 January 2008


l{This Novel is far from linear ; and I apologise beforehand for any confusion which may arise should anyone attempt to surmise the nature of its substance by a peripheral view of the first three chapters. Please understand that even though it may appear as a beginning , this is actually an introduction to the third part of the story ; and therefore will have little to do with what follows for several hundred pages ; although there will be corresponding links and overlaps ; [intrinsic and exigent].
I thus feel compelled to urge any reader not to pre-determine either predominant central characters or surmise that the plot is of a 'cloak and dagger' variety ; [ actually it's a very long and complex murder mystery set in a seminary - with twists aplenty !!] I should hate to disappoint even more than I already have with my limitations....
One more thing: Please remember this is an alternate universe; bearing little, if any resemblance to reality. Any comments regarding any individual should not be assumed to relate to any real person : living or dead.

May God Bless you all. Paul Priest 16/1/08 }

If We Shadows... A Novel by Paul Priest

Prologue: Fear No More....

My answers will not help you : believe what you will.
If there is such a thing as incontrovertible Truth , it will solely be found in hope.
This is a sincere account ; grounded upon fact ; with an occasional veering towards heartfelt conjecture.

What follows happened : only the precise way these events arose, the times and places they occurred , and the names of those involved ; differ [ lest I commit the sin of detraction] .

The innocent have been hurt enough ; and it was never my commission to punish the guilty [albeit ,for a brief period, it was shamefully my sworn intent].

Should you consider seeking out this tale from other sources , I would advise against it. Those who care for you will lie : Others will be far from charitable [or indeed knowledgeable] in their disclosure.
Let the dead bury the dead : Let Charity go beyond any demands for justice. [A.W]

[ Diary entry 24th January 2031 Mgr Michael Storm : "Notes upon the death of Cardinal Listener"]

....From this it can be deduced that Monsignor,later Bishop Storm , was present during the majority of events surrounding what is now known as "The Dagger of Eris" affair ; and, despite a none-too-subtle code; should be considered a credible source of eye witness reportage to substantiate and corroborate our own operative files.
I therefore submit all relevant items for discretionary classification level zero , transferred to section 14 ; and forthwith all electronic records of its existence on the central registry be eliminated.
[Lt. Colonel Dr. Dolores Hunt, acting Departmental Head , RGSE]

I snapped the folder shut.
His Holiness smiled briefly, his eyes grew distant and moistened; his memories must even now be too raw.

'" Might I ask how you obtained this 'non-existent' file , Holiness ?"
"You may ask...?" he smiled wistfully.
"Forgive me. I..."
"No Eminence . It is a good time for me to confess my mis-spent youth ."
His conspiratorial candour seemed almost childlike.
"Let us say my old teacher was exceedingly resourceful ; and that I was quite adept in my early days with electronic equipment - a simple camera relay in a photocopier made everything readily accessible - May God forgive our machinations. "

The subsequent silence was broken only when a flock of birds , high above the window ; took flight; yet in those few seconds of hesitancy the man before me ; his shallow swallow and downcast eyes ; this man was still enmeshed in the past - and this folder ; an admission of most poignant vulnerability ; was merely a minute fraction of his enduring penance....

"Now I am afraid if you will excuse me I must pray my office and rest before my journey."

He raised his hand in blessing ; I hastily bowed and retreated.
"Eminence ?"
I turned.
"Do not judge us too harshly. Our motives were pure ; however tragic the outcome."
He did not expect a response; even now I do not consider myself capable of giving one.

Preliminary : Enter Levi : Dramatis Personae

Central Dublin, March ,2005

The recently sand-blasted Georgian edifice of the Gardai station towered before her ; the wide stone balustraded steps reassuringly echoed her stilettoed heels as she ascended.

Her melodramatic banging-open of the immense glass-panelled hardwood doors made no effect upon the overweight world-weary desk-sergeant .

Giving her name as Professor Akanke Udezi and an assurance the investigation representative would meet her presently ; she was
nonchalantly dismissed to a remote green vinyl corner seating unit .

The far-from-faint odour of vomit and disinfectant ; the peeling posters advertising long-abandoned gardai-initiatives to combat various forms of street-crime and a far-from-proprietous hiv-awareness warning, the unsanitary-looking pile of magazines; the overly varnished dark woodwork , the garish duck-egg blue walls ; all this merely intensified her fury at the 'Guardians of the Peace's' gross incompetence....

The young tousled-haired detective seemed to appear from nowhere ; loudly mispronouncing her name ; his garish two-tone tie, near-fluorescent white shirt and sharply symmetrical decade-out-of-fashion suit; with an overpowering near-feminine aftershave ; induced a brief moment of temporary disorientation - during which she could only smile hesitantly....

Once his introduction and lengthy overly-enthusiastic handshake came to an abrupt awkward conclusion ; she made her carefully prepared statement ; never looking the officer once in the eye.
The stunned , rapidly-paling detective ran towards the security doors ; turning only briefly to throw a rapid 'excuse me..' over his shoulder.

Akanke remained standing - the desk sergeant's attention had now been stirred and he intermittently threw her glances , weakly smiling.

The detective was still presumably making attempts to inform his superiors of this new information the african professor had provided...

The entrance doors to the Station flew open. Two dark suited men , each holding walkie-talkies to their ear ; waited by the open doors
A short, balding, sharp-featured man in a grey suit entered ; followed by a sharply-dressed middle-aged woman with severely tied-back platinum hair .

Looking at nobody in particular the man barked :"GET ME SHERIDAN !"

The terrified desk-sergeant attempted to mumble some excuse between the stammers but with increased volume the man repeated his demand - the desk-sergeant fled - to the corridor...

Instantly the detective returned at a half-jog and, looking directly at Akanke, failed to notice the man in grey before his arm was roughly grabbed and he was forcefully spun around to face the...
"Where's Sheridan ?"
"Sir , as you know, he's still in quarantine at St Vincent's"

"I know that you damned fool - I mean how do you contact him ? I want to speak to him - NOW!!!"
The young man extracted his mobile phone, fumbling , it slipped from his hands only to be caught by Minister Sheerin...who immediately began to search the phone's contact list.
Trying to assist ; the detective reached out "'s"

"Son - I know how to use a fucking phone !"
After a few seconds it was obvious to all that the recipient's mobile had gone to answer-phone.

"Sheridan - Sheerin - listen to me you eejit ; if you want to keep your job and your bollocks get back to me within the hour , ya hear ?"

The detective tried a placatory "Sir is there anything I can do ?"
Sheerin was now incandescent with rage :
"Yes son you can please tell me how your God-awful detective section ; which couldn't find its way out of a revolving door ; can cause an international incident with the Vatican of all places if you please, over the murder of some black nun who WASN'T MURDERED !"
"'s only just come to our attention that...WHAT????!!!"

"Yes Sonny lad - she wasn't murdered - I've just received the examiner's report "
Raising his hand aloft the minister closed his eyes and exhaled .
The evidently-efficient female assistant quickly provided her superior with the requested file:

" Let's see : Natural causes - breast cancer if ya will - and all that cutting and scarring wasn't wounding ; t'was a rudimentary rural autopsy in some God-forsaken place called - what was it? LESS - OH - THOH..."

Akanke responded sharply :"It's pronounced Les-ooh-tooh"

Sheerin turned - incorrectly presuming from Akanke's bespoke suit that she was also Gardai - his intonation turned to a slow, high-pitched sarcasm....
"Oh really ? and who might you be ? No - don't tell me - you're the murdered nun back from the grave - knowing this bunch of gobshite mammy's boys you've been dusted up for evidence and lost in their filing cabinets for twelve days - am I right ? Go on - Tell me I'm right !"

He hurled another withering scowl at the young detective ; who found his voice and stuttered: "Sir she's not one of us ; she's..."

Akanke was stunned only briefly ; but loudly commenced a counter-offensive...

The Minister raised his hands aloft and halted her in her tracks...
"' I'm sorry , that was inexcusably rude of me - and I can only express my deepest apologies - in the heat of the moment it was ill-considered of me - I take it you're a relative of the deceased - my heartfelt condolences miss ? Miss ...?"
"Actually Minister Sheerin you were correct the first time : I am Professor Akanke Udezi ; once known , many years ago , as Sr Alice Udezi - your 'murdered' nun."

Akanke closed her eyes and , half-turning ; walked a few steps towards the exit ; the stunned group's darkened faces indicated they were now oblivious to any consideration which wasn't directed towards saving their own skins.
The Minister half-opened his mouth as if to deny the possiility that what she said was true...but he fell silent.
The incredulous desk-sergeant's : 'Then who the hell's in the morgue?!' ; seemed to break the spell.
Akanke was now in the entire assembly's eyeline : She repeated her identity.

...and Chaos followed.


July 2001

The lecture had been an unmitigated disaster .

Irrespective of the Dean's reassurance at the end-of-evening summation ; that experiencing the heated confrontation was wonderfully exciting - just what the Academic staff wanted from his appearance - Indeed :For the college to witness, and thus be participants, in the intellectual cut-and-thrust of ground-breaking ethical debate was something to appreciate, even cherish, forever - it cut no water with the professor.

The crowds of hand-shaking students , the scores asking him to autograph their copies of his book. It meant nothing.

Neil's self-credibility now lay in shreds.

The man in black was nowhere to be seen - apparently he too had 'evaporated like mist in the morning sun' ; after he had so depicted the cogency of Neil's theories....

He quickly gave excuses to flee the ravaged intellectual battle-scene ; even though most were utterly oblivious to the consequences of the dark interloper's seemingly innocuous "requests for clarification" ; and student and fellow-lecturer still idolised Neil as the genius; acknowledging him as being at the forefront of ethical re-synthesis ; the professor realised this was not merely the beginning of the end .

His insecurity in the face of the questioner had shattered his heretofore inviolable self-assurance that he was not only credible - he was right ! Right about his onto-centric situationism : Right about post-preference utilitarianism : Right in his resolutions of every major ethical dillemma facing contemporary society and their ochlogenic disordering- and yet it took all but eleven minutes of almost naiively innocent scrutiny by this elfin stranger to make Neil's theories turn to dust before him . Irrespective of the majority still finding his positions tenable ; the casts had fallen from Neil's eyes . Eight years of research , paradigmatic shifts and revisions were now irredeemably consigned to academic oblivion....

It was merely a matter of time.

He raced through the crowds of departing students and headed for the toilets. Splashing water upon his face gave little solace ; seemed to compound the nausea; and left him with a discomfortingly cold and saturated shirt-collar.

Sweeping the damp fringe from his eyes he entered the now-deserted corridor and made his way across campus towards his office.

His vainglorious attempt to sneak past his secretary was met with remonstration:

"..and where d'ya think you're going without telling me how it went ?"

"Sorry Agnes...I..." he exhaled deeply in exhaustion and despondency ; and for reasons which even he was unaware ; he began to laugh.

Running his hand through hair , turning towards her and cocking his head to an over-exaggerated angle he grinned resignedly. Amid breathy chuckles he roared over-dramatically,

"it was a bloody nightmare!"

Agnes knew she should vociferously counter that it couldn't have been so bad ; but she remembered the young man in Neil's office ; the whole of tonight's events' revelations could wait a few minutes.

"You have a visitor" she declared unapprovingly.

"I have ? Who ? Not...?"

"No. No. You're safe on that account - I don't know why you had anything to do with..."

"I know - you've told me a hundred times - I'm sorry - Now - this visitor : Who is it ?"

"Well he said he knows you ; but when I asked if he was your friend he smiled and said "Well I'm not sure if I can say that" ".

Then it clicked . Neil allowed his briefcase to slowly fall from his hand to the floor. He made a jerking movement towards the door then stopped himself.

Neil remembered exactly who the stranger in black was ; memories flooded in at break-neck speed and - surprising even himself -his heart leapt; however unpleasant their past had been ; meeting him again wouldn't be. Even after he'd just annihilated his ethical grand-opus....

Speedily he pulled at the corners of his suit , tightened his tie and swept back his fringe.

"How do I look ?"

"Like a desperate puppy ! You're not actually going to...?"

Preventing himself from declaring "I wish!" he raised a dismissive hand to eye-level and stuttered "no-no- what d'ya mean ? he's straight anyway !"

"well he's pretty enough - better than your usual sort - so I might have known you couldn't fall that lucky !"

"Thank you Agnes"

Conspiratorially she placed her elbows upon the desk and moving her face forward she whispered :

"Come on then - who is he ?"

"Someone who changed my life - twice - I owe him everything...oh , that's another thing : If he's here it means he's after something so I might have to cancel a few things - remind me to see you about my schedule..."

"How did you meet ?"

The stranger's face emerged from around the office doorframe

"Are you sure you want to tell her Neil ?"

Agnes was stunned at Neil's reaction - standing there biting his lip like a nervous schoolgirl.

The stranger continued "Go on - you might as well tell her !"

Neil laughed :

"Ok - if you must know - he shot me !"

A Vatican Interlude.

Part One : A Vatican Interlude

Chapter One: Uncertainty.

{11 Days Earlier}
Vatican City . August 2001.

Ostensibly there was a compliant diffidence to the papal directive; a reaction Cardinal Athanasio found disconcerting....
It soon became apparent that few regarded the operation as tenable.

Although unvoiced, "Levi"'s shelving was so anticipated within the "ninth office" [officially an inconsequential arm of the vatican's diplomatic service -in reality the nerve-centre of the 'special operations executive'] that the preliminary "schema" were issued with an expediency which surprised all save those within the coterie's upper eschelons.
The deficit of dissent did not arise from acquiescence, but from incredulity.

The Cardinal reluctantly confronted the possibility that once again he must regrettably inform his superiors, and ultimately His Holiness; that it was simply not feasible to actuate his order.

With a grim despondent prayer that delay would bring hope, he requested that his immediate deputy, Sister Monica Tiernan, should notify "the ninth" that the schema were unacceptable and all leave was suspended until a favourable resolution was formulated.
Normally such recalcitrance would invoke hostility within a department renowned for its acute individualism and non-conformity; the outwardly humble submission indicated cognisance that "Fred was clutching at straws!"

[Athanasio's cognomen "freddo" - the cold one - supposed that the Cardinal's cadaverous demeanour reflected a persona in which emotion of any kind was anathema. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.]

The "ninth" was distinguished in its extraordinary remit of being officially "impero" to act in the fullest regard that, in the words of a papal predecessor : "charity and mercy go beyond all demands for justice "

Every Intelligence network has its "cleaners"; a department that seldom refrains from getting its hands dirty for the greater glory of the institution .

The Ninth Office ensured that those members of Holy Mother Church, clerical or lay, received the fullest ‘protection of the keys’; irrespective of desert.

Although regular crimes and misdemeanours were dealt with on a diocesan or provincial level by canonical tribunals and episcopal discretion; the ‘ninth’ attended to "any other business".
Generally this involved covert operations in places far from conducive to any Catholic influence or interference.
It was neither regionally assigned nor directed towards information gathering; these were within the auspices of larger and more notable wings of the service.
There were special deputations who presided over almost all the security dealings in China, South-East Asia, Southern Africa, the Middle East etc; Nigeria had its own semi-independent control centre and India had three.
Therefore the ninth office's apparent "influence" was waning at a time its necessity was perceived by the majority of the liberal, oecumenically-minded "movers and shakers" as verging upon defunct obsolescence; and by those of an antithetical viewpoint as an indispensable "bastion of hope".

Vatican "cognoscenti" knew otherwise:

Far from this being a transitional period of open-dialogue, a reaching out towards our separated brethren with like-minded sincerity; a state of civil war existed within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Its once renegade fifth-column was now by far in preponderance within their own ranks.

[It is of little use to explain anything further here.]

Nevertheless were the Ninth Office’s manpower increased geometrically it would still be unable to do anything other than scratch the surface of the problems it sought to redress.

The Second Vatican Council's intent was to "open the windows to The Holy Spirit".

The poisons which lurked in the mud indeed "hatched out" but rather than...

No: This is neither the time nor place.

The Ninth was both saviour and victim.

The present Bishop of Rome had vast experience in surviving under totalitarian regimes; but somewhat less in confronting the vapid, insincere, pragmatic opportunist prevalent in contemporary diplomatic and clerical circles.

His naiive optimism was admirable, his unswerving faith in the altruistic nature of 'the informed and the justly-treated human' could not be doubted.
The reckless disregard for his own safety for the sake of higher ideals and human dignity was truly beyond reproach.
His enthusiastic openness to religious pluralism was nevertheless an aspiration only present in those who have been reared in a culture where a single creed held its sway ; one where there is neither experience nor wisdom on the issue.

Yet despite all this, the Successor to Peter was detested with a vehemence which had not been in such abundance since the time of Papa Pacelli - Pius XII.

Ironically the contempt was mainly driven from progressivist quarters within the church who were so abjectly ignorant of papal intention and policy they failed to realise he was their greatest ally.
Admittedly when it came to issues regarding Human Sexuality and the dignity towards Human Life he was , in the eyes of liberals, antediluvian and devoid of human compassion; but in relation to global politics, inter-faith discussion and liturgical innovation he was veritably "one of their own".

Those of the Traditionalist persuasion were more in despondency , if not despair , at the pontiff's reluctance to intervene and sweep clean the Augean stables than denounce him as heretic ; only the more vocal presumed to advocate such a stance.
The media, as is usual in such cases ; was blatantly unaware of the real crux of the situation.
Vatican commentators and correspondents were either so glibly overawed by the accoutrements of "being within the inner circle" or contaminated with their instilled anti-catholic agenda that they rarely even encroached upon that which could be perceived as possessing a modicum of reality.

The Pope entered into increasingly morose cycles of insecurity and the pain he endured from such hostility, antagonism and more readily a blatant disobedience and disregard for catholic orthodoxy was difficult to suppress; he developed an emotional intensity that became compromising to both his health and efficacy.
Papal biographies pieced together both questionable and anecdotal evidence; and pasted them to the author's [or his paymasters'] barely-hidden agenda; as is usual in such cases there was an inveterate predilection by the biographers to compare the Pontiff to a Shakespearean character that best-fitted their presumptions.

In reality the Servant of Servants was becoming increasingly isolated.
He could preach to hundreds of thousands and share their spiritual graces,their hopes and fears; joys and sorrows...
On a one-to-one level his insight and empathy shone through like a laser, melting away any anxiety or uncertainty.
It was within small groups and assemblies that the Holy Father became virtually helpless.
He had an almost allergic aversion to committees, cliques,deputations , inner rings...the corrupting, almost dehumanising effects of democratic "collective responsibility" where pragmatism reigned and integrity stumbled.
The adoption of corporate-based team strategies involving sponsors, project managers and key team leaders was something utterly alien and inhuman to him.
There was the old saying that a committee could make a camel, but only the One God could create the arab stallion.
The Post-Conciliar church "thrived [?]" on decentralisation and democratisation - No more so than in the USA which was now a law unto itself. They held ballots regarding their position on not only the liturgy and catechesis; but also doctrine and morality .
There was little recourse or even acknowledgement of Papal Primacy or the Magisterium or Catholic Tradition.
Indeed only a few months after the Pope had visited the country and pleaded with the government to abolish Capital Punishment the US conference of Bishops defiantly voted to adopt a diammetrically opposing stance!
There was no Vatican retaliation or re-affirmation of the authentic catholic teaching on the issue. From the wounded Pope came naught but silence....

It is perhaps due to this that when a bishop of little renown in an insignificant scottish town was interviewed by a local newspaper, and issued a withering critique of the state of the Church, it was readily ignored by all save a few; yet it perturbed the Pontiff.
Whether it was Divine Intervention or mere coincidence it was in this state of clouded confusion that the press cutting of Bishop Frasier's stinging diatribe was accompanied with a polite but terse letter from a very different source.

The letter's clarity and intellectual rigour was refreshingly inspirational and Monsignor O'Neill, the Papal Secretary, deemed it worthy of Papal consideration ; in the hope it may lighten the Pope's spirits.
To some extent it worked and His Holiness went so far as to inquire upon the position of the author. Had O'Neill made diocesan enquiries it should have resulted in little,if any detail, and it is quite possible that none of what is relayed herein would have happened ; but rather he asked a young priest from the writer's locality: present in Rome for advanced training in Canonical Jurisprudence.
Thus began all that follows:
The glib aside from an ambitious but knowledgeable cleric ; nervously loosening his tongue more than propriety usually decreed [ as only a "greenstick" would in the presence of the renowned papal secretary.]
The following day , O'Neill assumed this "gossip" would divert papal attention for a few moments away from the vagaries of the Petrine Office - a minor "human interest" story to break the silence over the breakfast table.
It did significantly more than that; for it was Cardinal Athanasio's "turn" on the Curial Rota to be a meal-guest that morning ; and he was visibly shaken upon hearing the name, and wary that a decade old "grave" was being disturbed.

Reinhardt would blame him for this, and as for Firenze??

Being fully aware of the circumstances, the cardinal sought a diversionary tactic by inserting a further point of interest - the author's unexpectedly notorious ancestry.
Instead of deflecting the conversation it intensified His Holiness's interest in the whole affair and much later , after a few hours pacing his subterranean office; Cardinal Athanasio deliberated that it was time to "come clean" about the whole incident.
'Ten minutes' had been set aside on the Pope's schedule for later that evening.
To the household's consternation the Holy Father did not retire till the early hours - Athanasio subsequently received a reprimand from Sister Carlotta for over-exciting the Pontiff with "trivial affairs of state" and the cardinal would better serve the Church and God if he left good men like His Holiness to sleep the peace of the just, and bad men like himself should be kneeling before the Blessed Mother reciting the rosary.
Few women had the audacity to dress-down a cardinal ; but Carlotta was unique in her charge and responsibilities.

When asked later , O'Neill was firmly of the opinion that it was the Frasier article that drove the Pope to action. The implication that Rome was being served by a "lame duck" led to an unusual over-reaction and ultimately the Papal insistence of the formulation of the "Levi directive".

The Ninth had worked with both capability and efficiency ; but there was little "fire or ice" within the proposals. To those within the department they knew it would never happen. O'Neill made a vainglorious attempt to revive its prospects to allay Papal impatience but he knew that , even with the support of Athanasio; It would require "intervening angels" to ensure its implementation.

Hence Athanasio's almost insouciant order : "Do it all again !"...

The directive's likely shelving left the order unchallenged. The department's attitude became almost diffident -especially given the abnormal circumstances.
Inevitably this conspiracy of silence was subverted by a relatively minor [albeit memorable] incident
Those involved would, in future less-happier times, somewhat irreverently recall it as a "karmic nexus". There is an ancient roman proverb :"res in cardine est" -"it all hangs by a doorhinge". Possibly many hundreds of lives were saved by that providence which deemed that, on that unusually dismal and overcast Tuesday in July , Monsignore Michal Lovec should spill his coffee....

An Unreluctant American: A reluctant Cardinal

Cardinal Athanasio's head began to nod only a few minutes into his prayers.The tiny print of the well-worn Divine Office resting on his knees phased in and out of focus; yet his stubborn reluctance to search for his reading spectacles and predilection to squint attenuated his concentration .
Most times he would have recited the psalms and antiphons at the prie-dieu before the artificially lit bay window, but his knee had been an ever increasing irritation for weeks. Many decades ago a Soviet MGB agent's bullet had lodged in his leg , only seconds after the young priest had leapt from the trans-siberian express. It took the third office eleven weeks to find him amongst orthodox sympathisers in a village outside Novosibirsk. Incoherent and near-death,an eighteen day "journey through hell" followed and two of the group were arrested and summarily executed while smuggling him out. His subsequent infection and the muscle death which pumped toxins through his kidneys are horrors which should only be related in medical journals. Amputation would have been the safer treatment but no-one knew whether it would hasten or delay his demise. Divine mercy ensured Athanasio was rarely conscious throughout the subsequent four months in one of Mindszentsky's hungarian safe-houses; but even with the passing of fifty years the nightmares remained...

Failing to suppress a yawn during the Te Deum compelled him to apologise to the Blessed Trinity and limp over to the coffee maker. Downing the barely warm dregs he reached for his Gauloises Blondes,extracted one, and estimated how many cigarettes remained.
Following a minor stroke, and well aware that the pigheaded cardinal would never relinquish his nicotine-fixation, a despairing Doctor Tipaldi had limited him to five a day in the vain hope he would stick to fewer than ten; with the remote possibility that the cadaverous frame may regain its appetite and a few pounds? The Cardinal had always been too old to change. The Second Vatican Council had occurred while he was still a relatively young rural cleric, but even then, the "new ways" were not for him...
It was an almost herculean labour to remain under two packets of twenty ; for the cardinal it resembled being sentenced to a Lenten Fast in perpetuity.
Athanasio concluded that giving up smoking would not make him live any longer; it would just feel that way.
Collapsing into an armchair, he pulled the cord of the nearby standard lamp and reached over to the desk for the topmost folder.
Lighting a cigarette, he casually thumbed through "the american"'s file; the majority of which was courtesy of 'the eighth'.
[It was a minor misnomer as the cleric was Irish, but the title was more apposite as he "out-americaned" the natives.]
He skipped all the Parental, family, school and pre-seminary details. The seminary file was part of the directive, so he moved on to the reports of his life as a priest.

Apart from a minor run in with the feisty Bishop Kiel, early theological / liturgical skirmishes with various conservative parishes, school boards etc, and the occasional sailing close to the wind with his views on the church and feminism; his record was impeccable.
No financial irregularities [to be precise he had ousted three fraudsters in the diocesan chancery when the auditors had failed to notice anything untoward.]
No women [despite his ardent feminism], no men [ditto his gay equality agenda], a light drinker, an ex-smoker turned body-cultist [the cardinal gazed at the silver plumes of smoke emanating from his gauloise but defiantly refrained from extinguishing it].
Academically impressive but unexciting [Maritain,Lonergan, Rahner,Marcel,Tillich etc - all the trendy prevailing "personally relevant" pseudo-theology] Athanasio rolled his eyes. Typical long-winded and invariably incongruous heterodoxy for the chattering classes...Modern theology's intent was to imply profundity without any recourse to coherency or logic.

The file continued unremittingly:

The priest was a phenomenal workaholic , ambitious, accommodating, socially mobile but his effusive character prevented the necessity of , what do the americans say? "apple-polishing" seemed to be the politest metaphor.
More of a "human doing" than human being. A common flaw in the less-spiritual , but more excusable than the pervading indolence and neglectful [if not downright disrespectful] irreverance increasingly found amongst western clerics.
Psychological assessments gave a classic warrior-leader profile. A myers-briggs ENTJ. This man ran the store, expected others to know it, but also [in "analyst-speak"] he accepted the necessity of mutual appreciation, respect and responsibility [On record he had few qualms in ruthlessly dismissing the inept or those non-conducive to his "life-motivating" programs]. Athanasio had some respect towards those with the courtesy to stab their enemies in the front, but it did not delude him from recognising a bastard when he saw one.
Decisions are made by the people who show up,and this guy always did : committee,delegation,quorum,deputation,council,clade....he belonged!
The media soon caught on to this, and the priest who had a soundbite, a joke and a "fortune cookie" truism for every situation; ended up as a regular commentator on practically every religious or social "hot topic". During which he became adroitly adept at humouring all while offending none.
When it came to enemies,they were solely amongst the less popular, almost "irrelevant" clergy ; most hostility and resentment admittedly resulted from envy and therefore remained the subject of gossiping phone-calls or the more alcohol-laden priestly gatherings...
The antipathy was less against him and more to do with his position as a "camera-hugger" and a renowned religious "voice of common sense". Even a minor association with him was enough to impress the average parishioner, so the majority of priests claimed him as a personal friend.
For ordinary catholics this man was the epitome of hope for the contemporary priesthood, he was truly a man of the people who had time for everyone, was inoccuous,enthusiastic and promoted "sensitive christian" values wherever he went. The banner he hung above the doors of his first parish church read : "There are no strangers here"....and that message seemed to be an ongoing fundamental tenet of his ministry.
This cleric was certainly no stranger to popularity.
Laminated sheets of press cuttings were in abundance: Preaching at Lay ministry conferences, Chanting at charismatic renewal events for world peace, walking the streets of Sacramento protesting for immigrant rights, opening a new hospice for A.I.D.S. sufferers,a protective arm round a hollywood starlet as she leaves a drug rehabilitation clinic, visiting prisoners on death row,dressed as charlie chaplin collecting money for the homeless on public service tv, Receiving a standing ovation at the world council of churches for his speech on child labour in the developing world,giving a sombre testimony to congress where he broke down in tears regarding violence against women...
Photos from numerous ceremonies where awards were dished out for charitable works.
His presence on the platforms at "socially relevant" campaign events. Whichever charity was "flavour of the month" he would be centre stage.

The cardinal's antipathy towards the cleric slowly intensified as the images revealed ever-more clearly that this young priest had abandoned his true calling of service to the faithful from almost as soon as he was ordained !
The International Youth Rally where he gave general absolution to the crowds in forty-one different languages. A memorable record of his consoling a famous film star's widow at the dedication of a new chapel in the great comic actor's name at the metropolitan cathedral. More images of him playing football with Angolan orphans, engrossed in a checkers game with a photogenic asian youth and reading children's stories to kosovan refugees, laughing or shaking hands with celebrities,politicians,nuns and clerics of every rank,denomination or race...

The Cardinal felt a modicum of guilt by finding the whole dossier unimaginably boring.

One saving grace was that at least there was no guitar in tow!
He'd seen all this many times before; usually among bishops : men just recovering from their mid-life crises, and, with the realisation that time was running out, they went full steam ahead, all cannons blazing...vain attempts for a minor role in history....
But this man was only thirty-seven and he'd lived the lives of a dozen of his more renowned contemporaries?
Not only was this priest destined for high office, practically everyone expected it imminently. Even his bluff ,officious archbishop who begrudged sharing the limelight with his "wonderboy" was on the record as saying , ostensibly without the tiniest hint of irony "the only truly annoying thing about him is that you find it impossible to dislike him...."
Only those who have spent many years around the clerical argot and psyche would be able to understand that this sincere declaration was clergy-speak for "I hate the bastard"
The Archbishop was not alone in being more than slightly disconcerted when the request to make this "blue-eyed boy" a monsignor was delayed with procedural hesitancy and vatican red-tape.
Then came the summons to Rome.

Athanasio envisioned an american archbishop in ecstasy . A call to Rome indicated two possibilities: Promotion and/or a clerical position in either Rome or some far-flung hell-hole. Whichever outcome , the american was out from under the archbishop's feet.

Even if the american had not been intrinsically linked to the Levi directive , he would have been the perfect choice for the mission he was about to be given.
Amenable, amiable and although probably as untrustworthy as the next fellow; he could make enough melodramatic overtures to appear plausibly sincere to the more fervent cynic.
He also had immense experience in the procedural labyrinth of administration,detente and the interminable composition of "never-to-be-read" reports.
Exemplary in all things detestably secular : This man was "made for the job".

There was also the distinctly vituperative anonymous letter to consider...

It was a simple twist of fate that it was read in full, let alone noticed.
Monsignore Genovese usually controlled the tiny office that dealt with Papal correspondence and he was renowned for training his select staff to speedread the first few lines of any letter to deduce the full content - prayer requests, complaints ,letters of thanks , invites to visit the writer's country etc. Genovese was in hospital for an operation on his prostate, and in his absence, some of the postal backlog was transferred to the local convent of the sisters of charity. A young novice read the two unsigned typewritten A4 sheets with an avid interest only an amateur could possess. It was quite probable from the letter's details that ,with a strict adherence to Canon Law, absolution from a bishop was required.
Once the superior was notified , it was decided that the distinct possibility of the letter's authenticity necessitated discernment from a higher office.

The accusations entailed within were,of course, misinformed and erroneous; but it required negation with substantial corroborative evidence.

Athanasio savoured witnessing the american's reaction to the letter. He considered suggesting a small wager with Monica that the american's opinions would hardly be congruent with the pseudo - "Perigord interpretation" of events the letter detailed.

When Cardinal Listener, the man chosen to head the operation, took on the mantle of the Levi directive he was going to have a rough time separating fact from fiction; the american would be a valuable asset in bringing "Levi" to a "workable" close.

The whole scenario unsettled Athanasio, there was something very wrong with the letter.

Its unknown author [although he had his suspicions] was being wilfully misleading ; aware of intricate details but making impossible errors concerning the order of events,locations and the dramatis personae involved.
Generally this would have meant a formulaic positional addendum to a file,date-stamped, signed-off and archived.

There was the rub...through highly irregular circumstances the ninth office had become involved; albeit in the latter stages of an operation which, were it to come to light, would be an embarassment to all, enrage the South African Church and rock the Irish establishment to its foundations.

Athanasio would never forget that Sunday evening in early June, a heated and colourfully-worded disagreement amongst departmental heads being abruptly brought to an immediate halt by a phone call: An almost incoherent young man screaming profanities and pleas for assistance in equal measure.
After a few short questions, the cardinal informed the anguished youth that he must remain calm and stay where he was while he was put on hold. Athanasio had pushed the telephone silence and speakerphone buttons for his fellow officials to hear...
The Cardinal knew exactly what he was about to do ; irrespective of his fellow clerics opinions on the matter. In later times Monica would dub these as the cardinal's "Van Helsing moments" ; in allusion to Athanasio's uncanny resemblance to the Dracula-Nemesis portrayed by Peter Cushing.

On most occasions the sallow-faced cleric looked no more than a wizened old man a mild gust of wind would sweep away; but there were instances when a spark of divine fire seemed to emanate from his eyes and to any who had experienced it, few would question the cardinal's ability to vanquish the powers of hell let alone deal with any earthly crisis.
The young man's sobs of

"Oh God...please don't die!!!"

echoing throughout the office, dissuaded any opposition from the listeners.
Sr Filomena, the ninth office executive deputy at the time, hastily blessed herself, eyes closed tightly in prayer.
Ng Hoc's incredulity at the situation forced him to break the silence.
"Excellency . what are you doing ?"
Cardinal Athanasio rarely scowled, but did so now...
Yet it was Bishop Zwimmer who rapidly interjected with unexpected determination and tenacity:
"Whatever he can !! As will we all your grace!!!"
Athanasio opened a drawer in his desk and pushed a black button within...
Richard Perigord was only half-way through a choking desperate prayer - the "Memorare" to the Blessed Virgin - when Athanasio returned to the phone....
"Richard? Listen carefully...."

So many years had passed, but remembering it still brought a shiver to the ageing cardinal.
There were many people who wanted to give Richard Perigord a medal, others would have relished the opportunity to wring his neck. The sheer audacity of the man to...well?

The Secretariat were all too willing to cast Perigord to the wolves, and reprimand the ninth in the process, but Reinhardt intervened for the sake of both propriety and avoidance of scandal.
There were procedures. Interviews, briefings, archiving etc : but what was originally intended as a three day assignment with Sr Monica at the head of a four man team of canon lawyers and archivists; turned into a harrowing seven week psychological "bender".
Monica returned to the ninth laden with four ring binders of transcript, an embarassing expenses bill and a sheer disbelief that nothing,absolutely nothing regarding this was known by anyone in the entire Secretariat. She wanted heads to roll and intended to request a clearing of her desk to investigate this "bombshell".
Sister Filomena [her predecessor, now deceased ] firmly informed Monica that Athanasio was briefing his Holiness at Castel Gandolfo, immediately thereafter proceeding to Tripoli with a mandatory communications blackout and was therefore unavailable [which was vaticanese for "he's under orders not to speak to you"] .It was obvious the General Council were not involved [they couldn't be trusted], therefore the decree came directly from Firenze , the Secretary of State, if not higher. She recognised this process.
Ten days later Athanasio returned to the ninth, summoned Monica and Filomena to his office and informed them that yes, an unknown murderer would remain unpunished, [possibly] able to kill again; but if the case were to be re-opened at this time, the lives of three individuals were definitely at risk. Protective custody was not an option for these people; there was even the remote possibility that one of them was a murderer. The identity of the killer being so uncertain, any attempt to question, investigate or even be present at certain locations in an official capacity could compromise many more people's safety. The eight main people under suspicion were to be grey tagged [Sr Filomena's arena] ; but Monica had seventy-two hours to devise an operation which would ensure this case achieved dormant status within three months.
It was exceedingly more than Monica had expected; far less than she had desired. As for the "cover-up"/"witness protection" very little was required as the majority of provisions had already been implemented. Ironically "the dead" were burying "the dead". It was ingenious. Risky, but neatly open-ended. Were things different a certain young man would have been invited to join the ninth. Monica was more content than she thought possible, given the circumstances; but that grim resolution to avenge was barely constrained beneath the surface. Yet like all wise women, she knew the benefits and opportunities that could be bestowed upon those who wait.

She was however, oblivious to the knowledge that Cardinal Athanasio had threatened resignation to ensure the dormant status : The Secretariat had recommended a "binding" - All records to be sent to the fourth's archives in Switzerland - the silencing under pain of excommunication for all operatives; their mandatory short-term reassignment becoming an imperative.
The three people at risk were to be "plumb-lined" :persuaded, coerced, bribed,blackmailed or inveigled into accepting positions in locations solely at the discretion of the Secretariat [i.e. where surveillance required the least expenditure and manpower - invariably a monastery]. This was usually a practice only enforced upon misbehaving clerics .

The whole thing was being buried, and buried deeply. Something the ninth could not allow to happen.
Athanasio was crestfallen , and all too aware that this deliberation was not in the remit of the Secretary of State; this reeked of Cardinal Reinhardt.

The Reinhardt crest declared "Frangas non Flectes" - roughly translated "break but will never bend". Athanasio thought a more appropriate motto would be "turn the lights out and they'll think nobody's home".

Wise despots maintain a popular sense that their subjects are helpless and ineffectual.This was the way the Secretariat under Firenze was run and it invariably kept the departmental heads in contention and in an intermittent state of internal disruption; only the stronger-willed like Athanasio could confront this "divide and rule" policy 'head-on' and survive.
Wiser ones like Reinhardt allow minions to believe they have autonomy and absolute power over the irrelevant ; it deceives them into presuming their superiors are in more control of global forces than is actually the case...The "fake it till you make it" agenda can be beneficial to those who inaccurately perceive minor limitations as insurmountable; but giving a man a pair of ice-skates is not teaching him how to walk on water. Too many of Cardinal Reinhardt's functionaries flew high ; only to fall like Icarus....

With His Holiness succumbing to even more frequent and prolonged bouts of illness; and the only potential Clerical counter; Cardinal Joachim von Sturman , the Bavarian Silver Fox , head of the Holy Office ; being encumbered with a perpetual deskload of intellectual and moral battles , rather than secular; it gave Reinhardt an almost free hand ; and Reinhardt was a frequent problem...It was one of the vatican's deepest ironies: One of its most capable men was among the most incompetent . What made things a million times worse for anyone who despaired of having "the ostrich" in such a position of authority was Reinhardt's intrinsic moral decency and almost saintly affability. There are few things more frustrating than having a superior who would have made an excellent father confessor or spiritual director, but in a crisis would waver,meander and hesitate . A man whose only decisions were to delay or. if possible, to avoid making decisions. Evil may thrive when good men do nothing , but when those good men prevent others from acting ? Chaos reigns.

Athanasio agonised over confronting the "Second most powerful man in Rome" . The meeting was inelegant. Athanasio knew where the bodies were buried and guaranteed he would wreak havoc unless the perigord files remained dormant. The hurt in Reinhardt's eyes was almost unbearable to witness, through moistening eyes he acquiesced and even thanked the cardinal for his candour; but the retributional Firenze ,Secretary of State, would ensure that Athanasio would not go unpunished for the showdown with Reinhardt ; despite Reinhardt's orders to the contrary.
Athanasio got the least of what he wished for ; for a price many would have considered too high given the minor nature of the case.
Unless the pope were to intervene, the vindictive Secretary of State made it known that there would be no pleasant Nunciature Athanasio could retire to; instead he was to lead the ninth "until he dropped" or became "unfit for duty" and carted away to the purgatory of San Benedetto's Rest Home.

That was twelve years ago, much had changed.
The english have a perfect word for it: Shabby.
The Vatican was no longer just tarnished by scandal, pragmatism and ever-increasing hostility from every corner. It felt shabby !!
Every day it became more of an internal struggle to maintain that [some may think naive] idealism which was once so readily available to the faithful who dwelt at the heart of the Church - The Mystical Body of Christ once seemed to universally nurture those who served the "servant of servants", but recently more and more seemed to be burdened with a world-weariness they could not shake off.
Certainly there had always been a form of "tainting" which the clergy experienced once they became over-familiar with Rome. Not so much a Cynicism, more a readiness to assume less of people. The age old catholic mantra of "hate the sin, love the sinner" had a predilection to revert to the humanist "nobody can be expected to be perfect". Moral relativism and ill-informed psychobabble seemed to all too readily equivocate away any ethical issue and subsume itself in pragmatism for a peaceful life.
There was also a continual danger of adopting a "haughty spirit", especially among those who were too young to endure Roman legalistic arrogance without being slightly contaminated...
but now? a gauze of fear, loneliness,neglect and insincerity seemed to blot out the sun....

There were reasons for this. Reasons Athanasio was incapable of confronting...

Twelve years. Conditions and perspectives now leaned towards the actuation of the Levi directive. Monica's wish was coming true, but far from the way she wished it to happen...She was also older,wiser and experience had been a cruel teacher. Just because you are present and aware of an injustice does not make you the ordained executor of retribution.Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do is to walk away...and wait till the right person comes along to finish the fight. Even if they are ill-equipped,less experienced and hardly capable of enduring the battle; they are the ones destined to serve their purpose in this way....

The Cardinal raised himself up,wearily rubbed his eyes and gazed intensely into the mirror above the fireplace.
Whispering "Be careful what you wish for" he hesitated, almost as if his reflection would give a disconcerting ensure this didn't happen , and that he remained moderately sane, Athanasio winked to the eidolon and,turning quickly, resumed his seat of power behind the desk.

The clock struck eleven, Athanasio checked and subsequently ignored his pager. Monica would be here in ten minutes for the mid-morning briefing. Enough time to read another chapter of the Balzac he'd been attempting to finish for weeks...


Chapter Two : Oscitancy

No discussion between His Eminence Athanasio and his deputy was insignificant ; yet the fallout from this encounter in particular was far from perennial; for as a result ,before the day was over ; people were to meet their deaths.

Item four on the agenda was not only a sign of failure; in lesser departments than the ninth it should have been fatal. After reassurance from Sister Monica that Monsignore Lovec would bring it to a successful resolution by the end of business today, the cardinal moved on to less unpleasant matters.
"Did I ever tell you the story of the Iguanadon's horn ?"
Sister Monica's eyes looked up from the itinerary.
"Several times Excellency." She had wanted to answer in the negative to keep the Cardinal in good spirits, but she was already fifty minutes behind schedule due to Athanasio's ponderings over today's deliberations.

The first of "the two" , the american , would be here within seven hours and there was still nothing on paper regarding the whole procedure.
Interviewing these men , and the subsequent decisions, would "make or break" the whole Levi directive.
Tonight's meetings would be crucial for the propositions placed before the freshly incardinated Cardinal Listener. If Levi was given the green light it would mean the inclusion of the "Perigord Finesse" - One of His Holiness' most outlandish ideas, and something the ninth office would only consider through their intense, unswerving loyalty and devotion to the Bishop of Rome.

It may be hard for an outsider to believe, but some vatican departments would less than politely inform the Pontiff that he could "take a running jump!" at such a reckless suggestion.

After a hasty prayer under her breath to Saint Rita, patroness of hopeless causes, Sister Monica decided upon a more forthright approach:
"The Black Widow ?"
The Cardinal's eyes closed briefly, when they opened, the windows to his soul sparkled like those of a mischievous child.
"Do you think that's an appropriate way of dealing with a brother cardinal and a prospective bishop, sister ?"
"Well considering you used it on Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama I think the precedent's long left the building. You know exactly how I feel about it, Excellency. One day it will be the death of us. You use it far too often, and it has rarely worked in years."
"It brought Hunter to us"
"I had already decided on Micha before you summoned him to play chess with you Excellency"
"Your protege had an original, if inelegant,solution, as I recall"
"You mean Micha turned the tables on you and you got what you deserved!" [her patience was weakening at the seams]
The Cardinal threw back his head and after too short a period of angelic laughter , sighed deeply and stared down at the chaos of manila folders on the desk before him.
His tone changed to one of redolence...
"His Holiness..."
Monica's face seemed to age with concern as the cardinal continued.
"...after the conclave and the dinner with the cardinals I had to broach his Holiness with the protocols of Office."
"I remember, it was the night you had Rick delay the Camerlengo with the Honduras fiasco, Vespighi didn't want to know so Rick set off the fire alarm."
"Ah ! Father Ricky is always the one for the extravaganza - the vaudeville . Nevertheless it kept that old fox out of my hair long enough for me to inform his Holiness that in no uncertain terms must my blessed brother Vespighi be removed as Secretary of State .
As I was leaving, his Holiness called after me
"my spider cardinal - I pray most sincerely for those caught in your web. Remember my son, your prime directive is to protect the innocent,"..."
Monica removed her spectacles, closed the file and clicked her pen.
In an attempt to return to the present she joked :
"All that grief and we ended up with a Vespighi clone anyway" [Monica was of the opinion that the majority of Reinhardt's interventions were at the request of the Secretary of State Firenze, not the other way round.]
"God's will sister....We all serve a purpose."
It was as if a shadow had fallen across the room.
Sister Monica , devoid of anything pertinent or comforting to say, rose and approached the soundproof door to exit.

"Sister , be so kind as to arrange the black widow for our two guests"

With an instantaneous return to decorum and formality the nun turned on her heels. The hitherto [loaded] jovial banter was now replaced with a heartfelt sincerity that only seventeen years of companionship on unending journeys to hell and back could create :
"Monsignore Lovec issued the order yesterday evening Excellency. The provisos for its enactment always being in your auspices."
"In your opinion sister, am I so wrong to think our young cardinal will pass the test ?"

Monica wrapped her arms about the clipboard and drew it close to her chest .For a brief instant she wished she was back in the crumbling Liverpool convent of her youth ,training scruffy children for their first holy communion....

"I like the man a great deal, and I understand the necessity for his appointment, however transitory; but how can he possibly hope to endure against those unscrupulous...? I'm sorry excellency, but they're monsters." [It sounded better in Italian]

Athanasio remonstrated "we are all God's children sister, but will he pass ?"

the Cardinal's eyes darted quickly, seeking every possible nuance the nun's face muscles would ultimately fail to obscure.
Feeling honesty was more apposite than amelioration, Monica declared more loudly than she originally intended :
"No your excellency I do not believe he will pass. I do not want him to pass. I have no desire to send him out amongst wolves. Not after I saw the children. We'd be sending him in blind, and alone into a place where he wouldn't be safe with a cohort of swiss guards...I do not want him to pass so I cannot contemplate it happening. Levi should end tomorrow for all our sakes. There have been no further deaths,let the killer rot !! "

Athanasio's eyebrows knitted. [Monica adopting Reinhardt's position ? The passage of time certainly made strange bedfellows.]

"We rarely disagree sister, but I feel so deeply he will surprise us both...Nor will he ever be alone.I have arranged a little er, protection".

In his attempt at empathy his mood lightened ,his voice became airily effusive ,"and what of the other ? Father Rick has already expressed his disdain..."
"Rick has an aversion to modernists of every shade, so his opinion must be discounted, Madeleine believes Perigord is guilty and will be brought to judgment by our friend the american. Gianni is ambivalent, but leans towards the evidence for the fourth death confirming probable innocence.,Ludovico thinks he smells too sweet but Ludo would have put St Peter under a polygraph, and although not entirely "in the loop", Maria and Mary-Luke are too ready to condemn Perigord but they're both inveterate intellectual snobs. Micha is reserving judgment until am I."

"So it would seem my ever-loyal department think I was duped by a twenty-five year old killer ?"

"No excellency. Some of our colleagues are of the opinion that my assessment of the situation was flawed while we were enacting emergency protocols. Soeur Madeleine, in particular, believes that Perigord was an unreliable witness and we should have placed more value upon the the reports from authorised sources. She doesn't believe he is not in some way responsible , and hopes this endeavour will give him enough rope to hang himself."

"and do you think young Hunter will agree with her ?"

"Micha did all the groundwork to brief Cardinal Listener with an enthusiasm which implies an extreme viewpoint he has so far left unexpressed. I think he'll back the Perigord position but allow the american to prove or disprove his position to the cardinal. However this turns out , the cardinal will be unable to run away from the undeniable evidence for Perigord's guilt or innocence. I sincerely hope we're on the side of the angels. But Micha's opinion could reverse within a second of meeting the cardinal. He relies heavily on empathy, he reminds me of you in that respect excellency"

"Sister are you implying that I have already made up my mind concerning the Levi directive ?"
"Cardinals are not made on a whim excellency"
"It was a necessity for tonight's privileged meeting sister, let alone the possibility of its protective necessity"
"Neither of us believe that your excellency, we did it to placate the pope and ensure that all formalities were attained before we pulled out "a few minutes before midnight" "
"so you think I have made up my mind ?" his eyes still glinted but this time it was accompanied with a deceptively gentle smile which camouflaged a steel-like determination.

Monica nervously inhaled and through almost pursed lips asked
"would it be too rude of me to suggest that you have?"
"His Holiness has expressed the desire that our young cardinal may be given the opportunity to prove the case. The american and Perigord are necessary parts of the directive and the cardinal will not have an easy time of it . All other peripherals must remain just that.

If 'Levi' can be enacted,any reticence must be pushed aside.The entire co-operation of the ninth , well, what will be left of it , is imperative"

"Forgive me your Excellency, but what are we doing ? Playing detective? In the old days we'd have sent in fifty Dominicans with a gallon of holy water and a tinder box."
"The hounds are not what they used to be."
"...and exactly whose fault is that ? We had the opportunity to..."
"Sister we're living in the..."
"Real world ? Hardly. Reality seems to be re-written every other Tuesday with this crowd. We let this happen"
"I was going to say we're living in the aftermath of great upheaval, but Sister, are you suggesting the Vatican Civil service should have participated in a Coup D'Etat ?"
"...are you intimating that had either of us been around at the time we would have allowed it to happen ?"
"Not all the water in the rough rude sea,can wash the balm from an anointed king..."

The attempt to silence this ongoing gripe of Monica's was fruitless.
"poor example excellency, Richard II didn't last five minutes after relinquishing the crown; why do you think we'll never retire before we're ready to meet our Maker ? they poisoned Celestine...This is no glorious victory because "the Sleeper" stayed silent and died in his bed!!"

For a few seconds the cardinal closed his eyes.
"It was never meant to be . You are the philosopher sister . I seem to recall you wrote an exceptional essay on Leibnitz while at St Catherine's ? God's will sister, best of all possible worlds ?"
"It was Spinoza...and I plagiarised the whole thing." [despite Monica's vows she had no reticence in "bending the truth" to win an argument. Even by her own humble estimations her published analyses of Leibnitz and Wolff were renowned in academic circles, but she was highly reticent in ever letting it be known to her underlings that they were working for a philosophical genius. Vatican Masterspy was enough of an imposition on any young clerical worker ]

Athanasio retorted :
"Phocion and Demosthenes, Monica. If the insane win they kill us, if the sane win they kill others. The powers that be decided it would be better that no battle was fought and holy mother church didn't implode.
"survival under siege?"
"...and your point sister ?"

Athanasio's comment was peremptory. He looked downward, collected the files into a less-than-stable pile and dropped them into the vast abyss of his lower desk-drawer.
It was one of those instants where so much needed to be said that it would have taken a lifetime to fully express even the peripherals :the only alternative was silence.
The few minutes of subsequent quiet between them brought an unspoken reassurance they both required in abundance.
She looked out the artificial bay window. Through the glass, the yellow climbing roses and ivy, a whitewashed brick wall faced her ;illuminated by fluorescent striplights and mirrors it gave the overall effect of being above ground.

Athanasio's Polish predecessor underwent a lightning execution and burial as a "lamplight" in Stalinist Ukraine. The bullet didn't kill him and the frozen soil of the shallow grave allowed access to enough air for the young priest to spend five hours digging himself out. He escaped into Hungary where,like his successor years later, Archbishop Mindszentsky got him safely back to Rome.
Never again could the future archbishop sleep with the lights out,nor pray with his eyes closed. When he was appointed head of the Ninth the other divisional heads had the faux window installed as a welcoming gift... Psychologically it had the reverse effect and induced a claustrophobic terror in the Pole but the archbishop never made it known out of dutiful appreciation to the thought and friendship the window indicated....

After adjusting the net curtains Monica turned sharply, her voice croaking :
"Why are we here ?"
Athanasio exhaled deeply through his nose. The staccatto revealing a nervous laugh.
"Would you want anyone else to do this? Yes sister we are under siege in an interminable war where the enemy is not only within, they sometimes politely open the door for us , pay our wages, or even thank us for being so loyal and devoted to their cause for the greater glory of God. What do you english call it? tipsy-topsy ?"
"Yes, this is a topsy-turvy world and we're at the heart of it.

But remember this sister "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.""
Monica ran a finger over a Chinese wooden puzzle box displayed on a side-table , puzzles were regular gifts to the ninth from archbishop Ng Hoc, who, having retired from the fifth office after a stroke, was now travelling the world. She envied him.

"Another puzzle ? Pak must spend half his stipend on them..."
"He feels he needs to make amends. I have spent many years trying to allay his guilt. God knows he has little to be ashamed of..."

Realising this was getting nowhere, Monica decided to conclude this navel-gazing.
"This will all end in tears, it's like Cologne all over again; too many independent variables..."
"Sister Monica. There is a distinct possibility we may be doing the right thing."
A single thought flashed through the cardinal's head...without fully forming it dissipated

"Twelve years too late..."

She'd gone too far; but felt justified...

Before the Nun said something she regretted, the cardinal gave her an exit strategy to 'save-face'
"I believe there is an office to exorcise...perhaps the Monsignore may require a 'pep-talk' ?"

As Monica departed, her emotions simply could not resist the overt expression of disapproval in a quintessentially english manner.

She slammed the door behind her .

"The Old Goat!!!" she thought,

"he really thinks it can be done!! Surely this is beneath us ??"

The thought returned to the cardinal, something Monica had said, a face, the letter, the adamant assertion that events which couldn't be true did happen.

There was an answer...a terrible one; if even remotely true it would now require the grandest of deceptions....
He lifted the receiver and made a call to an old enemy...
The Cardinal's door opened only moments after he had finished his call.
Monica was still in the outer office and perfectly willing to continue with a verbal tirade against her superior when she saw a countenance that seemed to have aged ten years in a matter of seconds.
The voice was but a whisper.
"Inside now.This is worse than we ever presumed."

When reminiscing, Monica was fully aware that the briefing could only have lasted a couple of minutes, but it's reverberations effect the ninth and beyond to this day.

The sensations overwhelming her as she withdrew seemed to confirm to the ageing nun that were it not for His Holiness' almost miraculous power of clairvoyance by proposing Levi, her incompetence, their incompetence would have wrought havoc and death.

She should have seen it!

But this battle was to be fought by those younger than she.
Much as she cherished Micha like a son, there was no pride in Monica's breast that her protege had turned a minor directive to remedy an injustice into a full-scale war. Twenty years ago she would have been the instigator, she would have noticed, the first blow would have been hers, this was her war,she'd endured more than enough , since the first man died in her arms on a mission betrayed by alleged "allies" she had wanted to take the war to them!

Now the opportunity had arisen and her participation was "not to be"
The brief prayer to help purge the envy she held for the young slovak brought little solace. Micha Lovec and the new cardinal were being led like lambs to the slaughter.

During her training twenty eight years ago for special operations, the belligerent Bishop Gilbert had asked her a question :
"what's the best way to prevent an assassination ?"
Was the answer the same for murder ?
Firenze wouldn't help, Reinhardt couldn't ; so who else ?
The Metropolitan !

Monica pinched the bridge of her nose.The miniscule figure of Sister Mary-Luke approached hesitantly, and after a few moments of signatures, minor procedural amendments and a brief exchange regarding the palestinian updates, Mary Luke chose not to question the nervous lip-biting of her superior, gathered the documents and commenced a hasty retreat.
She had not returned to her desk for more than twenty seconds before Sister Monica's voice resounded through the intercom.
"Mary-Luke? I need to speak to the Metropolitan. Tell him preferably within the hour"
The Belgian Nun bit her lip now.
Would she be doing so had she not been "neurotically infected" by her boss?
She dismissed the idea. Deep within her pocket she fingered a small silver many arrowed trinket.

[What is the old witch up to now ? and with that parasitical Romanian reprobate ?]
She made the call. Her mind went into overdrive.

The Metropolitan's first name was Athanasios,his second was unpronounceable,even to most Romanians; therefore to avoid confusion with the head of the ninth, he was never known as anything but "The Metropolitan" - something which disturbed the various other possessors of that title.

Although almost as old as time itself, and living longer in Rome than any period he had spent in the prison cells under Ceaucescu, his popularity was sadly limited amongst the Romanita.

Ironically he was a continual favourite of Popes and a regular dinner guest of any noble foreign visitor to the city [ though regrettably only a handful of american bishops had the nerve to defy their conference of bishops and converse with the old man who was deemed "persona no grata" by the NSA].

Ludo described the venerable old hack as "Gandalf on Vallium".

Mary-Luke failed to see the worth of the decaying black-ragged stick who reeked of frankincense and linament.

Had she been more trusted by her associates she would have been aware that the antediluvian orthodox cleric was worth his weight in diamond dust to the fifth office. Few were ever aware that more Eastern Orthodox Clergy behind the Iron Curtain reported to the Metropolitan than were ever in the pay of the KGB. It was not however for this reason that he was the most highly-regarded unofficial adviser to the Ninth Office. It was his indispensable knowledge of the Human Psyche. Small wonder he never "hit it off" with Mary-Luke. He always looked like he pitied her, and the nun normally found an excuse to be out of the room within seconds of the Metropolitan being present....

"Everything ok?"
Mary-Luke started. It was Hunter, Micha Lovec.

Of the entire office Mary-Luke held this naive pretty boy in the most contempt.
"Hunter!" she beamed ,

"you gave me the fright of my life,you wicked Monsignore!"
"Is my forked tail showing then?" joked the Slovak

"just been down to satan's subterranean sauna for some R&R"

[Sycophant ! You should have stayed in Bratislava with the rent boys ! Now you're just that english witch's bitch ]

The nun's smile became twisted and she changed the subject with a little too much emphasis.
"you ready to meet the new cardinal ? All this secrecy, Endotti has been haranguing me for a description"

[a lie, but one with little risk]

Hunter sat on the corner of the nun's desk and ran his finger along the top of the computer monitor....he gave little indication of pre-occupation.
"Endotti will be informed when he needs to be. He'll have ample notice..."

[you're a lap-dog Micha ! nothing more.You think you're in Fred's confidence ?- he'll screw you over just as soon as look at you]

Mary -Luke's tiny stature assisted the conspiratorial ambience of the scene "The office has been taking bets as to where he's from. Rick reckons he's an american or a nigerian right-winger, Maria is sure she heard on the grapevine that he was from south-east asia and Maddy assures me that Listener is a german name and he's that Moral Theology professor from Lucerne..."
"..and what about you my sweet Mary-Luke ?" pushing some stationery aside the agile young monsignore swung his legs onto the desk and crossed them.
Head in hands,eyebrows raised innocently, the young slovakian Puck posed the question :
"come on sister , I trust your perceptions, where do you think he's from ?"
Nervously, but still smiling, the sister averted her eyes ,lounged back in her seat and clasped her hands, one finger gently stroking a tiny gold band on another. The "bride of Christ" sighed.
"He's western european. You've hinted at such. But not continental because Cardinal Gilson would never have been off the phone. That leaves British or Irish. On the whole two islands there are only three intellectually competent bishops and two orthodox ones and none fit for a red hat under seventy. That leaves lecturers and abbotts, as the cardinal is young it rules out religious orders so we're looking at an english or irish academic"
"not from Wales or Scotland ?"

[His smugness is becoming unsettling.

How dare he!

Perhaps a few days of gastro-enteritis might be in order?

That'll wipe the smile off his face.

The pubic lice worked when Gianni got too big for his boots...]

"No. When Sister Monica flew out to meet him she was only away for six hours. Our cardinal's from England or Dublin, or at least was there when Monica pounced on him."

[that should be enough to mislead him, but what is he up to ? he can't...?]

"you're very impressive sister!"
"Well, it is our job after all Hunter,"

[supercilious runt! You can't seriouly think we haven't known it was the american for weeks ? Ludo still hasn't discovered the bug]

" we're not all employed for our aesthetic value "

[did the barb catch? maybe not. I wonder if lonewolf has any pretty seminarians with which to snare him? - why is he sitting so close to me?]

" to his identity we're all in the dark until nine this evening"
"nine? not seven ?"

[too late! fuck!]

Mary-Luke realised her mistake but could not prevent the words being said...she would have to think quickly.
"seven ?" Lovec now adopted a menacing form - no longer an androgynous pixie ,now his eyes blazed like some maleficent Loki.
"I overheard Sister Monica,we had the priority call from Beijing and I had to escort monsignore Casaregna to Maddy's"
"Ahhh !" the visage changed to plain old tousled haired hunter -the neurotic, overworked glorified office junior.

[He bought it! I'm safe!]

{As it happened,this time she was wrong.}

"Yes, the meeting was indeed arranged for seven, but there were...shall we say,complications?"
"Oh ?"

[I have to stop shaking - stay calm. No-one knows...especially this imbecile, Ludo I need to be wary of, not this lady-boy]

A red-light buzzed on the intercom - probably Ludo returning from lunch - the code was correct so she pushed the button to open the main door. An archaic security procedure, but Monica preferred to maintain the old ways Sister Filomena had implemented....
"Yes, had the Cardinal left the seventh office's safe house at six twenty , by six forty he would have had an appointment with someone very different to our beloved cardinal Athanasio."

[How can he know? he can't's not possible! They promised me...]


[who screwed up? Weiss ? No, Morgan ! It must have been Morgan...that dumb...]

"Once the cardinal's identity was revealed he was to "hasten to St Peter" - not St Peter's - luckily security has a long reach, and you are perfectly aware of the number of people we have who dwell in shadow. The threat has been eliminated. I don't understand it. What is your crowd's motive now of all times ? Why now?"

Her demeanour changed very little. Perhaps there was a little more defiance behind the eyes ?

[ So you finally know ? Big deal ! You could never understand the full picture. What you are dealing with - who you deal with !]

"We're still trying to work out why 'your crowd' would want to assassinate a young american priest in broad daylight but I'm sure you'll inform Endotti. We'd all appreciate some insight regarding your reasons. Cardinal or not this Levi thing is small fish and not your scene at all . Sure it means a lot to us because the pope wants to right a minor wrong ; but you lot ? You're normally into coercion,corruption,blackmail. Why kill? It's really not a satanist's style."

[So you DO know nothing ? Good. My work is done. We'll get him. My master will be safe.]

"You were unfortunate sister,you inadvertently failed to remember I had a life before this office, deleting files on a computer does not always mean they are irretrievable.

You were clever enough not to leave anything blatantly incriminating, but there were nuances, minor alterations to security records which intimated that grey areas became less so. You wilfully implied fair was foul, and foul fair.

But now ? You're grateful we found you; other enemies your organisation has gathered on the way have less benign means of, um, process ?

Endotti's father has associates with links to the Universal assembly which will not allow you to "piss on their doorstep" , even if it means helping us out for a change "

[Not me? No, it couldn't have been me !? The computer's clean. He's lying.They have a mole that's it. Morgan. A tiny scratch on the american and Levi would have been dead in the water. It has to be Morgan]

There were several sets of harsh orderly footsteps echoing from the entrance lobby.
Lovec swirled round from the desk , walked over to the coffee machine, swiftly poured out a strong sweet cup and handed it to the ashen-faced nun.
"I had to stop you Mary-Luke, or should I say Lilith ? you're Onyx Star aren't you ?"

[No. No mole. They know's up - time to relax!]

She ran both hands through her hair as if she'd just finished a performance on stage...
"Oh Monsignore Lovec !! I was so hoping we were going to have a second date too" She narrowed her eyes and looked away...
The mask fell. It wasn't over. She was, but it would never be over. Already her associates knew more than enough, she had seen to that...

Sister Monica's office door opened and she began to speak , but fell silent upon seeing Hunter's solemn face.
"" Hunter's face spoke volumes...this was his job. Monica should walk back into her office and not demean herself.
"I'm sorry Monsignore, I had no idea this was happening now..." she turned as if to return to her office, hesitated, and walked over to the desk, never once looking at the woman she once trusted with her life.
"I won't thank you for all your hard work...Lilith is it ? Please be aware that both you and Maria received no pertinent information regarding the Levi directive; or anything else for that matter for six weeks. All you fed to your masters was invented by the hard work of myself,Madeleine and begrudgingly Fr Rick; as has practically everything passing through your desk. Be grateful you are under the merciful safeguard of the cardinal. Rick and I would have handed you over to the Rwandans."

[Typical mercenary nazarene ! You think I'm in this for me you stupid old hag ? I'm here to serve! Protect him!!]

Rwanda. One of Mary-Luke's finest hours in the service of her Master ; and all performed in seconds with the stroke of a pen - seventeen thousand natives led into a massacre through a vatican "error" over emergency base-camp co-ordinates. Monica had personally sent out the already corrupted details via radio; she blamed herself entirely and it led her to take a month's leave of absence.

Monica stood as if in a trance, Hunter was disturbed by the silence.

He wanted this finished: Now.
What is more he could not understand why this Devil-worshipper wasn't more upset at her discovery: Mary-Luke was not exactly calm, but she did not possess the demeanour of the vanquished.
Endotti and four armed officers hovered around the doorway, reluctant to intervene where the executive deputy was involved.
"Federico...your wife is recuperating I trust ?"
"Yes Sister Monica, she appreciated the Mass-cards and the flowers"
"Good. Will only be a few moments more...Now, Mary-Luke, our leniency may depend upon the answer you give me now.... Butler?"

Lilith made her final attempt to wreak chaos. A desperate bluff which could still instill confusion.

"You were wrong good lady !! You were Oh so wrong !! He was one of ours..all those things the archbishop was accused of, he did so much more you'll never uncover ? Let me tell you, you arrogant know-it-all bitch!! He was always one of ours and he died praising my master..."

[Lilith wished she could have affected a more maniacally vitriolic disposition but the overwhelming nervous exhaustion made her response clinical and lacking in efficacy]

Hunter stared at Monica's eerily expressionless face...five seconds of silence filled eternity.
Monica moved towards the nun-no-nun and Lilith flinched.

Dextrously with one swift manoeuvre Monica had reached into Lilith's pocket and extracted the tiny silver brooch - Eight arrows pointing outwards - the arcane symbol of chaos.

It was slightly too thick for cosmetic conspicuous a bug would normally be unsettling, nevertheless it was the nature of the enemy.
" I apologise for the assault, I just always wanted to know what you kept fingering in your pocket "
Monica knew exactly how to deal with the transmitter.
For a sixty three year old liverpudlian, her american southern drawl was quite convincing...whoever was listening on the device was confronted with the shocking revelation that the executive deputy was fully aware of the location of the organization's centre of operations.
" Li'l ol' Lilith's signin' off now sugah, ya'll come back now ya hear ?"
The brooch barely made a ripple as it sank into the coffee...
"These must be pretty good to fly under our scanners.

When Gianni gets back have him rip tech support's head off!"
Staring deeply into the Satanist's eyes, Monica announced like a diagnosing medic

"She's lying! I knew it...Stone's been duped.

I warned him about that reprobate but Stone and the eight "always know best" "
Micha intervened
"If Archbishop Butler was innocent, and they framed him, murdered him, who were they protecting ? Thompson ?"
"No Micha....not him.Thompson may be a damned fool but he's our damned fool. I think eighth office has been compromised"
From behind Endotti and his retinue came a single word uttered by the only one true Romanita in the Ninth Office.

"McGinley!! I told you he was another..."

[for the sake of the already disillusioned faithful, I will refrain from recording the name of the prominent cleric Ludovico mentioned, needless to say, in these days of the internet you can discover it for yourself; the sin of detraction is rarely considered in this media age...]

Lilith's vainglorious attempt to display little emotion at the name betrayed the veracity of it. Monica pounced on the realisation.

"Ludo ?" all eyes except the executive deputy's turned as the rotund cleric squeezed his way through the crowd, the aroma of a two-thirds eaten stromboli hung around him.
"It has to be McGinley. Always suspected that arrogant would explain Henderson too."
"Henderson ?" Hunter was confused.
"They were lovers, Micha. McGinley and Henderson . Over thirty years ago. We thought it had been dealt with..."
Monica's face grew intensely morose, her eyes filling with indignant anger at her own reckless stupidity. Her dislike of Butler had clouded her judgment.

"Butler appealed to Papa Montini for clemency for them and arranged their separation on either side of the".
Ludo broke the silence.

"Poor fool signed his own death warrant. Eighth office didn't trust him so they didn't think he needed protection . Never trust a queer eh Micha ?"

Ludo's crass thoughtlessness was a cross they all bore, this was recompensed by his encyclopedic mind and his acute ability to remember everything about everyone ; but it still gave rise to the daily desire of some member of the ninth office to push Ludovico's head into a computer monitor.

Monica stiffly raised herself to her full height...
"Madeleine is in archives, Rick is at the Beda giving a lecture on the Donatists - I want them here within the hour. Micha, the Metropolitan will be here in twelve minutes. You're in on the meeting too. Ludo - I want everything on McGinley and Henderson, every associate of theirs below blue tag is to be grey tagged forthwith and all files to be raised to "throne" status. You have three hours."
"Gianni and I did the groundwork two weeks ago before he went off to to the Congo. On the off-chance it really was those two reprobates It will be ready in twenty minutes...we haven't got the eighth files but I think they'll be useless"
Micha interrupted.
"No Ludo, get them. The first way to find something is to discover that something is missing"
Monica was unabashed at this diligent foresight. She had expected nothing less from her staff.
"A precis to his excellency,then forward all the relevant material to the carthusians. Keep the eighth out."
"The carthusians sister ? I thought I might...?"
"No Ludo. As of this moment, irrespective of the young cardinal's capabilities; Levi is green."
Micha and Ludo looked at each other. Ludo mouthed "I told you". Micha now owed Ludovico an expensive meal at "Vincente's".
"Endotti, you can proceed. Miss Lilith can give us the details at your whim. Oh, one more thing, Maria Graziani's privileges have been rescinded.I want a code seven. Please ensure her desk is cleared and she is on the train home to Turin before five. I wish it to be made clear that her presence is not welcome in Rome. Ever."

Endotti understood perfectly. Graziani must have been fully briefed and prepared to leave, but it was imperative this viper or any of her clan got no wind of it.

As Lilith was being escorted from the office she shouted after the executive deputy. "Maria is innocent..why punish her you vindictive bitch? You and your petty "Levi" - you still have no idea who you're dealing with - you hear me you whore ? we've already won! This is an.."
Endotti struck her with the back of his hand. A mere fly-swat ; but it silenced her.
After a momentary pause, Monica closed the door to her office behind her , leaving Ludo and Hunter alone.

The tension mounted for a few minutes before Ludovico broke the silence.
"Don't look at me like that Micha, Monica had to fire Maria."
"I fail to see why..."
"For twenty months she worked side by side with a Luciferian. She must have noticed something before we did. She's either a damned fool or she kept her own counsel out of fear. Whichever way she has let this office down irredeemably. Micha I loved the girl ! But she had to go."

[Ludo internally congratulated himself that he could lie like the horned one when duty called. Micha would learn the truth eventually]

Hunter not only knew Ludo was right, he was more angry with himself for not seeing it that way immediately.
"Ludo, why did Endotti and his men touch their...[he didn't know the word in Italian so he pointed towards his crotch]... before they arrested Mary-Luke?"
"The Italian way Micha, warding off evil spirits"
Hunter blushed.
"I'd better go and await the Metropolitan"
"Don't leave him alone - Beatitude Ivanko warned me the Metro's kleptomania has returned with a vengeance"
Hunter groaned. A low female metallic sounding voice alerted him , he winked at Ludo and raised his voice.
"Are you telling me this gold pen he gave me last time is stolen property ?"
"Is that a papal seal I see ?" Ludovico pretended to swan haughtily to his office
" Don't forget Vincente's, Thursday, at eight .I'll be famished by then"
Hunter's shoulders visibly sunk by about three inches as he sighed , but his eyes twinkled.
"Is possession of the Holy Father's purloined pen an excommunicable offence ?"
"You should be so lucky!!!"
Ludo was now out of sight, but Hunter still called out..
"Don't forget we have tonight to get through first." Lovec's voice then modulated in fear of the answer to his next question.
"Ludo...why 'Green' now? What's changed ? It's still only a murder hunt"
"My dear hunter haven't you guessed who the cardinal is ? that brings more than enough problems in itself ,especially with eighth, but Il Papa was right to protect him in such a way. Secondly, this used to be all about redemption for the fallen - a last ditch attempt for justice. Now ? thanks to you and your coffee my clumsy friend this is war!"

It was not the first time that Lovec simply had no idea what his associate meant. It was a test. Ludo was forever challenging him with the "Lady or Tiger" routines and by Ludo [never was a name more appropriate] informing the slovak that he could know who the cardinal was merely from the few facts he had gleaned, it left him with two possibilities: One distasteful, the other recklessly insane.
Hunter blessed himself and exclaimed "They couldn't !!?"
It all clicked into place. Like some oriental puzzle box one single push made the chaos ordered with a precision only a genius or a lunatic could have devised . He knew his superiors and colleagues had extraordinary intellect but with this? Not only had they surpassed themselves, this was worthy of...

The proverbial hammer-blow struck. The fourth killing.The timetable.The monk. The man who wasn't there....
The Realisation froze him to the spot.
This was never about...why that poor bastard...he's going in thinking he's...and as for the other guy, what the hell was he contemplating ?
A thought came into Lovec's head . Three words of St Paul from Colossians : "Always be thankful"
"Paul you may have had a rough time of it but you certainly didn't work for the ninth"

Monica's office door opened, the executive deputy's head appeared like a glove puppet...
"Micha ? The Papal secretary is on the phone - something about the metropolitan and a pen?"
Lovec flinched and turned slowly enough to alter his expression.
Hunter's look of sheer panic was enough to send Monica over the edge, she burst into fits of laughter.It was utterly inappropriate given the circumstances but the price was too high for this grey cloud to linger. She needed Hunter on top-form tonight and so did both cardinals.
With over-emphasised trudging steps Sister Monica proceeded to the intercom and flicked the main speaker switch
"How many times have I told you to look out for listening devices Monsignore? "
Micha managed a feeble smile.
"So we revert to seven and nine again for the american and cardinal then sister...?"
"Aaaah ! you've worked out who he is. I was expecting you to, but thought it would come in that adrenaline rush just before the "examination bell" went and he was almost on our doorstep."
"I didn't. Ludo told me"
"No, Ludo couldn't have told you. Only the seventh know and Ponti's assistant , like our resident polymath Ludo, thinks there is only one person arriving tonight and that we lied about there being two to protect him.Any second person being an unecessary stooge who could be positioned at any time without our intervention. Mary-Luke thought so too which is why she and her hounds of hell went after the wrong guy. But you my dear Micha - you have come to the right conclusion. Perhaps because having him was your idea in the first place?"
"Mine? I don't understand. This isn't my..."
"Hunter, do you remember that first time you came here ?"
"you mean the time I and Novotny stormed in past old sister Filomena and demanded your head on a plate for...."
"No, I meant the night of the Black Widow ? What you did had never been done before."
"But it was obvious that..."
"OBVIOUS TO YOU MICHA!! Heavens ! when are you ever going to realise how much God has graced you ? I promised never to tell you this but sometimes they are made to be broken. The only other person who ever came near to having the wisdom and the gall to turn the tables like that , amongst all the presidents and cardinals and heads of intelligence who have been through these doors, was Papa Luciani; and he knew the trick because the sleeping Pope told him!!"
The young slovak would have been less shocked if Monica had announced her pregnancy.
"The sleeping Pope ? you mean Rick was right about Conclave 80 ? all those conspiracy theories are...?"
"Enough ! Of course it's true, why do you think Veronese once had an office of twenty people on the payroll, but you only ever saw fourteen? Why did prince Farnese threaten to withdraw the bargain ? Why did Endotti's father retire ? You don't threaten to arrest seventeen cardinals without a backlash. So what could we do? We let those half-witted right-wingers scream about it from the rooftops because it makes it look just like another one of their dotty "smoke of satan" conspiracies and it kept our man safe!!! We've paid the price a hundred times over,but none so much as the faithful abandoned to that pack of apostate hyenas .Have you any idea how much hell we went through having to endure from those Sartre wannabes ? Eris' golden apple brought about the trojan war. The Angel's silver apples brought an even greater one and we have at least another century of fallout before anything can be done."

"I apologise sister.I didn't know. My mind has been on other things and I have always veered away from Rick's"
Monica anticipated the next question. If one rumour was true , what about another ?
"Micha ! If you value your life and the lives of all those you hold dear you must never ask me about "the enthronement" - I won't lie to you about it, and it would condemn you to spend the rest of your life struggling against yourself from fighting a battle that cannot be won except in the way Our Holy Father, a few select cardinals,archbishops and bishops and that wonderful man who is both our Boss and protector , have chosen for it to be fought. For the time being we must continue , like Claudius before us, playing the fool...besides,we had a minor victory today. You behaved admirably, a little too melodramatic for my tastes but I'll blame Rick's influence on you for that ."
"You mentioned the black widow ?"
"Yes, well our beloved cardinal believes we've found another table-turner tonight in our second guest. I'm more of the opinion that our first has more chance, I'm not entirely certain but I think we tried it on Kiel and he was never one to keep his mouth shut about anything, but apparently he and Kiel never saw eye to eye. Liturgy and Latin I think, still he could know ?
As for our young cardinal ? I feel dear Athanasio will be bitterly disappointed before the day is done. What makes it worse is that whatever the conclusion, Levi IS green!
And Levi is all based upon that night I proved to his excellency that you were to be my successor. That ,and some advice I gained before you were born."
A cool breze rushed through the office.Monica shivered slightly and continued.
"Micha, what's the best way to prevent an assassination?"
"Off the top of my head ? I'd pretend to kill the victim before the assassins got the chance to really do it. why?"
Monica smiled...To Lovec it seemed like she was changing the subject; she wasn't.
"Before Athanasio and I go we want to fight back, one final push. You do realise that this could be the "ninth's final outing" ?"
Lovec failed to see the relevance with Levi. Something he could look back on with gratitude. As for the Ninth he was aware the axe was falling; everyone knew that it was only Reinhardt's intervention which prevented Firenze sweeping the vatican clean of them all. The Secretary of State was firmly of the opinion that when the Berlin Wall fell any enmity between the church and the world ceased and all these Cloak and Dagger merchants in the tunnels under the lateran palace should be put out to pasture. But so soon? Lovec had barely known his parents before their deaths and this was both home and family to him.
"Sister, what's the new cardinal like ? He seems on paper to be just an above-average..."
"We didn't tell him of his elevation until he arrived in Rome. He's very unhappy about the whole thing. Feels it debases Holy Mother Church and he hasn't even been fully briefed yet. Ponti of Seventh had to show him the Papal order,and then hear his confession before he would even move out of his room. He refused to touch the nails. Many do. The Georgian did not believe they were real, the Saudi said he was not worthy.Our man gave no reason. He merely made the vows and then burst into tears."
"He wept ? But.."
"He's not you Micha ! Anyway His Holiness embraced him and, according to Casaregna, Il Papa said "My Son .What is a few days for the sake of an eternity?" but you know how melodramatic Casaregna can be, he always romanticizes things.For all we truly know His Holinesss may have just handed him a handkerchief and departed! It was funny because Ponti came on the phone and told me you would like the new cardinal because he spills coffee too. I could have sworn there was laughter from a group in the same room. Zwimmer needs to get his whip out"

The ancient bakelite telephone emitted a pulsing ring.It was one of Monica's quirky luxuries : An old english ringtone to always remind her of home. It was also the emergency hotline.
"Tiernan qui ? Gianni...Fine..You found him?'s tonight and it's green,Gianni, it's green...No it's not that Indian bishop the sikhs shot!! No not him won't guess so stop trying...Il Dottore is fine ? You'll both be in London for Saturday ? Excellent. it's important that the encounters with Perigord go as planned Gianni.I want Perigord shaken up a little before we offer him the job. Oh and you were right...McGinley and Henderson...No,you go to London Gianni, that's an order monsignore !! No, the carthusians...Yes, they're gone...maria? seventh...very nasty,tried to poison the american...yes,all over by tonight...Lilith,Onyx Star we think....she forced her hand too soon and we had to protect her... those bastards would have killed her the instant the trap was sprung...sorry who did what ? who do you think ? No, it was Hunter, he spilled his coffee and..what's that ? San Salvador...Yes, I know.ok's important so don't stop at a bookmakers on your way...a casino!? Just you dare! Tiernan out. "

Sister Monica stalled for an instant, a tiny click from the receiver told her all was not well.
Operator?...sorry are you new? and what is your name ? Thankyou, and might I ask who authorised your tracking of this line?
I'm afraid you must be mistaken, there is no active emergency protocol. I understand Signora, I know, it's ok..we are all on the same side signora..thankyou."
Monica winced.
"Endotti's at it again ! how many times have I told him he is not to track this line? Every recording goes to transcript in archives and is sealed.
My operatives need a secure line... I'll give him "emergency protocol"!!...."
The Nun looked across at the pensive young Slovak,nervously chewing a fingernail...
"It's been a rough day Hunter, and tonight won't be any better, we'll have his excellency's theatrics to endure. Don't worry about Vincente's, I've arranged a table for seven at eight on Thursday - His excellency is paying ; although he doesn't know it yet .

Oh and Micha I hope you take it from that phonecall that Gianni is to be left out of the loop regarding our cardinal. I don't want him slipping up in front of Perigord."
"Of course Sister, Thankyou sister. I'll go get the metropolitan before he acquires a swiss guard's assault rifle"
"Monsignore Lovec ? you surprise me by not asking who the seventh guest will be."
"Well I presume it's the young cardinal , I first thought it was Gianni when I heard you on the phone to Vincente's via the intercom, and then Ludo and I convinced you this was the pope's pen, but after our talk about Gianni dealing with Perigord; It had to be the cardinal"
He was still holding aloft his plastic biro like an olympic torch.

Hoisted with her own petard !
He'd known she'd been listening !
Her little hunter was growing up!
But the slovakian wink was too much not to deserve the full force of a phone directory aimed at his head; Sister Monica's usually impeccable english collapsing into a choice selection of scouse perjoratives.

There was only a slight hesitation to gaze at Mary-Luke's empty desk before Monica returned to her duties.
Now.Whom could she wrangle from the metropolitan?

The emergency protocols had been verified and enacted immediately.
The rationale only came later. Ludo was the first to discover something was wrong when, eating the remains of his now cold stromboli , his game of internet bridge was rudely interrupted with server shutdown. His Ukrainian partner's bid of 3NT should have been countered with four spades; so Ludo was saved the ignominy of going down five tricks to two chinese teenagers....
Sometimes there are unexpected delays in the vatican grapevine for all manner of reasons. There was never a clear answer as to why it took Endotti's dept over eighty minutes to contact the cardinal and his executive deputy regarding the two deaths.
Endotti could only apologise.

Officer Francesca Gambrelli , one of Endotti's personal favourite young operatives, had only been impersonating a 'tearful ' Maria Graziani for a matter of minutes before she was mown down in the street outside Graziani's appartment.
No one in security believed for an instant that the dead man,a petty thief, found in the crushed car's remains was the driver,nor that his heart attack was due to natural causes. The two operatives tailing Gambrelli on her route to Turin were discovered bound and unconscious in the boot of their unmarked vehicle many miles away from the crime-scene. Endotti refused to employ wives or mothers, but he still had problems sleeping at night.
Forensics found nothing save a silver eight-arrowed badge with no prints or dna trace.

Soeur Mary-Luke, born Justine Bonsecours in Bruges in 1958, baptised by her stepmother into the dark as Lilith of the Onyx Star in 1973 and subsequently ordered to enter the order of Ursuline Nuns as a "Sleeper"; was being transported to a safe-house in Ostia for questioning.
The source or means of administering the poison remain unknown, pathology's best guess was a polymer based transparent temporary tattoo on her forearm.

It took forty seven excruciating minutes for her to die.

For the first thirteeen minutes, before the muscular spasms caused her to fall into unconsciousness, amid her screams came the agonising plea :
"Master, you promised me it would be quick!!!?? Oh my God. They Lied !!! They told me it would be quick!!!"

The security detail on Maria Graziani , en route to her new life as seventh office special liaison for central americal; was automatically doubled.

Endotti was more than perplexed. This didn't happen.
Satanists didn't kill. Sure they would execute their own should they betray them...but this simply made no sense.
This required the intellect and light touch of...?
Endotti made the call to his father.

Sergio was in Ireland "soil-feeding" - early reconnaissance, liaison and operational analysis as a precursor to Levi's "going green".

He and his men were security assessing the college grounds and perimeter.

This kind of work was almost a form of recreation to him.
Sergio Endotti was nicknamed "Acromel" - bitter honey.

His gentle ,suave unruffled exterior revealed none of his hidden depths or talents.
He was on record as only having lost his temper four times in his eighty years on earth. However disturbing the loss of any operative and suicide of an enemy in custody ,this was not going to be the fifth .
Sergio knew who to contact; fully aware that the answers he received would be welcomed by no-one
Onyx star ? This makes no sense. Unless ?

No. They've never used that cover before....