The woman crouched across from him, balancing on the toes of her black boots. She ran her light over its drab surface. The marble was badly chipped, poorly preserved. A long crack jagged through it. It was plain why it had been forgotten.
Still, blood had been spilled for it.
And he knew why.
She reached across to Stefano and pushed his penlight down. With a flick of her thumb, she switched on her flashlight. The white light dimmed to a rich purple. Every bit of dust on his slacks lit up. The white stripes of his shirt blazed.
The glow bathed the obelisk.
Stefano had done the same earlier, testing the woman's claim and witnessing the miracle for himself. He leaned closer with her now, examining the four sides of the obelisk.
The surfaces were no longer blank. Lines of script glowed in blue-white sigils down all four sides.
It was not hieroglyphics. It was a language that predated the ancient Egyptians.
Stefano could not keep the awe from his voice. "Could it truly be the writing of the—"
Behind him, whispered words echoed down from the floor above. A skitter of loose rock trickled down the back stairs.
He swung around, fearful, his blood icing.
He recognized the calm, clipped cadence of the whisper in the dark.
They'd been discovered.
Perhaps sensing the same, the woman clicked off her lamp, dousing the violet light. Darkness collapsed around them.
Stefano lifted his penlight, seeking some hope in the face of this dark Madonna. Instead, he discovered a black pistol, elongated with a silencer, aimed at his face, held in the woman's other hand. He understood and despaired. Fooled yet again.
Between the sharp cough and the spat of muzzle flash, only one thought squeezed through the fatal gap.
Maria, forgive me.
July 3, 1:16 p.m. Vatican City, Italy
Monsignor Vigor Verona climbed the stairs with great reluctance, haunted by memories of flame and smoke. His heart was too heavy for such a long climb. He felt a decade older than his sixty years. Stopping at a landing, he craned upward, one hand supporting his lower back.
Above, the circular stairwell was a choked maze of scaffolding, crisscrossed with platforms. Knowing it was bad luck, Vigor ducked under a painter's ladder and continued higher up the dark stairs that climbed the Torre dei Venti, the Tower of Winds.
Fumes of fresh paint threatened to burn tears from his eyes. But other smells also intruded, phantoms from a past he preferred to forget.
Charred flesh, acrid smoke, burning ash.
Two years ago an explosion and fire had ignited the tower into a blazing torch within the heart of the Vatican. But after much work, the tower was returning to its former glory. Vigor had looked forward to next month, when the tower would be reopened, the ribbon cut by His Eminence himself.
But mostly he looked forward to finally putting the past to rest.
Even the famous Meridian Room at the very top of the tower, where Galileo had sought to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, was almost fully restored. It had taken eighteen months, under the care and expertise of a score of artisans and art historians, to painstakingly reclaim the room's frescoes from soot and ash.
Would that all could be so recovered with brush and paint.
As the new prefect of the Archivio Segretto Vaticano, Vigor knew how much of the Vatican's Secret Archives had been lost forever to flame, smoke, and water. Thousands of ancient books, illuminated texts, and archival regestra— leather-bound packets of parchments and papers. Over the past century, the rooms of the tower had served as overflow from the carbonile, the main bunker of the archives far below.
Now sadly, the library had much more room.
Vigor startled back to the present, almost wincing, hearing an echo of another's voice. But it was only his assistant, a young seminary student named Claudio, calling down from the top of the stairs. He awaited Vigor in the Meridian Room, having reached the destination well ahead of his older superior. The young man held back a drape of clear plastic tarp that separated the stair from the upper room.
An hour ago Vigor had been summoned to the tower by the head of the restoration team. The man's message had been as urgent as it was cryptic. Come quickly. A most horrible and wonderful discovery has been made.
So Vigor had left his offices for the long trek to the top of the freshly painted tower. He had not even changed out of his black cassock, donned for an earlier meeting with the Vatican's secretary of state. He regretted his choice of garment, too heavy and warm for the arduous climb. But finally he reached his assistant and wiped his damp forehead with a handkerchief.
"This way,prefetto." Claudio held the drape aside.
Beyond the tarp, the upper chamber was oven-hot, as if the stones of the tower still retained heat from the two-year-old fire. But it was just the midday sun baking the tallest tower of the Vatican. Rome was going through an especially scorching heat wave. Vigor prayed for a bit of a breeze, for the Torre dei Venti to prove its namesake with a gust of wind.
But Vigor also knew most of the sweat from his brow had nothing to do with the heat, or the long climb in a cassock. Since the fires, he had avoided coming all the way up here, directing from afar. Even now he kept his back to one of the chambers off to the side.
He once had had another assistant, before Claudio.
It hadn't been only books that had been lost to the flames here.
"There you are!" a voice boomed.
Dr. Balthazar Pinosso, overseer of the Meridian Room's restoration project, strode across the circular chamber. The man was a giant, nearly seven feet tall, dressed almost like a surgeon in white with paper-booted feet. He had a respirator pushed to the top of his head. Vigor knew him well. Balthazar was dean of the art history department at the Gregorian University, where Vigor had once served as the head of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology.
"Prefect Verona, thank you for coming so promptly." The large man glanced at his wristwatch and rolled his eyes, silently and amusingly commenting on his slow climb.
Vigor appreciated his gentle teasing. After he'd assumed the high mantle of the archives, few dared to speak to him beyond reverential tones. "If I was as long-legged as you, Balthazar, I could have taken two stairs at a time and gotten here well ahead of poor Claudio."
"Then best we finish here so you can return for your usual afternoon nap. I'd hate to disturb such diligent labors."
Despite the man's joviality, Vigor recognized a bit of tension in his eyes. He also noted that Balthazar had dismissed all the men and women who worked alongside him on the restoration. Recognizing this, Vigor waved Claudio back toward the stair.
"Could you give us a few moments of privacy, Claudio?"
Once his assistant had retreated back to the stairs and vanished through the drape of plastic tarp, Vigor returned his attention to his former colleague. "Balthazar, why this urgency?"
"Come. I'll show you."
As the man stepped toward the far side of the chamber, Vigor saw that the room's restorations were nearing completion. All along the circular walls and ceilings, Nicolo Circignani's famous frescoes depicted scenes from the Bible, with cherubs and clouds above. A few scenes were still crisscrossed with silk grids, awaiting further work. But most of the repairs were already complete. Even the carving of the zodiac on the floor had been cleaned and polished down to its bare marble. Off to the side, a single spear of light pierced a quarter-size hole in the wall, spiking down atop the room's slab floor, illuminating the white marble meridian line that ran across the dark floor, turning the chamber into a sixteenth-century solar observatory.
On the far side, Balthazar parted a drape to reveal a small side closet. It even looked like the original stout door was still intact, evident from the charring on its thick wooden surface.
The tall historian tapped one of the bronze bolts that pegged the door. "We discovered the door has a bronze core. Lucky for that. It preserved what was in this room."
Despite Vigor's trepidation at being here, his curiosity was piqued. "What was in there?"
Balthazar pulled the door open. It was a cramped, windowless space, stone-walled, barely room for two people to stand abreast. Two shelves rose on either side, floor to ceiling, crowded with leather-bound books. Despite the reek of fresh paint, the mustiness of the chamber wafted out, proving the power of antiquity over human effort.
"The contents were inventoried when we first took over here and cleared the closet," Balthazar explained. "But nothing of great significance was found. Mostly crumbling historical texts of an astronomical and nautical nature." He sighed loudly and a tad apologetically as he stepped inside. "I'm afraid I should have been more careful, what with all the day laborers. But I was focused on the Meridian. We kept one of the Swiss guards posted up here at night. I thought all was secure."
Vigor followed the larger man into the closet.
"We also used the room to store some of our tools." Balthazar waved to the bottom shelf of one rack. "To keep them from getting underfoot."
Vigor shook his head, growing tired from the heat and the heaviness of his heart. "I don't understand. Why then was 1 summoned?"
Something like a grumble echoed from the man's chest. "A week ago," he said, "one of the guards chased away someone snooping about." Balthazar waved a hand to encompass the closet. "In here."
"Why wasn't 1 informed?" Vigor asked. "Was anything stolen?"
"No, that's just it. You were in Milan, and the guard scared off the stranger. I just assumed it was a common thief, taking advantage of the confusion here, with the comings and goings of work crews. Afterward, I posted a second guard up here, just in case."
Vigor waved for him to continue.
"But this morning one of the art restorers was returning a lamp to the closet. He had it still switched on when he entered."
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