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There was a moment of silence. The camerlegno felt suddenly tired as he returned Vittoria’s unbending stare. This was not how it was supposed to be. Is this God’s final test?
It was Mortati who broke the spell. “The preferiti,” he said in a horrified whisper. “Baggia and the others. Please tell me you did not…”
The camerlegno turned to him, surprised by the pain in his voice. Certainly Mortati could understand. Headlines carried science’s miracles every day. How long had it been for religion? Centuries? Religion needed a miracle! Something to awaken a sleeping world. Bring them back to the path of righteousness. Restore faith. The preferiti were not leaders anyway, they were transformers—liberals prepared to embrace the new world and abandon the old ways! This was the only way. A new leader. Young. Powerful. Vibrant. Miraculous. The preferiti served the church far more effectively in death than they ever could alive. Horror and Hope. Offer four souls to save millions. The world would remember them forever as martyrs. The church would raise glorious tribute to their names. How many thousands have died for the glory of God? They are only four.
“The preferiti,” Mortati repeated.
“I shared their pain,” the camerlegno defended, motioning to his chest. “And I too would die for God, but my work is only just begun. They are singing in St. Peter’s Square!”
The camerlegno saw the horror in Mortati’s eyes and again felt confused. Was it the morphine? Mortati was looking at him as if the camerlegno himself had killed these men with his bare hands. I would do even that for God, the camerlegno thought, and yet he had not. The deeds had been carried out by the Hassassin—a heathen soul tricked into thinking he was doing the work of the Illuminati. I am Janus, the camerlegno had told him. I will prove my power. And he had. The Hassassin’s hatred had made him God’s pawn.
“Listen to the singing,” the camerlegno said, smiling, his own heart rejoicing. “Nothing unites hearts like the presence of evil. Burn a church and the community rises up, holding hands, singing hymns of defiance as they rebuild. Look how they flock tonight. Fear has brought them home. Forge modern demons for modern man. Apathy is dead. Show them the face of evil—Satanists lurking among us—running our governments, our banks, our schools, threatening to obliterate the very House of God with their misguided science. Depravity runs deep. Man must be vigilant. Seek the goodness. Become the goodness!”
In the silence, the camerlegno hoped they now understood. The Illuminati had not resurfaced. The Illuminati were long deceased. Only their myth was alive. The camerlegno had resurrected the Illuminati as a reminder. Those who knew the Illuminati history relived their evil. Those who did not, had learned of it and were amazed how blind they had been. The ancient demons had been resurrected to awaken an indifferent world.
“But… the brands?” Mortati’s voice was stiff with outrage.
The camerlegno did not answer. Mortati had no way of knowing, but the brands had been confiscated by the Vatican over a century ago. They had been locked away, forgotten and dust covered, in the Papal Vault—the Pope’s private reliquary, deep within his Borgia apartments. The Papal Vault contained those items the church deemed too dangerous for anyone’s eyes except the Pope’s.
Why did they hide that which inspired fear? Fear brought people to God!
The vault’s key was passed down from Pope to Pope. Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca had purloined the key and ventured inside; the myth of what the vault contained was bewitching—the original manuscript for the fourteen unpublished books of the Bible known as the Apocrypha, the third prophecy of Fatima, the first two having come true and the third so terrifying the church would never reveal it. In addition to these, the camerlegno had found the Illuminati Collection—all the secrets the church had uncovered after banishing the group from Rome… their contemptible Path of Illumination… the cunning deceit of the Vatican’s head artist, Bernini… Europe’s top scientists mocking religion as they secretly assembled in the Vatican’s own Castle St. Angelo. The collection included a pentagon box containing iron brands, one of them the mythical Illuminati Diamond. This was a part of Vatican history the ancients thought best forgotten. The camerlegno, however, had disagreed.
“But the antimatter…” Vittoria demanded. “You risked destroying the Vatican!”
“There is no risk when God is at your side,” the camerlegno said. “This cause was His.”
“You’re insane!” she seethed.
“Millions were saved.”
“People were killed!”
“Souls were saved.”
“Tell that to my father and Max Kohler!”
“CERN’s arrogance needed to be revealed. A droplet of liquid that can vaporize a half mile? And you call me mad?” The camerlegno felt a rage rising in him. Did they think his was a simple charge? “Those who believe undergo great tests for God! God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child! God commanded Jesus to endure crucifixion! And so we hang the symbol of the crucifix before our eyes—bloody, painful, agonizing—to remind us of evil’s power! To keep our hearts vigilant! The scars on Jesus’ body are a living reminder of the powers of darkness! My scars are a living reminder! Evil lives, but the power of God will overcome!”
His shouts echoed off the back wall of the Sistine Chapel and then a profound silence fell. Time seemed to stop. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment rose ominously behind him… Jesus casting sinners into hell. Tears brimmed in Mortati’s eyes.
“What have you done, Carlo?” Mortati asked in a whisper. He closed his eyes, and a tear rolled. “His Holiness?”
A collective sigh of pain went up, as if everyone in the room had forgotten until that very moment. The Pope. Poisoned.
“A vile liar,” the camerlegno said.
Mortati looked shattered. “What do you mean? He was honest! He… loved you.”
“And I him.” Oh, how I loved him! But the deceit! The broken vows to God!
The camerlegno knew they did not understand right now, but they would. When he told them, they would see! His Holiness was the most nefarious deceiver the church had ever seen. The camerlegno still remembered that terrible night. He had returned from his trip to CERN with news of Vetra’s Genesis and of antimatter’s horrific power. The camerlegno was certain the Pope would see the perils, but the Holy Father saw only hope in Vetra’s breakthrough. He even suggested the Vatican fund Vetra’s work as a gesture of goodwill toward spiritually based scientific research.
Madness! The church investing in research that threatened to make the church obsolete? Work that spawned weapons of mass destruction? The bomb that had killed his mother…
“But… you can’t!” the camerlegno had exclaimed.
“I owe a deep debt to science,” the Pope had replied. “Something I have hidden my entire life. Science gave me a gift when I was a young man. A gift I have never forgotten.”
“I don’t understand. What does science have to offer a man of God?”
“It is complicated,” the Pope had said. “I will need time to make you understand. But first, there is a simple fact about me that you must know. I have kept it hidden all these years. I believe it is time I told you.”
Then the Pope had told him the astonishing truth.
The camerlegno lay curled in a ball on the dirt floor in front of St. Peter’s tomb. The Necropolis was cold, but it helped clot the blood flowing from the wounds he had torn at his own flesh. His Holiness would not find him here. Nobody would find him here…
“It is complicated,” the Pope’s voice echoed in his mind. “I will need time to make you understand…”
But the camerlegno knew no amount of time could make him understand.
Liar! I believed in you! GOD believed in you!
With a single sentence, the Pope had brought the camerlegno’s world crashing down around him. Everything the camerlegno had ever believed about his mentor was shattered before his eyes. The truth drilled into the camerlegno’s heart with such force that he staggered backward out of the Pope’s office and vomited in the hallway.
“Wait!” the Pope had cried, chasing after him. “Please let me explain!”
But the camerlegno ran off. How could His Holiness expect him to endure any more? Oh, the wretched depravity of it! What if someone else found out? Imagine the desecration to the church! Did the Pope’s holy vows mean nothing?
The madness came quickly, screaming in his ears, until he awoke before St. Peter’s tomb. It was then that God came to him with an awesome fierceness.
Yours is a Vengeful God!
Together, they made their plans. Together they would protect the church. Together they would restore faith to this faithless world. Evil was everywhere. And yet the world had become immune! Together they would unveil the darkness for the world to see… and God would overcome! Horror and Hope. Then the world would believe!
God’s first test had been less horrible than the camerlegno imagined. Sneaking into the Papal bed chambers… filling his syringe… covering the deceiver’s mouth as his body spasmed into death. In the moonlight, the camerlegno could see in the Pope’s wild eyes there was something he wanted to say.
But it was too late.
The Pope had said enough.
“The Pope fathered a child.”
Inside the Sistine Chapel, the camerlegno stood unwavering as he spoke. Five solitary words of astonishing disclosure. The entire assembly seemed to recoil in unison. The cardinals’ accusing miens evaporated into aghast stares, as if every soul in the room were praying the camerlegno was wrong.
The Pope fathered a child.
Langdon felt the shock wave hit him too. Vittoria’s hand, tight in his, jolted, while Langdon’s mind, already numb with unanswered questions, wrestled to find a center of gravity.
The camerlegno’s utterance seemed like it would hang forever in the air above them. Even in the camerlegno’s frenzied eyes, Langdon could see pure conviction. Langdon wanted to disengage, tell himself he was lost in some grotesque nightmare, soon to wake up in a world that made sense.
“This must be a lie!” one of the cardinals yelled.
“I will not believe it!” another protested. “His Holiness was as devout a man as ever lived!”
It was Mortati who spoke next, his voice thin with devastation. “My friends. What the camerlegno says is true.” Every cardinal in the chapel spun as though Mortati had just shouted an obscenity. “The Pope indeed fathered a child.”
The cardinals blanched with dread.
The camerlegno looked stunned. “You knew? But… how could you possibly know this?”
Mortati sighed. “When His Holiness was elected… I was the Devil’s Advocate.”
There was a communal gasp.
Langdon understood. This meant the information was probably true. The infamous “Devil’s Advocate” was the authority when it came to scandalous information inside the Vatican. Skeletons in a Pope’s closet were dangerous, and prior to elections, secret inquiries into a candidate’s background were carried out by a lone cardinal who served as the “Devil’s Advocate”—that individual responsible for unearthing reasons why the eligible cardinals should not become Pope. The Devil’s Advocate was appointed in advance by the reigning Pope in preparation for his own death. The Devil’s Advocate was never supposed to reveal his identity. Ever.
“I was the Devil’s Advocate,” Mortati repeated. “That is how I found out.”
Mouths dropped. Apparently tonight was a night when all the rules were going out the window.
The camerlegno felt his heart filling with rage. “And you… told no one?”
“I confronted His Holiness,” Mortati said. “And he confessed. He explained the entire story and asked only that I let my heart guide my decision as to whether or not to reveal his secret.”
“And your heart told you to bury the information?”
“He was the runaway favorite for the papacy. People loved him. The scandal would have hurt the church deeply.”
“But he fathered a child! He broke his sacred vow of celibacy!” The camerlegno was screaming now. He could hear his mother’s voice. A promise to God is the most important promise of all. Never break a promise to God. “The Pope broke his vow!”
Mortati looked delirious with angst. “Carlo, his love… was chaste. He had broken no vow. He didn’t explain it to you?”
“Explain what?” The camerlegno remembered running out of the Pope’s office while the Pope was calling to him. Let me explain!
Slowly, sadly, Mortati let the tale unfold. Many years ago, the Pope, when he was still just a priest, had fallen in love with a young nun. Both of them had taken vows of celibacy and never even considered breaking their covenant with God. Still, as they fell deeper in love, although they could resist the temptations of the flesh, they both found themselves longing for something they never expected—to participate in God’s ultimate miracle of creation—a child. Their child. The yearning, especially in her, became overwhelming. Still, God came first. A year later, when the frustration had reached almost unbearable proportions, she came to him in a whirl of excitement. She had just read an article about a new miracle of science—a process by which two people, without ever having sexual relations, could have a child. She sensed this was a sign from God. The priest could see the happiness in her eyes and agreed. A year later she had a child through the miracle of artificial insemination…
“This cannot… be true,” the camerlegno said, panicked, hoping it was the morphine washing over his senses. Certainly he was hearing things.
Mortati now had tears in his eyes. “Carlo, this is why His Holiness has always had an affection for the sciences. He felt he owed a debt to science. Science let him experience the joys of fatherhood without breaking his vow of celibacy. His Holiness told me he had no regrets except one—that his advancing stature in the church prohibited him from being with the woman he loved and seeing his infant grow up.”
Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca felt the madness setting in again. He wanted to claw at his flesh. How could I have known?
“The Pope committed no sin, Carlo. He was chaste.”
“But…” The camerlegno searched his anguished mind for any kind of rationale. “Think of the jeopardy… of his deeds.” His voice felt weak. “What if this whore of his came forward? Or, heaven forbid, his child? Imagine the shame the church would endure.”
Mortati’s voice was tremulous. “The child has already come forward.”
“Carlo…?” Mortati crumbled. “His Holiness’s child… is you.”
At that moment, the camerlegno could feel the fire of faith dim in his heart. He stood trembling on the altar, framed by Michelangelo’s towering Last Judgment. He knew he had just glimpsed hell itself. He opened his mouth to speak, but his lips wavered, soundless.
“Don’t you see?” Mortati choked. “That is why His Holiness came to you in the hospital in Palermo when you were a boy. That is why he took you in and raised you. The nun he loved was Maria… your mother. She left the nunnery to raise you, but she never abandoned her strict devotion to God. When the Pope heard she had died in an explosion and that you, his son, had miraculously survived… he swore to God he would never leave you alone again. Carlo, your parents were both virgins. They kept their vows to God. And still they found a way to bring you into the world. You were their miraculous child.”
The camerlegno covered his ears, trying to block out the words. He stood paralyzed on the altar. Then, with his world yanked from beneath him, he fell violently to his knees and let out a wail of anguish.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours.
Time seemed to have lost all meaning inside the four walls of the chapel. Vittoria felt herself slowly breaking free of the paralysis that seemed to have gripped them all. She let go of Langdon’s hand and began moving through the crowd of cardinals. The chapel door seemed miles away, and she felt like she was moving underwater… slow motion.
As she maneuvered through the robes, her motion seemed to pull others from their trance. Some of the cardinals began to pray. Others wept. Some turned to watch her go, their blank expressions turning slowly to a foreboding cognition as she moved toward the door. She had almost reached the back of the crowd when a hand caught her arm. The touch was frail but resolute. She turned, face to face with a wizened cardinal. His visage was clouded by fear.
“No,” the man whispered. “You cannot.”
Vittoria stared, incredulous.
Another cardinal was at her side now. “We must think before we act.”