Logo weiterlesen.de
Apocalypsis – Demons Among Us

About the Book

Rome. Turmoil in the Eternal City. The pope has resigned and disappeared without a trace. Nobody knows if he is even still alive.

At the same time, his closest confidants are being murdered in the most gruesome ways. As the conclave convenes to elect a successor to the Holy See, Vatican reporter Peter Adam begins to search for the missing pope. His search leads him to a mysterious underground religious fraternity, which has been working against the Church for centuries. Its members base their beliefs on a medieval prophecy: He who shall succeed the current Pope will call himself Peter II. And he will be the last to hold the See of St. Peter.

Is the apocalypse at hand? And what will it bring? The fulfillment of mankind’s oldest fantasies, or the end of the world?

About the Series

Written by award-winning screenwriter and author Mario Giordano, “Apocalypsis” is gripping and explosive: what starts out as a sophisticated Vatican conspiracy soon develops into a uniquely intense and spectacular thriller.

APOCALYPSIS is a serial novel told in twelve installments per book. The entire saga is revealed throughout three complete novels; this is the complete first novel.

About the Author

Mario Giordano was born 1963 in Munich, studied psychology in Düsseldorf and writes novels for adults old and young as well as screenplays (his credits include Tatort, Schimanski, Polizeiruf 110, Das Experiment). He lives in Berlin.

CONTENTS

 

 

Episode 0    ♦  SIGNS

Episode 1    ♦  DEMONS

Episode 2    ♦  ANCIENT

Episode 3    ♦  THOTH

Episode 4    ♦  BAPHOMET

Episode 5    ♦  ISLAND OF LIGHT

Episode 6    ♦  ELIXIR

Episode 7    ♦  VISION

Episode 8    ♦  SETH

Episode 9    ♦  WEARILY ELECTORS

Episode 10  ♦  THE SEVEN BOWLS OF WRATH

Episode 11  ♦  THE THING UNDER THE ROCK

Episode 12  ♦  CONCLAVE

I

April 28, 2011, Annapurna section, Himalayas

She’d lost the rosary, too, quite a while ago. It was lying six hundred feet above her, somewhere in the snow next to the trail. But since then she’d also lost the trail. In fact, she’d lost just about everything: her gloves, her team, her crampons, her water and even the walkie-talkie. Everything except her life and her faith. The question was what she would lose next.

Above her was the peak of Annapurna, glowing in the light of the afternoon sun. So close that it felt as if she could touch it. Yet they had not made it to the apex. Tracy, Laura, Betty and Susan were dead. They had fallen through a snow bridge over a crevasse and within a split second had disappeared from the face of the earth. Annapurna had simply swallowed them, leaving her desperately alone.

Three weeks earlier, Anna had joined a group of female mountain climbers from the United States and Canada, and together they had started their ascent of Annapurna Himal, the tenth highest mountain in the world. Anna was an experienced climber – she was certainly no neophyte of climbing – and the Annapurna section was one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Nepal. Two days ago, she and four other women from Camp V had set out to climb to the summit. It was early in the morning and the weather was clear. Everything seemed to be going fine, despite the pain and the struggle for each and every step. They had been confident, almost euphorically convinced that they would reach the summit by midday – then they crossed the snow bridge.

When her companions fell into the crevasse, Anna’s backpack and the crampons fell with them. Only a second earlier, she had pulled the backpack off her shoulders because she needed a break. So she’d been lucky – if you didn’t count the fact that she had lost her gloves as she tried in vain to find her companions in the crevasse.

Without her gloves, she had a serious problem: the bitter cold. Even in the afternoon, the maximum temperature at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet was minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit. The night would bring temperatures as low as minus forty degrees. Without gloves, Anna’s body temperature was dropping quickly. Her core temperature was already only ninety-one degrees Fahrenheit. She began to shiver uncontrollably, a natural response as her body tried to create additional heat. However, there was another problem: the thin air. Without knowing where she was and where she was going, Anna staggered downhill towards where she believed Camp V must be. Anna was dead on her feet, her movements were clumsy and she was staggering – the first symptoms of altitude sickness. All she wanted was sleep. But the last remnants of reason in her brain reminded her that this would be the end. She had to move on. She had to get downhill, to the camp. At this point, there were only two things left that were driving Anna: a survival instinct as old as time and her faith.

She hadn’t told her climbing companions that she was a Catholic nun. She hadn’t told them her real reason for coming to Annapurna, either. She hadn’t told them anything, neither about her assignment, nor about her religious order. As far as the other women were concerned, she had simply been a dependable country bumpkin with plenty of mountain experience, who didn’t have much to contribute when it came to the nightly exchange of stories about men and parties. Anna had put her time to better use by enjoying the magnificent landscape, the friendly people and the monks in saffron robes who explained Buddha’s teachings to her.

Anna stopped for a moment, tried to catch her breath and mumbled a prayer. The Lord would help her. The Virgin Mary would comfort her.

After another three hundred feet, her core temperature had dropped to a mere eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit. The Nazi doctors in Dachau who experimented with ice water tanks had come to the conclusion that a human being could not survive with a core temperature of less than eighty-four degrees. On the other hand, there had been cases where children were found in the snow who had survived with a body temperature of fifty-seven degrees. However, altitude had its own laws. Anna began to cough up bloody phlegm. This, too, was a symptom of altitude sickness. After another one hundred and fifty feet, it was not her faith that was leaving her, but her strength. Anna passed out and slumped into the snow, mumbling the same prayers over and over again. She was ready to face the Virgin Mary – then she saw the monks.

The twelve figures were moving uphill, in an orderly line and secured with ropes; they were moving directly towards her. The altitude sickness blurred Anna’s vision, so she didn’t immediately realize that these climbers did not belong to her expedition team. There was something particularly eerie about the fact that they were not wearing the usual garish high-tech protective suits, simply brown habits like those worn by Catholic monks.

When the eerie monks reached her, Anna opened her eyes, one last time. She was surprised that they passed by without noticing that she was there. She wanted to shout something, but given the thin air, her voice failed her. Only the last two monks stopped by her side. One of them bent down and looked at her. Anna could see his face. A friendly and gentle face, even though a smile was absent. The two men examined her briefly and realized that Anna was still alive. After exchanging a few words in Latin, they grabbed Anna under her armpits as she thanked the Virgin Mary for her rescue.

Until, that is, she noticed that the monks were not carrying her downhill – but uphill! At first, Anna thought she was hallucinating. This simply could not be happening – not uphill! But it seemed that it caused the two men in their monks’ garb no great strain to haul the nun, who was half unconscious and half frozen to death, further and further uphill until finally reaching the crevasse into which Anna’s companions had disappeared. Anna recognized the spot instantly. The red safety rope was still dangling over the edge; the two men dragged her to that precise point. The last thing Anna felt was a fierce blow and a piercingly cold wind in her face. Then everything around her transformed into a magnificent blend of blue and white.

II

April 29, 2011, International Space Station ISS

The problem could not have been any more serious. It could threaten the entire mission, possibly even their own lives if they didn’t get it under control as soon as possible: the space toilet was defective. At 8:14 CET, the vacuum pump that collected the liquid and solid waste of the ISS crew (who had to be able to aim precisely while sitting firmly and in a particular position on the small toilet seat) broke. One hundred and ninety miles above the earth, a broken toilet is a dire problem, as rising particles of human waste represent a danger to the delicate electronic equipment on board. This was reason enough for Pawel Borowski to confront the problem. Apart from conducting a variety of biological experiments, the Jesuit priest didn’t have many duties aboard the space station and was glad that he was able to use his manual dexterity to be of service to the rest of the crew.

Pawel was the first priest in space, his childhood dream had come true. In light of the planned Mars missions, and at the insistence of the Pope, NASA had finally realized that it was time to send clergy on the long journey to the Red Planet. This meant training priests to become astronauts. As soon as he heard about it, the Polish Jesuit priest with a Ph.D. in biology had immediately applied for the position and had passed the tough selection procedure, along with four other priests. Now he was in space, he of all people, Pawel Borowski, the little red-haired boy from Poznan. It’s not that Pawel indulged in any illusion that here in space he was closer to his Creator than he was on earth. But before he decided to become a servant of the Lord, he had always wanted to become an astronaut, now he was both.

The problem was that there were only a limited number of specialist tasks for priests aboard the space station. Pawel felt almost relieved that he could save the mission by repairing the toilet.

In actual fact, Pawel had a very specific task on board, but it was an assignment that he had not received from NASA; in fact, the United States Space Administration didn’t even know about it. His assignment was nothing less than to protect the world against evil, just like the Archangel Michael. Pawel would never have compared himself to the Archangel Michael, even though he was well aware of the significance of his assignment on the ISS, and no one in the Church was better trained and better suited to this task than he was. Only yesterday he had used the station’s sensitive antennae and electronic radar equipment, and had intercepted a signal that confirmed his worst fears. Even though the signal was weak, Pawel was able to pinpoint it on earth as the station passed over it. Right now, the computer was still analyzing the data. Pawel figured that in approximately two hours he would be able to send a compressed file through an encrypted network. This would mean that he really had saved the world, he of all people, little Pawel from Poznan. So there was no harm in using the interval to take care of a malfunctioning toilet.

Pawel was in cheerful spirits, and right in the middle of disassembling the stubborn pump in zero gravity, when the disaster occurred.

A small meteorological satellite, which had left its orbit for unknown reasons and begun spinning through space, apparently out of control, hit the space station without warning. The satellite was no bigger than a garbage can but it slammed into the space station at a speed of almost sixteen thousand miles per hour. It crashed through the wing panels of the solar arrays that spread like huge angel wings alongside the station, shredding radial arms two through six and tearing off the Columbus Module. The force of the impact was so violent that it broke off the crew module where two crew members were sleeping. The entire station toppled to one side and began to spin, resulting in an enormous centrifugal force, which put more and more pressure on the structure of the station, so that further modules broke off. Within a few seconds, all the oxygen in the station was discharged into space and the moisture within it formed a brilliant white cloud of ice crystals around the devastated space station. Pawel didn’t get the chance to marvel at the transcendental beauty of this sight. As he had not been wearing his space suit, he died instantaneously from a severe form of divers’ disease. The hard vacuum in outer space made his lungs burst, and the gases that had been dissolved in his blood returned to their original gaseous condition. Abruptly, all the blood running through his veins began to bubble and foam. Every single blood vessel ruptured, with death coming almost instantly. The embolism made his brain start to swell, pushing the brainstem into the spinal canal. Simultaneously, Pawel’s body was shock-frosted by the rapid drop in temperature. Only a few seconds after the impact, not a single crew member remained alive. The shattered station was spinning through space like a ghost ship, somewhere over the Indian Ocean, orbiting the earth while losing height, slowly but inexorably. In a few weeks, it would enter the atmosphere of the earth, explode into a thousand tiny pieces, and burn up like a brief meteor shower.

The electronics on board continued to work for a whopping three more days. The computer that Pawel had fed with the data to be analyzed was right on time. It produced a compressed file, but there was no one to send it down to earth. Not even the Archangel Michael.

III

Courier Online, May 1, 2011
POPE JOHN PAUL III RESIGNS!
Author: Peter Adam

Rome. During a last-minute press conference at 11:00 AM today, Vatican speaker Franco Russo announced that Pope John Paul III had resigned, effective immediately, as leader of the Catholic Church.

This extremely terse statement came as a complete surprise. Even the experienced Vatican Press Secretary was visibly struggling to maintain his composure, as it appeared he had only recently been informed of the Pope’s decision.

The resignation of one of the most important religious leaders in the world is deeply unsettling, not just for the one billion plus Catholics worldwide. It will certainly result in another shake-up of the entire world order – with incalculable global consequences.

At this point, one can only speculate as to the reasons for this shocking abdication. Despite repeated and multiple questions from the assembled journalists, Russo refused to make any further comments. There were no previous indications to suggest that the Pope had tired of holding office or suffered any health issues. But Rome loves intrigue and cover-ups. Time and again there have been hushed whispers and in recent months rumors about signs of “mental weakness” in the otherwise strong and resilient Pope.

However, the succinct official statement merely stated that the Pope made his decision for “personal reasons” and that it is irrevocable. It further mentioned that the Pope will not be available for any additional comments or interviews of any kind. As prescribed by the Law of the Apostolic Constitution, Cardinal Secretary of State Menendez, the second man in the hierarchy of the Church, also resigned immediately afterwards. The College of Cardinals – in this case, the body of Cardinals who are currently in Rome – will convene within the next few hours. During the sede vacante – until the election of a new pope – the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church will serve as acting head of the Vatican.

For centuries, this process has been regulated by the Apostolic Constitution, the Universi Dominici Gregi. This Apostolic decree also stipulates precisely how all further proceedings are to be conducted. In principle, there is no difference between the death of a pope and his resignation. The papal seal is broken, the papal apartment is sealed, and within twenty days the conclave must begin the process of electing a new pope.

And when does it become imperative for a pope to resign? In fact, it never does. Even a pope who is seriously ill and can no longer adequately perform his official duties is not forced to resign, although it would be “a canonical nightmare”, as pointed out by Vatican expert Padre Luigi Gattuso.

Papal resignations are rare in the two-thousand-year history of the Church. Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 under pressure from an antipope. The only voluntary resignation was the abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294.

One of the reasons that papal abdications are so rare may be that the role of the “former pope”, especially his role towards his successor, is not at all regulated. In general, it is assumed that a pope who has resigned will seclude himself in a monastery. Making it even more exciting to ponder what Pope John Paul III will do and whether he will distance himself completely from ecclesiastical politics.

Franz Laurenz, son of a working class family from Duisburg, Germany, was a pope who was as divisive as he was popular. His resignation comes at the worst imaginable time. Next spring, during the Third Vatican Council, he intended to introduce far-reaching reforms to the Church. Church hardliners had long regarded the “Red Pope” as much too liberal. They applauded his “Dialogue with Islam” with gritted teeth, and behind closed doors criticized his close personal relationships with high-ranking mullahs and imams. Last year, during his celebrated visit to Africa, when the athletic German Pope declared that the use of condoms would not be contradictory to Catholic beliefs, he came close to causing a major schism. At the same time, he threatened to excommunicate the Bishop of Vancouver if he continued to demand that the celibacy rule be relaxed.

Since his election to the See of Saint Peter in 2005, Franz Laurenz has polarized the factions of the Church. Nonetheless, he became a beacon of hope for many Catholics and for a renewal of the Church. At the age of sixty-two, he was one of the youngest popes ever, and he even dared to appoint Antonio Menendez his Cardinal Secretary of State, although Menendez was known to be one of his strongest critics and an ultra-conservative with close ties to Opus Dei. Despite that Menendez was also forced to resign according to Canon Law, many observers regard him as a favorite for the upcoming papal election.

It seems obvious that the true reasons for the resignation of John Paul III are far more complex than any alleged dementia. Clearly, a substantial power struggle is raging behind the closed doors of the Apostolic Palace.

It remains to be seen whether or not the combative “former Pope”, Laurenz, will still play a role in this struggle, and if so, to what extent. At least he still owns an apartment in Rome, the place where he used to live during his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

IV

May 1, 2011, Vatican City, Apostolic Palace

The folded hands on the dark wood of the prayer kneeler were well manicured. But they were not fine hands, quite the contrary. Rough, rugged and used to hard work – the hands of a laborer. In youth, they had done heavy manual labor and often had packed a punch. These hands had boxed, welded, bled and offered blessings. Hands that never seemed to rest, only in prayer. Franz Laurenz was a huge man with a masculine appearance. But when people met the Pope for the first time, invariably his hands were what impressed them the most, seeming to have a life of their own. These hands accompanied and amplified the Pope’s words, grabbing and shaking them, plucking arguments like ripe pieces of fruit, squeezing them and tossing them at his interlocutors, or letting them float with unexpected grace. However, they could become wrathful, these hands. There had been instances when even the most seasoned cardinals and government leaders had winced because these hands had suddenly clenched into fists, driven by passionate outrage, and the index finger of the Pope had come down on his interlocutor like the sword of the Archangel Michael.

Those in the Pope’s circle talked about his handshake, which was so strong that it could crush a horse’s hoof, and about his jovial slaps on the back that could knock people off their feet. Old friends talked about his affectionate hugs, so strong as to threaten suffocation to the recipient. The head of the Vatican Gardens once confessed on Radio Vaticano, while laughing, that the Pope had shaken him so forcefully, when one of the rose bushes had died, he saw visions of the Holy Virgin for three days.

However, hardly anyone knew how tender and gentle these hands could be when stroking the pages of books or ancient scrolls of parchment in the Vatican Secret Archives.

Pope John Paul III was a human being who had to touch the world in order to understand and shape it. His hands were his antennas, allowing him to connect with the feelings of mankind, and were the secret of his persuasive power.

Now these hands were folded in prayer, resting on the old prayer kneeler in the Pope’s private chapel on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, looking like huge creatures in peaceful slumber.

But the former Pope was not sleeping. He was desperately imploring his God for forgiveness. He had changed from the white papal cassock into a plain black suit and clerical collar, resembling a simple and amiable country pastor. Only the heavy golden Piscatory Ring with the papal seal on his right hand revealed that just a few hours earlier he had been one of the most powerful religious leaders in the world.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned and trespassed against you. I was not worthy of representing your kingdom. I disappointed you and all the people who believed in me. And yet, I do not see any other alternative.”

Franz Laurenz’s eyes looked bleary. Forsaking sleep, he had spent the night in prayer.

“Help me, Father, in this hour of hardship. Give me strength for what I must do. For the evil is waiting at our gates and there is no one to fight it.”

He had been left with no other choice; he knew it immediately when he received the news from Nepal and Houston. He had no alternative, if he still wanted to find a way to prevent what he had seen coming all these years, even though he had always tried to disavow it: the Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, the Beast had come to open the gates of hell.

“Lord, it is my fault. I hesitated; I’ve been hesitating far too long. I was not worthy of my ministry. Father, forgive me my sins and give me the strength to confront the evil now.”

Laurenz was not a mystic. He had always interpreted the Book of Revelation not so much as a true vision, rather as an opulent and magnificent call for perseverance, directed at the early Christian congregations throughout the Roman Empire. But after everything that had happened over the previous twelve months, his opinion had changed. The Antichrist was real. He had a form and a name. His name was Seth.

However, he was unsure who was hiding behind the pseudonym of the Egyptian God of Chaos and Destruction. Although Laurenz had met the man a few times during the last year, Seth had always donned a black hooded monk’s habit, his face covered with a black silk shawl. Initially, Laurenz had not taken him seriously because of this masquerade. A grave mistake, as he now knew.

Then, last night, Laurenz had made the most painful decision of his life. Between prayers, he had completed three brief phone calls and then formatted the hard drive of his personal laptop and destroyed it. For a moment he had wondered if he should simply run, flee in secret, just vanish from the world, without a trace and forever. This would at least have given him a head start. But this was neither in his nature, nor was it his plan.

As soon as the sun rose, Laurenz freshened-up. First he fed the cat and let him free, then he called his private secretary, Alexander Duncker. Shortly afterwards, hell broke loose all around him. Duncker wasted no time in informing Menendez and only thirty minutes later they were both in his office. The Cardinal Secretary of the Vatican State yelled at him, confused and angry. Laurenz could not blame him. They had known each other for a long time, since they had worked together in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Despite the fact that they had spent their lives arguing endlessly about Church issues, and that Menendez had run against him during the conclave, publicly calling him “a danger to the Church”, Laurenz admired the Spaniard for his candor. Privately, they were even friendly towards one another. However, this did not mean that they were friends. Au contraire.

“Give me one sensible reason, for God’s sake!” Menendez had yelled. “One damned reason!”

“Do not swear in the name of God,” Laurenz reprimanded him.

“Don’t try to change the subject! I want to know why!”

“I can’t tell you. It’s personal.”

“Are you sick?”

“No.”

“Are you insane? Is that the reason?”

“No, Antonio, my mind is completely clear.”

The ascetic man uttered a grunt of annoyance.

“You’re giving up, that’s what this is. You have realized that your reform plans will lead to chaos and that you don’t have any answers in this time of questions. And now you’re quitting to dodge your responsibility.”

“I can empathize with how you might come to such conclusion.”

“You know what I think about your reform plans, Franz. They are poison for the Church. But I never thought you were a coward. Not until today, that is.”

Laurenz kept silent, but this infuriated Menendez even more.

“Admit it, this is just another one of your dirty little tactics,” Menendez snapped at him. “With your resignation, you are forcing me to resign as well, and then you’ll be rid of me.”

“You can become pope now, Antonio, don’t forget that.”

“You know precisely that only three Cardinal Secretaries of State have become pope in five centuries. But this is not about you or me, this is about the ministry of the Vicar of Christ on earth.”

For a moment, Laurenz regretted that he and the Spaniard had never managed to become friends, a reality that could clearly be ascribed to the fact that Menendez belonged to the Opus Dei, the most powerful and most dangerous society within the Church.

“Do you think I don’t know that? I do, believe me. But I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”

“And what do you intend to do? Do you plan to become the éminence grise in the background? The Antipope?”

“Do you really think that?”

“I want to understand the reason. Why?”

Laurenz shook his head. “I am sorry, Antonio.”

Filled with anger, Menendez straightened himself up. “I do not believe you, Franz Laurenz. I know you too well to believe you.”

Laurenz could not help but notice that the demeanor of the Cardinal Secretary of State had changed in that he had become distant.

“You are not the kind of man who abandons everything,” Menendez continued. “Overnight, so to speak. I am convinced that you have a plan and that this plan will split the Church. You named me your Secretary of State and, in so doing, you bound me to loyalty. But that’s over now. From now on, I will be your fiercest enemy. I will keep an eye on you. On you and your people. I will follow your every step. I will fight you no matter what you might be doing. I will protect my church from you, so help me God.”

These were his last words. The Spanish Cardinal had exited the room without saying goodbye.

The sound of someone timidly clearing his throat startled Laurenz from his deep thoughts. He ended his prayer and turned around. Duncker stood at the door of the chapel. He was wearing a black cassock with a purple fascia, identifying him as an Honorary Prelate of His Holiness.

“It is time, Holy Father.”

Laurenz nodded and stood up.

“I am no longer the Pope, Alexander. I’m not even a bishop anymore. From now on ‘Reverend’ will be enough.”

“With all due respect, Holy Father,” Duncker replied stiffly, “as long as you wear the Ring of the Fisherman, you are the Pope and I will address you accordingly.”

Laurenz understood that this was Duncker’s way of expressing his disapproval of the abdication.

Unlike Menendez and all the others that Laurenz had already seen that morning to take all the necessary steps, Alexander Duncker had not yet asked him for his reasons. The Thuringian-born man had been tactful as usual when he heard the news, had arranged for the press conference, and had informed the Camerlengo, the Pope’s chamberlain, who would now serve as the acting representative of the highest ranking official in the Catholic Church. At the age of forty-seven, Duncker was still very young for his important position. The good-looking Monsignore with a penchant for custom-made suits, fine restaurants and modern art was considered a heartthrob among the women of Rome, and the Italian tabloids liked to compare him to George Clooney. In public, he was gregarious and open-minded and this made him a popular talk show guest. In private, however, this highly intelligent man with an analytical brain was rather shy and reserved, and when it came to Church issues he was even extremely conservative. As a divinity student, he had contemplated joining the Carthusians, the strictest Roman Catholic religious order that demanded a commitment to almost complete silence. Laurenz, who was at the time his thesis advisor, had called him to Rome to work for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which had previously been known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. One year later, he had appointed him his private secretary. He appreciated and valued Duncker’s tactful nature and the smoothness with which he managed to spare him the daily grind of office routine – getting rid of people asking for interviews, answering emails, organizing secret meetings, and staying in touch with the individual bodies of the Roman Curia; and with certain other circles that operated from the shadows, controlling the fates of the world. However, what Laurenz valued most was the fact that Duncker knew how to hold his tongue. A very rare virtue in the Vatican.

“The Cardinal Camerlengo is expecting you in the reception room,” Duncker said. “Your luggage is already in the car, and the chauffeur is waiting in the courtyard. It’s an inconspicuous car with a Roman license plate, exactly the way you wanted it. They are expecting you at the Abbey of Monte Cassino.”

“Very good.” Laurenz straightened himself up. “Well then, let’s get it done…”.

The appartamento, the four thousand three hundred square foot private apartment of the Pope, included not only a private chapel but also five rooms and an ample reception hall. The furnishing was simple, tasteful and expensive. Here and there a Giotto or a Tintoretto appeared on the walls from the collections of his predecessors. Amongst them some private photos of Laurenz; some of them were showing him with his parents and with his two siblings in Duisburg. Today, only his younger brother was still alive.

The papal apartment was located on the Terza Loggia, on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, right next to Saint Peter’s Basilica. On the second floor were various government offices of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See, and on the floor above, right under the roof, was the apartment of the private secretary of the Pope. The roof of the Apostolic Palace had a huge garden terrace and Laurenz had loved to spend time there – especially in the evening – enjoying the view over the Eternal City.

“Please do me a favor, Alexander,” Laurenz said with a sigh. “Please deliver me from your indignant silence.”

Duncker stopped abruptly and took a deep breath. “You will have your reasons, Holy Father. For your abdication as well as for your silence. This is something I have to respect.”

Laurenz put his hand on the shoulder of his secretary. “I would like to thank you, Alexander. For everything. May I ask you for one last favor?” Laurenz pulled a small air-cushioned envelope from his coat pocket. On the envelope was an address outside of Rome written in the typical handwriting of the Pope, in neat block letters, which looked as if they had been carved into the paper. “Would you deliver this letter on my behalf? By hand? Right now?”

Laurenz put the envelope into Duncker’s hands as if it were fragile and precious. Then he held Duncker’s hands between his.

“It would be best if you took the helicopter.”

Duncker cast a glance at the address on the envelope and raised one of his eyebrows.

“That’s against the rules.”

“That’s why I am asking you for a favor.”

“May I ask what is in the envelope?”

Instead of giving him an answer, Laurenz just looked at him, steadfastly. A look as heavy as a rock. With a sigh, Duncker put the letter away.

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Holy Father?”

“No. That was it. God bless you, Alexander.”

Cardinal Giovanni Sacchi was already waiting for the Pope in the reception hall. Until the Middle Ages, the papal chamberlain had been in charge of the fiscal administration of the Holy See. In the meantime, the Camerlengo was left with only one task: to keep the office of the pope during the sede vacante, usually following the pope’s death. Part of this task was to destroy the signet ring of the deceased pope and to seal his private apartments. He would then hold the highest office in the Church until the new pope was elected.

Sacchi was a grumpy and tight-lipped man in his late seventies. He had spent almost his entire life in the Vatican and he had seen a lot, at times too much, so that he was used to not asking many questions. To him it made no difference whether the Pope had died or resigned; his task remained identical. Silently, he took the Ring of the Fisherman as it was handed to him, and equally silently he locked it away in a small box. Within the next few hours he would crush the ring with a silver hammer in the presence of the College of Cardinals.

One last time, Laurenz glanced around the room which had become so familiar to him during the past five years. He would never see any of this again in this life, and he would not need any of it.

Laurenz looked at his watch. Eleven-forty AM. It was time. High time. He turned to the Camerlengo. “Would you allow me a last moment in private, Cardinal Camerlengo?”

“Of course, Reverend,” the Camerlengo replied.

The Camerlengo had barely left the room when Laurenz rushed through a door at the far side into his study and from there into the library, which contained the most valuable and precious editions of his nearly twenty thousand books. Like every other room of the appartamento, the library had a phone, a modern telephone with a secure line, which stood on a Baroque writing table. But Laurenz suppressed the impulse to make a final call. Everything was prepared. Everything else was in God’s hands.

For a brief moment, Laurenz was simply standing there bidding farewell to his private library, his beloved refuge. He inhaled the familiar scent one final time, a blend of old paper, leather, floor wax and bygone times. Then Laurenz opened the only window in the room and, without wasting another thought, he climbed down the narrow fire escape leading into the shadowy courtyard, hoping that the employees of the Palace were all so overwhelmed by the events of the last hours that they were too busy and too distracted to cast a glance out of the window. He also hoped that the cat had found his way.

Two minutes later, Laurenz stood next to a Lieutenant of the Swiss Guards, who was wearing a dark suit instead of his traditional and flashy Renaissance uniform. It was quiet down here in the small courtyard; there was hardly any noise, only the distant gurgling of a fountain. The irresistible scent of bacon and tomato sauce wafted from somewhere in the distance, the classic Roman pasta all’amatriciana, one of Laurenz’s favorite dishes. But Laurenz knew how deceptive the peaceful ambience and the warm May air were. The news of his abdication was already surging through the world like a tsunami. St. Peter’s Square had begun to fill with distraught believers and curious onlookers; the media was moving in with fleets of broadcasting vans and the paparazzi had rented helicopters and were swarming the rooftops around the Vatican; the cell phone networks surrounding the Vatican were collapsing with the government leaders of the biggest industrial nations already consulting each other in a panic.

Laurenz turned to the Lieutenant of the Swiss Guards.

“Do you have them?”

“Of course, Holy Father.”

The guard handed Laurenz two keys. One of them was an old skeleton key with a gray plastic label that was marked with a single word in block letters: PASSETTO.

V

May 1, 2011, Vatican City

Hatred is good. Pain is good. Hatred and pain are heavenly brothers, the divine energy of the soul, the source of the light. The light forged you from hatred and made you its instrument, your mission to sow pain. You are the second apocalyptic horseman, the warrior in red armor. The light has sent you out to cleanse the world through bloodshed, death and war. This is exactly what you are going to do.

Nikolas pressed himself into the shadows of an ancient oak tree and observed the private secretary of the Pope as he hurried across the Campo Santo Teutonico, the German cemetery. Nikolas himself was not in a hurry. He knew precisely where the man in the black cassock was headed.

You are the instrument of the light. Through the brotherhood, the light revealed to you your divine mission, and taught you that hatred and pain are good and that they are one. But it also taught you that you may only appear in a cunning disguise in this depraved and sinful world, if you do not want to jeopardize your mission.

The private secretary crossed the square in front of the Palace of Justice and disappeared behind the building. Nikolas stepped out of the shadows and followed him. Still he did not particularly hurry, but his strides were long enough to catch-up with the man just before he reached his destination.

The brotherhood has taught you to hide your hatred. It has not even been difficult. Everyone who gets to know you in your worldly disguise praises your friendliness, your modesty, your willingness to help, and sometimes even your charm. The brotherhood taught you all this. Everything you know and everything you are you owe to the brotherhood. And now the time has come to show your gratefulness to the holy brotherhood by helping to accomplish the great work.

The time of the light has come.

On the right side behind the Palace of Justice were the Vatican Gardens with the building that housed the Governorate of Vatican City. Nikolas noticed, however, that the private secretary passed the Palace on the left side, rushing past the church Santo Stefane degli Abissini, and so he increased his speed. He caught-up with the man as planned, shortly before he reached the helicopterum portum, the papal heliport, which had been built in 1976 at the behest of Pope Paul VI. The Sikorsky SH-3D “Sea King” was ready for take-off, waiting on the reinforced concrete slab by the north wall of the Vatican. Still walking, the private secretary signaled to the pilot to start the engine. This was the moment when Nikolas called to him from behind.

“Monsignore! One moment please!”

The private secretary turned. Nikolas enjoyed the irritated look on the face of the man, obviously annoyed by this unknown priest who tried to keep him from his urgent mission.

Prepare yourself. Tame your temper. Pain you shall sow and light you shall reap. Yours is the kingdom and the light and the glory.

“What do you want from me?” the private secretary seemed edgy and angry.

“In the name of the light,” Nikolas said in a gentle voice and then he pulled the machete from his cassock and in a single trained motion he rammed it deep into the priest’s head.

The priest’s face burst open like a ripe mango. His blood splattered onto Nikolas’s cassock as he collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. Nikolas struck him again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Until the skull of the now lifeless man also burst open like a melon and his blood and brain matter scattered over the helicopter landing site.

The machete is sharp, a single cut can be deadly. But you are not supposed to kill elegantly. You are supposed to create pain. In your victims as well as in those who are grieving for them. For it is only pain that will prepare the way for the light.

Nikolas heard the screams of the helicopter pilot, who was still strapped in his seat, and he looked up. The pilot was panic-stricken, trying to free himself from the safety belt. He was wearing a pilot’s helmet and yelled something in Italian into his headset. Without any haste, Nikolas walked around the helicopter, the machete still in his hand. The pilot was still sitting in his seat when Nikolas killed him with a blow that nearly decapitated him. His blood sprayed against the plexiglas canopy of the cockpit. Then, there was quiet.

Nikolas returned to the private secretary, who was lying in a pool of blood that seeped slowly into his cassock. He checked the cassock pockets, found the letter with the Pope’s handwriting, and took it. He didn’t bother about his fingerprints. He rushed to get out of his own cassock and threw it carelessly, together with the machete, onto the dead body of the private secretary. Then he wiped his hands and his face clean with two moist towelettes, threw them on top of everything else, and quickly disappeared towards the direction of the rose garden.

VI

May 1, 2011, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome

The Passetto di Borgo, a two thousand six hundred foot long escape route, linked the Vatican with the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Castle of Saint Angelo, the fortress of the popes. What looked from the outside like a regular wall was on the inside a narrow passage that had allowed numerous popes throughout the centuries to flee into the papal stronghold – or to get discreetly and without being seen to their mistresses, waiting for them in the lavishly furnished parlors of the Castle of Saint Angelo.

The Passetto left the Vatican at the Via dei Corridori, followed the Borgo Sant’Angelo, crossed the Roman traffic chaos at the Piazza Pia, jumped over the battlements of the Castle of Saint Angelo, and finally entered the northwestern corner tower of the repellent bastion, which had originally been built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian.

The Passetto was now opened to tourists a few times a year. The rest of the time, the Swiss Guards kept the keys to the two access doors safe.

At that moment, Laurenz had only little sense for the secret passage’s checkered history, as it seeped from the mold-ridden walls and hung in the dank air. He rushed through the half-dark, which received its only light from narrow slits every few yards in the wall, and at one point he cursed quietly as his right shoulder bumped against something jutting out of the wall.

Upon arriving in the Castle of Saint Angelo, he cautiously locked the door and turned to his left, into a steep and narrow stairwell. Laurenz hurried down the stairs. This was not his first time in the castle; he knew his way around and he also was cognizant as how to avoid the hordes of tourists that used to flood all five levels of the castle at this time of day. Guarded by the Archangel Michael from high above the castle, the tourists rolled in over the spiral ramp on the ground floor and up to the former dungeons and the storage rooms for wheat and oil, and then they poured into the Cortile dell’Angelo laughing and photographing while drinking their cokes, proceeding to the fourth floor with the magnificently decorated halls and the treasury. Hardly any of these people had the slightest idea what secrets the Castle of Saint Angelo still hid today.

Only once on his way down did Laurenz run into a scattered group of American teenagers, but they didn’t recognize him, preferring to practice their French kissing. Swiftly and a little out of breath, despite his impressive physical fitness, Laurenz finally reached the ground floor. He slipped outside through a non-descript door, which the second of the two keys fitted.

As agreed, his chauffeur Mario was waiting at the eastern exit of the Castle in his private car, an older model black Alfa Romeo 156. When Laurenz rushed to get in the back of the car, the young Roman with the fashionable sunglasses could not help but be shocked by the facial expression of the man who only a few hours earlier had carried the name John Paul III.

“My God, Holy Father, you look as if you were fleeing from the devil!”

“Get going, Mario,” Laurenz replied in a weary voice.

“To the apartment, as we discussed?”

“Si.”

Laurenz was grateful that his driver merged into the lunchtime traffic without asking any further questions. He had more trust in the thirty-two-year-old Roman than in some of the Cardinals of the Curia, and over the last few years he had always been able to count on him when he had to leave the Vatican incognito to attend secret meetings with politicians, industry leaders and representatives of other religious communities. Besides, Mario’s old Alfa with the tainted windows, the Roman license plate and the fan scarf of the AC Roma on the rear parcel shelf was less conspicuous than the official Mercedes with the license plate SCV-1 for Stato della Città del Vaticano.

What’s more, Mario was the only person in the Vatican who knew their destination, which was in San Lorenzo, the 3rd Municipio of Rome. He knew it because he had acted as the Pope’s representative four years earlier when he bought the two-bedroom apartment in the exuberant neighborhood that was popular with students. The money for the purchase was from the personal estate of the Pope.

Mario constantly checked whether they were being followed. He kept changing lanes and went with the flow of traffic to avoid drawing any attention. After approximately ten minutes, he braked abruptly making a sharp right turn into a filthy parking garage. He parked the car on the third level, exited, and after ensuring that the coast was clear, he gave Laurenz a sign. As if they had been practicing for weeks, the two men switched cars and left the garage three minutes later in a Japanese compact car.

“My apologies to you, Holy Father, but this is my cousin Vittoria’s car. There was so little time that I couldn’t find anything else.”

“Don’t worry about that, Mario. I would even ride on the back of a Vespa with you if you deemed that safer. Did you notice anything?”

“No, Holy Father. No one is following us.”

Laurenz put on his sunglasses and stared out of the window. All around him, Italian life was in full swing and the traffic was almost at a standstill. Every day at lunchtime, the entire city of Rome seemed to have a secret arrangement to use all available vehicles at precisely the same time. Teenagers on Vespas raced at breakneck speeds through gaps between the cars, and the trattorie filled with tourists, businessmen, and women with large sunglasses and the latest designer handbags. Laurenz relaxed a bit.

“How is your wife, Mario?”

“Beh. She is doing very well, Holy Father. She’s always complaining about my irregular work hours.”

“A sign of love, Mario. And how is little Laura?”

“She will become a beauty, Holy Father! Blabbering incessantly. She inherited the looks from her mother and the mouth from her grandmother. Madonna, one day she’s going to talk us all into the ground.”

Laurenz laughed. “Bravissimo! So she has what it takes to become the Secretary of State.”

He laughed for the first time that day, and this laughter dispersed a little of the dark shadow weighing on his soul. For a brief moment, he thought that it might not yet be too late. That there might still be hope.

“Did you prepare everything, Mario?”

“As you told me, Holy Father. Salvo has set up an internet connection that is redirected through numerous proxy servers and he has assured me that no one can hack into it for about ten minutes.”

“That should leave us enough time. Did Salvo ask any questions?”

Mario laughed. “He thinks that I am having an affair with a Swedish spy. I denied it, of course, but he was envious.”

They reached Via Palermo later than expected. Mario parked the car in a driveway next to the small hotel Caravaggio, and after making sure that nobody was watching them, he helped Laurenz out of the vehicle. Laurenz looked at his watch, realizing he didn’t have much time left. He stormed into the stone hallway and ran up the stairs to the third floor, where he waited impatiently for Mario to fish the key out of his pocket.

Mario was the first to enter the apartment. So Laurenz didn’t see him right away: the man in the black hooded monk’s habit who had made himself comfortable in a wicker chair in the corridor. He also didn’t see the man with the gun who was standing behind him. Laurenz only heard the thud of the silencer and Mario’s muffled cry as he collapsed in front of him, gurgling and coughing up a stream of blood. The bullet had hit Mario squarely in the throat.

“Did you really believe you could get away from me so easily?” an age-old and piercing voice crowed. The man under the hood spoke German with an oddly drawling accent that Laurenz had never been able to place.

“What did I tell you? People will die if you don’t stick with the instructions. People who are close to your heart. And only because of your pride, Laurenz.”

From the wicker chair, Seth made a brief gesture with his hand, and the man standing next to him stepped up to Mario, who was gasping for air, and shot him in the head.

Laurenz spun around and fled back into the hallway, but there a muscular figure in a ski mask headed him off. Although Laurenz was already over sixty, his reflexes were still every bit as quick as when he was young, when he had honed and trained them in the boxing ring and in the streets of Duisburg. He ducked from the punch of the masked man and put all his body weight into one blow that he placed directly on the assailant’s kidney. The blow hit home. The masked man convulsed with pain, moaning. Laurenz kicked the man out of his way and ran down the stairs. He heard another thud but the bullet hit the wall, only inches from his head.

Laurenz continued to run. He paid no attention to the footsteps of the two killers running after him. He reached the front door. However, a third man was waiting for him there, aiming a gun with a silencer at him. Laurenz knew that he was going to die now and the realization brought a sense of peace. He sent a final prayer to his Lord and to the Holy Mother of God, and then he straightened himself up, preparing to die. The Asian-looking man shot. Once. Twice. Laurenz winced and didn’t really register the rumbling behind him. The Asian pushed him aside and fired again. As Laurenz turned around in surprise, he saw that the killer who had murdered Mario was lying on the staircase with a bullet in his head. The beefy man with the ski mask was crouching next to him wheezing and holding his stomach.

The Asian stepped toward him and shot him in the head. Then he turned to Laurenz.

His voice was sharp. “Let’s get out of here!” he said. “Now.”

VII

May 8, 2011, Rome

As usual at lunchtime, the little bar at the Piazza Sant’Eustachio was jam-packed. Businessmen in designer suits, senators and elegant Roman ladies, the young Gucci jet-set, priests, and a few scattered tourists were crowding in front of the polished bar counter to grab a quick espresso after lunch or a caffé con panna, which was served in a cappuccino cup together with a scoop of freshly whipped cream. Peter Adam visited the Bar Sant’Eustachio every day when he was in Rome. For him, this bar was a magical place with the best caffé in the world. Furthermore, it was close to the seat of the Italian Senate, making it the ideal place to meet the right people, tap into some secret insider information, or simply listen to the rumors and the lively gossip that enabled the Romans to recognize each other as Romans.

Although Peter Adam lived in Hamburg, the thirty-five-year-old journalist spent several weeks each year in the Eternal City. A series of tell-all articles, critical of the Church, had garnered him the reputation of being a Vatican expert and secured him a full-time job with a big Hamburg news magazine that had sent him now, as the conclave was about to begin, as a correspondent to Rome.

Peter Adam knew how to behave in Rome and how important it was in this town to cut a good figure, a bella figura. He was wearing jeans, a tapered white shirt, and a blue jacket in the latest fashion. His look was completed with light-brown brogue Oxford dress shoes and, of course, accented by matching socks. No jewelry except for the Jaeger-LeCoultre on his left wrist. Being badly dressed was deemed a deadly sin in Rome and could close many a door before one even had a chance to knock on it. What to wear and what not to wear was a fixed rule in Rome and could determine your success, for better or worse. In this particular case, Peter Adam’s outfit said that he was either a media lawyer or a journalist – successful either way. As his blonde hair and his smooth North German facial features did not allow him to pass as Roman, he could only be a foreign journalist. This, together with his looks and his almost accent-free Italian, secured him the interest of the senators that were present, as well as the goodwill of their wives. Ultimately, this was what mattered in Rome.

At this very moment, however, Peter Adam’s focus was on something entirely different. He stood right in front of the monstrous coffee machine and tried to figure out how the hell the old barista, who was hiding from view, clattering around with cups and spoons and portafilters, created this delicious coffee. In more than fifteen years, Peter had only been able to find out that the old man brewed the caffé together with the sugar. Of course, it was also possible to order unsweetened coffee, but this was regarded as extremely strange. After all, making coffee was just a caffeinated way to liquefy sugar.

“Summer is coming,” Peter said. “Slowly but surely.” He was attempting to engage the barista in a conversation, even though the man didn’t even greet his regulars.

“Eh. Era ora – finally, ‘twas time,” the old man growled in response. That was it. Then he served Peter his caffé con panna.

As Peter sipped his espresso with whipped cream, he watched a young woman in a striking suit. Her classic nose and the way she stuck out her little finger when she talked were clear signs that she was Roman. Early thirties, Peter assumed. Daughter of a wealthy family, Law school, fluent in three languages, good in bed, and very, very bitchy. Old Roman Patrician nobility.

She had noticed him and every now and then their eyes would meet for a moment. Peter was wondering whether he should approach her when he suddenly realized how much she resembled Ellen. Ellen, whom he had also brought to this place, often. Ellen who had loved Rome as much as he did. Ellen, who was dead now, simply dead. Only Rome still existed and would continue to exist forever. Abruptly, Peter turned around and opened the Corriere della Sera which was reporting again – as it had done throughout the entire last week – on the ISS catastrophe. The wave of shocking news and apocalyptic images had no end. The devastating earthquake in New Zealand, the financial crisis in Europe, the riots and civil wars in North Africa, the Tsunami and the nuclear disaster in Japan, and finally the catastrophe on the ISS. As if the human race urgently needed to understand that they were on the brink of doom.

And now the Pope. All the newspapers reported the abdication, the mysterious disappearance of the Pope, and the tragic, fatal accident of his private secretary. The tabloid papers were speculating wildly about a possible connection with the ISS disaster and about murderous conspiracies in the Vatican. Peter knew from his colleagues in the Hamburg office that the government leaders of the most important industrial nations were holding crisis talks over the phone on a daily basis.

However, the Vatican seemed to have fallen into a state of shock. There were hardly any statements and even the unofficial channels and the wise guys kept silent. Radio Vaticano aired its regular programming as if nothing had happened, and Cardinal Menendez was not available for any interviews. Not to mention Franz Laurenz. No one knew where he was right now. Or whether he was even still alive.

Peter thought about the conclave that was supposed to begin in ten days. The first Cardinals had already begun to arrive. No one expected the election of the new pope to be swift. Even though the media was speculating on possible favorites – which was also the only topic that was discussed in the bar – Peter was sure that they would have to brace themselves for a long conclave. Perhaps enough time to track down John Paul III and convince him to sit for an interview. He looked at the Jaeger-LeCoultre that Ellen had given him as a gift shortly before her death. It was a little before two o’clock. He still had to draft an article about the finances of the Vatican and he decided that afterwards he would pay a visit to his friend Don Luigi in the Vatican. Maybe the well-informed Jesuit priest had some news for him.

“Well, gorgeous?” said a familiar, honeyed voice behind him.

Peter turned around and looked at the breathtakingly deep décolleté of a skin-tight scarlet red dress.

“Loretta, hello. Nice to see you.”

The red-haired woman in the red dress gave him a throaty laugh and kissed him on the mouth. “You are a miserable liar, darling, and that will never change.”

Loretta Hooper was the Italy correspondent of the Washington Post and, like him, she was responsible for issues relating to the Vatican. They had known each other for several years and had even had a brief affair, which ended when Peter met Ellen. Unlike him, Loretta was systematically ignoring the Roman dress code. As usual, her dress was too tight, too red and the neckline was much too low for this time of day. Peter liked it.

“No, Loretta, it’s true. I’m always happy to see you. Would you like a drink?”

“Are you in the middle of something?”

“Not at all.”

“I’ve been watching you, Peter. You were about to hook up with that little Roman slut over there.”

Peter ordered another two espressos with whipped cream to shut Loretta up. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that the young Roman woman had seen him with Loretta, and now she frowned and turned away.

Thanks, Loretta, thank you very much!

“What brings you here, Loretta?”

“I thought it would be nice if we had drinks together. It’s been a while.”

“I have nothing that could help you.”

“And this is another lie, honey! What about this friend of yours, this priest?”

“Don Luigi is very shy. He only talks to me.”

With vigorous movements, Loretta stirred the whipped cream in her cup into the coffee until the mixture had turned into a creamy pulp, and then she drank the whole thing down in one gulp. “Bullshit. But who cares. I’ll tell you what I want. I want an interview with John Paul III.”

“That’s what we all want.”

“But you and I, darling, we’re the best. We’re the only people who are capable of finding him.”

“He might not even be in Rome anymore.”

Loretta gave him a suspicious look.

“You know something!”

“If I knew something, I would already have my interview.”

“Where do you think he is?”

“One thing’s for sure: he’s not in the Monastery of Monte Cassino, as the Vatican claims. But perhaps he’s not that far away either. Franz Laurenz loves the Latium and he’ll want to stay within calling distance of Rome. I would place my bet on a small and secretive little monastery less than sixty miles away. That’s what my gut tells me.”

Loretta was beaming at him. “Exactly, honey! And you and I, as clever and cute as we are, we’ll find and interview him. We’ll share the work and share the glory.”

Peter looked at Loretta, once again marveling at how fast she had grown out of the role of a little typist from rural Illinois to become what she truly was: a star journalist with a hunting instinct who would never give up. Never.

“Come on, darling! Stop with the bedroom eyes, we’re just talking business.”

“Well, do you have anything to offer, Loretta?”

“Perhaps.”

“No games. Tell me what you have, and maybe I’ll introduce you to Don Luigi.”

“So, we have a deal?”

Peter nodded. “We have a deal.”

Loretta rummaged through her purse and placed a folded piece of paper onto the table. It showed the photocopy of a symbol shaped rather like a scribbled spiral.

“Have you ever seen this before?”

Damn, where did I see this before?

“No idea. What is it?”

“It’s one of the oldest symbols of mankind and can be found in almost all cultures of the world. They found rock engravings from the Stone Age with this symbol in Sweden, in Northern Spain, in China, and on the American continent. Virtually all over the world.”

Where did you see this symbol before? Where, where, where?

“A symbol from the Stone Age? What’s the point, Loretta?”

Loretta placed three newspaper articles onto the counter, one by one. All been published during the previous week and she made sure that no one looked over their shoulders. As Peter followed her glance, he saw that the beautiful Roman woman was just leaving the bar without deigning to look at him again. What a bummer.

“Three people died last week,” Loretta explained. “Shortly before the Pope resigned. One mountain climber from Chicago – she fell to her death in the Himalayas; one Polish astronaut – he vaporized together with the ISS; and an investment banker who worked for the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, the Vatican Bank – he fell to his death in a Milan elevator. And then there is also the fatal accident of the Pope’s private secretary.”

“And, Loretta? Where are you going with this?”

“It was a coincidence, really, a total coincidence. Sherpas from another expedition found the corpse of the mountain climber in a crevasse. A good friend of mine who works in Chicago conducted the autopsy and he called me. He told me that he had found something and wondered whether I might be able to use it.”

The symbol. What does it mean?

“What did he find?”

“A diary. It was filled with these symbols. Apparently, the young climber had discovered them on the rocks during her expedition and had copied them.

Where did you see this symbol before? Where, damn it?

“I busted my ass,” Loretta continued without taking a breath. “I filtered the news and checked with all the photo agencies. I drank one of the NASA speakers under the table until he gave me what I wanted.”

“Please, Loretta, the short version!”

“The short version is that the Polish astronaut took a book with him aboard the ISS. Astronauts are allowed to take one personal item aboard, and most of them take a camera. Not the young Pole. He took a book. This book.”

She placed a small, old pocket book onto the counter. The spiral symbol jumped at Peter from the cover.

“It’s long been out of stock. I stole it from a library.”

‘Mystic Symbols of Man – Origins and Meanings.’ The book had been published fifteen years ago. The author was: Franz Laurenz.

Loretta looked at Peter, triumphantly. “This book was also found in the briefcase of the investment banker who fell to his death.”

Peter was irritated and stared at the little book. “How did you find that out, Loretta?”

“This will remain my precious little secret forever. In the book, Laurenz discusses the spiral symbol very often.”

She opened one of the pages and directed Peter’s attention to the illustrations.

“These are from England, Sweden, Utah, and New Mexico and they are probably over five thousand years old. The question is: why would people in the Stone Age put so much effort into carving a spiral symbol into solid rock? Hundreds of times?”

“You tell me.”

“It’s all written in here. An archaeologist figured it out in the early nineties. He interpreted the spirals as stars and compared the spiral patterns on the computer with the night sky at the approximate time when the spirals were created. The result was mind-blowing. The spirals were pretty precise and sophisticated celestial maps. They always referred to a very specific and rather unsettling astronomical event. A solar eclipse. At least, Laurenz assumes that the spiral symbol stands for a solar eclipse. An event which was associated in all cultures with the end of the world. And when is the next solar eclipse?”

“No idea.”

“In seven days.”

Peter exhaled. “It could still be a coincidence.”

Dream on! You know better that that!

“Coincidence? Also that the men were both priests and the woman was a nun?”

Peter was impressed by Loretta’s research. She enjoyed the baffled look on his face.

“What was a nun doing in the Himalayas and a priest in space?” Peter asked.

“Perhaps the same thing as we are doing, darling – searching for answers.”

Loretta tapped her finger on the spiral symbol.

“Is this all you know? Or is there more?”

“I think this is a lot to be going on with. Peter, I have no idea how these things might be connected, but I’m sure that this symbol is a lead. It will lead us to the Pope and to a few answers. Now it’s your turn.”

Peter had always loved Roman afternoons. The time after the pranzo, the extensive lunch, when everyone retired behind closed blinds to take a little nap. Between one and four, the heartbeat of the city changed – many stores were closed anyway during the midday hours – and the few Romans that one met on the street at this time of day seemed calmer and more content because they had enjoyed a good meal. Or they seemed grumpier because they had been forced to skip their naps.

In the meantime, however, Peter had begun to fear the afternoon because it was the hour of the monster. The monster that was lying in wait for him, somewhere, in secrecy, ready to attack him at any given time and digest him slowly and through excruciating pain. The afternoon was the monster’s preferred hunting time.

Fully clothed, he was lying on the double bed of his darkened hotel room as he waited for the migraine to strike. But it seemed that it would spare him this time. The worst thing about the migraine, next to the pain and the agony, was the helplessness of being at its mercy, all of a sudden and without any warning. In most cases, the attacks only lasted a few hours, but they left him drained, without any memory. He wished back the times when he and Ellen had still celebrated the afternoon hours. When he had still been able to sleep.

A telephone call to his adoptive parents had been overdue for quite some time now, but Peter couldn’t focus on that. Something else preyed on his mind. He watched the ballet performance of the light reflections that glided through the slats of the blinds and danced on the ceiling, and he tried to recall where he had seen the spiral symbol before. It had been a long time ago, a very long time ago, that much was clear. But every time he tried to focus on the symbol and to reach back in his memory, the image became a blur. He had always been proud of his almost eidetic memory, so that this stubborn memory gap unsettled him even more.

The traffic outside regained its usual noise level. Time to get back to work. He still had an article to write.

Even though the Hotel Le Finestre sul Vaticano was just a thoroughly mediocre Bed and Breakfast, it had – as its name arrogantly boasted to the world – a direct view of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was located on the Via Conciliazione, a broad boulevard that Mussolini had cut through the heart of the city and that ran dead straight from the East towards St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter would have preferred to stay at his favorite hotel, the Albergo Santa Chiara by the Pantheon, but as he had to report on the conclave, his managing editor had insisted on a hotel with a view of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Peter arose from his bed and cast a glance out of the window. In the distance was St. Peter’s Basilica, only a few hundred yards away, and right behind it was the roof of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s famous ceiling fresco. Once again, St. Peter’s Square was filled with people who seemed to be hoping for some kind of sign, for some explanation for the outrageous turn of events. Or simply for a new spectacle.

Back at his desk, Peter focused on his article about the Vatican finances. The Vatican Bank didn’t publish any numbers or balance sheets. The only thing that was known was that the annual budget of the Vatican State was about two hundred and fifty million euros. The majority of the budget was devoured by the salaries and pensions for the almost three thousand employees of the small city-state. The money came from real estate proceeds, donations, and from the dioceses and religious orders around the world. The remaining sum of fifty million euros was contributed by the Vatican Bank.

In reality, however, the worldwide assets of the Catholic Church were estimated to be somewhere between ten and a hundred billion euros. Each of the richest dioceses alone, the dioceses of Cologne and Chicago, had an annual income of over half a billion euros.

At the end of the seventies, the IOR, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, had been embroiled in a financial scandal involving shady business and security deals with the Banco Ambrosiano, the Mafia, and the illegal masonic lodge Propaganda Due. It was alleged that John Paul II had funded the Solidarity movement in Poland through the Banco Ambrosiano. In 1982, Roberto Calvi, the chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, was found under Blackfriars Bridge in London. It looked as if he had hung himself. As it turned out, he had been assassinated by the Mafia. The collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano also rocked the Vatican Bank. It could only be saved by a financial injection from the assets of the Opus Dei and, in return, it was made into a personal prelature by Laurenz’s predecessor, John Paul II. Which meant nothing less than that it was now a worldwide diocese without a bishop’s See. Hence, John Paul II turned the Opus Dei de facto into the most powerful diocese in the world. It was also unknown where the money of the Opus Dei came from.

Currently, the IOR functioned as a type of central bank for the Catholic Church where many of the dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic institutions had bank accounts. But the Vatican Bank was still refusing to publish information about their assets and business transactions, which provided further fuel for conspiracy theories about the machinations of the Vatican.

Peter was convinced that the Vatican was still, through the IOR, involved in shady business deals worldwide, and that the Vatican also used the IOR’s assets for the implementation of political goals. However, this could not be empirically proven.

Shortly after seven-thirty, Peter finished his article, which only summarized facts that were common knowledge, and sent it via email to his office in Hamburg. Absent-mindedly, he browsed through the latest news on the websites of CNN, the BBC, and Radio Vaticano, and then he took a shower.

The monster came as he trudged back into his room with a towel around his waist, angry about the badly cleaned wood floor. This time, the migraine hit him without any warning, without any sign, without the small pre-shocks of nausea and impaired vision. A supernova exploded in front of Peter’s eyes, bulged into his head, and filled it with pain, completely and utterly. Peter didn’t even notice his knees buckling. The last thing that he consciously registered was a red cloud chasing towards him, enveloping him completely.

Then came the darkness.

And the fear.

Fear was a mathematical binomial, a paradox of darkness and light, two elementary powers that scraped against each other like tectonic plates, incessantly, crushing him in between. The result of the binomial equation of darkness and light was pure, clear and one hundred percent distilled fear.

In deepest darkness, Peter pushed himself through a narrow shaft. It was so narrow that his body would only fit in if he pulled his arms above his head, and he could hardly move. With every movement, the shaft became narrower. Like a tube tightening up around his body. But there was light at the end of the shaft. As he was screaming and desperately gasping for air, Peter struggled towards the light, but instead of moving forwards he continued to move further and further back. The light became smaller and smaller – and then it went out.

Peter sank into a dark ocean. Deeper and deeper. Endlessly deep. Not a single sound could be heard except for the throbbing of his blood. Peter tried to swim but he could move neither his arms nor his legs. Around him things flashed and gleamed, weird fish and sparkling creatures, and above him he saw the lights of a city. Unreachable. Peter’s lungs were squeezed by the pressure of the water and they were screaming for air. He wanted to breathe. Exhale. Breathe, breathe, breathe! But whoever exhaled also had to inhale, and this would have been his certain death. The lights around him vanished. Peter felt a burning sensation in the muscles of his arms and legs, comparable to a severe case of cramps, and he was left with only one wish: to exhale and inhale again. That’s exactly what he did.

Everything went out. The entire world, the time, the pain, even he himself.

Then he saw St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter moved along the Via della Conciliazione towards St. Peter’s Square. He was dragged along by floods of countless people. St. Peter’s Square was already filled with hundreds of thousands, all of them staring at a single spot. Peter turned his eyes and looked up at the Sistine Chapel. White smoke was rising from the small chimney. A new Pope had been elected! Habemus papam! Peter was wondering whom the Cardinals might have chosen in such a short time – when a blazing flash lit up the night. The people around Peter started to scream and he saw a gigantic mushroom cloud rising above St. Peter’s Basilica. As if in slow motion, a huge explosion transformed the basilica into powder that rolled as languidly as a sea of oil over St. Peter’s Square, tearing the assembled crowds to pieces, bending columns like straws and flinging the cars that were parked behind the barrier into the air. A huge fireball appeared from underneath the mushroom cloud, it grew with torturous sloth and then thundered over the square, incinerating walls, people and cars. Then Peter heard a voice. The voice said:

“Chaos reigns in the Via della Conciliazione. Ambulances rush to the scene from all directions. Dead bodies and debris litter the streets, which look like a battlefield. Approximatley thirty minutes ago, a huge explosion shook the entire Vatican. Eyewitnesses describe a blazing flash of light ripping through the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The blast killed thousands of people and tossed debris and parked cars several hundred yards into the air. At this hour, nothing is known about the background details of this devastating attack, or about the fate of the one hundred and seventeen cardinals who had gathered in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave. At this point, only one thing is clear: the Vatican, the center of the Catholic Church, no longer exists.”