His eyes fluttered open to the opening bars of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. He groaned, turning over in his single bed and scrabbling at the alarm clock on the bedside table with trembling hands. The cold Winter dawn penetrating through the single pane lit on his liver-spotted forearm. He sighed, and the breath rattled in his lungs. But at least he wasn’t coughing yet. The Lord tended to have mercy on the days he sent his angel.
Brother Romano inhaled deeply as he pulled his cassock over his skeletal frame. The little room reeked of spent incense, and the syrupy scent of the urine of the aged, from the chamber pot beneath the bed. He looked past the window, where the sun peeked like a shy schoolboy over the Sicilian hills, lighting on the bare brown of cold-stripped orange groves, and the sheep that still rooted for the sour fruits.
He turned for the whitewashed staircase leading down from the second floor as the hollow beats of the bell tower at the front of the monastery sounded the dawn. Brother De Luca’s snores were almost loud enough to cover them.
Romano shuffled through the spartan kitchen, ducking his head against the low ceiling, and savouring the smell of freshly baked bread. It sat on the counter under sweating clingfilm, next to a greasy rosary string, and a sharp notice from Brother Costa, his warning illegible in the low light. It was no matter. He hadn’t been able to keep much but plain chicken soup down as of late, and even then, only on occasion.
He passed the small room set into an alcove leading onto the courtyard. Romano was the only one who made use of the ancient computer inside. It had cost the brotherhood considerable expense to have the thing installed. Brother Costa did not let him forget this. But sacrifices had to be made, in the Lord’s service.
The monastery was hollow in the centre, four high walls open to the sky, fringed with a first-floor balcony. Romano pulled his cassock about him in the morning chill as he shuffled across the gravel. A light wind ruffled his short white hair, mostly retreated from his scalp. It brought the first whisper of a high whine from the distant hills. It could have been a mosquito, in the right season. He felt his dry lips crack in a faint smile. Right on time.
There was a small fountain in the centre of the white gravel courtyard, a shallow pool rippling under the thin streams of water gently trickling from the hollows in the plinth that supported a statue of the Holy Virgin, tall and stately in the morning sun. His morning vigil, his calming oasis, and the preferred meeting ground of his associate. The stone eyes seemed to regard him from on high as he fell to his knees on the worn mat he had spread at the foot of the fountain. He closed his eyes in silent prayer, hands dipping beneath his cassock to finger the rosary, and the gently lapping babble of the fountain soothed his racing thoughts as he knelt and waited.
He did not have long to wait. He was midway through the Our Father when he heard the creak of the backdoor, and the confident strides of the young man crunch on the gravel. A light breeze brought the smell of engine oil and women’s shampoo. There was a strained sound of the man’s riding leathers sliding over each other as he breezed past and sat on the lip of the fountain, dark eyes watching Romano.
He was not to be hurried. He finished the prayer, reaching instinctively for his three Hail Mary’s. But he stayed his hand and opened his eyes to the light.
“Morning, old man.” The youth grinned, tossing his waxed dark locks back from his face, so they hung to his shoulders. His teeth glinted like pearls in the sunlight. He was slender and tall, and his ripped blue jeans drew a sigh in Romano’s throat. But he wasn’t here for his fashion sense.
“Good morning, Fabio.” Romano rose to one knee. “I trust the Lord finds you well?”
“He doesn’t find me at all, old man. You should give it up.” Fabio reached into the babbling waters, stirring them with one finger. Somewhere close by, a cockerel crowed.
Romano didn’t bother to disguise this sigh. “So, it is done?”
“Sure.” Fabio said, uncrossing his legs and reaching into his pocket. For a moment, Romano’s pulse spiked. But he only produced a mobile phone. “Wanna see?”
“Put that away!” Romano hissed, conscious of his voice carrying. “And don’t be morbid.”
“Coming from Satan’s fucking messiah, I’ll take that as sarcasm.” Fabio was still grinning. But he pocketed the phone.
Romano controlled his temper with difficulty. His knuckles were white around the rosary. “What we do is for the greater good.” He spelled out carefully, staring past Fabio into the rippling waters, as if searching for a drowned God. “I do not recall you spurning the money.”
“You mean the money that dried up six months ago?” Fabio didn’t sound angry. He was still smiling, but his eyes were sweeping the balcony above them. Searching out the rheumy eyes and hearing aids of the brothers.
Romano’s brow creased as he thought. “And yet you kept working.” He spoke to the scuffed leather boots. “You never told me why.”
“This isn’t confession.” Fabio yawned and stretched. “Give me the name.”
“You know very well who.” Romano leant on his knee as he drew himself painfully back to his full height. Fabio rose with him, a full head taller. He made no attempt to help the older man. “But first you will show me it.”
Something glinted in Fabio’s eyes as he said this, and Romano shivered. He had never taken to the young man, contacted two years ago in a dead chatroom on a hidden site, accessed using expensive software. He had gone under the handle “Samson.” The boy claimed ignorance of the reference.
Fabio was dancing the dirty silver coin over his knuckles. Romano felt a dry lump in his throat as he watched him. The boy was whistling faintly.
“Where did you find it?” He finally asked.
“Inside his robe, right over his heart.” Fabio replied, and tossed the coin at Romano, who fumbled it. It clattered on the gravel in a miniature echo of the bells of the monastery. “Don’t they teach repentance in that big book of yours?”
Romano’s gut stabbed at him as he bent to retrieve the coin, and he couldn’t quite disguise the hiss of pain.
“Some of choose to keep a talisman, to remind us of our past sins.” Romano said, rubbing his thumb over the dull nose of Julius Caesar. “Like Brother De Luca and his bottle of elderflower wine.” He tried to smile at the young man, but it didn’t translate.
“You think he gave it up?” Fabio looked down at Romano’s hands on the coin. He was surprised that he’d applied a thin sheen of sweat to it that glimmered like dew in the climbing sun. A cold, sharp-smelling kind.
Romano sighed, and stowed the coin. “Does it matter? He is with the Lord now.”
“Washed clean in the blood of the lamb.” Fabio mocked.
“Speak not of the dead.” Romano spat. “Lest you burn beneath their feet.”
“I’ll see you there, your holiness.” Fabio picked at something between his teeth, and then spat into the fountain. “The name.”
If Romano had been forty years younger, he may have slapped the boy. But forty years was a long time. A long time to live with regret. The surfaces of his knees, callused and insensate with prayer, attested to that. In the little time he had left, all he could do was atone.
“Vivaldi.” Romano finally said.
“The composer, or the Cardinal?” Fabio drawled. “One is probably harder than the other.”
“Do not play with me!” Romano wasn’t brave enough to shout. Brother Costa had sharp ears. And his dawn walks had grown shorter with his bladder capacity. “Can you do it?”
Fabio shrugged, and his jacket sighed. “Probably.”
“That is hardly reassuring.” Romano admonished, but his mind was five hundred miles away, past the hills and aspiring farmsteads, to the sprawling hive of the capital, and the snakepit of sin at its heart. Where monsters like Vivaldi glided across ancient tiles in scarlet robes, like swans draped in blood.
“A Cardinal in the fucking Vatican,” Fabio jumped slightly at a door closing in the monastery behind them. “It could be easier.”
“It is the only chance we have left.” Romano shook his head. It wasn’t a lie. Vivaldi had his own atonement plan. He spent most of the year globetrotting, blessing orphans in Cambodia, and consecrating swathes of Amazonian rainforest. Or perhaps he was merely currying favour for when the Pope’s heart expired. And child soldiers were used to handling the weapons of their superiors. Romano shook his head to clear it of such speculation.
“Then I’ll make it count.” Fabio shrugged again. “Or I won’t. Either way it’ll be over.”
Romano smiled again, pleased the boy had come around. “Exactly. Just one more.”
“One more.” Fabio nodded down at him as he turned to go. He was no longer wearing the smirk, and for this Romano was grateful. “I’ll be back when it’s done.”
“God speed, my son.” Romano called over his shoulder. Fabio’s reply didn’t quite reach his ears.