“Your Eminence, I really think-“ the young man spluttered on the other side of the heavy oak desk. His mop of thick dark curls was in disarray, and his plump face was crimson with his entreaty. Cardinal Claudio Vivaldi thought it lent him the hue of an overripe tomato.
“Thankfully, the Lord did not put you on Earth to think.” Vivaldi waved a ringed hand at the boy over the top of his briefcase, which he closed with a sharp snap. His hip clicked as he rose to his considerable height, and the late afternoon sunset momentarily blinded him, as the evening crept over St. Peter’s Square, sprawling out from beneath the window in the Basilica, where Vivaldi kept his apartments.
“His Holiness personally requested your presence-“ The boy, Rodrigo, was it? Vivaldi wasn’t sure, but he decided it would do.
“His Holiness requests many things.” Vivaldi smiled, and smoothed down his flowing red robes. He would have to change into something less conspicuous. If both of them had been younger, and Rodrigo less doughy around the face, he might have considered letting him stay for the show. But there was no time for pleasure. If his suspicions were on the money. They usually were. “And not even he has his every whim granted.”
Rodrigo looked as if he had had holy water poured up his rectum. The slack mouth gaped onto the brown robes, and he may even have drooled. But Vivaldi was no longer watching. His hands were busy in the top drawer of his desk, fumbling past a tin of snuff, and several rolls of Euros, secured with rubber bands. For a moment, in the afternoon glare pouring into the high-ceilinged office, he couldn’t find it. And for a moment, he relaxed. Perhaps it had been his imagination, after all. One was an accident. Two coincidence. Coincidence had died with the third. By his count, two remained. And one was in the heart of the Vatican, wearing his robes, and rooting past the detritus to the neatly folded newspapers beneath. His fingers trembled with tension and adrenaline as he pulled the sheet onto the desk. He looked up sharply as he remembered the boy, but there was no need. He was alone. It was shocking disrespect. But it hardly mattered now. The world had narrowed to a pinhead, as he pushed his reading glasses up his prominent nose.
Bishop Santino Rizziano had been a personal friend. Vivaldi often made the trip when he was in Rome up to the shady Tuscany vineyards and sprawling farmstead Rizziano called home. They had shared wine, ridden horses down the river, sometimes at the same time. He was the only man Vivaldi would see for his own confession. And vice versa. Their secrets were not the typical Sunday fare. Rizziano had loved his horses more than his congregation, more than wine, more than the altar boys who never seemed to grow older than twelve. Which was why the monochrome picture of his grinning friend, printed disgracefully on the third page of Il Tempo was an insult as well as a tragedy. Rizziano might have died a thousand different ways. He would not have fallen whilst in the saddle and broken his thick neck.
Vivaldi’s shaking hand crushed the paper as his breath came out in a hiss. His heart galloped like those fine brown horses, and then skipped a beat. He felt a faint dizziness. He fumbled in his robe with sweaty fingers, extracted two pills, and swallowed them dry. His doctor had advised against stress and fine living. Perhaps he could omit one of these. If he could stay ahead of whoever was out there. He turned to the window and looked over the square, where a bell was tolling hollowly, and he could hear the deep rumble of a plane high overhead. Tourists gathered in clotted clumps, far below him. Children raced across the tiles, chasing dogs and uncaring parents. Traders attempted to ply their wares, before discreetly armed security moved them along. And a steady stream of red, black and white robes billowed in and out of the Basilica. Here was the heart, here lay the eyes of the world. And Vivaldi had no intention of being their next target.
He dropped the crumpled newspaper to the floor, made to shut the drawer, and thought better of it. He snatched up the bundles of money, reopened his briefcase, and shoved them inside. He had plenty of experience with scraps of paper turning eyes blind and ears deaf. And if his instincts were right, he would need more than the usual.
There was a high wardrobe set against one wall of the office, and Vivaldi stripped quickly, shedding the scarlet plumage like the bird of his namesake, and pulled on a plain brown cassock. He smoothed his grey combover against his skull in the mirror, and slipped his glasses into his pocket, where they clicked like insect’s leg up against the buffed Roman coin that never left his side. There was a plain white skullcap on the top shelf, covered in a layer of dust. Vivaldi smiled as an image of an American spy in a film jumped into his head, pulling a red baseball cap down over his face. He approximated the action.
He looked around one last time at the apartments. Not enough gold for his tastes, and the bedroom was one of his few that had seen little but prayer and nightmare. He looked across the square, to the chimney above the enclave. Where once he had hoped white smoke would flow with his essence, and his Papal name would ring through the square. Hopes dashed by the morning’s news. He fancied a tear came to his eye, but that may have been the afternoon glare. Cardinal Vivaldi picked up his briefcase and turned his back on his dream.