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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
A MISSING DA VINCI.
A TERRIFYING GENETIC BREAKTHROUGH.
A PAST AND FUTURE ABOUT TO COLLIDE!
USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy delivers another torn from the headlines thriller in Saint Peter’s Soldiers.
In World War Two a fabled da Vinci drawing is hidden from the Nazis, those involved fearing Hitler may attempt to steal it for its purported magical powers.
It isn’t returned for over fifty years.
This is fact.
And today, Archaeology Professor James Acton and his wife are about to be dragged into the terrible truth of what happened so many years ago, for the truth is never what it seems, and the history we thought was fact, is all lies.
Spanning seven decades, J. Robert Kennedy’s Saint Peter’s Soldiers is an action-packed adventure taking readers on an adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride across Italy and her troubled history. Deftly crafted in true Kennedy style, this fast-paced stunner is jam-packed with action, intrigue and laughter, as only he can deliver.
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
King James Version, Genesis 3:19
On April 11th, 2015, in the scientific journal Protein and Cell, a paper was published by Chinese scientists entitled “CRISPR/Cas9-Mediated Gene Editing in Human Tripronuclear Zygotes”. The title is meaningless to most, but for those who understood its contents, it sent a chill through the entire community.
For the Chinese had broken the germ line, succeeding in manipulating DNA to change the human genome. This is not the act of fixing a genetic defect; this is changing what it means to be human.
Science fiction has become science fact.
There is a very real reason why this research is illegal in most of the civilized world.
And this book describes one of those.
Sapienza University Rome, Italy Present Day
“You realize how much this is worth? It’s priceless!”
Inspector General Mario Giasson of the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City State looked from Father Rinaldi to the archaeologist the exclamation had been directed to. Professor James Acton stood back, his arms crossed, finger tapping on his elbow as he eagerly awaited his chance to peer through the microscope. His wife, Professor Laura Palmer, had just announced the unbelievable. The red chalk drawing, a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself, shown on a large screen in Sapienza University’s art restoration department, was genuine.
Yet it couldn’t be.
Or at least it shouldn’t be.
What was thought to be the real drawing had been on display since 1998 at the Royal Library in Turin, Italy. Yet clearly there was more to the story than he and the world had been made aware.
Professor Acton glanced over at Father Rinaldi, who had begun pacing, continuing to mutter. “If this falls into the wrong hands, it could be worth millions, perhaps tens of millions. Especially if someone believes the legend.”
Giasson turned toward Father Rinaldi. “What legend?”
“That if one stares into the eyes of the portrait, one is imbued with great power.”
Giasson dismissed the comment with a flick of his wrist. “Ridiculous.”
Their friend and Interpol Agent, Hugh Reading, snorted. “I find it impossible to accept that people would believe in such nonsense.”
Acton stepped up to the scope as his wife finally relinquished her place, taking in the magnified view. Yes, it was shown on a separate monitor for everyone to see, but there was something special about peering through the lenses, manipulating things yourself. Giasson itched for his own chance.
A real da Vinci! Lost until yesterday!
And four people were already dead because of it.
Shouts on the other side of the door had Acton standing upright as they all spun toward the sound. Gunfire erupted and Giasson stepped toward the doors as Acton reached out, guiding his wife behind him. Reading moved from his position near the window to stand shoulder to shoulder with Giasson just as the doors burst open.
Giasson breathed a sigh of relief as he recognized the two Italian State Police officers entering the room. There were half a dozen outside, the value of the portrait, should it be genuine, demanding a protection detail. His sigh, however, turned to a gasp as they raised their weapons at them.
Footsteps clicked on the tile floor of the hallway, Giasson only getting a glimpse of several bodies past the doors, the police blocking most of his view. A man appeared in the doorway, tall, athletic, perhaps mid to late thirties, with blonde hair and striking blue eyes that took in the room, coming to rest on the display showing the portrait.
He pointed at the genuine article and snapped his fingers, the two officers rushing toward the table it was sitting on.
Giasson stepped in their way, holding out his arms. “This is the property of the people of Italy.”
The blonde man stared at him for a moment, a slight smile suggested at the corners of his mouth before he pulled a weapon from a shoulder holster and fired, Giasson spinning away, crumpling to the floor with a cry.
“You are mistaken. It is the property of the Führer.”
Casa del Conte Verde Rivoli, Italy July 4th, 1941
“But the Nazis are on their way!”
Vincenzo Donati frowned at his young apprentice’s outburst. He continued to stare through his magnifying glass at the rare 45 centesimi Lombardy stamp from 1850, a rare find if there ever was one. He never tired of gazing at it. It was a piece of history, and history was his business.
And with the war, protecting history was now his primary business.
The Nazis were looting galleries across Europe, the only thing protecting his the fact Italy had aligned itself with Hitler and his armies. Though how long that would last was anyone’s guess. Hitler had just broken his agreement with the Soviet Union. Could Italy be that far behind?
Plans were already underway for protecting collections across the country, yet it was a rumor that had reached his ears only this week that had him concerned. A colleague in Rome had told him of a special group in the SS, the Schutzstaffel or “protection squadron,” that was searching the globe for religious artifacts. Anything that had ever had something magical or mystical attributed to it.
And his town now housed such a relic.
A self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci in red chalk.
The legend was unfounded, he himself having tried to duplicate the claims unsuccessfully. But it was no matter. Once legend, rumor was nearly impossible to dispel.
The drawing had been stored at the Royal Library in Turin, its curator contacting him two days ago after hearing the same rumor of the SS group, and a plan had been set in motion, the drawing moved here, to his relatively insignificant institution, in the hopes the Nazis would pass them by.
Donati sighed, putting down his magnifying glass and looking up at young Nicola. “I am fully aware of what is happening. And plans are already underway to protect the portrait.”
Nicola approached Donati’s desk and dropped into a rickety chair older than him. “But shouldn’t we move it now, tonight? Your contact said they could be here tomorrow morning! If that’s true, we have no time to waste.”
“And we aren’t wasting any—”
“But you’re staring at stamps!” He leaped back to his feet, pacing the small room, the oil lamps casting dancing shadows on the stone walls, the fire in the corner barely taking the chill out of the cool night.
“I find it calms me and allows me to think clearly. You might try something similar.”
Nicola spun, about to say something, then stopped. He took a deep breath and returned to his chair. “Sir, with all due respect, if there is even a remote chance that the legend is true surrounding the portrait, it mustn’t fall into Hitler’s hands. If it does, his armies could become unstoppable.”
“Some Italians might think that a good thing.”
Nicola’s jaw dropped as he stared at the older man in shock. Then he smiled. “You’re toying with me.”
Donati smiled, leaning back in his chair. “It is sometimes too easy.”
Nicola pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. “I’m tired.”
“Then get your rest and be here at sunrise tomorrow morning. And bring your moped.”
“Because tomorrow morning the portrait will forever be placed out of Hitler’s reach. By you.”
Casa del Conte Verde Rivoli, Italy July 5th, 1941
Nicola leaned his moped against the side of the museum, stepping out of the alleyway and walking toward the front entrance. The streets were still mostly empty, the roosters trumpeting their wake-up call only minutes ago. He knocked three times and within moments heard footsteps then the door unlocking. It creaked open and Donati smiled at him.
“Come in, quickly!” hissed Donati, stepping aside and ushering him across the threshold. The door was closed and bolted, the usual pleasantries ignored as Donati rushed toward the backroom. He pointed to a worktable where a small handcrafted wooden crate, the proper size to hold the framed portrait, sat. “It’s ready to go.”
“How the hell am I supposed to get that out of here without anyone noticing?”
Nicola flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any disrespect.
“You disrespected the Lord, not me. Remember it at confession.”
Nicola’s head dropped to his chest. “I will. Sorry.”
Donati stopped what he was doing and stepped over, squeezing the young man’s shoulder. “I forgive you, as will He.” He let go and checked his watch. “But plans have changed. My colleague in Rome is sending someone to retrieve the portrait. He should be here any moment.”
Nicola frowned, a feeling of betrayal filling his stomach and gripping his chest. “But I thought I was going to take it?”
Donati shook his head. “No, it’s too risky. Apparently these people have experience. They’ll take it—”
A knock at the front door had Nicola’s heart leaping into his throat, Donati’s head darting toward the sound.
“Who could that be?” asked Nicola as his heart raced.
Donati checked his watch. “It’s them. Right on time.” He rushed toward the entrance, Nicola following. Donati peered through the small Judas hole then unlocked the door, pulling it open. A man stepped inside and the door was shoved closed. “A-are you the one I’m expecting?”
Donati sounded terrified.
The man nodded.
“P-please pr-prove it.”
The man undid the top several buttons of his shirt, revealing an intricate tattoo of a cross, two crossed keys intertwined with it.
“Th-thank you.” Donati rushed to the back of the room and the man followed, Nicola letting them both pass, eyeballing the man, the new arrival doing the same.
He didn’t trust him.
Whoever he was.
Donati pointed at the table. “This is it.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.” The man pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Donati. “Should there be any questions, any problems, this is how to reach us. Memorize it then destroy it.”
Donati’s head jerked nervously up and down as he read the paper, his lips moving repeatedly.
Nicola assessed the man with a critical eye. He appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties, an impressive mustache and slightly longish hair, his skin dark and healthy. If it weren’t for the hair, he’d look smart and not out of place wearing a military uniform.
As would I. What makes him any more qualified than me to protect the portrait?
“How are you going to get that out of here without anyone noticing?”
The man glanced over at him, his eyes assessing him then appearing to dismiss what they saw. “That is none of your concern.” He turned back to Donati. “Any special instructions?”
“No, but y-you said you had experience in these things.”
“Then do whatever it is you would normally do.”
The man nodded.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just take it out of the frame and roll it up?”
Donati gasped at Nicola’s suggestion. “Are you insane? Have I taught you nothing? It must be protected!”
“What’s more important, it getting wrinkled or Hitler ruling the world?”
“I’m not willing to allow an extremely rare portrait by one of the greatest masters the world has ever known to be destroyed because of a ridiculous legend.”
“It’s a legend you obviously believe in, otherwise why are we doing this?”
Donati glared at him then his expression softened. “You’re right, my son, you’re right. When I think of what could be, I tremble with fear. And if there is something about this portrait that is special, then it must be kept out of the hands of that man. My belief is that if he believes, then he might think himself invincible and commit even more horrors upon God’s creation. You are right, my boy. Hitler is evil, a scourge upon this Earth that if there is even the slightest chance that this portrait might further his goals, it must be hidden, which is why we are doing what we are doing today.” He paused, stepping closer and placing a hand on Nicola’s arm. “But I am still not willing to see it damaged, or worse, destroyed. You understand that, don’t you?”
Nicola nodded, not entirely convinced the risk of it being found outweighed the risk of it being damaged.
Tires squealed on the cobblestone outside and Nicola rushed to the front, pushing aside the curtain slightly. He nearly pissed his pants. A German car had just pulled up, four men climbing out, one clearly SS, the uniform unmistakable.
God help us!
He sprinted to the backroom and past the tattooed man. “They’re here!” He hissed.
“Who?” asked Donati, the question rendered redundant as the pounding on the front door began.
Nicola grabbed the crate and tore off the top, tipping the drawing out and onto the worktable. He snapped the frame at the corner, yanking the four sides off.
“What are you doing?” cried Donati as he rushed toward him, the distraction from the shouts and heavy pounding at the door momentarily forgotten.
Nicola yanked the portrait off the mat, quickly rolling it up, much to Donati’s horror, his eyes widening, his jaw dropping.
“Somebody has to save you from yourself!”
He snatched the piece of paper the tattooed man had given Donati out of his hand then bolted for the rear entrance and yanked open the door, stepping out into the morning light. He peered around the corner, finding it clear, his moped only feet away. Stuffing the portrait inside his jacket, he pulled his moped away from the wall and walked it out of the alleyway as casually as he could, turning away from the Germans.
He started the moped and climbed on.
He gunned the engine as bullets tore into the façade of Innocenti’s bakery. He squeezed his brake and leaned hard, his rear tire skidding out on the damp cobblestone, the morning sun not yet having burned off the overnight moisture. Regaining his balance, he twisted the throttle, the bike leaping forward as the Germans quickly closed the gap. Racing through the market, the shopkeepers still setting up their stands leaped back, some shaking their fists at him then diving for cover as the Germans opened fire.
I have to get off the roads or someone is going to be killed.
It never occurred to him that that someone might be him. He was running on adrenaline now, the portrait, tucked into his zipped-up jacket seeming impossibly heavy. It was all in his head, the portrait barely a foot square, yet it was the weight of responsibility he was now painfully aware of. The Nazis clearly wanted this drawing and didn’t care who died to get it. That meant their experts believed the legend could be true, and wanted it for Hitler himself.
I’ll destroy it before I let them have it.
He could almost hear Donati’s voice screaming in his head at the very notion. It was a priceless, irreplaceable piece of history. To destroy it was unthinkable. But history would be meaningless if the world was lost to the likes of Adolf Hitler. Though his country was an ally in the war, he had never supported the fascists. Mussolini was a thug that ruled through fear and lies. Nicola was convinced the masses followed him because they were brainwashed after years of propaganda.
At least the trains always run on time.
Though that was bullshit propaganda too. They didn’t run on time. His dad told him they were better than before, but only due to work done before Mussolini came to power.
And if Mussolini’s claim to fame was a lie, how much more was?
Yet you didn’t dare question.
Otherwise, the OVRA secret police might show up on your doorstep one day, and you’d never be seen again.
He careened into a tight alleyway, kicking out with his foot and pushing off the wall as his rear tire fishtailed its way deeper into the long passage. A quick glance over his shoulder had him breathing a sigh of relief.
The Germans were stopped at the end, unable to fit their car in the narrow gap.
He eased off the throttle slightly, finally having a moment to think.
Where am I going?
He couldn’t stay in town; the Germans would have it sealed off within minutes with the help of the local authorities. He couldn’t go to his house, he’d be putting his parents at risk.
Yes, he’d go to his cousin’s. He had a farm outside of the city, and he’d know what to do. He was also anti-Mussolini, despising the man, especially after he had aligned the country with Nazi Germany.
He’ll know what to do.
He emerged from the alley, crossing the road and cutting through another gap between the houses, thanking God for giving man the intellect to design the moped now saving his life.
In the distance, he heard the whistle of the morning train and chuckled.
It’s on time today.
He slowed as he emerged from the alley, turning right and continuing down the hill that the town was built upon, heading toward the valley where his cousin’s farm lay. The streets were filling now, the day underway, and his hammering heart was finally settling down. He ventured a wave at the butcher’s daughter, Maria. She waved back with a smile, his hand easing off the throttle for a moment as he forgot what he was doing.
Tires screeching behind him smacked his libido back down, and he gunned the engine, not bothering to look back as the gunfire confirmed who it was. A girl screamed and his heart leaped into his throat. He stole a glance and bile filled his mouth as he spotted Maria lying on the ground, her father rushing from the shop, crying out in horror.
You killed her.
His eyes filled with tears, the street ahead a blur. He wiped them clear with the back of his hands, the train whistle louder now. He could see the tracks ahead where they crossed the road he was on, heading toward the station in the center of town. Looking to his right as he rapidly approached them, he spotted the trail of steam puffing from the engine and made a decision.
A decision that would save him, or doom him.
He hit his brakes, skidding to a near halt then turned, gunning it down the railroad tracks, this part filled with cobblestones, keeping the ride relatively smooth as he raced toward the bridge. He heard the Germans’ brakes behind him as he cleared the edge of the town, his tires bouncing on the railroad ties, every bone in his body nearly jarred loose from the pounding. He could see the train coming around the bend, the whistle announcing its arrival, loud.
He leaned forward, urging his moped ahead as the engine raced toward him. Brakes squealed, the engineer apparently spotting him. Gunfire from behind him was barely heard over the screeching metal on metal, but something bit him hard in the arm and he cried out, nearly losing control of the bike as he grabbed for his shoulder. Both hands back on the bars, he twisted the throttle, the bike leaping forward, a game of chicken underway he had to win, his opponent having no way to turn. He was almost across, the massive black of the engine looming large in front of him, though not yet at the bridge.
I’m not going to make it!
He said a silent prayer as he glanced back, the Germans now stopped at the other end of the bridge, apparently content to let him die at the hands of Mussolini’s efficient rail system, there now nowhere for him to go.
He was almost there, only feet left, the train just coming onto the bridge. He steered to the right slightly, pulling up on the handlebars to lift his front wheel off the ties and cleared the rail, racing on the edge of the ties, the river below appearing more vicious than he remembered.
The train was upon him.
And he steered hard to the side.
Sailing through the air, he hit the ground beside the track, the wind from the train whipping around him, its brakes still screaming in protest, nearly knocking him off the bike. He locked up his brakes, coming to a halt as he looked back and smiled.
At the Germans trapped on the other side as the train slowly came to a halt, blocking them from crossing.
He gave them a wave that was returned by a shaking first, then accelerated down the hill toward the road that would carry him to his cousin’s farm.
Thanking God for answering his prayer.
Entrance to St. Peter’s Square Rome, Italy Present day, one day before the theft
Diego resisted the urge to check his watch. It would merely show it was one minute later than the last time he had looked. He scanned the crowds from his vantage point, a bench along the outer wall of Vatican City. The entrance to St. Peter’s Square was to his right, and hundreds if not thousands of tourists were constantly pouring in and out. He had been there countless times himself, of course, his order literally worshipping at the altar of the man himself.
The founder of the Church, the man Jesus himself had tasked to continue his ministry after he was gone.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
St. Peter had been a faithful disciple of the Lord, spreading his teachings until his death at the hands of the Romans, and in the end, he had insisted he be crucified upside down, feeling himself unworthy to be put to death on an upright cross as the Lord had.
And from that moment forward, his symbol was the inverted cross.
It annoyed Diego to no end that ignorance among today’s youth meant the holy symbol had been coopted by idiots who thought it was satanic, some sort of symbol representing evil, anti-church activists tattooing it on their flesh as a monument to their obliviousness. He felt like grabbing every one of them and smacking them up the side of their head and giving them a history lesson.
He sighed, absentmindedly rubbing the tattoo on his chest. It was impressive, an ornate inverted cross, paired with the keys to Heaven, given to him upon his admission into the Keepers of the One Truth. He bore it proudly, though it did at times limit him in today’s liberal society. He could never take his shirt off in public, though that merely forced him to live modestly. Casual relations with a woman were precluded, the need to explain the tattoo to just any carnal desire not acceptable.
It forced him to lead a better life.
A moral life.
He had married eventually, explaining the tattoo to his wife as a youthful indiscretion. Only the first of many lies he had told her, what he did with his life something she could never know. She thought he had a government job that he couldn’t talk about, with a workplace she wasn’t allowed to know the location of.
And she was fine with that.
She loved him.
She trusted him.
And it tore him apart at first, until he realized that all of the men in the Keepers of the One Truth had the same problem and had learned to live with it, as had his own father. Only the sons of Keepers were invited to join, and in modern times, many refused, too often turning their back on the Church in exchange for instant gratification, instead of a life of service dedicated to protecting the Church in return for an eternity in Heaven.
He had embraced the group wholeheartedly, recognizing the evils of modern life that threatened to overwhelm those around him, and instead devoted himself to a life of servitude.
And lies to his loved ones.
It was a necessary evil that helped keep true evil at bay.
For the world was filled with evil, filled with enemies of the Church. It always had been, and it always would be.
And St. Peter had foreseen this.
And created an army.
The Keepers of the One Truth.
Their mission was to protect the Church from its enemies. All enemies. Of this earth and not. The evils of man were easy enough to defend against. They were predictable. It was those of Satan himself that were the challenge.
Thus the establishment of The Vault.
The Vault was a secret archive located under the grounds of the Vatican, its existence known to very few outside of the Keepers. Over two millennia the leaders of the Church had hidden away anything that challenged or threatened the faith, eventually establishing the Vault to secure these abominations so they could never be unleashed upon mankind.
Yet their mandate went beyond ensuring the integrity of the Vault and ensuring the current Pope performed his duty as handed down to him by St. Peter himself, it extended to protecting the Church and the Christian faith in general from outside threats, not the least of which had been the Nazis.
One of the few loose ends of that era tied up by the man he was meeting today.
He checked his watch.
Where is he?
In 1941, the Keepers had received word that the Nazis were attempting to acquire religious artifacts from around the world. And the Keepers had acted. They had immediately made contact with anyone who possessed something the Nazis may be interested in, and offered to take it for safekeeping. Few accepted the offer, the Keepers mere strangers, though once the threat became real, contacts were made, including a small museum in the town of Rivoli.
With regard to a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, drawn in red chalk.
He had never seen it beyond the photos. It had been preserved in one of the Keeper’s archives, and once the world had been deemed safe again, it had been returned.
News of the return had spread like wildfire, the compelling story of how it had been returned anonymously after having been secreted away from the Nazis, quickly gaining attention.
He had been there the night it was returned, the very man he was waiting for the one who had placed it on the doorstep of the modest museum. Diego had been but an apprentice then, Saverio his master, though now he was a full-fledged Keeper, tasked with duties he could only have dreamed of in 1998 when the portrait had been returned.
And when he had received the call to meet Saverio here, at this hour, his heart had raced in anticipation and curiosity.
As it did now at the sight of the older man making his way toward him, a rather large satchel slung over his shoulder. Diego was about to rise when Saverio held out a hand, stopping him. He dropped onto the bench beside him and shook his hand. “How are you, my boy? It has been a long time.”
“Over fifteen years.” The years hadn’t been kind to Saverio. He looked older than he should. In fact, he appeared unwell.
Saverio seemed to notice the concern. “Your eyes do not deceive you, my young friend. I am dying.”
Diego’s chest tightened as his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “How? Why? I mean—” He stopped himself, casting his eyes at the ground. “I’m sorry.”
Saverio patted Diego’s shoulder. “I appreciate your concern, young one. It is cancer, and I have little time left, which means I need to settle my affairs.” He patted the large leather satchel beside him. “You remember the last time we met?”
“We returned a portrait to a small museum in Rivoli.”
“Of course, I remember it as if it were yesterday.”
“What if I told you it was all a lie?”
What Saverio told him next shocked him to his very core. Everything he remembered of that night, the pride he had in reading the news reports and knowing his small part, were shattered in the several minutes it took to impart the truth.
“It was necessary. After the war, we knew there would be many Nazis left remaining, and it wouldn’t be safe to return any of the artifacts put into our safekeeping. With the new millennium approaching, it was decided that enough time had passed that any Nazis still alive would be too old to be of any threat, and with the fascist dream dead, little chance they might actually bother trying anything. After all, the artifacts were hidden away because of rumors surrounding them.” He flicked his wrist. “Like our portrait.”
“You mean the legend that if you stared into da Vinci’s eyes—”
“You’d get great power. Exactly. Nonsense, of course, but these were valuable artifacts that we didn’t want to see stolen or destroyed due to dogma. But by the end of the millennium, with over fifty years past, it was decided it was time to start returning these items. It was a decision I didn’t agree with.”
“Because I had been hearing rumors.”
“That the Nazis were still alive and well. I couldn’t prove it, so I was forced to go along with the decision.” He smiled. “But if you knew me like your father did, you would know I don’t always play well with others.”
Diego turned away slightly, not sure what to say.
Saverio patted the satchel. “Inside is the legacy of my decision. I hand it down to you, to do with as you see fit. Should you not share my concerns, then you know what you must do, but equally, if you do, then you must fulfill your duty as a Keeper.” He turned slightly on the bench, facing Diego. “What I ask of you is a duty that cannot be taken lightly. You will be going against the leadership, though they are unaware of what truly happened all those years ago. Their lack of awareness will protect you.” He peered into Diego’s eyes. “Are you up to the task?”
Diego bit the inside of his cheek, looking at the man he had idolized after their single encounter so many years ago, then at the satchel that contained the shattered truth.
He nodded. “Yes.”
Saverio smiled broadly, squeezing his shoulder. “Good boy, good boy! I knew I could count on you. You know I’ve been following your career since the moment you became an initiate. Your father and I were recruited at the same time, went through our training together. We kept in touch over the years. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”
Diego frowned, turning away, not trusting his emotions. His father had been killed several years ago in a car accident. A useless death, a meaningless death. Killed by a texting teenager. The only satisfaction was from the knowledge the teen had died a horribly agonizing death.
And though he was a man of God, he felt no guilt in taking pleasure in that knowledge.
Saverio motioned toward the gates to the Vatican. “I never pass up an opportunity to pray when I am in the area. Would you care to join me? Together we’ll say a prayer for your father?”
Diego smiled slightly. “It would be an honor.”
Saverio rose and gestured toward the satchel. “This is yours, now.”
Diego lifted the bag, slightly heavier than he was expecting, and slung it over his shoulder. They walked toward the gates, slowly, Diego now realizing why the man had been late. The crowds surged around them as the traffic whipped by on Largo del Collonato Street. They continued in silence and had arrived at the gates when squealing tires and screams behind them had Diego spinning to see what was the matter.
He gasped, a large SUV careening toward them, pedestrians bouncing off the large heavy-duty grill guard bumper, the driver giving no indication of slowing down.
Diego shoved Saverio out of the way, the frail man crying out as he hit the ground, staring back in horror as the SUV slammed into Diego. He could feel his bones break with the impact, but grabbed the grill guard as the vehicle continued forward, trying desperately to hang on while the agony of his crushed chest threatened to sap him of his remaining strength.
He was about to let go, to fall under the wheels, when the vehicle came to a screeching, immediate halt, sending him sailing through the air. He slammed into the ground, his head smacking hard on the stone, and his world began to fade. Saverio was limping toward him, his arm outstretched, when the doors of the SUV were thrown open and two men leaped out, guns firing. The crowds scattered in panic, Saverio crying out in pain as round after round tore at his back. Diego struggled to stay conscious, to see his mentor’s final moments, when heavy boots hammered on the ground behind him, shots erupting from the new arrivals.
His head dropped to the cold stone, his eyes slowly closing as he gripped the satchel over his chest.
And prayed the Vatican Gendarmerie would protect its contents.
South of Turin, Italy July 5th, 1941
“Keep quiet, there’s a road block!”
Nicola’s cousin Leo’s hissed warning had him holding his breath until he thought better of it. Better to have steady, regular breaths than gasps. He had arrived at his cousin’s farm without incident and told him what had happened.
What had happened next had shocked him.
His moped was taken and put into the root cellar under the barn then piled with hay, his cousin saying little except that they had to move fast. Leo had ordered the kids to prep the horse and wagon while his wife patched up Nicola’s arm, the bullet just having grazed him. When she finished, he was left to run after Leo, begging for an explanation for the whirlwind of activity.
Leo had finally stopped for a moment and jabbed a finger in his chest.
“As long as you are here, you are a danger to my family.”
Nicola had felt crestfallen. “I-I know. And I’m sorry. But I didn’t know what else to do.”
Leo took him by the shoulder. “You did the right thing, but we must move quickly.” He pointed at the cart. “Get in the back and lift that panel.”
Nicola hopped in the back, not sure to what panel Leo might be referring. His eyebrows rose as he spotted several boards in the center, separate from the rest. He reached down and pried one up, revealing a small area underneath the floor that could barely fit a man. “What’s this?”
“We use it to smuggle people and supplies.”
“Not your concern. Just get in and stay quiet. I’m going to get you to a safe place.”
Nicola crawled into the cramped space, his arms with barely an inch on either side to move, his head and toes pressed against the ends.
He wished he wasn’t so tall.
Then thanked God he wasn’t fat, when the cover was placed back over him so close, he was forced to turn his head to the side.
He nodded then realized Leo couldn’t see him. “Yes.”
“Okay, watch yourself.”
The cart rocked as his cousin jumped down, then he heard hay being loaded into the back. He squeezed his eyes shut and struggled to get a hand up over his mouth and nose as the dust slowly covered him.
And it wouldn’t be the last.
He could hear his cousin urging the horse to slow as they approached the roadblock. They came to a halt, and he heard the brake applied as his nose itched. He reached up and squeezed the bridge of it, resisting the urge, for it meant certain death if they were caught.
Though not before agonizing torture.
“Hey, Leo, you’re early.”
“Yeah, I lost a bet last night, so now I have to deliver this load to Angelo. That bastard is too lucky. I think he cheats.”
Whoever Leo was talking to roared with laughter. “I learned when we were kids to never play with him. I always lost my lunch to him.”
“So what you’re saying is I’ll never learn.”
More laughter. It was clear they knew each other, which was a tremendous relief, though even that wouldn’t save them should he sneeze. This guard or soldier or whatever might be a friend, but he was probably loyal, so he would follow orders. Nicola considered himself a loyal Italian, though not loyal to the government. As far as he was concerned, they were two distinct things. He’d never betray his country so that harm may come to it, but he also couldn’t support a government that would take part in such a brutal war that threatened to consume the world.
His exposure to the Germans had been minimal, their town spared for the most part, though the stories were horrendous, and whenever they had made an appearance, it was never good, people usually hauled away, some never seen again, those that were, never the same.
The Nazis were murderous barbarians that would sack his country in a heartbeat if they felt there was a need.
Which was when he would truly show his loyalty.
By fighting back.
As probably would this guard just doing his job.
Somebody else spoke up from a distance, but Nicola couldn’t hear what had been said.
“I know him, he’s harmless.”
He could hear footsteps approaching. “Nobody goes through without being searched. Orders of the Regional Commander.”
“Okay, okay.” The owner of the friendly voice stepped away, and Nicola heard the distinctive sounds of pitchfork tines scraping on stone. “Sorry about this, Leo. It’ll just take a minute.”
The sound of the metal passing through the hay near the rear of the cart had Nicola finally holding his breath, his heart slamming hard, his ears pounding in a panic as the probing neared him. The pitchfork directly overhead had his bladder letting go slightly, his eyes squeezed tightly along with every other muscle in his body.
“Okay, you’re clear. You can go.”
“Thanks, Thomas, let’s get together for a drink this weekend.”
“Count on it! You’re buying.”
Nicola heard the brake release then the reins flick as they jerked forward. “I might not be able to afford it!”
Laughter from the guard had Nicola breathe a sigh of relief.
Then he sneezed.
It was the other voice that had his cousin pulling up on the reins.
Another sneeze erupted, this one from Leo. “What?” asked his cousin.
“Oh, sorry. Umm, nothing. Get moving.”
The reins flicked again and they were moving, Nicola pinching his nose shut, his other hand clasped over his mouth as he struggled to keep control. As they gained a little speed, his cousin hissed, “That was close!”
“That almost got us killed, little man, but don’t worry. It should be clear sailing now.”
South of Turin, Italy July 6th, 1941
Nicola pushed the plate away as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thank you, Mrs. Feraldo. That was fantastic.”