The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Twenty-Five


Day Seven
Orvieto, Italy
He stopped the car on a hairpin bend on Route S-71, and there across the valley, high on a rise of volcanic rock, was a breathtaking view of the city. It was an ancient Etruscan centre, with a world-famous cathedral, and half a dozen churches, and a priest who had witnessed the crash of a UFO.
The town was untouched by time, with cobblestone streets and lovely old buildings, and an open-air market where farmers came to sell their fresh vegetables and chickens.
Robert found a parking place in the Piazza del Duomo, across from the cathedral, and went inside. The enormous interior was deserted except for an elderly priest who was just leaving the altar.
"Excuse me, Father," Robert said. "I'm looking for a priest from this town who was in Switzerland last week. Perhaps you ..."
The priest drew back, his face hostile. "I cannot discuss this."
Robert looked at him in surprise. "I don't understand. I just want to find ..."
"He is not of this church. He is from the church of San Gioven-ale." And the priest hurried past Robert. Why was he so unfriendly?
The church of San Giovenale was in the Quartiere Vecchio, a colourful area with medieval towers and churches. A young priest was tending the garden next to it. He looked up as Robert approached.
"Buon giorno, signore."
"Good morning. I'm looking for a priest who was in Switzerland last week. He ..."
"Yes, yes. Poor Father Patrini. It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened to him."
"I don't understand. What terrible thing?"
"Seeing the devil's chariot. It was more than he could stand. The poor man had a nervous breakdown."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Robert said. "Where is he now? I would like to talk to him."
"He's in the hospital near the Piazza di San Patrizin, but I doubt if the doctors will allow anyone to see him."
Robert stood there, troubled. A man suffering a nervous breakdown was not going to be much help. "I see. Thank you very much."
The hospital was an unpretentious one-storey building, near the outskirts of the city. He parked the car and walked into the small lobby. There was a nurse behind the reception desk.
"Good morning," Robert said. "I would like to see Father Patrini."
"Mi scusi, ma ... that is impossible. He cannot speak with anyone."
Robert was determined not to be stopped now. He had to follow up the lead Professor Schmidt had given him. "You don't understand," Robert said smoothly. "Father Patrini asked to see me. I've come to Orvieto at his request."
"He asked to see you?"
"Yes. He wrote to me in America. I've come all this way just to see him."
The nurse hesitated. "I do not know what to say. He is very ill. Molto."
"I'm sure it would cheer him up to see me."
"The doctor is not here ..." She made a decision. "Very well. You may go into his room, signore, but you may only stay a few minutes."
"That's all I'll need," Robert said.
"This way, per piacere."
They walked down a short corridor with small, neat rooms on either side. The nurse led Robert to one of the doors.
"Only a few minutes, signore."
Robert entered the little room. The man in the bed looked like a pale shadow lying on the white sheets. Robert approached him and said softly, "Father ..."
The priest turned to look up at him and Robert had never seen such agony in a man's eyes.
"Father, my name is ..."
He grabbed Robert's arm. "Help me," the priest mumbled. "You must help me. My faith is gone. All my life I have preached of God and the Holy Spirit and now I know that there is no God. There is only the devil and he has come for us ..."
"Father, if you ..."
"I saw it with my own eyes. There were two of them in the devil's chariot, but, oh, there will be more! Others will come! Wait and see. We are all doomed to hell."
"Father - listen to me. What you saw was not the devil. It was a space vehicle that ..."
The priest let go of Robert and looked at him with sudden clarity. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Robert said, "I'm a friend. I came here to ask you about the bus trip you took in Switzerland."
"The bus. I wish I had never gone near it." The priest was becoming agitated again.
Robert hated to press him, but he had no choice.
"You sat next to a man on that bus. A Texan. You had a long conversation with him, remember?"
"A conversation. The Texan. Yes, I remember."
"Did he mention where he lived in Texas?"
"Yes, I remember him. He was from America."
"Yes. From Texas. Did he tell you where his home was?"
"Yes, yes. He told me."
"Where, Father? Where is his home?"
"Texas. He talked of Texas."
Robert nodded encouragingly. "That's right."
"I saw them with my own eyes. I wish God had blinded me. I ..."
"Father - the man from Texas. Did he say where he was from? Did he mention a name?"
"Texas, yes. The Ponderosa."
Robert tried again. "That's on television. This was a real man. He sat next to you on ..."
The priest was becoming delirious again. "They're coming! Armageddon is here. The Bible lies! It is the devil who will invade the earth." He was shouting loudly now. "Look out! Look out! I can see them!"
The nurse came hurrying in. She looked at Robert reprovingly. "You will have to leave, signore."
"I need just one more minute ..."
"No, signore. Adesso!"
Robert took one last look at the priest. He was raving incoherently. Robert turned to go. There was nothing further he could do. He had gambled on the priest giving him a lead to the Texan, and he had lost.
Robert returned to his car and headed back toward Rome. It was finally over. The only clues he had left - if they could be called clues - were the mention of a Russian woman, a Texan, and a Hungarian. But there was no way to pursue them any further. Check and checkmate. It was frustrating to have come this far and then to be stopped. If only the priest had remained coherent long enough to give him the information he needed! He had been so close. What was it the priest had said? The Ponderosa. The old priest had been watching too much television, and in his delirium, he had obviously associated Texas with the once popular TV show, Bonanza. The Ponderosa, where the mythical Cartwright family lived. The Ponderosa. Robert slowed the car, and pulled over to the side of the road, his mind racing. He made a U-turn and sped back toward Orvieto.
Half an hour later, Robert was talking to the bartender in a small trattoria in the Piazza della Republica. "You have a beautiful town here," Robert said. "It's very peaceful."
"Oh, si, signore, we are quite content here. Have you visited Italy before?"
"I spent part of my honeymoon in Rome." You make all my dreams come true, Robert. I've wanted to see Rome ever since I was a little girl.
"Ah, Rome. Too big. Too noisy."
"I agree."
"We live simple lives here, but we are happy."
Robert said casually, "I noticed television antennas on many of the roofs here."
"Oh, yes, indeed. We are quite up-to-date in that respect."
"One can see that. How many television channels does the town receive?"
"Only one."
"I suppose you get a good many American shows?"
"No, no. This is a government channel. Here we receive only shows made in Italy."
Bingo! "Thank you."
Robert placed a call to Admiral Whittaker. A secretary answered the phone. "Admiral Whittaker's office."
Robert could visualize the office. It would be the kind of anonymous cubbyhole they kept for non-persons the government no longer had any use for.
"Could I speak to the Admiral, please? Commander Robert Bellamy calling."
"Just a moment, Commander."
Robert wondered whether anybody bothered to keep in touch with the Admiral now that the once powerful figure was part of the mothball fleet. Probably not.
"Robert, it's very good to hear from you." The old man's voice sounded tired. "Where are you?"
"I can't say, sir."
There was a pause. "I understand. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Yes, sir. This is rather awkward because I've been ordered not to communicate with anyone. But I need some outside help. I wonder if you could check on something for me?"
"I can certainly try. What would you like to know?"
"I need to know whether there's a ranch anywhere in Texas called The Ponderosa."
"As in Bonanza!"
"Yes, sir."
"I can find out. How will I reach you?"
"I think it would be better if I called you, Admiral."
"Right. Give me an hour or two. I'll keep this just between ourselves."
"Thank you."
It seemed to Robert that the tiredness had gone out of the old man's voice. He had, at last, been asked to do something, even if it was as trivial as locating a ranch.
Two hours later, Robert telephoned Admiral Whittaker again.
"I've been waiting for your call," the Admiral said. There was a satisfied note in his voice. "I have the information you wanted."
"And?" Robert held his breath.
"There is a Ponderosa ranch in Texas. It's located just outside of Waco. It's owned by a Dan Wayne."
Robert heaved a deep sigh of relief. "Thank you very much, Admiral," he said. "I owe you a dinner when I get back."
"I'll be looking forward to that, Robert."
Robert's next call was to General Milliard. "I located another witness in Italy. Father Patrini."
"A priest?"
"Yes. In Orvieto. He's in the hospital, very ill. I'm afraid the Italian authorities won't be able to communicate with him."
"I'll pass that on. Thank you, Commander."
Two minutes later, General Hilliard was on the line to Janus.
"I've heard from Commander Bellamy again. The latest witness is a priest. A Father Patrini in Orvieto."
"Take care of it."
The headquarters of SIFAR is on Via della Pineta, on the southernmost outskirts of Rome, in an area surrounded by farmhouses. The only thing that would cause a passer-by to give a second glance at the innocent, industrial-looking stone buildings occupying two square blocks would be the high wall surrounding the complex, topped by barbed wire, with security posts at each corner. Hidden in a military compound, it is one of the most secretive security agencies in the world, and one of the least known. There are signs outside the compound reading: Vietare passare oltre i limiti.
Inside a spartan office on the first floor of the main building, Colonel Francesco Cesar was studying the flash message he had just received. The Colonel was a man in his early fifties with a muscular body, topped by a pitted, bulldog face. He read the message for the third time.
So, Operation Doomsday is finally happening. E una bellafregat-ura. It is good that we have prepared for this, Cesar thought. He looked down at the cable again. A priest.
It was after midnight when the nun walked past the desk of the night duty nurses at the little hospital in Orvieto.
"I guess she's going to see Signora Fillipi," said Nurse Tomasino.
"Either her or old man Rigano. They're both on their last legs." The nun glided silently round the corner and walked directly into the priest's room. He was sleeping peacefully, his hands gathered almost as if in prayer, on his chest. A wedge of moonlight sliced through the blinds, casting a golden band across the priest's face.
The nun removed a small box from beneath her habit. Carefully, she took out a beautiful cut-glass rosary, and placed it in the old priest's hands. As she adjusted the beads, she drew one of them quickly across his thumb. A thin line of blood appeared. The nun took a tiny bottle from the box, and with an eye dropper, delicately squeezed three drops into the open cut.
It only took a few minutes for the deadly, fast-acting poison to work. The nun sighed as she made the sign of the cross over the dead man. She left as silently as she had come in.