The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Twenty-Four


Rome proved to be difficult for Robert, an emotional ordeal that drained him. He had honeymooned there with Susan, and the memories were overpowering. Rome was Roberto, who managed the Hassler Hotel for his mother, and who was partially deaf but could lip-read in five languages. Rome was the gardens of Villa d'Este in Tivoli, and the Ristorante Sibilla and Susan's delight at the one hundred fountains created by the son of Lucrezia Borgia. Rome was Otello at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, and the Vatican, and the Colosseum and the Forum and Michelangelo's Moses. Rome was sharing tartufi at Tre Scalini and the sound of Susan's laughter, and her voice saying, "Please promise me we'll always be this happy, Robert."
What the hell am I doing here? Robert wondered. I don't have any idea who the priest is, or whether he's even in Rome. It's time to retire, to go home and forget all this.
But something inside him, some stubborn streak inherited from a long-dead ancestor, would not let him. I'll give it one day, Robert decided. Just one more day.
The Leonardo da Vinci airport was crowded, and it seemed to Robert that every other person was a priest. He was looking for one priest in a city of - what? Fifty thousand priests? A hundred thousand? In the taxi on the way to the Hassler Hotel, he noticed crowds of robed priests on the streets. This is impossible, Robert thought. I must be out of my mind.
He was greeted in the lobby of the Hassler Hotel by the assistant manager.
"Commander Bellamy! What a pleasure to see you again."
"Thank you, Pietro. Do you have a room for me for one night?"
"For you - of course. Always!"
Robert was escorted to a room he had occupied before.
"If there's anything you need, Commander, please ..."
I need a bloody miracle, Robert thought. He sat down on the bed and lay back, trying to clear his mind.
Why would a priest from Rome travel to Switzerland? There were several possibilities. He might have gone on vacation, or there might have been a convocation of priests. He was the only priest on the tour bus. What did that signify? Nothing. Except, perhaps, that he was not travelling with a group. So it could have been a trip to visit his friends or family. Or maybe he was with a group, and they had other plans that day. Robert's thoughts were going around in a futile circle.
Back to the beginning. How did the priest get to Switzerland? The chances are pretty good that he doesn't own a car. Someone could have given him a lift, but more probably he travelled by plane or train or took a bus. If he were on vacation, he wouldn't have a lot of time. So let's assume he took a plane. That line of reasoning led nowhere. Airlines did not list the occupations of their passengers. The priest would be yet another name on the passenger manifest. But if he were part of a group ...
The Vatican, the official residence of the Pope, rises majestically on Vatican Hill, on the west bank of the Tiber, in the northwest end of Rome. The dome of St Peter's Basilica, designed by Michelangelo, towers over the huge piazza, filled day and night with avid sightseers of all faiths.
The piazza is surrounded by two semicircular colonnades completed in 1667 by Bernini, with 284 columns of travertine marble placed in four rows and surmounted by a balustrade on which stand 140 statues. Robert had visited there a dozen times, but each time the sight took his breath away.
The interior of the Vatican, of course, was even more spectacular. The Sistine Chapel and the museum and the Sala Rotonda were indescribably beautiful.
But on this day, Robert had not come here to sightsee.
He found the Office of Public Relations for the Vatican in the wing of the building devoted to secular affairs. The young man behind the desk was polite.
"May I help you?"
Robert flashed an identification card. "I'm with Time magazine. I'm doing an article on some priests who attended a convocation in Switzerland in the past week or two. I'm looking for background information."
The man studied him for a moment, then frowned. "We had some priests attend a convocation in Venice last month. None of our priests was in Switzerland recently. I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't help you."
"It's really very important," Robert said earnestly. "How would I go about getting that information?"
"The group you are looking for ... what branch of the Church do they represent?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"There are many Roman Catholic Orders. There are Franciscans, Marists, Benedictines, Trappists, Jesuits, Dominicans, and several others. I suggest you go to the Order they belong to and inquire there."
Where the hell is "there"? Robert wondered. "Do you have any other suggestions?"
"I'm afraid not."
Neither have I, Robert thought. I found the haystack. I can't find the needle.
He left the Vatican and wandered through the streets of Rome, heedless of the people around him, concentrating on his problem. At the Piazza del Popolo, he sat down at an outdoor cafe and ordered a Cinzano. It sat in front of him, untouched.
For all he knew, the priest could still be in Switzerland. What Order does he belong to? I don't know. And I have only the professor's word that he was Roman.
He took a sip of his drink.
There was a late afternoon plane to Washington. I'm going to be on it, Robert decided. I give up. The thought galled him. Out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It was time to leave.
"Il conto, per favore."
"Si, signore."
Robert's eyes swept idly around the piazza. Across from the cafe, a bus was loading passengers. In the line were two priests. Robert watched as the passengers paid their fares and moved toward the back of the bus. When the priests reached the conductor, they smiled at him and took their seats without paying.
"Your check, signore," the waiter said.
Robert didn't even hear him. His mind was racing. Here, in the heart of the Catholic Church, priests had certain privileges. It was possible, just possible ...
The offices of Swissair are located at 10 Via Po, five minutes from the Via Veneto. Robert was greeted by a man behind the counter.
"May I see the manager, please?"
"I am the manager. Can I help you?"
Robert flashed an identification card. "Michael Hudson. Interpol."
"What can I do for you, Mr Hudson?"
"Some international carriers are complaining about illegal price discounting in Europe - in Rome, particularly. According to international convention ..."
"Excuse me, Mr Hudson, but Swissair does not give discounts. Everyone pays the posted fares."
"With the exception of employees of the airline, of course."
"Don't you have a discount for priests?"
"No. On this airline, they pay full fare."
On this airline. "Thank you for your time." And Robert was gone.
His next stop - and his last hope - was Alitalia. "Illegal discounts?" The manager was staring at Robert, puzzled. "We give discounts only to our employees."
"Don't you give discounts to priests?"
The manager's face brightened. "Ah, that, yes. But that is not illegal. We have arrangements with the Catholic Church."
Robert's heart soared. "So, if a priest wanted to fly from Rome, say - to Switzerland, he would use this airline?"
"Well, it would be cheaper for him. Yes."
Robert said, "In order to bring our computers up-to-date, it would be helpful if you could tell me how many priests have flown to Switzerland in the past two weeks. You would have a record of that, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, of course. For tax purposes."
"I would really appreciate that information."
"You wish to know how many priests have flown to Switzerland in the past two weeks?"
"Yes. Zurich or Geneva."
"Just a moment. I will talk to our computers."
Five minutes later, the manager returned with a computer printout. "There was only one priest who flew Alitalia to Switzerland in the past two weeks." He consulted the printout. "He left Rome on the seventh, and flew to Zurich. His return flight was booked for two days ago."
Robert took a deep breath. "His name?"
"Father Romero Patrini."
"His address?"
He looked down at the paper again. "He lives in Orvieto. If you need any further ..." He looked up.
Robert was gone.