Book II: Chapter 37
I watched as Alan and Miriam were led as prisoners through the secret corridors of the Vatican underworld. After his brutal beating, Alan was nearly unconscious, while Miriam’s face was the picture of confusion. It seemed clear to me that she didn’t recognize Cardinalate Marrollo — and the fact that his mind had earlier repelled her Psychic Probe must have been disconcerting indeed.
Was she perplexed by a masked man who was addressed as ‘His Majesty’ and yet was clearly not the Pope?
Who was this gang of monks willing to do his every bidding – up to and including brutal violence?
Most importantly, how could she and Alan escape?
Whatever Miriam might have thought, I had no way of knowing, and before she had time to figure out how to escape, suddenly Marrollo turned around in front of a service elevator and announced, “Benedict awaits.”
As it turned out, Pope Benedict XVI was indeed waiting for the prisoners in the conservatory of his private residence. And when Marrollo and his crew walked in, I noticed Joseph’s smile could not hide a certain underlying hunger.
(Hmm, Joe was clearly eager to learn more about the intruders, but did he really care about secret treasures they’d allegedly stolen or was it something more… sinister?)
“So, who are our grave robbers?” The Pope asked casually, but when the group of monks separated to reveal their prisoners, Joe immediately changed his tone, “Get out — all but Marrollo and the prisoners!” When they hesitated he arose, “The Curse of the Angel of Death be upon you if you all don’t leave my presence this very instant!”
The priests hurried out of the room, the fear of God written on their faces. Meanwhile, Miriam was left to try to help Alan get into one of the chairs to rest, after which she stood silent, waiting.
As for Marrollo, although I couldn’t see his visage behind the mask, he seemed fairly unfazed as he approached the Pope. “I found this on the woman.” And here his left hand emerged from his robes as he handed over a small scroll.
(Now for some reason I had a fleeting thought that something was off about the way that Marrollo had just handed over his prize to Joe, yet before I could consider further the inkling was lost).
Marrollo added, “I have fulfilled my duties. You have the prisoners and that which they sought. I leave the remainder of the matter to you.”
Joseph looked long at the Cardinalate, before finally nodding his ascent. With the Pope’s approval, Marrollo turned around and left – without a further glance at his captives.
(Strange man, huh?)
Once they were alone, Joseph turned towards Miriam and Alan, “Do my eyes deceive me? Is it really you?”
Miriam answered, “It is, Your Grace.”
“How pleasant it is when brothers and sisters come together in unity.” Joseph smiled, but then, remembering the circumstances, “What happened? You know you have full reign of my city; why would you ever need to sneak around behind my back? Unless… do you no longer trust ME?”
“No, it’s not that.” Miriam lied. “Well, you see, it’s just that… what we had to do… er, it didn’t really involve…”
“Enough!” The Pope slammed his fist.
“Let’s cut to the heart of the matter.” Pope Benedict continued. “The real reason you are here is… the time is now.” And before Miriam could reply, he added, “The Beast is Ghaz al’ Ridwan Ma’bus and we all know it.”
(Is it? I honestly don’t know anymore).
Miriam looked over at Alan who appeared to have recovered. Sitting up in his chair, he flashed a wink to Miriam, then smiled at The Pope.
“I can see that you agree.” Joe concluded
“But, why do YOU agree, Your Grace?” Alan asked.
“Lazarus, how can you doubt that I would be informed about this situation? Why, ensuring The Second Coming is a matter of state around here. Come now, I represent an entire world of believers. The tapestry of history that my Catholic children have lived surely rivals what you, Mary, and John have done – despite your long lives.” And then, as if realizing it for the first time, “But wait, where is John?”
“He chose not to come, Your Grace.” Alan explained sadly. “We still hold out hope that he will join us, but his participation is very much in question. You see, John is experiencing a period of doubt.”
“We all have our doubts. Frankly, I’m a bit upset with you for not coming to me sooner – it made me doubt the intelligence I’d received proclaiming Ma’bus as The Beast — for I knew that Satan’s son would not emerge with you three idling in the background. Do you realize that your hesitation has allowed Ma’bus extra time to secure his place?”And looking at Miriam he grumbled, “How many lives have been lost in your Book of Life?”
Miriam avoided his glance, “You know the final number is only 144,000. It cannot be avoided. And we are not there yet.”
“Then why do you cry about it? It is what it is. We all have our part to play and some of us will be required to die for the cause – that’s why it’s called ‘sacrifice.’ All that matters is the End Game.” And, with a snicker the Pope added, “Ah, but don’t worry about your own hesitation — because I have not been so idle. In fact, I’ve been orchestrating events behind the scenes and playing our moves to perfection. As a result, the outcome is inevitable – why Kasparov himself couldn’t have played a better game!”
Confident in his plans, Benedict said encouragingly, “Buck up, friends, keep your eye on the prize and remember what we’re playing for — our Lord is about to return! And WE are responsible for making it happen!”
(Is Joe really one of the Good Guys or is he just playing us?)
“Excuse us if we don’t quite share your exuberance.” Alan replied. “The game is not over, thus the outcome is far from certain.”
“It’s called ‘Faith,’ my friends. Try it for a change.” And before they could dispute him, Joe spoke on, “In any event, the fact of the matter is that Ma’bus IS The Beast, the time IS now, and WE are responsible for stopping him.” And after the briefest of pauses to lick his lips, “Am I to assume that you have The Nails with you?”
(Oh, Joe, you sly dog!)
Miriam’s gaze fell into her lap, and Alan stuttered to reply, “We don’t have all three Nails anymore. Dr. Ma’bus… has mine.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry. How did it happen?” The Pope was clearly fishing.
Alan looked to Miriam for support and when she nodded, he took that as her approval for him to tell his tale, therefore he spent the next candlemark or so explaining the highlights of his capture and torture at the hands of Ma’bus. He talked about the Fallen Angels, about Ma’bus’ devious plans, and even about the terrible Chairs of Woe.
All the while Joe listened as if hearing the information for the first time.
(He is such a good actor – I guess it goes with the office).
In case you’re wondering, there was no point for Miriam to try her Psychic Probe on the Pope — this wasn’t the first time she and Joe had crossed paths – like me, she had known him for many years prior to his ascension to the papal throne. I remember one of her letters from a while back (one that I actually read) in which she described meeting an unusual clergyman whose mind was closed to her. In the letter, she warned Alan and I to keep an eye on this priest named Joseph Ratzinger. I didn’t pay it much mind back then (this was perhaps 50 years ago), but I guess Miriam’s inclination was right. And yet, I’m sure that, as she sat before him on this day, she was more than a little bitter than she couldn’t sift through the Pope’s mental fibers to find out if he was really a friend or a foe.
Just then I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation…
“…see that you agree.” Joseph was saying. “But what I don’t understand is where are Mary and John’s Nails?”
“They are safe.” Miriam averred.
“Well, let me see them.”
“We don’t have them on us.”
“That’s preposterous! Considering what happened with Alan’s Nail, I should think that you would have them strapped to your side. Come. Come. No lies. I know you have them, let’s see them.”
“Miriam speaks the truth.” Alan said. “Don’t worry, they are safe.”
“As safe as your Budapest bank vault? Alan. Mary. I have known you my whole life. I don’t understand what has happened between us. Why do you doubt me now? What have I done to make you think I am not who I really am?”
“It’s not you,” Miriam began.
“Oh don’t you dare try to give me the it’s not you, it’s me speech.” The Pope interrupted. “I think you owe me a little more than that.”
“What do you want us to say?” Alan squirmed.
“I want the truth!” Joseph’s face grew red with anger.
“Then what would YOU do if you were in our position?” Miriam’s anger matched The Pope’s. “Why are you surprised if we are hesitant about you if all we see of you in the public eye is you palling around with Ma’bus?” And with even more passion, “Joseph, surely you know that your actions are driving people around the world to follow Ma’bus – yet to us it seems as if they were merely sheep being led to the slaughter!”
“Ah, but most of them are.” The Pope was grinning from ear to ear and his eyes were suddenly blazing with fire.
(What? Joe, say it ain’t so? Are you revealing yourself as The Beast?!?)