“The Captain Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Colonel Alois Estermann, was found dead in his home together with his wife, Gladys Meza Romero and Vice Corporal Cedric Tornay. The bodies were discovered shortly after 9pm by a neighbor from the apartment next door who was attracted by loud noises. From the first investigation it is possible to affirm that all three were killed by a firearm. Under the body of the Vice Corporal his regulation weapon was found. The information which has emerged up to this point allows for the theory of a ‘fit of madness’ by Vice Corporal Tornay.” — Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Papal spokesman (Official statement on the May 4, 1998 Vatican murders), from City of Secrets by John Follian
I’ve been waiting at St. Peter’s Square since dawn. From my vantage point, near the central obelisk, the columns of the two elliptical colonnades appear as a single row like silent sentries protecting the faithful. It’s a grand illusion because the colonnades actually consist of four rows of sixty-foot columns, each directly behind the other, flanking both sides of the Piazza like the teeth of a giant shark waiting to consume the pilgrims who enter, all year round, through the Via della Conciliazione, to pray among the tombs of the Basilica.
They’ve been coming in droves throughout the morning. Some walk among the columns. And that’s where I see Gabby standing in the shadows.
“Shalom,” he says. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve had a lot of errands to run.” He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. “It was good of you to come.”
He wears a tailored suit and wire-frame spectacles. His shoulder length hair is combed over his ears, revealing a Bluetooth hands-free earpiece. “Walk with me.”
I follow him among the towering columns. He speaks perfect Hebrew, but with an Italian accent.
“Have you found a body?”
“Several,” I say. “But my choice would depend on the location of the mark.”
“I understand. Fresh intelligence confirms that you need to pay the mathematician a visit,” he says, “in the Philippines, where the anomaly was initially detected. I trust you’re intimately familiar with the area?”
I nod, but he doesn’t see me.
“This will cause problems for all of us,” he continues, “I do not have to tell you that. What I can tell you is that we know exactly who he is, where he is, and what he plans to do. Your mission is to stop him … by any means necessary.”
He pauses as a group of nuns walk in the opposite direction. “Buon giorno,” he says, and I notice a young nun stealing a second look.
We wait a few seconds for them to pass. He adjusts his glasses. “Stop him, the way you know best. The order comes directly from His Holiness.”
We take the street alongside the Vatican Museum, away from St. Peter’s Square.
“You sure it’s him?” I ask.
“I’m just a messenger. I tell you only what’s told to me.”
“Does he plan to use it as a weapon?”
“Possibly. Depends on your perspective. It involves numbers. Lots of them. Transcendental sequences, non-linear dynamical systems. Chaos. What’s not certain is how far he is from a breakthrough or who else he’s told.”
“And the other suspects?”
“Still under surveillance, including that physicist from Belgrade and the accountant from Lima. However, it’s this Filipino whose theories exhibit the most interesting implications. He calls it the ‘God Equation,’ can you believe that? He’s even writing a book.”
“Who else knows the mark? Aside from His Holiness.”
“Four of us. M’s in charge, as usual. Then there’s me, you, and Raffy.”
“Raffy’s our man on the ground. He’s been there awhile, and he can lead you to the mark. He’ll provide you with everything you need. He’s also the one who made the positive ID and the source of our intel. Anyway, the question isn’t ‘who knows?’ but ‘who’s interested?’ So far he’s been paying out of his own pockets, but he now seeks support from multinational corporations, several governments, and even the Church itself. In fact, with the limited kind of information he’s presented, the Work is quite keen to lend him a hand.”
“Do they know what he’s really up to?”
“They think he’s developing either a formula for predicting the stock market, an economic forecasting model, or a universal code breaking engine.”
“But that’s not the case.”
“And that’s why you’re in the picture.”
We stop at a small gelateria, which opens relatively early in this part of the city. The young woman behind the counter greets my friend with a charming smile.
“Cioccolato, per favore,” he says.
She takes a flat spatula and fills a cone with gelato.
“Grazie,” he says, handing her a few euros.
“How much do the Fallen know?” I ask.
“Now that is the question.” He touches his earpiece for show, pretending to be on his cellphone, trying not to be conspicuous, and failing miserably. “As far as we can determine, this guy’s receiving some kind of protection, though it might have been unknowingly provided by someone from their ranks, without the official sanction of the Enemy. That’s why we had a hard time identifying the target, and why we need to go through all this trouble.”
“What kind of protection?”
He licks his gelato a few times, savoring the flavor. He winks at the woman behind the counter who now has to attend to another customer, a teenage girl, American, judging from her accent: “Pisstahshow, purr favoreh.” She is standing inches away from me, oblivious to my presence.
“The Cold War hasn’t ended,” he says, “but in this operation, we may have the upper hand. We think that the Fallen are unaware of the impact that this kind of research can have on our position. So we’ve kept them in the dark where they belong, feeding them misinformation and false leads. M likes to keep it that way.”
The American girl feels a slight chill as she bites into her pistacchio. Goosebumps form on her arms and she rubs them with her free hand. She glances at my friend and walks past me. I watch her slender back as she crosses the street, straw blonde hair swaying in the autumn sun.
Gabby looks straight at me for the first time and shakes his head. “No, no. She’s much too young. Don’t tell me you plan to follow her and introduce yourself.”
“It’s not yet her time,” I assure him.
“It never is, until you arrive.” Gabby steps out to the curb. “Raffy will tell you everything you need to know.”
“So why did you have to meet me?”
“I’m here to give you the green light.” He bites his cone and with a mouthful of gelato says, “You have a long way to travel and I heard that it’s hard to book a flight this time of year. Now go.”
I adjust my black robes, and spread my wings, stretching them like a giant pair of ethereal hands, shimmering invisibly. I unfurl a second and third pair of wings, six in all, like iridescent sails.
More customers arrive, a young man who wants a taste of heaven, and a middle-aged couple living in sin. They order nocciola and stracciatella.
I should order one of these flavors when I get back.
I take to the air, unheard and unseen, except by an overdressed man who calls himself Gabby.
“Ciao,” he says. He removes his earpiece.
I soar above the Eternal City, fascinated at the multiplicity of souls below me: sightseeing, commuting to work, having sex, killing each other. I head east.
+ + +
Soaking in a bathtub, with heroin coursing through his veins, he lies naked with an empty bottle of vodka floating in the water, and a .38 snub nose revolver in his hand. He struggles to keep awake, struggles with his Russian roulette.
I had watched him load his pistol with a single bullet, spin the cylinder, and snap it back in place. That was twenty minutes ago. This is his thirty-seventh attempt. He takes aim and squeezes.
Mechanically, slowly, he repeats the steps.
He cannot keep his eyes open. Click. His mouth starts to froth slightly. Click. His hand tires and starts to shake. Click.
His chin dips the water, and he spins the cylinder again.
Then, without resetting, he squeezes the trigger … thrice.
Click. Click. Click.
His grip fails him, and his gun falls on the bathroom floor beside an empty syringe. He sinks further into the tub. His body twitches, and he slips into a coma.
I watch him drown in lukewarm water, frothy vomit, and bloody piss. I watch him die.
I whisper into his ear. Suddenly, his eyes open and for an instant he sees my face.
My body convulses.
I can’t breathe.
I inhale and foul water burns my nose and lungs. My face breaks the surface of the water and I cough, gasp for air, and try to get my bearings. I cough some more, and struggle to take a real breath.
I throw up at the edge of the tub.
I am alone in the bathroom. In a body that isn’t mine. With a primitive brain that limits my perceptions, and a drugged out bag of flesh that traps my true strength.
It’s all painfully fun.
A cellphone rings. With wet fingers, I pick up the device from the floor, and answer the call.
“Get dressed,” says a voice. “Meet me downstairs beside the pool.”
I move to the shower area and rinse myself for a few minutes. Like all bodies, I can feel this one dying on me. Not from drugs, but plain mortality.
As I towel dry, I examine the body in the mirror. Tall. Heavy-set. Lightly tanned. Spanish mestizo, mid-twenties, with a pug nose, unibrow, bristle-cut hair, and a tattoo of a flaming skull behind the shoulder. He has no muscle tone.
It’s an ugly disguise, the nearest I can find, but the easiest way to get hold of a weapon.
I pick up the revolver, wipe off the moisture, and check the chamber. Two more trigger pulls would’ve fired the round. Not exactly a flaming sword, but pretty damn close. I turn the cylinder slowly, aligning the loaded chamber with the firing pin.
I enter the bedroom and search through his luggage. He didn’t bring a change of clothes, just a bag of dope, booze, and two pairs of handcuffs, one still latched to the bedpost, and no condoms. I’m forced to wear cargo-style Bermuda pants and a tie-dye shirt, the same clothes he had worn the evening before. I check his wallet: wads of cash, several credit cards, driver’s license for “Diego Merced,” and a firearm permit from the National Bureau of Investigation. I tuck the .38 against the small of my back, beneath my shirt.
I smell semen and blood on the empty, unmade bed, and I detect the scent of two females, one human, the other–
The doorbell rings.
“P’re, ba’t ang tagal mo? What’s keeping you?” He speaks Tagalog, wears dreadlocks, and is deeply tanned. “We need to go.”
“I had to put some clothes on,” I answer in the same language. “This was all I could find.”
“It smells bad,” he says. “We need to get you a better shirt, especially where you’re going. I know where you can get the best bargain. You have money?”
“Good. I want to buy some clothes, too.”
We take the stairs down, walk past the reception area, and step into the sand. It’s off peak in Boracay, but the foreign tourists are still up and about, trying to get a tan under an overcast sky. I see some rain clouds in the horizon, bare breasts bouncing along the shore, and a sorbetero standing beside his ice cream cart. It’s mid-afternoon.
“This will just take a minute,” I say. I order a few scoops of ube and cheese, while Raffy orders mango. We walk briskly along the beach.
“What’s the lowdown?” I say finally.
“I discovered the mark by surfing the Web, believe it or not, when I came across a blog entry about a work in progress called the ‘God Equation.’ Ever since Da Vinci, it seems everybody’s writing something about religion and science. The Michelangelo Cipher, The Bernini Puzzle, The Fra Lippo Lippi Paradox … I made that last one up–“
“Maybe he just wants the book to get attention.”
“Don’t interrupt. Yes, I thought so, too. But the God Equation isn’t a novel. It’s a project. The author makes the remarkable claim that he has found a mathematical equation that proves the existence of God.”
“Men have been trying to do that for centuries. Anselm, Descartes, Pascal. All have failed.”
“You’re a traditionalist, Az. Though you’re practical, you still cling to the old ways. You don’t even like using firearms, instead preferring swords and knives and plagues and natural causes, and the rest to human folly. That’s why all the jobs that you did involving guns aren’t very clean. How can anyone compare JFK and the Vatican murders to the Passover? The latter was your masterpiece. The others, just mysteries.”
“Computers. None of the people you mentioned used them. This guy does.”
“It isn’t finished. He still needs computers to help him generate the proof. I was intrigued enough to do a background check on him, starting with his date of birth and his date of death. And guess what: he’s not in your section’s records. The guy doesn’t have an expiration date.”
“Hence the anomaly.”
“We know he can’t be immortal, because he’s still human, but we haven’t got a clue on how long he’ll be alive. So that’s where we’re at. On one hand, we have machines that can compute extremely fast, and on the other, a man who might live an extremely long life. Awkward, isn’t it?”
We pause by a stall and Raffy inspects some beach shirts. He begins dictating the pertinent facts. “Matthew Cheng, twenty-four years old, single, studied physics and computer engineering in Manila, and mathematics in the U.S. His family owns considerable tracts of land across the Philippines, and significant petroleum interests abroad. Not just rich, they’re filthy. He doesn’t even need to hold a real job but won’t get involved in the family business. Instead, he occasionally lectures at his alma mater, pursues personal research in higher mathematics, and spends most of his time sailing solo around the world on board his 60-foot state-of-the art yacht, the Lionheart Oil.”
“Sounds like a pun on Leonhard Euler.”
“He idolizes him. Maybe he wants to prove that Euler is God. He made a business pitch to several alumni a few days ago, on this island, and he mentioned ‘Euler’s Identity’ in one of his spiels.”
“You were there?”
“I pretended to be journalist and interviewed him. How do you think I got all my intel? I’ve arranged for a colleague of mine to interview him today, for a feature story in Scientific American, and he’s invited him over to his yacht. It’s anchored off the opposite shore.”
“Your colleague?” I ask.
Raffy hands me a photographer’s vest that he pulls off the rack. “You need to meet him in twenty minutes. We’ll use my jet ski.”
+ + +