“Who is the boy?” Father Gallo asked the nun.
Sister Shaw looked up from her paperwork and frowned in the priest’s direction. Gallo stood at the window and looked out at the schoolyard as he worried the silver crucifix around his neck.
“What boy,” she sighed before looking back down at her papers.
Father Gallo had taken charge of the orphanage just a few days ago, but in that short time Sister Shaw found herself doing most of the administrative work. Gallo was some sort of favorite with someone back in Rome, and he certainly seemed to care for the boys, but the man didn’t seem practical at all. That didn't bode well for his future, thought Sister Shaw.
“The little one who sits off by himself and reads,” Gallo said. “I’ve noticed him for a few days. Doesn't play with the others."
“That would be Harry Mitchell,” Shaw said without looking up. “He’s a bookworm and very reserved. He's not a fan of mingling with the other boys.”
“You call him, Mitchell...what’s his Japanese name?”
“He doesn’t have one,” snapped Shaw. “He’s not like the other boys, Father. They all have papers on them and we know their heathen names.”
Shaw saw Gallo wince at her use of the word heathen. She got a small thrill out of it. Good. The man seemed to be too lenient to these boys and their people. This orphanage was all about saving souls and converting the godless. There was no place for softness when it came to helping others avoiding Hell.
“Young Mitchell was left on the orphanage doorstep when he was a newborn," she said. "There was some of their gobbledygook written on a paper and pinned to his swaddling blankets, but nobody kept it. We baptized him and christened him Harold Mitchell. That was eight years ago. He’s been with us ever since.”
Gallo nodded and continued to stare out the window. Sister Shaw simply shook her head and went back to her papers. Let the young priest stare and be lost in thought. She had real work to do.
Harry peered over his reading glasses at his wristwatch. It was a quarter past eleven in the morning and he could hear chanting echoing through the opulent library halls. The 11 AM mass would be in full swing by now. He’d attended the 7 AM mass like always, but it had been a subdued affair. WNews about Cardinal Moch’s fall was already well circulated through the Vatican by that point. The word floating around also confirmed the worst: the old man was dead. His Holiness had already ordered three days of mourning, a funeral mass set to commence after that. Clergy from across Europe would gather in Rome to see the old Cardinal off.
He tried to drive away thoughts about the dead Cardinal and instead focus on the work before him. Laid out on the table was a collection of books and papers on one Josep Manyanet i Vives. Vives was a Spanish priest who died in 1901. He spent his life devoted to the cause of helping his parish despite being in ill health. It was reported the man suffered from open sores for over a decade. After over twenty years of campaigning from the diocese in Barcelona, the Church was moving forward with beatification of Father Vives and this was the first step.
That’s where Harry came in.
His official title in Vatican City was canon lawyer. It was true that he was an expert on ecclesiastical law. But his specialty had a very specific title. Harry was the Devil’s Advocate. It was his job to thoroughly investigate any proposed saint to see if they were less than worthy. If they met Hary's approval their case for sainthood would progress to the next step. In addition he also investigated any reported miracle for evidence of fraud, or to see if there was a simple scientific answer. Overall he was the Vatican’s resident skeptic in all matters. It seemed to fit him well in the five years he’d been here. He’d always been the odd man out from the time he was a child. The lone skeptic among the flocks of the devoted. He wore that badge with pride.
Harry looked up from his papers and found a junior priest standing in front of him. Harry felt a little nervous when he saw the tall, imposing figure standing beside the priest in a dark suit. Colonel Stoller stared down at Harry with a look of boredom. Harry knew those seemingly bored eyes didn’t miss much. While he didn’t wear the gaudy show uniforms of his men, Stoller was a Swiss Guard through and through. While they carried halberds, Stoller carried a pistol tucked in a shoulder holster.
“His Holiness requests your presence,” said Stoller.
Harry was on his feet before Stoller could finish. He followed in the wake of the taller man across the library’s marble floors. The librarian who had accompanied Stoller would take care of the books and papers Harry left on the table. They walked across the beautiful Sistine Hall with the detachment of people who saw the breathtaking works of art Vatican City had to offer every day. Harry felt a mix of emotions as he followed Stoller. He always enjoyed seeing His Holiness, but it was highly unusual for Stoller to become involved. He coordinated security for the Pope and The Holy See abroad. He served, as they all did, at His Holiness’ pleasure, but he was not a simple errand boy.
Stoller led Harry to the papal apartments. The layout of the residence was spartan and in keeping with its current occupants’ more modest approach to the papacy. Pope Leo VIX, once upon a time Father Martino Gallo to Harry, flashed a wide grin as Harry and Stoller entered the sitting room.
“My son,” Leo said as Harry got on his knees and kissed the ring on the Pope’s right hand.
For Harry, the term son was not some generic greeting. Over thirty years ago Father Gallo came to a lonely little boy in a Japanese orphanage and took him under his wing. He taught Harry about God, faith, the Church, and all that it meant to serve the Lord. Father Gallo help put him through seminary school and legal training even as his own star rose within the Church. And then. five years ago, when Cardinal Gallo emerged from the Papal conclave as Leo XIV, he brought Harry to Rome.
“Your Holiness,” said Harry.
“None of that, Harry,” said Leo. “Not here in my home. “Call me Leo, call me Father, call me Marty, but no need for formality with me. And off your knees and have a seat.”
Harry got up and sat down in a chair facing Leo. Stoller stood at the threshold of the sitting room at parade rest.
“You can have a seat as well, Colonel,” said the Pope.
“I could,” replied the Swiss colonel. “But I won’t.”
Leo turned his attention back to Harry. Several months had passed since the two men last saw each other. That wasn’t out of the ordinary even in tiny Vatican City. So much of Leo’s time was scheduled out and planned to the exact minute. There was no doubt he had to make some sort of sacrifice on his itinerary for this meeting with Harry.
“How have you been, Harry?” Leo asked with a warm smile.
“I’ve been well, Father,” said Harry. Even in the less formal setting Harry would not call His Holiness Marty. “My work keeps me preoccupied most of the days.”
“Oh, I know.” A sardonic look flashed across the Pope’s face “I read your report on the American woman who claimed she found the image of Jesus Christ.”
“Yes, she was very committed,” said Harry. “Or at least she needs to be.”
The two men shared a laugh while Stoller looked on stoically.
“My good colonel could you please put on some music for Father Mitchell and I?”
Harry started to say something, but stopped when he saw Leo raise a hand preemptively. The colonel walked over to a record player in the sitting room. Opera music began to play from the speakers. Stoller adjusted the knob so the sounds of Cavalleria rusticana
filtered through the apartment at full blast.
“The walls have ears around here,” Leo said soft enough so that only Harry could hear him. “I have learned that well in the past five years. We must talk quickly and cover much.”
The Pope reached into his robes and produced a folded piece of paper. He passed it to Harry and let him look it over. It was a Papal brief declaring that he, Father Harold Mitchell Esquire, had been bestowed the temporary powers of His Holiness when it came to access to Vatican City. Nothing or anyone would be off-limits to him as he acted as the agent of His Holiness. So ordained by His Holiness Leo XIV, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.
“What is this, Father?” Harry asked.
“Cardinal Moch’s death,” said the Pope. “I do not think it was just a simple accident. I fear the worst... I think he took his own life.”
The two men exchanged looks. Leo didn’t have to explain any further the ramifications of Moch committing suicide. It was an abomination in the eyes of the Church. No suicide could ever have a Christian burial and no soul who took their own life could ever enter Heaven. For a Cardinal to do such a thing would be an enormous scandal.
“I want you to use that brief to find out everything you can about Cardinal Moch in the days leading up to his death. Found out his frame of mind, who he last spoke to, what he was doing the night of his fall.”
“Your Holiness,” Harry said, ignoring Leo’s chastising look as he pressed on. “You have the Gendarmes for this. They are the closest the Holy See has to a police force.”
“Manned by men with questionable allegiances,” said Leo. “Lombardi was appointed by the last pontiff. I question how much of our daily goings on gets reported to the Italian government. Lombardi and the Gendarmes are off the table for this one.”
The Papal brief in Harry’s hands suddenly felt heavier. It carried with it so much power, but also so much responsibility. The power of the Pope himself was vested in this document, Harry now an extension of that power. Harry’s sight drifted towards Stoller’s imposing presence.
“Stoller and the Swiss Guard are at your disposal,” said the Pope.
A slight nod from the colonel served as confirmation of Leo’s words.
“However only the colonel knows the full story.”
“I will assist you in whatever you require, Father Mitchell,” said Stoller.
“See what you can find, my son,” said Leo. “Speak to no one on any of this, not even Colonel Stoller once you two go your separate ways. Only report directly to me what you find. Things are at play here, Harry. Cardinal Moch’s death could set off a disastrous chain of events. But I know you are capable of finding the truth. There is no one here in the Vatican I trust more than you, no one I know is more capable or smarter than you.”
“Wait,” said Harry. “What do you know about Cardinal Moch, father?”
Leo stood and put a gentle hand on Harry’s shoulder.
“You two have to go now. I’ve already spent enough time here talking with you. If I keep my entourage waiting any longer they will grow suspicious. Let me know what you find as soon as there is something to find. Go now, Harry. And go with God.”
Harry was on his feet and following Stoller out the door of the apartments. His head seemed to spin as he tried to take in the gravity of the situation he now found himself in. His Holiness -- Marty -- needed his help. Even if he wasn’t the Pope, Harry would do anything for the old man he thought of as his father. He just hoped he was capable of For five years he’d done his job as Devil’s Advocate and kept his head down. He wasn’t like Ricci. He didn’t wade into the intrigue and relish the gossip. But now here he was, neck deep in it against his will.
“His Holiness is right about one thing,” Stoller said as they descended the stairs towards the plaza. “You must go with God if you wish to succeed.”
Harry reached into his shirt and pulled out his crucifix. It was old and tarnished by years of worrying from Harry and its previous owner, Father Gallo. Harry began to worry it again and say a soft prayer for guidance on what to do.
Washington D.C.St. Patrick’s Church
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”
Carl Speers waited to hear the reassuring voice of Father Miller on the other side of the screen. Instead he heard only silence. Speers leaned forward in the confessional booth and waited.
“How long since your last confession?”
The voice that finally spoke did not have Father Miller’s quaint midwestern accent. Instead the voice was deeper and with a tinge of a German accent.
“I...a few weeks ago,” said Speers.
“And this was the confession where you told Father Miller you confessed a child with your secretary.”
“How the hell are you?” Speers shouted.
The screen slid open and Speers saw a man that was definitely not Father Miller. The man who stared back had thick gray hair and good looks that seemed more like they belonged on a movie star instead of a priest. His only blemish was his glasses. Thick lenses and thick black frames rested on the bridge of his nose. They threw off his natural handsomeness and made his eyes seem insectoid. Those large eyes seemed to look into Speers soul.
“Hello, Mr. Speers,” said the man. “May I call you Carl? Carl, my name is Archbishop Eugene Koning. You could say I’m Father Miller’s supervisor. I’m sure you know what it’s like having a boss, Carl. I’m sure your work at the Treasury Department brings you into contact with Secretary Hall often.”
The outrage Speers had come with just a few seconds earlier evaporated. This man, this Koning, knew so much about him. He knew his name, where he worked, and worst of all, he knew about Archie. Spears looked at Koning's face and tried to muster his best snarl. Instead he sagged and sighed. He knew a threat when he heard one.
“What do you want,” Speers murmured.
“I need your expertise in American finance,” said Koning. He pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket and passed it through the booth’s opening to Speers. The man took the sheet in his pudgy hands and unfolded it.
“What is all this?” Speers asked after looking at it. “I see routing numbers and amounts to bank accounts, but the number sequence is off on the origin account...are these Swiss accounts?”
“They are,” said Koning. “And as you can see the amounts are rather large. Can you request information on the people who own these accounts?”
“Eventually,” Speers said after a long silence. If this was the cost of Koning's silence, then it was an easy price to pay. “It would take some time to identify which banks these accounts were set up with. If I formally request the information that may raise some red flags, so backchanneling it will take even longer.”
“I leave Washington in three days. I want that information with me then.”
“What?” Speers looked flustered. “That’s impossible, I can’t. You’re asking too much I--”
Koning raised the volume of his voice but kept the tone neutral. “You should have thought about that before that late night at the office with Sarah, before little Archibald came along.”
“I was confessing my sins,” hissed Speers. “I wanted forgiveness. I didn’t know it would be used as blackmail. What kind of fucking priest are you?”
Koning squared his glasses and looked at Speers. The intensity of his gaze took the fat man back. He swallowed hard and began to stammer.
“I-I-I’m sorry I cursed like that. It was inappropriate in the house of the Lord.”
Koning ignored his apology. “I expect you to deliver the information I seek to Father Miller in a sealed envelope addressed to no one. Remember how much I know about you, Carl. Your address in Georgetown happens to be one of those things. I think our business is done here for now. You know what to do.”
Koning slid the confessional screen shut. He was already a few steps down the aisle by the time Speers came out the booth. But Koning stopped and turned to look back at Speers.
“You ask what kind of priest I am, my son, to violate the seal of confession. It is not something I do lightly, please know that. There are bigger matters at sake. And I am not a mere vicar, just as you are no mere parishioners. We’re warriors, Carl. The Crusades ended almost nine hundred years ago, but holy war still rages. The battlefields and weapons have shifted, though. Our enemies no longer use horses and swords. They use ideas and politics and money. And they are winning. The enemies are at the gate, my son. Men like me, we keep the infidels at bay.”
Speers stared at the archbishop in stunned silence as the man turned away and started down the aisle towards the exit.