RAIN WAS FALLING ALL OVER ROME WHEN THE TAXI STOPPED at St. Peter's Square. It was ten o'clock in the morning.
The passenger paid the fare, told the driver to keep the change, and tucked a newspaper under his arm. He was lean and well tailored in an obviously expensive suit, his white hair combed carefully back, his resolute demeanor that of a person accustomed to giving orders. He headed straight for the first entry point, where visitors were inspected to make sure they entered the basilica properly dressed—no shorts, no miniskirts, no cleavage.
Inside the cathedral, the man rushed past Michelangelo's "Pieta"—the only work of art among the vast Vatican treasures that had ever moved him—without a glance. He paused for a second, orienting himself, then walked toward the confessionals, where priests from an array of countries listened in their native languages to the faithful who came from around the world to visit the Holy See.
He approached a confessional whose sign indicated that the priest heard confessions in Italian, and he stood, leaning against a column, waiting impatiently for the communicant already inside to finish. As soon as he saw the velvet curtain open and a man step out, he moved purposefully toward the confessional.
The priest coughed quietly, ready for the new communicant to begin confession.
"Mi benedica, Padre, perchŽ ho peccato."
"What is it you wish to confess, my son?"
"Not a past sin, Father, but a sin I am about to commit." He leaned toward the priest and smoothed the lapel of his suit jacket. "I intend to kill a man," he said. "May God forgive me."
With that the man stood, rushed from the confessional, and disappeared among the hordes of tourists crowding the basilica. It took the priest a few moments to recover from his shock.
The stunned cleric stepped out of the confessional and picked up a crumpled newspaper lying on the floor. He glanced at the headlines—rostropovich concert in milan; dinosaur movie a blockbuster hit; archaeological conference in rome—and scanned the text below the last, where something had been marked: . . . with world-renowned professors and archaeologists in attendance: Clonay, Miller, Schmidt, Arzaba, Polonoski, Tannenberg. The final name was circled in red: Tannenberg.
Another man had approached the confessional and was asking insistently, "Father, Father—are you all right?"
"Yes, yes . . . no, I'm sorry, I'm not—excuse me . . ."
The priest folded the newspaper and, his gaze abstracted, walked away, leaving his latest supplicant openmouthed and unshriven.
"I'd like to speak with Signora Barreda, please."
"May I say who's calling?"
"One moment, Dottore."
The old man ran his hand over his hair and was suddenly seized with claustrophobia; the room was too small. He forced himself to take a deep breath while his eyes ran over the objects that had surrounded him for these last forty years. On his desk sat a picture frame with two photographs: one, now sepia-colored with age, of his parents, and the other of his three children. On the mantel was a photo of his grandchildren. Across the room a couch and a pair of wing chairs were softly illuminated by a floor lamp with a cream-colored shade. The room's walls were lined with mahogany bookshelves containing hundreds of books; Persian rugs covered the floor; the entire room smelled of pipe tobacco. . . . This was his office, he was at home: He had to get control of himself.
"Mercedes, we've found him!"
"Oh, Carlo . . . My God! What are you saying?"
The woman's voice was filled with dread—and expectation.
"Get on the Internet and look in the Italian newspapers, any of them—the Culture pages. His name's right there!" The intensity in his voice matched hers.
"Are you sure it's him? There are thousands of Tannenbergs around the world, Carlo."
"But not thousands in the upper echelons of the archaeological field. The article is about an upcoming conference in Rome."
Mercedes was breathless. And convinced. "Yes, of course, yes. Then he . . . All right, then. We'll do it. At last! Tell me you're not having second thoughts."
He looked at the picture of his parents. "No, never. And you aren't either, I see. Neither will Hans and Bruno, I'm sure." He fingered the buttons on his telephone. "We need to meet. I'll call them now."
"Do you want to come to Barcelona?" Mercedes asked. "I have room for us all."
"It doesn't matter where. I'll call you back—I want to talk to Hans and Bruno now."
"Wait, Carlo—is it really him? We have to be sure. Have him put under surveillance, no matter what it costs. If you want me to, I'll wire a transfer now. We cannot lose him again."
"I'll see to it immediately. We won't lose him, Mercedes. Don't worry. I'll call you back as soon as I can."
"Call me on my cell phone, then. I'm going to the airport. I'm taking the first plane to Rome. I can't just sit here; I need to—"
"Mercedes, don't move until I call you. We can't make any mistakes. He won't escape now—trust me."
He hung up, feeling the same anxiety he'd sensed in Mercedes. He suspected that in two hours she'd be calling him from Fiumicino Airport. She was a woman incapable of sitting and waiting for anything, much less this.
He dialed a number in Bonn and waited, tapping his fingers impatiently on the desk, for someone to answer.
"Professor Hausser, please."
"Carlo! It's Berta! How are you?" the woman responded delightedly.
"Berta, dear, how nice to hear you! How are you? And your husband and children?"
"We're all fine, thank you—dying to see you. It's been three years, Carlo! Father talks about you as if you were here yesterday."
"Oh, Berta, I'd love to see you all again as well—you know you have an open invitation to stay with me in Rome." Carlo paused and lowered his voice, allowing the urgency he felt to come through. "Listen, is your father in?"
"Yes, I'll put him on now. Are you all right?"
"Yes, my dear, I'm fine. I just wanted to speak to your father a moment."
"Here he is. Take care, Carlo."
The rich baritone of Hans Hausser came on the line within seconds. "Carlo . . ."
"Hans! He's alive!"
There was a long silence. Then Hans finally spoke.
"Where is he?"
"Here, in Rome. I found him by accident, reading the newspaper. Look, go online right now and read any Italian newspaper, the Culture section. You'll see for yourself."
Carlo's explanation was accompanied by a series of rapid keyboard clicks on the other end of the phone. "I'll hire an agency to keep him under surveillance," Carlo added. "They'll follow him anywhere he goes, even if he leaves Rome. We all have to meet. I just called Mercedes, and I'll call Bruno now."
"I'm coming to Rome."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea for us to be seen together here. Perhaps somewhere else . . ."
"Why not? He's there and we have to do it. We're going to do it. Finally."
"I know, and we will. I'll do it myself if I have to. Or we'll find someone to do it for us. I've thought about this moment my entire life, Hans—how it will happen, how it will feel. My conscience is at peace, but I wonder if it will remain that way."
"That, my friend, we will know when it's over. May God forgive us, or at least understand us—"
A shrill chirp interrupted Hans' words. "Hold on, Hans, my cell phone is ringing." Carlo picked up his cell and looked at the small screen. "It's Bruno. I'll call you back. . . . Bruno!"
"Carlo," said the taut voice.
"I was about to call you."
"Mercedes just did—is it true?"
"Then I'm leaving for Rome right away—I'll book the next plane out of Vienna. Where shall we meet?"
"No, I'm not going to wait. I've waited for more than sixty years, and if he's finally turned up, I won't wait a minute longer. I want to be there when it happens, Carlo."
"You will be. . . . All right, come to Rome. We'll all meet here together. I'll call Mercedes and Hans again."
"Mercedes has already left for the airport; I'll leave here in an hour. Tell Hans."
"I will," said Carlo. He opened his desk drawer and took out a bag of fine pipe tobacco. "Come to my house," he said as he hung up the phone and turned to his computer to pull up the number of the president of Security Investigations.
It was midday. He still had time, he thought, to go by the clinic and have his secretary reschedule all his appointments. His oldest son, Antonino, was already tending to most of his patients by now, but some old friends insisted that Carlo and Carlo alone pronounce the official word on the state of their health. He had no complaints about that; it kept him active and forced him to contemplate yet again each day the mysterious machinery of the human body.
He hailed a taxi, and then as he sat back for the short ride to his office he felt a sharp pain in his chest. No, not the warning of a heart attack; it was anguish, pain—and rage at a God whom he didn't believe in yet prayed to and cursed. But Carlo was certain that he wasn't listening. God had never concerned himself with Carlo. Never. God had abandoned Carlo when he'd most needed him, at a time when he naively thought that faith alone could bring salvation. How stupid he had been! But think about God he did nonetheless. Carlo was approaching seventy, and now that he was closer to the end of his life than the beginning, facing the inevitable journey toward eternity, the alarm bells of fear began to ring.
He paid the taxi and this time did not tell the driver to keep the change. The clinic, located in Parioli, a quiet, elegant neighborhood in Rome, consisted of a four-story building in which some twenty specialists and ten general practitioners had their offices. This was his life's work, the fruit of his will and dedication. His father would have been proud of him, and his mother . . . He realized that tears were coming to his eyes. His mother would have hugged him tight, whispering that there was nothing he couldn't do, nothing he couldn't achieve, that a man's will made all things possible—
"Buon giorno, Dottore."
The voice of the clinic's doorman brought him back to earth. Carlo stood tall as he walked through the door and made his way to his office on the first floor, nodding politely to the other doctors and shaking hands with patients who recognized him.
He smiled when he saw his daughter, her slim figure silhouetted against the light at the end of the corridor. Lara was patiently listening to a trembling woman who clutched a teenage girl's hand. Lara touched the girl's hair softly, tenderly, and comforted the woman as she said good-bye. She hadn't noticed Carlo, and he did nothing to call attention to himself as he walked on by; he'd stop by her office later.
He entered the waiting room of his office. Maria, his secretary, looked up from the computer screen.
"Dottore, you are so late today! You have a stack of telephone messages, and Signore Bersini is about to arrive. His results came in: Every test negative, but he insists on seeing you and—"
"I'll see Signore Bersini as soon as he comes in, but cancel all my other appointments. I may not be in the office for a few days; some old friends are coming to Rome and I must see to them."
"Very well, Dottore. What date should I start making appointments for?"
"A week maybe, two at the most. I'll let you know." He looked around the room anxiously. "Is my son in?"
"Yes, and your daughter too."
"Yes, I saw her. Maria, I'm expecting a call—the president of a company called Security Investigations. Put him through even if I'm with Signore Bersini, will you?"
"Yes, of course, Dottore. Did you want to speak to your son?"
"No, that's all right. He's probably in the operating room. I'll call him later."
He found the morning newspapers stacked neatly on his desk. He picked one up and flipped quickly to the last pages. The title of the column read: Rome: World Capital of Archaeology. The article detailed a conference on the origins of humanity sponsored by UNESCO. And there, in the list of attendees, was the name of the man the four old friends had been seeking for more than half a century.
How was it possible that he was suddenly here, in Rome? Where had he been? Had the world lost its memory? It was hard for the doctor to understand how this man would be allowed to take part in an international conference under the auspices of an organization such as UNESCO.
He saw his old friend and patient Sandro Bersini and made a superhuman effort to pay attention to Sandro's description of his symptoms. He assured Sandro that he was as healthy as a man half his age—which happened to be true—but for the first time in his life he had no qualms about seeming just the slightest bit unimpressed by his old friend's hypochondria, and he cut the consultation short with the excuse that other patients were waiting.
The ringing of the telephone startled him. A weight lifted from his chest when he heard Luca Marini, the president of Security Investigations, on the other line. The two men consulted briefly, and Marini assured Carlo that he would immediately place six of his best men at the conference site. But within minutes he was back on the line to inform the doctor that this might just be a case of mistaken identity: There was no Alfred Tannenberg at the conference. Just a young woman named Clara Tannenberg.
Carlo's heart plummeted. There had to be some mistake, unless . . . The man they were looking for was older than they were, so he had to have children, grandchildren. Or perhaps Mercedes was right. There were thousands of Tannenbergs around the world.
He felt a stab of disappointment and rage—they'd been outwitted, perhaps by time itself. He had actually believed that the monster had reappeared. But something inside told him not to quit just yet. He instructed Marini not to drop the surveillance of the conference—there had to be a connection. And they would go where they had to go to find him, no matter what it cost.
"Papa . . ."
Antonino had entered his office unnoticed, with a look of concern on his face. Carlo made an effort to pull himself together.
"How's everything, son—all right?"
"Yes, fine as always. Something on your mind? You were so absorbed you didn't even see me come in."
"You still haven't learned to knock—ust like when you were a boy!"From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Navarro. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.