David Somerset glided through the bustling arrivals terminal with a cool, predatory detachment. He stopped for a moment, seeming to scan the contents of a small newsagent stand, his gaze flicking quickly across the tide of people. His search for pursuers was an unconscious reflex, as natural to him as breathing.
Rosario watched the Englishman from his position further back down the line of departing passengers. Part of him marvelled at the man’s icy discipline; another recoiled at the knowledge that such a man could walk unseen through the daylight. If you didn’t know the man, didn’t know what he was capable of, nor the speed at which he would do it … he must look just like any ordinary businessman.
And we’re on the side of good, he realised. The thought left a sickly, fearful taste at the back of Rosario’s throat.
As he approached the passport control, Rosario fished around inside his leather satchel for his papers, hoping he was doing a good impression of an awed tourist, as opposed to a frightened ex-priest way out of his depth. Thankfully, there was no repeat of the Swiss border here – the official scanned his European passport without much interest and waved him through. The tall Italian began picking his way towards the exit and the taxi rank where he would be meeting Somerset, along with Katya and Patrick.
As he stepped out of the air conditioned terminal, he almost collided with a large woman in a pale blue hijab who was swatting angrily at a group of street urchins. The children must have been barred from entry to the airport itself, but apparently felt that anything outside the building was fair game. Pale, dirty hands thrust in the direction of anyone that mistakenly caught their eye. They chattered loudly in Arabic, though Rosario caught an occasional broken English or French phrase amidst the cacophony. He hurried away, hoping that the woman’s outburst would keep them distracted from him, an obvious target for their energetic begging.
He dodged the bulk of them, spotting Katya as she climbed into a dusty grey Mercedes at the far end of the taxi rank. As he moved toward her, an emaciated boy stepped into his path, arms held up in front of him. A whining torrent of words tumbled from him, too fast for Rosario to follow.
“Excuse me,” he stuttered in Arabic, and made to side-step around the boy.
The child must have caught his foreign accent, because his tone changed in a flash.
“You good Christian, yes? You good Christian?” he jabbered eagerly.
Rosario paused for a fraction of a second, confused. The boy took this as an affirmation and reached into the folds of his rags to retrieve a crumpled flyer. The boy pushed it into Rosario’s hand.
“You good Christian. See cathedral,” the boy said nodding, flashing a jumble of crooked, yellow teeth.
The hands were held out once again and Rosario, sensing that he would be rid of the child once the forced transaction was completed. He reached into his pocket to find a coin and handed it over. The boy loped away towards fresher targets.
Bemused, Rosario scanned the flyer as he resumed his walk towards the taxi rank. It was advertising the cathedral of St. Louis, a nineteenth century sandstone church dedicated to King Louis IX of France. Turning the flyer, he wondered if it might be a pleasant distraction to attend Mass – it had been a long time since he fell in with Katya and her rag-tag group. In all that time he’d had little time for even private prayer. He wondered if that was why he’d been feeling so out of his depth recently.
Rosario’s eyes scanned down the page. He stopped abruptly, the flyer falling from his numbed fingers.
“Something the matter?” Somerset asked, appearing at his elbow, eyes roving the crowd for any sign of trouble.
Rosario stayed silent for a long time. “No,” he said, though his voice was hollow.
Somerset cocked his head and looked at him closely, then shrugged and climbed into the car.
The journey to the hotel was quiet and tense. They’d opted for something a similar to their Bagdad accomdation: anonymous and cheap. Their rooms were inexpensively furnished, but airy enough to keep the worst of the heat at bay. Patrick slung his worn backpack down and flopped over the arm of a sofa.
“What’s the plan now, then?” he asked, his lilting timbre cutting through the glum mood.
“I need someone to follow up on the SIM card we found in that unlucky bastard’s shoe,” Somerset suggested. “But our main priority is Bridger Investments. They’re why we’re here. I want that diary back.”
“You’ll be wanting me to work some of my magic, I assume,” the Irishman replied.
Somerset inclined his head in acknowledgment. “If you would be so kind.”
“Bridger won’t change their arrangements too much,” Katya interjected. “They’ll be somewhere expensive, probably central. I’ll do some legwork, see if any of the hotel staff are willing to talk.”
A silence followed, each of the others knew that she was making another excuse, albeit a well-reasoned one, to be out, working the bars. Drinking. It was a problem, but the alcohol hadn’t made her sloppy. Not yet.
There was nothing they could say. Not yet.
Katya broke the silence herself. “What about you two?” She nodded at Somerset and Rosario.
Rosario cleared his throat. “Mr Somerset, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind helping me with a small personal matter? It shouldn’t take long.”
Somerset gave Rosario a curious stare, and then shrugged. “Of course.”
They sat in a café opposite St. Louis Cathedral. The air was thick with the rich aroma of nargile, a sickly sweet pungency with a layer of bitter tobacco beneath. The room thrummed with the low chatter of Arabic, interspersed by several foreign accents. There were a few tables of locals, but most of the clientele were tourists, soaking up the atmosphere of this historic part of the city. Outside, the wide courtyard was filled with slowly ambling crowds of visitors. Yet more fleet-footed urchins darted between them, begging where they could, or reaching dirty fingers into unguarded pockets whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“So what’s the problem?” Somerset asked. “I assume you didn’t just want me to come sightseeing with you.”
Rosario didn’t answer immediately, but took a deep swallow of his sour black coffee, then produced a carefully folded flyer from his pocket. He passed it to Somerset.
Somerset glanced down at the flyer, then out across the courtyard. "St. Louis Cathedral … " he said, confused. “What about it?”
“Turn it over, read the name on the back.”
“Brother Bernard Taure,” Somerset said. “Should I know him?”
Rosario looked strangely relieved, as though Somerset’s reading the name made it real. “No,” he said. “You won’t have heard of him. Sorry, I’m not being very clear.”
“You really aren’t.”
“I- well, he …” Rosario made a frustrated noise in his throat. “You’re aware that I was employed by the Catholic Church, the Vatican itself?”
“Most people think that I was expelled because of something I did, or simply for being too proficient at the things I had to do. Well, that’s not the whole truth. What happened was that I found out about certain crimes committed by prominent members of the clergy – one in particular – and I did as any good Christian should and reported it.
“Apparently this was not something that was supposed to be given voice. Before that matter progressed any further, I was sent before a Prefect on a false charge. I was excommunicated within a week.”
Somerset frowned. “Let me guess, this particular gentleman … his name was Brother Bernard Taure, right?”
Rosario inclined his head in agreement. “It was, though it was Cardinal Bernard Taure back then. It seems his circumstances, like mine, have diminished somewhat.”
“What was the crime?” Somerset asked.
Rosario gave him a level stare. “The very worst kind. One which involves children.”
Somerset gave a disgusted snort. “Ah, one of those. Why didn’t you say? So, quick or messy?”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you want him to get rid of him? Personally, I’d suggest petrol and a blowtorch if you can stand the smell,” Somerset said stoically.
Rosario’s eyes widened in horror.
“Alright,” Somerset conceded, “it’ll put you off bacon sandwiches for a week or two. Chinese suicide more to your liking? Two rounds in the back of the skull, dump the body in a ditch?”
“No!” Rosario hissed, loudly enough to attract the attention of a nearby couple. Rosario lowered his voice and continued, "No, not without proof of his crimes. Without it, I will never clear my name; I will never be allowed to go back. To my home. To my church.
“I am just like all of you. I too have been cast out into ‘the cold’. And I will do whatever it takes to get back in.”
Somerset’s eyes narrowed and he spoke very softly, tilting his head closer to the priest so only he could hear.
“Don’t presume to know me, priest.” he said icily. “The person you have to look at every morning when you shave is you. That’s whose conscience you have to satisfy first and foremost. Everyone else can go to hell. Do I look like I give a damn what anyone in Whitehall thinks? I do what needs to be done and I sleep just fine at night.”
“No, it must be done properly, his crimes exposed.”
“And how’s that been working out? "
“Poorly,” Rosario admitted with a sigh.
“Well, that’s the understatement of the year. You know that this man committed his crimes, is still committing them?”
Rosario nodded emphatically.
“I have no proof though.”
“But you know the truth?”
“I’m no court of law; your word’s good enough for me. So again, quick? Or Messy?”
“You barely know me, but you would kill a man on my word?”
“You saved our lives in Vienna. What more do I need to know?”
“But there are procedures, processes, he must be brought before a tribunal. There must be safeguards, evidence. What if I’m wrong?” he stuttered.
Rosario thought hard for a moment.
“Like you said, you’re out in the cold. Out here, we do what others don’t have the guts to.”
“‘’Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’” the former priest cautioned.
“And God helps those that help themselves, sayeth my granny. Every day you leave it to others, that man thinks he can act with impunity. You’re as guilty as him and the people who covered up for him.”
Rosario cast his eyes to the ground.
“I get it, you’re were a priest, but you’re not one now . No-one’s telling you not to use your balls any more. It’s time to end it,” Somerset growled, “on your own terms.”
Feeling chastised, Rosario left Somerset alone in the café and headed across the courtyard towards the cathedral. The heat of the Mediterranean sun was diffused by the warm sea breeze wafting in from the west side of the courtyard, bringing a faint scent of salt and car exhausts.
He allowed himself to be swept along by the current of gabbling tourists, cautiously steering his course towards the wide, dark doorway at the front of the cathedral, yawning like the mouth of huge stone beast.
A slight tug on his pocket snapped him back to focus and he spun, clutching a thin arm tightly in his strong grip. “Let me go!” the child shrieked at him in Arabic. Around them, several tourists turned to gawp, some tutting in disapproval, others reaching to check their own valuables.
He released the boy, who limped rapidly away favouring his left leg. It was clearly an old injury, probably an untreated fracture, given the speed at which he was moving on it. Rosario felt a pang of regret, remembering his own childhood, much of which had been on the streets of Naples. But for the generosity of strangers, he might never have lived as long as the child he had just put to flight.
Rosario ran to catch up with the boy before he disappeared into the crowd. “Here, stop,” he called in Arabic. The boy paused warily, fearing recrimination.
“I’m sorry,” Rosario said. “It was a misunderstanding. Take this.” He pressed a 500 pound coin into the dirty hand. The boy muttered something and made to limp away again. “I’ll give you another if you’ll tell me something about this place – like a guide.” Rosario gave him a reassuring smile and indicated the cathedral.
The boy’s face paled further. He shook his headed in sudden fervour. “This bad place!” he said urgently.
That caught Rosario off guard. “I don’t understand. Can you explain?” he asked carefully.
“This bad place,” the boy repeated. “Do bad things. The priests.”
Rosario felt a heavy, cold feeling settle deep in his chest. He fought to keep his breathing calm. “The priests … in there?” He pointed up at the cathedral. Its sandy stones were stark against the Mediterranean sky.
“Not there. They take them to other church. St Joseph’s.”
“Who?” Rosario asked gently. “Who do they take?”
“Other children, some friends.” The boy shrugged.
“What happened to them?”
Another shrug. “Sometimes bodies found. In the river. Or sea.”
Rosario tried to question him further but the boy had clammed up, looking around nervously. Rosario pressed another coin into his hand and let him go, then walked back to the café to find Somerset.
“Find anything?” the agent asked, his voice composed once more.
“Yes, I have a lead. St. Joseph’s. It’s a about a mile away, according to the guidebook. Near the river.” Rosario related what the child had told him, while Somerset listened absently.
“Patrick called. He’s pulled a number from the SIM card.”
“Have you tried it yet?” Rosario asked.
“Later. Let’s check this church.”
The two men walked together in a slow amble past the front of the small church, casually observing who was coming and going from the rough stone structure. A few civilians, likely locals, passed inside, but otherwise the building nestled sleepily in the late afternoon sun.
“Let’s take a stroll down to the river,” Somerset suggested.
“What for?” Rosario questioned.
“If the bodies show up in the river, the priests probably aren’t dragging them up the street. Let’s see if there are any pipes or utility tunnels.”
They looked down into the foetid muck at the river’s edge. Clouds of black flies boiled around the reeking garbage at the water’s edge. The mouths of several wide outlet pipes stood in a line along the concrete bank, a few feet above the dirty water.
“That’ll be how they get the bodies out,” Somerset said brightly. “Now, are we going in for a look?”
“I’ll go in first,” Rosario said, a little too quickly. “I’ll blend in better.”
“Okay, I’ll give that number a call then.”
Rosario disappeared through the wooden doors to the church as Somerset made his way to an sun-bleached payphone booth. He dialled the number Patrick had provided. The handset crackled tinnily as the call transferred through a series of relays, accompanied by pops and hisses. Just as Somerset was about to give up, the call connected.
“Red,” a voice on the end said.
There was something familiar about the voice. It had an English accent for one thing. The voice repeated and Somerset’s mind nudged at the naggingly familiar cadence. Daniel Chambers! An old contact from MI6. No way was this a coincidence.
“This is Dawlish,” Somerset replied.
There was a very long pause at the end of the crackling line. Then finally the voice spoke again. “This is awkward,” Daniel said. “Meet me in the Kit Kat club. Tomorrow. 10 pm.” The line went dead.
The Kit Kat club was in Beirut. That likely meant Daniel Chambers was also in Beirut. Along with the rest of whatever MI6 outfit was operating here. Well, well.
Rosario emerged a few minutes later, having performed a slow circuit of the church. He told Somerset that all he had seen was a grey-haired monk talking softly to a middle-aged Arabic man. Once the conversation had concluded, the man had left. It was hardly a damning piece of evidence, he admitted.
Somerset seemed unphased. “We’ll watch the place tonight. We have an engagement tomorrow night. Might need to do some prep.”
They took positions in a couple of the ubiquitous local cafés as dusk turned to night. Rosario murmured quietly into his radio mic as a pair of monks walked into the church.
“Isn’t it a ittle late for evensong?” Somerset answered.
“Evensong is Anglican,” Rosario replied absently. “But yes, it’s a little late for a mass.”
“I’ve got three more coming in from my side. Look like civilians to me.”
“Okay, two more here. Monks again.”
“Quite a party,” Somerset said dryly. “We going in then?”
Rosario hesitated, then steeled himself. “We should take a look,” he agreed.
They met in the shadows of the centuries-old churchyard and made their way quickly past the main doors and found a low wooden door to the vestry. They carefully slid the door open and stepped inside. Rosario scanned around in the gloom and spotted a monk’s cassock hanging from a hook. He pulled it on and stepped towards the adjoining door to the body of the church. Faint candlelight glowed around its rough edges.
Rosario gently pulled the door open and slipped through. He was a patch of shadow slipping through to the inky dark beneath a coarse stone arch. Low voices echoed down the nave from a huddle of figures wreathed in the soft, flickering light.
He could only make out snippets of their conversation, but dared not risk going any closer. He heard the words “going downstairs” and a growl of agreement. Then a voice rang out clearer than the rest.
“… had news. There’s going to be a guest tomorrow. We have to prepare hospitality in the convent. Madame Eisler will be arriving late. She must be made welcome.”
The voices lowered again. Rosario gambled on their being distracted enough not to notice him as he clamped down on his pounding heart and stole through the darkness towards the group.
“So we must cancel our meeting tonight and make preparations. Good night, brothers.”
Rosario froze, mid step. They each began turning towards the main doors. Their path would take them right through Rosario if he remained where he was.
Another voice came then, deep and dry as a desert well. “May the power of the blood grow strong in your veins.”
The sentence was uttered so matter-of-factly, the voice so thoroughly cold and mirthless, that there was no hint of banality. Rosario barely had time to register it as the fraction of a second’s pause gave him time to tuck himself into a pitch dark recess. He held his breath as the group filed out past his hiding spot.
Somerset stepped through the vestry door almost as soon as the main door closed.
“I thought they’d never leave,” he said. “Come on.” He started poking his head into the various nooks and alcoves along the aisle.
“What are you looking for?” Rosario asked.
“Oh, you know. Secret passages. Trap doors.”
They found the trapdoor less than a minute later, underneath a rug, just behind the altar. It groaned in protest as they hauled it open. The underside was coated with a square of undulating foam soundproofing material. The heavy ache in Rosario’s chest increased. He was finding it hard to breathe, getting close to hyperventilating. Everything he’d feared about Bernard Taure was coming to pass, and that meant his corruption had run deep within the Vatican.
They climbed down a short wooden ladder and made their way into a wide, richly furnished room. Its size was its most striking feature – a score of people could have fit inside, with room to spare. Its other defining feature was the long, cedar table that lay in the centre, with matching chairs neatly tucked underneath.
The walls were clad with dark wooden panels. A chaise-longe lay in one corner. A neatly made, four-poster bed sat against one wall, adjacent to the passage through which they had entered while, diagonally opposite it, a wide mirror took up almost half of the wall. Beyond the table towered a huge mahogany drinks cabinet. The air in the room smelt faintly metallic, combined with a sickly tang.
Somerset made straight for the cabinet and swung open its doors. He pursed his lips approvingly at the wide selection of spirits on display. He pulled a tumbler down from a shelf and poured himself a glass of malt whisky from an expensive looking bottle.
The British agent swirled the amber liquor around his glass and nodded towards a sturdy door in the wall ahead of him. “Want to see where this rabbit hole ends, or have you had enough?”
Rosario felt numb. This was worse than he had dared to imagine. He’d known it would be bad, when he’d spoken to the boy outside the cathedral. But this – a whole room dedicated to their secret practises. It was insidious beyond anything he had encountered in the course of even his unlikely career. Did he want to see where it ended? His mind screamed no, but he knew he must. He had no choice. His eyes alighted on a set of double doors, at the opposite end of the room. He whispered a silent prayer and tried the worn handle. They were locked.
Somerset drained the glass while Rosario examined the lock. The ex-priest produced a thin, hooked piece of metal and pushed it into the lock. A couple of seconds later, the lock clicked and the doors swung open, revealing a long, brick-lined passageway beyond. Somerset nodded encouragingly.
Looking down the passage, they could see three more sets of doors. The first was immediately to the left. A larger set were just visible at the far end of the passage. About half down on the right was a barred metal door, with a rusty padlock hanging off the bolt, while opposite it stood a final doorway.
They tried the nearest one first. A short passage took them into a small room, situated directly behind where the mirror hung in the first room. They were not surprised to find that they could see through the mirror from this side, affording themselves a clear view across the large chamber, the table, the four-poster bed and the chaise longe.
What stood out more was the set of expensive recording equipment pointed through the one-way glass. Somerset began to poke around the equipment, procuring a compact flash card and slotting it into one of the cameras. He pressed various buttons and watched for a few seconds. Then he closed the device down and pocketed the card. He face was set in a grim expression.
“What was it?” Rosario asked.
“You don’t want to know. Trust me.”
“I have to.”
“Then watch it later. First, let’s finish up here.”
They made their way along the brick-lined passage until they reached the padlocked door on the right. Rosario fiddled with the lock again until it spring open with a grinding snap. The hinges shrieked as the door swung open and an acrid stench gusted out. A rough-hewn passage way dwindled away into darkness. They made their way along until they found the entrance to a broad pipe.
Somerset knelt at the entrance and ran his finger along the broad curve of the aperture. “Blood,” he said matter-of-factly. “Looks like something was dragged through here.”
Rosario swallowed hard. “This leads to the river, I suppose.”
“Most likely,” Somerset agreed.
“Then this might help us get back in. Tomorrow.”
“We’ve already got an appointment tomorrow,” Somerset observed carefully.
“Then we’re going to be a tight schedule,” Rosario answered. He pushed past Somerset and lowered himself into the pipe. There was just enough room inside to stand, with his head ducked. He moved down the pipe for a couple of hundred metres until he smelt the river air through the bars of a metal grating. He tore a strip from the stolen cassock and tied it to the outside of the grating. This way he would be able to identify the right pipe if they chose to come back that way.
They made way back to the brick-lined passage in silence. Somerset let the tall man take the lead as he made for the double doors at the end. They swung open to reveal a wide stone room, with a series of dark hollows in the floor. An old wooden ladder lay on the floor to one side. Somerset leaned over one of the holes, and looked into a deep pit. The walls were bare stone and it had a faint reek of excrement.
A small sound of movement came from a pit further up the room. Rosario moved towards it and looked down. “There’s someone down here!” he exclaimed. The hairs on the back of Somerset’s neck prickled, but he fought the feeling down. This wasn’t like Odessa, he reminded himself.
“It’s a child,” Rosario shouted. “Get the ladder!”
Somerset hauled the ladder over and they lowered it into the pit. The boy took some coaxing to persuade him to come out, but Rosario did eventually convince him that they were here to help.
When the boy spoke, his voice was a hoarse whisper. “They took the others away. Sometimes they came back. Sometimes they didn’t. I think I was next. I think …” He paused as his thin body was wracked with silent sobs. “I think I was next.”
“Don’t worry. We’re getting you out of here right now,” Rosario assured him.
“They’ll notice he’s gone,” Somerset pointed out quietly.
Rosario glared furiously at him, then his face slumped. “I know. But I can’t just leave him here. I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
Somerset shrugged with apparent nonchalance, but his face had a grim cast that Rosario had only seen once before – when they had stood together waiting for the four Zalozhniy to come to kill them.
“Before we go,” Somerset said. “Let’s find out what’s behind door number three.”
Rosario nodded. The child wept silently, but followed them. The door swung open to reveal what could only be described as a torture chamber.
Leather whips hung from one wall, along with lengths of chain. A worn bench with a series of straps lay in the centre. A piece of well-used machinery with a vaguely medicinal design stood to one side, its various pipes and tubes and were heavily stained with a red fluid. The air stank of sweat and musk and bile and suffering. They turned away in silence. Rosario quickly ushered the boy away from the grisly sight.
They emerged into the darkened street several minutes later, only after they’d removed as many traces of their presence in the basement as they could. Rosario took a deep draught of the cool night air and turned to the boy.
“We will let you go, if that is what you want?”
The boy nodded.
Rosario sighed. “Okay. Use this to get somewhere safe to sleep.” He pressed a handful of bills into the boy’s hand watching the lad’s eyes go wide at the amount. Rosario pulled his attention back. “Keep the money secret. And if you need help, here is a number you can contact me on.” He passed a piece of paper to the boy, praying the boy had the sense to use his new-found wealth wisely and not wind up with a knife in his gut.
They stood in awkward quiet as the youth vanished into the warren of buildings that stretched along the river bank to the sea. Somerset waited patiently for the Italian to break the silence. Finally, Rosario spoke. “Mr Somerset, I wonder if I could ask a further favour of you?”
“Of course,” the British agent replied.
“I need a gun.”