Read God's Lions: The Secret Chapel Online

Authors: John Lyman

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BOOK: God's Lions: The Secret Chapel
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Swerving to avoid one of the ever-present motor scooters, Father Morelli brought his car to an abrupt stop in front of the Alitalia Airlines baggage-claim area just in time to glimpse Leo emerging from the terminal. He knew his friend was not expecting him.

“Leo, over here.”

Leo turned to see Morelli jump from the car. “Anthony! What...?”

Morelli grinned as he grabbed Leo’s bag and threw it into the trunk. “I knew you were coming, so I decided to spare you a ride into town on the train.”

“Why am I so surprised? You always seem to know who’s coming and going at the Vatican.” Leo stopped to admire the bright red sports car with the top down. “Driving a new BMW now, eh, Anthony?”

“It’s a small luxury to make up for my years of celibacy, Leo. The way I look at it, this car is helping the Lord to keep me from breaking my vows. A man must have a little excitement in this mortal life.”

“I doubt the Lord needs any help from BMW to keep you from breaking any vows during your priestly midlife crisis. Not to mention the red color, Father, a color no doubt the cardinals would appreciate.”

“Can’t you let an old friend indulge himself just a little?” Morelli said, adopting a mock look of despair.

“Well, since I just flew first-class, I guess I can’t fault you for the car. I don’t see why the Vatican spent so much money on my ticket when I would have arrived at the same time flying coach. How did you know I was coming to Rome?”

“I’m the one who sent for you.”

Leo stopped on the sidewalk and faced his friend. The content of the file he had just read on the plane was still weighing heavily on his mind. “But I ... I received an urgent papal summons ordering me to report immediately to the Vatican. The documents contained material written by you, but they were in a sealed communication from the pope.”

“And did the communiqué also specifically advise you not to open the folder until you were on the plane and in the air?”

“Yes, but how did you...?”

“As I said, dear friend, I sent it. I knew I had to utilize the power of the Holy Father himself to get you here. I was afraid that, if you read my paper before you boarded the plane, it would arouse your curiosity, to say the least. I couldn’t risk having you call the Vatican.”

“I guess that explains the first-class ticket. What in God’s name is going on, Anthony?”

“We’ll talk more this evening, Leo. You must have patience, my friend. This is a homecoming worthy of fine Italian food and wine.”

Looking beyond the terminal at the darkening clouds of the late-April sky, Father Morelli noticed the misty signature of a spring rainstorm in the distance and began raising the top on the car.

“Looks like a storm coming,” Leo said.

Morelli winked. “Yes, indeed, Father. There is a storm coming.”

They squeezed into the small car parked behind an idling tour bus spewing diesel fumes into the air. Safe for now from the approaching storm, Morelli threw the sports car into gear, and the two priests sped off into the late-afternoon Roman traffic.

Chapter 3

Morelli stopped the car in front of the steps to the hotel. “I’ll call before I pick you up for dinner, Leo. Tell Arnolfo I said hello.”

“I’ll give him your regards,” Leo swung his legs out of the low sports car and retrieved his suitcase from the trunk before walking around to the driver’s side of the vehicle. “Take your time, Anthony. I need a little time to rest up from my trip.”

Morelli looked up at Leo and frowned. “You can rest later, after dinner. Tonight we celebrate your return to Rome. You have a lot to absorb over the next few days. We’ll go to
Civitas
and drink their marvelous
Brunello
.”

Leo heaved a sigh of resignation and watched the car speed off toward the main gate of the Vatican. He turned and mounted the ornate stairway to the hotel just as the warm, moisture-laden skies finally succumbed and a light rain began to fall.

The Hotel Amalfi was only steps away from the walls of Vatican City on the Via Germanico. Located in a nineteenth-century building, the intimate hotel had been tastefully remodeled since his last visit. Arnolfo Bignoti spotted Leo through the tall etched-glass panels of the dark wooden Victorian doors as he topped the stairs and entered the lobby. “Father Amodeo!
Buon giorno
!” The small-framed man rushed from behind the front desk to embrace Leo. “
Come sta
? How are you?”

Leo returned the embrace. “
Molto bene,
Arnolfo. How is your family?”

“Fine, fine, Father. How long will you be staying with us this time?”

“Probably just a few days. Is my usual room available?”

“Of course. Father Morelli called ahead. Give me your suitcase. Go right up and take a nice hot shower and get some rest. Here’s the key.”

“Thank you, Arnolfo. It’s been a long day, and I still have to go out to dinner with Father Morelli.”

“I am so happy to see you, Father Leo. It has been such a long time.”

“Yes, too long, my friend, too long.”

“You must come and have dinner with my family while you are here. We have much to tell you.”

Because of the hotel’s proximity to the Vatican, Arnolfo was a great source of local gossip and delighted in telling Leo funny and lurid stories during his stays.

Leo gave him a sly wink. “I’m looking forward to it.” Carrying the well-worn briefcase, he crossed the lobby and took the ancient wrought iron elevator to the third floor. The priest walked down the familiar red-carpeted hallway and used a large brass key to enter his room. He knew that, within minutes of his arrival, a bottle of red Tuscan wine would appear mysteriously outside the door. It was a tradition begun by Arnolfo when a young Father Leo began staying at the hotel in the seventies.

Leo loved the Amalfi. It was the only hotel he stayed at when visiting Rome. Run by the Bignoti family since 1939, Arnolfo and his wife had been the sole owners since his parents had passed away a decade earlier. The rooms were painted a pale yellow with blue and white carpeting. Below the high ceilings lined with ornate crown molding were tall, white-shuttered windows framed by thin white draperies. There was a large mahogany-colored armoire facing a king-sized bed, and the bathrooms, Leo noted, had been redone in a beautiful green marble, a luxurious touch for such a small boutique hotel. He heard the clink of glass outside his door and quickly opened it to find a silver tray on the floor of the hallway, holding the Tuscan wine and two glasses. No one was in sight.

Leo poured a small glass and walked out onto the covered balcony. It was late afternoon, and the rain continued to fall while the sky turned golden over the Eternal City. Across the way was the Vatican, a country unto itself. The towering dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, marked it as the very epicenter of power for the Catholic Church. Leo always smiled when he heard Saint Peter’s referred to as a cathedral, for contrary to popular belief it is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop. Instead, it is a papal basilica. The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome.

Caught up in the majesty of the setting, Leo slowly began to feel his body relax. He had been coming here for the past thirty years, yet he never failed to be completely awed by the beauty of this special place. He watched the pedestrians hurry by on the street below, wondering if they had become immune to the ancient grandeur and baroque art that surrounded them.

Father Leo looked anything but a priest. An amateur boxer in high school, his scarred left eyelid and blunted nose gave him the appearance of a longshoreman after too many alcohol-fueled, rowdy Saturday nights. Raised in a large Catholic family with five brothers and two sisters, Leo had worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania with his father and uncles before being accepted to Georgetown University. He was tall, six feet two inches, and at the age of fifty-eight, he still retained a muscular build and a full head of dark, gray-streaked hair worn long over the ears and in the back. In spite of his jagged looks, the fire behind the green eyes divulged the quick mind and academic enlightenment he had attained through years of study and teaching.

The phone rang on the bedside table. “Leo, are you ready?” It was the voice of Father Morelli.

“Give me an hour, Anthony.”

“OK, my friend, but no longer. I’m starving.” Leo hung up and smiled as he thought of his free-spirited friend speeding around Rome in his new sports car. He could afford it, of course. The man had a knack for the stock market, and although it was rumored that Father Morelli had accumulated a small fortune, Leo knew that most of his money went to charity. In addition to the BMW, the priest owned a beautiful seventeenth-century country estate south of Rome, where he planned to retire someday and save the church the expense of supporting him in his old age.

As the head of the Vatican’s department of archaeology, Morelli spent the majority of his time on official church business, so despite the fact that he owned a large house in the country, his main residence was a spartan apartment inside Vatican City. Since all priests within the Jesuit clan took vows of poverty, a Jesuit who drove an expensive car and possessed a magnificent house might have been looked upon with disapproving eyes, but since Morelli was also a source of so much money for the Church, these two luxuries were overlooked.

The product of an Italian American father and an Irish-born mother from the Bronx, most people thought Morelli looked more Irish than Italian. Dark red hair framed his brown eyes and ruddy cheeks, and a slight paunch gave substance to his medium frame. Leo was always amused by the surprised looks on the local’s faces when the Anglo-looking priest spoke Italian.

Leo showered and changed into a light-blue polo shirt and gray slacks. They would be going to a favorite restaurant this evening, catching up on old news and probably drinking a little too much. He didn’t want to wear “the uniform.”

Even though the wine and beauty of Rome had softened his mood, he felt a vague twinge of apprehension. The contents of Father Morelli’s file continued to fill his mind with disturbing images
. Why did this information, as frightening and controversial as it was, need to be kept from official prying eyes?
The priest looked down on the street below as Father Anthony’s bright red car pulled up to the hotel entrance. Leo would have his answers tonight. No more stalling from the good Father Morelli.

It was still drizzling outside when Leo bounded down the steps of the hotel and squeezed into the passenger seat. “Why didn’t you buy the large sedan?”

“Not as much fun. Anyway, I’m usually by myself, and this car is perfect for those narrow, twisting roads when I drive to my house in the country.” Father Morelli stepped on the gas and spun the tires as he left the hotel and raced through the narrow streets, missing parked cars by inches.

Leo tightened his seatbelt. “You should have been a Grand Prix driver.”

“I used to daydream about being a racecar driver when we were in seminary. I do some of my best praying when I drive this car to the Italian Grand Prix near Milan every year.”

“What a coincidence,” Leo said. “I also pray when you drive.”

The sight of an Italian police motorcycle in the rearview mirror prompted Morelli to drop his speed for the remainder of their drive to the center of the city.

Civitas was a small restaurant located across the river Tiber on a side street close to the Spanish Steps. The rain had ceased, so the two priests had decided to take a table outside, where they were finishing off their first course of
crostini di polenta con pure di fungi porcini e tarufo
, polenta squares with a puree of porcini and truffles. This would be followed by rabbit roasted with tomatoes, onions, and garlic and accompanied by a dark, rich
Morellino di Scansano
wine.

A warm breeze ruffled the white tablecloth as Leo looked across at Morelli and decided that his friend had stalled enough. “So, Anthony, care to let me in on what all this is about? The subject matter in that folder you sent me was a tad disturbing, especially coming from someone as pragmatic as you.

“Got your attention, didn’t it, Father.”

“That’s an understatement. A hidden code in the Bible ... a secret chapel connected to the end of days as prophesized in the Book of Revelation. Do you seriously believe any of this?”

“I’m now convinced of it, Leo.” Morelli passed the glass of wine beneath his nose, inhaling the aroma as he tried to think of where to begin with this fellow Jesuit he had known for most of his adult life. “Do you know of my work with Professor Lev Wasserman?”

Leo had to think for a moment. “The famous mathematician in Jerusalem?”

“Yes. He’s also one of the world’s leading experts in group theory, a field of mathematics that underlies quantum physics. A few years ago, he was reading about the Genius of Vilna, an eighteenth-century Jewish sage in Lithuania who predicted 9/11 to the day and spoke about the possibility of a code being embedded within the Torah. Lev became fascinated with the idea and learned that, throughout history, many Bible scholars had been trying to prove that there was a secret code in the Old Testament. He convinced a group of scientists at the university in Jerusalem that they could find it using modern code breaking methods, and to their surprise, they did. Their work has been replicated by the code breakers at the National Security Administration in the United States, using their most powerful computers, and Lev Wasserman’s paper on the subject has passed academic peer review and has been published in leading scientific journals.”

“He’s Jewish, isn’t he? I mean, how did a Catholic priest become involved in all of this? Why not a rabbi?”

“He was born Jewish but converted to Christianity several years ago, before his American wife died. Believe it or not, Lev’s also an archaeologist, and our paths have crossed many times over the years on various projects. He invited me to spend all of last summer with his team in Israel as their resident expert on biblical prophecy.”

“Biblical prophecy? Is that what all of this is about? You think this code in the Bible has the power to predict the future?”

BOOK: God's Lions: The Secret Chapel
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