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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Morelli studied their surroundings. “It’s down here to the right.”

“Just what are we looking for, Anthony?” Leo asked.

“The tomb of a Swedish queen who converted to Catholicism over two hundred years ago. Lev called me from Israel this morning after we left the café and told me that he found her name encoded in the Bible. According to the code, the seal is beneath her tomb.”

Leo was incredulous. “How can we possibly look beneath her tomb?”

“These tombs are really stone caskets similar to Egyptian sarcophagi, but luckily for us, they are much smaller and lighter. We only need to move one away from the wall to see the floor underneath.”

Leo marveled at the sight of so many popes in their stone vaults lining the walls. “I never imagined this place was so extensive.”

“Even people who have worked in the Vatican their entire lives have never seen this area. This crypt is open only to cardinals and researchers with special permission. I happen to be a researcher with special permission, hence the key.”

“I wasn’t even going to ask you about the key. I’m just thankful we aren’t all going to jail.”

“Well, I’m not going to jail, but you and John don’t have special permission. I’ve heard the food in Italian jails is excellent though.”

Before Leo had a chance to respond or bolt for the door, they reached the tomb Father Morelli was looking for. John sprang into action and placed the flat end of the crowbar between the wall and the stone tomb. He then began to inch it away from the wall, and with the help of the other two, the tomb began to move, slowly revealing the floor beneath.

“Careful you don’t chip the marble, John,” Morelli warned. He was starting to feel some guilt at disturbing the final resting place of a queen.

“I’ll do my best, Father. This thing is heavier than it looks.”

After about twenty minutes of slow work, the heavy marble tomb was far enough away from the wall to observe the surface of the floor that had been covered for over two hundred years.

“No seal,” breathed John, wiping the sweat from his face.

All three men stared at the blank floor.

“Maybe the seal is on the bottom of the tomb, Anthony,” Leo ventured.

“It’s possible, but we can’t just turn this thing on its side.” Morelli had visions of the tomb breaking open and a two-hundred-year-old queen rolling out onto the floor.

Leo studied the tomb and floor around it. “Maybe we can get a block of wood or something to use as a pivot point and pry an edge up enough to shine a light underneath. That way we can visualize the bottom.”

John emptied the contents of his backpack on the floor and let out a sigh. “I forgot to bring a flashlight.”

Leo proudly withdrew the small flashlight he had purchased that morning at the sporting goods store.

Morelli looked surprised. “Well done, my friend. I forgot you once worked in a mine.”

John was grinning from ear to ear. “Now, where are you going to find a block of wood, MacGyver?”

Laughing out loud at the MacGyver remark, Leo looked around. “There are two other types of people who have permission to be down here: janitors and maintenance people.” Leo headed off down the line of tombs until he came to a small door. He turned the knob, and the unlocked door opened easily. It was a janitor’s closet. Inspecting the contents inside, he found a large push broom with a thick wooden head. He unscrewed it from the handle and returned to the tomb.

“This should work.”

Morelli winked at John. “Now you know why I like this man so much. He possesses a very practical mind.”

Using the wooden broom head as a pivot point, Anthony and John placed all their weight on the opposite end of the crowbar, slowly lifting the edge of the tomb six inches off the floor. Leo then placed his head on the floor and peered underneath with the flashlight.

“Do you see anything?” Morelli grunted.

“Not that I can tell. I’m pretty sure there’s no seal here.”

“Are you sure? Not even a mark? Something?”

“Nothing,” Leo replied. “The bottom is smooth polished marble, just like the top. There’s nothing here.”

Morelli and John strained as they lowered the tomb and sat on the floor. Their breathing was labored and their clothes were beginning to stick to them.

Now what?

Leo wiped the sweat from his brow. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to try Italian jailhouse cuisine. Let’s move this thing back against the wall and get out of here.”

Morelli barely hid his disappointment as the three men moved the tomb back into position against the wall. They were just starting for the exit when they heard voices echoing in the distance.

“Are you sure you saw them come down here?” It was the voice of Cardinal Lundahl.

“Yes, Your Eminence,” a different voice said.

The three men froze, not knowing what to do next.

“Quick,” Leo whispered. “Into the janitor’s closet.”

The group raced down the hall and crowded into the cramped space. They had just managed to squeeze the door closed when Cardinal Lundahl rounded the corner with Emilio in tow.

Lundahl sounded irritated. “There’s no one here.”

“Maybe they left when I went to call you, Eminence.”

“What do you think they were doing?”

“I don’t know, sir. Father Morelli has a key and official permission to enter this area, but the two with him do not.”

“I’ll talk to him later today and find out exactly what he’s up to. Leave a message for him at his residence and say that I would like to speak with him immediately.”

The cardinal and his assistant continued to walk throughout the area, checking each tomb for signs of tampering, while the trio in the closet held their breath, praying they would not be discovered. After several tense minutes, all was quiet. They waited another few minutes, then opened the door slightly and peaked out into the crypt. No one was there. They slowly moved toward the exit and stopped.

Leo looked around at the walls and up toward the ceiling. “How did they know we were down here, Anthony?”

“They probably have hidden security cameras,” John said.

“They do,” Morelli answered, “but even in the areas without cameras, they always seem to know what I’m doing at any moment of the day.” Morelli was growing impatient. “Anyway, I think they’ve gone. Open the door, and let’s go before security shows up.”

Passing through the medieval doorway into the grotto, the three made it to the end of the narrow hall where it joined the public area of the crypt. A hushed group of T-shirted and wide-eyed tourists wearing
de rigueur
baseball caps filed by on the grotto tour, seemingly oblivious to the three men standing in a darkened hall behind a security chain.

Morelli waited until the large group had passed and winked at Leo and John. “Care to join the tour?” The trio peered around the corner before they jumped across the chain and joined the camera-encrusted tourists, blending in with the crowd until they exited into the sunshine above.

As soon as they were clear of the church and walking through Vatican Square, they began to breathe a little easier.

Morelli pulled at his collar. “We have to get into that newly discovered area right away. I think the cardinal’s assistant knows we’re looking for something, and he’ll be watching our every move. We’ve got to find another way in. Today.”

“What’s the hurry, Anthony? Maybe this would be a good time to rattle some cages. Why not enlist Marcus’s help in getting Emilio off your back?”

“I don’t want the cardinal directly involved for reasons I’ll go into later.”

“Why? Don’t you think he would understand, especially if he knew about the code?”

“I’ve filed several requests with his office to do a complete archaeological excavation of the newly discovered area. My application was answered by having that wall constructed by Emilio over the entrance. The cardinal’s assistant is intentionally blocking my research for some reason. If we don’t find the seal soon, I fear we will never be allowed to go anywhere under the Basilica again.”

John was deep in thought as he ran his fingers through his beard. “Father, do you remember the drawing of a tunnel entrance we saw in the old plans of the first Christian church ... the one that once occupied the site of the present church?”

Morelli had to think for a moment. “You mean the ancient tunnel we thought might lead underground from the Vatican and end somewhere under the Forum?”

“Yes, that’s the one. After we looked at those plans, I drew a line on a map from the tunnel entrance to the Forum. It led right to the church of
San Giuseppe dei Falegnami
.”

“Saint Joseph of the Carpenters?” Leo asked.

“Yes,” Morelli said. “That’s the English translation. The church was built in the sixteenth century above Mamertine, the old Roman prison. According to Christian legend, that’s where Saint Peter was imprisoned.”

“What’s that church got to do with finding the seal?” Leo asked.

Morelli was starting to get excited. “I think I see what our young friend is getting to. The old prison was once a cistern with access to the city’s main sewer, the
Cloaca Maxima
. There had to be a tunnel there sometime in the past that ran under the Vatican at the same level of the ancient area that’s been sealed off from us. If the tunnel still exists, it should take us directly beneath the Basilica. The seal has to be located in that area.”

Bound together for the moment in a brotherhood of conspiracy and armed with the beginnings of a plan, they sprinted across the square to the BMW parked along a side street with its top down. Squeezing into the cockpit built for two, the three men raced across the city toward the ancient Roman prison.

Chapter 6

The overcrowded BMW came to a halt on the
Via Dei Fori Imperiali
, close to the Forum of Caesar. John and Leo hopped from the car in front of the church, while Morelli searched out a spot to park among the crowds and large tour buses that lined the streets around the most ancient part of the city.

Jogging back to the church from his distant parking space, Morelli was out of breath as he motioned for the other two to follow him. “My department got an e-mail the other day from Cardinal Lundahl’s office. Apparently, the region below the church surrounding the ruins of Mamertine Prison has been closed temporarily due to structural concerns. That means the tourist entrance in the back of the church that leads down to the area will also be closed, but there’s a hidden alcove behind the altar with an old circular stairway we can use to go below.”

They paused at the main doorway to the sixteenth -century church, where Morelli left a hefty donation in a steel box mounted to the wall next to a hollowed-out piece of carved stone brimming with holy water. The three entered with a group of worshipers and fell back, stopping next to a small wooden door that led behind the altar. They waited impatiently, knowing they had to choose the right moment to pass unobserved through the doorway.

Multicolored light from a row of stained glass windows above painted an elderly woman leading a slow-moving dog in their direction. She inched by the trio and smiled as the aging dog stopped to sniff John’s leg. This was the only church in Rome that welcomed animals, and people from all over the city brought their beloved pets here to be blessed. The woman and her dog rounded a pillar, and when it seemed like they were finally alone, the men opened the door and slipped into a dark hallway. Looking ahead in the faint light, they moved along through the tight space until they reached some circular metal stairs that descended below the church.

The three circled down into the darkness on the rusty iron stairs, passing a small, long-forgotten medieval Christian chapel that had been excavated between the church above and the old Roman prison below. Reaching the bottom, they stepped out into a dank-smelling, dimly-lit passageway constructed sometime around 640 BC by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome.

“Are we close to the area where Saint Peter was held, Father?” John asked.

Morelli pointed to the wall behind John. “It’s on the other side of that wall. There’s a small dungeon-like cell there that once held Saint Peter and possibly even Saint John. It was said that Peter received several angelic visitations while he was imprisoned in that cold stone room and that he baptized his guards from a spring that miraculously appeared one day.”

John breathed in the musty aroma. “It’s hard to believe actual miracles and angelic visions have occurred here, right where we’re standing now.” He touched the wall outside the cell and conjured images of what the scene inside must have been like then.

Morelli took out a map and looked up and down the empty passageway. “Speaking of miracles, it will be a miracle if we can find that tunnel. It’s probably been sealed off somewhere behind the thick outside wall for hundreds of years, if not longer.”

Many of Rome’s buildings had ancient ruins for basements. Restaurants and private homes used them for wine cellars, and many still had original Roman frescos covering the walls. The whole city was honeycombed beneath with interconnecting tunnels, most of which had been blocked off for security reasons.

A voice punctuated the darkness behind them. “Can I help you, Fathers?”

The three men froze in place before slowly turning to face a weathered-looking man holding a broom. The man had a kind face with wide eyes and a perpetual smile.

“Yes,” Leo said. “We’re looking for a tunnel that runs west from here to the Vatican.”

The other two turned and stared at Leo with their mouths gaping open. What was he thinking? He had just given away their plan, and it was only a matter of time before they would be escorted out of the building by security or, worse, arrested. Italian jailhouse cuisine was one step closer to becoming a reality.

“Oh, the tunnel,” the man said. “Come with me, Fathers.”

Morelli leaned over and whispered in Leo’s ear as they followed behind. “You’re either crazy, lucky, or brilliant. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

“Neither,” Leo whispered back. “I don’t think that janitor is part of some grand conspiracy to keep us from discovering an ancient chapel. He’s just a working class man who enjoys helping people, especially priests. Anyway, at this point, what have we got to lose?”

BOOK: God's Lions: The Secret Chapel
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