The Cardinal’s Preoccupation
Cardinal Merillini stood at the entrance to Bernini’s Colonnade with Primo at his side.
“Your Excellency.” Felix bowed, kissing the Cardinal’s ring.
“Liebermann has a contact in Prague,” the Cardinal began. His voice was slow and deliberate, as if he had just awakened from a long sleep. “This man wants no help from our German friend – only as a point man on the inside. Distrusts Germans. But he claims he can deliver the woman by the end of the month.” He waved Primo ahead and the two men began their walk through the Colonnade. “It’s a man in Czech intelligence – a comer, not some flak in charge of tampering with the mail.”
“What would a man like that want with us?” Felix asked.
“He wants to be paid, of course.”
It was unlike the Cardinal to be so direct about their extra-vocational endeavors. The Cardinal was by nature an eloquent man who preferred the realm of ideas to the details of their realization. “She has a son, you know,” the Cardinal said. “The husband – this man Melan – was executed in 1952. He was one of the defendants in the Slanský show trials.” The Cardinal cleared his throat, but his voice remained rough, like a mortar and pestle grinding seed. “Pitiful turn of events,” he continued. “Fourteen men. All of them Jewish, all of them innocent. Forced to confess to concocted acts of treason – and for what? For being intellectuals instead of blunt instruments.”
Felix had never met Antonin Melan personally, but had heard he was a decent fellow, an ideologue who believed communism would save the world after the ravages of the Second World War. His only crime had been to trust the wrong people. And to be a true believer instead of a mere apparatchik. Any records of Melan’s immediate family – his wife, Magdalena, and the son, Ales, had been hidden or destroyed by the Soviets. For years Felix had searched, but was unable to find a trace of any Melan – either alive or dead. It wasn’t as if Antonin Melan’s family had disappeared, but rather had never existed – a not uncommon fate for those refusing to denounce a disgraced relative.
Until last month.
Magdalena Melan’s name had resurfaced in Czechoslovakia as a foreign agent – a ludicrous charge if there ever was one. She was now, officially, an Enemy of the State rather than just a nuisance who needed to quietly go away.
“Does he have a name?” Felix asked.
“This contact – the man from Czech intelligence.”
The Cardinal tipped his chin up, his lips forming a short, puckered line. “You know better than to ask.” The Cardinal reached into his vestment and retrieved a large folder from under his arm. He handed it to Felix, contemplating the Czech Jesuit, who sifted through its contents. Cardinal Merillini had hoped to dissuade Felix from any involvement beyond the strategic on this assignment, but forbidding him to go would’ve only invited disobedience. And once a priest flagrantly disobeyed an order, it wasn’t long before he disavowed his robe.
“Thank you.” Felix bowed his head, and the Cardinal led the way into an early Renaissance building, its interior decked in blue-veined marble. The Cardinal’s office was perched on the third floor corner, one of many rooms that comprised his suite of apartments.
For Felix, visiting the Cardinal’s apartments was a bit like coming home. The artists whose work his father had so admired from a distance – Caravaggio, Pisanello, Daret – were mounted in heavy gold frames. Michelangelo had painted images of the apostles on the wall alongside the banister, one of the few artifacts left unmolested during a seventeenth-century renovation.
Felix’s first glimpse of those same apostles hadn’t been in the books of his father’s study or on his initial visit to the Cardinal’s office some years before, however. It had been in his mind’s eye when he was little more than a child – a reverie that he’d tried to convince himself was the result of an overactive imagination. Felix was a boy of nine and skating alone on a pond in the Blansko forest, when a still, mental image of Simon the Zealot, disciple of Jesus, avenging priest of the temple, appeared before him. Felix mistook him for a neighbor at first and began skating towards the figure when St. Bartholomew emerged from the snow. As Simon whispered into Bartholomew’s ear, they faded away into a jumble of tree roots.
Back then, Felix had explained away every prescient dream and strange, wakeful image, the way a dweller in an old house might justify the creak of footsteps when he knew no one else was home.
“God’s delays are not God’s denials,” the Cardinal rasped.
Felix looked up. His Excellency wasn’t referring to Michelangelo or the apostles, but had turned to face a painting that hung high behind his desk. It was an eighteenth century depiction of Lady Polyxena of Lobkowicz presenting the Infant of Prague sculpture to the Carmelites. A new addition to the Cardinal’s collection, it had been loaned to him indefinitely by the Bishop of Verona.
The chandelier above them flickered, but the Cardinal ignored it. He placed his spectacles on his nose and squinted through the thick glass, studying the Infant’s rosebud lips. He bit down, exposing his teeth as he noticed an irregular brushstroke in the painting – an unforgivable error made by a careless restorer. “Hmm,” he lamented. His thumb and index finger rode the links on a platinum chain strung around his neck, until they landed on a tiny replica of the Infant of Prague. The Cardinal picked up the holy relic, kissed it and made the sign of the cross before letting it dangle over his heart again.
The lights flickered once more, and this time they went out. A moment later, Felix heard the handle of the Cardinal’s office door jiggle as his secretary, Francesco, entered. The young priest carried with him an arabesque lantern, the oil’s acrid aroma saturating the room.
“Buona sera, Your Excellency,” the Cardinal’s secretary bid. His engorged eyeballs glowed in the dim lighting. He explained that an electrical shortage had been causing problems for hours. It appeared to stem from the Cardinal’s apartments – most likely in the western corner – and he begged permission to enter his superior’s private quarters. The Cardinal agreed.
“It smells strangely of …it’s sweet, isn’t it?” Felix observed, as they padded over the silk carpets in the Cardinal’s living room. A low mist of smoke, barely visible in the glimmer of the lone oil lamp, hovered amidst the Cardinal’s Baroque furniture. Francesco led the way into the Cardinal’s bath, illuminating a carved oval sink resembling a birdbath – all gold and trimmed in gemstones. A bidet, shrouded by red velvet curtains, hugged the southern-most wall. They could hear a faint drip.
“I bathed in the Sistine apartments today,” the Cardinal said. “Not here.”
Francesco opened the stained glass entry surrounding the bathtub. “Mercy,” the young priest gasped.
Inside the glazed marble tub – his body splayed and rigid and his mouth open wide like a snake hole – lay Father Duch, an accountant to the Vienna Diocese. The towel warmer, still spitting an occasional spark, was partly submerged in the bathwater and discreetly covered the Father’s genitals.
Thanks so much for reading, my Cold friends. The Bone Church will be available on Amazon from April 15th (Print on Demand and ebook). In the meantime, please enter my giveaway on Goodreads for a chance to win a free, signed copy.