“Ciao, my bambina.”
Shaking her head, she climbed into her car.
A week or more?
It seemed when the Vatican spoke, even the military listened. Then again, General Rende was a family friend, going back two generations. He and Uncle Vigor were as close as brothers. It wasn’t pure chance that Rachel had been brought to the general’s attention and recruited from the University of Rome. Her uncle had been watching over her since her father had died in a bus accident fifteen years before.
Under his tutelage, she had spent many summers exploring Rome’s museums, staying with the nuns of Saint Brigida, not far from the Gregorian University, better known as il Greg, where Uncle Vigor had studied and still taught. And while her uncle might have preferred she had entered the convent and followed in his footsteps, he had recognized she was too much of a hellion for such a pious profession and encouraged her to pursue her passion. He had also instilled in her one other gift during those long summers: the respect and love of history and art, where the greatest expressions of mankind were cemented in marble and granite, oil and canvas, glass and bronze.
And now it seemed her uncle was not done with her yet.
Slipping on a pair of blue-tinted Revo sunglasses, she pulled out onto Via Labicano and headed toward the massive Coliseum. Traffic congested around the landmark, but she crisscrossed through some backstreets, narrow and lined with crookedly parked vehicles. She zipped, slipping between the gears with the skill of a Grand Prix racer. She downshifted as she approached the entrance to a roundabout where five streets converged into a mad circle. Visitors considered Roman drivers ill-tempered, short of patience, and heavy of foot. Rachel found them sluggish.
She lunged between an overloaded flatbed and a boxy Mercedes G500 utility vehicle. Her Mini Cooper appeared to be no more than a sparrow flitting between two elephants. She flicked around the Mercedes, filled the tiny space in front of it, earned the blare of a car horn, but she was already gone. She whisked off the roundabout and onto the main thoroughfare that headed toward the Tiber River.
As she raced down the wide street, she kept an eye fixed to the flow of traffic on all sides. To move safely through Roman streets required not so much caution as it did strategic planning. As a result of such particular attention, Rachel noted her tail.
The black BMW sedan swung into position, five cars back.
Who was following her—and why?
FIFTEEN MINUTES later, Rachel pulled into the entrance of an underground parking garage just outside the walls of the Vatican. As she descended, she searched the street behind her. The black BMW had vanished shortly after she had crossed the Tiber River. There was still no sign of it.
“Thank you,” she said into her cell phone. “The car is gone.”
“Are you secure?” It was the warrant officer from her station house. She had called in the tail and kept the line open.
“It appears to be.”
“Do you want a patrol sent out?”
“No need. There are carabinieri on guard on the Square. I’ll be fine from here. Ciao.”
She felt no embarrassment for calling in the false alarm. She would earn no ridicule. The Carabinieri Corps fostered a certain level of healthy paranoia among its men and women.
She found a parking space, climbed out, and locked her car. Still, she kept her cell phone in hand. She would’ve preferred her 9mm.
At the top of the ramp, she stepped out of the car park and crossed toward St. Peter’s Square. Though she approached one of the architectural masterpieces of the world, she kept a watch on the nearby streets and alleys.
There continued to be no sign of the BMW.
The car’s occupants had probably just been tourists, surveying the city’s landmarks in air-conditioned luxury rather than on foot in the blaze of the midday heat. Summer was high season, and all visitors eventually headed to the Vatican. It was most likely the very reason she thought she was being followed. Was it not said that all roads lead to Rome?
Or at least in this case, all traffic.
Satisfied, she pocketed her cell phone and crossed St. Peter’s Square, heading toward the far side.
As usual, her eyes were drawn down the length of the piazza. Across the travertine square rose St. Peter’s Basilica, built over the tomb of the martyred saint. Its dome, designed by Michelangelo, was the highest point in all of Rome. To either side, Bernini’s double colonnade swept out in two wide arcs, framing the keyhole-shaped plaza between. According to Bernini, the colonnade was supposed to represent the arms of Saint Peter reaching out to embrace the faithful into the fold. Atop these arms, one hundred and forty stone saints perched and stared down upon the spectacle below.
And a spectacle it was.
What had once been Nero’s circus continued to be a circus.
All around, voices babbled in French, Arabic, Polish, Hebrew, Dutch, Chinese. Tour groups congregated in islands around guides; sightseers stood with arms around shoulders, wearing false grins as photographs were taken; a few pious stood in the sun, Bibles open in hands, heads bowed in prayers. A tiny cluster of Korean supplicants knelt on the stones, all dressed in yellow. Throughout the square, vendors worked the crowd, selling papal coins, scented rosaries, and blessed crucifixes.
She gratefully reached the far side of the square and approached one of the five entrances to the main complex. Porta Sant’Anna. The gate nearest to her destination.
She stepped to one of the Swiss Guards. As was traditional for this gate, he was dressed in a uniform of dark blue with a white collar, topped by a black beret. He took her name, checked her identification, and glanced up and down her slender frame as if disbelieving she was a Carabinieri lieutenant. Once satisfied, he perfunctorily directed her off to the side, to one of the Vigilanza, the Vatican Police, where a laminated pass was handed to her.
“Keep it with you at all times,” the policeman warned.
Armed with her pass, she followed the line of visitors through the gate and down Via del Pellegrino.
Most of the city-state was off-limits. The only public spaces were St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Gardens. The rest of the hundred acres were restricted without special permission.
But one section was truly forbidden territory to all but a few.
The Apostolic Palace, the home of the pope.
Rachel marched between the yellow-brick barracks of the Swiss Guard and the gray cliffs of St. Anne Church. Here was none of the majesty of the holiest of the holy states, just a crowded sidewalk and a congested line of cars, a gridlock inside Vatican City. Passing the papal printing office and post office, she crossed toward the entrance to the Apostolic Palace.