The gaping wound in her side made every movement, every breath, more painful than the last. Crimson stained her bare feet, and the remnants of her screams echoed, but no lights beckoned from the shuttered buildings she passed. Not a single soul responded to her pleas for help. Rain beat a tattoo on rooftops and into puddles, drowning out all other sounds, so that only she and the feral-scented pursuer seemed to exist this night. Someplace behind her, his heavy boots slapped the cobblestones.
From a dark street, she slipped into an even darker alleyway and behind trash bins. The rain intensified, pounding the metal cans and pouring from the downspout by her feet. A red neon sign overhead made the discharge look like a river of blood.
She crouched down, wiped her face with her sleeve, and tried to still a shiver, but it wasn’t the bitter night that iced her bones. It was as if the cold were a living thing, seeping in through her thick, black tunic. “The Lord is my rock and salvation,” she whispered, her shallow breaths hanging in the rancid air. “In whom should I fear?”
Her whole body jerked at the sound of clinking glass and slurred voices rising above the rain’s steady drum. The silhouette of two young men swayed down the alleyway, no more than fifty meters away. Hoping to get their attention and beg for help, she slid out from behind the metal bins, stopped by something both sinister and familiar that passed through the darkness between them. She recoiled and then turned and ran, the wet fabric of her tunic clinging to her burning thighs.
Out of the night, church bells tolled, and the rain stopped. She spun toward the familiar sound. Storm clouds had scattered to reveal an open piazza at the end of the dark and narrow street. She gathered her tunic above swollen ankles and hurried toward it, pausing at the entrance to the open space. Across the piazza, a dim light filtered out through stained glass windows. Grazie, Dio! Thank you, God!
As she cowered in the darkness of the street, trying to control her ragged breathing, she looked left and right. She could sense him out there, lurking, somewhere. The bell tower’s shadow reached across the moonlit space, beckoning. She clenched her teeth, swallowed hard, and forced her body to move. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” she said, as she ran toward the shadow and church steps. “In whom shall I fear?”
At the top of the stairs, she looked back and saw no movement, heard no sound. Her arthritic hands fumbled with the door’s iron latch. As it gave way, thunder rumbled. Startled, she peered over her shoulder to see plumes of warm breath that wafted from a still black form lurking in the shadows. O Dio, O God. She quickly leaned into the heavy wood door. The rusty hinges gave way, and she stepped through, slid the bolt in place behind her, and slumped against the door, her breath coming in halting gasps.
The air inside, redolent of oils and incense, felt thick and damp. In the distance, a small rack of votive candles interrupted the shadows, giving the space an unearthly glow. Her wrinkled hands guided her along the wall toward the flickering light as her eyes struggled to adjust. Instead of the flat surface she expected, her fingers traveled over an odd jumble of smooth contours and rough edges.
The walls came into slow focus, and her heart skipped a beat. A desperate scream lodged in her throat, choking her. She tried desperately to sort shadows from reality as her gaze darted back and forth. It couldn’t… Those couldn’t be human remains. Skulls . . . bones . . . thousands of them lining the walls.
She spun away, knelt, and folded her hands in prayer. “Yea,” she began. Her throat was dry, but the words were soothing. She swallowed and tried again, her voice now barely above a whisper. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Where was she? What horror had she come upon? She could almost hear the wails of the souls trapped deep inside. She turned back toward the horrific vision, because she remembered it now. Santa Maria della Concezione, the storehouse for the bones of Capuchin friars dating back to the fifteenth century.
“Dio Mio.” My God.
She lowered her head and hurried toward the candlelight, her calloused fingers traveling along the worn rosary beads. The candle’s light revealed the base of a circular staircase. She climbed into the nave and, thanks to a flash of lightning, avoided knocking over a holy water font hidden in the darkness. Her fingers dipped instinctively. Closing her eyes, she made the sign of the cross, invoking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before stumbling into a pew to catch her breath.
In the stark silence of the church, a tiny noise coaxed her out of her trance. She fell to her knees between the pews, ignoring the rush of pain from the hard marble floor. Faint footsteps advanced. A man hummed, random notes that soon merged into a familiar melody, one whose lyrics she had known since her childhood.
“Amazing Grace,” he sang softly. “How sweet the sound.” Both footsteps and words grew louder. “That saved a wretch like me.” Then silence but for the steady throb of her heartbeat in her ears.
She peered over the top of the pew and spotted a confessional across the aisle. She crept forward, struggling to silence the creak in her bones and the sound of wet fabric swishing along the marble floor. The aisle was empty. She eased forward into the penitent’s side of the confessional booth, pulling the door behind her and sliding the privacy latch quietly in place.
As she stood, waiting for her heart to find its normal rhythm, a whisper sounded, as if someone exhaled, and muted words drifted in from the far side of the wall that separated penitent from priest. “Would you like to make your confession, Ana?”
She stumbled and fell, hitting her head against the back wall. The privacy door slid open from the priest’s side of the booth as she lay crumpled in the corner.
Her mouth tried to form words but all she could manage was chattering teeth.
“Your sins, Sister Anastasia,” came the familiar voice again. “Would you like to confess them?”
She pulled herself up, struggling against the shooting pain in her side, and knelt on the padded kneeler. She stared into the blackness behind the privacy screen, unable to control her tremors. “My . . . my sins?”
“Come now,” the oily voice replied. “Who would know them better than I?”
“I have sinned against God and against man.” She felt a single tear track a course down her cheek. “I have nothing to confess to you.”
The voice hesitated and spoke slowly. “Perhaps then you can forgive me for what I have done?”
“No,” she said without hesitation. She sucked in a deep breath, released it, and said, “Nor can I forgive you for what you are about to do.”
Without warning, the metal privacy screen between the two booths exploded outward. She tried to shout, struggling to unleash a scream that would wake the dead around her. But a powerful hand muffled her cry as it squeezed the life from her frail body. His eyes flared into a fiery red.
“I choose not to forgive you, woman. Salvation shall elude you this day.”
Her world slowly faded from gray to black as he whispered, “You shall pay for your transgressions.”
With each step, the line narrowed, the crowd pressed in, and the velvet rope edged closer. Elbows jabbed his back, his sides, his front. He gagged at the sour medley of cologne and sweat. Voices blurred until the background noise sounded like the scratch of a needle at the end of a record.
Why had he picked a Saturday to see the exhibit? As he pressed his fingers to his temples, Immanuel Lusum whispered a prayer under his breath and felt Grace slide her hand up his spine. At her touch, the muscles in his back eased slightly.
“Breathe,” she said. “Just breathe.”
He closed his eyes, focused on the movement of her fingers, and sucked in a deep breath even as he counted the beats. In, one. Out, two. In, three. Out, four.
“Where are you?” Grace asked.
“Good. Nice and slow.” Her soft voice helped him center. Her fingertips felt silky as they reached up to his neck. “How about now?”
Grace counted with him, “Eight . . . nine . . . ten,” and waited a few more beats before wrapping her arm around his waist and squeezing. “Feel better?”
Manny inhaled and exhaled once more for good measure and then opened his eyes to the bright lights of the museum lobby. As soon as Grace removed her arm, he started bouncing on the balls of his feet. Another deep breath, another touch from Grace, and he was able to still his body. Her breath blew on his cheek, and gooseflesh flared. She didn’t move away. His heart sped as she brushed her fingertips across his jaw. He should have shaved. “Did you find your happy place?” she asked.
“I’ll be happy when we get out of this lobby.”
“The line’s moving now.” She slowed, allowing distance between them and the man ahead. “We’ll be in the exhibit in less than five minutes. Read your book. It’ll take your mind off the crowd.”
Oh, right. His book.
“Another Shroud exposé?” she asked.
Manny pulled a large, leather-bound volume out of the crook of his elbow and stared at it as if for the first time. It looked much older than the elderly man selling tickets. It looked older than New York City for that matter.
“A Bible?” Grace said. “What’s up with that?”
Manny hushed her. “Not now.”
Grace arched an eyebrow.
As they approached the ticket booth, he reached for his wallet. “Let me get this.”
Grace leaned over to peer at his wallet, at her picture under plastic. He’d taken it in Battery Park over a year ago.
She turned away as if she’d been caught trespassing and shook her head. “Forget it,” she said. “This isn’t a date.”
“Seriously, I talked you into coming, so the least I can do is pay your way.” The very least. “You can buy me an expensive coffee. How’s that?” He leaned toward the clerk. “Two general admission tickets, please. And passes to the Vatican Art Exposition.”
Thanking the clerk, he steered Grace up the wide center staircase to the second level. Moving, focusing, he could deal with the close spaces and the masses of humanity. But it wasn’t until the crowd thinned at the top of the stairs that his heart began to find its normal rhythm. They followed an elderly couple down a wide corridor lined with abstract artwork.
“Wow.” Grace’s mouth gaped as she pulled off her coat to reveal the NYU sweatshirt he’d given her for her birthday three years ago. Her blue eyes swept a wall of paintings by Pollack, Picasso, and Dali. “These weren’t here the last time I brought my class. They’re so beautiful.” She pointed to a painting entitled Woman in an Armchair. “I should stick to painting houses.”
“Give me a break, Gracie. Your work is awesome. Besides, your students are crazy about you.”
“Yeah, she who can’t, teaches. Still, I’m way better than this guy.” She nodded at the Picasso. “At least I can stay inside the lines.”
“You kill me sometimes,” he said, suppressing a smile. “Come on.”
“Not yet.” Grace pulled him down a hallway that led to the telephones and restrooms. “Now tell. What’s with the Bible?”
“It was my dad’s,” he said in a low voice as he bent next to her ear. “He kept it, even in its damaged state. Anyway, I hollowed it out.”
“Shush.” He scanned the area.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him close. Speaking to his neck, she said, “What do you have in there?”
“Are you crazy? Why would you risk getting us tossed out of here? This exhibition comes to New York once every million years, and you risk it for a picture of an old rag, when you can buy one anywhere? And what was wrong with your phone’s camera—even though that’s not allowed either.”
“For some reason,” he said, trying to ignore the subtle scent of lilac wafting up at him, “the Vatican doesn’t allow the public to photograph the Shroud. Ever. I want to know why.
Squinting up at him, she said, “Couldn’t your dad get you access? With all the money he gives the Church, he must have connections.”
He sighed. He respected the man who’d raised him, perhaps even loved him. “I didn’t want any special treatment.”
“Okay, fine, so you risk this. Tell me why you need a photograph of your very own?”
He leaned against the wall so that he could watch in both directions. This probably wasn’t the best time for a lecture, but if he wanted her help, she’d need to understand. “An amateur photographer named Secondo Pia took the first photo of the Shroud of Turin in 1898. He—”
A young boy scampered into the alcove, turning only at a sharp command from his father. Manny waited until they were alone again and turned his gaze to Grace’s familiar blue eyes. They sparkled, even under this recessed lighting.
What had he been talking about? Oh, right.
“As the story goes,” he continued, “Pia was stunned when he saw the exposed plate in his darkroom. The negative gave the appearance of a positive image, like this one.” He pointed to the Shroud picture on a poster. “Although the Shroud had been around for hundreds of years, no one had seen this image prior to 1898. The positive image implies that the Shroud itself is effectively a negative of some kind.”
“How did the image get on the cloth?”
“That’s the hundred-thousand-dollar question. There are lots of theories, but I’m pursuing one I believe holds some serious water.”
“Later.” Manny stole another glance toward the hallway and back at Grace. “Suffice it to say, I’m convinced the Shroud is not a forgery.”
“Again, why the camera? I know you have a whole box of photos.”
“For one,” and he said this with a grin, “original photography would give me a bit of an edge with the committee.”
Grace sighed. “I still cannot believe you’re doing your doctoral thesis to prove that old piece of cloth is anything more than an old piece of cloth.”
Her words made him bristle. “If I had a million dollars, a particle accelerator, and a piece of the actual linen, I’m sure I could prove the Shroud of Turin was the very cloth they buried Christ in two thousand years ago.”
Grace flashed a quirky grin. “Yeah, and if my aunt grew a beard, she could be my uncle.”
Manny couldn’t help but smile back. “Any time somebody doesn’t want you to do something, for no good reason, it’s usually a good idea to find out why.”
“You’re a rebel.”
“No, Giordano Bruno was a rebel. I’m just a curious worker bee, wondering what Rome is up to.”
She raised her brows, but he stopped himself from diving into the history of the seventeenth century scientist and Dominican friar. “Later.”
He led her back into the gallery area and gestured toward a corridor on the right and an arched entryway, taking her hand as they passed the placard announcing The Shroud of Turin.
Again, there were too many people in too small a space. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to sneak a photo without someone noticing.”
“Not to mention the enormous security guard.” Grace gestured over his shoulder.
He turned to see the big man in blue wearing a shiny security badge. “Let’s take a closer look.” Concentrating ahead and not on the crowd, he edged into the room and squeezed past the curious to within ten feet of the famed artifact. The Shroud was mounted horizontally in a glass case on the wall and separated from the crowd by another velvet rope, this one thick and gold, supported by shiny gold stanchions.
The Shroud of Turin. Manny felt an instant communion with the infamous relic. Whether the feeling was real or self-induced from years of research, an itch that bordered on déjà vu caused him to tremble. He focused on the display pedestal and the words in front of him.
The Shroud of Turin, the most controversial and studied religious artifact in history, is believed by some to be the actual burial shroud of the Christian deity, Jesus of Nazareth. Although carbon dating places the origin of the linen cloth in the sixteenth century, many Christians believe the Shroud is much older, dating back to the first century.
Manny bristled. “Believed by some,” he muttered under his breath. “Sixteenth century. No mention of all the issues associated with the flawed carbon dating tests. So typical.”
“I guess the Met wrote their own display cards, eh?”
“Probably the Vatican. They’ve never actually vouched for its legitimacy. Maybe that’ll be different in a few years.” If he had anything to say about it, it would.
“I have no doubt, my obsessed and brilliant friend,” Grace said. “Now, what’s your plan?”
“Take your time. Except for the long hippie hair, you blend in well with your outfit.”
“How many times do I need to tell you, it’s not an outfit?” He adjusted the white Roman collar around his neck and smoothed wrinkles out of his starched black shirt.
“I know. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to your priest uniform.”
“It’s called a cassock, and I’m a seminarian, not a priest.”
“Oh, right, your priest trainee uniform.”
Even when she made fun of him, Grace was still a delight. He shook his head. That familiar rush washed over him. He pushed it away. Soon-to-be priests weren’t supposed to have those kinds of thoughts.
Stop it, Manny. Focus.
“Well,” Grace said, pulling him toward a corner, out of the way of other ears. “No matter what you’re wearing, it’s not going to help you with the gazillion people in the room and Goliath over there.”
“I’ve got an idea.”
She squinted up at him. “I don’t like the way you said that, Lusum.”
“I need you to do me a solid, Gracie.”
“Solid?” She folded her arms across her chest. “How solid?”
“There’s only one way I’m going to get this shot. If we can divert the crowd for a second.”
“Sure, no problem,” she said. “Would you like me to run naked through the world-famous Vatican Art Exposition or just set myself on fire?”
“Well . . .”
She straightened, not relaxing even when Manny wrapped his arm around her. “All right, I know the stink eye when I see it. No fire, no flesh. Trust me. It’ll be simple and easy.”
One of her brows hiked.
He leaned closer. “Look, all you have to do is move back by the entrance and fall down. Just lie there and pretend you fainted. Everybody will turn to look, and I’m sure the guard will come to your rescue. It’ll only take me a couple of seconds to whip out the camera and get a couple of shots. You can just say you were overheated. Simple as that. We might even get some free drinks out of the deal.”
“Simple as that?”
“I’ll owe you huge, Gracie. Name your price. How about I throw you a pizza party at a bowling alley?”
“It’s about time.” Grace flashed a smile that made him suck in another deep breath. “Okay, Mr. Bond, here’s my price,” she said. “I do this for you, and you owe me a favor, a big one. I get to use that favor whenever I want. Deal?”
Manny nodded. He would go to the ends of the earth for her anyway, deal or no deal.
“Deal.” He bit back a smile. “Ready?”
“I was born ready.”
He watched the sway of her hips as she threaded her way toward the entrance. She fit her hair into a ponytail as she walked, looking over her shoulder as she got in position. His King James was in his hand, ready to go. He made a show of looking at his wristwatch before glancing at the guard. And then he nodded toward her.
Grace immediately let out a gasp and fell to the floor. An elderly woman screamed. The entire crowd parted like the Red Sea, providing Manny with a front-row view of the show. Rather than following his simple script, she writhed around for a few seconds, let out a loud groan, and wilted into a mound.
Manny fought the urge to laugh. After the burly guard did a quick assessment, he grabbed a walkie-talkie from his belt and lumbered towards the commotion. Manny removed the camera, raised it to his eye, and snapped several photos before rushing to see how he could comfort the poor, helpless woman.