First two chapters as teaser
His hands shook and were clammy as he gripped the haft of the razor-sharp sword, gritted his teeth and made a faltering cut into the side of the victim’s neck. Bright red blood spurted at him, shocking his torso and head backward. He felt the life of the victim draining in the fading warmth of the blood dripping from his hands.
The leader screamed at him. ‘Go on. Cut his head off.’
‘Cut it off!’
Pulling back the head of the convulsing body and squirming, he hacked through the neck and then thrust the head violently away from him, splattering blood over his white, baggy shalwarkameez. The tethered lamb’s body slumped to the ground, legs kicking out the last traces of life. Hasan groaned and pressed his clenched fist hard against his stomach.
‘You’ve killed an enemy. Now you’re supposed to hold up the head in triumph.’
‘Never mind. Well done. See, you don’t need training to cut off a head.’ With a cynical smile and the casual voice of experience, he said, ‘The real thing is easier.’ He looked out toward the rocky desert and his eyes narrowed to serious reflection. ‘This is just the beginning.’
Dressed only in his underpants, Hasan lay on his bed peering into the darkness of his small hotel room recalling that gruesome moment at the training camp under the mountains of Pakistan’s northwest frontier ten months ago. The training was hard: assault rifle, rocket grenades, hand grenades, dagger, hand-to-hand combat, personnel bombs and more. He’d done it all, even beheaded a living being.
That was training but today would be the real thing. Today he will demonstrate his courage and faith and sacrifice his young life – with a bomb. He had no fear. Death was the doorway to Paradise and Muhammad will take him swiftly to that wonderful place. Resurrected, he will meet his numberless brother fighters who had died courageously before him. Hasan’s mind swirled as he re-created images of that place of spiritual and physical pleasures he had first seen as a young boy in his mother’s captivating, melodious voice.
Now a six-foot, twenty-two year old fully trained, strong warrior in Islam’s righteous jihad, he will kill the enemies of Islam.
‘You’ll feel no pain,’ his imam had assured him. ‘And you will have everlasting life.’
That thrilling prospect welled up excitement in him. A surge of adrenaline strummed his nerve ends and rushed exhilaration through his body.
This was his day of destiny and not a whisper of doubt entered his mind.
Italy was the land of his birth but he hated it. He hated its people too because they had supported Satan in his war against Islam. At eleven o’clock, he will pay them back for their great sin. His friends will then know and cheer and call him a shahid among shuhada, a brave martyr among martyrs, for his people’s sake. And his father will know and be proud.
The hotel room was unlit, unventilated, and oppressively warm. He smoothed back his long, raven-black hair and went to the open window. There he breathed deeply to extract freshness from the sultry Rome air. His gaze swept across the rooftops to the massive dome of St Peter’s Basilica, lifted into intricate relief against the dark sky by lights around its base. Behind St Peter’s, the moonless night was giving way to a soft, brighter hue. A scorching hot day of death was drawing itself inexorably over the Eternal City.
A sudden, intense loud drumming pulled his gaze upward and his body stiffened as two small helicopters with flashing lights sped overhead like angry fireflies making haste toward the brightening horizon. In the street below, the headlights of a cruising police car reflected off parked cars crammed into the narrow street.
He stared at his bedside clock. When its lighted digits tripped over to 05:00, he pressed a button on his cell phone and listened for a curt response. One of his three bomber friends in another hotel whispered, ‘Time to go’.
His heart started to race. ‘With you in five minutes.’
He pulled on his jeans, blue denim shirt and trainers. The rest of his belongings were strewn about the room but they could stay where they were. He had no further need of them. He laid a neat fan of euro notes on his bed for the hotel bill. Forty-five euros for one night in a dingy single room with bathroom facilities in the corridor was not worth it but he would not complain.
He looped the shoulder strap of his deadly holdall over his head and adjusted the bag so the detonator button was to hand. Like a resolute soldier reporting for his last mission, he stood erect with shoulders pulled back proudly. He blew out the nervousness starting to gather in his chest and set off to join his brothers in faith.
The dim glow of daybreak filled the unlit reception area as he crept through to the main entrance. He pressed a switch at the side, pushed the glass door open to the buzz and click of the release mechanism and strode out into the relative cool of the morning air. Once outside, he could see his friends waiting just three houses away.
A car turned into the road and swept headlight beams across his back. Not really knowing how, he could tell it was the police car he had seen from his window. The officer in the front passenger seat, whom Hasan at first glance took to be a boy in uniform, stared glumly at him as the car drove slowly by. Farther along the road it stopped. Hasan slowed his step. The officer turned back and looked at him but then the car moved on and disappeared round the next corner. He stared at the corner for moments, heart pounding and cold sweat breaking on his forehead. Then he realized other early risers were on the street and he was just one of them.
Occasionally glancing apprehensively down the street to the corner, he greeted his fellow bombers with handshakes and embraces.
‘We had fleas in our rooms,’ one of them said.
‘I had an elephant in mine,’ said Hasan.
They all laughed. None of them mentioned the mission but by listening to their edgy small talk exchanges you could have detected the excitement of anticipation.
It was 9:30 on Pentecost Sunday. The Meteo presenter promised it would be a scorching June day.
Pope Boniface X crossed himself and uttered ‘Amen’, ending the service for the Christians and other poor souls slaughtered by the early Romans in the Colosseum behind him. The colourful masses surrounding him in the Piazza del Colosseo mumbled an echo.
‘God protect us from evil,’ said Sebastiani irreverently. Colonello Sebastiani stood alone by his Carabinieri Alfa Romeo in the cooling shadow of the skeletal Colosseum.
As Rome’s anti-terrorism chief, his job was protecting Rome and its people from tyranny and he worked at it doggedly.
‘Okay, let’s get this over and done with.’ These words inexplicably raised images of home and retirement. Since his divorce, thoughts of retirement presented a lonely and miserable prospect, but at his age, fifty-five, it was still years away and for that he was grateful. The demands of anti-terror work and his dedication to it had collapsed his marriage. He wondered where Linda was today and guessed she was in some European capital playing her violin. Wherever she was, she was gone from him. A citation at his last assessment said it all: A fine leader totally dedicated to protecting Rome and Italy from the evil of terrorism. It might have added: while totally dedicated to neglecting his family.
His only son, Roberto, was his only attachment to family and, deep in studies at Padua University, he rarely found time to make contact.
But at this moment at the Colosseum, all was submerged below an extraordinary foreboding. More than at any time in his career he believed Rome would suffer its first terrorist strike and doubted his measures could prevent it.
He followed the news daily and it scared him. Italy’s open support of American middle-eastern policies had unnecessarily stirred up antipathy in Islamic countries. And, as if purposely to fan the flames of discord, the imbecilic prime minister had broadcast a tactless rant about Islam and the superiority of Western culture. This not only caused offence throughout the world but also gave rise to a direct threat on the Internet. It was a red-alert certainty. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets to celebrate the papal spectacle. In the inflamed mind of a jihadist, this was a ripe opportunity to strike at Italy and the heart of Christendom in a single blow. It was just a question of how many would die.
Constant contact with his unit leaders was important in this situation. Keep them on their toes. Scanning his heavily armed troops placed around the Colosseum and in its higher arches, he barked into his walkie-talkie, ‘Topman to all unit heads. Stage 1 ending.’
Sebastiani smiled ironically and shook his head in disbelief as fawning clerical assistants moved to help the aged Pope Boniface from his dais. Their practiced, genteel hand movements reached superficially for the Holy Father but made no contact with him.
‘Topman here. All units. Stage 1 complete. No incidents,’ said Sebastiani.
No bombs or guns had materialized out of the blue to cast death all around, as he’d anticipated – but there was still time.
‘Topman to unit leaders. Activate Stage 2. Pope returning to Vatican.’ Against the noise of the suddenly applauding onlookers, he shouted, ‘Pope moving to Vatican. Stand by.’ And in case any of his listeners had any doubts, ‘Get this man there alive. Do you hear me?’
The final stretch, the route leading the papal procession to that magnificence of High Renaissance architecture, St Peter’s Basilica, for the pope’s inaugural mass, was just two kilometres or so but crowded and difficult to protect.
As the papal procession began to assemble itself, he drove off to check the disposition of emergency service vehicles, crowd barriers and his troops along the procession route. At strategic points he stopped to confer with unit leaders, at times leaping out of his car to bark orders into his walkie-talkie to others involved all over the city, his sharpshooters in high places and those randomly checking people’s bags and clothes with electronic security devices. In all a five-thousand strong security force was active over the whole of Rome’s center.
Pleasant morning sunshine, not yet too hot, bathed the excited masses into good humour. Believers and tourists of all colors and nationalities strained and jostled each other for the best positions along the route, from the Colosseum all the way to St Peter’s Basilica. Frantically waving national flags blended in colourful agitation, like a vast multitude of multi-coloured flowers in a lively, swirling wind. None of those cheering shared the turbulence filling his mind.
Nothing was spared in this celebration of the new Pope whose entourage reflected the height of extravagant papal grandeur. Incongruous amid the historical pageantry, a vanguard of six police motorcyclists, wobbly at the very slow pace, led the procession away from the Piazza del Colosseo and into the Via dei Fori Imperiali, that broad road Mussolini pretentiously commanded should run directly through the ancient imperial forums, those seats of absolute power of the Roman emperors Trajan, Augustus and Nerva.
A corpulent, proud bishop in an ostentatiously decorated green chasuble hoisted the Papal Crucifix aloft with the flair of a military band leader raising his mace and set off at the head of Pope Boniface’s colourful procession. More than a hundred brilliantly clad cardinals, thirty or so seemingly disinterested attendant boys in surplices carrying ornate crucifixes and gilded, bejewelled censers, and a large sauntering mix of lesser ecclesiastics, followed.
In the midst of all this, Pope Boniface himself, in glistening gold and white pontificals and secure in his white pope mobile, appeared to float majestically above all around him, the grand pontiff in all his aloofness. A phalanx of soldiers in traditional hussar uniforms – bright red tunics and white breeches, feathered helmets, thigh-high black riding boots, bayoneted rifles angled across shoulders – marched stiffly on either side.
Immediately following the Pope, the sedia gestatoria, the scarlet silk-covered, gemstone-embellished, portable throne was carried empty on the shoulders of eight young priests in scarlet robes. The white ostrich feathers of the traditional fans carried to the sides of the throne bounced lightly like foam in time with the movement of their bearers.
And at the rear, yet more slowly meandering police motorcycles.
Sebastiani got out of his car at the Monumento Vittorio Emanuele, Rome’s much maligned wedding cake edifice. Native Romans hated this building, not only because its angular architecture clashed with the circles and arcs of most of Rome’s Renaissance style, but also because they never forgot it replaced a lovely hill and the community that once lived upon it. But he liked it. He didn’t know why he liked it; he knew only that he did.
Sebastiani, the still-fit badminton devotee, hurried nimbly up steps to a high terrace, a military watch point at the side of the building, and looked back at the colourful column weaving its way slowly toward him. The surge of noisy emotion pouring out from the crowds heaved a thrill in his chest. A cacophony of loud cheering, whistling and applauding followed the colourful pageant as it snaked its route. His racing mind was irritated by the slow progress of the parade.
His walkie-talkie communicator buzzed. ‘Topman.’
‘Deputy here, sir. Bad news.’
‘What is it, Ferri?’
‘Milan intelligence. Minutes ago. Islamic extremists, Italian nationals. Left Milan yesterday to bomb Rome. Duck-dived surveillance.’
‘Merda. That’s all I need. How many?’
‘Four males. Could be here.’
‘Still coming through.’
Sebastiani compressed his lips and drew air noisily through his nostrils. ‘With you in two minutes.’
He paused to look back again at the procession and grimaced as it moved in front of the stand seating Italian politicians and other prominenti in the Via dei Fori Imperiali. They stood to applaud the pope. Sebastiani stared transfixed and rigid. But the explosion he imagined would blast them all down into the much-pillaged ruin of the Foro Augusto never came.
‘What the bloody hell can I do?’ If some mad beings were determined to attack Rome today he saw no way of stopping them, even with five thousand troopers on the streets.
Before the procession reached him, Sebastiani drove on to Largo Tassoni to meet up with his number two, Maggiore Luca Ferri.
Largo Tassoni, a popular, cozy triangle lined with wisteria-covered hotels, was filled with newsstands, street cafés and the pervasive, delicious smells of coffee and Italy’s finest pizzas. It was also choc-a-bloc with a noisy, excited horde.
Ferri was a professional military man of – according to Sebastiani – the highest quality and therefore his own choice as his deputy. The young Ferri was always in touch and commanding, and arrogant with it. But as Sebastiani approached him, a dark frown framed his finely defined face and sparkling azure eyes. ‘Buongiorno, Colonel.’
‘Right, Ferri. Milan bombers. What’s happening?’
The chill breeze lurking in the shadows of Largo Tassoni was not enough to cool Sebastiani’s agitation. The immediate threat of an explosion obliterated from his senses the noisy excitement of the swarms of people overflowing the pavements of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
‘I’ve got their IDs,’ said Ferri.
‘All teams alerted.’
‘We won’t find them in this lot, sir.’
Resigned to that fact, Sebastiani shook his head. ‘If they are here, why haven’t they detonated already?’ He bit on his lower lip as he checked his watch. ‘Ten-thirty-five. I’ll be glad when this is over.’
‘Half an hour should do it, sir. I think it’ll be okay.’
‘Ugh? Then I suppose I can go home.’ Sebastiani slowly shook his head. ‘You surprise me. Do another check. All units. Make sure they’ve got their minds on the job. Put out a general. All travelling bags checked thoroughly. I want the pope and everyone else alive at the end of this. First, get that sorted out,’ he said, pointing to two young carabinieri gassing with a pair of state police as though nothing could be more important than just being there and looking cool.
As Ferri approached the conversation, the two carabinieri shifted awkwardly and drifted off to some activity in the crowd.
The two state police officers stayed determinedly where they were, one with a foot resting on the top of the front wheel of his light blue Polizia car doing some form of leg exercise and the other slouched back against its door with his eyes shut, sunning his face, his wrap-round sunglasses set rakishly on top of his black, wavy hair.
Ferri returned three minutes later. ‘Fine sir. All units confirmed okay.’
Sebastiani read his latest updates. Italy’s internal security agency confirmed the Milan bombers were still at large. ‘Okay, half an hour. Let’s see if we can make it.’
A heavy, foul odour reminded Sebastiani the scum-laden Tiber was just a hundred meters away. A close friend with an anxious mind once warned him, ‘If you fall into the river you’ve got one minute. If you don’t clean off the bugs and acids in that time they’ll kill you.’
Sebastiani and Ferri shouldered their way through the noisy, bustling crowd and onto the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Together they walked without speaking along the barriers and scanned the crowds for the signs of the terrorist. They had trained to spot the anguished face amongst the happy celebrators or the agitation of the young man or woman gripping a travelling bag concealing instant death.
Sebastiani’s communicator buzzed a message: Prec. arrests. Eleven held on suspicion. No explosives. Air Force enforcing Rome no-fly zone.
So far, everything was okay. Another fifteen minutes to complete the bursting Corso Vittorio Emanuele and start the majestic train along the sentinel obelisks of that hated creation of the Fascist Architecture movement, the Via Della Conciliazione, to the relative safety of St Peter’s Basilica. The cathedral was fully prepared: one hundred voices of the Vatican boys’ choir would herald the pope’s arrival with Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus and thrill the thousands of believers inside the Basilica and outside in St Peter’s square.
He checked his watch again: 10:45. His churning stomach would settle only when the pope was safely in the hands of the Swiss Guard.
As the procession rolled its way ponderously past, his face creased into a smile. Not far now: only a bridge and ten or fifteen minutes at a slow pace. It’s going to be okay.
Suddenly the world changed.
The percussion wave from the multiple explosions tore at the buildings of Largo Tassoni, sucking the air from Sebastiani’s lungs and knocking him to the ground. His ears hurt and, at first, he could not hear the screams of the panicked crowd. Debris and body parts fell all around him as he forced himself to his feet, hands shaking and blood pouring from a cut above his forehead.
The bridge and the papal procession had been totally obliterated.
‘Porca puttana!’ he screamed.
Fighting the pain, he wiped at the grey dust and blood from around his eyes and mouth and fought clumsily to operate his walkie-talkie.
‘Get your men to the bridge!’ he shouted into the radio.
He stumbled toward the Tiber, shouting a commentary and orders into his walkie-talkie. ‘Topman to all units. Emergency, emergency. Bomb attack Ponte Vittorio Emanuele. Bomb attack Ponte Vittorio Emanuele. Bomb squad and units local to explosions, Level 1 response. All units, full alert actions.’
The intense midday traffic forcing itself through the crowds at Largo Tassoni ground to solid congestion.
The sun was higher and hotter. Running through the pandemonium on the Piazza Pasquale Paoli toward the devastated bridge with Ferri and his unit, Sebastiani was wet through with sweat. Stone dust and blood filled his eyes and mouth.
He stopped in his tracks. ‘For Christ’s sake!’ he screamed. A dead young man sitting curiously upright against a low wall stared into the distance with surprised, open eyes, a large nail protruding from his grit peppered face. He ran on. The nearer he came to the Tiber, the progressively more gruesome the scene. At first, bloodied, groaning, crying and confused, grey zombies, crawling and stumbling around and screaming for help. Brave fellow victims who had escaped the worst of the blasts aided others more seriously injured. At the river’s edge, dead, indistinct forms lay among the detritus, slaughtered carabinieri identifiable among them.
He peered into the chasm where the bridge had been and into a dreadful boyhood flashback. The surging plumes of black dust and smoke that filled the abyss, the shattered, bloody corpses of punished humans in grotesque poses burning among the marble and concrete debris and on the jagged rocks engulfed in the tumult of the river, was an image burned in his memory. It was that picture of fiery hell in a religious book that had scared him sick.
The stench of the Tiber intensified his revulsion. He turned and faced the buildings lining the once-bustling Piazza Pasquale Paoli. The façades of its pizzerias, cafés, hotels and offices had been blasted away. They had taken the full impact of the explosions and only the outlines of what once had been rooms remained. The ever-full street cafés that filled the square were gone.
The areas on both sides of the bridge resembled war zones with bloody dead and severely wounded lying in the dense murkiness of atomized stone and marble.
Physical nausea gripped him. ‘Fucking, fucking hell!’ he screamed impotently.
Ferri, grubby but showing no signs of injury, shouted to him from out of the dusty gloom. ‘Sir! You okay?’
‘I’m okay.’ In control now and brain ticking over orderly, he shouted, ‘The bombs contained metal objects.’
‘Bomb squad’s here. State police are controlling traffic.’
‘Good, good.’ He patted Ferri’s arm.
Sebastiani grabbed the arm of a carabiniere stooping over a body and screamed at him. ‘Bodies away from the bridge. Barriers up. Do it now.’ He pressed a button on his walkie-talkie, ‘Scene of crime team…’
Explosions to his left and right flattened him to the ground again.
Within a minute his walkie-talkie crackled alarm. ‘General alert. St Pio river unit. Explosions along the river. Explosions on bridges parallel to Vittorio Emanuele. Casualties. Emergency services called.’
‘Fuck!’ he screamed, heart pounding and mind filled with images of suicide terrorists detonating bombs in the crowds. ‘Topman to Apollo. Devil on the loose, explosion sites.’
But he knew his elite commandos had no chance of searching out bombers from the terror-stricken, scattering hordes. He clenched his fists at his side and scanned hopelessly for bombers. ‘Bastards! You bloody bastards!’
Suddenly, the dissonant howling and flashing blue lights of police cars, ambulances and fire engines intensified the chaos around the Piazza Pasquale Paoli and the deafening cacophony around him.
He caught sight of St Peter’s dome and realized what was happening. ‘The Vatican.’ He shouted into his walkie-talkie. ‘Topman to Vatican Unit. Evacuate the Basilica. Get them out of there fast. Clear the museum.’
Sebastiani feared the Vatican security unit, on the far side of the Tiber from him, would be drawn to the death and devastation at the bridges and leave St Peter’s exposed. Hands bleeding, his walkie-talkie was difficult to grasp. ‘Topman to Vatican Unit. Hold your stations.’
Running back to Largo Tassoni amid rescue service vehicles and personnel pouring into it, he called down one of three helicopters he had stationed for the event. ‘Chopper Alpha. Topman at Largo Tassoni. Get me to the Vatican. Quick!’ He pointed in the general direction of St Peter’s as though the pilot could see him.
In a controlled, friendly voice, the pilot responded. ‘Chopper Alpha. Topman, please identify.’
‘Topman to Chopper Alpha. I’m in the middle of Largo Tassoni waving my bloody arms at you.’
‘Chopper Alpha. We see you, Topman.’
‘Get down here quick. Get me to the Basilica!’
‘Chopper Alpha. Topman stand by.’
Rescuers scattered from the whirlwinds of stone dust blasted at them as the helicopter approached. Screwing his face against the fierce downdraft of blinding debris, Sebastiani threw himself through the open door of the chopper before it touched the ground.
‘Move, move, move!’
The helicopter swept upwards, over the ruin of Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, and high enough for him to see the breadth of devastation. He reckoned about three hundred bodies on the sides of the Tiber once connected by the bridge. The Tiber’s fierce current had swept other bodies downstream and onto rocks in the lower reaches of the river. No sign of the Pope’s vehicle. The bridges to the left and right of the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele, although not so damaged, could not be used.
His walkie-talkie clicked an irritating text update: Looters arrested at Pasquale Paoli.
From above the river he could see the frantic attempts to evacuate St Peter’s Basilica of congregated worshippers and priests.
A thunderous blow rocked the helicopter violently.
As he looked on, explosions tore away at the stone columns supporting Michelangelo’s great dome. The massive cupola shuddered violently as if trying to free itself from the girdle of iron chains that had bound its base for the last four hundred years. Its supports cracked and shattered. Like a dying man, it collapsed downwards onto the high altar and Bernini’s baldacchino that shaded it. In the main apse, the throne of St Peter was crushed beneath the rubble.
More explosions ripped at the roofs of the transepts and nave, crashing them down around their sturdy supports onto the seething body of the cathedral. Thick, choking dust charged with the taste of burnt chemicals filled the ruin.
‘Fucking hell!’ He ran a dirty, sweaty hand over his bleeding head. ‘Topman to Central Control. Major emergency at Vatican. Full rescue services to Vatican.’
He stared at St Peter’s grand portico expecting it to be shattered by bomb blasts but none came. While its beautiful glasswork had been blown out, the great entrance remained structurally intact and defiant against the wreckage of masonry flung against it.
‘Topman to unit leaders. Confirm rescue services. Damage reports to Central Control.’
Sebastiani looked down into the Piazza San Pietro, a cauldron of carnage, panic and raging activity; a battleground. Grubby, dishevelled human shapes rummaged amid the devastation like demons in hell trying to extract the dead and injured but, so far, no sign of the rescue services.
Sebastiani estimated about four hundred dead on the bridges and about the same number of dead in the cathedral. Many more than that would have been injured and he wouldn’t know for sure how many until the fire brigade and their helpers had removed the rubble. Five or six days of hard work, he guessed: risky work because of the danger of more collapse – and there could still be survivors under it all.
‘Drop me where you can in the Piazza.’
About to call the Vatican Unit chief, a shout from behind distracted him.
‘Colonel Sebastiani, sir.’
Against the loud sirens of the fire engines and ambulances pouring into the Piazza San Pietro, Sebastiani yelled back at the young, dirty-faced carabiniere offering him his walkie-talkie. ‘What is it?’
‘Generale Conti, sir.’
‘Fabio. The media. We must do a press release.’
He rolled his eyes heavenward and shouted to counter the blaring sirens of ambulances arriving. ‘What, now? I’m at the Basilica. We’re digging out bodies.’ He turned his head away and screamed, ‘Fuck it!’
‘Right now. The prime minister’s issued a national state of emergency.’
‘Yes. Yes sir, I know.’
‘There’s going to be uproar. Maderno’s Fountain. Right away. I need just a minute.’
‘On my way.’
A loud voice drew him round. ‘You the senior officer here?’ The RAI Uno reporter pushed a microphone under his nose and a cameraman behind pointed his camera at him.
Sebastiani thrust a hand against the lens. ‘Wait. Just wait, will you? You…you…’ His immediate intense rage at their intrusion turned quickly to weary acceptance of the need for the media to get their hot news out to the world. ‘Press release, north fountain in ten minutes.’
Around him, TV and radio transmission units beamed the sickening devastation into the living rooms of a shocked world. Nothing would ever be the same again.
At the sight of General Conti, Sebastiani became curiously concerned about his dirty, untidy state, his conscientiousness about such things deeply imbued by a lifetime in the military.
The gleaming, urbane Conti carried his fifty-six years well. He was large and well proportioned, elegant in his silver and gold-embellished uniform. ‘Christ, Fabio, you’re a mess. You okay?’
‘Look, I know you don’t need this right now. Quick as you can. Estimates, dead and injured. What measures you’ve taken since the explosions. Media wants details.’
Conti gave no sign of being emotionally affected by the horror surrounding him. UN peace-keeping in the Congo had shown him the worst excesses of man’s hate and inhumanity: the bloody massacre of thousands of innocent villagers, the axed remains of women and children, the evidence of whole-scale raping and cannibalism. For him, today’s disaster was clean by comparison.
Sebastiani ran a grimy forearm across his sweating forehead. ‘National security services are now on high alert. Italy and western-friendly nations. Dead and injured, here’s the tally.’ He handed Conti a grubby printed telegraphic list:
Basilica, ca 750 dead, ca 400 injured.
All bridges ca 450 dead, ca 600 injured.
‘Lot of bodies still in the river. It’ll take time to get a clear picture. We’ve fished the pope’s wagon out of the river. He’s dead,’ he added dispassionately.
A noisy shuffling of young carabinieri feet drew their attention from the destruction to a short but pompous-looking, much decorated officer making his way toward them, followed closely by a thirty-ish, attractive, bosomy, blond-haired woman in a colourful summer dress with just a little more décolleté than seemed appropriate for the situation.
‘Oh God, no,’ was Conti’s response to the appearance.
They came to attention as the Head of the Italian military, Comandante General dell 'Arma, Dottore Daniele Franchi, stumbled, coughing and gasping for breath, over the rubble and through the sprawling vehicles, thick entangled cables and other hardware of media communications systems in the process of being assembled, his arms flailing the air, all the while doing his awkward best to scan the devastation.
Gathering himself together, Franchi came in all guns firing. ‘Conti, you’re responsible. Tell me who did this dreadful outrage.’
Franchi’s uniform was his courage. In it, he overcame the complexes about his shortness, his Tweedledum (or Tweedledee) waistline and his less than polished articulation. In it, he was able to stand up to the lofty and intellectual likes of Conti. Franchi was not as conversant with Carabinieri matters as his position demanded. It was generally understood that he had risen to the top by virtue of his inherited wealth and his familial relationship to that other person of challenged stature, the prime minister.
‘That is not clear,’ said Conti. ‘At this stage, we just don’t know who did it.’
‘What is clear,’ said Franchi, sucking in a chest full of air to complete the sentence, ‘is that the prime minister is blaming the ineffective Italian military for poor security. He’s demanding heads. Yours most likely, Conti,’ he added swiftly with a splutter, implying his own head was safe.
Conti had dealt with Franchi’s usual bluster of attempted intimidation many times before and responded calmly. ‘All security for this event was properly carried out.’
Franchi’s response was sharp, bordering on a screech. ‘Like what?’
‘All preparations were agreed with the Ministry of Defence.’
Franchi put a hand over his mouth, cleared his throat and said in a more conciliatory tone, ‘Of course, Conti. Of course.’ He then strained his eyes toward the grubby figure next to Conti. Condescending to identify the man but making no comment about his battered condition, Franchi said accusingly, ‘You’re Colonel Sebastiani.’
‘Sebastiani. Yes!’ Franchi’s raised tone suggested he had found the solution to a long-standing problem. ‘Head of Rome anti-terror.’ He menacingly pinched together all the fibres of his small face and, in a high pitch, threatened again, ‘You could lose your job over this. It’s the biggest calamity to hit the world. Who knows what the effects are going to be.’
A curious silence ensued while all eyes fixed on Franchi whose own eyes fixed diligently on the activities of the rescue services. ‘Outcries from all over the world. Dreadful. Could cause a war. Who knows? My God.’
For a whole minute, he stared silently – apparently subconsciously, but who knows? – at the woman’s cleavage and then sternly at her face, which made Sebastiani believe he was about to reprimand her for her lack of decorum. Under his accusing gaze, her own self-conscious gaze dropped awkwardly downward. Then he said, as though addressing her, ‘You have until this time…’ He checked his watch and then appeared to study Sebastiani’s eyes. ‘Eight tomorrow morning. First report. In my office. General Conti, I want you with me at the Rome attack committee meeting at nine. Actually, it’s the Operation Vatican Attack Committee meeting. That’s what it’s called.’ Placing a hand gently on the young woman’s arm, he said, ‘Ferdinando, arrange it with my secretary here. Make sure you’re there.’
Franchi perfunctorily scanned the devastation again. ‘Dreadful political and economic repercussions for Italy. And the rest of the world. Dreadful.’ Becoming aware of the media gathered en masse around him, he said, ‘The world’s press is anxious and waiting. Deal with them, Ferdinando.’ He glimpsed his watch. ‘I have an emergency meeting with the prime minister and the…um…um, Minister of Defence.’
With that, he smiled warmly at his female companion and, striking an air of grand importance, strutted off ahead of her over the rubble to his waiting limousine.
Conti’s face loosened into a sarcastic smile. ‘So, Fabio. Our beloved Franchi is blaming us for the bombing. Stronzo. And you did not hear me call him a turd.’
‘Call him what?’ Sebastiani smiled, his grime and blood-smeared face taking on the laughable expression of a clown.
‘If I were boss of the Carabinieri, I would demand to know from you, you Sebastiani, how the hell they got on the roof of the Basilica. But he didn’t want to know that.’
Sebastiani shaded his eyes against the sunshine and gazed at the smouldering ruin of the cathedral. ‘Good thing he didn’t ask. First, I don’t know who did it. Or how they got on the roof. No way anyone could get up there. Not today. Vatican security is tighter than Da Vinci airport. The roof was locked and guarded. Suicide bombers? No. And no guns were fired.’
‘Not jihadists then?’
‘Can’t be certain. But I’d say no. The explosions have been set up over time. That’s not their way.’
‘International anti-terror? CIA?’
‘Okay Fabio. The media. What do I tell them?’
‘Not Islamic terrorists. If our suspects from Milan are involved, they’re not alone. Somebody big has an almighty reason for doing this. We’ll know a lot more when I debrief the bomb squad and forensics. Fontana promised me a provisional in three hours. For the media, we don’t know.’
‘Bomb squad report to me soon as you can.’
‘Fine. I got the figures and the general picture. Leave it to me. You get on with your work.’
‘Yes sir.’ Knowing he did not have to face the media lifted Sebastiani’s spirits. He was not shy and could handle it but was pressed by the situation. He used his private mobile phone to contact Ferri. ‘Drop whatever you’re doing and get over to the Basilica. I want you around for my bomb-squad debriefing.’
‘On my way. We’ve sealed off the roads leading to the bridges and Vatican.’
‘Well done, thanks.’
Six hours since the last explosion. The early evening was still bright but stand lamps erected in anticipation of a long night drew focus to the corners where rescue teams struggled with life and death.
One blessing, at least: bottled mineral water was in great abundance and Sebastiani had at last cleansed his mouth, face and head of blood and grime. But his dusty uniform and the filth still around his neck and eyes gave him the appearance of a coal miner just ascended from the mineshaft. What’s more, the water did nothing for his collapsed morale.
Needing a moment to regain strength, he crunched his beaten body onto the rubble just inside the portico of St Peter’s, bent over and gripped his thighs in the way a marathon runner does at the end of a race.
He felt hopeless. His job was to protect Rome from terror attacks but he had failed and now felt responsible for the bloodshed. Fighting back the nausea welling up inside him, he looked around the desolated Basilica. Firemen, army personnel and members of the public worked feverishly in the swirling smoke, thick dust and crumbled stonework, still searching for the dead and injured. Paramedics stretchered victims into ambulances that then sped off to the blare of sirens in the hope of finding hospitals that were not already full. Emergency medical teams treated the more seriously wounded in blue field hospitals erected in the middle of St Peter’s Square.
His head shot to the right. Michelangelo’s Pietà was intact, covered with dust but complete. Mary’s sadness portended the deep sorrow that would face the loved ones of those who had died here today. This sight of Mary sped his mind, compacting memories into mere seconds, obliterating from his senses the backdrop of frantic and noisy activity that enveloped him. He was in another time, to his only other visit to the Vatican, at least twenty years earlier. This is about as far as I got because the Pietà was just there, he remembered.
Then, he was stung by principle. The lavish opulence of the Roman Catholic Church compared with the abject poverty of many of its adherents in the world offended him, so he had turned and walked away from its portals. Now it was a ruin and many people had died in it today. Although nominally Catholic he was not a religious man. It was of great philosophical interest to him that people took such a strong position on God and the hereafter that they could kill themselves and innocent others so readily. He saw no end to the terror. Al-Qaeda’s pursuit of a pan-Islamic caliphate was without compromise and its terror cells targeted masses of unsuspecting, innocent, unarmed civilians. They purposefully staged attacks to cause the greatest possible injury and death, and to bring the greatest possible outrage. How could there be conciliation?
He fumbled with his walkie-talkie and without pulling his gaze from Mary, said quietly, ‘I guess the Sistine Chapel is okay?’ Not attempting to hear an answer, he slotted the communicator into its holder.
‘Fabio, I’ll make this quick.’
The usual echo of words spoken aloud in the Basilica had disappeared with the roof. Captain Marco Fontana and three of his bomb-squad team, one struggling to control an excited sniffer dog, formed a loose half-circle in front of Sebastiani and Ferri. They wore jeans, short-sleeved shirts, navy blue plastic sleeveless tops with the word CARABINIERI across the backs, sneakers, and white, latex gloves.
‘We’ve found no unexploded bombs.’ Fontana, a short, stocky southern Italian, spoke slowly with a gruff, deep-throat resonance that made him clearly audible despite the clattering rescue activities.
‘No more bombs then?’ asked Ferri.
‘I didn’t say that. All Vatican buildings searched. Nothing found. The bombs were Semtex and all had the same tagging. All command detonated. The only difference, the bridge bombs contained metal objects to cause personal injuries.’
Ferri asked, ‘Source?’
‘We know from the residues picked up at the scene that it’s C4 from the Czech Republic. Part of a consignment stolen from a production plant three years ago. Never traced.’
‘Target, Marco?’ asked Sebastiani. ‘This doesn’t fit any group I know.’
‘None. The Mafia mine bridges but they don’t operate against the church. Islamic extremists?’ Fontana screwed-up his face. ‘No evidence of that. Explosives on the roof? Locked and heavily guarded. We’ll check it out when we can get up there. That won’t be easy.’
‘The Milan suspects wouldn’t use Semtex,’ said Ferri.
‘No, they wouldn’t. All other terror groups are foreign. Targets in their own countries.’
‘And the Mafia don’t operate against the church,’ Sebastiani reminded himself.
Sebastiani summarized. ‘Unknown terror group. Target, Roman Catholic Church or some of its people. Or both.’
Fontana pouted and nodded his head before answering. ‘Looks like it.’
‘How could anyone leave explosive around in the Basilica without being seen?’
Fontana looked back into the ruin. ‘Good question. Could be explosives were laid where repair work was done. Not sure. Forensics will show more.’
Sebastiani played with the plaster a medic had stuck to the wound on his head. ‘Nothing clear, then, Marco?’
‘No. I would have expected support structures to be targeted. They weren’t.’
‘We’ve got to look at the repair work and who did it,’ said Sebastiani, looking at Ferri to make the point.
‘Fabio, your business. First report by midnight.’
Fontana and his team rushed off, leaving Sebastiani and Ferri looking at the devastation.
Sebastiani checked the time: coming up to seven o’clock. The dropping sun cast shadows of gloom into the upper reaches of the ruin. ‘The Vatican’s closed circuit TV system,’ he said, scanning around for cameras. ‘The control room wasn’t touched so everything was recorded until the roof came down. Plenty of film. TV footage. But whoever set this up wouldn’t stick around just to get on TV.’ He wiped blood from his chin with a wet grubby handkerchief, examined it and then dabbed his chin again. ‘Make sure TV channels put out requests for cameras from the public.’
‘Building records, work documents. We need to check them,’ said Ferri.
‘Right. Set up a meeting with the Vatican’s architect. Works boss. Whatever you call him. Do that as soon as you can.’
A young, anxious carabiniere rushed up to them, saluted and handed Sebastiani a note.
His eyebrows arched as he read it. ‘A-ha! Do what you have to here, Ferri. I’ve got a suspicious death to look at.’
The young officer led him to a small huddle of paramedics in red overalls examining a scarlet-clad body.
Sebastiani approached the most senior-looking medic, a tall, thin, grey-haired man. Reading the name from the note, he asked him, ‘Is this Cardinal Aldo Ricci?’
‘Are you Colonel Sebastiani?’ asked the senior medic.
He nodded. ‘Ricci. What’s happened to him?’
‘Not sure. Just three hours ago he was helping with rescue work.’
‘He wasn’t killed by the explosions?’ His response was shrill.
‘No. Someone wanted it to look like that. Look at this.’ The medic crouched by the body and moved its head from side to side. ‘He’s been roughed up and beaten to death.’
Islamic terrorists wouldn’t seek out and kill an old cardinal after blowing the Vatican, he reasoned. Anyway, Islamic militants didn’t bomb Rome, he was certain. If Ricci’s knowledge of the people behind the explosions was a risk, they would have killed him long ago. A contract killing? But not Mafia.
He pulled on the flesh below his lower lip and walked around Ricci’s corpse making mental notes about its condition. His death was not directly related to the attack on the Vatican, he concluded, so why was he murdered?
He peered toward the murky, smouldering ruin that surrounded him. A picture of a conspiracy was beginning to form in his mind – a powerful conspiracy.
© Copyright 2017 Sam Clinton. All rights reserved.
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