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A man appeared out of nowhere like a soundless black shadow. A light flashed briefly in Finn‟s face and she lifted one arm to cover her eyes, her heart pounding in her chest as fear clutched at her throat.
“What the hell?” was all Peter had time to say.
There was a brief rustling sound from directly in front of them and Finn caught a quick scent of cheap aftershave before something hit her on the side of the head hard enough to take her to her knees. The flashlight? Maybe, because everything was dark now.
She heard Peter rush forward to help her, and in the last split second before the blackness swallowed her, she heard a distant terrible cry cut short by a drawn-out gurgling sigh and she wondered who it was making that awful noise.
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First published by Onyx, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, June 2005
eISBN : 978-1-101-08979-8
Copyright ? Christopher Hyde, 2005 All rights reserved
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July 22, 1942, La Spezia,
The Ligurian Coast,
Maggiore Tiberio Bertoglio, wearing the uniform of one of the Mussolini Black Brigades—complete with ebony shoulder boards,
bloodred-and-silver double-M collar tabs and a silver-and-black skull-and-crossbones insignia on the forepeak of his regulation bustina—sat in the backseat of the dusty Lancia staff car, arms crossed over his chest Il Duce- style, not feeling half as grand as he looked. The uniform was a fraud. He was not in the army at all but in the much reviled OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza Repressione dell‟Antifascismo—the Organization for Vigilance Against Anti-Fascism: Mussolini‟s secret police, the Italian gestapo.
He‟d flown up from Rome in a cranky old Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 that
morning, the old bluebird insignia of Ala Littoria still faintly visible just behind the triple black axe fasces of the Italian air force on the tail. After four bumpy hours in the air he‟d arrived at the La Spezia naval base, borrowed the staff car and a driver and was now almost at
the end of his journey.
The driver took them through the narrow, winding streets of Portovenere, working their way down to the fishing port at La Grazie. The immense bulk of the twelfth-century Castello Doria was at his back, built eight hundred years before to guard the approaches to the Gulf of Spezia and still doing its job. In the protected gulf itself Bertoglio could see half the Italian navy at anchor, including the huge battleship Andrea Doria and its sister ship, the Giulio Cesare. Battered and blackened but still afloat.
The staff car finally reached the crumbling old dock and Bertoglio stepped out of the oversized, sand-colored jeep and gave the driver a quick, boot-snapping Fascisti salute.
“Be back in half an hour, no more,” Bertoglio ordered.
“Certainly, Maggiore. Half an hour.”
The driver nodded, put the battered Lancia in gear and drove off. On the heavily treed island of Palmaria, half a mile away across the bay that marked the harbor for the fishing village, he could see the long low building that marked the convent of San Giovanni All‟ Orfenio. It stood almost on the shore with a small cement dock of its own, a large, ancient dory tied up to an old black iron bollard. Bertoglio looked around and finally spotted a small fishing boat tied up a few yards away, its owner smoking and talking to another man.
“How much to take me across to the convent?” Bertoglio asked stiffly. The fisherman looked him up and down, eyeing the major‟s curling single stripe on his arm and the Mussolini brigade tabs.
“Why do you want to go over there?” the old man asked. His brown rheumy eyes took in the black forage cap and the death‟s-head insignia. He
didn‟t appear to be impressed.
“I have business there, old man. Now, how much to take me in your boat?”
“To take you, or to take you there and back?”
“There and back,” Bertoglio snapped. “You will wait at the dock. I will have a passenger.”
“That will be extra.”
“Why am I not surprised, old man?”
The other man smiled and spoke for the first time. “Every time you call him „old man‟ the price goes up. He thinks he is as young as a goat,
this one. All the nuns want to fuck him, he is sure of it.”
“I leave the fucking of nuns to that priest Bertole,” said the old man, laughing, showing the stumps of half a dozen brown teeth. “He may like screwing old women with mustaches, but I prefer the young little ostrica you find on the promenade.”
“As though they would prefer you!”
“How much,” Bertoglio interrupted.
“That depends on how much you have.”
“It is only two hundred yards.”
“You are the Christ, Maggiore. You can walk on water?”
Bertoglio reached into the pocket of his jacket and took out a wad of lire, peeling off half a dozen notes. The old man cocked an eyebrow and Bertoglio peeled off half a dozen more.
“Good enough,” said the old man. He made a sweeping gesture with one
gnarled hand. “Step into my princely gondola and I will guide you across the waters to the convent.”
Bertoglio made his way into the boat awkwardly and eased down onto the rear thwart. The old man climbed in after him and unshipped the long oars. He used one to push away from the dock, put both into their locks and began stroking strongly away from the pier. Bertoglio sat stiffly in the rear of the boat, his hands gripping the gunwales, feeling slightly queasy as they went farther out into the bay. There was a large bucket close by with something brown and gelatinous floating in it. The contents of the bucket stank and Bertoglio‟s already nervous stomach began to heave.
“Squid heads,” the old man explained. “You trap them when they start
to copulate and rise to the surface in their passion. You behead them before they have a chance to spray their sperm and then keep them in the sun for a day or two. Better bait that way.”
Bertoglio said nothing. Ahead of them the convent drew closer. It was a long, low building, built with an odd step in it to conform to its rocky setting. There was a steep meadow behind, and within what he took to be a white-painted wrought iron fence there was a small cemetery plot, shaded by several stunted olive trees and sparsely planted with a few simple stones and crosses.
The old man hauled on his starboard oar, sliding around the slim uprights marking sardine and herring weirs built to catch the meandering schools on the incoming tide, then pulled straight for the small dock in front of the convent. As they approached the pier a thin, elderly woman in a dark blue habit and with a white wimple framing her narrow face came out of the front door of the building and walked down to the dock, hands tucked into her sleeves. She stood there waiting calmly as Bertoglio approached. For a moment he felt frightened and ashamed as he had been as a child when creatures like these were the center of his universe and ruled it with a hawthorn switch. That, combined with the roiling of his stomach, made him feel distinctly uneasy as he stepped up out of the fisherman‟s small boat and onto the dock. The woman stared at him, then turned without a word. She walked back up to the convent, Bertoglio close behind. A moment later he followed her into the coolness of the stone building. It was dark; there appeared to be no artificial light. Bertoglio blinked. The old nun crossed a plain vestibule unmarked by any ornament then turned into what appeared to be some kind of common room outfitted with several shelves of books, a large plank table, a few chairs and a fieldstone fireplace. There was a single window, its shutters closed, and through the broad louvers Bertoglio could see down to the narrow beach and the dock. The old fisherman had disappeared and could be seen halfway across the bay.
Bertoglio cursed. “Caccati in mano e prenditi a schiaffi!” He pounded one fist into his palm.
“Did you say something, Major?”
A short, pleasant-faced nun in her forties stepped out of the shadows on the far side of the fireplace. Unlike the elderly sister who had led him here, this nun wore a heavy circlet of carved wooden beads around her ample waist and a large metal cross hung on a chain around her neck, cutting down between her large, pendulous breasts.
“I said nothing,” said Bertoglio. “Who might you be?” he asked rudely, sticking his chin out in an unintentional mockery of Il Duce.
“I am the mother superior, Sister Benedetta. You presumably are the man they said would be coming.”
“I am Maggiore Tiberio Bertoglio, Sixth MVSN Division Tevere,” Bertoglio snapped.
“I was expecting someone from the secret police,” said Sister Benedetta.
“There is no secret police in Italy,” said Bertoglio.
“And you are not really here, Maggiore. You are a figment of my
imagination.” The woman smiled wearily. “I suppose the tedeshi Gestapo is enough for both countries.”
“I have come for the child,” said Bertoglio. He reached into the pocket of his blouse and took out a small packet sealed with the crossed-key and triple-crown imprimatur of the Vatican.
“You have friends in high places,” said Sister Benedetta. She put her stubby forefinger under the seal and ripped the packet open. It contained a birth certificate and a travel pass counterstamped by the Vatican, the Swiss government and the Nazi Immigration Authority. There was a second set of travel documents for an unnamed adult. “These documents are in the name of Frederico Botte,” she said.
“That is the child‟s name.”
“No, it is not, and you know it, Maggiore.”
“It is now. Fetch him.”
“And if I told you there was no Frederico Botte in this convent?”
“I would prefer not to answer that, Mother Superior. It can do neither one of us any good. If you hide the child or fail to present him there will be repercussions of a serious nature.” He paused. “I am only doing as I was instructed, Mother. This is no pleasure for me, I can assure you.”
Sister Benedetta picked up a small bell from the mantel of the fireplace and rang it. The sound was harsh in the room. A few moments later a
very young woman appeared, looking uncomfortable in a skirt, blouse and sweater. She was holding the hand of a young boy of about three. He was wearing short pants, a white shirt and a narrow tie. His dark hair had been slicked back with water. He looked very frightened.
“Here is the boy. This is Sister Filomena. She will take care of his needs. She speaks both German and Italian so there will be no problem in understanding her requirements for herself and the child.” She
stepped forward, kissed the young woman on both cheeks and handed her the travel documents and the birth certificate. Sister Filomena tucked the papers in the deep pocket of her plain cardigan. She looked as terrified as the child. Bertoglio understood her fear; he‟d be frightened if he were going where she was headed.
“The boat I came in has gone. How will we return to the mainland?”
“We have our own transportation,” said Sister Benedetta. “Go with Sister Filomena. She will show you.”
Bertoglio nodded, then snapped his heels together. His arm began to move stiffly upward in the Fascisti salute and then he thought better of it; he nodded sharply instead. “Thank you for your cooperation, Reverend Mother.”
“I do it only for the child; he is innocent of all this madness . . . unlike the rest of us. Good-bye.”
Without another word, Bertoglio turned on his heel and headed out of the room. Sister Filomena and the child followed meekly after him. In the doorway the child paused and looked silently back over his shoulder.
“Good-bye, Eugenio,” Sister Benedetta whispered, and then he was gone.
She moved across to the window and peered through the louvers, watching as the three figures moved down to the dock. Dominic, the young boy from the village who helped with the chores, was waiting by the dock. He helped the child into the convent‟s dory, then helped Filomena to her seat as well. The maggiore sat in the bow like some ridiculously uniformed Washington crossing the Delaware. Dominic scrambled aboard and unshipped the oars. A few seconds later they were moving out into the narrow bay between the island and the mainland.
Sister Benedetta watched until she could no longer make out the figure of the child. Then she made her way out of the common room and down
a long corridor between the individual cells, finally reaching an exit door in the lower section of the building behind the baths and toilets. She stepped outside into the failing late-afternoon sunlight and followed a narrow cinder path up the hill to the cemetery. Bypassing it, she went farther, into the dark trees, finally reaching a small dell filled with flowers and the dark scent of the surrounding pines.
She followed the path down into the saucerlike enclosure, listening to the sighing wind high above her and the distant weathering roar of the sea. If Katherine had loved anything she had loved this place; her only peace in a bruised life of fear and apprehension. The priest from Portovenere would not sanction her burial on sanctified ground, and in the end Sister Benedetta had not argued. There was no doubt in her mind that this place was closer to God than any other and that Katherine would have preferred it.
She found the simple marble cross without difficulty, even though ivy had grown up around it. She dropped to her knees, taking the time to pull the creeping tendrils away from the stone, revealing the inscription:
Katherine Maria Teresa Annunzio
Slowly Sister Benedetta unwound the rosary she kept on her right wrist and clutched it in both clasped hands. She stared at the stone and whispered the old prayer of the popes that had amounted to the young woman‟s last words before she threw herself into the sea:
“It is sweet music to the ear to say:
I honor you, O Mother!
It is a sweet song to repeat:
I honor you, O holy Mother!
You are my delight, dear hope, and chaste love,
my strength in all adversities.
If my spirit
that is troubled
and stricken by passions
suffers from the painful burden
of sadness and weeping,
if you see your child overwhelmed by misfortune,
O gracious Virgin Mary,
let me find rest in your motherly embrace.
already the last day is quickly approaching.
Banish the demon to the infernal depths,
and stay closer, dear Mother,
to your aged and erring child.
With a gentle touch,
cover the wary pupils
and kindly consign to God
the soul that is returning to him.
The wind grew louder as it swept through the trees, answering her, and for a single moment of peace, the faith of her childhood returned and she felt the joy of God once more. Then it faded with the rolling gust and the tears flowed down her cheeks unchecked. She thought of Bertoglio, of Filomena and the child. She thought of Katherine, and she thought of the man, the arrogant unholy man who had done this to Katherine and brought her to this end. No prayer of popes for him, only a curse she‟d once heard her mother speak so many years ago.
“May you rot in your tomb, may you burst with maggots as you lie dead, may your soul rot into corruption before the eyes of your family and the world. May you be damned for all dark eternity and find no grace except in the cold fires of hell.”
Her hair was the color of copper, polished and shining, hanging straight from the top of her head for the first few inches before turning into a mass of wild natural curls that flowed down around her pale shoulders, long enough to partially cover her breasts. The breasts themselves were perfectly shaped and not too large, round and smooth-skinned with only a small scattering of freckles on the upper surface of each mound, the nipples a pale translucent shade of pink usually seen only on the hidden inner surfaces of some exotic sea-shells. Her arms were long and