Mulloy, you stupid son of a bitch," my editor had exploded in exasperation. "This is the story of the century! How often does the Catholic Church elect a new pope, a couple of times every hundred years?"
He had waved my analysis from the morning's paper at me.
"Eight or nine, anyway," I had said. "No big deal."
As I recalled the conversation yesterday in New York, the Alitalia jet was vectoring over Rome. I caught a brief glimpse of the sun-baked Tiber and the glittering dome of St. Peter's.
"There are a billion Catholics in the world. This may be the most important election in the history of the papacy. The future of the Catholic Church will depend on the outcome. For the next two weeks the eyes of the whole human race will be on Rome. Every important journalist in the world will be there. And you want to sit here in New York and feel sorry for yourself."
Low blow, that last line. Not like him or like the paper.
I had thought that CNN would probably send its ace Catholic anchorperson to Rome. All the more reason for not going.
"They claim that every time there's a conclave," I had responded. "Like I say, no big deal."
I knew I had lost the argument. The personal jab meant he was seriously impatient with me. I had better pack.
I admit that I felt a catch in my throat at the sight of St. Peter's. Actually, this was a very big deal. The oldest human institution in the world was about to roll the dice again onits future in an ancient and solemn ritual. Or, if one wishes, an archaic and stupid ritual (words I had cut from my brief and last-minute "analysis" piece because I knew they'd never get by the boss).
My editor was wrong about one thing, however. The Church of Rome, for all its enormous faults, had survived a couple of hundred appearances of white smoke. Its future was not in jeopardy.
Well, it had survived so far. Now, however, it was split wide open, with the late pope and the bishops seemingly on one side and most of the laypeople and the priests of the world on the other side.
Maybe this conclave was indeed a very big deal.
Despite myself and despite the damage that air travel does to my organism, my heart was beating faster. Maybe, like my editor had said, this would be the most exciting story I had ever covered.
"Even more than Rwanda?" I had demanded.
"No way," I had replied as I listlessly rose from my chair. "Nothing more than the Democratic convention. Or maybe even the Republican convention."
"Dinny!" he had shouted at me. "Cut the bullshit! You're dying to go!"
"All right, I'll go home and pack."
The Alitalia pilot came on the plane's PA system.
"Because of the gathering for the papal election," he said solemnly, "security will be especially tight at the Leonardo da Vinci airport this morning. There may be some delays in clearing immigration and customs."
Why the special security?
Hell, they'd already tried to assassinate one pope. Why not a new one?
I glanced out the window. Not a speck of cloud in the sky. Yet there was a storm gathering. My heart began to pound, just like it always did when I'm getting involved in an important and dangerous story.
A very big deal, indeed, so much so that I felt stirrings of enthusiasm--until the plane taxied into the jetway and I had to shove myself into a standing position. Then the full weight of motion sickness, jet lag, and dehydration hit me.
All I wanted to do was find a bed somewhere and sleep for a couple of days. I wanted a drink too, but that was no longer a possibility in my life.
There were rumors that this time the white smoke might be a prelude to the announcement of the election of the first American pope. Our own paper had mentioned Chicago's Sean Cardinal Cronin as a possibility. Judging by his picture, he looked like a pope ought to look--a handsome, faintly dissipated, early Renaissance pope, with the political moves of the South Side Irish, like the various mayors Daley.
"Good morning, Mr. Mulloy." A pretty child, clipboard in her left hand, extended her right hand to me as I staggered into the international concourse. "Welcome to the Leonardo da Vinci airport at Fiumicino. Welcome also to Rome. Welcome finally to the pope's funeral mass tomorrow. I am from the Rome bureau and have been assigned to assist you in your coverage of the papal election. I am Paola Elizabetta Maria Angelica Katarina Brigitta Oriani. You may call me Paoli."
She pronounced the name as though it were Pa-OW-li. A cute kid, very cute, as a matter of fact. Even cuter because she was so solemn and serious. And maybe a little shy in the presence of the silver-haired Pulitzer prize winner. Only a few years older than my daughter.
I struggled to respond with my very best genial, shanty-. Irish grin.
"Not 'Signorina'?" I said, shaking hands with her, my grip a lot firmer than my character.
She was wearing a businesslike blue suit, with white at the neck and the cuffs, a skirt just below mid-thigh, a gold cross at her neck, gold studs, but no other jewelry. There was but a slight hint of makeup on her lips and she woresensible pumps. Her scent was discreet and expensive. Successful Roman businessperson with a face from Fra Angelico framed by a halo of tight black curls. She tilted her chin up and favored me with a slight hint of a smile.
"Only if you wish to be very formal."
"They told you at the bureau that I was a very formal person, didn't they?"
"They told me that you were very funny, do not engage in sexual harassment, do not drink anymore, are kind of cute in an elderly way, and write like an angel ... . now, if you follow me we will take you through customs."
An accurate-enough description of Dennis Michael Mulloy. Well, no, maybe a little too favorable.
She lifted my garment bag from the floor of the international concourse, where I had dropped it in bemused confusion. I wrestled it away from her.
"I'll take that. It has secret documents in it. Could launch a world war. You can carry my notebook-computer bag. If you lose it we will sacrifice you in the Tiber to ancient Etruscan deities."
"My family is Etruscan ... . this way please."
I followed her dutifully.
"This is really a huge, big deal, isn't it?" I said, changing the subject.
."The conclave? But naturally. Power is at stake, very large power, spiritual and temporal both. The careers of many people can be affected and the hopes of millions might be renewed or destroyed completely. Even someone like me who knows the Vatican all too well becomes excited."
How did she know the Vatican "all too well"?
"Power corrupts," I observed pontifically.
"And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the papacy."
"Of course," I said, pretending that I had known that all along.
The concourse was teeming with people who looked like they might be conclave bound--TV crews carrying theirminicams, reporters of every skin color under heaven (I can always spot a fellow reporter; the hang-dog, faintly paranoid expression is a dead giveaway, even among the women), clergy in assorted costumes, from the black suit and Roman collar to flowing Asian robes and towering hats. A couple of the Roman collar boys were wearing red socks or displayed red trim at the collar--cardinal electors, obviously.
With typical New York anticlericalism, I figured that the delegates to the Democratic convention on the whole would inspire more confidence.
I searched a crowd looking for possible assassins. I discovered only apparently rich Americans, come, possibly, to throw their weight and money into the conclave cauldron.
Everyone was deadly intense. A humongous, big deal. The tension isn't electric, I told myself, it's just your Brooklyn, Irish Catholic roots.
But the atmosphere was indeed tense. Rome and the Catholic Church, I would discover later, could do that to you.
My girl guide wove her way through the crowd like Barry Sanders ran through behemoth tacklers of the Giants. I struggled to keep up with her. Upon due consideration, Paola Elizabetta Maria Angelica Katarina Brigitta was more than just a cute child. She was a very lovely young woman, a diminutive china doll with deep brown eyes, a finely carved oval face, mobile lips kept in control as she bantered with me only by great restraint, a generous body, and, judging by my present view from behind, nice legs and a flawless rear end.
I had given up sex along with drink, so my libido didn't react during this evaluation. But if it had been operative it would have found her delectable, just as would the libidos of other dirty old men when they glanced at my daughter.
"Who's going to win the conclave?" I asked my pretty guardian angel.
"Naturally, Don Luis will win," she said with the serene confidence of the young.
"Menendez? He's the liberal Spaniard, isn't he?"
"He is a good man," she insisted firmly. "Many bad men will try to defeat him. Like those foolish Americans who could not find their way to a blood bank. But he will still win."
"I hear there's opposition building up to him. Does he have the votes?"
You live with a woman from Chicago for fifteen years, you learn to ask Chicago questions.
"Gesù and the Madonna will see that he wins."
That settles that.
"Can I interview him?"
"Until now he does not give interviews--even to The New York Times."
That's no way to win an election.
My angel and I, having successfully run for daylight, approached an immigration gate that was apparently closed.
"Your passport, please," she said.
"Uh, it's here someplace." I searched in my jacket pockets, my trouser pockets, the pocket on my garment bag, and then my jacket pocket again.
"Is this it?" Paoli had retrieved it from the pocket on the outside of my computer bag.
"Yeah ... . I guess I'm confused from the flight. Sorry."
I had learned always to apologize to women, even when I had done nothing wrong.
"No problem." My guide smiled benignly. "Naturally it is permitted that you be confused."
Her English was quite good. Syntax and vocabulary practically perfect and accent better than a lot you could hear in New York City from native-born Americans. However, her speech was formal and stiff, as though she wanted to be sure that she had chosen exactly the right word.
She gave my passport to a beaming young inspector who had materialized from nowhere. He stamped it with an elegant flourish and bowed to her and to me. The two of them exchanged what sounded like compliments in Italian.
The kid had clout.
"You have clout."
She dismissed it with a wave of her hand, which I would learn meant "It is nothing."
"You have more luggage?"
"Nope. Travel light. Presumably there are stores in Rome where I can buy clothes if I need them."
She considered my rumpled off-the-rack gray suit, and replied, "The most fashionable men's clothes in the world."
I noticed a guy that I thought was a shade. He was lost in a long line. Maybe I could shake him completely.
But why were they tracking me, especially with a man who could be one of their best, a guy that looked like a successful commodities broker in the later middle years of life, if one who drank too much? Obviously I had a lot on them. My current investigation--into a network of small European banks and their link to them--might embarrass them considerably. And the boss had said that the Rome bureau had reported rumors in the city of a new financial scandal in the Vatican, one that would dwarf the Banco Ambrosiano scandal a few years back.
Just as obviously, they knew that if anything happened to me, the paper would instantly print all the stuff in my secret files. Were they afraid I might find out something more during the conclave?
Who are "they"?
The first thing you have to learn when you get on the international crime beat is that "they" are not a single group, nor even a loose alliance of a lot of groups--drug dealers, arms merchants, the Outfit, the Russian Outfit, crooked bankers, remnants of the CIA and the KGB and their agents, the diamond monopoly, and a dozen or so other international entrepreneurs of crime and corruption. The second thing you have to learn is that representatives of these various groups know one another and on occasion talk to one another when necessity demands--as when you want to kill a pope, like they tried to do back in the eighties. Anyand all of these institutions might be interested in me, even if all of them were, I fervently hoped, afraid to kill me.
I was not supposed to spot the shade. But I usually picked them up at once. Comes of being the son of a cop.
What might I learn at a papal election that they most particularly did not want me to learn?
As I had said to the boss, "I'm on the international crime beat. Remember? What's that got to do with a papal election?"
"Give me a break, Dinny! You've heard about the Vatican Bank scandal, the Banco Ambrosiano, the Masonic Lodge they called P-2 which a lot of cardinals were supposed to belong to, Liceo Gelli and his bunch. Hell, you know enough history to realize that the Vatican has been corrupt since the Reformation."
"And there was that pope_who died after only a month in office back in 1978 ... . What was his name?"
"No, that's the guy that just died."
"One and Two."
"Yeah. Anyway, there were a lot of stories that he was murdered."
"More likely died of medical neglect."
"Yeah, but is it possible to buy a papal election? Ty Williams seems to think so. He plans to buy it. That's a great story line!"
"Old stuff. It's been done a lot of times. Remember Rodrigo Borgia and his delightful kids--Lucrezia and Cesare by name?"
"That was a long time ago, Dinny. Could it still happen today? Besides, we want a Catholic to cover the conclave, even if it's an honest one."
"I'm not a Catholic anymore."
"The hell you're not. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."
"I'm afraid you might be right."
My native guide continued her commentary.
"There is great excitement here at the airport. Rumors that a bomb will be planted in the Sistine Chapel and that there will be many assassinations. And even we cynical Romans know that the curtain is rising on a drama that is very old and yet somehow very new--just like the Church itself."
"Ah," I said.
The Roman sun in spring is so bright that for a moment you think you might be on another planet. No clouds. But still, I sensed instinctively that dark clouds were gathering. There were too many things going on for there not to be trouble. I felt the knot of fear and excitement that always assaulted my dubious stomach.
Paola Elizabetta etc. etc. inspected her clipboard.
"We can naturally hire a car here. In fact, however," she ran her pen down the board, "it would be quicker if we take the Alitalia train into the Termini station. Then it is but three stops on the Metro to Spagna ... . Public transportation is often much faster in Rome these days."
She hesitated, not sure how I would take it and also not altogether sure that she liked me.
"Saving money on the elderly journalist, eh?"
"Forty-four years old is not really elderly, Mr. Mulloy ... ."
She giggled. "What a funny name!"
"They told you at the bureau that I was a funny man."
"Deeny?" she experimented with the funny word.
"Moreover," she smiled brightly, having decided that she did like me, "you are to stay at the Hassler, which is not a hotel where money is saved."
The paper was taking care of its hero reporter, who maybe had not completely recovered from the bug he had picked up in Rwanda. Why not enjoy it?
"Yeah, but you expect me to climb the Scala di Spagnaall the way up to the Piazza Trinità dei Monti carrying this bag?"
See, kid, I know this city, too.
"I could carry it for you," she said uncertainly.
"And let me be ridiculed as an old man by those ruffians that hang around the Spanish Steps? No way!"
Actually, I am in pretty good condition for a man of my years. Getting back into shape was part of my therapy in giving up both Patty and drink and then again after the African bug left me.
She pulled a cellular phone out of her shoulder purse, which was almost bigger than she was, and spoke in rapid Italian. She closed the phone and shoved it back into the bag.
"It is necessary for you to walk at least an hour in direct noonday sun to recover from the circadiedic disrhythmia. For at least two days."
As she talked, she guided me across the glass-covered bridge to the terminal of the Alitalia train to Rome, made up of green and white cars like an old-fashioned ice cream truck.
"You mean the jet lag?"
"Out in the noonday sun with the other mad dogs and Englishmen?"
She threw back her head and laughed, finally catching on to the Dinny Mulloy style of banter.
"Well, Deeny, you are not an Englishman."
"We could," she consulted her clipboard, "have you check in at the hotel, then we could walk down the steps and have lunch at Babington's English tearoom, where your poets, I mean their poets, used to eat, and then take the Metro to Ottaviano and walk over to San Pietro. That should give you at least an hour of the noonday sun. You could attend the pope's wake and obtain your press credentials.The car would then take you back to the hotel, where you could file a story if you wish."
"Do you have an aunt who is a sister superior?"
"My great-aunt is a mother general," she said proudly. "She says I am more efficient than she is ... .We get in here, Deeny."
Before I could comment on that, a young man, thin and with long hair, burning eyes, and a pale face, rushed by us on the bridge and collided with Paoli.
She screamed, spun around like she had been hit by a truck, dropped her clipboard, and crashed against the glass wall of the bridge.
I thought that she would shatter the wall and fall to the ground twenty feet below. But the wall held and she bounced back toward me
Then she tumbled forward toward the floor of the bridge. She'll cut her face and bang up her head, I told myself and reached out to catch her.
I grabbed her in midair and steadied her on her feet.
Instead of commending my quick reflexes, she launched a barrage of fierce Italian denunciations and at the same time gripped my arm firmly so I would not go after him.
Some of the other people on the bridge shouted imprecations after the fleeing youth, but no one seemed much interested in pursuing him.
"He tried to push you off the bridge!" I shouted.
"No fighting, Deeny," she ordered. "Not while I'm in charge of you!"
I picked up her clipboard.
"Are you all right, Paoli?"
"Naturally, I am fine. My suit and my nylons are undamaged. What else matters?"
She grinned weakly.
"Naturally not. I am fine. Come, we must not let that pig cause us to miss the train."
Had I imagined that the violence was deliberate? Was the romantic in me seeing a plot already?
Probably. Why would anyone want to dispose of a cute little journalist?
Still, I glanced around, searching for the shade. It could be the kind of trick his kind might play. Hurt her to warn me off. "They" had refined the art of pushing people off platforms to perfection. The CIA particularly liked it.
Warn me off of what?
"Yes, S'ter," I said, obeying her command.
She laughed again. Patty and I used to banter that way in our early years together. We both loved it. I'm not sure when it all turned sour. Sometime after Kevin, our second child, was born. Patty was determined that she could be both an anchorwoman and a mother of two toddlers at the same time and do it with a minimum of outside help--or help from me, as far as that goes. She was a good mother and a good journalist, but the strain of being both at her own high pressure was probably too much. She had lost her temper more often and her banter with me had turned nasty. I responded by going off to dangerous foreign places and drinking more when I was home. Before I realized what was happening, our marriage, previously extolled by our friends as a perfect match, had begun falling apart. Love had been replaced by constant strain. So to escape the strain I drank even more and had ended up by disgracing myself at Deirdre's graduation from grammar school.
The pastor, who was a fool, had preached at the graduation mass on abortion. I had just returned from Bosnia and had consumed too much Irish whiskey to steel myself against Patty's complaints and temper tantrums. Nonetheless, I should not have risen from the pew and denounced the pastor as a fool--at considerable length. Patty, not without just cause, had thrown me out of the house, took the kids back home to Chicago, and sued for divorce.
I had been relieved at the prospect of escaping from her and from my failure as both a father and a husband. Therewas no reason for our divorce to be acrimonious, except that Patty had been determined to make a big fight out of it. I had told my lawyer to give her whatever she had wanted. But that wasn't enough. She had wanted to denounce me in public and did so furiously.
I was glad to be rid of her, though I missed the kids, who seemed to like me at least a little--and were better able to deal with their mom's insults and rages than I was.
We had been so happy--and so convinced that we were deeply in love. I ran away from Patricia's energy and rage. But I knew, even then, that the failure was mine, not hers. That's why I avoided entanglements after the divorce. For all my charm and my wit, I just wasn't very good with women when the relationship became serious.
There was an Irish nurse in Rwanda, a lovely woman who'd been with me when we talked the Hutu militia out of killing a couple hundred Tutsi Catholics whom they had locked in a church (the Hutu were Catholics too). She was a very smart and a very brave woman. But once we got our flock across the border, I'd seen that the determined line of her lips and the defiant jut of her jaw were Patricia all over again.
Paoli ushered me through the door of the Good Humor train. I noted that my shade was just behind us.
"Tonight at nineteen-thirty, uh, seven-thirty," she continued, "the car will pick you up to take you to Ristorante Sabatini in Trastevere, on the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. You will meet Bishop Ryan of Chicago. He will provide background information for you."
"Only a bishop?"
"He is on the staff of Cardinal Cronin."
"He speaks English, of course. Therefore it is not necessary that I accompany you."
"Your parents let you out after dark, Paoli?"
She laughed again. "My parents are very proud of me."
"Your young man wouldn't mind?"
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "He is a nice young man. Rather sweet at times. But he is harmless."
"Ah. What does he do?"
"He is a cop."
"You would like to meet this Bishop Ryan?"
The train started smoothly.
She shrugged. "It does not matter."
"Let me put it this way, Pretty Paoli. You're welcome to come along with me on this caper anytime you want."
She nodded, not committing herself to anything.
"What kind of cop?"
"Kind of like our FBI?"
She nodded. "Nonetheless, he can be very sweet."
I decided that I would ask no more questions till she volunteered further information about this sometimes "very sweet" cop of hers.
"Have the cardinals decided yet when the conclave starts?" I asked, changing the subject.
"This is Sunday, naturally. The pope died three days ago. His funeral will be tomorrow, as you know. The rules say that the conclave itself must start no less than fifteen and no more than twenty days after a pope dies. The General Congregation--a daily meeting of all those cardinals who happen to be in Rome--decided that they would go into conclave a week from Tuesday night and begin voting on Wednesday."
"Naturally. Those who vote in the General Congregation for the first day or two are likely to be those resident in Rome. They want a quick election so that the outsiders cannot organize themselves."
"Dirty politics from day one."
Well, it was the way politics often worked.
"Conclavium means 'lockup'," my guardian angel continued. "Today it is intended to keep the public outside. Inits origins it was intended to keep the cardinals inside and uncomfortable until they elected a pope. When the citizens of Rome became irate at their failure to agree, they would cut the food supplies in half."
"How many citizens of Rome were there in those days?"
"In the ninth century, perhaps five thousand. Goats grazing in the ruins of the Forum."
In front of us a line of hills loomed up, probably dunes of the Mediterranean of earlier eons. A string of pine trees lined the ridge, a dark silhouette against the deep blue sky. I imagined Respighi's music in my head.
"I've been here a couple of times before, Paoli. Each time I arrive I'm excited. This is one of the great places in all the world. Then when it comes time to leave, I am happy to get out."
She nodded solemnly.
"I know what you mean, Deeny. My family has lived here for ten centuries. They were the ones who locked up the cardinals and cut their food supply. I think we all feel about Rome just as you do."
A thousand years in Rome? Very interesting. But I didn't want to touch that just yet. Instead I returned to the subject of Bishop Ryan.
"What is he like?"
She frowned. "They say he is an odd little man."
She glanced at her clipboard. "He is called "Blackie."
"As in Boston Blackie?"
"I do not know ... . He also is said to know more about politics than Mayor Daley."
"Impossible," I snorted. "Absolutely impossible."
Copyright © 1996 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.