Not even the sun smiling through the bars of the grey room could cheer the boy. He had come to hate the cross hanging above the steel-hinged door. Rage glowed inside him whenever he heard someone sing. Odious scars marred his thighs and shoulders, indicating the anguish and suppressed rebellions of past years. The bed creaked underneath him at the slightest stir. How many times he had heard this sound! How many times he had decided that this day would be the last! But he had not been brave enough to take his own life. He just sat there, miserable, waiting for the next task like a powerless slave. He had been trained to be a diviner. He was able to make contact with the spirit world. Was this perhaps the day? Would he die today?
He had already tried to escape twice, but his second attempt was avenged so brutally that the thought alone was enough to frighten him. Escape. He touched the hard-crusted wounds between his thighs. The electric shock had left a life-long memory in his skin.
‘You’ll have a visitor in an hour, Ma-gios!’ somebody shouted through the peephole. ‘Sort yourself out. Do you hear me?’
‘I do,’ he answered quietly.
‘Do you hear me?’
He roared a ‘Yes, sir!’ to his tormentor, who, not totally satisfied, hit the door with his fist. Utterly spent, the boy shuddered, dragged himself to his feet and staggered to the window. It was a scorching day outside. Sometimes, he was allowed into the yard, though not without an escort. But lately, he had not even felt like going out.
A great tit perched on the wild rose and tilted her ash-grey quill-feathers. At that moment, her partner flew to her side. They exchanged a few sentences in their unintelligible, squeaking tit language and flew away into the sun. Ma-gios burst into tears.
‘Mummy, Daddy, where are you? Daddy, why haven’t you come for me?’ He wrapped his fingers on the steel bars, his face petrified. His tears dropped into the plaster dust collected on the sill. He shut his eyelids as hard as he could. I must get out of here!
‘You know you can.’
Ma-gios turned, with his head bowed, but could see no one.
‘I won’t kill anybody,’ he answered and wiped his tears off.
‘You won’t succeed otherwise.’ The air crepitated. ‘I’m offering you a fair deal. You send me two souls and I’ll return your freedom.’
‘I can’t do that. Even if I die here, I must not kill.’
A small circle in the middle of the rag carpet sank into the floor and a snake of glittering moss-green light wound along the windowpane. He looked at the carpet but could not see anybody. It gave him the shivers.
‘Ma-gios, Kunga was killed,’ the Evil One whispered.
The boy knew that, if this one trump card of a sentence were true, all his counterarguments would be swept aside along with his integrity, his conscience and his common sense.
‘What? You’re lying! You lie all the time. Daddy is still waiting for me somewhere, he just doesn’t know where I am. He must have searched for me high and low.’
‘If you don’t believe me, ask Ennio. He’s visiting you soon anyway. He’ll be your guest but, I’m warning you, him you mustn’t kill, otherwise you won’t get out of here alive. Do you understand?’
Ma-gios’s lips were shaking with rage.
‘But who murdered him?’
‘At last! I expected you to ask that question before now. Do you remember the guard who left a few years ago?’
‘The one who beat me up with a rubber truncheon?’
‘Yes, but that was well deserved. You’d been at his throat. Lucky you weren’t killed.’
‘I already have his soul with me,’ the voice hissed. ‘He was killed in a pub brawl. That is, he was killed the day after he terminated his work here. You can’t generally quit the Alliance of Peoples alive, though no one working here knows that.’
‘Not at all. On the contrary, it’s very useful. Damiano, however, is no loss. He was easily released from this world, he was so obdurately wicked.’
‘How do you mean he was released? Who released him?’
‘You don’t want me to utter his name. I can hardly say it.’
‘God? His permission is necessary?’
‘Yes, but don’t keep mentioning him.’
‘All right. And his friend, Claudio?’
‘He’s still here, working as a sentry, at the porter’s lodge of the place where your father was murdered.’
Ma-gios was overcome with hatred again. But he swallowed his tears.
‘How did he die?’
‘His head was smashed in with a steel rod.’
Silence descended. Perhaps the boy wanted to mourn for his father this way. The tit couple returned and their piping ‘teacher, teacher’ filled the courtyard.
‘Well?’ the Evil One, at the end of his tether, enquired.
‘I still don’t know.’
‘I’ll give you the power. Just let me know.’
‘All right,’ Ma-gios whimpered. ‘It’s all over with me anyhow.’
The lock turned soon after and Ennio Marino appeared. He was followed by an armed guard.
‘Greetings, my child!’ he shouted. ‘Handcuffs,’ he said to the guard, who carried out the protocol instantly: pulling out his gun, cocking it and waiting while Ennio clasped the metal rings on the boy’s thin wrists. He could not see why such a fuss was made about a scrawny boy of fifty kilos. He slipped his weapon into its holster and stood by the door. Ennio sprawled comfortably in the chair on the other side of the table.
‘Ma-gios, I’ve brought you something to read,’ he said and pushed the latest issue of Il Messaggero before him.
‘Flip to page eight. The last article. Can you read it? Out loud!’
The boy went through the lines haltingly. Ennio, squirming in his seat, could hardly wait for the end.
‘Forni a gas?’
‘Gas furnaces,’ came the lightning retort. ‘Just read it.’
When the boy got to the end of the short article, Ennio cleared his throat.
‘So, have you understood? I’ll summarize for you anyway. The newspaper states that the gas furnace in a plastics factory in Glasgow blew up on Tuesday. The police report excludes a terrorist act, however, they don’t know exactly what happened. According to our informants, a member of an anti-Vatican group used to work in the plant but quit at the beginning of 2004. And now, in May, there was an explosion.’
‘But what does the Vatican have to do with this plastics factory?’
‘If you weren’t locked up here, I couldn’t let you know, but nothing is at stake in this situation. Do you know what the IOR is?’
‘I haven’t a clue.’
‘Istituto per le Opere di Religione.’
‘—the Works of Religion, or rather, The Institute for Religious Transactions.’
‘Is that a kind of bank?’
‘You’ve put your finger on it. It’s the Vatican bank, and it has interests in the plant in Glasgow.’
‘In a plastics plant?’
‘Exactly. But not only there. It’s going to be your job to find out where this Arabic bloke who’d done it could be, as he’s disappeared into thin air. He’s called Abdal-Ati. I can’t recall his other name just now, Anyway—’
‘No!’ Ma-gios interrupted.
‘I don’t get it, Ma-gios. What do you mean “no”?’
The boy’s face darkened.
‘Did you have my father murdered?’
Ennio was unable to conceal his bewilderment.
‘What are you talking about, son?’
‘Was it really Damiano who did it?’ the boy asked, clenching his fist, though it was handcuffed to the radiator.
The archbishop, realizing Ma-gios had learnt the truth from somewhere, sighed. Denying it would only make him weaker. Ennio knew that, from the beginning, Ma-gios had thought him a coward.
‘It was an accident.’
‘Murder is no accident!’ the boy screamed.
Ennio smiled a cool smile.
‘And now, what’re you going to do? Would you like to try the new electric shock machine? That’s what you’re going to get for this behaviour.’
The nostrils of the boy expanded at this. He closed his eyes and murmured, ‘Yes, my answer is yes. Give me strength, Prince of evil!’ He bellowed and tore the handcuffs off the radiator like bagels; the pipe bent into a U-shape from the terrible force. He flung away the table separating him from the archbishop and, seizing his wiry body, hurled him like a stick at the guard, who was busy unbuckling his holster. Raging, with bloodshot eyes and swollen veins, he jumped on Ennio again and grabbed his neck. He could have broken his occipital bone in a second, but threw him against the wall instead. The archbishop slid to the floor in a swoon. I could wash the floor with you, thought Ma-gios in his rage. The guard was screaming with fear when the boy, having transformed into a brute, ripped his weapon off his waist and folded it up in front of his eyes.
‘You’ll die now,’ Ma-gios snarled at the writhing man and seized his jaw. His fingers sank into his enemy’s flesh, making him howl in pain and, kneeling on the guard’s chest, he pressed his back to the floor. He squeezed his neck with his other hand and tore off his skull like a leaf of parchment.
Ma-gios, possessed by an uncontrollable fury in his eyes, swept along the corridor towards the porter’s cubicle. He was possessed by joy when he took sight of Claudio. Hearing the baleful noises, Claudio took out his hunting knife. He clutched the dagger in his left hand and an expandable baton in his right, and waited for the attack. Ma-gios hurled himself at the guard without thinking, providing Claudio with a good opportunity. The guard rolled onto his back and plunged his dagger into his attacker’s shoulder. Ma-gios gave a yowl and wrenched the dagger from Claudio’s hand, but the man used the baton to hit him on the head with all his might. The steel ball welded to the end of the metal rod broke through Ma-gios’s skull. Unfazed, the boy drove the dagger into the guard’s eye socket. The cracking of bones was interrupted by a frantic scream, and Claudio died. Whimpering, the boy held his bloody head. The pain there blunted even that from the stab wound in his arm.
Ma-gios tried to rip the door open but it would not budge. He tore a bunch of keys from the guard’s belt and, with bloody fingers, tried to find the one that would fit the lock. Finally he found it and got out. He found himself in another courtyard. Having been allowed into this garden years before, he had some memory of where the gate was and started running towards it. Some nuns, basking in the sun, dispersed like pigeons when they caught sight of the boy. He glided between two trees and climbed up the stone wall behind the hedge like a cat. On reaching the top, he swooned. Pain welled up from his shoulder, his sleeves were soaked in blood. But he had no time to waste. As shouts sounded from behind him, he flung himself down on the ground.
A new world unfolded before him. The windows of cars shot the rays of the sun into his eyes. He felt as if he was dreaming and had tumbled into the future. A bus with darkened windows puffed beside him, all was colour and activity. People were talking into flat radios kept to their ears while they passed him. As if they were calling others on the telephone, but without wires?
He broke into a run again but his legs were weakening. His vision blurred. A little girl in a flower-patterned hat pointed at him but her mother pulled her away. He ran past them and they looked after him. He swayed. The woman screamed and the girl began to cry. Everything was spinning: the shoes of the passers-by, the cars, everything. At last, he caught sight of an alley. A few more steps and I can disappear. The thought kept ringing in his brain. He felt so dizzy that he had to lower himself on all fours.
Then hands grabbed him and turned him on his back. He did not resist, he knew he would die there. A well-dressed man towered over him and rattled something into the radio at his ear as he knelt by his side. Ma-gios was overcome by peace. This is death. He stretched out on the pavement and stared into the sky. Pigeons were flying above him, a snow-white balloon was swept towards the clouds by the wind. Is that my soul? I’m done for. Daddy, I’m coming to see you … see you … He passed out.
In the meantime Ennio Marino came to in Ma-gios’s cell with a bleeding nose and lurched towards the door. He was nearly scared to death when he tripped over the headless body of the guard. Splashing across the sea of blood, he reached the corridor. At the porter’s cubicle, nuns surrounded the remains of the guard that lay in another pool of blood. He lurched further down the corridor. The nuns ran up to him.
‘Father Marino! What’s happened? Who committed this terrible act?’
‘Ma-gios. You’d better clean it all up. But, Mother Bianca, not a word to anyone. I’ll do away with the two corpses, let that be my concern. Hurry up, sisters!’
He wiped the blood from his face with a cloth, slopped back into the room and gave himself a moment to think. His soles were sticky with blood. He groped in his pocket for his mobile. The display was cracked but it was still working, fortunately. We must take care. If Ma-gios leads the police here, there must be nobody here who he might recognise … Nobody! Ma-gios must be found and silenced instantly. He dialled some numbers.
‘Yes,’ a man’s husky voice replied.
‘You need to get here urgently. There are two bodies to take to the crematorium.’
A short silence ensued.
‘Very well, sir. They didn’t die naturally, right?’
‘No, they didn’t.’
‘Any witnesses? Do they also need to be cremated?’ the man asked, laughing.
‘No, Tito. The bodies were only seen by a few of the sisters, but they’re reliable. Two guards were killed.’
‘Damiano and Claudio?’
‘No, Damiano died in a pub brawl a while back. Claudio has now met his fate, and this other unhappy sod too. Poor soul. He’d only worked for us for half a year. He has a family and three little kids. At home they only knew he was a security guard in the Vatican.’
‘Well, Damiano’s no loss, actually,’ Tito croaked. ‘He was possessed by the devil.’
‘That’s exactly why he was special, I suppose. His master has taken him back. But that’s no matter. When can you get here?’
‘In half an hour if I hurry. His master has taken him back? What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Nothing, I haven’t said a word. Well, hurry up, this is an emergency.’
He turned off the phone and sank into the chair.
‘Don’t worry about it, Ennio. I wanted the boy free,’ someone whispered. Ennio looked up suddenly.
His face was tickled by a breeze.
‘Yes. But you should have known that. Two of a kind wise up to each other.’
Ennio shoes made a crunching sound as he wrenched them from the drying blood on the floor. He touched his broken nose.
‘Don’t you think you’ve given him too much power? Two guards have died.’
‘Don’t ever question me!’ The air vibrated with anger. ‘What do you mortals know about the world?’
‘Please, don’t be angry with your ignorant servant, my lord, but I don’t understand the connection.’
‘Oh, you fool! Besides the fact that my world has been enriched by two souls, I’ve got Ma-gios on credit as well. The wrath of the Almighty shall pursue him to the grave, where I’ll be able to get him. He won’t understand – he’s already forgotten everything. If I return his memory, he’ll probably commit suicide: his conscience will drive him to his death. In which case he’ll be mine sooner.’
‘And when is he getting back his memory?’ inquired Ennio, squirming on his chair with a painful expression.
While feeling his swollen nose, he got the answer too.
‘Ennio, Ennio! You’re anxious about your little empire, aren’t you? I understand, seeing how much struggle it has cost you to create it. Rest assured, you won’t be alive when all comes to light.’
‘My grateful thanks for that.’
‘Don’t be grateful for it, I haven’t told you how long you’re going to stay alive.’
Ennio’s face turned white; the Evil One was laughing. Hearing noises from the entrance, the archbishop stood up. The nuns must have returned.
‘Sit down, Ennio! Now that Ma-gios’s service is complete and you’ve sent him off with your fatherly blessing, I’m giving you a new task.’
‘Do not interrupt me. I’m offering you another human to replace Ma-gios.’
A fluffy cumulus floating in front of the sun cast a shadow on the cell. The archbishop pricked up his ears.
‘Do you remember the lost girl you escorted back to her parents at the Vatican about ten years ago?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Ennio frowned, trying to remember.
‘Her mother was bawling like a nursery of hungry babies. Of course you recall that.’
‘That fair-haired one in Saint Peter’s Square? Oh, yes. I don’t know how she could have reached the cathedral without her parents.’
‘Yes, that’s the one. I’d led her to you, to let you see and feel her.’
‘She had the eyes of an angel.’ Ennio mused. ‘But when I touched her, I was shaken by something. It was interesting.’
‘Weren’t you sick afterwards?’
‘How do you know?’ He bolted upright and stared forward. ‘Oh yes, sorry. You know.’
Ennio felt something weird in his shoulders.
‘I’m touching you right now. Don’t you feel sick, dizzy or hot?’
‘No, I don’t,’ the archbishop murmured and tried to turn around.
‘Don’t! Just stay like that. You don’t feel sick because you’re mine, but that girl is under patronage. I’ve been yearning for her for years. Her protection makes her unapproachable.’
‘What can I do then?’
‘Of course, she hasn’t been protected that way. She’s an average girl, not a princess in a high tower.’
‘So she’s been protected by the other world? I mean …’
‘Don’t say it!’ Satan shouted at him. ‘You fool!’
Deathly silence descended on them, then the Tempter spoke again.
‘Now that Ma-gios has gone “on leave”, you’ll have the time to find out how to get near her. You have a body, you can do it. I can only get to her when you’ve succeeded, so hurry up.’
Ennio raised his arms in the air in incomprehension.
‘Good God! But I don’t even know her name. Slow down, my lord.’
‘Watch your mouth,’ he replied angrily. ‘If He doesn’t kill you for blasphemy, then I’ll call you to me. I’ve warned you not to mention his name before me. Anyway, Adriano will call you about this matter. I’ve finished.’ And the devil disappeared with the draught slipping through the window.
Ennio looked to the side. The four sisters were standing in the doorway, mops at the ready, and whispering.
‘To whom have you been talking, sir?’
Ennio replied wearily. ‘I was thinking out loud. And now, action, sisters, it’s very dirty here. Clean the fence too, and go out into the street as well. If you find any traces of blood, simply clean them off, preferably after dark. I don’t want the police to come sniffing around here. I hope that beast has already kicked the bucket.’
Ennio buried his face in his palms and wondered what was more dangerous, a howling beast, or a silently squirming poisonous snake. I have to silence Ma-gios forever, because the moment that damned devil of a boy starts to remember, I’m finished.