At the Apostolic Palace apartments in St. Peter’s, only two windows remained illuminated at this late an hour. One of them was the Holy Father’s. The other belonged to the papal chamberlain, Carlo Ventresca.
For the camerlengo, sleep did not--and would not--come easily that night. Both the forces of nature and the tumultuous state of his soul seemed to conspire against him, serving to keep him wired awake, his mind at bay. He had woken from fitful dreams more times than could be counted, had tossed and turned restlessly to no avail. Now, Carlo rose from his bed and paced the floor in front of the window with such ferocity, he feared he might worry the carpet bare beneath his feet.
Lightning flickered bright against the rain-spattered windowpanes; the resounding thunder split the air with a violent roar.
The heavens are angry tonight, he thought.
And Carlo Ventresca knew exactly why.
It had begun earlier that night with a revelation, the likes of which Carlo could not possibly have fathomed. For the briefest of moments, he imagined himself back in the Pope’s office, those awful, blasphemous words like a dagger plunged straight through the heart of all he saw as good and sacred. It is complicated, I know, the Pope had said. I beg you, give me time to make you understand.
But Carlo could not, even if he’d tried.
It’s time I told you the truth, Carlo. Years ago, when I was a young man, I--he spoke with difficulty, warring with the words. I fathered a child.
A child. The Pope had fathered a child.
It was astonishing, Carlo thought, how a single admission could send one’s comprehension, one’s faith, one’s entire world crashing to the ground in flames.
A flood of emotion had sent him reeling, staggering backward toward the door. He fled from the Pope’s chambers without looking back.
Deep in his heart, Carlo already knew what needed to be done--and truth be told, it terrified the hell out of him.
God, my Father, grant me the strength to guide our Church from the forces of all-encompassing darkness. Let me be the light.
The storm raged directly overhead now; lightning forged stark lines against the black velvet backdrop of the Roman sky. The forceful peals of thunder seemed to reverberate up from beneath and shake the very foundations of this sanctified place--as if Hell itself threatened to open up and swallow the city whole, and Carlo with it.
Despite himself, Carlo felt himself begin to tremble, raw terror creeping into all his senses, and he shut his eyes, willing it to subside. Carlo could not recall a time in his life that he’d felt so inexplicably helpless and utterly frightened, as he did now. He was reminded of a time of irrational childhood fears, when the dark was sinister and foreboding, veiling evils untold, and devils hid beneath the bed while he slept. When Carlo was a child, he had admittedly been afraid of the dark.
He recalled the first night he had spent in the monastery after leaving the hospital. On a night not unlike this one, the rain had poured and thunder had crashed, and terrible nightmares plagued his mind.
He was in the church; he could see his mother at the altar in her Sunday dress, smiling back at him over her shoulder. Then, the blinding flash came, the deafening roar. Blood, raining from the sky. Over and over, the scene played in Carlo’s mind until he couldn’t take it, until he wanted to scream.
He remembered, he had sprung from his bed then, dashing down the hall to the guest room at the end, where he knew the bishop was staying. Timidly, he raised a hand and rapped on the door. The bishop answered the door in his pajamas. Looking down at Carlo, he smiled gently and asked him, kindly, what was the matter.
“I had a bad dream,” answered Carlo softly. “Could I stay with you? Please?”
“Of course, son.” The bishop opened the door and let Carlo in.
They lay side-by-side on the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. A bright flash of lightning, followed by a particularly loud crack of thunder, sent Carlo scrambling impossibly closer, burying his face in the bishop’s side. The boy was trembling, and the bishop wrapped an arm around him, drawing him in protectively. “Don’t be frightened,” he murmured, stroking Carlo’s hair. “It’s all right, Carlo. I promise. I’ve got you. “
Satisfied with his reassurance, Carlo snuggled further into the bishop’s side, nuzzling his head into his chest.
“I don’t like the dark, Father,” he said plaintively.
“What is it about the dark that scares you?” asked the bishop, soothing Carlo’s back with a gentle, assuring hand. “What is the dark? Do you know?”
“The dark,” Carlo replied matter-of-factly, “is scary. That’s what it is.”
“Well, of course. It can be. But what is it?” Carlo thought a moment, and came up empty. He shrugged. The bishop smiled, patting his head. “Darkness, my son, is nothing but the absence of light. If you think of it that way, it’s not as scary as it might seem.”
Carlo had thought differently.
The absence of light.
In a manner of speaking, he found it terribly ironic now. Amusing, almost--though, Carlo thought, it might have been the sense of mild hysteria toying with his mind. He stilled himself, willing his nerves to calm, even as his higher purpose beckoned him, calling him away into the darkness. By his hand, Carlo knew, this madness would end. The liar, the nefarious deceiver who had gone against God’s laws, would be the one to go down in flames. The Church would not suffer for his faults. Carlo would make sure of that.
Let me be the light.
Without a second thought, he turned and headed for the door, stealing out into the hallway like a thief in the night.
He stood at the door of the papal bedchambers for a long moment, gathering his thoughts in a final silent prayer.
Father in Heaven, I beg you. Forgive what I am about to do.
He turned the knob and eased the door open, slipping stealthily into the darkened room. The door shut behind him with a muted click.
With any luck, thought Carlo, the Pope would be sound asleep. The vial was in his pocket, all he would have to do would be to fill the syringe and inject the lethal dose directly into the heart. Death would follow, swift and just.
A single candle was burning, flickering somewhere within the depths of the pope’s quarters. Carlo hadn’t gotten far when he heard the familiar voice calling out his name, a question lingering therein.
Carlo froze. Panic seized him as he turned to face the pontiff, the icy fingers of dread clutching at his chest.
“You came back.” Carlo smiled wanly.
“To see you,” he replied offhandedly. “What are you doing awake at this hour?”
“I can’t sleep.” A remorseful smile played upon the Pope’s features. “Carlo, my child, I beg of you.” There was desperation in the older man’s voice, and Carlo eyed him skeptically. “If you had only let me explain myself earlier--”
“No,” Carlo‘s tone was ice. “Don’t.”
“I understand that I have upset you.”
“Upset, I fear, is not the word for it, Father.”
The Pope turned from Carlo and crossed the room to the window, gazing out. The storm outside was relenting, but the air in the room between them was electric. Carlo watched as the Pope took a seat in an armchair by the window and sighed, letting his head fall into his hands.
“I should have told you, Carlo. I’m so, so very sorry.” He raised his head to look at Carlo. When Carlo ventured closer, he could see tears streaming down the other man’s cheeks, could see the despair in his gaze. “I should not have lied to you. I should not have kept this from you. It so pains me to know that I am the source of your anguish. I beg you to forgive me.”
Carlo’s heart wrenched violently, and in that instant, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to follow through with his mission. At least, not that night. He only hoped that God would be understanding of him.
The little composure that Carlo had left simply snapped like the thinnest of threads, and he unraveled. The man, Carlo Ventresca, was gone and in his place was a frightened little boy, glancing in terror into that dark, unknown abyss--that horrid absence of the light.
He crumpled to his knees before the Pope, burying his head in the man’s lap. His entire body trembled, and he drew in a shuddering breath that escaped him in a pitiful sob.
“Oh, God, Father. I am so ashamed.”
“Carlo?” Bewildered, the Pope lifted a hand to stroke Carlo’s hair, smoothing over it gently, almost reverently. “My child, what’s the matter?”
A deranged sound caught halfway between a laugh and a sob erupted from Carlo’s throat. Father, if you only knew. With haunted blue eyes that seemed frozen over with fear, Carlo looked up at the pontiff and spoke, in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Father, I’m afraid of the dark.”