Carlos Pendetta was a frugal man. He was careful with his money, to be sure, but he also spoke only when necessary, and budgeted his movements as well.
Running his hand over the polished wooden arm of his chair, he considered the craftsmanship that had gone into making it. What a work of art it was! Four hundred years old, if it was a day. Yet, as he looked around the spacious room, it wasn't even noteworthy among the treasures there.
Yet though replete with priceless works of art, the room still seemed simple. The high ceiling and plain stucco walls bespoke a place where electricity was a relatively recent addition. The antiquated heating and air conditioning systems were never a match for the climate, and the room always felt cool and damp. Still, there was a sense of presence here that commanded respect.
Until the beginning of the conclave, this room had been one of the many waiting areas off the beautiful Sistine Chapel. It had been decided long ago that cardinals would not be made any more comfortable than necessary during the process of electing a new pope. They were there to do serious work, as quickly as possible. Outside the sealed-off area where the election was held, the world waited impatiently. Yet, try as they might, they couldn't turn this room into something ugly.
How many popes-to-be had sat where he did now? What secrets had been whispered in this room, where other hopefuls awaited their election? How many ghosts wandered these hallowed halls?
This was only his second visit to the Vatican, the place that was now destined to become his home. For forty-two years he had served God, but his service was only beginning. The journey to this point had been difficult; however, it had been only that--a journey. Soon, his real work would begin. God was not an easy taskmaster.
His thoughts were interrupted as the heavy wooden door swung open and his secretary, Father Scott McPherson, swept into the room.
"Your Eminence," McPherson began formally, usually the prelude to bad news or a differing opinion, "the voting of the conclave was inconclusive once again, according to the Camerlengo. Nothing official has been announced, of course, but rumors among the conclavists have it that the Roman candidate will win on the next ballot." He held his breath. He knew the cardinal was adamant he would be the next pope.
The office of the pope was a prize to be fought for, and many did. Deals were made, promises exchanged, alliances forged, before the former pope was cold. Pendetta had dismissed all arguments of contrary opinion, saying, "It is God's will," and had steadfastly refused to listen to any discussion that countered his stubborn position.
He knew McPherson was concerned for him, a man the monsignor respected and trusted--even loved like an older brother, though he'd never vocalize such a sentiment. Pendetta also knew Scott didn't wish to dash his hopes, but didn't want to see him made a fool of, either.
Carlos Cardinal Pendetta smiled as he regarded his loyal assistant, friend and secretary.
"My friend," he said, the smile still gracing his face, "how long have you known me? Ten years more or less, wouldn't you say?"
"Yes, of course."
"In all those years, have you ever known me to utter an untruth?"
"No," McPherson replied, his gaze not able to hold that of his superior.
"Do you think there have been many secrets between you and I?"
"I don't believe there have been any of significance, Eminence."
"Did I ever tell you the story of my final decision to become a priest?"
McPherson set a chair near the marble fireplace, where he could see the cardinal's expression as he talked. Usually, Pendetta was not given to sharing personal glimpses of his past, but on those occasions when he chose to talk he was a good storyteller.
He studied his listener. "We've been on quite a journey, my friend. Through our travels, and the quiet times, I think I have revealed more of myself to you than to any mortal soul. There is, though, one aspect of my past I have kept from even you. Not because I'm ashamed of it, and not because I wanted to keep secrets from you, but because it is so special to me that I have held it close to my heart for all these years, like a private treasure. As if..." He searched for the words, wanting to make his meaning precisely clear. "As if sharing it would somehow lessen its value. Do you know what I mean?"
"Yes, Eminence, I think I understand."
"From the very first time I went inside a church, I knew I was meant to serve there. I was four years old, I believe, that first time. My mother took me, and we had talked about it for days. I was to sit still, not fidget, and if I had to say anything to her, it was to be in a whisper. Mother had read me Bible stories, and I thought I was going to see God that day, or Jesus for sure.
"We sat in a middle pew, and I was enthralled. The stained glass was beautiful, each window showing a scene from the Bible. A large crucifix hung suspended over the altar.
"'When is He coming?' I whispered to my mother.
"'Who?' she asked me.
"'Jesus, or God,' I said.
"'He's everywhere,' she replied. 'He's already here.'
"I looked all around and I didn't see Him, but I felt Him. And I knew she was right. He was there and I knew I wanted to serve Him. He spoke to me and I experienced rapture for one of the few times in my life, even though I was too young to realize what had happened.
"Even at that age, it was a moving experience. I was too young, of course, to know what a priest did, but I never forgot that I would someday work in the service of God and I never doubted my commitment.
"As I grew into a young boy, started school and began to be indoctrinated into society, I felt that I was obligated to look at life's choices with my ultimate obligation to my Savior in mind. I was honest, and a 'Good Samaritan' because that was God's way."
Pendetta paused, regarding his friend. He had only been partially truthful. The overriding reason for not telling Scott this one secret was the magnitude of the event. He had never felt comfortable telling another human soul and, even now, wondered if he had made the right decision to disclose the incident. Seeing the devotion on McPherson's face convinced him, after one last internal debate, that Scott was probably the one person in the world he could tell the secret to.
"As I got older, I was gently but irretrievably separated from other children by the choice of my future vocation. I learned not to try to preach to my peers when they did something I deemed inappropriate, after being brutalized either verbally or physically several times for trying. As I became an outcast, I was at first disappointed, but then decided that was God's way. I was destined for a solitary life because of my beliefs, and that was hard to accept, but I did accept it."
McPherson was listening intently.
"I'm not boring you?"
"Not at all, Eminence. Please continue."
"Where I ran into trouble," he continued, "was when I became a teenager and those horrible, wonderful glands began their work. I became aware of girls, and I experienced lust and temptation, as every young man does, sooner or later. It was a time of extreme turmoil for me. I saw my lust as a sin, even though I had done nothing about it. I was torn between what I read were normal feelings and my unflagging determination to remain holy and pure.
"Just when I thought my torment could get no worse, I met a girl who liked me. She was a lovely, sensitive young woman, very mature for her age. She was attracted by my shyness, my aloofness, my reserve--and what she perceived as my maturity. She began to pursue me."
A smile of genuine affection passed his lips and lit his eyes as he thought of her sweet face again, for the first time in many years.
"It was the classic struggle for my soul, I thought. Visions of the serpent tempting Eve with the apple coursed through my adolescent mind often. I wanted her like no man has ever wanted a woman before, or so I believed at the time. For the only time since that first day in church, I began to question whether I wanted to stay pure to serve God or whether I wanted to live life as a normal man, with the earthly pleasures that entailed.
"Every time I turned around, I was bumping into her, it seemed. I started to wait for her after school and I walked her home. Then, I was holding her hand." He felt wistful again, remembering the sweet emotions.
"Her name was Betty Anne Schmidt. One night she invited me to her house to study, and we sat in her dining room with our books open and we talked of life and dreams in hushed whispers, lest her parents in the next room overhear our secrets. When it was time to go, she walked me to the door and kissed me on the lips and turned and went back inside, leaving me more confused than ever.
"The big showdown came a few weeks later. I went over to her house to study, as we'd done often in the past, but something was different. She informed me, when I asked, that her parents were out for the evening, that we had the house to ourselves. They didn't know I was going to be there, she said, and I realized that, whether she had actually verbalized the lie to them or not, that was what had happened.
"Before I had a chance to rationalize what we were doing and its impacts, Betty was in my arms and I was kissing her. My teenaged erotic dreams, which I had only been partially successful at suppressing, were literally unfolding in my arms.
"Then it happened." He paused, unsure now whether to go on.
"Yes, Eminence?" McPherson gently urged.
"My friend, I hesitate to tell even you, and it is only because of my utmost trust and faith in you that I can continue." Shifting in the chair, Pendetta studied his fingernails. "I heard the voice of God for the second time," he said then, and watched his assistant's face for reaction.
What he saw was confusion. McPherson hadn't understood. He tried again.
"That first day in church, when I said God spoke to me, I meant that literally. I was so young, though, that I didn't understand the momentousness of the experience at the time. But there, with Betty Anne in my arms, God spoke to me again and I realized, in that instant, that it was Him I had heard ten years earlier."
McPherson looked stunned. Had anyone other than Carlos Cardinal Pendetta reported God had spoken to him, he probably would have laughed. He struggled visibly to get his confusion under control.
"What did He say?" he finally managed to ask.
"He reminded me that I was destined to serve Him, that's all."
"Did the girl hear Him as well?"
"No. It was as if time stood still and He spoke only to me."
"What did you do?"
"I told Betty Anne that what we were doing was wrong. I told her that I cared for her very much, but that I was going to serve God and I intended to keep myself pure to better attend Him. I told her I hoped she understood and that we could still be friends.
"She said we would always be friends, but we weren't. It was never the same again. We drifted apart, slowly at first, and then a few weeks later we just stopped seeing each other at all. I regretted not being close to her, but I knew my die had been cast and that I would positively enter the priesthood. It was one of the most pivotal times in my entire life."
"Has He spoken to you since?"
"Once. Just one time since then. Five years ago He told me I was destined to sit in Peter's chair, that I should prepare myself. The next morning the news arrived that I had been elected to the College of Cardinals and was to present myself to the Vatican for installation. The first step on my destined path to this enclave was taken that day. So you see, my skeptical friend, it is God's will that I become pope."
Scott McPherson's head was spinning. He greatly respected this man--who had just told him God had talked to him. Not once, but several times. He knew him and, until a few minutes ago, thought he understood him. If Cardinal Pendetta said God spoke to him, then he was sure the cardinal believed He had.
He didn't believe, though, that the cardinal was going to be pope, and what would the realization of that fact do to him? If he thought God said he was going to be pope, and it didn't happen, what would that do to his faith?
An idea began to build.
"Perhaps not this time, though," he suggested.
"Maybe you'll be pope, but perhaps not this time."
"No, it will be this time. I am too old to wait until the next time. I am quite sure I will be dead before the opportunity is presented again."
"God works in mysterious ways." McPherson offered lamely.
As if he hadn't heard, Cardinal Pendetta said, "I've been considering which name to choose. Perhaps you can help me, my friend."
Accepting the request as a man reaching for a life preserver, McPherson was eager to assist. He had discussed the topic with several of the other priests as they passed time during the conclave.
"Clement and Pius have been the most commonly used. Innocent, Benedict and Leo have been used several times as well, as have Alexander and Gregory."
"I'm thinking of Peter. How does 'Pope Peter' sound to you?"
"Controversial," McPherson answered honestly. Presumptuous, he thought but didn't mention.
"I don't want to sound conceited," the cardinal explained, "but since God has ordained me to become pope, then His mission for me must be on a grand scale. I feel certain that He has a lofty purpose in mind both for me and my term of office. It may well be like the beginning, when Saint Peter became the first Vicar of Christ."
"You realize the seemingly insurmountable odds against you?" McPherson asked cautiously. The cardinal was convinced he was to be pope, even if divine intervention was required to make it so. When his boss's expression remained open, he continued. "There has never been an American pope, and there are those well-placed in the Church who would maintain that is one tradition that will never change."
"We'll have to prove them wrong, then, won't we? Actually, though, it is a logical thing. The Church is in deep trouble, as we all know but hate to admit. Issues like birth control, abortion, divorce, women priests, married priests have pulled us apart and, I'm afraid, have been pushed aside for too many years. Attendance has fallen in the rich countries, while our big gains have been in the poorer countries. Contributions to support our work has dropped, as has the number of applicants to become priests and nuns.
"I feel that the Sacred College of Cardinals is so heavily steeped in tradition and philosophical thinking that the ruling body of the Church has lost touch with its flock. I feel that some part of my goal will be to correct that."
The antique mantle clock began to chime ten o'clock.
"It has been a very long day, my friend Scott. I shall retire now. Is there any business we need to discuss for tomorrow?"
"No. Since our privacy is assured and our contact with the outside world forbidden until the conclave is over, there's nothing to be concerned with but the business at hand." Rising to leave, McPherson said, "I will come by your quarters at the usual hour in the morning so we can breakfast together. Sleep well, my friend. Tomorrow is going to be a day that makes history."
Cardinal Pendetta waved farewell as he rose and went to the fireplace. He leaned his shoulder against the cold marble of the mantle and stared down at ashes of past fires. His friend was right in more ways than one. Tomorrow would be a history-making day. How was he, he wondered, going to move from a long-shot, dark horse candidate for Christendom's highest and holiest office to become pontiff in just a few hours?
Well, as McPherson had said, God works in mysterious ways.
His sleeping quarters were Spartan--a single iron-framed bed, a dresser with a mirror and washbasin and a small wardrobe for his clothes. What had once been the room's only closet had been turned into a tiny but adequate bathroom some years ago. It was there for the visitors to the chapel rather than in anticipation of his needs--a chamber pot was all that was required to be provided, and many of the other cardinals would not be as lucky as he was.
Coming out of the bathroom, he decided to say his nightly prayers on his knees, by the bed, as he had done as a child. He prayed better on his knees, even if getting into that position sometimes required more effort to get up afterwards than he would like to admit; and he often wondered if it was worth the extra effort. He chastised himself for the irreverent thoughts as he slowly knelt and leaned forward to place his elbows comfortably on the bed.
He was nearly finished with his prayers when the voice startled him from his reverie.
"Know that I am with you."
Cardinal Pendetta was surprised to realize he felt apprehensive, as if there was something unique about this rare holy visit. Not sure why, and unsure of what to do next, he waited.
"A challenge the likes of which the world has never known comes soon."
He realized he was hearing it inside his head, as in the past, but this time with his ears as well.
"I have groomed you to meet this challenge," the voice continued. "Only the pure of heart will see him for what he truly is.
"You are the champion of My cause, and for that reason, I want you to see the Master who has guided you all these years. Look upon me."
Unsure what to expect, the cardinal steadied himself against the bed as he stood up, then slowly turned toward the voice.
The sight shocked him so badly that he gasped, and he automatically retreated to be farther away from it. He fell back onto the bed.
The apparition appeared to be seated, though no chair was visible, and it was elevated off the floor. The creature's face was man-like, though not completely. It had human-looking eyes, nose and chin, but its ears were pointed, and its teeth were long and sharp. Its eyes were small and black and radiated hatred.
"Are you disappointed in my appearance?" it asked, then threw its head back and laughed, a roaring, wailing cackle that made the hair on the back of Cardinal Pendetta's neck stand on end.
Then the creature took on a serious demeanor and began to change its shape. In just a moment it was the image of Betty Anne Schmidt. "Kiss me, Carl," the image requested, as her tongue ran seductively over her lower lip then spilled out of her mouth and danced toward him like a three-foot snake with a forked head. As he recoiled in terror, it changed into the image of the cardinal's dead mother. "Carl, have you been taking your vitamins?" she said and shook her finger at him. Then it changed again, this time into a caricature of an angel, but its voice was coarse, monstrous.
"Is this more in line with what you thought I would look like, Carlos?" Again it laughed with that hideous wailing sound.
Cardinal Pendetta covered his eyes, but he couldn't resist and found his gaze drawn back to it as it changed once again, resuming its original devilish face. His pulse raced, and he was bathed in sweat. He felt he couldn't force enough air down his throat to his oxygen-starved lungs.
"Seriously, though," the creature went on, "I felt it was time you saw the master you serve."
"It can't be," Carlos Pendetta managed to croak. "I serve God!"
The monster recoiled as if struck.
"Don't utter that charlatan's name in my presence," it bellowed. Looking around the room, it muttered, "This facade of holiness is enough to make me puke." Squaring its bony shoulders, as if throwing off a cloak, it announced, "But I am the stronger. I am in control."
"I can't serve you," Carlos tried again. "Kill me if you must, but I will not serve you."
The beast regarded him in silence for a few moments before it spoke again.
"I chose you for your strength, your faith, your purity. A battle is coming. My side and what you perceive as your side must work together, or all is lost. I could have kept my true identity from you, had I chosen. The purpose of the Master you thought you served and mine will converge soon--momentarily, to be sure. You are a free man, capable of choice. I have picked you for all those qualities. When the time comes, you will see I am right. Until then, go about your duties of trying to reassemble this holy relic. I have removed the last obstacle from your path, so you will be backed by the most powerful religious organization in this world."
Then the devil rose and moved forward, his feet not touching the floor.
"Remember this." He pointed a horribly long, bony finger at the cardinal's face. "When the time for action comes, it will make no difference whether your master is me or the Other One. You will know what to do."
He began to slowly fade from sight, his mission done, his message delivered.
Cardinal Pendetta, partially recovering from his shock, his revulsion, his confusion, was now afraid.
"How will I know this danger of which you speak?" he called to the apparition.
The almost invisible image brought its two hands together, palm-to-palm, in front of its disappearing face.
"You will know him when he comes," it whispered, and then was gone. All that remained to remind the cardinal that it had not been a dream was the foulest stench he had ever smelled.
Carlos struggled to his feet and made his way to the tiny bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face with trembling fingers.
"My God," he prayed, "I have been a fool." Slowly, he raised his head to face his image in the mirror, the face of a traitor to God. He would have gasped, drawn back, but his quotient of fear was gone. Staring back at him was an old man. He had aged ten years or more in the last few minutes, and his hair had turned snow white.
He walked out of the bathroom a shattered man. He trembled visibly, fearing Satan had returned and sat waiting for him there; but he was alone with his misery. Feeling like the very old man he'd seen in the mirror, he sat on the side of the bed and wept. His whole premise for life had been a joke of the cruelest, foulest kind.
He thought of the straight razor that lay just a few feet from him, in the bathroom, as he studied the veins in his wrists. Was it the coward's way out, or a method to foil the devil's plans? He sat there, thinking, for a very long time.