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The Da Vinci Code (chapter 41)

2006-07-07 17:39

  CHAPTER 41

  Outside Castel Gandolfo, an updraft of mountain air gushed over the top of the cliff and across the high bluff, sending a chill through Bishop Aringarosa as he stepped from the Fiat. I should have worn more than this cassock, he thought, fighting the reflex to shiver. The last thing he needed to appear tonight was weak or fearful.

  The castle was dark save the windows at the very top of the building, which glowed ominously. The library, Aringarosa thought. They are awake and waiting. He ducked his head against the wind and continued on without so much as a glance toward the observatory domes.

  The priest who greeted him at the door looked sleepy. He was the same priest who had greeted Aringarosa five months ago, albeit tonight he did so with much less hospitality. “We were worried about you, Bishop,” the priest said, checking his watch and looking more perturbed than worried.

  “My apologies. Airlines are so unreliable these days.”

  The priest mumbled something inaudible and then said, “They are waiting upstairs. I will escort you up.”

  The library was a vast square room with dark wood from floor to ceiling. On all sides, towering bookcases burgeoned with volumes. The floor was amber marble with black basalt trim, a handsome reminder that this building had once been a palace.

  “Welcome, Bishop,” a man's voice said from across the room.

  Aringarosa tried to see who had spoken, but the lights were ridiculously low-much lower than they had been on his first visit, when everything was ablaze. The night of stark awakening. Tonight, these men sat in the shadows, as if they were somehow ashamed of what was about to transpire.

  Aringarosa entered slowly, regally even. He could see the shapes of three men at a long table on the far side of the room. The silhouette of the man in the middle was immediately recognizable-the obese Secretariat Vaticana, overlord of all legal matters within Vatican City. The other two were high-ranking Italian cardinals.

  Aringarosa crossed the library toward them. “My humble apologies for the hour. We're on different time zones. You must be tired.”

  “Not at all,” the secretariat said, his hands folded on his enormous belly. “We are grateful you have come so far. The least we can do is be awake to meet you. Can we offer you some coffee or refreshments?”

  “I'd prefer we don't pretend this is a social visit. I have another plane to catch. Shall we get to business?”

  “Of course,” the secretariat said. “You have acted more quickly than we imagined.”

  “Have I?”

  “You still have a month.”

  “You made your concerns known five months ago,” Aringarosa said. “Why should I wait?”

  “Indeed. We are very pleased with your expediency.”

  Aringarosa's eyes traveled the length of the long table to a large black briefcase. “Is that what I requested?”

  “It is.” The secretariat sounded uneasy. “Although, I must admit, we are concerned with the request. It seems quite……”

  “Dangerous,” one of the cardinals finished. “Are you certain we cannot wire it to you somewhere? The sum is exorbitant.”

  Freedom is expensive. “I have no concerns for my own safety. God is with me.”

  The men actually looked doubtful.

  “The funds are exactly as I requested?”

  The secretariat nodded. “Large-denomination bearer bonds drawn on the Vatican Bank. Negotiable as cash anywhere in the world.”

  Aringarosa walked to the end of the table and opened the briefcase. Inside were two thick stacks of bonds, each embossed with the Vatican seal and the title PORTATORE, making the bonds redeemable to whoever was holding them.

  The secretariat looked tense. “I must say, Bishop, all of us would feel less apprehensive if these funds were in cash.”

  I could not lift that much cash, Aringarosa thought, closing the case. “Bonds are negotiable as cash. You said so yourself.”

  The cardinals exchanged uneasy looks, and finally one said, “Yes, but these bonds are traceable directly to the Vatican Bank.”

  Aringarosa smiled inwardly. That was precisely the reason the Teacher suggested Aringarosa get the money in Vatican Bank bonds. It served as insurance. We are all in this together now. “This is a perfectly legal transaction,” Aringarosa defended. “Opus Dei is a personal prelature of Vatican City, and His Holiness can disperse monies however he sees fit. No law has been broken here.”

  “True, and yet……” The secretariat leaned forward and his chair creaked under the burden. “We have no knowledge of what you intend to do with these funds, and if it is in any way illegal……”

  “Considering what you are asking of me,” Aringarosa countered, “what I do with this money is not your concern.”

  There was a long silence.

  They know I'm right, Aringarosa thought. “Now, I imagine you have something for me to sign?”

  They all jumped, eagerly pushing the paper toward him, as if they wished he would simply leave.

  Aringarosa eyed the sheet before him. It bore the papal seal. “This is identical to the copy you sent me?”

  “Exactly.”

  Aringarosa was surprised how little emotion he felt as he signed the document. The three men present, however, seemed to sigh in relief.

  “Thank you, Bishop,” the secretariat said. “Your service to the Church will never be forgotten.”

  Aringarosa picked up the briefcase, sensing promise and authority in its weight. The four men looked at one another for a moment as if there were something more to say, but apparently there was not. Aringarosa turned and headed for the door.

  “Bishop?” one of the cardinals called out as Aringarosa reached the threshold.

  Aringarosa paused, turning. “Yes?”

  “Where will you go from here?”

  Aringarosa sensed the query was more spiritual than geographical, and yet he had no intention of discussing morality at this hour. “Paris,” he said, and walked out the door.

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