The Last Pope

1

Why does a man run? What makes him run? He puts one leg in front of the other, the right foot follows the left. Some people seek glory. Others want to win a race or just lose a few pounds. But they always run for the same reason: they run for their lives.

Or at least that was what drove this man, his black cassock dissolving into the darkness of the place, running as fast as he could down the long interior staircase in the Secret Archives of the Vatican, a not-so-secret housing for supposedly secret documents. Those three imposing Vatican halls, and the buildings behind the Apostolic Palace, held documents of critical importance to the history of this small state and of the entire world. Only His Holiness, the pope, could examine them and decide who else could have access. The staff always said that any researcher could consult the Archives, but in Rome, and everywhere else on the planet, it was well known that not everybody was admitted, and those who were could not look at everything. There were many hidden niches in the Secret Archives’ fifty-three miles of shelves.

The clergyman dashed through a secret passageway, holding some papers yellowed with age. A sudden noise, distinct from his own steps, alarmed him. Had it come from upstairs? Downstairs? He froze, perspiration streaming down his face, but all he could hear was the accelerated rhythm of his own breathing. He ran toward his quarters in Vatican City—or Vatican country, rather—because that was what it really was, with its own rules, laws, beliefs, and political system.

Under his weak desk lamp, he scribbled his name—Monsignor Firenzi—on a large envelope into which he thrust the papers, then sealed it. The name of the addressee was illegible in the dim light. His hands, slippery with sweat, struggled to hold on to the envelope. Perspiration clouded his eyes so that he couldn’t make out even his own handwriting. Apparently finished, Monsignor left the room.

The bell at Saint Peter’s Basilica tolled—it was one o’clock in the morning—and then silence reigned again over the dark night. It was cold, but in his haste this servant of God did not even notice. Soon he was out on the walkways that led to Saint Peter’s Square, Bernini’s marvelous ellipse, with its Christian and pagan symbols. Another sound caught Monsignor’s ears. He stopped. Panting and in a cold sweat, he tried to catch his breath. It was surely the sound of steps. Maybe a Swiss Guard on nightly patrol. Monsignor Firenzi quickened his pace, still clutching the envelope. On any other night, he would have been in bed much earlier. As he reached the middle of the plaza, he glanced back and noticed a shadow in the background: not a Swiss Guard, or at least not dressed like one. The dark figure moved closer, but at the same steady pace. Now Monsignor Firenzi was running. He glanced back again, but at this time of night there was no one else but him and the briskly moving shadow.

HIS EXCELLENCY crossed the plaza and continued on Via della Conciliazione. Rome slept the sleep of the just, of the unjust, of the poor and the rich, of sinners and saints. Monsignor slowed down to a fast walk, and glanced behind him—the man was getting closer. Something glimmered in his hands. Firenzi saw it and started to run again, as fast as his aging joints would allow. There was a dull burst of sound and he had to grab, staggering, the first thing he saw. It was over so fast. The sound, and then nothing.

Still