Father Vittorio Mancini was ninety-seven years old. He was frail, withered and his robes hung on him like sackcloth over bare bones. He should have retired years ago but he simply could not bring himself to do it even though he was tired. What would he do? The Priesthood was his life! Not that he had any real duties any more. No, the church hierarchy had seen fit to strip him of most of those in the hopes that he would finally get bored enough to relinquish his meager post, but he hadn’t. His life belonged to God, not Rome, and he would serve his vows faithfully until his last breath was drawn, and the church would not deprive him of that no matter how they tried! But he was sorely tempted… it was not the same anymore and somewhat like Job, he felt that he was being tested and nearly to the end of his faith. His only trust now was the confessional, but most of the parishioners opted for younger priests, for more progressive forgiveness, if there was such a thing! Sin was sin and penance was penance, or should be, but the younger men of the cloth were notoriously soft and mild hearted. They simply waved their magic wands, kissed their vestments and absolved sin as if they were excusing poor table manners! Such a waste! They were men of God after all, not milksops! Why were they not seeking to instruct? How were men and women to learn the rightness or the wrongs of their actions if there was no true repentance? And how could there be genuine remorse if at the end of their confession all that remained was a rote transparent blessing from a priest more interested in the football scores and an anemic “Our Father” mumbled quickly and without any earnest contrition from the sinner?
“Bah!” Father Mancini mumbled as he shuffled through the darkened confines of the great Basilica of San Marco. So empty was the vast sanctuary that even the muffled rustling of his slippers on the marble echoed in reverberating whispers.
Some of the old ones still came to him, not many but a few. Most had gone to their reward and to God, even as he would surely do and soon. He hadn’t even been afforded the privilege of saying the last rites over them, though he had served them for most of his life… and theirs. The rites were said by those with fainter hearts; those who professed a belief, for however perfunctory in God but whose words lacked any real conviction or fire. He sighed and listened to the music of his breath rise to the vaulted ornate domes of the Church of the Lion. Above him Christ and the Disciples stared down from the Dome of the Pentecost. The world needed, was ripe for Pentecost! An outpouring of the spirit of God and yet it did not come because the younger priests would not preach it. Why did the Holy Father not see? Was Rome so far away and so isolated? He stared up at Christ and his faithful. He longed to be one of them.
He would meet them soon enough and he wondered how many sighs were left in him? It wasn’t that he was sad. He wasn’t but he was disheartened by it all. He remembered a time when priests were regarded with respect. Now the church was cursed with rock and roll priests who quoted popular song lyrics from the pulpit instead of the holy words of the bible!
“Bah!” He spat again in disgust.
Father Mancini had entered the priesthood at the tender age of seventeen during the Great War. Before that, he had been orphaned into the care of the church from birth. Who he was and where he came from he never knew. The sisters had given him his name. He never knew why his parents, whoever they were had given him over to the care of the sisters in the local convent. That he went from their care to the care and instruction of the priesthood seemed logical to him. He had followed in the footsteps of his father and his father for all those years had been God. What else would he have done? Where else would he have gone? He would ask, when he finally stood before the Almighty, why it all happened the way it did. He would ask his parents, if they stood with him, why? Until then, he would keep his faith and his duties.
He would sit in the confessional and wait, wait for someone who wanted genuine counsel and forgiveness to open the door and say ‘Bless me father for I have sinned.’ And he would try to stay awake but he was so tired that he invariably fell into dozing and sometimes even snored. He knew the other priests giggled at him for that behind his back but they didn’t understand! He sighed again, when they were old then they would know what it was to be forgotten, forsaken even as Christ was abandoned in the garden by all who said they knew him, who said they loved him. But Christ had persevered and so would he.
The small wooden door creaked as he opened it. He entered, kissed his vestments and sat down to listen to the silence. In a few minutes Father Mancini was sound asleep.
For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was and then he heard it again; a voice speaking Italian asking where the purse was and asking with a decided insistence. Father Mancini strained to hear but unfortunately all he could catch was a few fragments here and there. It sounded as if the voices were conducting business! What heresy! Had Christ not taught that lesson two centuries ago? There, another voice, foreign and speaking both Italian and English and then yet another voice but this clearly American from the sound of his words. Now, shouting and a scream as well. Well by God! Father Mancini had had enough of this! He would teach these, these… Protestants a lesson in proper reverence!
Bruno did not immediately understand why he slipped about as if he were a fledgling skater on a pool of ice as tried to stand. He tried to calm the spasms in his chest that caused him to inhale continuously but even he could not deny the unsparing physics of his own body even as it betrayed him. He was not angry, not frightened but his mind was racing. The American would suffer the same fate that had been reserved for Ciccio for his interference. He seemed to be warm and viscous and was still trying to get his uncooperative slipping feet beneath him. This idiot American had obviously seen too many movies of the hero… what was his name?, oa si, John Wayne! Bruno forced a thin smile to his lips as he put his hands to the floor to steady himself. Why were they moist? Why did they slip as well, grinding dust and dirt into his palms as if they were soaked with oil on a dirty floor? He gasped twice more. His chest hurt. The weight of the two men may have broken several of his ribs. Ciccio did not move. That was good. He was probably winded as well or frozen with fear or both. He saw that the American had clambered away from them and was searching himself anxiously. He screamed like a little girl. Bene, Bruno had his attention. He heard gushing… like water? It was not raining… He steadied himself again and glanced at the American. The two locked eyes and Bruno targeted all his pernicious intent on the straniero. John Wayne, he knew, was dead and his exploits the result of clever imaginations. This American was not clever or imaginative and he would be dead as soon as Bruno could stand! WHY COULD HE NOT STAND?
He looked at Ciccio again to see that he had not moved and then he saw why; he saw why Ciccio lay still and why he was slipping about on the marble. Ciccio’s neck laid splayed open like a fish’s red gaping gills. Blood gushed from him like water from an open spigot and Bruno was wallowing about in the blood like some medieval gladiator. He had made a mistake. He had not accounted for the variability of the American’s behavior and he had not accounted for Ciccio’s sudden courage. That was a serious breech of judgment for him and not one that he was accustomed to making. That he had slashed the Marocchino’s throat, even accidentally, was unfortunate but that was not his biggest worry just now. He would deride himself for that later. Right now, he had to get hold of this American before he was able to regain his senses and run. Then he had to get Ciccio’s body out of the church before anyone saw it. The pool of soured blood would remain as a silent witness that no one would ever coax to speech. Bruno was finally able to stand but before he could move forward, the American ran. It was then that he heard it. A small door opened and closed, the squeaking of rubber soled shoes and a voice echoing across the dim hallowed confines of the South Transept of the Basilica of Saint Mark.
“Cosa fai qui?” Father Mancini asked angrily.
Bruno began to walk calmly toward the Narthex, crossing the Chancel under the great dome Ascension of Christ, keeping his face turned toward the shadows.
“Fermo!” The old voice called.
He kept walking. If the body that belonged to the voice got any closer then he will have made his decision to die as well Bruno decided.
“Madonna, santa benedetto!” The voice cried out in fear. “Polizia, polizia aiuto! Polizia…” the old priest’s terrified voice fell into the flaccid darkness as the statuary and the eyes of the icons seemed to cower away into the stone walls in dread at what had been done before them.
Bruno stepped into the cool evening air. He did not look up but kept his face turned downward. His eyes searched the square as he walked diagonally to his right. The American was nowhere in sight. He would have to find him later. For now, he had to get away from the church without causing suspicion and then get to his home and remove his bloody clothes. He would have to stay off the well-lighted boats and the main streets. That meant taking the long way around, skulking through the small dark alleys among the beasts and creatures of the winter night. He didn’t mind. The rats were as much a curiosity to him as he was to them. But it could take as much as an hour before he would be home and he would have to slog through the knee and waist deep muck and mud of more than one canal to do it if he wished to remain unseen, and he did.
Martin ran through the square to his left and crossed under semi-obscured protection of the draped arches of the Procuratie Vecchie. He paused long enough to take a breath and pat himself down again. He had not been wounded but he did feel a curious air on his chest. The inside breast pocket of his open over coat was ripped through to the outer shell. He wiped his brow. He was sweating. Something was wrong and it tore at his mind but he did not have time to think. He had to run… no walk; he did not want to attract attention. He began to stride quickly away and then it hit him; what had pulled at his mind the few seconds before: his passport had been in his breast pocket! He slipped behind a column of stone and felt the cool granite against his back. He searched every pocket of his coat and trousers but it was of no use and he knew that it would be fruitless. His passport along with all his money, except for the few inconsequential dollars and miscellaneous lire and coins that he had in his pants, was in the oversized wallet that held his identification. Where had he dropped it? He closed his eyes tight and his spirit fell so hard that he was sure it made a sound like shattering glass. Ciccio had something dark in his lifeless hand, a piece of cloth, what used to be the breast pocket of his overcoat or his passport. It did not matter which because either way his identity would be known and within a few short moments! What was it Andrea had said?
“The Polizia can close this city within five minutes!”
Oh God, oh God, oh God! What should he do? Should he go to the Police and try to explain?
“…and they do not have to charge you with an offense to arrest you and keep you for a very long time. Yes, years!”
No, but wait… that had to be an exaggeration didn’t it?
“Here, they arrest and then investigate.” Andrea’s words echoed hopelessly through his frantic mind.
Think, think, he commanded himself! The Consulate, he could call the Consul General, he would have to protect him, right? He was a citizen of the U.S. right?
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
Available now, in Paperback, Hardcover and e-Reader editions from, PublishAmerica, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced. Stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.
This is a work of fiction. Names Characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, event, or locales is entirely coincidental.
PublishAmerica has allowed this work to remain exactly as the author intended, verbatim, without editorial input.
PUBLISHED BY PUBLISHAMERIC, LLLP