His Supreme Holiness Pope John XXIV, recent successor to the German Pope, stared out of the window of his comfortable modern air-conditioned private office in the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the hazy distance, secular sinful Rome lay beyond the Byzantine edifices of the Vatican City, the administrative hub of the most powerful religion in human history.
A plain grey cassock with no decorative trimming covered the Pontif’s small thin but wiry seventy- year-old body. Clean-shaven and hair tonsured in the Dominican manner, he stood still as a heron; hands clasped behind him.
Below, the oily brown Tiber bulged and roiled sluggishly past the footings of the ancient Roman fortress which used to guard the entrance to St.Peter's Square and the vast Basilica beyond.
Fiume Tevere, Old Snake Tiber, has dined well over the centuries, fed from the parapets, docks and platforms of the old Holy City. Cloaca maxima of Rome since the dawn of history, the great river has carried more dead Christians en route to the Eternal City than were ever consumed by the dog-eared, flea-bitten lions in the Grand Arena of the Coliseum less than two miles by Fiat to the South West. Pope, Cardinal, monk or pilgrim, it made no difference; all went to fertilise what used to be the rich vineyard- laden sloping plains to the seaward West, now an American-style desolation of suburban sprawl, airport and motorway concrete that stretched all the way down to the sea at the ancient port of Ostia.
In the small private office, accessed from the Papal Apartments only by a secret passageway built under the Via della Conciliazone by the Spanish Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, in 1493, stood a large leather topped desk. It was a Vatican treasure in English yew with ornately scrolled edges and holy scenes carved along its sides. Stacks of bulky document files lay scattered across its surface. Of the two closest to the Pope's hand, one had the words 'Albigensian Heresy' stamped on it, and the other was simply labelled 'Q4'. Both had 'Top Secret' printed in red-inked Italian on the front cover. These documents were the modern equivalent of those hand-scripted by teams of castrated monks in the not-so olden days. The sharp laser print-outs on fine stationary showed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or Holy Inquisition, as it used to be known, possessed tools equal, if not superior, to those widely available in the secular world. As the oldest and most powerful secret service organisation in existence, the Inquisition possessed technical assets equal to the CIA, MI6, the Mossad or even the US Department of Homeland Security.
Prayer alone has never been sufficient to maintain Roman Catholicism as one of the most potent forces in global politics since the Donation of Constantine in AD 312. To quote a phrase once attributed to God's Banker, Archbishop Marcinkus. ‘You can't run the Church on Hail Marys.’ Satan, heresies and the ungodly must be combated with every sinew, thought and tool available. But it all cost money. In spite of the hiccup of John Paul I, John XXIV considered that his predecessors had done well in that regard. It was a pity about Calvi, Sindona and the losses from their Enron and World Com holdings but, well, the Church had to continue in the face of error and casualty.
The Holy Father turned back to his desk and pushed a hidden button recessed into its side. A flat-screen VDU rose from a recess within the desk, and lit up with a beep. The Sun workstation was networked into a massive Cray Millennium Blue mainframe housed in a nuclear-bombproof bunker deep below Ground-Zero Vatican City. 'Armageddon Games' are a deadly serious application for the techno-bagarozzi assigned to serve as High Priests to this most modern neo-facet of the Almighty.
The Papal PC was whimsically nicknamed 'Abulafia' after a Jewish rabbi who'd made important contributions to the Judaic Torah and Kabalah. He was rumoured to have invented a primitive machine for enumerating and computing all the names of God, in the zealous hope and belief that this would precipitate the End of Time, the Apocalypse and the Coming of the TRUE Messiah. The Holy Father had commissioned a young computa-cleric to re-design the GUI of the operating system with Holy Icono-graphics. It provided His Reverence with mild amusement to access a private database of known personal enemies by mouse-clicking on the Veronica.
Increasingly often these days, he would withdraw to “consult the rabbi” clicking on the Acheropita, to bring up Sonic the Hedgehog, an old Nineties arcade game whose simple themes he often used in allegorical sermons delivered from the august High Pulpit of St.Peter's. The different levels represented, to his mind, progression in the attainment of Enlightenment; the bosses and obstacles representing Satan and the struggle against Worldliness. Pope John XXIV was an avid player of arcade games.
The world of computer games soothed his mind; in the same way TV snooker or English Test Match cricket might for lesser mortals. There are encyclicals and pastoral letters governing Catholic Doctrine on every imaginable pattern of human misbehaviour—console games are a patent invention of the Devil, railed at with holy invective from pulpits across the globe—but the Pope himself has yet to pronounce on this. After all, God works in mysterious ways, and D'Ascriba could hardly admit that he had been using a Gameboy for recreation during the interminable days of the Conclave of Cardinals that had chosen him to succeed and to be God's instrument to guide the Vessel of the Church through the stormy seas of the New Millennium.
It is a mistake to imagine that a reigning Pontiff spends any time thinking holy thoughts of doctrine. This is formulated for him by teams of earnest and worthy ecclesiastics who maintain the Sacred Continuity. The Pope’s proper function is to be the Star of the Soap, Voice of the Faith, the Implementer of Policy, God's Politician and Prime Minister. His thoughts, therefore, were, at this time, to do with what he'd been studying on his desk—Q4, the Albigensian Heresy, and what the hell was Cardinal Joseph Mirphy, Legate of New York, doing?
“Rodriguez?” he called out. “Get me Secretary Von Helsinger on the phone. I need to speak with him. Also, make an appointment for three this afternoon for him and Assessor Paliato to see me here.”
“I'll get on to it right away, Holy Father.”
Canon Rodriguez Tolosa, personal assistant to the Pontiff from his Rio days, picked up one of the three phones on his desk in the outer office and dialled the code for the Department of the Curia in Holy Office Square which houses the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Promptly at three that afternoon, Cardinal Otto Von Helsinger, a Swiss and the Italian Cardinal Guido Paliato, Secretary and Assessor respectively, presented themselves at the Pontiff's rooms in Castel Sant Angelo.
“What's going on, Otto?” asked the Assessor as they waited for the security system to check their coded cardkeys at the door.
“Some panic about security at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalemand the Israelis, I believe,” grunted the Grand Inquisitor. He was puffing from the exertion of the half-mile walk through the narrow tunnels from his office. The light flashed green and the door clicked open. Von Helsinger pushed the heavy padded armoured door open and went in, followed by his second-in-command.
The Pontiff was waiting for them in the inner office. As Canon Rodriguez closed the door behind them, he got straight down to brass crucifixion nails.
“We have another serious problem, gentlemen,” he said. “I've received a report this morning from Father Vascone on the hi-speed modem link from Jerusalem. The Ecole Biblique has been broken into.” He went on, “As you know, it is vital to continue our predecessors’ policy of dis-information and prevarication over Q4 material. De Vaux and Benoit were brilliant at this, it seems, but now there is a new and unwelcome interest.”
“Does Vascone know what is missing?” asked Von Helsinger.
“Nothing that we know about yet, but we know that they penetrated the Scrollery for over an hour. They must have taken photographs or videos.”
“Surely, we don't keep much Q4 stuff of any importance there now,” asked Cardinal Paliato “Do we?”
“No, of course not. Most of it has been here in the Secure Vault for more than twenty years, ever since De Vaux's time.”
“So, what's the problem?” asked Von Helsinger.
“The problem, my dear Otto,” snapped the Pope angrily, showing briefly the mettle which had led the Conclave to choose him as Pontiff, “is that there is a group of meddlers looking systematically for Q4 material and willing to take extreme measures. All the security devices were inactivated professionally in some way, and the two armed guards were found in the morning. Their throats had been cut. May their souls rest in peace.” The other two muttered, “Amen” and crossed themselves perfunctorily.
“So what is it you want us to do, Holy Father?” asked Von Helsinger.
“For Christ's sake,” blasphemed the Pope, “that's your job. I don't know. Just be on top of the problem. My every instinct tells me that ancient enemies are once more coming out of the woodwork. Satan is stirring things up. You know that we face a dangerous revival of the old heresy.”
He picked up one of the files and waved it at the two Cardinals. “You see this? It's almost unbelievable but we are facing a revival of the Albigensian Heresy. In the twenty-first century, this is absurd!” He went on. “Templars, bloody shrouds, Rennes le Chateau, Gnosticism, Cathars, mysterious weeping icons!” He snorted with derision. “I thought we had all this suppressed and locked away safely. You know how dangerous our enemies in Priory Arcadia are with this sort of material. I want you to get a grip on this, right now!” he snapped. Lowering his voice menacingly, he continued:” I do not want to be the Pope that presides over the final humiliation and disintegration of our Church. Ancient bloody history will destroy us all, if we're not careful. There are people out there making a pitch for the Millennial high ground while we are scratching around, barely surviving the scandals of our support of the Banco Ambrosiano, Italia Forza and pederast priests in Boston and Ireland!” Turning away from his two shocked Inquisitors and waving his hands in the air, he continued: “I want our own relics dusted off and some new ones made. The time has come to raise the ante,” he said decisively. “But no more Shroud cock-ups. I don't want any more dirty linen washed in public. Capiche?”
The two Cardinals nodded.
“I want you to come up with a bit of magic. How about splinters off the Cross? I know we have stored somewhere, a few real crucifixes dating from Roman Times. Surely, we can do something with those? Make them glow with phosphorescence on Easter Sunday. Project an holographic image, give out an electrostatic aura—you know, the usual stuff. We have a Special Team for this, don't we?”
A thrilling hunt for Early Christian icons and artifacts of immeasurable value such as the Legacy of Carpocrates against a backdrop of the modern Age of Terrorism and European and American evangelical ‘rapture’ politics.