c. A.D. 30
Abgar, king of Edessa,
to Jesus the good Savior, who appears at Jerusalem, greetings—
I have been informed concerning you and the cures you perform without the use of medicines and herbs.
For it is reported that you cause the blind to see and the lame to walk, that you cleanse lepers, cast out unclean spirits and devils, and restore to health those who have been long diseased, and, further, that you raise up the dead.
All of which, when I heard, persuaded me of one of these two: either that you are God Himself descended from heaven who does these things, or you are the Son of God.
On this account, therefore, I write to you earnestly, to beg that you take the trouble of a journey hither and cure a disease which I am under.
For I hear the Jews ridicule you and intend you mischief.
My city is indeed small, but neat, and large enough for us both.
The king laid down his pen and turned his eyes toward a young man of his own age, waiting motionless and respectful at the far end of the room.
“You are certain, Josar?” The king’s gaze was direct and piercing.
“My lord, believe me. . . .” The young man could barely hold himself back as he spoke. He approached the king and stopped near the table at which Abgar had been writing.
“I believe you, Josar, I believe you. You are the most faithful friend I have, and so you have been since we were boys. You have never failed me, Josar, but the wonders that are told of this Jew are so passing strange that I fear
your desire to aid me may have confounded your senses.”
“My lord, you must believe me, for only those who believe in the Jew are saved. I have seen a blind man, when Jesus brushed his fingers over the man’s dead eyes, recover his sight. I have seen a lame man, whose legs would not move, touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic and have seen Jesus gaze sweetly upon him and bid him walk, and to the astonishment of all, the man stood and his legs bore him as your legs, sire, bear you. I have seen a poor woman suffering from leprosy watch the Nazarene as she hid in the shadows of the street, for all men fled her, and Jesus approached her and said to her, ‘You are cured,’ and the woman, incredulous, cried, ‘I am healed, I am healed!’ For indeed her face became that of a human once more, and her hands, which before she hid from sight, were whole.
“And I have seen with my own eyes the greatest of all miracles, for when I was following Jesus and his disciples and we came upon a family mourning the death of a relative, Jesus entered the house and commanded the dead man to rise. God must be in the voice of the Nazarene, for I swear to you, my king, that the man opened his eyes, and stood, and wondered at being alive. . . .”
“You are right, Josar, I must believe if I am to be healed. I want to believe in this Jesus of Nazareth, who is truly the Son of God if he can raise the dead. But will he want to heal a king who has been prey to concupiscence?”
“Abgar, Jesus cures not only men’s bodies but also their souls. He preaches that with repentance and the desire to lead a life free thenceforth of sin, a man may merit the forgiveness of God. Sinners find solace in the Nazarene, my sire. . . .”
“I do sincerely hope so, Josar, although I cannot forgive myself for my lust for Ania. The woman has brought this plight upon me; she has sickened me in body and in soul.”
“How were you to know, sire, that she was diseased, that the gift sent you by King Tyrus was a stratagem of state? How were you to suspect that she bore the seed of the illness and would contaminate you? Ania was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen. Any man would have lost his reason and given his all to have her.”
“But I am king, Josar, and I should not have lost my reason, however beautiful the dancing girl may have been. . . . Now she weeps over her lost beauty, for the marks of the disease are upon her face, and the whiteness is eating it away. And I, Josar, have a sweat upon me that never leaves me, and my sight grows cloudy, and I fear above all things that the illness will consume my skin and leave me—”
Abgar fell silent at the sound of soft footsteps. A smiling woman, lithe, with black hair and olive skin, entered.
Josar admired her. Yes, he admired the perfection of her features and the happy smile she always wore; beyond that he admired her loyalty to the king and the fact that her lips would never have uttered the slightest reproach against the man stolen from her by Ania, the dancing girl from the Caucasus, the woman who had contaminated her husband the king with the terrible disease.
Abgar would not allow himself to be touched by anyone, since he feared he might pollute all those with whom he came in contact. He appeared less and less frequently in public. But he had not been able to resist the iron will
of the queen, who insisted upon caring for him personally and, not just that, who also encouraged him in his soul to believe the story brought by Josar of the wonders performed by the Nazarene.
The king looked at her with sadness in his eyes.
“It is you, my dear. . . . I was talking with Josar about the Nazarene. He will take a letter to him inviting him to come. I have offered to share my kingdom with him.”
“An escort should accompany Josar, to ensure that nothing happens on the journey and to ensure also that he returns safely with the Nazarene.”
“I will take three or four men; that will be enough,” Josar said. “The Romans have no trust in their subjects and would not look with favor on a group of soldiers entering the town. Nor would Jesus. I hope, my lady,to complete my mission and convince Jesus to return with me. I will take swift horses and will send you and my lord the news when I reach Jerusalem.”
“I shall complete the letter, Josar.”
“And I shall leave at dawn, my lord.”
The fire began to lick at the pews as smoke filled the nave with darkness. Four figures dressed in black hurried toward a lateral chapel. A fifth man, humbly dressed, hovering in a doorway near the high altar, wrung his hands. The high wail of sirens reached a crescendo outside—fire trucks responding to the alarm. In a matter of seconds fire- fighters would burst into the cathedral, and that meant another failure. The man rushed down from the altar, motioning his brothers to come to him. One of them kept running toward the chapel, while the others shrank back from the fire that was beginning to surround them. Time had run out. The fire had come out of nowhere and progressed faster than they’d calculated. The man trying so desperately to fulfill their mission was enveloped in flames. He writhed as the fire consumed his clothes, his skin, but somehow he found the strength to pull off the hood that concealed his face. The others tried to reach him, to beat back the flames, but the fire was everywhere, and the cathedral doors began to buckle as the firefighters battered against them. Their brother burned without a scream, without a sound.
They retreated then and raced behind their guide to a side door, slipping outside at the same instant the water from the fire hoses poured into the cathedral. They never saw the man hiding among the shadows of one of the pulpits, a silencer-equipped pistol at his side.
Once they were gone, he came down from the pulpit, touched a spring hidden in the wall, and disappeared.
Marco Valoni took a drag off his cigarette, and the smoke mixed in his lungs with the smoke from the fire. He’d come outside for fresh air while the fire-fighters finished putting out the embers that were still glowing in and around the right side of the high altar.
The piazza was closed off with police blockades, and the carabinieri were holding back the curious and the concerned, all craning their necks to try to see what had happened in the cathedral. At that hour of the evening, Turin was a beehive of people desperate to learn whether the Holy Shroud had been damaged.
Marco had asked the reporters covering the fire to try to keep the crowds calm: The shroud had been unscathed. What he hadn’t told them was that someone had died in the flames. He still didn’t know who.
Another fire. Fire seemed to plague the old cathedral. But Marco didn’t believe in coincidences, and the Turin Cathedral was a place where too many accidents happened: robbery attempts and, within recent memory, three fires. In the first one, which occurred after the Second World War, investigators had found the bodies of two men incinerated by the flames. The autopsy determined that they were both about twenty-five and that, despite the fire, they had been killed by gunshot. And last, a truly gruesome finding:
Their tongues had been surgically cut out. But why? And who had shot them? No one had ever been able to find out. The case was still open, but it had gone cold.
Neither the faithful nor the general public knew that the shroud had spent long periods of time outside the cathedral over the last hundred years. Maybe that was why it had been spared the consequences of so many accidents.
A vault in the Banco Nazionale had been the shroud’s place of safekeeping. The relic was taken out of it only to be displayed on special occasions, and then only under the strictest security. But despite all the security, the shroud had been exposed to danger—real danger—more than once. It had been moved back to the cathedral only days ago, in preparation for the unveiling of extensive refurbishments.
Marco still remembered the fire of April 12, 1997. How could he forget, since it was the same night—or early morning—he’d been celebrating his retirement with his colleagues in the Art Crimes Department.
He was fifty then, and he’d just been through open-heart surgery. Two heart attacks and a life-or-death operation had finally persuaded him to listen when Giorgio Marchesi, his brother-in-law and cardiologist, advised him to devote himself to the dolce far niente, or, at the least, put in for a nice quiet bureaucratic position, one of those jobs where he could spend his time reading the newspaper and taking midmorning breaks for cappuccino in some nearby café.
Paola had insisted that he retire; she sugared the pill by reminding him that he had gone as high in the Art Crimes Department as he could go—he was the director—and that he could honorably end a brilliant career and devote himself to enjoying life. But he had resisted. He’d rather go into some office—any office—every day than to turn into fifty-year-old retired jetsam washed up on some beach somewhere. Even so, he’d resigned his position as director of the Art Crimes Department, and the night before the fire, despite
Paola’s and Giorgio’s protests, he’d gone out to dinner with his friends. By daybreak they were still drinking. These were the same people he’d been working with for fourteen, fifteen hours a day for the last twenty years, tracking down the mafias that trafficked in artworks, unmasking forgeries, and protecting, so far as was humanly possible, Italy’s artistic heritage.
The Art Crimes Department was a special agency under both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture. It was a unique collection of police officers mixed with a good number of archaeologists, historians, experts in medieval art, modern art, religious art. . . . He had given it the best years of his life.
It had not been easy to climb the ladder of success. His father had worked in a gas station; his mother was a homemaker. They had just scraped by, and he’d managed to attend the university thanks only to scholarships. But his mother had pleaded with him to find a good, secure job, one with the state, and he had given in to her wishes. A friend of his father’s, a policeman who regularly stopped to fill up at the gas station, helped him with the entrance tests for the carabinieri. Marco took them and passed them, but he wasn’t cut out to be a cop, so he continued his studies at night, after work, and eventually managed to earn a degree in history. The first thing he did when he got his degree was request a transfer to the Art Crimes Department. He combined his two specialties, history and police work, and little by little, working hard and taking advantage of breaks when they came his way, he rose through the ranks to the top. How he’d enjoyed traveling through Italy, experiencing its treasures firsthand and getting to know other countries, too, as his career progressed!
He had met Paola at the University of Rome. She was studying medieval art; it was love at first sight, and within months they were married. They’d been together for twenty-five years; they had two children and were truly
Paola taught at the university, and she had never expressed any resentment at how little time he spent at home. Only once had they had a really big fight. It was when he returned from Turin that spring of 1997, after the cathedral fire, and told her he was not retiring after all, but not to worry because he would redefine his job as director. He would embrace bureaucracy. He wasn’t going to be traveling anymore or out in the field doing investigations—he was just going to be a bureaucrat. Giorgio, his doctor, told him he was crazy. But the men and women he worked with were delighted. It was the fire in the cathedral that had changed his mind about staying. He was convinced that it hadn’t been accidental, no matter how often he told the press it was.
And now here he was, investigating another fire in the Turin Cathedral. Less than two years ago he’d been called in to investigate another robbery attempt, one of many over the years. The thief had been caught almost by accident. Although it was true he hadn’t had any cathedral property on him, it was surely just because he hadn’t had time to pull off the job. Artworks and other objects near the shroud’s casket were in disarray. A priest passing by just then saw a man running, apparently scared off by the sound of the alarm, which was louder than the cathedral’s bells. The priest ran after him, yelling, “Fermati, ladro! Fermati!”—“Stop, thief! Stop!”—and two young men passing by had tackled him and held him until the police arrived. The thief had no tongue; it had been surgically removed. Nor did he have any fingerprints; the tips of his fingers were scarred over from burns. The thief, so far as the investigation was concerned, was a man without a country, without a name, and he was now rotting in the Turin jail. He’d remained obdurate and unresponsive through interrogation after interrogation. They’d never managed to get anything out of him.
No, Marco didn’t believe in coincidences. It was no coincidence that all the “thieves” in the Turin Cathedral had no tongues and had had their fingerprints burned off. Such a pattern would be almost laughable were it not so grotesque.
Down through history, fire had dogged the shroud. Marco had learned that during the time it was in the possession of the House of Savoy, the cloth had survived several blazes. On the night and early morning of December 3 and 4, 1532, fire broke out in the sacristy of Sainte Chapelle, in Chambéry, where the House of Savoy kept the shroud. By the time the four locks guarding the relic could be pried off, the silver reliquary casket that housed it, made to the order of Marguerite of Austria, had melted, scorching the shroud; worse, a drop of melted silver had burned a hole in the relic.
In 1578, the House of Savoy deposited the shroud in the Turin Cathedral, but the incidents had continued. A hundred years after the 1532 fire, another blaze almost reached the resting place of the shroud. Two men were surprised in the chapel, and both, knowing they were caught redhanded, threw themselves into the flames and burned to death without uttering a sound, despite the terrible torment of their passing. Marco wondered whether they had had tongues. He would never know.
Since that time, not a century had passed without a robbery attempt or a fire. Only one of the culprits had been apprehended alive, in recent years, at least—the thief now residing in the city prison.
One of Marco’s team interrupted his musings.
“Boss, the cardinal’s here; he just got in from Rome and he’s really upset by all this. . . . He wants to see you.”
“Upset? I’m not surprised. He’s on a bad run—not ten years ago the cathedral almost burned down, two years ago there was a robbery attempt, and now another fire.”
“Yeah, he says he’s sorry he let himself be talked into doing the renovations and that it’s the last time—this cathedral’s been here for hundreds of years, and now, with all the sloppy work and the accidents, it’s practically
Marco entered the cathedral through a side door bearing a small sign designating the church offices. Two older women who shared a small office looked very busy. Three or four priests paced about, clearly agitated, as agents under Marco’s orders moved in and out, examining the walls, taking samples and photographs. A young priest, somewhere in his early thirties, approached Marco and extended his hand. His handshake was firm.
“I’m Padre Yves.”
“Yes, I know. If you’ll come with me, His Eminence is waiting to see you.”
The priest opened a heavy door that led into a large, luxurious office paneled in dark wood. The paintings on the walls were Renaissance—a Madonna, a Christ, various saints. On the desk was a heavy embossed silver crucifix. Marco realized it must be at least three hundred years old.
The cardinal’s normally friendly face was clouded with concern.
“Have a seat, Signor Valoni, please.”
“Thank you, Your Eminence.”
“Tell me what’s happened. Do we know who died?”
“We don’t know for certain who the man is or what happened, sir. It appears that there was a short circuit, due to the renovations, and that’s what started the fire.”
“Yes, Your Eminence, again. And if you’ll allow us, sir, I want to investigate this thoroughly. We’ll stay here for a few more days; I want to go over every inch of the cathedral, and my men and I will be talking to everyone who’s been in the cathedral over the last few hours and days. I would ask for your full cooperation.”
“Of course, Signor Valoni, of course. We are entirely at your disposal for any questions you may have, as we have been in the past. Investigate whatever and wherever you need. What’s happened is a catastrophe, truly—one person is dead, irreplaceable artworks have been burned or ruined beyond repair, and the flames almost reached the Holy Shroud. I don’t know what we would all do if it had been destroyed.”
“Your Eminence, the shroud . . .”
“I know, Signor Valoni, I know what you’re going to say—radiocarbon dating has determined that the shroud cannot be the cloth that Our Lord was buried in. But for millions of believers, the shroud is authentic, regardless of what the carbon-fourteen says, and the Church has allowed it to be worshipped. And of course, there are those scientists who cannot explain the figure that we take to be Christ’s. Furthermore—”
“Excuse me, Your Eminence, I had no intention of calling the religious importance of the shroud into question. It made an unforgettable impression on me the first time I saw it, and it still impresses me today.”
“Ah. Then, what?”
“I wanted to ask you whether anything out of the ordinary had happened in the last few days, the last few months—anything, no matter how insignificant it might seem—that was unusual or that you noticed for some reason.”
“Why, no, honestly nothing. After that last scare two years ago, when they broke in and tried to steal objects from the high altar, it’s been very quiet in the cathedral.”
“Think hard, sir.”
“What do you want me to think about? When I’m in Turin I celebrate Mass in the cathedral every morning at eight. Sundays at twelve. I spend some time in Rome; today I was at the Vatican when I received the news of the fire. Pilgrims come from all over the world to see the shroud—two weeks ago, a group of scientists from France, England, and the United States came to perform some tests and—”
“Who were they?”
“Ah! A group of professors, all Catholics, who believe that despite all the studies and the categorical verdict from the radiocarbon dating, the shroud is the true burial cloth of Christ.”
“Did any of them draw your attention in any way?”
“No, not really. I received them in my office in the episcopal palace, and we talked for about an hour. I had had a small lunch prepared. They told me about some of their theories as to why they believed the radiocarbon studies aren’t entirely reliable. . . . There was very little else.”
“Did any of these professors seem different in any way from the others? More driven, more aggressive . . . ?”
“Signor Valoni, for many years I have received scientists studying the shroud; the Church has been most open and has given them excellent access. These particular professors were very pleasant, very ‘nice,’ shall we say; only one of them, Dr. Bolard, seemed more reserved, less talkative than his colleagues, but I attributed that to the fact that it makes him nervous when we do work on the cathedral.”
“Why is that?”
“What a question, Signor Valoni! Because Professor Bolard has spent years helping us with the conservation of the shroud, and he is afraid—as well he might be, it turns out—that we might be exposing it to unnecessary risks. I have known him for many years; he is a serious, rigorous scientist, a world-renowned scholar, and a good Catholic.”
“How often has he been here?”
“Oh, countless times. As I said, he works with the Church on the conservation of the shroud. He is so much a part of our effort, in fact, that when other scientists come to study it, we often call him in so he can ensure that the shroud won’t be exposed to any possible deterioration. We also have files on all the scientists who have visited us, who have studied the shroud, the people from NASA, that Russian—what was his name? I don’t remember. . . . Anyway, and all the famous scholars—Barnett, Hynek, Tamburelli, Tite, Gonella—all of them. Oh, and Walter McCrone, the first scientist to insist that the shroud was not the cloth that Christ was buried in; he died just a few months ago, God rest his soul.”
“I’d like to know the dates this Dr. Bolard has been here and to have a list of all the teams of scientists that have done studies on the shroud in recent years, plus the dates they were in Turin. You might include any other noteworthy
groups as well.”
“How far back should we go?” the cardinal asked.
“The last twenty years, if possible.”
“My word! Just what are you looking for?”
“I don’t know, Your Eminence, I don’t know.”
The cardinal gazed at him steadily. “For years you have insisted that the shroud is somehow connected with all these accidents, that it is the object behind them, but I, my dear Signor Valoni, simply cannot believe that. Who could possibly wish to destroy the shroud? And why? As for the robbery attempts, you know that much of the art in the cathedral is priceless, and there are many unscrupulous men who have no respect even for the house of God.”
“You’re right, I’m sure, Your Eminence, but you have to concede that these incidents cannot be random, unrelated events, given the bizarre circumstances—the repeated involvement of these mutilated men. This is a sustained effort of some sort, and it seems to me that only an object of singular renown, such as the shroud, could be at its center.”
“Yes, of course it’s disturbing, as you say, and the Church is very, very concerned. In fact, I have gone several times to visit that poor wretch who tried to rob us two years ago. He sits there in front of me and doesn’t respond in any way, as though he doesn’t understand a word I say.”
Marco sensed that there would be no more concrete information forthcoming from the cardinal, so he gently tried to steer the discussion back to the information he needed.
“So, Your Eminence, will you get that list ready for me? It’s just routine, but I have to follow up on it.”
“Yes, certainly, I’ll tell my secretary, the young priest who showed you in, to gather the material for you as soon as possible. Padre Yves is very efficient; he’s been with me for seven months, since my previous aide passed away, and I must say that his presence is a boon. He’s intelligent, discreet, pious, he speaks a number of languages. . . .”
“Yes, that’s right, but his Italian, as you’ve seen, is perfect; he speaks English, German, Hebrew, Arabic, he reads Aramaic. . . .”
“And who recommended him to you, Your Eminence?”
“My good friend, the aide to the acting Under-Secretary of State for the Vatican, Monsignor Aubry, a remarkable man.”
It struck Marco that most of the men of the Church he’d known were remarkable, especially those who moved through the Vatican. But he remained silent as he gazed at the cardinal—a good man, he thought, wiser and more intelligent than he sometimes let people see and very skilled at diplomacy.
The cardinal picked up the telephone and asked Padre Yves to come in. Almost instantly the young priest appeared at the door.
“Come in, padre, come in. You’ve met my good friend Signor Valoni. He’s asked that we prepare a list of all the scientific delegations and other important groups that have visited the shroud in the last twenty years and when they were here. Will you get to work on that, please? He’d like it right away.”
Padre Yves looked at Marco a moment before asking, “Forgive me, Signor Valoni, but could you tell me what it is you’re looking for?”
“Padre Yves, not even Signor Valoni knows what he’s looking for, but he wants the name of anyone who’s had any relationship with the shroud over the past twenty years, and we are going to provide him with that information.”
“Of course, Your Eminence. I’ll try to get it to him as soon as possible, although with all this commotion it won’t be easy. I’ll have to go through the files personally; we have a long way to go in computerizing them.”
“Don’t worry, padre,” Valoni replied, “I can wait a few days, but the sooner you can get me that information the better.”
“Your Eminence, may I ask what the shroud has to do with the fire?”
“Ah! Padre Yves, I have been asking Signor Valoni that same question for years. Every time something like this happens, he insists that the objective is the shroud.”
“My God, the shroud!”
Marco studied Padre Yves. He didn’t look like a priest, or at least most of the priests that Marco knew, and living in Rome meant he knew a lot of them. Padre Yves was tall, quite handsome, athletic; more than likely, he played some sport regularly. There was not a trace of that softness that resulted from mixing chastity and good food—a mixture indulged in widely by the priestly population. If Padre Yves weren’t wearing his ecclesiastical collar, he’d look like one of those executives who work out in the gym
every morning and play squash or tennis every weekend.
“Yes, padre,” the cardinal was saying, “the shroud. But fortunately the Lord protects it. It has never been severely damaged.”
“I’m just trying to follow up on anything that might shed some light on what’s been happening,” Marco assured them, “and to chase down any loose ends. There have been too many incidents connected with the cathedral. It’s time for them to stop. Here’s my card and my cell phone number, padre. Let me know when you have that list, and if you think of anything that might help us in the investigation, please call me, anytime.”
“Yes, of course, Signor Valoni. I will,” the young priest assured him.
Marco’s cell phone rang as he left the cathedral offices. The coroner’s verdict was short and sweet: The deceased was a male around thirty years old, average height, five foot eight, five foot nine, thin. And no, there was no tongue.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m as sure as I can be with a corpse turned to charcoal.
The body had no tongue, and it wasn’t the result of the fire—it was removed by surgery.
Don’t ask me when, because given the state of the body it’s just too hard to tell.”
“I’ll send you the whole report. I called as soon as I finished the autopsy.”
“I’ll stop by and pick it up, if you don’t mind.”
“Come and get it. I’ll be here all day.”
Back at Turin’s carabinieri headquarters, where the Art Crimes unit maintained a small office, Marco met with one of his senior men.
“Okay, Giuseppe, what do we have so far?”
“In the first place, nothing’s missing. They didn’t steal anything. Antonino and Sofia have done pretty much a whole inventory—paintings, candelabras, sculptures, everything. It’s all there, although some things have varying degrees of smoke or water damage. The flames destroyed the pulpit on the right and the pews, and all that’s left of the sixteenth-century statue of the Virgin is ashes. Pietro’s been interviewing the guys who were working on the new wiring; the fire apparently started from a short circuit.”
“Another short circuit.”
“Yeah, like the one in ’97. He’s also talked to the company in charge of the renovation work, and he asked Minerva to get on her computer and find out everything she can about the owners of the business, and also about the workers. Some of them are immigrants, and it’ll be tough to get any information on them, but she’ll try.”
Giuseppe paused and gazed at his boss. “And I’ve asked her to find out whether there’s some sect that cuts out its followers’ tongues. I know it’s probably a stretch—but we’ve gotta look everywhere, right? And Minerva’s
a genius with this stuff.” When Marco nodded after a moment, Giuseppe went on.
“Between Pietro and me we’ve interviewed everybody on staff. There was nobody in the cathedral when the fire started. At three it’s always closed, since that’s when they all are at lunch.”
“We have the body of one man. Was he working alone?”
“We aren’t sure, but we don’t think so. It would be tricky for someone working alone to prepare and carry out a major theft in the Turin Cathedral, unless maybe it was a job for hire, a thief somebody paid to come in and grab a specific piece of art.”
“But if he wasn’t alone, where are the others?”
Giuseppe didn’t answer, and Marco fell silent. He had a bad feeling about this fire, and a hollow pit in his stomach to prove it. Paola had said he was obsessed with the shroud, and maybe she was right: He had always felt that there was much more to the periodic events in Turin than they had been able to uncover—something “underneath” that connected them all. The bizarre factor of the mutilated men was only the tip of it. He was sure he was missing something, that there was a thread to follow somewhere, and that if he could find it he’d find the solution. He decided to go to the Turin jail and pay a visit to the perp from the last incident. They had been unable to ferret out anything about him; they weren’t even sure if the guy was Italian. Two years ago Marco had left him to the carabinieri after weeks of futile interrogation. But the mute was the only lead they had, and like an idiot he’d dropped him.
As he lit another cigarette, he decided to get in touch with John Barry, the cultural attaché to the United States embassy. John was actually CIA, like almost every cultural attaché in foreign embassies around the world.
Governments didn’t have much imagination for working out covers for their agents. Even so, Barry was a nice guy. He wasn’t a field operative; he worked for the CIA’s Office of Intelligence Assessment, analyzing and interpreting the intelligence that came in from field agents before it was sent on to Washington. The two men had been friends for years—a friendship forged through work, since many of the pieces of art stolen by the art mafias wound up in the hands of wealthy Americans who—sometimes because they were in love with a particular work, other times out of vanity or to turn a quick buck—had no scruples about purchasing stolen art. It was a dark area of international commerce, where many interests often intersected.
Barry didn’t fit the stereotypical image of the American or of the CIA agent. He was fifty-something, like Marco, and he had a doctorate in art history from Harvard. He loved Europe and had married an English archaeologist, Lisa, a charming and fascinating woman. Not beautiful, Marco had to say, but so full of life that she radiated enthusiasm and charisma. She’d hit it off wonderfully with Paola, so the four of them had dinner together once in a while, and they’d even spent weekends together in Capri.
Yes, he’d call John the minute he got back to Rome. But he’d also call Santiago Jiménez, the Europol representative in Italy, an efficient, very likable Spaniard with whom Marco also had an excellent working relationship. He’d buy them lunch. And maybe, he thought, they could help him in his search, even if he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for.
At last, Josar’s eyes beheld the walls of Jerusalem. The brightness of the sun at dawn and the light’s reflection off the desert sand made the stones of the wall seem to shimmer in a golden haze. Accompanied by four men, Josar made his way on horseback toward the Damascus Gate, where at this early hour men who lived nearby were beginning to enter the city, and caravans seeking salt made their way out into the desert.
A platoon of Roman soldiers, on foot, was patrolling the perimeter of the walls.
How Josar longed to see Jesus, whose extraordinary figure radiated strength, sweetness, firmness, and deep piety.
He believed in Jesus, believed that he was the Son of God, not simply because of the wonders he had seen him work but also because, when Jesus’ eyes fell on him, he could feel something more than human in them. He knew that Jesus could see within him, that not even the smallest and most hidden thought could escape him.
But Jesus did not make Josar feel ashamed of what he was, because the Nazarene’s eyes were filled with understanding and with forgiveness.
Josar loved Abgar, his king, who had always treated him like a brother. He owed the king his estate and fortune. Yet Josar had decided that if Jesus did not accept Abgar’s invitation to come to Edessa, he would present himself before his king and ask leave to return to Jerusalem and follow the Nazarene. He was prepared to give up his house, his fortune, his earthly comforts and well-being. He would follow Jesus and try to live according to his teachings. Yes, he had reached that decision.
Josar went to the house of Samuel, a man who for a few coins would care for the horses and allow Josar and his companions to sleep. As soon as they were settled there, he would go out into the streets and try to find Jesus. He would go to the house of Mark, or Luke, for they would be able to tell him where to find him. It would be difficult to convince Jesus to travel to Edessa, but Josar would argue that the journey was short and that, once his king was cured, Jesus could return, should he decide not to remain. As he left the house of Samuel to find Mark, Josar bought two apples from a poor cripple, and he asked the man about the latest news of the city.
“What would you know, stranger? Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The Romans—you are not Roman, are you? No, you do not dress like a Roman or speak in their manner. The Romans have raised taxes, to the greater glory of the emperor, and Pilate the governor now fears a rebellion, so he is attempting to win over to his purposes the priests of the temple.”
“What do you know of Jesus, the Nazarene?”
“Ah! You want to know about him as well! You are not a spy, then, are you?”
“No, good man, I am not a spy. I am simply a traveler who knows of the wonders that the Nazarene has worked.”
“If you are sick, he can cure you. There are many who say they have been healed by the touch of the Nazarene’s fingers.”
“And you do not believe that?”
“I, sir, work from sun to sun, tending my orchard and selling my apples. I have a wife and two daughters to feed. I keep all the laws that a good Jew must keep, and I believe in God. Whether the Nazarene is the Messiah, as people say, I know not—I cannot say he is, and I cannot say he is not. But I will tell you, stranger, that the priests, and the Romans as well, are against him, for Jesus has no fear of their power and he defies them equally. A man cannot stand up against the Romans and the priests and expect any good to come of it. This Jesus will, I think, regret his pride.”
Josar wandered through the city until he came to the house of Mark. There he was told that he could find Jesus beside the southern wall, preaching to a multitude. Josar soon found him. The Nazarene, dressed in a simple linen robe, was speaking to his followers in a voice that was firm yet wonderfully sweet.
He felt Jesus’ eyes upon him. He had seen Josar, he smiled upon him, and he beckoned him to come closer.
Jesus embraced him and bade him to sit there beside him. John, the youngest of the disciples, moved aside so that Josar might sit at the master’s left hand. There they all spent the morning, and when the sun had reached the highest point in the sky, Judas, one of the disciples, brought bread, figs, and water to the crowd. They ate in silence and in peace. Then Jesus stood to leave.
“My lord,” Josar said softly, “I bring a letter for you from my king, Abgar of Edessa.”
“And what does Abgar want of me, my good Josar?”
“He is ill, my lord, and asks that you help him. I, too, ask it of you, my lord, because he is a good man, truly, and a good king, and his subjects know that he is fair and kind. Edessa is a small city, but Abgar will share it with you.”
Jesus laid his hand on Josar’s arm as they walked. And Josar felt privileged to be near the man he truly believed to be the Son of God.
“I will read the letter and answer your king.”
That night Josar broke bread with Jesus and his disciples, who were uneasy at the news of the priests’ growing antagonism. A woman, Mary Magdalene, had heard in the market that the priests were urging the Romans to arrest Jesus, whom they accused of being the instigator of certain disturbances, some violent, against Rome’s power. Jesus listened in silence and ate calmly. It appeared that all the matters the others were talking about were already known to him. After they had eaten, he told them that they should forgive those who did them harm or spoke against them, that they should show compassion toward those who wished them ill. The disciples replied that it was not easy to forgive a man who does one harm, to remain passive without returning ill for ill.
Jesus listened, but again he argued that forgiveness was a balm for the soul of the person aggrieved. At the end of the evening, he sought out Josar with his eyes and beckoned him to come closer. Josar saw that the Nazarene was holding a letter.
“Josar, here is my reply to Abgar.”
“Will you come with me, my lord?”
“No, I will not go with you. I cannot, for I must do my Father’s work as I have been bidden. Instead, I will send one of my disciples. But mark me well, Josar—your king will see me in Edessa, and if he has faith he shall be healed.”
“Whom will you send? And how is it possible, my lord, that you shall remain here yet Abgar shall see you in Edessa?”
Jesus smiled and looked calmly but fixedly upon Josar.
“Do you not follow me? Do you not listen to me? You shall go, Josar, and your king shall be healed, and he shall see me in Edessa even when I am no longer in this world.”
The sun poured in through the small window in the room where Josar sat, composing a letter to Abgar. The innkeeper bustled about, preparing food for Josar’s companions.
Josar to Abgar, king of Edessa, greetings—
My lord, these men bring you the Nazarene’s reply. I beg you, sire, to have faith, for Jesus says that you shall be healed. I know that he will work that wonder, but do not ask me how he will do it or when. I ask license, my king, to remain in Jerusalem, near to Jesus. My heart tells me that I must remain here. I need to hear him, follow him as the most humble of his disciples. All that I have, you have given me, and so, my lord, do as you will with my possessions, my house, my slaves; give them as you see fit to the poor and needy. I shall remain here, and to follow Jesus I will have need of almost nothing. I sense, too, that something is to happen, for the priests of the temple despise Jesus for calling himself the Son of God and for living according to the laws of the Jews, which the priests themselves do not.
I beg of you, my lord, your understanding and your permission to follow where destiny leads me.
Abgar read Josar’s letter and was overcome with despair. The Jew would not come to Edessa, and Josar was staying in Jerusalem. The men who had accompanied Josar had traveled without rest to bring the king the two missives. He had read Josar’s first, and now he would read Jesus’, but from his heart had passed all hope—he cared little now what the Nazarene might write to him.
The queen entered the chamber, her eyes filled with worry.
“I have heard that word has come from Josar.”
“Indeed. The Jew will not come. Josar asks my leave to remain in Jerusalem. He desires me to portion out his possessions among the poor. He has become a disciple of Jesus.”
“Is that man so extraordinary, then, that Josar would abandon all to follow him? How I would like to know him!”
“You will abandon me too?”
“My lord, you know I will not, but I do believe that Jesus is a god. What does he say in his letter?”
“I have not yet broken the seal; wait, I will read it to you.”
Blessings upon you, Abgar, for as much as you have believed in me whom you have not seen.
For of me it is written: Those who have seen me shall not believe in me, so that those who have not seen may believe, and be blessed, and live. As for the favor you ask of me, that I go to you to be by your side—I must bide here and carry out all those things for which I have been sent, so that after I have done I may return to Him who sent me. But after my ascension, when I have returned to Him, I will send one of my disciples, who will cure your disease and give life to you and all that are with you.
“My king, the Jew will heal you.”
“How can you be sure?”
“You must believe. We must believe and have faith and wait.”
“Wait? Do you not see how this disease is eating at me? Every day I feel weaker, and soon I will not be able to show myself even to you. I know that my subjects are whispering and that my enemies await, and that there are even those who whisper to Maanu, our son, that he shall soon be king.”
“Your hour has not yet come, Abgar. I know it.”
Excerpted from THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE HOLY SHROUD © Copyright 2011 by Julia Navarro. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.