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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Secret Cardinal

Chapter 1
Chifeng, China

August 17

Do this in remembrance of me.

Yin Daoming tilted his head back slightly as he raised the
sacramental cup toward heaven. It was only a drinking glass, but he
held it as reverently as a golden chalice, and on its glossy
surface he glimpsed his reflection—a serious young man with a
solid, clean-shaven face. Many of the young women in the village
near Shanghai where he was raised thought Yin would make a fine
husband, only to be disappointed when he accepted his calling to
the Catholic priesthood. A humble man, Yin likened himself to the
glass he held high, a simple vessel of God’s grace, an
instrument for serving God by serving His people.

The glass, with its mixture of water and wine, sparkled in the
reflected light of candles arranged on a makeshift altar. The
sacramental vintage at these clandestine services was typically a
few ounces of the locally brewed baijiu—an incendiary
90-proof beverage. While no obvious physical change could be
detected in the rose-colored liquid, Yin knew with absolute
certainty that the miracle of transubstantiation had
occurred—that what he held before him was spiritually the
blood of Jesus Christ.

Yin lowered the glass to his lips and took a small sip, the heavily
diluted baijiu burning his throat like liquid fire. As a
seminarian, Yin had once asked his bishop if using such a potent
alcohol for sacramental purposes wasn’t in some way
sacrilegious. The bishop assured him that while Rome might find
baijiu a bit unorthodox, it would overlook certain local
adaptations, especially given the persecution of the Church in
Communist China. The Roman Catholic minority in the world’s
most populous nation found itself in a Darwinian struggle to
survive, and it would either adapt or die.

The shades in the room were drawn against the hostility of the
outside world. The earliest Christians had existed in much this way
under the pagan rule of Imperial Rome. Thirty-three members of the
extended family in whose home Yin celebrated this mass knelt around
the low wooden table that served as the altar. The youngest, a baby
girl, seemed to have forgotten the brief trauma of her baptism and
suckled her mother’s breast contentedly.

Siblings and cousins waited patiently as Yin distributed communion
first to the family elders. The celebration of mass was a rare
event, and Yin labored to ensure that each service was memorable
enough to be worth the risk of attendance. For a majority of the
world’s Catholics, the only peril of mass was the one they
took with their souls by failing to attend regularly. But the
danger to Yin’s persecuted flock was more immediate. The
government in Beijing viewed attendance at an illegal mass as an
expression of loyalty to a foreign entity over which they held no
control. The penalties for this crime included intimidation,
imprisonment, and occasionally death.

Only the oldest of those present at this gathering could recall a
time when Chinese Roman Catholics practiced their religion openly.
Their children and grandchildren had learned their catechism in
whispers and cloaked their faith in a mask of officially sanctioned
atheism. In the rural countryside, people did not abandon the
beliefs of their honored ancestors at the whim of rulers in distant
Beijing. Nor did they behave in a way that might draw their
government’s wrath. The underground Catholics of China bent
like the willows in the wind, but did not break.

After distributing the bread of the Eucharist, Yin offered the
wine, reenacting a ritual that originated with the Passover Seder
Jesus shared with his closest friends on the night before he was
crucified. The simple act brought Yin and his congregants into
communion with a billion other Roman Catholics around the world and
with God.

Yin had prayed in beautiful churches, but nowhere did he feel
closer to the Creator than with those clinging to their faith
against incredible hardship. It was in ministering to his
endangered flock that Yin truly fulfilled his calling as a priest
and became, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, a channel of
Christ’s peace.

“This is the blood of Christ,” Yin said reverently as
he offered the glass to a boy just old enough to make his first
communion.

The boy bowed his head respectfully and replied,
“Amen,” but barely allowed the high-octane liquid to
touch his lips. Yin suppressed a smile.

As Yin took the glass from the boy, he heard a metallic sound, the
bolts on a heavy door pulling open. It was a sound he knew well,
but not from this place.

“Wake up, old man,” a voice barked.

Light flooded in and the sacramental scene faded, erased from his
mind’s eye by the intrusion. In an instant, the clandestine
mass returned to his precious trove of memories.

Yin now sat in the middle of a bare two-meter-square cell
surrounded on all sides by concrete. Legs crossed and hands palm
down on his knees, he sat erect and serene as Buddha. Only hints
remained of the lustrous black hair of his youth, scattered threads
in a mane whitened by age and hardship. Whiter still was his skin,
bleached a ghostly shade by decades denied the warm light of the
sun.

A thick steel door and a small air vent were the only hints of a
world outside the cell. In a tamper-proof fixture recessed into the
ceiling, a lone dim bulb provided nearly all of the illumination to
reach Yin’s eyes in thirty years. He had long ago lost all
sense of day and night, and of the larger passages of
time—temporal disorientation being just one of the techniques
employed against prisoners like Yin.

“I said wake up!

The guard punctuated his command by jabbing the end of an
electrified baton into Yin’s abdomen. Yin exhaled sharply at
the explosion of pain and toppled backward, careful not to strike
his head against the floor.

“I am awake, my son,” Yin panted softly, regaining his
breath.

“I’d rather be the offspring of a pig farmer and his
ugliest sow than any son of yours,” the guard spat back,
furious. “Get up!”

Yin rubbed his abdomen and squinted at the bright light pouring in
from the corridor. His tormentor was a dark silhouette, and beyond
the doorway stood several more guards.

The Chinese court sentenced Yin to death for his many crimes
against the state—an order not yet carried out for political
reasons. The authorities recognized Yin as a man of great charisma
and deep personal faith—a combination that could spread his
foreign religion like a plague, were he placed into the
prison’s general population. So unlike most prisoners in the
laogai—the gulags of China—the government did
not attempt to reform Yin through hard labor and reeducation.
Instead, they subjected him lengthy periods of isolation,
punctuated by beatings and interrogations.

Yin knew that it had been weeks, and possibly months, since his
last interrogation. The same questions were asked every time, and
always he provided the same answers. The brutal sessions came far
less frequently now than in the early years of his incarceration,
more a task on a bureaucratic checklist than any real effort at
reform. After years of systematic effort, the Chinese government
seemed to accept the fact that the underground Bishop of Shanghai
would die before renouncing the pope or the Church of Rome.

Yin rose to his feet and awaited the next command.

“Out!” the guard barked.

Yin followed as the guard backed through the door. Compared to the
dimness of his cell, the light in the corridor burned his eyes as
brightly as the noonday sun. The four guards stared at their charge
with disgust.

“Restraints,” the senior guard commanded.

Yin assumed a familiar position with his feet spread shoulder-width
apart and his arms extended from his sides. Two guards cinched a
wide leather belt tightly around his thin waist. Four chains hung
from the belt, each terminating in a steel manacle. Yin made no
outward sign of discomfort as the manacles dug into his wrists and
ankles, knowing it would only invite a beating. The arteries in his
wrists throbbed and his hands began to tingle with numbness.

The lead guard inspected the restraints, though he knew they were
hardly necessary. Yin had never reacted violently toward a guard in
all his years of incarceration. The only danger the bishop posed
was to himself, and that because of his stubbornness. Satisfied
that Yin was securely bound, he motioned for the escort to
proceed.

Yin cast his eyes down, head bowed as he moved down the corridor.
The simplest gesture, a nod or glance at anyone, was forbidden and
would result in a severe beating, as the badly healed break in his
left arm bore testament. Yin’s eyes gradually grew accustomed
to the light as he shuffled along, taking two short steps for each
stride by the guards.

Just up ahead, Yin thought, counting his steps.

The guards stopped. A buzzer sounded the release of the electronic
locks securing the door to the solitary wing. The heavy steel door
slid open and the little procession continued.

Almost there, almost there.

Then he saw it—a glint, a tiny sliver of light on the floor.
Yin turned his head just a few degrees to the right and swept his
gaze up. A small window, barred and paned with grimy wired glass,
but a window nonetheless to the world outside. It was midday and
the sky was clear and blue.

A thin plastic cane lashed across Yin’s back, dropping him to
his knees. The return stroke caught his right shoulder and Yin
toppled to the floor.

“Enough!” the lead guard commanded. “Get him back
on his feet.”

The guard who had struck him grabbed Yin’s arm and pulled him
up so forcefully that the bony shoulder popped. Despite the
blinding pain, Yin found his feet, and when the guard released his
arm, the traumatized joint slipped back into place.

The march continued through the concrete corridors of the prison,
the light rustle of Yin’s sandals lost in the guards’
heavy boot steps. Yin knew the route by heart, but only one
way—rarely did he emerge from an interrogation
conscious.

Yin’s heart jumped when the guards walked him past the
doorway that led to the corridor of interrogation rooms.
Today’s journey from his cell was to be different.

Lord, Yin prayed silently, whatever is your will, I
remain your
servant.

The guards escorted Yin through parts of the prison he could not
recall. Then a doorway opened and Yin felt a breeze kiss his face.
It was not fetid air thick with rotting filth and human sweat,
processed and recirculated by dilapidated machinery, but a whisper
from the heavens. Yin’s nose detected the faint aroma of
prairie in summer and the sweetness in the air that follows a
cleansing rain.

So they have finally grown weary of me, Yin thought.

The only reason Yin could fathom for the guards to take him outside
was to put a bullet in the back of his head, so he savored each
breath of fresh air as if it were his last.

“Stop!” the lead guard barked.

Yin kept his head bowed and focused on his silent prayers. The
sound of footsteps crunching on gravel, the measured strides of a
long-legged man, intruded on his meditations.

“The prisoner, as ordered,” the lead guard announced
respectfully.

Yin heard a rustle of paper and glimpsed a file in the hands of a
tall man who wore not a uniform but the dark gray suit and polished
black leather shoes of a businessman.

“Show me his face,” the man ordered.

One of the guards grabbed a handful of Yin’s hair and jerked
his head back. Yin’s eyes traveled up the elegantly tailored
suit past a pair of broad shoulders. The man’s face was long
and hard, the skin taut over bone and muscle. His jet-black mane
swept back from his face, held in place like a glossy veneer so
slick that the morning breeze had not dislodged a single hair. The
man’s mouth was a thin line that betrayed no emotion. Yin
guessed his age somewhere between late-thirties and
mid-forties—only a child when Yin arrived at Chifeng
Prison.

When Yin’s eyes then met those of Liu Shing-Li, the old
priest shuddered. Liu had looked up from his file to appraise the
prisoner with eyes so unnaturally black that it was impossible to
discern between iris and pupil. Liu’s eyes seemed to absorb
everything into their unfathomable darkness while betraying
nothing. Yin had always viewed hell not as a sea of unquenchable
fire, but as a state of being totally removed from God. And this
was what he saw in Liu’s eyes.

“Clean him up,” Liu ordered. “And put him in a
new uniform. The rags he’s wearing should be
burned.”

The lead guard nodded and gave the orders to his men. They marched
Yin a short distance to the motor pool, where they stripped him of
his threadbare garments and shackled him to a steel post with his
arms above his head. Two jets of icy water pounded the
bishop’s frail body, the guards laughing as they directed the
high-pressure streams at his face and genitals. Yin choked,
coughing up blood and water, his lungs desperate for air.

With the same brushes used to clean the prison’s trucks, the
guards attacked Yin’s flesh until it was raw. Yin shivered
uncontrollably, his flesh confused by the combination of numbness
and the burning of industrial cleansers.

“Hold him still,” a guard barked as he pulled out a
knife.

A pair of hands roughly clasped Yin’s head, and then the
sharp blade scraped and tore the hair from his face. Years of
growth fell away and blood-tinged water streaked the bishop’s
emaciated body. While hacking at Yin’s mustache the guard
sliced a narrow strip of skin from Yin’s nose, and blood
flowed freely from the wound.

When Yin’s beard was hacked off, the guards turned on the
hoses once more to finish the job. They then brusquely dried him
off and gave him a new prison uniform, its cloth stiff and rough
against his skin.

The guards reattached Yin’s restraints and presented him to
Liu. With a nod, Yin was handed over to the soldiers accompanying
Liu and loaded into the back of an armored military transport. Two
benches ran down the sides of the windowless compartment. Yin sat
where he was told.

As the soldiers secured Yin’s restraints to the steel loop
bolted to the floor, Liu signed the paperwork authorizing transfer
of the prisoner into his custody and dismissed the prison guards.
Liu then donned a pair of sunglasses, slipped into the passenger
seat of a dark gray Audi sedan, and signaled for his driver to get
moving. It would be a long drive to Beijing.

The Secret Cardinal
by by Tom Grace

  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vanguard Press
  • ISBN-10: 1593154844
  • ISBN-13: 9781593154844