Chapter 26

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Horns blared. Tires squealed. Roman traffic in the morning. Cars and small trucks crept bumper to bumper under an overcast sky. An occasional warrior would jerk his small vehicle from the flow, urging into what appeared to him as an abandoned space. Horns trumpeted, condemning his attempt at progress. He shrugged and moved forward. Pedestrians crossed between stalled cars, seizing available opportunities.

Borders and Hill walked to the Vatican, weaving around pedestrians, stepping in and out of gutters. A few blocks of noise and confusion. They passed souvenir vendors preparing to open for business. A man inside a sandwich wagon was cutting bread. Most food trucks with expectant owners, awaited cruise ship passengers that began arriving around 9 a.m. Soon the two men reached their objective, a wall of cement barriers that surrounded St. Peters, marking the border of the walled enclave within the city of Rome. It had a population of 842.

At 8 a.m., there were no pilgrims in sight. Hundreds of chairs covered the worn marble of St. Peter's Square. Chairs that had appeared overnight. Now empty, they awaited the backsides of expectant worshippers. The security gate had no one in attendance. The risk of terrorism seemed to be far from anyone's mind. Perhaps terrorists only struck during office hours. The two men scanned the area, begging for a glimpse of Panama. He had to be here. If terrorism was on his mind, this was the place. There seemed no other reason for him to be back in Rome. They walked up the wide steps, stopping at the top, looking back. A Pope's view.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica, there were few tourists. Romans didn't visit the Vatican. Large statues of former Popes looked down, their sightless eyes neutral, locked in time. A white hat wandered alone past empty alters, his camera flashing like an electrical storm. Borders and Hill, relief running across their faces, kept their distance, watching. Panama behaved like any other tourist.

"I'll go around the other side," said Hill.

Borders nodded his head. Now was not the time to lose sight of Panama. He watched him as he wandered over to the Confessio – an 18th century sunken chapel. Beneath the chapel, the broken walls of the necropolis, the coffin of St Peter, held the bones of the saint. Panama wandered over to the railing, to snatch a better look and a photo of the chapel. He walked around the railing and after each pace snapped a few more shots. "Does he need so many photos?" Still, he continued around the perimeter.

Even with the small number of tourists, there was the occasional unexpected physical contact as gawking tourists bumped into each other. Panama wasn't immune to the occasional elbow. At one point, he stopped and stretched as far as he could over the railing, wanting that close-up shot. Suddenly, he grabbed on to the railing as another spectator bumped into him. The jolt dislodged his hat, tipping it from his head, sending it spiraling, down into the chapel below. Panama made a grab, stretching his right hand, at what was a feeble attempt to clutch the hat. His camera banged into the railing as he watched the hat fall away. He pursed his lips and looked at those around him as if pleading for help. Stares of indifference met his eyes. He took another glance down at his hat, and then moved away from the railing.

Borders edged his way to the railing hoping to get a glimpse of the hat, perhaps for confirmation, or perhaps just to see where it had landed. All he saw was a hand picking up the hat and then disappearing into the passage for the Necropolis. Perhaps it was an employee or a tourist at the tail end of one of the rare tours. He dismissed the hat, returning to the assignment at hand - keeping an eye on Panama.

Borders squeezed away from the railing, bumping and grinding against those who wanted to see the chapel. He looked for a glimpse of Panama, each flashing camera grabbing his attention, but he seemed to elude him. He looked for Hill, who had also disappeared. It was most likely that he was following Panama and was unable to contact Borders. Perhaps Panama had taken it upon himself to go and try to retrieve his hat.

There was a side door away from public eyes that led to the recesses below. Even though it was out of sight, there was a guard posted near by to deter any venturous tourist. When Borders arrived at the door, it was unguarded, open to the world. He looked around, and finding that he was not the center of anyone's attention, slipped through the unguarded door.

Lady Brenda and Jeopardy remained in the shadow of the room, keeping an eye on the mission, waiting for brightness. They knew Borders was safe, at least for the present. Soon, a gray fuzz pushed back the darkness. The meager streetlights blinked out in what seemed like a sigh.

At 8 a.m., both men made an appearance at the front door. Hemmed in by scaffolding, they scanned the street in both directions. Feeling safe, they walked through the creeping cars. Lady Brenda and Jeopardy made haste to follow them. The old lady sat at the desk, knitting, giving them the evil eye as they walked past. They caught up with the men and followed them at a distance, the crowded sidewalk making it difficult.

At St. Peter's, the lack of tourists made it easy to keep them in view, although difficult to remain out of sight. They observed Borders's habit of following the man with the Panama hat. With congestion around the sunken chapel, they almost lost sight of Borders, while Hill disappeared from view. Soon they saw him wandering in a side area of the basilica which didn't seem to hold any item of interest. They watched as he disappeared behind one of the doors, as if he knew where he was going. On cautious legs, they followed suit.

The passageway was long and wide, holding the echoes of saints and sinners. It had stark contours cast by the shadows of statues on one side and the resting place of the popes on the other. Borders stopped at the sarcophagus of Pope Pius XII. Over it hung a melancholy air. Across from it was the sunken chapel. Borders stepped into the red marble chapel and walked past the few seats and padded kneelers. Above his head, on the ceiling, there were small grates that hugged the railings. Borders heard a shuffle of feet. He looked up, catching sight of worn soles and a kaleidoscope of colors from the ceiling above the main floor. Children looked down through the grates. He ignored them.

Borders walked to where the hat had landed. Beyond it, on one side of the small altar, was a modest opening. One step would take him from the modern day chapel to the two-thousand-year-old Necropolis. Even before he took the step, he could smell the hint of decay. Like entering a time portal, he stepped through the opening. The only illumination was a string of bulbs more suitable for hanging on a Christmas tree than providing light in this underground world. The meager cable stretched down a passageway, what had formally been a street in the city of Rome, bustling with life, but now held a smell of death. The lights gave off a subdued brightness, round spots of less shadow.

The smell of dampness hit his face like a slap, assaulting his nostrils, invading his lungs, forcing him to hold his breath - a bouquet of ancient fungus. His tongue and lips seemed covered with moss. A small fan rotated slowly in a feeble attempt to expel humidity. All it did was circulate the smell of decay. Humidity hung on him like a wet blanket. It covered his skin, marinating his clothes and leaving them to hang like a damp rag.

As his eyes blinked, focusing to the semi-darkness, he could see the walls of Roman brick. The area might have been a common area or a street corner. Lanes went off in different directions - their darkness was not enticing. He stared at the bricks, thinner, but longer than the modern style, now covered in a fine red dust, as humidity ate at their essence. Only one passageway possessed a light cable. It would have been the obvious way for Panama to travel. As yet, he was nowhere in sight.

The ground was soft, only a drop of water away from being mud, making even small slopes perilous for any smooth soled shoe.


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