VATICAN RAG by Doc Berry
Chapter 1 Gone
“Gone?” Fumigalli asked, his eyes sweeping the room.
“Gone.” I said, shaking my head.
What the hell, the room was empty. And nothing is hard to get a grip on.
Lorenzo Fumigalli wiped his glasses on his sleeve and frowned at me. He was about 45, well set up, big shoulders, a slim waist, lots of curly black hair, and a well trimmed moustache. his chin anchoring a handsome Italian mug. “No one saw them leave?” he said, half question, half assertion. After all, he commanded the Vatican’s Swiss Guards and the pope’s security detail.
I shrugged, “You’re asking me? This is where I left them.”
“But how? If no one saw them leave.” He said it again, as if disbelief required repetition. “There’s no other way out of here, just one door and the security guards just outside.”
Reality sometimes has a way of arriving slowly, especially when something or someone is missing. I followed Fumigalli to the window, and we both looked up and down the four story facade of the Apostolic Palace. One of the cops from the Vatican’s Corpo della Gendarmeria posted below looked up inquisitively as we leaned out, and Fumigalli circled a finger, signaling him to turn back to guard duty. Fumigalli had already questioned all the papal cops, but I guess nothing requires repeating.
We leaned on the railing and looked up. Just above on the roof another cop shook his head. No pope up there either.
“When did you leave,” Fumigalli asked, a hint of suspicion in his voice.
“About two hours ago, around eleven.” I said, looking at my watch.
“We’ve already questioned all of the security guards.” he said. “They saw no one except you leave, but we’ll have to question them again. Rome’s carabinieri are sending a specialist to examine the walls and floor for hidden panels and passages.”
That surprised me. The Vatican Swiss Guards had no secret panel or passageway experts. Presumably the Vatican had mapped all of the passages and entryways long ago. But if so, why would he call in an outside expert? Fresh eyes?
Back in the center of the room, I stared up at the ceiling, then let my eyes wander around the walls, every square inch of surface covered with religious art – angels with full feathered wings, St. Stephen being stoned, John the Baptist waist deep in blue waters as he baptized a robed figure, Mary hearing the words of a white bird representing the Holy Ghost, thin lines of cracks running through the fictional figures. The presence of so much aging art made it blur toward a kind of visual equivalent of background noise, something your eye and mind tuned out because it was everywhere. The only visual relief lay in the hardwood flooring and the window.
We stood in front of Jimmy’s heavy oak framed, seven foot tall, funhouse mirrors, four of them freestanding mid-room. Pope James the First had gone to considerable lengths to keep these elongated glasses a secret by limiting access to this room. News about a pope checking himself out in funhouse mirrors would likely set journalists off into wild speculation. Amid the lavish religious art, the grandeur of the architecture, and the long faces that clergy wore in the Vatican, the mirrors turned this papal room into kind of a secular mini-funhouse. Jimmy had told me he checked his papal self out in them several times a week, a sure cure for narcissistic solemnity.
The mirrors dated back to his days in Boston rescuing the diocese from bankruptcy caused by multiple pedophilia scandals. He’d bought them from a carnival that went bankrupt. A long look at yourself in one or more of these distorting glasses guaranteed genuine comic relief. He said that beyond the reflection of the surrounding religious art all distorted out of shape, it was hard not to stare at your uniquely distorted image. Moreover, it became impossible to imagine that the reflection of the guy with the pointy head or the fat face suggested anything authoritative, much less infallible. Because humility remained an elusive commodity for popes, or in the Vatican ranks generally, Jimmy systematically made sure he laughed at himself.
Lorenzo Fumigalli, fully outfitted as Commander of the Corpo della Gendarmeria and the Swiss Guard, now appeared in one mirror grotesquely shortened, a squat frog of a human. In the mirror next to him my torso and head stretched ever thinner to a sharp point at the top. I couldn’t help but smile. Vanity has inevitable visual limits. Each of us at some point is a cartoon.
Two tall men, Pope James the First, formerly Cardinal James Maloney, and a young Mexican street magician named Jesus de Jesus, had just vanished, disappeared like two clouds evanescing from the sky. But the pope’s elongated image lingered there in the funhouse mirror because his identical twin brother, yours truly, Kevin Maloney, now stood in front of that mirror. The pope may have disappeared, but he’d left a doppelganger, me.
Despite feeling considerable pride in my brother becoming pope, I had slowly begun to realize that my appearance as his twin carried a number of hazards. Think about it. Aside from Elvis impersonators, who wants to spend even part of a life being repeatedly mistaken for an internationally famous figure, much less be taken for the pope, or accused of being a papal pretender. Worse, I could not ignore the succession of papal assassination attempts on previous popes. But here I was at Jimmy’s request, and here he wasn’t.
I had to smile. In tiny blue felt pen letters on the bottom of the mirror reflecting me as a human spear, I discovered that Jimmy had written “Nothing matters.” I pointed out the lettering to Fumigalli, who raised his eyebrows in surprise. We couldn’t tell when Pope James might have written it, but I knew it was his printing. I had visited this room fairly often with him, and I had never seen it before.
Despite threats on his life and the criticism for his changes in Catholic practices, Jimmy had been in great spirits this morning, and happy during what I saw of his meeting with Jesus de Jesus, the street magician. They had been laughing and enjoying each other.
Jesus, a charismatic Mexican, had arrived in response to Jimmy’s request after Jimy and I saw a video of his street magic, especially his ability to disappear small objects. Jimmy said the Vatican, which claimed to have a lock on miracles, could probably use a legitimate magician.
Jimmy and I had had an ongoing back and forth about the nature of nothing dating back to when we were kids. Nothing matters, Nothing’s funny. Something for nothing. Nothing much. Nothing left. Nothing to do. The Buddha’s great line -- nothing is permanent. It sure was, as nothing kept coming up.
By themselves, Jimmy’s scribbled words “Nothing matters” could suggest someone depressed, maybe even thinking of suicide. But knowing my brother, I told Fumigalli that “Nothing matters” offered us a clue that Jimmy had left, recognition that his absence would obviously raise a clamor. And certainly Jimmy would have registered the irony, in celebrating the obvious. After all, when in recorded history had a pope just disappeared?
Appearances did matter to Jimmy, as his papal refusal to wear any church robes demonstrated. Early on in his papacy, Jimmy asked What Would a Contemporary Jesus Wear? Then he answered his own rhetorical question and said that Jesus was not a clothes horse, so Pope James wouldn’t be wearing the rich robes and papal kingdom paraphernalia. We now had a pope saying mass in khaki pants and blue shirt, sometimes even a blue sweatshirt, and as you’d expect, that set off worldwide reactions. He repeated a line from Doubting Tom, who had said, “A clothes horse is always more clothes than horse.”
Mulling over his disappearance, I felt a little miffed that he hadn’t let me in on the secret of his getaway. Maybe he had discovered a threat that required him to duck out, but if he knew of a threat, he most likely would have warned me about it as well. Maybe the cause for departure had come up suddenly from Jesus de Jesus.
In the mirror, though, there stood his image, closely impersonated by your truly. Jimmy would know I’d be conscious of seeing him in my own image. More, he’d enjoy leaving me that kind of cryptic, ambiguous two word note. Images aside, with no pope there, and no Jesus de Jesus, the nothing they left for us to deal with mattered a hell of a lot.
I repeated to Fumigalli, “Lorenzo, I think it’s a signal to me that he’s okay. He’s having a laugh here. But because he’s disappeared, we probably ought to keep this writing to ourselves. The paparazzi might think it sounds suicidal.”
“Some laugh!” Fumigalli frowned deeply. Then a look of exasperation swept his face as he stood up from his crouch by the mirror. “A pope I’m supposed to protect goes missing, forcing us turn the entire Vatican inside out, and he leaves a clue that says ‘Nothing matters. ’”
“He may have written it days ago.” I announced, but Lorenzo was already walking toward the door, as if to say, “Nothing? That’s pointless.” [A1]
He stopped by the closed door to the hall. The room held just the weird mirrors and a single bed, plus an all but empty closet and the one large window with a door out onto a tiny balcony overlooking Piazza San Pietro. Fumigalli turned to me and said, “While I dislike intruding into the pope’s quarters, we’ll bring in the carabinieri detectives to go over it again. I’ll accompany them.”
“You’d better remove the mirrors first. The pope wants them to stay private.” I said.
Fumigalli added: ”Nessuno. Nobody. Popes don’t just disappear.”
After a pause, I nodded. “One just did, and if you’ll recall your church history, Jesus of Nazareth also disappeared, Lorenzo. The church says he went into a tomb, then he escaped and wandered around randomly, then went airborne, ascended bodily into heaven, with lots of disciples watching. This pope, “ I added, “didn’t have a pilot’s license, much less astronaut ambitions. And only a young guy named Jesus witnessed what the two of them did.”
A sudden disappearance begs for an answer. Otherwise, here in the place where the church certified and declared miracles, where church investigators beatified and sainted the lives of ordinary people, the Vatican chief of security didn’t want to consider what looked like a miracle – the pope and Jesus vanishing. If the pope could simply vanish, Fumigalli might lose his job. The church would not like dealing with the biggest missing persons case in history.
Pope’s were like queen bees. Without a queen, a hive might collapse. I had more to tell Fumigalli, but not just yet. Why Jimmy had disappeared held more of my attention than how he had slipped out.
In the next few days, the select Corpo della Gendarmeria and Rome’s Carabinieri searched every room and closet of every building and grounds area in the Vatican, marking a map as they went. They made a systematic sweep, then a comprehensive surprise inventory of who wasn’t there, catching numerous bureaucrats taking an unofficial day off. They searched every car and again went over the grounds of the Vatican Gardens. Nothing. They searched the nooks of St. Peters, the Catacombs, and the Castel San Angelo nearby. More nothing. But as it turned out later, they overlooked one place.
Next Fumigalli contacted the FBI, Interpol, and invited in the head detective Iliani Portobello of Rome’s Carabinieri, together issuing an all points missing persons bulletin. Portobello, a tall, broad faced, dark haired man of fifty, personally questioned cardinals, bishops, the pope’s personal secretary and his two assistants, janitors, bodyguards, anyone having contact with or within proximity of the pope. And he questioned me at length. When he turned up nothing, his investigation shifted to Jesus de Jesus, the Mexican purveyor of legerdemain now becoming the mystery man.
From a private meeting at the Vatican on a sunny Thursday morning, October 22, after two hours or less alone together, James the First, a six foot four, 47 year old man given to wearing khaki pants and a blue shirt, and Jesus de Jesus, another 6 foot four gentleman in his early thirties wearing jeans and a dark green shirt, both former outstanding athletes, were suddenly no longer there. Just plain gone.
Two days later Fumigalli scheduled a press conference in the big auditorium where the pope usually held his audiences. Because my presence there as the pope’s twin would raise all sorts of questions, he asked me to stay home and keep a low profile that day.
Disappearance has a power all its own. When something or somebody goes missing, you can’t help but question your memory and the evidence of your senses.
Vanished? Dead? Kidnapped? Hiding out? Off on a sudden secret quest? Presence required elsewhere? Playing a prank? Nobody knew, but once word went out to the world, sightings and reports of Pope James the First came by the hundreds every day, swamping Vatican authorities and Rome’s Carabinieri. Pope James was sighted in more places than Elvis. In the era of satellite photography, TV security cameras, sophisticated tracking devices, hand-held phones with cameras, high tech reading tablets linked to GPS, FACEBOOK and YouTube turning the world into paparazzi patrolling celebrities, the world remained completely ignorant about where Pope James the First and young Jesus de Jesus had gone.
Vatican Secretary of State Calvo Bastardi wanted to put out reward for information leading to finding and returning the two men, but the Cardinals in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith voted no. A reward might encourage other Vatican kidnappings, false demands for ransoms, and trigger lots of ugly press. Just what the hell was a pope worth anyhow?
It didn’t help at all that Jesus de Jesus, the street magician from Mexico, had a considerable reputation for his illusions and magic tricks. The newspapers had carried descriptions of Jesus in front of crowds or hundreds of witnesses in Mexico, where he disappeared everything from a glass of iced tea, to a small dog, to a plate full of food, to, well, past that, there were lots of rumors and even more video footage of unexplainable tricks. As you can imagine, Il Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, didn’t know what to say, so it said nothing, and that left the impression that they were probably covering up something.
Because no living Vatican staff members had ever faced a missing pope case, the Vatican didn’t have investigators to chase down leads. Vatican officials had to rely on reciprocity from various law enforcement and covert government agencies around the world to find the two. With speculation rife, Internet traffic ran rampant. The Mossad leaked that witnesses had glimpsed the two holed up in a monastery on the all-male Mount Athos peninsula in Greece. The CIA leaked that a Russian prison in the Gulag held the two. Hamas said that an Islamic Imam had sequestered them in Tehran. The French Surtee had them in a remote part of Morocco’s desert. None of the sightings of the two tall men turned up anything other than misinformation, no photos, no fingerprints, no DNA. I kept my own suspicions to myself. Given the politics of religion, or for that matter the history of religion, you had to expect disinformation touted as fact.
The American columnist Andrew Verse, using his syndicated column Mirabile Dictu , compared the vanishing to magicians Siegfried and Roy disappearing an elephant in Las Vegas, then to uber magician David Blaine making a girl’s teeth disappear then reappear, and finally to David Copperfield making a 747 jetliner disappear. Jimmy, wherever the hell he was concealed, doubtless loved the comparisons. Verse added that for generations the Vatican, facing everything from banking scandals to global pedophilia run rampant, had practiced misdirection, the core of getting people to believe the impossible, and he described the Vatican vanishing as “finally a real showcase miracle for the Devil’s Advocate to explore.”
Theories about the disappearance ranged from kidnapping, to murder, to a homosexual liaison, to a romance each had with women who had lured them off, to a secret papal mission, to voluntarily abandoning the papacy because of the constant, intense criticism and threats of assassination James the First received. One wag said it was the Second Coming somehow botched and transformed into the Second Going. That made as much sense as anything, especially with someone named Jesus involved. Some explained the vanishing as a sudden mental illness, others as an offer the pope couldn’t refuse from the Cosa Nostra. But whatever the instant and global speculation from news media, James the First, Jimmy Maloney, the kid from Santa Barbara, the revolutionary new liberal pope had hightailed it. And with him went a guy named Jesus, a celebrated and much loved figure out of Mexico. Big news, as often proves the case, delivered nothing factual other than their absence, and as Jimmy had reminded us, nothing matters.
Within a week the Pontifical Committee of the Vatican City State, what passed for the tiny country’s legislature, tumbled suddenly into chaos via the absence of its leader. The Committee called a consistory of cardinals to appoint a camerlengo, a cardinal to function as chief operating officer and election chief until the church either found James the First or elected another pope. The camerlengo’s name, Calvo Bastardi, the Cardinal from Spoleto, Secretary of State, 71 years old, and a sophisticated bureaucrat. He was a small man with a tiny nose, so small that it left his grizzled face looking, for all of its wrinkles, heavy gray eyebrows, and sagging skin, as if his mother had denied him that essential appendage. Given his almost noseless mug, Vatican jokers referred to him as Cyranose or Sansnez.
Sansnez Calvo Bastardi had had some of the edges on him removed by 22 years as a Vatican functionary, and he had seen enough changes of regimes to gravitate toward power and move inexorably through the Curia bureaus. Eventually he had come to power as Secretary of State. Recently Jimmy had moved him to chief of the Congregation for the Clergy, overseeing the conduct of priests, an office Jimmy had promised he would close. Now Bastardi would acquire a very powerful leadership role as camerlengo.
I didn’t trust him., but then I didn’t know much about Bastardi, and now he wanted to see me daily. Perhaps because I’d been working as trouble shooter and an insider for Pope James the First, and more likely, because I’d been the one who advocated bringing Jesus de Jesus to the Vatican. Having vetted Jesus, I had vouched for him. But first, I think Cyranose wanted to see me because I was the mirror image of the missing pope.
Who could tell the difference? Maybe I was the actually pope and it was his brother Kevin who had somehow hidden out with Jesus de Jesus.
I now had far more attention than I wanted. Because the Maloney twins looked so much alike, Bastardi and some of the clergy initially argued that, despite me not being a priest, they could cover up Jimmy’s absence with me somehow suddenly a substitute as pope. Kevin the counterfeit, the look alike pope would come off the bench and save the game. Not likely.
Appearance was everything for these people. It didn’t matter to Bastardi that I was an atheist, or that they’d be marketing a stand-in pope. When that kind of pressure started for me to play Jimmy, I called a conference of international newspaper and TV reporters and told them about the substitution scheme that specific cardinals had proposed, and that I’d refused to have any part in it. The press went wild with the accusation, almost as if an earthquake had shaken the church. And that made me perhaps the only guy in modern history to turn down being pope.
Given the uproar, Bastardi didn’t take my refusal very well. I suspected that he probably wanted to advance himself into the papacy, but by way of misdirection, he would give me and concerned clergy signals in the opposite direction. His advanced age would have raised a barrier, but once elected, his age would no longer matter. Popes are expected to die on the job, which says something about both the age at which they usually take office and the stresses on them. Papal retirement is actually allowed by Canon Law, and the church has lots of ugly history in its struggles over who will be pope. Via political intrigues Benedict IX was pope three separate times, but tradition holds that retirement is not an option. My point to Jimmy exactly – why take a job where death is the expected form of retirement?
Furthermore, in three meetings with him, I privately laid into Bastardi for how the Vatican was dealing with Jimmy disappearing, particularly the speed with which Bastardi wanted to replace Pope James if he didn’t soon reappear. What would the world do if Jimmy returned to find Catholicism suddenly had two popes? I thumped the tub hard about Bastardi’s pending possible embarrassment if he tried to rush a new pope into place.
So I still had my Vatican job trouble shooting, and I told everyone within earshot that I expected my brother the pope to return. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let me lay out the unusual way we got here, what led up to the greatest vanishing act of modern times.