THE SILKEN NOOSE
Gasping for breath, Cardinal Noah McPherson entered his suite at Casa Santa Marta. Beads of perspiration gathered on his forehead as he leaned against the closed door, his eyes tightly closed in an attempt to calm his rapid breathing. He feared the tightness in his chest was the forerunner of a heart attack which would end his pursuit of the Papal Throne.
Noah had accomplished his goal of having the Pope murdered, which opened the pathway for his ascension to the throne of the Papacy. His popularity among the other Cardinals assured his success in reaching his goal. For years he had endeared himself to the influential within the Holy See, avoiding the failures of others who dared climb the political ladder.
He began his climb the day he entered Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. It was August of 1961. He vaguely remembered his birthplace on a cattle ranch in Australia’s outback, near Alice Springs. His mother immigrated to the United States before he was of school age after his father had beaten her once too often while in an alcoholic rage. Noah suspected she had stolen money to escape. She changed her name and spoke of her past to no one except Noah.
Survival had been difficult for her in California. Providing the necessities of life for herself and a growing son eventually forced her into prostitution. She died a broken soul during Noah’s senior year in high school. His school grade average was excellent, but with no skills, and the dismal prospect of being on his own, he turned to Father Mueller for help in being accepted into the seminary college.
Noah had succumbed to Father Mueller’s affection for him while serving as his altar boy. He discovered he could manipulate the elderly priest without threatening him.
Once enrolled in the seminary, he discouraged Father Mueller from continuing their relationship. He focused on mastering the education being offered, graduating at the top of his class. With his Master of Divinity Degree secure in his resume, he sought and received an invitation to the coveted Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he flourished in the academic environment. Gaining fluency in the Italian language endeared him to the right people within the Holy See.
Ties with California and his unpleasant past faded as his intelligence, charm, youthful good looks, and cunning, opened opportunities within the Vatican, enabling him to climb the internal power ladder to the success he experienced as Cardinal.
The Papal Throne was within reach. The only obstacle was the current Pope, whose vigor endangered Noah’s goal. Attaining the position of Supreme Pontiff became an obsession. Thoughts of how to attain that power took precedence over everything else.
Until a few hours ago, Noah’s nomination was assured. What no one expected was the appearance of the mysterious priest at the close of the first day of the papacy conclave. When this priest announced the blood of the dead Pope was on the hands of an attendee of the conclave, Noah felt the warm moisture in the palms of his hands. He dared not look for fear someone would notice.
When the priest completed his mission and disappeared in a brilliant light, the doors of the Sistine Chapel opened. Noah left with the other cardinals. To avoid meeting anyone in the elevator, he took the stairway. As he ascended the stairs, he looked at the palms of his hands and began shaking with trepidation at the sight of the red stains. He hid his hands. How could this be? Was he dreaming? Overwhelmed with astonishment, he stumbled and fell on the ascending steps and lay panting for breath. Regaining his composure, he resumed his journey up two more flights of stairs.
He unlocked the door to his suite of rooms with the magnetic key card, using his wrist to push the door handle down so as not to get blood on the handle. He leaned against the closed door, his eyes pinched shut as he attempted to calm himself. He forced himself to focus on a plan to evade detection. He would not allow his plans for the throne to be derailed, no matter who or what got in the way.
As he opened his eyes, he was shocked at what he saw reflected in the hallway mirror. His wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression complimented the hangman’s noose suspended from a ceiling beam in the living room. Noah staggered to the doorway, gazing upon the awful scene. The straight back chair beneath the suspended noose beckoned to him.
He slumped into a nearby chair without taking his gaze from the loathsome vision. Noah’s pulse raced again as he gasped for breath. No one knew except the mysterious priest. How could this be? His two accomplices had been well paid and were long gone.
He was struck with the realization that this was his gallows. There was no escape, nowhere to turn, nowhere to run. Justice for what he had done was upon him. The one thought of grace that passed through his mind – he was alone. He slipped from his chair onto his knees and whispered, “Dear God in heaven, forgive me,” his tears of regret did not wash away the blood from his trembling hands. No answer came from heaven. There was only the unbearable silence cloaking him in his shame as he lay crouched upon the floor.
All was lost except for this final act of contrition. The needlessness of putting it off for one more moment forced Noah to his feet. He paused, looked up at the terrible sight, then stepped onto the seat of the chair. He slipped the silk noose over his head, pulling it snug against his neck. His final thoughts were of the Proverbs parable.
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind, and the fool shall be . . .
Noah’s feet slipped from the chair, tipping it backward, forever placing it out of reach. The silk rope tightened, cutting off circulation. He instinctively grabbed at the rope as the horrible pressure built within his cranium. His body writhed violently in a futile attempt to escape, his eyes bulging from their sockets as blood vessels burst in his brain. He saw a brilliant light flash, before unconsciousness, and death rescued him.
Father Svenson, the Cardinal’s assistant, arrived to escort the Cardinal to the dining room for the evening meal. He knocked on the Cardinal’s door. As he waited, he noticed spots on the carpet which appeared to be blood droplets. He used his magnetic key card to unlock the door.
The reflection in the hallway mirror of the Cardinal hanging by his neck was the first thing Father Svenson saw as the door swung opened. He ran to the living room doorway, staggered back at the sight of the cadaveric spasms of the dead Cardinal’s body, then ran from the apartment for help.
News of the Cardinal’s suicide spread like a wildfire in spite of the Holy See’s efforts to conceal it from the public. The blood on his hands confirmed what other Cardinal's had heard from the mysterious priest. The news that Cardinal McPherson was responsible for the death of the Pope shocked the world.
Investigators uncovered the Cardinal’s personal journal. On the last page, they found two names and a telephone number, which they determined was no longer in service.
The two individuals named in the Cardinal’s journal were apprehended and questioned. Sister Mary Francis identified the woman as the one who distracted her from delivering beverages to the Pope and his guest in the Pope’s private garden. Under further interrogation, the woman confessed to the plot and identified the man apprehended with her as the one who deposited the potassium cyanide into the teapot.
Both were arrested and imprisoned. Within hours, they committed suicide by cyanide crystals concealed in a false tooth.
The conclave proceeded the following day, Bishop Marc Carlini’s name was submitted to the conclave and was unanimously elected as the next Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. White smoke ascended the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The crowd roared with approval as a light rain fell upon Saint Peter’s Square.
Proverbs 11:29 He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind; and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
Father Marc Carlini, assistant to Cardinal Karl Petersen, waited patiently in the Cardinal’s apartment for his return from the first day of the conclave to elect the new pope. He had not heard the rumors of the appearance of a mysterious priest at the conclave, who berated everyone in the room.
The door of the Cardinal’s apartment opened. Marc stepped forward, “Good afternoon your Eminence.”
“Good afternoon, Marc,” he placed his briefcase on the desk, then turned, “Do me a favor, Marc. When we are alone, please call me Karl. I weary of the formality in this place.”
“Yes, of course. Karl, it is,” he smiled. “I understand. Any news worth passing on?”
“I’m assuming you haven’t heard?”
“No, I took a long walk into Rome. I only returned minutes before your arrival. What is it, Karl. You look stressed.”
“We were locked in the Sistine Chapel and no one could get the doors open.” The years weighed heavily on Karl as he sat on the bed.
“I knew they were locked as is custom, but nothing unusual was said about it. At least nothing was said to me.”
“I’ll fill you in during dinner,” Karl stood up. “Right now I need your assistance in getting me out of this costume.”
“Yes, of course.”
As Marc helped remove the ceremonial outer clothing, Karl noticed something, “What is it you wear beneath your Rabat?” Karl looked quizzically at Marc.
“It’s a gift I received from a priest, it’s quite beautiful. Would you care to see it?”
Karl sat down, “Yes I would if you don’t mind,” his breath caught as he realized what it might be.
“Of course not. I’m proud of this, and keep it close to me,” Marc unbuttoned his vest, removed the cross from under his Rabat and handed it to Karl.
“Oh, my God,” Karl looked up into the surprised face of the young priest.
“What is it? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I have, Marc, I have indeed,” Karl got up, walked to his desk and picked up the telephone. “Cardinal Albertini, please,” he turned and gazed at Marc.
“What is it?” Marc moved forward. Karl put up his hand.
“Is he there? Find him immediately and have him come to my suite. Tell him I found it. He will understand,” he hung up the phone and turned to Marc.
“Found it? The cross? I don’t understand.”
Karl handed the cross to Marc. “I have something to tell you, Marc. You had better sit down,”
By the time Cardinal Albertini, the Dean of Cardinals arrived at Karl’s apartment, Marc had been fully informed of what happened in the Sistine Chapel that afternoon.
“Are you certain it was Father Frederick?”
“There is no question about it.”
A single knock came at the door. Cardinal Albertini let himself in, glanced at Marc as he walked to where Karl was sitting and waited.
“Give him the cross, Marc.”
Cardinal Albertini looked intently at Marc, “Father Frederick gave this cross to you?”
“Yes, your eminence. He gave it to me and told me my future would rise upon it.”
Cardinal Albertini turned to Karl, “Have you told him what happened this afternoon?”
“Father Marc?” Cardinal Albertini’s question was to ascertain if he fully understood.
Marc responded in his usual soft manner, “I don’t know, your Eminence. This is so sudden. I need to talk with Father Frederick.”
The Cardinal’s stare prompted Marc to add, “Father Frederick said he would return if ever I needed him.”
“We will leave you in his hands for the moment. Please meet with me tomorrow morning to discuss your decision,” Cardinal Albertini returned the cross to Marc and left the apartment.
“Karl, would you excuse me, please?”
“Yes, of course, my boy. Come to me in the morning before we meet with Albertini.”
Marc bowed his head slightly, turned and quickly left the apartment. He went directly to the chapel.
As he entered, he surveyed those seated throughout the sanctuary. He had hoped Freddie would be waiting for him. He sat down near the entrance and tried to quiet his mind. Freddie’s appearance at the conclave, the cross, and the possibility of becoming a Bishop had taken its toll on him. Becoming a bishop was beyond his ambition. Becoming the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff, was beyond his comprehension. He bowed and put his face in his hands —where was Freddie?
His thoughts drifted back to Saint Benedicts, where he had found peace and joy in being with his parishioners. His request to have Sister Agnes accompany him on his journey to Rome had been denied. He missed her presence.
He felt a light touch on his shoulder and sat up. “Freddie,” he whispered as he got up.
Freddie gestured for him to follow.
In the hallway, “Freddie, we need to talk.”
“And so we shall, my friend. First, we must go to a place where we can talk in private.”
“I doubt there is such a place. These walls have ears,” Marc smiled with relief at Freddie’s presence.
“Ah, but I know of a place off limits to everyone. Follow me.” They walked to the end of the hallway and down a flight of stairs to the first level. “This way.” Freddie gestured as he entered a storage room.
“Where are we going?”
“To a beautiful place.” Freddie entered a small room and stopped before a small wooden door, turned and smiled at Marc. “Behold, Cancello del Cielo.
“It is indeed,” Freddie touched the handle of the door. An audible click sounded and the door popped open an inch. He pulled the door open and gestured for Marc to enter.
“Oh, my God!” Marc exclaimed as he entered the secret garden.
Freddie followed and pulled the door shut. He moved to a stone bench at the center of the garden opposite a bubbling four tier fountain and gestured for Marc to join him on the semi-circular bench.
Marc slowly took his place, looking in all directions, taking in the beauty of this wonderful place. A small canary landed on Marc’s shoulder for a few seconds, then flew off, joining the other birds at the bubbling fountain. “What is this place? And that small wooden door — I don’t understand.”
“It’s the pontiff’s private garden. It will be yours if you decide to take the position.”
“But why me? There are so many others more qualified,” Marc looked plaintively to Freddie.
Marc smiled, “You knew this was going to happen when you gave me the cross back at St. Benedicts.”
“Is that an accusation or a question?” Freddie laughed good-naturedly.
“Perhaps a little of both. Did you know? Tell me.”
“Yes, I did know. And for good reason.”
“What good reason?”
“Think about it, Marc. You felt a calling to serve God from an early age. You have no desires for this world. You chastised yourself for not being able to communicate with God. I hope we’ve straightened that out.”
“Yes, thanks to you. I often wonder how I could have been so naive not to have realized it myself.”
“It’s not an easy thing to recognize, especially when you are alone. Marc, you are the perfect celibate,” Freddie paused. “This is a decision only you can make. You are under no obligation to take the position if you cannot recognize the rightness of it. All you need do is say, no.”
“Say no? That’s easy for you to say,” Marc paused, “They will ask for the name I wish to be called,” he shook his head.
“Give them any name you like, Mary Poppins if you choose,” Freddie smiled.
“But it’s such an august moment.”
“No, it’s not. It’s dogma and tradition and means nothing,” Marc sat up with a surprised look on his face. “But it does provide you with a platform from which to exercise what you believe. Use your middle name, Angelo. It’s perfect, a messenger from God. And that is what you’ll become if they don’t kill you first.”
“What?” Marc was slack-jawed.
“You will run into opposition from the Holy See at every corner. But remember, I will remain your front and rear guard the entire time you are pontiff.”
Marc looked at Freddie from the corner of his eye and smiled. “I don’t know, Freddie. I’ll be alone. I don’t trust these people — any of them. I’d never say this to anyone but you. I get the impression their personal agendas are more important than the mission of the church.”
“I understand. And I agree with you.”
“I miss Sister Agnes. I wanted her to come with us, but the Bishop refused.”
“Well, it seems to me, once you become a bishop, you won’t need anyone’s permission. Summon her, she’ll come.”
Marc laughed, “She’ll be a source to be reckoned with.”
“She will indeed,” Freddie smiled at the thought. “And think of the service you will be providing. True, it won’t be on the intimate level you had at St. Benedicts. Consider the possibilities within your reach before you make a final decision.”
Evening shadows crept over the garden walls. Freddie got up and looked at Marc. “It’s time we went back.”
“Yes, of course. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve bolted, though the thought did cross my mind,” he looked mischievously at Freddie.
They made their way to Cancello del Cielo. Marc pushed the door open, took a last look at the garden and passed to the other side. Freddie followed and closed the door, keeping his hand on the handle until he heard the lock tumble.
Marc waited in the store room. He looked back when Freddie did not follow him, smiled and made his way to his room.
Marc and Cardinal Petersen presented themselves to Cardinal Albertini early the next morning. Marc advised them he would accept the position of Bishop, and he would accept the vote of the members of the conclave, whatever it may be.
Anticipating Marc’s acceptance, Albertini sought out three cardinals who agreed to witness the liturgy which would elevate Marc to the status of Bishop.
With the brief ceremony completed, Cardinal Albertini suggested they go to the dining hall for breakfast and introduce the new Bishop Carlini to the other Cardinals.
At 10 a.m. the Sistine Chapel doors were locked and the second day of the Papacy Conclave began. A vote was called for immediately, dismissing the usual traditions due to the unusual circumstances.
The 117 ballots bearing the statement, Eligo in suumum pontificem, with space for the name of the voter’s preference, were distributed and immediately gathered for tabulation.
When the 77th vote for Marc was recorded, the announcement was made that a new pope, Marcus Angelo Donatio Carlini, had been elected.
The Dean of Cardinals approached Marc and asked, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?
With his head bowed, and the gold cross from Father Freddie clasped in his hands, Marc acknowledged his acceptance, “Yes, I accept.”
The Dean then asked, “By what name do you wish to be called?”
He looked up and smiled, “Angelo.”
Marc followed the Dean to the Room of Tears where he would be dressed in the Papal vestment.
The ballots were bundled together, placed in the oven with the appropriate additive to produce white smoke, and set ablaze. Within seconds, an approving roar was heard from the waiting crowd.
As he stood poised before the balcony doors and the faithful who awaited him, Marc felt an overwhelming sense of love for all the souls in his care. As the doors opened, he moved forward into the open air and the cheering crowd. He stood for a moment, looking in all directions. As he raised his arm to wave he paused, kissed his hand and threw it outward to the crowd. The gesture accomplished his intent as the cheering increased. Then, to the astonishment of his escorts, he kissed both of his hands and threw them outward. He did this twice more as the faithful responded in turn as a light rain fell on Saint Peter's Square.