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A piece of advice in case you ever find yourself on top of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City -- watch out for the cross at the very top of the spire. It is a hell of a lot sharper than you'd think.
The roof tiles are pretty slippery, too, particularly the ones with the pigeon shit on them.
On the other hand, the view is to die for. Especially if you're up there with a maniac who's waving a Beretta Model 12S 9mm submachine gun in your face.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking: That Beretta's a great gun, but the frame tends to crack under the weight of too many hot rounds. The maniac would have been much better off with an H&K MP5; a lot less chance of a misfire.
I would have pointed this out myself, but he didn't seem in the mood for constructive criticism. He had a shitass grin on his face, the sort that says, "Eat lead and die, Marcinko."
The tips of my fingers started to sweat. They say the dome over St. Peter's is the biggest in the world, but at that moment it felt extremely small. When he swung the business end of the 12S toward me, it felt absolutely claustrophobic.
My own weapon lay on the roof below, out of ammo. It looked like I had two options -- throw myself at him in the vain hope of somehow wrestling the gun from his paws before he managed to kill me, or...
I couldn't think of an or, actually.
But maybe I should explain how I came to be in such an exalted position in the first place. It's not every day that you get a private tour of the most famous rooftop in Christendom. And what got me out into the Roman sunshine wasn't your typical goatfuck...it was a truly artistic one, the sort of thing that would have made Michelangelo proud. So let's go back to the beginning....
This particular adventure began with a fax that arrived at Rogue Manor on Christmas Eve a few months before. The sheet was blank except for a Web address in the middle of the page. It was a bit past 10 P.M., and Rogue Manor was empty except for yours truly. With nothing else to do but await the arrival of Ol' St. Nick, I turned on the computer and typed in the address, which mostly consisted of numbers and backslashes. I vaguely recall thinking I'd see a picture of Santa and one of his elves in a compromising position. Instead, I found myself looking at a page filled with type so small I had to hit the magnifier button three times. It turned out to be a turgid dissertation on the coming end of the "Crusader Epoch," the inevitable clash of "a great civilization with a decript [sic] one," and the unstoppable rise of the True People of the Book. Clement Moore, or whoever wrote "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," has nothing to worry about.
We get tons of emails, faxes, and letters from whacko crazies at Rogue Manor, and this one probably would have faded into the hazy recesses of my mental round file except for the signature at the bottom of the Web page. The "communique; of fervor" had been signed with the name "Saladin."
In case obscure, failed world leaders doesn't happen to be your favorite Jeopardy! category, here's a quick info dump on Saladin: Also known as Salah al-Din and a half-dozen similar variations, Saladin was a twelfth-century Egyptian warrior who took Jerusalem from the crusaders. He built the wall that surrounds the old city and was the first pan-Arab to try to consolidate all Arab people under the green banner of Muhammad. He failed -- not for want of trying or low body count -- but has remained a source of inspiration ever since. Many an Arab leader has used him as a role model, reinterpreting history and the legend through his own distorted glasses. Nasser, Saddam Hussein, even the Shah of Iran viewed him as an inspiration. Osama bite-my-butt Laden didn't use the name, but it isn't hard to see parallels between his aims and Saladin's goal of a pan-Arab empire.
Over the years I've had various encounters with would-be Saladins, some of whom were actually credible opponents. Probably the most notable was in Cairo during the 1990s. I won't bore you with more backstory* than necessary here; suffice to say that the name piqued my interest. The Web page was on a site that belonged to an international drug company. Clearly, it had been hacked into. When my computer guy checked with the firm the day after Christmas, they expressed complete surprise.
At least that's how he interpreted the words, "Holy shitfuck -- what the hell is this?"
(My self-anointed "computer dude" and all-around tech expert is a tech-head wop dweeb named Paul Guido Falcone, a wiseass known to us as "Shunt." Shunt has shunts in his head. They're some sort of metal inserts placed into his skull because he was born with water in his skull; I think of them as brain gutters. He's loads of fun with metal detectors.)
A few days later, another fax arrived with a new Web address. Here was posted a new dissertation repeating the main points of the first -- history was on the side of the schizophrenics, etc. It concluded by making some predictions: A new leader would arise to knit together the worldwide network of murdering assholes, and his name was -- guess now -- Saladin.
And by the way, as a display of the new leader's power, a small incident would occur the next day as a signal to the brothers of faith and insanity that the time for war would begin.
The time was given as 00:00:01, but no place was specified. Even though it was an open-ended and nonspecific threat, I reported it anyway, filing the information with both Homeland Security and the CIA (also known as the Christians In Action). I also forwarded a bunch of heads-ups to a number of friends and acquaintances in the terrorist threat business, figuring one more wild-goose chase would just make the holiday season that much more enjoyable.
At roughly the same time I was burning up the phone lines, a fax similar to mine arrived at al-Jazeera, the mouthpiece long favored by crazies and psychos wrapping themselves in the word of Muhammad, blessed be his name. The fax was turned over to the reporter in charge of whacko ramblings, who dutifully plugged the address into his browser and began reading Saladin's communique;, which in this case was written in Arabic. While most of the rant was familiar -- war of civilizations, death to the crusaders, etc. -- this one contained more specific predictions relating to mayhem, promising uprisings across the globe, especially in that holy wasteland known as Afghanistan. It also mentioned that a certain liquefied gas ship on its way from Malaysia to a new port in China would be blown up to start the new millennium of Allah's Paradise. Once more the time was given as 00:00:01.
The reporter considered the matter, then decided to report it, only to find that the ship had been blown up. He subsequently determined that the time of the explosion was correct or at least close enough to count -- assuming your watch was set to the time in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, arguably the center of the worldly universe if you're Muslim. The reporter wrote a story, and for maybe twenty-four hours the world's intelligence agencies spent considerable resources trying to profile Saladin. I received not one, not two, but three separate calls from analysts at the Christians In Action about Saladin, the Web pages, and the faxes. I told them everything I knew, which wasn't much. The NSA -- "No Such Agency," the ultrasecret eavesdropping and electronic snoops over at Fort Meade -- did a frantic search through its archives to see what it had snooped out on Saladin without knowing who he was. The Chinese loaded a group of special agents aboard a destroyer and shipped them over to interview the survivors. Forensics specialists from six or seven countries flew out to the wreckage, most of which was at the bottom of the Pacific and out of reach.
The sum total of all this work was a big fat zero. Nothing that the crew members said proved conclusively that a bomb had caused the explosion. The safety record of the company involved was rather lackluster, and while it would have taken extraordinary incompetence to cause an accidental explosion -- well, let's just say that extraordinary incompetence was not in short supply.
The experts concluded that the explosion had occurred before the faxes were sent. Because of this, they decided, it was possible that Saladin had heard of the disaster and was trying to take credit for it to boost his own standing in the community of crazies. This especially made sense given that they could find no other evidence of his existence before the fax I received. And in fact there was almost no evidence that he did exist, except for the faxes and Web site.
I agreed to let the NSA babysit my fax line for a few days; nothing came in other than some long-shot predictions on the Super Bowl. Saladin quickly slipped off their radarscope.
And mine. The lack of follow-up over the next few days convinced me that this was just one more Osama wannabe looking to become caliph on the cheap. Any asshole with a computer and some rudimentary knowledge can hack his way into most corporate systems, and visions of grandeur are as common among Muslims as they are in the rest of the world's population.
It wasn't as if I didn't have other things to do. Red Cell International -- my security consulting firm, a successor of sorts to SOS Temps -- had been awarded several contracts the previous summer and fall. While we continued to do some training for Homeland Insecurity and the Defense Department, more and more of our business was with private industry. Most of these were very straightforward assessment gigs, where yours truly and his various minions earned big bucks telling corporate security types why their procedures weren't worth the paper they weren't written on. The best jobs involved simulating terrorist and corporate espionage attacks against the conglomerates. Not only did these pay absurdly well, but they were a hell of a lot of fun. One of our favorite ploys involved kidnapping the company CEO the day before our assignment was supposed to officially begin. We'd take him to the fanciest restaurant in town while his head of security frantically searched for him, enjoying a ten-course dinner while keeping tabs on the Keystone Kop response via video and audio bugs we'd planted at corporate HQ. The only downside was that most of these corporate fat cats were embarrassingly small tippers; it got so I had to intercept the bill and add the amount myself before having them sign. Otherwise the waitstaff never would have served my team if we returned.
These domestic assignments led to additional work overseas, training and in a few cases providing choirboy services in foreign pleasure resorts, like beautiful Kandahar and lovely Baghdad. We sang, we hummed, we disposed of the garbage when necessary. Our standard contracts include nondisclosure clauses about as long as this book; the lawyers say they mean I can neither name the companies we work for nor say what we did. The lawyers can suck turds as far as I'm concerned, but since a lot of these assignments are ongoing, in the interests of protecting my people I'd prefer to keep discussion of methods and means to a minimum. Suffice it to say that we did what had to be done, reaping the appropriate rewards but also occasionally suffering the sort of hits that made such rewards a necessary incentive.
As far as this particular yarn is concerned, the most important contracts were in Afghanistan, where three different Western companies required our assistance to varying degrees. Sometime that February -- weeks after Saladin's faxes had begun to fade and curl at the edges -- we noticed an uptick in operations directed at the companies we were working with. And, eventually, at Red Cell International itself. There wasn't a pattern that we could put our fingers on, but we were interested enough to call a company-wide conference to discuss it. For various reasons, including the quality of the beer, we picked a date in March in Germany.
Which fit in nicely with my own schedule, as I was supposed to be in Italy right around the same time to address an annual NATO meeting on the new realities of terrorism.
For me, Italy will always be a land of romance, tomato sauce, and women with very short tempers. I was stationed in Naples in southern Italy in the late 1950s and early '60s. I blame a lot of my subsequent development on the horrors of working for the fattest, laziest UFO (Ugly Female Officer) in the Navy; the horror of that early assignment propelled me to frogman training, and far exceeded any combat situation I faced in later years. If ever I lack motivation for a PT session, the mental image of her butt cheeks flapping in the breeze never fails to get me in gear.
I returned to the Land of Garlic and Oregano several times in my Navy career, with both the SEALs and Red Cell, running training operations, security drills, and a few things I can't tell you about unless I shoot you first. All in all, I love Italy, especially when someone else is paying for me to be there.
My decision to attend the NATO conference was influenced by the fact that Karen Fairfield had already signed up for the four-day session set for mid-March. Besides being my main squeeze, light of my life, and far-better half, Karen heads Homeland Insecurity's Office of Internal Security Affairs (OISA). Her boss assigned her to go to the conference because he had to be out of town attending his son's wedding; her only role there would be to smile at the receptions and try not get lost while touring the Roman ruins. I'd already toyed with the idea of joining her when the invitation arrived. Making suitable arrangements with the NATO pooh-bahs took all of five minutes; they agreed not only to find a nice hotel outside of Rome but to stock the minibar with Bombay Sapphire. I took care of reserving the Ferrari myself.
A midlevel NATO functionary named Colonel Boffo Buffano met us when we arrived after an overnight flight at Fuminico airport. Flanked by a pair of Italian soldiers, we were whisked through customs, and after battling the morning rush-hour traffic found ourselves relaxing in a Renaissance-era castle cum ultramodern hotel. Karen has an especially good cure for jet lag; after we indulged in it, we headed out for a late lunch with an old friend, Dr. Paolo A. Bolognese. I met him in Rome back when I had SEAL Six and he was surgeon for the Italian army carabinieri battalion; we were there to do a takedown on an aircraft and he was standing by to fix any boo-boos. The doc now heads the Department of Neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital back in Lung Island, Noo Yawk, and is associate director of the Chiari Institute, the place to go if your brain or spinal cord ever gets kinked. He happened to be over in his native land to chat about something called "laser doppler flowmetry applied neurological interoperative ultrasound." In plain English, he can peel a brain like an onion, one layer at a time.
The doc started talking about new techniques over lunch. He had me lost until he compared what he did to taking apart IEDs and booby traps. He may do heads, but I still do kneecaps, and we had a great time talking about our respective specialties.
After lunch, Karen and I headed over to the opening reception at Villa d'Este in Tivoli, a typically over-the-top Italian garden that has impressed visitors with a mortar-range view of Rome since 1572. Festivities began the way every NATO military operation ought to -- hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. My idea of an appetizer is Bombay Sapphire straight; our Italian hosts were happy to oblige.
Counterterrorism has become a bit of a growth industry of late, and cocktail hour allowed me to meet some of the new blood in the field. The Poles and Germans are always good for a few laughs, and I was impressed with a few young turks from Romania, of all places. And then there was Baucus Dosdière, a runty dark-skinned Belgian by way of Morocco and France, who had recently been hired by the Vatican to oversee a counterterror squad for the Holy See. You may laugh -- I know I did -- but if there's an organization that knows a thing or two about terror, it's the Catholic Church; these are the folks who brought the world the Spanish Inquisition, after all.
If you muck with the spelling a bit, Dosdière translates pretty literally as "Backass" in French, and the name fit him. Though he had white European ancestors -- it's amazing the things people tell you during cocktail hour -- Backass's native African blood predominated. In his estimation, this had helped him win his job from the cardinal overseeing his office, either because Africa was underrepresented in the Church hierarchy or the cardinal misapplied the theory "it takes one to know one." Backass hinted heavily that it was the latter, and he had enough of a sense of humor to enjoy the joke. He had spent his childhood in northern Africa and the Middle East, where one of his grandfathers had been a high-ranking French foreign legion officer and his uncle had worked as a diplomat. He apparently had family connections with old money in the Middle East and Belgium; I guess he was literally the dark sheep of the family. He'd worked for the Moroccan Security Force as a very young man, then gone to work for two different private security firms, including one that had helped reorganize the Gendarmerie of the State of Vatican City, which brought him to his present job.
Tourists are familiar with the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the guys who hold long curtain rods and dress like they stepped out of an opera. Most of their job is to look good, and while they do protect the pope, the heavy-duty police requirements are generally handed over to the Gendarmerie of the State of Vatican City. External security is handled primarily by Italy's Inspectorate of Public Security to the Vatican State. A new organization had been formed to handle terrorist threats both in and outside of Vatican City. Supposedly, the pope had decided to clean house after rumors surfaced of connections between the old security chiefs and a shadowy neofascist group known as Parco dei Principi, or more colloquially as P2, or, in English, "Power Brokers."
(Don't bother going to your Italian-English dictionaries, it doesn't translate exactly. But that's not the only thing that's twisted about P2. Supposedly, the group was formed after World War II and adopted a strategy of continual warfare in hopes that eventually the people would clamor for the return of a Mussolini type. There were connections literally all over the place, even to the U.S. and the beloved Christians In Action, also known as the CIA. The conspiracy is too wild and woolly to lay out here; the important thing is that the pope and some of the clerics around him wanted a fresh face from outside Italy, and that helped Backass get the job.)
Backass answered to a cardinal and a committee of clerics, none of whom knew much about security except that they didn't want to spend any money on it. He had been tasked with improving security at St. Peter's Basilica, but couldn't directly control the security force there or even appoint his own deputies. Not that things in Vatican City should be any different than anywhere else in the world.
Backass took a shine to Karen -- can't blame him there -- and started talking to her about Rome, asking what she'd seen and was interested in. Somehow the conversation veered toward places to eat. Backass unleashed a string of rapid-fire opinions, offering advice on what dish to order where and how to deal with the notoriously finicky waiters. Finally, he mentioned Gabi di Gabi, a froufrou place Karen had read about in a magazine on the flight over.
Karen winked at me and said she'd just love to eat there, figuring that would get him to shut up. Instead he pulled out his cell phone, called the restaurant, and made a reservation; we even ended up eating on the Catholic Church's dime, which is either a joke or a reason to go to confession, I'm not sure which. Afterward, we took a ride through the hills above the capital, putting the vintage Ferrari through its paces as we wended our way back to the hotel. Rome isn't the tropics, but March can be quite nice, and the starlit evening was everything we had imagined. With the top down, there was just enough of a chill to encourage Karen to lean closer for warmth. We arrived back at the hotel in time for a nightcap, then repaired to the battlements for a night of la dolce vita.
My speech wasn't scheduled until the next evening. After working up a bit of a sweat in the castle's dungeon the next morning, Karen and I did the tourist thing, heading to the Coliseum to gawk at the place where lions and Christians once held family picnics. We strolled through the ruins of the Forum, the original center of Roman bureaucracy and the judicial system. The paper pushers and stone chiselers may be long gone, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the cases filed during Caesar's time are still waiting their turn on the docket. I'm not much of a tourist -- I like to pillage if not rape when I'm visiting a country, and anything less seems like a waste. But Karen reveled in it, imagining she heard the roar of the Goths approaching as she walked amid the ruins.
That may just have been the lousy Italian drivers, who race through the city faster than half the cars on the NASCAR circuit. We escaped with our lives as we walked to the conference, which was being held in Mussolini's old haunts at the Palazzo Venezia. Il Duce is said to haunt the hallways, probably looking for a lost train schedule. We didn't run into the ghost, but we did happen upon the same American Delta Force troopers who had freed Italian hostages from Iraqi captors a few months before. They were here to get a well-deserved pat on the rump from the political types. Meeting the Delta boys was an honor and a privilege. I was lucky enough to call the man who established Delta Force, Colonel Charlie A. Beckwith, a friend, and I'm sure he would have been pleased with these young heroes, who even at the ceremony were insisting they'd done "nothing special, but our jobs."
I also met the ambassador to Italy, Gordon G. White, and his charming wife, Petra. White had been a political appointee -- read, big fund-raiser -- but I didn't hold that against him, especially after he announced that he was a big fan of my books, beginning with "the first and best, Rogue Warrior." You know how modest I am, so of course I immediately began to blush and ask for another drink. I also checked my wallet, because usually when a political type compliments you, it's going to end up costing you big bucks down the line. But White wasn't like that, or at least was damn subtle about it. He introduced me to the resident head spook (a waste case; I won't even go into it) and a Brit MI6 man whom I actually already knew, though we both acted as if it were the first time we'd met. The MI6 agent -- I'll call him Shakespeare -- nudged me aside a minute or two later and showed me a printout. I glanced at it long enough to realize it was a diatribe about the need for "war with the crusaders." There was no signature, and I didn't make the connection to Saladin until he refreshed my memory about the tanker strike back in December.
Shakespeare had been among the people I'd told about the faxes, and we exchanged info dumps on Saladin. He knew a lot more than I did, connecting him to a loose network of Islamic terror groups. Besides the Malaysian gas tanker explosion, he was supposed to have supplied money to groups involved in an attack in South Africa and the American embassy in Spain. An Egyptian group opposed to the government had posted communique;s similar to his (and exploiting the same security holes in the host computer systems) on Egyptian government computers. Shakespeare believed Saladin was spreading money around in various ways, supplying funds to operations in Europe and Asia. Especially ominous, in Shakespeare's opinion, was his funding of religious schools in Pakistan and Muslim charities in India -- activities that had once helped bin Laden climb to the pinnacle of the movement. Saladin was bidding to make himself the indispensable caliph in the coming millennium. And we didn't even know his real name.
Time out for half a second while I address a common misconception regarding money. Most of us tend to think of six- and seven-digit sums when we hear talk about terrorists and their funding networks. We know (or think we know) how much it costs to equip antiterrorist units and naturally assume it costs the same or more for the bad guys. The truth is, terrorism in most cases is a low-budget operation. The help comes cheap and most of the necessary tools of the trade are in good supply, whether you're talking about AK-47s or the chemicals necessary to blow things up. A few thousand dollars represents a good hunk of change for your typical tango. Even the high-profile "actions" -- such as the obscene attack on New York and Washington, D.C., on 9/11 -- cost no more than fifty thousand dollars, all told. (It cost the United States approximately $80 billion and still counting -- pretty good return if you're into economics.) That's not chicken scratch to me, and I doubt it is to you, but the point is that a few dollars here and a few thousand there skimmed from a seemingly legitimate charity group -- which these bastards have done for years -- makes a significant contribution to the cause. And that's not even to mention the "coincidence" of such groups employing people sympathetic to terror networks. One of the ways we ought to be fighting terrorism is by clamping down on the supposed charities using American money to bite us in the ass, and worse. We've taken a fitful start over the course of the past year, but we're still way too worried about public opinion outside the U.S. to make the dent in the revenue stream that we need to.
Lecture over. I'll put the soapbox away.
Shakespeare produced another Web page. The address had been faxed to al-Jazeera a few hours earlier. (It would turn out that I got one, too, though I didn't know it at the time.) The page was in English. Saladin predicted a "major blow to the heart of the crusader empire" at "a time of their choosing."
"They pick the place and we pick the place?" I asked Shakespeare.
He didn't understand what I meant at first, and I had to show him the words, "a time of their choosing."
"Should be 'our' choosing. Obviously, he should spend a little more money on translators," Shakespeare said.
"What do you think the target will be?"
The MI6 operative shrugged. There were too many possibilities.
"Very few people are taking Saladin very seriously," added Shakespeare, walking to the bar for a refill. "Your own CIA thinks he's an egotistical windbag taking credit for others' achievements. Such as they are."
"Sure. Who wouldn't want to take credit for mayhem and murder?"
"I think he's real," said Shakespeare. "And he's somewhere in Europe. I think he's doing more than supplying people with money. I think he'll launch a big attack -- a very big attack -- very soon."
"Are you saying that on general principles, or because you have hard information?"
Our quiet corner had become considerably less so, and Shakespeare frowned as he looked at some of the people nearby.
"Tomorrow," he suggested. "At a more private location."
We agreed to meet in the afternoon, then went back to mixing with the hoi polloi. A half hour later we were ushered into the ballroom next door, where we were served a seven-course dinner. It wasn't until the waiters were hustling around with espresso that the "business" portion of the evening began with the ceremony honoring the Delta people. Then came what for most was the purpose of the evening: A succession of speeches from various state security chiefs proclaimed what a great job they had done over the past six months following the capture and immediate suicide of Sheikh Abu Abdullah, known to the West as Osama bin Laden. There was so much backslapping going on that I was surprised they didn't have a chiropractor on call.
When my turn came to speak I walked to the front of the room, took my speech out of my pocket, looked at it, then ripped it in half. Somebody had to be the skunk at the party, and it looked like it was me.
"I think I ought to start by saying that the work capturing Osa-my-butt's Been Eaten was the best SpecWar activity I've seen, bar none," I told the audience. "The American, Italian, and Pakistani units that worked together to pull it off deserve all the recognition they've received. We've seen great work over the last year and a half by countless SpecWar outfits across the world, most of whom can't be mentioned because their operations remain highly classified."
Everyone figured that I was going to extend the orgy of self-congratulation and applauded loudly. I let them enjoy themselves for a bit before continuing.
"But our struggle is far from over. On the contrary, it's more dangerous now. Every whack job in Islam is vying to become raghead in chief."
Some of the people in the room smiled. A lot more grimaced, whether because they couldn't follow my vernacular or they sensed where I was going, I couldn't say.
"We're only in the first stages of battle, the very early beginning. We haven't gotten serious. And we need to. We have a very limited opportunity, while the opposition is still relatively disorganized, to stop the war from getting to the point where the non-Muslim countries of the world -- NATO, the U.S., Russia -- reach the point that the only way to deal with the opposition effectively is to retaliate in a massive way. I'm not talking about what happened in Afghanistan or Iraq. I'm not talking about taking over Chechnya. I'm thinking about what right now is unthinkable, what's off-limits because we don't want to work out the logic of the situation. I'm talking about the sort of retribution that would take place -- that would have to take place -- if the people who are employing terrorism for their purposes actually began to threaten Western civilization and large parts of the population in a serious way.
"Let's state the problem directly. If the successor to bin Laden exploded a nuclear weapon here in Rome, how would NATO respond? Would nuking Mecca be out of the question? If Moscow were covered by a nuclear cloud, and the guts of the weapon were shown to have come from Iran, would the retaliation end when Chechnya was turned into dust?"
More than a few people gasped. Even though these were professional soldiers and military leaders, most didn't want to face the implications of the threats the Islamic extremists had made. They didn't think what I was talking about was possible. They saw, or wanted to see, the struggle they were involved in as a series of small, isolated fights that could be dealt with incrementally -- a firefight here, a raid there. Even after 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings, they didn't take the extremists' capabilities or their rantings seriously. Of course, Europeans had made that mistake with extremists before, in this very hall.
Not that Americans should pat themselves on the back. We gave half of the bastards who flew the planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center the right to vote.
I mentioned that, and I admitted that the problem was as serious for the nonextremist majority of the Muslim world as it was for the rest of us. But I wasn't talking to imams, and so I continued with the unpleasantly obvious, telling the Europeans in the hall that it was time to face up to the fact that they had built their economy over the past two decades on cheap labor from northern Africa and the Muslim world. Now the bill was coming due in unexpected ways. There were no easy ways to pay it. Ratcheting up security precautions and striking terrorists where they live -- the things I'm an expert in -- were the easy part of the problem -- and we hadn't even done them very well.
"How hard do you think it would be to slip a weapon in here?" I asked. "There were metal detectors at the door and an X-ray machine -- what percentage of weapons did they catch? Fifty? Ten? I'd say, the only things they caught were the weapons that wanted to be caught."
At that I reached into my waistband to pull out the Glock 26 that I had smuggled past the front-door check. That got a gasp -- but not nearly the reaction that followed a moment later, when I shot the SOB with the grenade at the back of the hall.
I hadn't planned on the show-and-tell. As much as I like ad-libbing, working without a script can be a bit like batting a live hand grenade around in a crowded ballroom.
Which is exactly what happened as my bullet struck the ersatz waiter dead-on in the forehead. He'd been pulling the pin from the grenade when I shot him, and the now-live weapon flew upward. The man next to him tried grabbing it in midair, a very foolish if natural impulse. He missed, and the grenade bounded upward like a volleyball.
Have I ever mentioned that Karen was a championship volleyball player in high school?
Karen took the tap and smashed it toward the window twenty feet away. It broke through the glass and exploded a second later, fortunately over an area that had been cordoned off as part of the security against car bombers. Mussolini's ghost on the window balcony nearby may have taken it on the chin, but no living creature was harmed, not even one of the pigeons flocking on the roofline.
The thick walls of the building muffled the explosion. A millisecond of silence followed as disbelief reigned. Then the security people sprang into action and all hell broke loose. The waiter turned out to be the only tango crazie in the place, but it took a good hour and a half to figure that out.
Or three Bombays from the portable bar next door, if you want a more precise measure of the time.
How did the waiter slip the grenade through the security cordon, which included a metal detector and an X-ray machine? Unfortunately, he wasn't around to tell us. My suspicion is that it had been brought inside and hidden a few days before, and that he picked it up with the tiramisu. I'd spotted him out of the corner of my eye as I was winding uP.M. speech. He roused my suspicion by moving two or three times faster than any Italian waiter ever moves unless the kitchen is on fire.
Karen was the hero of the hour. Diplomats and hobnobbers swarmed to her. She handled it with her usual smooth poise, charming all these European men like a movie star. Ever the sensitive supportive male, I threw a few appreciative beams in her general direction while I sipped my gin. Somewhere between the first and second glass, the acting head of NATO, the French general of generals, Generale Mustard, waltzed over with his staff of sycophants and gave me the evil eye. Mustard didn't have a mustache, but the ends of it would have been twirling if he did. He just about snarled as he called me "Monsieur Dick" and said that my speech lacked balance.
"That's a relief," I told him.
One of Mustard's lackeys swallowed his tongue -- probably fatal, considering where it had been. The generale made like all Frenchmen and beat a retreat. I heard a snicker behind me and turned to find Backass, the Papal security legate.
"A grave security blunder," he intoned. "Heads should roll."
"I was thinking of a much lower part of the anatomy," I told him. I was feeling polite, so I didn't mention that I'd seen him cowering under a table on the opposite side of the room.
The Italian detectives charged with investigating the incident eventually required my presence in a room down the hall that had been allocated for debriefing. I knew from my Navy career that the typical Italian police interview is long on circuitous questions and cannolis, short on sweat, but I could tell this one was going to be different as soon as I was led into the room. The detective in charge skittered around, practically bouncing off the walls with uncontrolled adrenaline. He stood all of five-two and had shaved his head; the blood vessels at the top pulsed bright blue and he looked a little like a bocce ball with legs. The detective sputtered in Italian that the country's honor had been spit on by the incident. I didn't disagree; the problem was that he seemed to blame this on me, hectoring me about my uninvited Glock so much I finally asked whether it would have been better to have left it at home. His head pulsed a few seconds, then he snapped his fingers and I was led away, interview over.
Foreigners are not allowed to carry weapons into the country without express permission. I'd skipped the paperwork, not only for the Glock, which as you probably know is a small hideaway-type personal weapon, but for my PK as well. I had to surrender the Glock to the forensics team conducting the investigation, who for some reason wouldn't take my word or that of two hundred eyewitnesses that my bullet had nailed the tango. They'll undoubtedly send it back when they finish their work, which with typical Italian efficiency will be about thirty years from now.
The truth is, I doubt anyone smuggling a gun into the country would be in serious legal danger, at least not if they got a jury trial. Italy is enlightened enough to have passed a law allowing homeowners to shoot any and all intruders, simply on the grounds of being in a bad mood. You have to love a land that puts pain-in-the-ass in-laws on par with robbers.
Karen was still enjoying the fawning attentions of assorted NATO pooh-bahs when I found her. We retreated and once more took the winding road north to our hotel castle, where a complimentary bottle of champagne had been delivered to our suite, courtesy of the American ambassador who'd been in the ballroom. We spent a few hours unwinding, then slept in the next morning, getting up around mezzogiorno for Chianti and lunch. Karen wanted to get in more sightseeing before another round of the gratuitous violence that passed for receptions and cocktail parties at the NATO wingding. I told her I was in the mood for a little sightseeing myself.
"I'd like to see St. Peter's and the Vatican," she said. "What do you want to see?"
Some questions can only be answered with a smile.
We compromised: After a half hour upstairs, we boarded the Ferrari and sped down to Vatican City, the gallbladder-size Catholic state wedged into the pancreas of Rome. At one time, the Catholic Church owned or dominated a good hunk of the Italian peninsula, including Rome, but during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it lost most of its territory to Italian nationalists under Garibaldi. People don't remember him for this, but Mussolini actually won a great deal of admiration for working out a settlement with the church during the early days of his regime that created Vatican City and ended decades of angst and turmoil. If he'd done the honorable thing and retired after that, his fat ass would never have ended on a butcher's meat hook a decade later. Then again if he'd done the honorable thing, he wouldn't have been Mussolini.
Basilica is Italian for "big fucking church." And St. Peter's is a big big fucking church. The outside looks more like a monster bank than your typical house of worship. Two huge semicircles of columns hold the square before it in place, and the doorways look as if they were designed for people the size of the Jolly Green Giant. You will not doubt your position in the universe when you stand in front of it -- you are a puny little ant.
No, it was not the first time Demo Dick had ever set foot in a church. Yours truly attended St. Ladislaus Hungarian Catholic School, where the nuns taught readin' and writin' the old-fashioned way -- they pounded it into us with the help of razor-edged rulers and lead-weighted rosary beads. I still carry some of the scars, but at least when I go into a church I can genuflect in the right places. And my ecclesiastical background makes me understand that Jesus died on the cross for our sins; if I do not sin, he may have died in vain. Hard on my body, but somebody has got to do it.
St. Peter's is bigger than a football stadium, if you can imagine a football stadium with walls made out of marble and enough candles to heat a small town. Every saint worthy of the name and a few who aren't have a relic or a statue inside. Michelangelo designed the dome and contributed the Pietà, and just for good measure painted the ceiling next door in his spare time. The side aisles are lined with chapels and altar areas, each of which could be the centerpiece of a church anywhere else in the world.
Karen and I threaded our way through a patchwork of tour groups as we made our way down the center aisle toward the Papal Altar and the Baldacchino, a massive, four-pillared monument beneath the dome. It looks like a holy canopy bed and sits in front of the entrance to St. Peter's tomb. The Baldacchino is the focal point of the basilica, the center of Catholicism's spiritual traffic circle. Behind it sits St. Peter's Chair, another huge altar at the back of the church. Made out of gold and bronze, it looks like the exhaust of a Scud missile taking off in the sun, which I pointed out to Karen.
She rolled her eyes. Some people just don't understand art.
"Do you want to see the grottoes?" she asked, changing the subject. The grottoes are a collection of papal burial crypts and chapels below the main floor of the church. I see enough dead people in my line of work, and had no desire to go underground to see any more. We agreed to meet upstairs on the roof in an hour and a half. (Besides a great view, the roof has a number of religious shops. At one time you could just about buy your way to heaven there, but now the best you can do is a St. Christopher's medal blessed by the pope.) I wandered away, continuing to survey the basilica's art with my keenly developed connoisseur's eye. Some of the most beautiful women in the world graced the church, and gazing at them was nothing less than a religious experience.
You pray your way and I'll pray mine.
Easter was several weeks off, but the church was already being prepared for what amounts to Christendom's Super Bowl extravaganza. Wires, lights, and speakers were scattered around the nave; here and there the skeletons of pew boxes were piled high. They look pretty sturdy once they're put together, but unassembled they're more like the stands you see on the side of the typical jayvee football field, dented and forlorn. Workers armed with architectural drawings and large thermoses of cappuccino gathered at several strategic locations, alternately furling and unfurling their plans. Every so often one of the men would do something constructive, like pick his nose, but for the most part they spent their time shaking their heads and staring at their papers.
A choral group had assembled in the Chapel of St. Sebastian. They began warming up with a few slightly off-key choruses of "Gloria with an Excedrin Headache." The singing brought tears to my eyes -- it was that bad -- so I turned to head in the opposite direction. As I did I nearly got run over by two workmen rushing across the front of the nearby altar, huffing and puffing as they pushed a large speaker across the floor. Something about the workers struck me as odd, but I had to stare for a few seconds before I realized what it was: They were actually working hard enough to break into a sweat.
That's not only unusual in Italy, there are several laws against it.
Curiosity piqued, I followed. A group of Philippine tourists cut in front of me, and by the time I sorted through them the workers had vanished. They had left their speaker box next to the Altar of St. Thomas -- he was the only apostle with the balls enough to say seeing is believing.
I put my hand up against the speaker box and it rolled freely across the floor. Not only that, but the grill was hinged at the side and secured by a magnetic latch similar to what you might use on a kitchen cabinet or closet. The interior was empty; the front speaker was just a cardboard disk.
I was puzzling over that when four nuns in heavy wool habits and thick five-o'clock shadows beelined out of the passage behind the nearby altar, heads bowed beneath their headpieces as they whisked forward like running backs in a wedge formation. My first thought was that they had just come from one of the Vatican's exorcism classes, where they'd gotten some of their prayers mixed up. Then I had a flash of ancient de;jà vu, as if I were back in grammar school and needed to find a plausible substitute for the "dog ate my homework" line. I wouldn't have been surprised if one of them had pulled out a yardstick and whacked me across the face with it.
A Beretta submachine gun -- now that surprised me.
I threw myself over the nearby altar rail and rolled to the ground as one of the nuns teased the trigger on the submachine gun. Someone shouted and the chorus's "hallelujah's" one chapel over turned into a cascade of "holy shit's." Instinctually, I reached for my gun -- forgetting that I had surrendered it the night before.
Goatfucked. On vacation no less. See what happens when I go to church?
Copyright © 2006 by Richard Marcinko