Even to this day I can recall the fragrance of the cherry trees in bloom, the pristine air and the morning sounds of Paris on the terrace of “Genaro’s” café on the Champs Elysees.
It was autumn, and the damp, nervous sensation on the palms of my hands still comes to my mind, as does the vague threat of rheumatism in my right leg, which had stubbornly returned to bother me as it does every year.
Paris’ September weather always has that effect on my knee, but that evening it was the last thing on my mind. I was plagued by a growing tension and I was trying very hard to hide it whilst pretending to read the paper.
“Le Monde” I think it was, if my tired old memory doesn’t deceive me, although at ninety-eight years old I hope the future readers of this diary will be able to forgive me. All that, as I’m sure you can imagine as you peruse these well-thumbed pages, was a long time ago. Before the collapse. Before Joshua. Before the end...
But I digress, excuse me. I was talking about Paris and the cherry trees. As I was saying, I was nervous and I was pretending to read, waiting for that technological little voice to sound in my ear-piece any minute, telling me that the moment had arrived.
There were six of us in the team, five men and one woman. That may seem like too many people to follow just one man, which would have been true if we were visible. But we weren’t.
With more than 200 successful missions in 7 years under my belt, at forty-three years old I was the team leader. We didn’t have a name for our group, nor sophisticated encoded aliases for each member, but we were, let’s say, a well-oiled and efficient machine which lived up to a very hard-earned reputation in the world of private agents and private investigation.
Most of us came from the military or various countries’ federal agencies, and we had been invited by Colonel Carter, after his retirement from the army, to form what had been his dream for many years: the most effective and sought-after investigation and private security company in the world.
Carter had planned it all carefully, and for many long years after his retirement he dedicated himself to the task of
recruiting the best of the best. And he did it. All the guys in the group, including myself, had left smoking bullets in every situation imaginable in our wake, and it’s not presumptuous to say that there was no job that could intimidate us. Nothing until that day.
We all felt that day was different.
We had known it since the morning, a month and three days before, when the Colonel had spoken to us about the nature of the new work he’d entrusted to us. When I asked him about the identity of the client, Carter was silent for several seconds, looking at us all in the conference room of his old Victorian house, and he simply responded, in a tone that was in itself strangely apprehensive, “This time it’s best that you don’t know”. Those words left us all with the sense that this would not be an ordinary or simple mission.
And it wasn’t.
For three difficult weeks we had followed Doctor Elias Waiss, the famous and enigmatic CalTech professor, very closely. He had abandoned his chair in the university to form Netgen, his already famous genetic technology business.
Waiss had been linked with the dramatic events of Kelly’s Crypt a year earlier, and judging by what we discovered in the course of the two weeks of constant, exhausting electronic monitoring, everything seemed to indicate that not only had he been involved, but that he was the organizer of that famous incident which shook the world for weeks and led to the death of Ed Kelly.
We had learned a lot, but there was still so much more that we needed to know, and which we hoped to discover at the meeting that, after a week of changes and delays, Waiss had scheduled for that day, with an elusive character that we knew only as “V”.
Waiss and “V” had exchanged electronic correspondence over the course of 12 days (intercepted by us, thanks to an authorization card signed by the Minister of the Interior (!), which arrived unexpectedly, leaving us dumbfounded - what had Colonel Carter got himself into?) In this correspondence they had finally reached an agreement as to the date and place of their meeting.
That day we had arrived very early at Genaro’s café, which was the place agreed upon by Waiss and “V” as the meeting-place, and we’d installed the electronic equipment discreetly on the terrace tables: half a dozen tiny digital microphones which
transmitted a signal to our van, about a hundred meters away.
We got into our positions, awaiting the meeting with anxiety and nervousness, both of which were provoked by ominous suspicion regarding the identity of “V”, which we had already amply speculated upon , and which we feared was now to be confirmed.
I was seated at a table at the edge of the terrace which faced the beautiful gardens, disguised as an old peasant and pretending to read the paper, when a voice in the ear-piece, like a tender lover, whispered the awaited words in my ear.
“Waiss is arriving, sir.”
I couldn’t escape feeling something strange in the pit of my stomach.
“Has his identity been verified?” I murmured between my teeth.
A few seconds went by, in which a camera, connected to a computer in the van focused on Waiss’ face - he was approaching the terrace on foot, carrying a briefcase - accessed our data base and compared his image with the one on file, before I heard the response in my ear.
I discreetly looked up from my paper and watched. Waiss was approaching the tables. He was eyeing the place suspiciously. In the background I could see two men in dark suits trying not to draw attention to themselves, but their appearance screamed: “Bodyguards!”
“He’s not alone. He’s got tag-alongs,” I heard in the ear-piece.
“I see them. What do we have on them?”
A pause. Waiss arrived at a table and sat down looking furtively in my direction.
“They’re not in the database,” I heard in my ear.
“And there’s a vehicle with two more, at six o’clock, about 80 meters away.”
“I see it.” I confirmed almost imperceptibly.
A waiter approached Waiss with the menu. The dark-suited guys were looking alert beneath their polarized glasses. Waiss ordered a coffee americano with cream. We could hear all the sounds he made as though he were right next to us.
He looked at his watch and caressed the briefcase which was on a chair at his side. I pretended to return to “Le Monde”.
Two long minutes passed in silence between the boys and me in which I tried to make it look like I was savoring my mocha cappuccino whilst reading the comic strip “Garfield”, feeling that others could surely sense my tension.
An older couple sat down two tables from me, but I didn’t look up. My people were still silent. After 3 minutes, a deep voice shook me out of my thoughts. It was John, from the far north end of the cherry tree garden.
“A black armored vehicle is approaching with a convoy.”
“We got it,” came the response from the van.
“Ready,” I muttered in turn, without looking up.
This was the moment we were all waiting for. At last the mystery would be solved. I put the paper down and took a sip of my coffee, pretending to enjoy the view of the cherry trees. Just then a couple of tourists were sitting down at a nearby table with a blonde baby-in-arms.
I had to exert a super-human effort to pretend to watch them calmly and not return my gaze to where the vehicles were parking,
and from where the mysterious “V” would emerge to meet with Waiss.
Then the ear-piece sounded, increasing my tension.
“You’re not going to believe this, sir...”
The baby smiled at me. My neck was hurting from the tension of forcing myself to not turn around. I smiled back at him. A couple of girls ambled by slowly in front of me, I watched them pass, trying to look casual.
“It’s Voquessi,” said the voice in my ear. “It’s been confirmed, sir.”
At that moment I saw him coming and my gut froze.
Suddenly I understood the Colonel’s nervousness and his succinct answer, and I couldn’t help but shudder at the realization that we were about to jump into a pool full of fuel, merrily grasping lighted matches.
The tall, thin man with graying hair and a taciturn expression, his eyes disguised by dark glasses, impeccably dressed in a black Italian suit, approaching the terrace accompanied by a strapping bodyguard, was Bruno Voquessi.
Bruno Voquessi. The iron man behind the throne of the Vatican. The right arm of John XXIV, who had reputedly paved the way for the latter towards the golden seat of Saint Peter.
His Excellence Cardinal Voquessi, head of the Ambrosian Bank and supreme authority over the finances of the Vatican, whose formidable arm controlled businesses and capital the length and breadth of the planet.
Monsignor Voquessi, who was said to have bets on him to succeed His Holiness, himself now tired and ill, on the pontifical throne of the holy Roman Catholic Church.
Bruno J. Voquessi, the man whom Kelly had challenged, in public and in private on more than one occasion about his intrusion in the crypt business, and who, so the rumor was whispered, had had something to do with his disappearance.
At that moment the man was drawing closer to me, pallid, and with that hard look that I had seen many times on television. There he was, larger than life in front of me, sitting down parsimoniously at Elias Waiss’ table and all I could think of was that something very unusual was happening to say the least, and that we were getting ourselves into very turbulent, deep waters.
All my attention was on the table a few meters from me, where Waiss and Voquessi were exchanging cold, suspicious looks.
“You’re taller than I imagined,” said Waiss, with total clarity in my ear-piece. “Would you like something to drink?”
Voquessi drew a cold, forced smile.
“Thank you, but that’s not what I’m here for, Mr. Waiss.”
“Doctor Waiss,” corrected Waiss, wiping the smile from his face and hardening his _expression as he realized the kind of tone the interview was to be conducted in.
“...If you please, Monsignor.”
An approaching waiter was just then courteously intercepted by Voquessi’s bodyguard, who gestured to him that his boss did not want to be disturbed right then.
Waiss and the Cardinal scrutinized each other. Waiss nodded towards the bodyguard.
“Does he have to be here?”
Voquessi signaled reluctantly to the man. He approached and gave the Cardinal a small aluminum case, and retreated at another signal from Monsignor.
“I hope you’re recording this,” I murmured subtly into my microphone, covering my mouth with my hand as though I was coughing.
“We never stop,” answered the voice in my ear-piece.
The Cardinal looked furtively towards Waiss’ men waiting attentively, in the direction of the terrace. He looked at Waiss and smiled laconically.
“I see that you have taken your own precautions, Doctor Waiss.”
“They’re indispensable, Monsignor,” answered Waiss in turn with a trace of irony in his voice. “Especially after that business with Kelly.”
Voquessi took it in his stride. His eyes took on a menacing expression although his voice remained restrained.
“We had nothing to do with what happened to that man,” clarified the Cardinal, trying to control his evident discomfort with the subject. “And you should know that better than anyone, in your position.”
Waiss looked into the Cardinal’s grey eyes for a few seconds, trying to read them, but Voquessi’s hard look was -
impenetrable. He looked away, defeated by those sharp eyes.
“If you’re suggesting that I had anything to do with it, you’re just wasting your time. I don’t know anything about that business....And I don’t care. But anyway, this is not what we came for.”
Voquessi assented and shifted slowly in his chair, without ceasing to examine Waiss’ face. Slowly and calmly he lifted the silver case and put it on the table. Then his glacial eyes returned to the Doctor.
“Can I see it?” asked the Cardinal at last.
Waiss consented and put his own briefcase on the table, in front of the Cardinal. He pressed the locks’ electronic code key, and the clasps opened. Waiss turned the briefcase towards Voquessi while his blue eyes looked at him expectantly.
The Cardinal looked inside the briefcase. Inside it -I learned this hours later, as I was looking at the images from the interview- was a metallic case with a glass cover, surrounded by complicated-looking electronic equipment connected to a miniature gas tank. Close to the glass some tiny green light emitting devices were flashing, and small quartz numbers were showing blinking readings.
But the most important thing was behind the glass.
Unfortunately for me, from my seat at the table three meters away I couldn’t see what was going on, and I didn’t think the camera we’d installed near the table would be able to pick up a clear image either, not even with its zoom lens. Immediately I estimated that the other camera inside the van, although more sophisticated, would not be able to capture anything clearly from that distance.
Voquessi looked questioningly at Waiss.
“Behind the glass,” pointed Waiss.
Voquessi leaned over the briefcase and looked at the glass. He scrutinized it with interest for several seconds that seemed to us an eternity. Then he looked at Waiss. His voice was a combination of restrained emotion and mistrust.
“How can we be assured of its authenticity?”
Waiss did not falter.
“For the simple reason that if you didn’t think I had something authentic, this meeting would never have occurred.”
Then he added, looking him in the eye, “...And because we know that you people have a copy of the account of Kelly’s crypt.”
The Cardinal looked at him, immobile. If I could have seen his face directly, I would have said that he paled. He remained frozen like that for several seconds and then an ironic smile came to his face.
“Congratulation, Mr. Waiss, I’m impressed. It’s obvious that you’ve done your homework.” And he smiled openly.
“Just as you have done yours, to obtain a copy of the account when we have the original.”
“We’re aware of all that, Mr. Waiss”, dealt the Cardinal. “If one of our men had not seen the original before making the copy, I would not be here. We have reason to believe that what that document contained was authentic. Or it could be,” he finished with a trace of suspicion.
“If it was not, I doubt anyone would have taken the trouble to kill Dr. Kelly, or make him disappear.”
My brain was working nineteen to the dozen trying to make sense of all the valuable information it was receiving, but tension and excitement stopped me from fitting together the pieces of the puzzle.
“Let’s get to the point,” said Waiss impatiently. “I have a plane to catch.”
Voquessi looked at him nonchalantly.
“Very well,” he said, looking at the glass case cover in Waiss’ briefcase. “Let’s suppose the article is genuine. And, if we assume that the 12 pieces that the account refers to are these ones, inside your... magic box...”
“Cryogenic chamber,” corrected Waiss insolently.
“...Who can guarantee,” contiuned the Cardinal, ignoring Waiss’ correction, “..that you don’t have other items from the account in your possession and that, in the last analysis, these ones here are the real ones?...”
“Number one...” began Waiss with a tone of assurance in his voice,
“I suspect that you’re already aware that all the other articles were destroyed in the fire in the crypt.”
“Number two...” he added with a self-confident gesture, knowing he was in control of the situation,
“We’re sure that Dr. Vajpayee will be more than capable of carrying out the necessary tests that will remove all shadow of
For the first time Monsignor Voquessi appeared disconcerted and was about to say something when Waiss jumped in.
“...And three, I don’t believe you have any other option left but to trust me.”
Waiss’ air of self-satisfaction seemed to have put an end to the Cardinal’s control at last, but incredibly, the latter managed to recover. He smiled. He leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on the silver case.
I was making a fiendish effort not to look him in the face. My curiosity demanded that I do something to be able to see what was in Waiss’ briefcase, even if only in passing, at the risk of going mad if I didn’t.
“Again I’m impressed, Doctor Waiss,” said Voquessi through clenched teeth, in a voice that struck me as sinister. “Not everybody has the guts to try to blackmail me.”
I tried not to look at Waiss, but I managed to see that his face was taking on a distinct flush. I looked towards the end of the terrace in front of me, and as I watched a cigar seller dressed in a “Moulin Rouge” costume approach, I considered that Waiss was crossing a very dangerous line.
“This is not blackmail, Monsignor,” protested Waiss, recovering his control. “It́?s just business. I need funds to continue my investigations. Funds that the government has cancelled. And you...”
His hand caressed the glass of the cryogenic case. “...You need this.”
My head was spinning. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at Voquessi who was still resting his hands on the metal case. I regarded Waiss with his penetrating eyes, for a moment that seemed like an eternity. Finally he spoke.
“Very well, Waiss,” he muttered. “What’s the price?”
Waiss seemed startled by the brutal frankness of the question, but he regained control quickly. He rummaged in his bag and drew out a small piece of paper. Without hesitation he held it out to Voquessi who took it. He perused it for several seconds and then his sharp grey eyes pierced Waiss, who despite his apparent calm, was holding his breath. Finally the Cardinal replied in Italian.
At that moment, just as I saw him deliver his response, someone came between me and the Cardinal. It was the French cigarette
“Would you like any tabacco, sirs?” she asked in French. “A cigar, father?”
Voquessi looked at her a little surprised. Then he looked at the box she was carrying and smiled at her. He reached out and took something from the box. As he drew back his hand I could see it was a cigarette lighter. He lit it nonchalantly beneath the paper he still held in his right hand and set fire to it, dropping it into the glass ash-tray on the table. Then he immediately put the lighter in his bag and paid the girl with a ten Euro note, refusing the change. As she left, the girl kissed his hand.
Waiss was getting impatient. He took another piece of paper out of his bag.
“This is the bank and account number.”
The Cardinal opened the silver case and took the paper. Inside I could see a lap-top computer which Voquessi opened and turned on. They were both looking at each other with mistrust again.
“He’s connecting to the Internet,” whispered my ear-piece. “We’re going after him.”
I nodded and touched my nose casually, which in our sign language meant “Don’t lose it.”
Voquessi was typing on his computer and glancing occasionally at Waiss. They he gave the paper back to the Doctor, who put it in his bag. Seconds later, the Cardinal pushed “Enter” whilst looking hard at Waiss.
The doctor nodded nervously. Then he closed the briefcase on the table, took a yellow envelope out of his bag and put it on the briefcase, pushing it in front of the Cardinal.
“In this envelope is the code to open the locks, and instructions on handling the cryogenic equipment,” he said without managing to conceal the tension in his voice. “The battery for the cryogenic equipment will last another ten days, no problem.”
Voquessi closed the lap-top screen and then the lid of the metal case. He took the handle of Waiss’ brief case and looked at him gravely.
“Well, Doctor Waiss...” he said in an icy tone. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, but I hope I won’t have to see you again.”
He was about to rise from his chair to leave, but the voice of the Doctor detained him.
“One more thing, Monsignor”.
Voquessi looked at him through narrowed eyes.
“Just in case,” said Waiss, rising to his feet. “If some strange and unfortunate accident were to happen to me, my family or my business, an envelope deposited in a bank, in a safety deposit box, would fall into the hands of the media people.”
Voquessi started to frown.
The envelope contains a detailed explanation of the nature and source of the samples, as well as the results of the analysis performed on them. All endorsed by several experts in the matter. So... I don’t think I have anything to worry about, do I?”
The Cardinal showed admirable control. He simply smiled. From my table I mused that such strength of character was necessary to get to where that man had gotten to, and to where he planned to go.
He took the two briefcases.
“Of course not, Doctor. Why would you need to worry?” He
smiled and continued.
“But tell me something. Purely out of curiosity. What kind of investigation do you plan to carry out with your new funds?”
Waiss pushed his chair under the table, getting ready to leave. He looked at Voquessi and replied with a shrug of the shoulders and an enigmatic smile.
The Cardinal looked at him, feeling that he was being made fun of, but Waiss concluded, as though to relieve him of his misgivings:
“Like “Dolly”, the sheep,” he added smiling.