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American Atheist: #15

by  Nelly

Posted: Friday, August 12, 2005
Word Count: 4909

The phone rang three times before Bishop Cecilio moved to answer it. He had been deep in prayer when the first bell echoed out. His room at the Apostolic Palace was a lavish affair, all marble pillars and satin cloth. He didn’t much care for it, preferring instead the stiffness of a firm bed and a simple fan to stir the air. His home on the outskirts of Rome was perfect for his unassuming nature, quiet and secluded with its acres of olive groves and fruit trees. But here even the phone looked expensive, a golden cradle from which the receiver rattled with each subsequent ring. He was loathe to answer it, tired from the long journeys he had made that day, travelling the length of Rome, seeing to the daily suffering of peoples lives. The endless paper work and mass, it had all taken its toll and he felt drained. This was to have been his time alone with God and his own reflections.

The phone was insistent with its call, loud and piercing, there could be no ignoring it. He could of course just unplug the dammed thing from the wall and contemplated the idea before finally accepting its importantance due to the lateness of the hour… still he was reluctant to answer.

He caught sight of his reflection in the lounge mirror -it was difficult not to- it ran three quarters the length of the room and was twice as high as himself, giving an already large area the illusion of becoming cavernous. His reflection, he dully noted, appeared saddened. He looked old, his hair once golden was now grey and vanishing from his head, his face was lined and sagged, his chin folding into two layers. Time had run its course on this old body; perhaps he should trade it in for a new one.

The phone rang again and with a hint of a smile he picked up the receiver. There could be no rest for the wicked he concluded.

“Reverent Cecilio, Bishop of Teruel speaking.”

“Cecilio,” a voice on the other side snapped in anger. “What took you so long?”

Cecilio recognised the voice of Cardinal Gallo immediately.

“Ah Cardinal…a pleasure at any hour of the night, but you caught me in my nightly prayers, you do know what the time is don’t you?”

“Never mind, we’ve caught her.”

Cecilio had to think on this, “Caught whom?” he enquired.

“The American spy, I have her with me now, in the Sistine chapel.”

So the rumoured spy of Rome really did exist. He was impressed.

“Would you like me to talk with her?”

“You know full well what I want you to do. I expect the full works,” his voice dropped low, a conspiratal whisper, “and Cecilio, she has mentioned this… Iron Maiden.”

Now Cecilio found this interesting. “The Iron Maiden of America, in what context?”

“As if she was to meet with her.”

“Here in Rome?”


“But that should be impossible. She doesn’t exist…” his voice trailed off. If this Iron Maiden were real, then the ramifications would shake the Church to its foundations. He smiled and felt a surge of expectation. “Why would she masquerade as an American Superhero? It makes no sense.”

“There is more, our agents have a copy of propaganda film for the American Atheist. I have yet to see it, but it shows this Iron Maiden in action.”

Cecilio had heard of the American Atheist, a superhero designed to inspire and bring hope to the youth of America. He had been created to replace the void formed by the absence of religion, to fill the role of God as a more contemporary twentieth century version. Ingenious of the American powers, it showed a cunning and an intelligence which Cecilio could respect, even admire, if not agree with. But Iron maiden’s presence in the film would suggest America was playing a different game, one in which there were dangerous consequences.

“Come to the chapel and we will talk further,” Cardinal Gallo said, his voice left no room for discussion and it wasn’t a request.

“As you wish,” Cecilio said humbly, but the line was already dead.

In an eager rush, he paced around the room, collecting his clothes and briefcase, before running back to the phone and searching through his address book. He made two other phone calls, both to clergymen he knew and trusted. Once he was sure they were on their way, he took one last look in the mirror. Cecilio was of an average height, a little shy of five and half feet. He wore a clean pressed suit and a lop-sided red tie which he hurriedly pushed back into position, if not for his skull cap he would have blended in with the crowds and none would have been the wiser for his profession. A fact that well suited him and he had taken advantage of over the years.

He left the apartment and hurried down flights of marble stairs and through halls of ancient beauty. He considered walking through the Papal Palace to the chapel, but the Palace was a complex building with over one thousand rooms and he was unsure of the way. As it was, if not for the faint glow of an exit sign he would have become hopelessly lost, but even as he headed towards the door he never once forgot he was not alone. A Swiss Guard watched him from the shadows, thinking himself hidden and secure, after all, no man could see him in the gloom. And in that respect he was right, Bishop Cecilio could no more see him than anyone else who might pass.

He could however, smell him: his sweat, his skin, the faint tangible taste of fear as he passed. As well he should feel fear. He had long ago accepted his role would invoke such feelings from those not indoctrinated in the heart of the Church, but stood close enough to feel its effects. No doubt these men had heard the rumours, even seen the remains of those whom he was forced to work with, in what he considered to be the darkest aspect of his job. An unpleasant task, but absolutely critical to the future of the Church. He paid it no heed, after all it made his work easier, one day the guard himself may be before his tender mercies, breaking that much sooner through the fear of half-formed truths and whispers.

Bishop Cecilio's function this night, the function for which he was infamous for in the inner circles of the Vatican, was as a torturer. He was far better than the other Bishops, who saw their work only through extensions of their victim’s physical flesh. Cecilio saw his victims as a much deeper affair. Physical pain was only one small aspect of the human condition. True suffering began when he peeled away the layers of the human psyche like layers of an onion, getting through to the raw centre. The Gift helped, as it did with all Bishops, but because of his age, his particular version had evolved to take him a step above the rest. Reason enough, he realised, why they would keep him in the Vatican as much as they did. More simply put, he was the best at what he did.

Few could understand the Gift, but he could, few could nurture what they became, but he had found a way. Sighing, he pushed open the door and stepped outside. There was a price for excellence, he decided, and that cost was his soul.

A battle he had lost long ago.

The night was cool and peaceful; he crossed the road and passed before the Apostolic Library, gently wrapped in darkness, dissolving away its walls and roof, blending the museum of the profane into an indistinct grey shape, its many windows were now black holes hiding treasures that waited within. His footsteps echoed off the perfectly laid stones of the Stradone del Glardini and he entered the Courtyard of the Pigna. Others were still awake at this hour, students surprised to see him as he walked the grounds, all gave a polite nod of their heads, but none paused to talk. He suspected they had been drinking. He took their names and made a mental note to visit them each –personally- when he next had time. The night obscured much of the Vatican, a fact he was grateful for, so much fruit from the labours of artisans of hundreds of years passed, had often left him feeling bewildered and tired from their design. He was glad for the peace of mind the cloak of shadow give him this night.

He entered the Courtyard of the Sentinel as a distant clock struck three and came in sight of the chapel. Waiting beneath a faltering street light were the two priests he had asked to meet him, as was their way, they were bickering quietly amongst themselves, he paused, listening to what they had to say.

“The spy represents a break down of relations between the two superpowers -why else send her?” the first said. He was the taller of the two and the senior, older still than Cecilio. Father Elia was well into his eighties. Still, he remained good friends with the Bishop and had been his first choice when calling for help. Elia possessed a special insight into the fellow nature of man; Cecilio had learned much from him.

“Or she could just be a test, made up by the Cardinals, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried this,” the other man said. He was short, barely standing over five feet, his enlarged nose and short receding hair gave him the characteristics of a rodent.

Father Naldo was his second choice, based on Naldo knowing the darker side of the human psyche. He could barely trust Naldo with any matter of importance, his will shattered in the transformation process of the Gift years ago. But he still maintained a unique ability to ferret out lies and get to the dark corners of the soul. Between them they complemented each other perfectly.

They lapsed into silence as they saw him approach and he managed a broad smile, “Thank you gentlemen for your quick response. I trust I have not taken you away from matters of importance?”

Father Elia shook his head and said simply, “A hot cocoa and the Bible, nothing more.”

While Naldo visibly sulked and hissed, “No one that won’t keep until morning.”

Cecilio repressed an urge to shudder and decided not to pursue Naldo’s comment. “Shall we then?” he enquired. The other two agreed and together they stepped up to the Sistine chapel.


The Sistine chapel stood on the Southwest corner of the old medieval section of the Apostolic Palace. Built between 1475 and 1483 in the time of Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, its basic function was to act as the Pope’s chapel and the location of the election of the new Pope by the Cardinals -a horrifying, blood thirsty event if the rumours were even half true. Its roof was shaped like a flattened barrel with smaller vaults springing from the sides. Unassuming in its outward design the chapel was precisely 40,93 meters long by 13,41 meters, the exact measurements of the Temple of Solomon as recorded in the Old Testament.

By night the chapel was locked and grim faced Swiss guards patrolled outside. He could feel their eyes upon him as they approached, but they did not challenge. Instead of going through the small front door of the chapel, which the thousands of tourists took every day, he veered right and stopped at a second door further down. This one appeared unguarded, although appearances could be deceptive and Cecilio knew this better than most. He reached into the folds of his robes and took out a slender gold key, inserted it in the lock and when he heard a satisfying click, gave the door a short push and entered. Moving into the chapel, he felt an odd sensation against his skin, like cobwebs trailing across his face. The guardians of the chapel protected its sanctity day and night from intruders; the barrier he had just stepped over would have alerted the ancient keepers of his entrance. He hoped he wouldn’t meet them this night. If he had been an enemy he wouldn’t be standing in the church now. They would have fallen upon him the moment he stepped inside. Nothing could withstand the guardians. Each had sampled the Gift and when faced with the ultimate journey into death, had chosen to remain here within the Holy See, guarding its treasures and vaults. One day, he might add his own soul to their collective presence, rather than face a return journey into the dark. He brushed such thoughts away, silently berating his morbid indulgence as he refocussed on the matter at hand.

They entered into a dark corridor that ran the length of the chapel. He paused to light an oil lamp, watching the flame flicker before proceeding. The corridor was cold and he drew his coat around him. It was typical of Cardinal Gallo to meet here; wholly inappropriate for what they had in mind and dangerous if the guardians of the chapel where to find the spy unprotected, but then Cardinal Gallo always had a sense for the dramatic.

The corridor continued on and sloped downwards, but Cecilio stopped as he came upon a small wooden door. Gallo waited beyond, he could sense it. The Cardinals aura weighed heavy in his mind.

“Here,” he said to the others. “Gallo, waits for us beneath The Judgement of God.”

The other two Fathers didn’t question him; both accepted his words at face value. They knew enough of his own personal journey to understand he had brought back certain abilities. They might not know the full extent of what the journey had entailed, but if they continued their own good work then one day he would refer them both and they could get to see what really waited on the far side of the darkness.

Cecilio opened the door and stepped inside. Above them, The Judgement of God by Michelangelo would have loomed, but by night it was lost in darkness and the room felt smaller for it. Still the main chamber was massive and the sounds of the three men entering echoed into the shadows.

Cardinal Gallo stood crouched over the limp body of a girl. His long bone like fingers touching the curls of her hair, his robes trailing across the floor, he rasped and sucked down breath from beneath the mask like a dying man. Cecilio was reminded of Dracula from the old movie Nosferatu, a slender beam of daylight and he would be destroyed. He dropped the idea as he walked over and adopted a stern expression.

“Cardinal…” he began, but Cardinal Gallo cut him off.

“Don’t be fooled, she is resourceful, she led us a merry chase across Rome.”

Cecilio respectfully fell quiet. Gallo’s hunting trips to the Ghettos were well known, even secretly applauded in certain circles, but it always left Cecilio feeling uncomfortable. Why hunt those weaker than you, the true game was in breaking an equal, tearing down an enemy and seeing them lost. If -he amended- you had to do it at all. Still, the Cardinal would not listen to such advice, so he merely nodded and looked down at the girl.

The lone American lay unconscious by the Cardinal’s side. Her black hair fell limply over her dark features and she twitched as if suffering the effects of a bad dream.

“ I want her torn apart Cecilio, use everything you have, strip her down to the core and lets see what she is hiding and what games this …Iron maiden is playing with us.”

Cecilio nodded, understanding the seriousness of the threat Iron Maiden imposed. Cardinal Gallo did as well; he made a show of adjusting his robes and brought himself up to his full height.

“I would like to have something by morning.”

“I’ll keep you informed your Eminence,” he bowed and the Cardinal swept past. The chapel groaned, moving around him, welcoming one of dark heart as one might welcome a brother.

For a moment they looked down quietly at the girl; each lost in their own thoughts.

Cecilio would have liked nothing better than to reach down and snap her fragile neck then and there; it would save her the horrors and the humiliation of the next few hours. But his sense of duty was too strong, instead he sighed, lowered his head and closed his eyes, bringing out the part of him, which remained hidden from the world, but here in this place of shadows was at home. He looked back to the other two. “Let’s take her below,” he said, his eyes shining a feral yellow.


Bishop Cecilio watched through the copper grill and felt a stab of pity for the child. What was she doing here? She was no American spy; it was madness to think other wise. But when had a Cardinal ever been wrong?

Cardinal Gallo always insisted he assume a more pleasing appearance when they spoke. He considered himself beautiful, but the Cardinal barely kept his manners when confronted with Cecilio’s true form. But he knew what Gallo was thinking, his mind and emotions -especially his emotions- were an open book. It was this way with all the Cardinals. Some desired him, sensing his power, but most feared what he had become, his personal sacrifice they considered too high.

They were fools; they did not understand what happened to the soul through the cold voyage of death. They only had the narrowest of views from their own stunted journeys. The path the soul was forced to endure was too much for some, and it sent them mad or consumed them utterly. When he had returned from death, he was changed in the manner of the Bishops, but had continued to evolve into something greater than what he had once been. The Cardinals could never understand this; their journey was short, relying on the tools of the host armour to bring them back into life rather than their own spiritual journey. Still they sacrificed part of their being, as did everyone to become what they were. Death had made him so beautiful that the Cardinals could only fear him. They could not bear to look upon the purity of his being and the elevation of his soul.

The flesh he wore now felt like an old jumper one had for cold winter nights, all threadbare and worn, but of great sentimental value. One day soon, he would discard it in favour of another, but not this day. He sighed and pushed his thin, narrow spectacles up the bridge of his nose. Cardinal Gallo had been insistent she be put through interrogation and he could not be refused, even when he brought in one as small and frail as this American.

He turned his attention back to the child.

How had she come to Rome? This mention of Iron maiden had intrigued the Cardinals enough to bring her to his tender mercies. A shame though, she was pretty, but not beautiful… not yet. One day if she had remained in her own land she would have blossomed and become special, now she would forever be denied that chance, once he had his way with her, she would be marred, both physically and spiritually.

If not dead.

He looked at the other two men in the room, both his aides sat behind a plain wooden table staring intently at the girl beyond the mirror.

“First impressions?” he asked.

The first, Father Elia slowly leaned forward and said, “A test?”

Cecilio shook his head. “Unlikely, I’ve heard no word and Cardinal Gallo was the angriest I have seen him and besides all of Rome has been awash with rumours of the girl since she was first sighted.” He glanced over to the second man, “Your thoughts Naldo?”

Naldo shrugged, “Don’t know, I want to say she will be a walkover, there is nothing to her, barely a scrap of meat to be had. But I …don’t know…I feel like there should be more, something beneath the skin, needing to be scratched before it bursts like a pus filled sore."

Cecilio nodded, “I feel it too, she has a…” he groped for the right word, “presence,” he finally decided.

The others said nothing and he took their silence as agreement.

“Right lets get to it then, administer the Chimera and I’ll go in. Elia start the tape.”

Cecilio pressed his hand against the mirror and allowed himself one last look at the poor girl, allowing a tear to touch his eye, before he clamped down on his emotions, turning them off as one might turn off a tap and focused on the job at hand.

He studied the girl intently, allowing his mind to reach out and gently touch her own. Building up a mental picture of the form he wished to take, of what might affect her and what would make her talk more freely. Once decided, he felt his skin begin to shift, crawling away from the muscle that in turn moved and retreated from the bone until it was raw and exposed. He grunted with the pain, but endured the suffering the transformation process evoked. It never touched his true form, buried beneath his malleable flesh. The bone began to break and then reform, he felt his legs stretch and he gained four inches in height. The sudden shift made him stagger and he grabbed the wall for support. The muscle returned and with it a flash of intense pain as the nerve endings fired back into place, then the cool soothing flow of flesh settling around his new form and it was over. As he adjusted to his appearance, he watched the others administer the Chimera and settled back to wait.

“I dance all night and I love all night, oh yeah, to see the man in white come calling, come calling, the quick and the dead, who will stop me now.” Unita made up the words, but it didn’t matter, she sang about life and felt her limbs stretch and her roots go deeper into the soil.

She was after all a song tree.

“And when the man comes a calling, what will I say, please, yes and thank you, then be on your way.”

Mickey ran past, wand in hand, laughing gleefully as the Sorcerer came behind. “You go Mickey,” Unita sang. “Never stop, keep on running, till the whole world comes crashing down.” Funny how both Mickey and the Sorcerer were in black and white, while the yellow brick road was in colour.

Lassie ran up, tail wagging, looking anxiously back towards the well.

“It’s his own fault, Timmy got stuck,” Unita admonished. “He can damn well stay down there until the Mud people pass by and get him.” Lassie barked and ran round her trunk before setting off to Metropolis to call upon Superman. The Boy Scout always took the jobs no body else wanted.

Nonfather Fletcher was a large red tomato and his son Bobby grew like a cancerous black lump from his side, he rolled over to Unita and said, “This isn’t a game anymore, you’re playing with the big league now.”

Unita shed a leaf and looked upon the distant spires of fabled America, “But I just want to go home,” she sang, “I want to move my roots and live in the land of the free, I’m sick of this town, I fear the witch and think she’s a coming.”

Cancerous Bobby turned to face her, his mouth a jagged red wound, “She ain’t bothered by you, got bigger fish to fry, you wanna know when the man comes to town, he’s got eyes just for you.”


“You’re hallucinating, it’s just a symptom of the Chimera.”

She struggled to open her eyes and slowly the room came into view, sterile white and plain. A woman stood before her, dressed in a grey business suit and holding tucked under one arm a clipboard. Perched upon her Roman nose were a pair of high rimmed purple spectacles, seemingly out of place with the rest of her garb. She took one long look at Unita and wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“I thought I was a…song tree or something, it didn’t make sense,” Unita said.

“I bet it didn’t, but then nothing makes sense in your small world now does it?”

“I…what do you mean…who are you anyway?”

“Don’t you recognise me?”

Unita studied the woman’s expansive face, looking deep into her narrow eyes and studying the curl of her hair; slowly she pieced together a face, which had no right belonging there. “Mrs Denver?” she whispered, shaking her head to clear her eyes, but the woman still loomed above her. Beyond a doubt it was Mrs Denver, her English teacher from eighth grade, she even wore the same dark uniform she always wore each day at school.

She hated Mrs Denver.

She had made her life a misery throughout the year, a personality clash, although Unita thought of Mrs Denver as a bully. The schoolteacher had reprimanded a fellow pupil for her lack of detail in completing essays. The rebuke had been a harsh one and driven the pupil to tears. Unita had seen enough and demanded hotly that Mrs Denver stop. To her surprise, she had, only to launch into a far more vicious attack upon Unita. One in which Unita had responded in kind and earned her a swift march to the headmistress and a severe thrashing around her legs with the school’s cane. That encounter had set the two up as enemies for the rest of the year and by its end, Unita wished the teacher would just die. As it turned out Mrs Denver transferred to Florida in the summer break and the two never laid eyes upon each other again -until now.

“I don’t understand, were you working for Rome all this time?” she said, trying to focus. It was difficult, her mind felt fogged and thinking remained slow.

Mrs Denver slapped Unita hard across the face, a stinging blow that brought tears to her eyes. “Don’t be so stupid child,” she said icily. When Unita started to splutter out a response, Mrs Denver slapped her again, across the same cheek leaving an angry red swell, Unita tried to struggle away, and earned herself another hard slap, then another and another after that.

“When will you learn who your superior is, when will you learn discipline,” the schoolmistress demanded, her palms striking in quick succession. Each time Unita attempted to shield her face, Mrs Denver would pull away Unita’s hands with a grip as strong as iron and continue to beat Unita, until a thin trickle of blood ran from her nose.

Then she stopped and stood back up; leaving Unita crouched in the corner, trembling with fear.

“Why do you hate me so?” Mrs Denver asked.

“Please don’t hit me,” Unita cringed.

Answer the question,” the other woman snapped.

Unita struggled to respond. “Because…because you hated me.”

Mrs Denver shook her head and walked slowly around Unita, regarding her intently. “That’s not the reason,” she said smoothly. “Hate is a powerful emotion, true hate is mindless, it’s a state of feeling and logic cannot be applied to the way one feels.” She stopped and touched Unita with the edge of her heel. “But you hate me, I can smell it on you.” She leant in close and for the briefest of moments Unita thought she saw a flash of yellow behind her thin eyes. “So you must have a reason, what is it?”

“You…you…always picked on me in school, you were the bully, I hated you for it.”

“But there would have been other bullies in school, did you hate them as much?” She paused and licked the top of her lips. “No, you did not. I would know. You hated me more, why?”

“Because you bullied people,” Unita tried to shout, but her throat felt thick and her tongue swollen.

“People?” Mrs Denver smiled, “at last we’re getting somewhere. And who else did I bully?”

Unita looked away. “Friends,” she muttered.

“Friends, perhaps, but not for this much hate. Who were these friends?”

Unita remembered Sandy, her voice, their laughter in the halls, her trembling face, all crumbling before Mrs Denver’s sharp tongue.

“Sandy,” she said unhappily. “You bullied Sandy.”

“And who is Sandy?”

“Don’t you know?” which earned her another hard slap across the face.

“Who is this Sandy, what does she mean to you?”

“A friend, nothing more.”

“Don’t lie to me, you would not foster this much hate over a schoolgirl bullied, there is more, your anger is misplaced, redirected onto me, but why? Where is it redirected from?” She reached over and grabbed Unita roughly by the arm. “Sandy was more than a friend, wasn’t she? She was a …lover?”

“No, “ Unita said shocked, pushing away. “Sandy wasn’t my lover, we never…I mean…we didn’t….” she looked down at the floor and her body sagged.

“It wasn’t like that,” she admitted.