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American Atheist: #6

by  Nelly

Posted: Monday, May 9, 2005
Word Count: 3042
Summary: Despite connection problems here's the next installment as promised.

The man sat back in his chair, his face lost in the dark shadows of the cockpit. “Have you ever been to Rome?” He asked, then laughed abruptly at his own question. “How absurd. Of course you haven’t been! How could you have?” He paused and lifted back a single thread of auburn hair from where it had fallen across his face; the action scattered the shadows and revealed just for an instant, a pair of narrow dark eyes. “They would have shot you down and fed your remains to the animals. Don’t be alarmed, it’s not just little girls, it’s any American they come across,” a brief flash of teeth and a wicked smile, “don’t feel special or anything.”

“You’re human!” Unita said. She felt the colour drain from her face but chose to ignore his comments, although her stomach churned at his sudden revelation.

“Am I?” There was mockery in his voice. “What is human? Is it to love and live life, to care for you fellow man, like he was a brother?” He sighed, “If that’s what it means, then I’m not human, not by any stretch of the term.”

“I thought you were a monster?” Unita whispered the words, scarcely believing them herself.

“And you thought right. I am a monster,” he said with disgust, “I am a killer of men. Your countrymen mostly, but from time to time, a few Europeans. Never boys though,” He paused, and his voice trembled, “until today.”

The plane shook slightly, dipping its nose forward as if riding over rocky ground. At the sudden motion the man groaned and clutched hold of his chest until the plane passed through the rough patch, then he fell against the wheel, sweating and exhausted. Unita noticed his purple robes were wet and clung to his body, in two widening, red patches.

“You’re bleeding!”

“Yes,” his voice was faint. “The armour will patch what it can and the medics will heal me, when we get back to Rome.” He leant against the glass, breathing heavily.

“Your armour can heal you?” Unita asked, her concern turning to doubt. “You’re not wearing any?”

In response, he grasped hold of his sodden robe and tore free a section. Beneath, he wore a suit of silver, which shone like moonlight in the darkness. Several holes had been torn into it and Unita could clearly see mangled flesh and broken bone jutting out from the shoulder. She grimaced and turned away.

“No don’t,” the man said, “look once more and tell me what you see.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Do it, and learn a truth to the world. Perhaps the first truth of many?”

She wasn’t sure what he meant, but forced herself to look at the injury, determined not to show any weakness. The wound was as it had been before, a gaping cavity, tunnelled through flesh, muscle and bone. It was a miracle his arm was still attached.

Two tendrils of skin hanging loosely before the hole suddenly twitched. She watched amazed as they twisted then touched, like worms wiggling across fresh soil.

That was …impossible!

“Many things have been kept from you, you have been allowed to wander in the dark, alone and afraid. Trapped by the fear generated by your government, to keep you in place, under control.” A suggestion of a smile flickered across his lips. “I can be a lifeline to you, if you wish. I can help you and in turn you can help me.” He pulled the robes back over and leant forward into the light, the shadows running like ink from his face. He was a young man, barely into his twenties with unblemished brown skin, fine angular features and a thin narrow nose. “Help me?” A passion in his voice tugged at something in Unita’s heart. “Help me atone for my sins.”

“I don’t know…” Her voice trailed away, feebly. He was emitting a physical aura of strength, a bizarre heat that tickled her skin and made her scalp itch.

“Who are you?” Unita said breathlessly, “what are you?”

“My full name is Cardinal Angelo Roberto D’costa. I was raised on a farm, with five brothers and six sisters, we were, by your standards, a large family?”

Unita nodded, a slight frown of confusion wrinkling her forehead. She hadn’t asked about his family and wondered why he was bothering to tell her now.

“We were actually considered small in size comparatively speaking,” Angelo continued. “Other families including our nearest neighbours boasted twenty-four, twelve boys and twelve girls, split right down the middle. It’s one of the many differences of our nations, where we embrace life, you try to curb it.”

“No,” Unita shot back, “we embrace diversity, it’s one of the core values of our society.”

Angelo smiled. “Spoken like the true poster child of your generation.” He paused, as if considering his next words. “I’m telling you all this Unita, because I want you to fully understand the unique position you find yourself in. I want you to be in possession of all the facts, an opportunity you never had before, until tonight.”

He looked deep into her eyes as he spoke, as if looking past flesh and into the centre of her being. She felt a chill race across her spine and resisted an urge to look away.
“You’ll forgive me, if I take what you say with a pinch of salt,” she managed to whisper.

“It has always been your decision,” Angelo said, he placed both hands together, in the shape of a pyramid, and rested his chin upon the tips of his fingers. “Besides I digress. My father was a tall, powerfully built man, who liked to wear his heart on his sleeve. He believed if you put in a hard day’s work, then you could relax in the knowledge that you deserve your rest. We are always being judged, he would say, the Lord God is always watching, even now!”

Unita bit back a sharp retort, sensing instinctively, to press Angelo on the subject of his father’s faith would be a most unwise thing to do.

“We used to at Christmas, travel to Rome. An annual pilgrimage for the entire family. We were never alone, as many other families did the same. Near to the end of the year, we celebrate the birth of our saviour, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins."

“We have a similar ceremony,” Unita said. “It’s called Parcel Day, we celebrate life and family, by the exchange of gifts, then in the evenings, we go to Nonchurch and listen to the Nonfather’s speeches.” At the thought of Nonfather Fletcher, Unita suddenly felt sick, she remembered his broken body lying in the mud, and her mouth went dry. What was she doing talking to this man, by his own confession had said he was a monster, who knew what else he was capable of?

“It was in Rome on my tenth pilgrimage that I first saw a Cardinal. I will, until my dying day, never forget that moment. The streets were packed with people all trying to find places to stay, before the ceremonies began. Those who had family and friends were the lucky ones, and the rest were left to squabble over hotels and boarding houses. The few who couldn’t even get rooms had to see out their time in the Vatican shelters, on the edge of the city. That year we were late, my youngest brother had become ill shortly before leaving, so ill in fact, my mother insisted we visit the local doctor, and it had taken us a day out of our way. When we got to the city, all the rooms were taken and only the shelters were available. We were crammed into the streets, shoulder to shoulder, conditions were harsh, little water, even less food and the temperature dropping to freezing; the extra blankets we all wore did nothing to keep out the chill. It was going to be a miserable occasion for all of us.
I remember clearly one morning, a shout going up in front of the shelter, a Cardinal had arrived! A ripple went through the crowds and they started to part, many dropping down on their knees, including my parents. I didn’t -the first time I was too curious- I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And when I laid eyes on the creature before me, I could understand where all the rumours, all the half-whispered stories about the Cardinal came from. Regal in its purple robes of office, emitting an aura that left many in a swoon, the Cardinal walked through the crowds, touching people at random and praying for them. There must have been hundreds of us, but no one said a word, all were quiet, save a child, who being so young didn’t know the proper respect a Cardinal deserved and continued to cry. As the Cardinal neared, it must have heard the baby, because it stopped in the act of prayer and turned towards the sound. The mother, a plump lady, covered in grime from the streets, was desperate to quieten the child, but nothing she did was any good. The Cardinal swept towards her and as he passed I caught a sickly sweet smell, like lavender and wet soil after the first dew of morning.”

Angelo’s tone became softer; his eyes grew distant. “He took the child from the mother without so much as a moments pause. Undoubtedly she was terrified, but she gave it up nevertheless. The Cardinal held the baby in his hands, his long fingers stretched around its head and then it mewled softly, just once, like a cat waiting to be fed and the child stopped crying, even laughed. The Cardinal announced the child wouldn’t stay the night on the streets and would go back with him, for safety. He then left, holding it with one arm and the mother following behind, tears rolling down her eyes.”

He came out of his revere and smiled. “I knew then, that was power, my father was strong, physically, and my mother had the sharpest wit, but both bowed before him. Their strength was as nothing to the Cardinal. People would give him their most cherished possessions, their lives if asked. I aspired to reach that same goal.”

“But the mother only gave her child away through fear!”

“Yes, the building block for both our great societies.”

“I don’t understand?”

“Nor are you required to, for now. All you have to do is listen.” His tone had changed, becoming more like a teacher’s might, when faced with a difficult, backwards student. He stood up from his seat and went to step back into the plane.

Unita panicked. Grasping hold of his robes, she shouted, “No, the plane, we’ll crash!”

Angelo smiled down at her in a pitying way. “Have you never flown before?” he asked.

Unita shook her head. “No, never.” She saw no reason to tell him any of her past. Once, when she was young, her mother had booked them both on a Zeppelin bound for Georgia, they had an Aunt there, who was frail and advancing in years. She only had faint memories about the trip, apart from being excited when they first set off and becoming quickly bored with the experience as time wore on. She remembered Ashanti’s face, peering down, looking cross and telling her to remain still. She fished from her bag – a constant companion on any long journey- some sultana cake, wrapped for the travel and handed it over, this had helped ease the journey, at least for a short while. Unita found she missed her mother terribly, she wished she could be held and hear her mothers voice whisper that all was right and not to worry.

Something else that was Angelo’s fault.

“Come to Rome. In time, you will learn to love it. It’s a city of many faces, each one different from the last. There are places that will make you cry, and places, which will make you laugh. Others will take away your breath.” He snapped his fingers together and Unita jumped at the sound. “Some will make you realise how small and inconsequential life can be. They will help to give you fresh perspective.”

Part of her wanted to say yes to this strange man, to give in to his will, to bow down to what he wanted. The heat of his body she could actually feel upon her skin, uncomfortable and hot. She struggled, almost agreeing, but part of her mind whispered against it. She allowed her thoughts to dwell on this and the image of Bobby lying in the mud appeared, his eyes dark saucers, his blood running with the rain.

She felt cold.

Was this how he convinced Bobby?

“No…” She said, but her voice sounded weak, uncertain.

“But you have so much to learn,” Angelo pressed.

“No.” She repeated, feeling stronger.

“You’re young, you don’t know what you’re saying.” The heat was unbearable and Unita started to sweat.

“No!” She shouted and pushed him away. “It won’t work, whatever you’re trying, it won’t work on me.” She stared at him defiantly, refusing to give in. Gradually, the heat dissipated and Angelo sat back, as if seeing her for the first time.

“I salute you Unita. Not many can resist the will of a Cardinal, I have broken men, soldiers and even generals, but not it seems one lone little girl.” He ran his hand across his chin thoughtfully. “There is more to you than first meets the eye.”

Unita refused to look away; she stared straight-ahead, unwilling to back down.

Gradually the shadows returned, absorbing his face in parts, when he spoke next his voice seemed ghost-like. “It was wrong of me to try, but I need you to be calm and collected, for what you have to be told.”

Unita continued to stare, but could feel a crippling exhaustion sweeping up through her body. She felt tired, drained, as if the battle of wills had taken something from her, she needed to rest and couldn’t keep this up for much longer.

Angelo relaxed and folded his arms across his lap. “Don’t pretend any more, let go. I’m sure you won’t believe me, but I won’t do that again. In fact I cant, if someone blocks me the first time, then they always have a more natural immunity to the suggestion and it’s pointless trying again.”

“I will never come to Rome with you,” Unita managed to say. “You will have to kill me first.” The simple act of speaking drew away the last of her strength and she collapsed, breathing hard and lacking even the energy to cry. She wanted to let it out in a great rush of emotion, but found all she could do was merely sob and close her eyes.


For a long time neither person spoke. Angelo went back to the controls, while Unita remained still, waiting for her strength to return. As the minutes crept by, Angelo became more animated, looking to be on the verge of speaking several times, before he seemed to think better of it. Unita’s hatred for the Cardinal grew as her strength returned, smouldering just beneath the surface, until when he glanced at her once more, she could stand it no longer.

“Just say it!” She hissed.

Angelo looked shocked and then managed a wry smile. “As you wish. There’s no point in trying this, but I shall anyway. That was stupid, if you didn’t trust me before, then you definitely wont trust me now.”

Unita sat back up, pushing strands of hair clear from her face. “You’re right, I don’t trust you.” Venom laced every word. “I despise you and everything you represent. I wish you were dead.“

Angelo said nothing and lowered his head, caught in the shadows of the cockpit Unita could scarcely read his expression, after a while she wasn’t even sure if he had heard her at all.

“Allow me to start at the beginning,” he said softly. “I am, as you know, a Church Cardinal and have been for five years. It was all I ever wanted and it was all I ever dreamed about becoming. So it came as a shock, when I discovered everything about the Papal States, about Rome, was a lie and the same can be said for America.”

Unita shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what you say to me. I don’t think you’re capable of the truth, you don’t even know what the truth is.”

Angelo nodded. “I deserve that and what’s more you’re right. I deal with deceptions, daily. Lies so vast if uncovered, could change the world as we know it, but please listen to me when I say, I want to, I need to, share them with you.”

Unita folded her arms. “It won’t work, so don’t even try,” she said stubbornly.

“Then you won’t care what I have to say?”

Unita said nothing and Angelo took that as a sign to continue.

“Like you, I love my country, I am extremely patriotic. My faith in God is unquestionable and when any threat to that faith, to my country, arises, I want to squash it like one would squash a bug.” He clenched his hands into fists to demonstrate this point. “A Cardinal is elite. There is an honour set-aside for them which is unprecedented, they are heroes, treated like nobility and feared by their enemies. There is no other title like it. When it was awarded to me, I was taught the true meaning of the world and its affairs. I was taught the true meaning of sacrifice and service to my country. Do you know what that was?”

Unita shrugged her indifference, but despite herself she wanted to know. His voice had a way of drawing her in. She wondered if this was another effect of the armour, but quickly discounted it, this felt more natural somehow.

“The first great lie,” his voice had dropped to a whisper, “there is no war of religion. America and Rome have been at peace for over one hundred years!”