The small town at the foot of the Alps was pervaded by a thrill. The anniversary of the battle that had made every inhabitant of the valley proud was coming up. In a bygone era, the anchorite saint’s body had been pulled from the prelacy’s thieving hands and moved to town. Since then, Costanzo had become the name all children of lineage were proud holders of. Had the venerable monk imagined that he would become the cause for an armed rebellion, he would have either passed up death or insisted on his desiccated remains being buried in a mass grave. He, the man who after being a mercenary and bringing much trouble to the world, had repudiated war.
Just as then, the town was abuzz. The relic would be moved to the parish church in a few days with a solemn ceremony. Actually, nobody had remembered the event until a few weeks before, when the octogenarian sacristan had begun to entertain the bar patrons with his precious testimony. Battista, out of his 6.20 feet in height, went around telling wonderful things about the saint man; winking and constantly smoothing the sleeves of his shabby jacket, he told stories which were more and more colorful and less and less credible. The wobbly and never-sober sacristan went so far as to boast his own presence at the first centenary of the event, although his age starkly contrasted with the objective data according to which a century is the sum of 100 years.
“The sumptuous event.” repeated the storyteller, glass after glass “was followed by many fat years, brought about by the deceased’s gratitude.”
People spoke of little else in the shops and the inns of downtown: like 100 years earlier, the hermit -or rather his remains- would be placed on an altar dedicated to him with full honors.
Speaking from the pulpit, the priest had encouraged the community to restore the former glory of religious traditions and a new secular crusade was launched.
From the beginning, the challenge to make the ceremony unforgettable had attracted a crowd of contenders. The town quarters began to adorn the streets so that they could be worthy of the relics’ transit. The theatre company, who was named after the saint, put forward the idea of a performance centered on the struggle to reconquer the holy fragments.
The local radio, ready to document the whole event with a non-stop, 24-hour service, even launched a new program called Waiting for the saint.
The event was on the agenda both of the City Council and of the Parish Council.
The City Council, full of Catholic-communists, had lost his suffix in favor of an Early-Christian impetus; the Lega Nord, the long-time opposition, had laid down its arms, taken aback at the references to medieval roots. Thus, the seemingly-indissoluble Holy Alliance between the Padanians and the domo libertate – who governed the country with blind wisdom – had dissolved.
“The ceremony will have to be put off!” began the priest, joining the parish council gathered for the final arrangements. Immediately everyone in the room broke off their conversations, as the assertion drove the priest on the edge of a heart attack.
“Are you kidding, aren’t you?” he muttered, looking a kind of Lenten color.
“This is no joke, Father Dino. This morning I walked into the baptistery to arrange the religious vestments, and in the shrine in place of the bones I found this piece of paper.” replied the young man handing out a note.
Camillo, the oldest council member, took the message from his hands “Assemble 200,000 Euros if you want to see the bones again.” he read “Do not call the police and everything will be fine. We’ll let you know where and when to bring the money. God will reward you!” Camillo, who had the reputation of being a wise professor, couldn’t help noticing that the message had been written with clippings taken from Famiglia Cristiana.
The holy man who, after reneging on arms, had retreated to the mountains, closer to God, found himself at the center of a conflict again. In vain, he had let himself believe that he could go unnoticed, maybe present in the prayers of those people who struggled to climb to the hermitage that he had built.
The council was faced with a dilemma: to alert the authorities and miss the chance of such a solemn celebration, or to pay the ransom to get the relic back? The archpriest, in despair, looked somewhat displeased to have survived the heart attack, as if death could have improved the situation.
Camillo took the floor: “I think that the best thing to do is to find the money, without giving up looking for the culprits, if we get the chance.” he declared to the assembly.
“Exactly!” answered Eridano, sitting at the priest’s desk where he worked as a secretary. “But how do you think we can find the money in few hours, and even catch the culprits?”
“Frankly I don’t know. But it seems like a good idea.” replied the wise man, scratching his thinning hair. Disappointment arose, as if everyone in the room wanted to slap the professor, while Adriano, the Counseling Center coordinator, stood up pointing at the secretary.
“You” he said addressing the chubby elderly factotum “aren’t you a policeman?” and he stood over him, still pointing his finger.
“Retired marshal. Please.” answered Eridano, looking at him through his reading glasses.
“Don’t you have any ideas to resolve the issue?” the young man went on, walking back to his seat.
“Well, we could ask the episcopate for the money.” exclaimed the former policeman, who was now the center of attention.
“I didn’t mean the money…rather, I was thinking about how we can frame the abductors.”
“Well. I don’t know about that. I might call an old pal, a colonel, but it would take a while. I don’t know.”
The buzz regained strength. Anarchy reigned within the rectory: the Liturgy Board members stood in a corner, discussing about the dramatic implications of the theft. As Adriano tried unsuccessfully to restore calm, the priest adjourned the meeting while waiting for some news.
“Mind you, do not tell a soul about this” he repeated, stopping the coordinator, the former policeman and the old council member, apparently for budgetary issues.
“Thanks everybody. See you tonight.” Then, seeing the priest’s housekeeper in the doorway, he asked her “Felicita, could you please make coffee when you have a moment?” the wiry housekeeper walked away with a nod of approval.
“To find the money won’t be a big deal.” said Father Dino once the confusion had dwindled.
“I have an anonymous donor who has promised to spend a considerable amount of money for the restoration of the church.”
“Could we use it to pay the ransom?” asked Camillo.
“I think so. We will have to put off the restoration, but whatever. I actually don’t understand who might have had the courage to steal such an important relic.”
“I beg your pardon…I’ll call the philanthropist, right now.” said Father Dino, leaving the room with the cellphone in his hands.”
Camillo took command of the group: “Surely, ruining such a sensational moment, of return to traditions, of the community’s rapprochement with their fathers…”
“It could have been an Islamic group.” the former policeman interrupted him.
“And how about some guys from the non-parish groups, then? Or maybe a Jehovah’s Witness?” asked Claudio with veiled irony.
“After all” Camillo the wise took the floor again “the bones have both a symbolical and an emotional value, but no artistic one; they are not even good for the soup.” The seriousness of the assertion left no doubt about the professor’s cognitive skills.
In that moment, the door opened and the priest went back to his desk, while the smell of coffee spread in the room followed a moment later by the housekeeper holding a tray. Despair was evident on everyone’s face and the smell wafted in the air, together with the question: how to beat the kidnappers?
“I am sorry to interfere” the priest’s housekeeper said pouring coffee “but if you really want to find the culprits, why don’t you place some cameras at the meeting spot?”
The woman, who was fond of trash TV, had extensive knowledge of programs such as Chi l’ha visto? and Blu notte, and she did not miss a RIS episode, which had become a cult series to her.
The former marshal was speechless: why hadn’t he thought about that? Clearly annoyed, he did not want to let her win: “Very good. And where should we put them, since we don’t know where the meeting takes place? And anyway, where can we find some cameras?” he replied, in anger.
“My nephew Marco is an electronics fanatic and buys all digital tools as soon as they are sold on the market.” she answered, not scared at all. “You could place a micro-camera inside the ransom bag in order to see the kidnappers’ faces. And also a GPS tracker to follow the loot from a distance.” Not bad for an old spinster.
Father Dino savored his coffee, visibly satisfied. It was not the first time that the much-criticized chatterbox unraveled the nebulous cases of the parochial galaxy.
The group met in conclave suffered the blow.
“Could you call your nephew” asked the priest kindly “and ask him to join us?”
“Of course. Today is Thursday and he doesn’t have lectures at university. He should be in town. I’ll call him immediately.” she picked up the cups and left the office.
Half an hour later, her technological nephew was in the rectory, in the throes of the quartet.
Marco had arrived wearing a pair of jeans with low crotch and an airbrushed tagger-like T-shirt, a crew cut and a nose ring. Eridano, the ex-marshal, jumped at sight of the guy, concerned about the number of tattoos on his arms.
“You need to understand the importance of this operation and that the outmost discretion must be maintained with respect of everything concerning this case – and I mean it.” he repeated for the third time in two minutes.
“No problem: my aunt explained everything to me. Upmost secrecy.” then he added, winking “Just in case, once it is all over, I will send the information to some magazines or to the local newspaper. Can you imagine the headlines? Technology in heaven! Car camera from the grave! A real scoop!”
“Are you kidding, aren’t you?” asked the priest, his heartbeat totally out of control.
“Of course I am kidding!”
The plan was studied in great detail, so that when the priest came in with the instructions for the exchange, the atmosphere was more relaxed.
“Here is the new message.” Father Elio said putting the envelope on the desk, breathless because of the run. “I haven’t read it yet.”
The clipping glued to the first page was taken from the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano; the first part, to be precise: L’oss.
“Bring the briefcase with the money to the former steelworks tonight at 11 p.m.” Camillo read “Don’t play tricks or the bones will end up in the canal. You will be watched!”
“The clippings are taken from Avvenire” the former policeman pointed out with some disappointment, after taking the letter from the professor’s hands.
“How did you receive the envelope?” asked the priest with curiosity.
“A peddler came to the oratory and gave it to me, a little while ago.”
“A Muslim! I was right, you see?” exclaimed Eridano, who the events had by then recalled to his duty.
“I knew it! Did you hold him somehow?”
“Yes, of course. I held him long enough to offer him a sandwich. The person who had delivered the envelope to him had guaranteed that I would give him something to eat. I tried to find out who this person was, but the peddler had not seen his face. In-between bites, the hungry man only told me that he was a man.”
“It doesn’t matter” went on the priest “we will find the culprits thanks to our plan. Are there any volunteers for the ransom drop?”
An embarrassing silence fell upon the room.
“I have to check the equipment and supervise the camera images.” stated Marco “otherwise, I would be happy to go.”
“Right!” replied the former marshal “And I have to keep close to you to contact the police or, where necessary, coordinate rescue.”
“Obviously I cannot go.” said Father Dino “I have to convene the Council to point out that we are working this out and make arrangements for tomorrow’s celebration. If the professor could help me with this delicate task, I would feel so much better.”
The Counseling Center coordinator stared at the priest, looking like he had drawn the short straw. The young priest, stirred by pity and strengthened by the impetuousness of his age, said: “I will bring the bag with the money, but Adriano, you will have to give me a hand, driving the car and covering my back.”
A streetlight near the park entrance, in the weighing area, cut through the darkness of the apron. The windows which had been spared during the years of the working class occupation, had not survived the following years’ vandalism, when after the dismantling drug addicts and drug dealers had reigned over the neighborhood. The car entered the parking lot at a walking pace, leaving the lit area behind. The ransom bag was on the back seat; Father Elio’s cell phone laid on the dashboard, switched on, its green light blinking.
“Go ahead slowly.” ordered the former marshal’s voice from the loudspeaker “Keep your eyes wide open.” Before the car came to the end of the clearing a powerful light beam hit it, dazzling Adriano and forcing him to stop.
“Get out with your hands up!” resounded a metallic voice “Go ahead slowly until the canal bank. Very slowly!”
Complete silence reigned in the rectory: that order, that cold voice, had frozen the group gathered in front of the computer. The priest wringed his hands while a red light flashed on the video. The priest’s housekeeper held a rosary. Camillo sweated uncontrollably, filling the silence with his asthmatic breath.
“Where is the money?” the muffled voiceover went on.
“On the back seat.” muttered the young priest, turned to the canal bed.
The ghost-like coordinator trembled beside him, in an effort to keep his arms up.
“Stand still while we make the exchange. You are at gunpoint.” they heard footsteps, the car door opening, the bag rubbing against the back seat and right then…
“Shit! A cellphone! There’s a cellphone in the car and it’s on! You, bastards!” the line went dead.
In the rectory everyone looked at the former policeman. He, the genius who had insisted on keeping the cellphone on, the one responsible for the disaster.
“I told you!” Camillo hissed hysterically.
Felicia’s knuckles were waxen in an effort to grip the rosary; time seemed to stop on that silent prayer, so many times learnt by heart.
“Look!” the housekeeper’s nephew screamed. “The dot is moving: they are leaving with the money!”
“Call them again. Try to call the number, please. “, begged the woman “It can’t have happened. They can’t have hurt him!”
Marco dialed the number frantically: “The number you have dialed is not in service.”
After another attempt – made with greater calm – the phone went straight to voicemail. The third time, another recorded message: “The phone is either switched off or not reachable.”
The retired policeman looked like he had been carved in basalt; the situation had got worse. Calling the police just then would be a debacle of epic proportions. But it seemed the only sensible thing to do.
“I’ll call the police” he stammered, while the noise of a car stopping in front of the rectory with a loud screech of tires drowned out his voice.
Father Elio appeared in the doorway, out of breath but alive.
“Everybody is fine, don’t worry! They broke the telephone but they didn’t hurt us.”
“And what about our Venerable? Did you retrieve the relic?” asked the priest with a break in his voice.
“We did. We were given it back. It is outside in the car, with Adriano.”
“And what’s its condition? Is it in good condition?”
“He is in shock. He still can’t lower his hands from over his head, but I think he will recover soon.”
“I wasn’t referring to the coordinator. I meant the relic, the holy fragments.”
“The bones are fine. A little bit scrambled for travelling in a cardboard box, but they don’t seem to have suffered.”
“They are stopping! They have just stopped near the city park!” exclaimed Marco, glued to the screen.
The detector was flashing in front of the park entrance. They all gathered around the desk. The camera images, a black hole up to then, began flickering until they burst into a ball of light.
“They have opened the bag. Look! Can you see anything? Can you recognize anyone?”
The autofocus adjusted slowly, back and forth, at a close distance. A face filled the frame with an aquarium-like effect. The image became clearer and clearer until it showed a face. “The president? No way! I can’t believe it!” the professor burst out “the president of the council, a thief of relics?”
“They mocked us! It is a mask.” Father Dino mumbled, puzzled by the sequence of events. “A joke. A stupid trick.”
The president’s face, while picking up the loot, was the last image on the tape. The signal of the receiver kept flashing, motionless, in the park area. The bag was found on the grass. Empty.
The ceremony began right on time. The municipal police led the way, the motorcade slowly moving towards the church. The glass coffin was surrounded by tens of actors in historic dress, especially recruited for the commemoration. Two hundred years and a couple of earthquakes had been enough to scrape the gold from the coffin’s outlines. In a matter of days, everything had become better than before, thanks to the cultural assessor’s intervention and the Fine Arts’ endorsement. The authorities followed the coffin with solemn march, while the many faithful and curious brought up the rear. The town band, who had declared a state of “rehearsals to the bitter end” for days, worthily accompanied the procession.
The choir, after inserting a new guitar mass in their repertoire, waited inside the church, ready to challenge another choir named after a different saint.
The Holy Scriptures were read by a professional actor with tenor voice, before Father Dino recalled the cenobite saint’s deeds with fervor.
The mayor, wearing the three-colored sash, was invited to light a tongue of fire as a form of commemoration. He himself, in fact, had proposed to the City Council to place a votive candle beside the altar, to lighten the saint’s holy remains. Unbelievable! He had found himself incredulous at the only motion which had been approved unanimously in his long and troubled mandate. The Lega Nord, had even demanded that the oil for the eternal flame be funded by taxpayers, forever and ever.
Before the final prayer the priest gave the floor to the most important emigrated fellow countryman. Father Angelo, in fact, had chosen to devote his life to the people in Third World.
“My dear Brothers and Sisters” began the Bishop in his rusty Italian “I am proud to be here, today, to celebrate this important anniversary. On behalf of our African parish, I wish to thank you, your minister and the parish missionary group for the invitation, and more importantly, for the precious gift you wanted to give us. Your gift is the sign of our ancestor’s sanctity, a man who lived in poverty and is still able, today, to infuse in people a spirit of generosity towards the poor, the weak, the needy.”
The mess ended with the blessing, which was followed by a big round of applause and by a chant della madonna [pun on words, meaning “for the Virgin Mary” and “extremely beautiful” chant], while the clergy and the celebrants went to the Sacristy.
“Thank you, but this public thank-you was not necessary, Father.” Father Dino said with an embarrassed smile, taking off his cassock.
“Are you kidding? This was the least I could do, after your act of generosity.” replied the missionary “I could not avoid violating the request of confidentiality in your letter. I could not have lived with myself.”
“Letter? Which letter? I personally phoned you to invite you at the ceremony. I have never written to you.”
“Come on, Father Dino, don’t joke. I understand your modesty, but don’t exaggerate. I am talking about the note that you sent me this morning.” Father Angelo gave the envelope to the poor priest who, at its sight, almost fainted and had to sit on a pew.
The headline of Piccolo Missionario was stuck to the first page. Inside, few lines written in italics:
our community is proud to give you these 200,000 Euros, the result of the faithful’s generosity. The fundraiser has been supported by several Catholic newspapers, by the active collaboration of the Church Council and by some anonymous volunteers. We kindly ask you keep the donors’ identities in strict confidence, since there are prominent political figures among them, who would never take advantage of the publicity derived from such simple gesture of charity. In the hope that your return to Africa may be the sign of our closeness to the weak, we embrace you with gratitude.
The Church Council
The anonymous missionary group
Translation by Valentina Ornaghi (edited by Francesca Ceccarelli)