The Rome Prophecy
Author:Sam Christer
    To my eldest son, Damian – Per aspera ad astra!



    PROLOGUE



    The Ancient Diary of Cassandra



    Italy

    Few people know the moment they will die.

    Perhaps, for such privileged information, I should be grateful.

    I am Cassandra, a proud and noble descendant of the house of Savyna, and I am not afraid to die.

    I would rather die than tell them what I am involved in, what I am covering up, what secret I am prepared to take to my grave.

    And that, I suppose, is what enrages this ragged mob.

    You can see the blood lust in their wild eyes and hear it in their crazed baying. You can even smell it in their animal excitement.

    May the gods of the inferno damn them all.

    The people of Cosmedin are out in force today.

    Out for me.

    They line their piss-soaked streets and drip like grease from the windows of their shabby tenements, screaming and spitting as I am paraded before them.

    What is my crime?

    Not what I am accused of. That is the irony. They are to test me – and no doubt punish me – for sins of much lesser import than the secret I shelter within my bosom.

    Graffiti writers suggest that I lie down with one other than my husband. The mimes show me with a nimble youth, cuckolding that fat and cruel senator whom my father made me marry.

    Oh that it were the case! I should gladly plead to such an indiscretion, for no woman of Rome would condemn me. My husband is a man of high office and low morals. He is three times my age and half my equal.

    I suppose it was my coldness towards him that first made him suspicious. To idiots like Lucius, a wife who will not give herself to his bestial whims and who demands time alone is bound to be adulterous.

    Let him be deluded.

    I would rather suffer endless agony than disclose to him the existence of the Tenth Book and those I call sisters.

    And so the ignorant crowds of Cosmedin pelt me with old bread and rotten vegetables. Most miss the rickety chariot in which I am jolted to my death. Some find their mark, and though they sting and bruise, I will not cry.

    I hold my head with chin tipped to Zeus and will not let them see the fear welling inside me.

    I will not bow in shame as they want me to.

    Not now.

    Not even later, at the climax of this terrible ceremony.

    I remind myself again – I am Cassandra. A noblewoman.

    Strangers’ hands now pull at my skirts. Hands not fit to wipe sweat from the brows of thieves and lepers. They tear at my garments, hoping nakedness will complete my humiliation. Fingers pull jewellery from around my neck. Only now do soldiers beat them away with shields. The thief looks at the strange stone he’s plundered, a dull black triangle on a plaited cord, and is dumbstruck by disappointment.

    Fool.

    He’ll never know what it’s worth.

    The chariot rolls on, rocked by the crowd. Like a ship tossed on a sea of jeers.

    On the horizon I see it.

    La Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth.

    One of the justices leads me to it, turns me to the mob. ‘Cassandra, wife of the noble Lucius Cato. You are accused of infidelity, of tarnishing the good name of your husband, a senator of the great republic of Rome. The time has come to break your foolish silence, to name the man with whom you betrayed your husband and to atone for your sins. What say you?’

    I make my face like clay.

    If I told them the truth, they would let me go. Their plebeian shouts would turn to poison in their mouths.

    But I shall not.

    The truth must be kept secret, even if it means suffering for an indiscretion I did not commit.

    The Justice stares through me. His eyes are as cold as the winter snows, his words as hot as the fires of Hades. ‘Then by the power invested in me, I today action the order to verify your honour and your loyalty to your husband.’

    My arm is taken by a soldier.

    I see his dark hairy fingers on my pale skin, dirt caked beneath thin slivers of bitten fingernails.

    There is total silence now.

    Even the fountain holds its water.

    He pushes my right hand through the savage mouth of the giant disc.

    I feel nothing.

    Now – slowly – an amazing warmth creeps through me. A soldier appears from behind the Bocca and lifts a basket aloft.

    The crowd roars.

    My world goes dizzy. My legs buckle. As I fall, I see only the basket and in it my severed hand.

    My secret is safe.





    PART ONE





    1



    Rome

    The Carabinieri’s newest captain slips out of her crisply pressed uniform and into the shower in her cramped low-rent apartment.

    The Vanity Fair photo shoot went well –‘warm but not too hot’ was how the male photographer mischievously described the shots. One in her captain’s uniform. One on the rifle range, shooting in a flak jacket, and her favourite, one in a short sparkling silver cocktail dress that fitted so well they let her keep it.

    The force press office is happy, the magazine is happy and even Valentina Morassi is happy.

    The perfect end to a perfect first week in her new job.

    The twenty-nine-year-old tilts her newly promoted head at the steaming jet. Her long dark hair feels like wire wool as she shampoos away the spray they insisted on using, ‘to hold its shape and give it depth’. She also hates the make-up they made her wear. They trowelled it on. Though admittedly, in the shots it looked good.

    She looked good.

    It makes her smile to think that. Until recently it was hard for Valentina to see anything positive about herself or her life. The death of her cousin Antonio in Venice all but broke her. They both came from a big extended family, the kind that always holidayed together and shared weekly Sunday lunches. The type of family that was together so much you could barely work out which kid belonged to which parent. They went to the same schools. Attended the same parties. Even opted for the same profession. Antonio was a lieutenant, working undercover on a drugs job when he was killed.

    Valentina couldn’t believe it.

    She tried to carry on working. Managed to see out the murder case she was on, and then her life collapsed. She fell into a huge depression, and had she not passed her exams and moved to Rome, she’s sure she’d still be trying to wriggle free from the teeth of the proverbial black dog.

    Valentina turns off the shower, steps out on to a frayed mat, snuggles into a thick white towelling robe and shakes her hair like a sheepdog. Her mother used to scold her for it. Antonio used to laugh like a drain when she did it after they’d been swimming.

    She still thinks of him.

    Often.

    But it doesn’t hurt as much any more.

    She towels her hair dry and sits on the edge of a saggy bed. The walls of the boxy room are a faded white, the filthy window only a little larger than a convict gets. This is not a place where her soul will grow, but it will do for now. At the end of the month she will search for somewhere more colourful – more her. An old Disney clock by the side of the small single bed clunks. It’s pillar-box red, has black Mickey Mouse ears and has woken her since she was four.

    Mickey’s hands tell her it’s exactly eleven p.m.

    Her thoughts turn to tomorrow and the man with whom she’ll be having dinner.

    An unusual man.

    Most unusual.

    She met him – and last saw him – in the strangest and most dangerous of circumstances. Had things been different – and had another woman not been part of his life – there might well have been something romantic between them. Despite all of these ifs and buts, he’s still probably the one guy she trusts more than any other.

    Valentina’s cell phone rings and almost gives her a heart attack.

    The number on the display is that of her new boss, Major Armando Caesario. She expertly pitches her ‘Pronto’ somewhere between friendly and coolly professional.

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