“Ah, Pietro.” The abbot took di Giacomo’s hand in both of his and said, “Brother Masaracchia often speaks of you. I am sorry he could not be here today.”
“Couldn’t be here?” Cannon prompted.
Lasalvatore shrugged. “We are God’s servants, captain, and we go when the Father calls us. You may see him yet before the end of this matter.”
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Like I told you in the telegram, if I don’t like the smell of this, I’m dropping it like a barrel of bad moonshine.”
The abbot merely smiled. They walked across the courtyard, winding along narrow paths through garden plots, surprisingly fertile given the dry, brown landscape outside the walls. Cannon kept his eyes moving, and although the monks tending to the gardens looked honest enough, he saw why Choufeng had been suspicious. Behind their dilapidated facade, the walls were in pristine shape, showing signs of recent repair. The monks walking atop them did so with all the martial watchfulness of a sentry who knew the enemy had him surrounded.
They came to a door in the keep, and the abbot ushered them inside. They went down a flight of stairs. The air became cooler, and they came to a barred wooden door. A monk stood before it. Lasalvatore said a few words to him in Italian, and he stepped aside. Lasalvatore lifted the bar and pushed the door open. It swung slowly and quietly, giving Cannon the impression of great weight, and the abbot beckoned him in. Choufeng and di Giacomo followed.
It was not a large room, only thirty feet by twenty, but it held a staggering display of wealth. Candlelit gold glittered from every corner—jeweled scepters, crowns, goblets—draped in silk woven with threads of silver. Something of Cannon’s shock must have shown on his face.
“So you see, captain, signori, we are not so poor as we seem. These artifacts, entrusted to us by Roma, make us wealthy, perhaps, but in our catacombs there are holy relics of much greater value than this collection of worldly trifles. It is one of these relics, captain, we ask you to recover.”
Cannon straightened. The engraving on the chalice in front of him could only be the work of a master of the Italian Renaissance, one of only two or three. He would look them up when he went back aboard. The abbot watched him expectantly. “Well, what is it, Father?” said Cannon.
“A cross, forged of bronze,” the abbot replied. He walked to the door and held an upturned palm out toward it. Cannon took the hint and stepped out into the hallway, with one final glance at the riches over his shoulder. The abbot started walking, and Cannon fell in with him. “It was made in the ninth or tenth century, it is said, and was rediscovered twenty years ago in a reliquary of the Coptic church. The decision was made to recover it, but the Ethiopians were unwilling to part with it.”
Lasalvatore led them back into the courtyard, and the four of them settled on a pair of stone benches shaded by the wall. “This was unacceptable. We employed a Dutchman of some fame, Martijn van der Hoek—”
“Van der Hoek?” Cannon interrupted, leaning forward and furrowing his brow. “He vanished in late ’14, and nobody knows what happened to him.”