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The Last Cato
by Matilde Asensi
Rayo, 2006

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Chapter One

All things of great beauty -- from works of art to sacred objects -- suffer the unstoppable effects of the passage of time, just as we do. Their life begins the moment their human creator, aware or not of being in harmony with the infinite, puts the finishing touches on them and surrenders them to the world. Over the centuries, life also brings them closer to old age and death. While Time withers and destroys us, it bestows upon them a new type of beauty that human aging could never dream of. Not for anything in the world would I want to see the Colosseum rebuilt, its walls and terraced seats in perfect condition, or coat the Parthenon with a gaudy paint job, or give the Victory of Samothrace a head.

Deeply absorbed in my work, I gave those thoughts free rein as my fingertips caressed one of the rough corners of the parchment manuscript in front of me. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing that I didn't hear Dr. William Baker, secretary of the archives, knock at my door, nor did I hear him turn the handle or open the door and look in. When I finally noticed him, he seemed as though he had been standing in the doorway to my office for eternity.

"Dr. Salina," Baker whispered, not daring to cross the threshold, "Reverend Father Ramondino has entreated me to request that you proceed to his office immediately."

I looked up from the manuscript and took off my glasses to get a better look at the secretary. He had the same perplexed look on his oval face as I had. Baker was a small, compact American. His features reflected his family heritage, and he could have easily passed for southern European. He had thick tortoiseshell glasses and thin hair, part blond, part gray, which he meticulously combed to cover as much of his shiny scalp as possible.

"Forgive me, Doctor," I replied sharply, my eyes wide. "Can you please repeat what you just said?"

"His Most Reverend Father Ramondino wants to see you in his office right away."

"The prefect wants to see me? Me?" I couldn't believe what I had just heard. Guglielmo Ramondino was the executive director of the Vatican's Classified Archives, second only to His Excellency Monsignor Oliveira. I could count on one hand the number of times he had summoned me or one of my colleagues to his office.

Baker let a slight smile come to his lips and nodded.

"Do you happen to know why he wants to see me?" I asked, backing down.

"No, Dr. Salina, but I'm certain it's very important."

Still smiling, he closed the door softly and disappeared. By then I was in the throes of an anxiety attack: sweaty palms, dry mouth, racing heart, and trembling legs.

When I had a better hold of myself, I got down off my stool, turned off the light, and cast a pained glance at the two exquisite Byzan-tine codices that rested open on my desk. With the help of those manuscripts, I had dedicated the last six months to reconstructing the famous lost text of the Panegyrikon written by Saint Nicephorus, patriarch of Constantinople in the ninth century, and I was on the verge of completing my work. I sighed, resigned, a deep silence surrounding me. My small lab was furnished with an old wooden desk, a pair of tall stools, a crucifix on the wall, and several shelves crammed with books. It was located four floors belowground and formed part of the Hypogeum, the section of the Classified Archives very few people had access to. To the rest of the world and to history, this part of the Vatican was invisible, nonexistent even. Many historians and researchers would have given half their lives to consult the documents that had passed through my hands over the last eight years. But the mere suggestion that someone outside the church could get permission to come here was pure entelechy: A lay person never had access to the Hypogeum -- and never would.

On my desk, in addition to my books, rested piles of notebooks and a low-wattage lamp (to avoid overheating the manuscripts), scalpels, latex gloves, and folders full of high-resolution photographs of the codices' most damaged pages. The long, swiveled arm of a magnifying glass rose, twisted like a worm, from the far end of my wooden workbench. Hanging from that swayed a large red cardboard hand with stars glued all over it. That hand was a memento from five-year-old Isabella's last birthday party. Of the twenty-five offspring contributed to the Lord's flock by six of my eight brothers and sisters, she was my favorite. My lips drew up a smile as I remembered charming Isabella: "Aunt Ottavia, Aunt Ottavia, let me spank you with this red hand!"

The prefect! My God! The prefect was waiting for me, and there I stood, frozen like a statue, thinking about Isabella! I tore off my lab coat and hung it on a hook on the wall. I grabbed my ID (a big C was stamped next to a terrible picture of me), went out into the hallway, and locked the door to the lab. My staff worked at a row of desks that extended all the way to the elevator doors, some fifty meters. On the other side of the reinforced concrete wall, office workers filed and refiled hundreds and thousands of records pertaining to the church, its history, its diplomatic negotiations, and its activities from the second century to the present. More than twenty-five kilometers of bookshelves hinted at the massive amount of preserved documents belonging to the Vatican's Classified Archives. Officially, the archives contained only documents from the last eight centuries; however, documents from a thousand years before were also under its protection and were kept in high-security files found only on the third and fourth underground floors. Originally housed in parishes, monasteries, cathedrals, or . . .

Excerpted from The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi. Copyright © 2006 by Matilde Asensi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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