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THE HOLY SEAT of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid—Catedral de la Almudena—is a robust neoclassical cathedral situated adjacent to Madrid’s Royal Palace. Built on the site of an ancient mosque, Almudena Cathedral derives its name from the Arabic al-mudayna, meaning “citadel.”

According to legend, when Alfonso VI seized Madrid back from the Muslims in 1083, he became fixated on relocating a precious lost icon of the Virgin Mary that had been entombed in the walls of the citadel for safekeeping. Unable to locate the hidden Virgin, Alfonso prayed intently until a section of the citadel’s wall exploded, falling away, and revealed the icon inside, still lit by the burning candles with which she had been entombed centuries ago.

Today, the Virgin of Almudena is the patron saint of Madrid, and pilgrims and tourists alike flock to mass at Almudena Cathedral for the privilege of praying before her likeness. The church’s dramatic location—sharing the Royal Palace’s main plaza—provides an added attraction to churchgoers: the possibility of glimpsing royalty coming or going from the palace.

Tonight, deep inside the cathedral, a young acolyte was rushing through the hallway in a panic.

Where is Bishop Valdespino?!

Services are about to begin!

For decades, Bishop Antonio Valdespino had been head priest and overseer of this cathedral. A longtime friend and spiritual counselor to the king, Valdespino was an outspoken and devout traditionalist with almost no tolerance for modernization. Incredibly, the eighty-three-year-old bishop still donned ankle shackles during Holy Week and joined the faithful carrying icons through the city streets.

Valdespino, of all people, is never late for mass.

The acolyte had been with the bishop twenty minutes ago in the vestry, assisting him with his robes as usual. Just as they finished, the bishop had received a text and, without a word, had hurried out.

Where did he go?

Having searched the sanctuary, the vestry, and even the bishop’s private restroom, the acolyte was now running at a sprint down the hallway to the administrative section of the cathedral to check the bishop’s office.

He heard a pipe organ thunder to life in the distance.

The processional hymn is starting!

The acolyte skidded to a stop outside the bishop’s private office, startled to see a shaft of light beneath his closed door. He’s here?!

The acolyte knocked quietly. “¿Excelencia Reverendísima?

No answer.

Knocking louder, he called out, “¡¿Su Excelencia?!

Still nothing.

Fearing for the old man’s health, the acolyte turned the handle and pushed open the door.

¡Cielos! The acolyte gasped as he peered into the private space.

Bishop Valdespino was seated at his mahogany desk, staring into the glow of a laptop computer. His holy miter was still on his head, his chasuble wadded beneath him, and his crozier staff propped unceremoniously against the wall.

The acolyte cleared his throat. “La santa misa está—

Preparada,” the bishop interrupted, his eyes never moving from the screen. “Padre Derida me sustituye.

The acolyte stared in bewilderment. Father Derida is substituting? A junior priest overseeing Saturday-night mass was highly irregular.

¡Vete ya!” Valdespino snapped without looking up. “Y cierra la puerta.

Fearful, the boy did as he was told, leaving immediately and closing the door as he went.

Hurrying back toward the sounds of the pipe organ, the acolyte wondered what the bishop could possibly be viewing on his computer that would pull his mind so far from his duties to God.


At that moment, Admiral Ávila was snaking through the growing crowd in the Guggenheim’s atrium, puzzled to see guests chatting with their sleek headsets. Apparently the audio tour of the museum was a two-way conversation.

He felt glad to have jettisoned the device.

No distractions tonight.

He checked his watch and eyed the elevators. They were already crowded with guests heading to the main event upstairs, so Ávila opted for the stairs. As he climbed, he felt the same tremor of incredulity he had felt last night. Have I really become a man capable of killing? The godless souls who had ripped away his wife and child had transformed him. My actions are sanctioned by a higher authority, he reminded himself. There is righteousness in what I do.

As Ávila reached the first landing, his gaze was drawn to a woman on a nearby suspended catwalk. Spain’s newest celebrity, he thought, eyeing the famous beauty.

She wore a formfitting white dress with a black diagonal stripe that ran elegantly across her torso. Her slender figure, lush dark hair, and graceful carriage were easy to admire, and Ávila noticed he was not the only one with eyes on her.

In addition to the approving glances of the other guests, the woman in white held the full attention of two sleek security officers who shadowed her closely. The men moved with the wary confidence of panthers and wore matching blue blazers with embroidered crests and the large initials GR.

Ávila was not surprised by their presence, and yet the sight of them made his pulse quicken. As a former member of the Spanish armed forces, he knew full well what GR signified. These two security escorts would be armed and as well trained as any bodyguards on earth.

If they are present, I must take every precaution, Ávila told himself.

“Hey!” a man’s voice barked, directly behind him.

Ávila spun around.

A paunchy man in a tuxedo and a black cowboy hat was smiling broadly at him. “Great costume!” the man said, pointing to Ávila’s military uniform. “Where does someone get something like that?”

Ávila stared, fists clenching reflexively. Through a lifetime of service and sacrifice, he thought. “No hablo inglés,” Ávila replied with a shrug, and continued up the stairs.

On the second floor, Ávila found a long hallway and followed signs to a remote restroom at the far end. He was about to enter when the lights throughout the museum faded off and on—the first gentle nudge urging guests to start heading upstairs for the presentation.

Ávila entered the deserted restroom, chose the last stall, and locked himself inside. Alone now, he felt the familiar demons trying to surface within him, threatening to drag him back into the abyss.

Five years, and the memories still haunt me.

Angrily, Ávila pushed the horrors from his mind and retrieved the rosary beads from his pocket. Gently, he looped them over the coat hook on the door. As the beads and crucifix swung peacefully before him, he admired his handiwork. The devout might be horrified that anyone could defile the rosary by creating an object like this. Even so, Ávila had been assured by the Regent that desperate times afforded a certain flexibility in the rules of absolution.

When the cause is this holy, the Regent had promised, God’s forgiveness is guaranteed.

As with the protection of his soul, Ávila’s body had also been guaranteed deliverance from evil. He glanced down at the tattoo on his palm.

Like the ancient crismón of Christ, the icon was a symbol constructed entirely of letters. Ávila had inscribed it there three days ago with iron gall and a needle, precisely as he had been instructed, and the spot was still tender and red. If he were captured, the Regent assured him, all he had to do was make his palm visible to his captors, and within hours, he would be released.

We occupy the highest levels of government, the Regent had said.

Ávila had already witnessed their startling influence, and it felt like a mantle of protection all around him. There still exist those who respect the ancient ways. One day Ávila hoped to join the ranks of this elite, but for the moment, he felt honored to play any role at all.

In the solitude of the bathroom, Ávila took out his phone and dialed the secure number he had been given.

The voice on the line answered on the first ring. “¿Sí?

Estoy en posición,” Ávila replied, awaiting final instructions.

Bien,” the Regent said. “Tendrás una sola oportunidad. Aprovecharla será crucial.You will have only one chance. Seizing it will be crucial.

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