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CHAPTER 36

SU MISIÓN TODAVÍA no ha terminado,” declared the voice on Ávila’s phone. Your mission is not yet complete.

Ávila sat up at attention in the backseat of the Uber as he listened to his employer’s news.

“We’ve had an unexpected complication,” his contact said in rapid Spanish. “We need you to redirect to Barcelona. Right away.”

Barcelona? Ávila had been told he would be traveling to Madrid for further service.

“We have reason to believe,” the voice continued, “that two associates of Mr. Kirsch are traveling to Barcelona tonight in hopes of finding a way to trigger Mr. Kirsch’s presentation remotely.”

Ávila stiffened. “Is that possible?”

“We’re not sure yet, but if they succeed, obviously it will undo all of your hard work. I need a man on the ground in Barcelona right away. Discreetly. Get there as fast as you can, and call me.”

With that, the connection was terminated.

The bad news felt strangely welcome to Ávila. I am still needed. Barcelona was farther than Madrid but still only a few hours at top speed on a superhighway in the middle of the night. Without wasting a moment, Ávila raised his gun and pressed it against the Uber driver’s head. The man’s hands tensed visibly on the wheel.

Llévame a Barcelona,” Ávila commanded.

The driver took the next exit, toward Vitoria-Gasteiz, eventually accelerating onto the A-1 highway, heading east. The only other vehicles on the road at this hour were thundering tractor trailers, all racing to complete their runs to Pamplona, to Huesca, to Lleida, and finally to one of the largest port cities on the Mediterranean Sea—Barcelona.

Ávila could scarcely believe the strange sequence of events that had brought him to this moment. From the depths of my deepest despair, I have risen to the moment of my most glorious service.

For a dark instant, Ávila was back in that bottomless pit, crawling across the smoke-filled altar at the Cathedral of Seville, searching the bloodstained rubble for his wife and child, only to realize they were gone forever.

For weeks after the attack, Ávila did not leave his home. He lay trembling on his couch, consumed by an endless waking nightmare of fiery demons that dragged him into a dark abyss, shrouding him in blackness, rage, and suffocating guilt.

“The abyss is purgatory,” a nun whispered beside him, one of the hundreds of grief counselors trained by the Church to assist survivors. “Your soul is trapped in a dark limbo. Absolution is the only escape. You must find a way to forgive the people who did this, or your rage will consume you whole.” She made the sign of the cross. “Forgiveness is your only salvation.”

Forgiveness? Ávila tried to speak, but demons clenched his throat. At the moment, revenge felt like the only salvation. But revenge against whom? Responsibility for the bombing had never been claimed.

“I realize acts of religious terrorism seem unforgivable,” the nun continued. “And yet, it may be helpful to remember that our own faith waged a centuries-long Inquisition in the name of our God. We killed innocent women and children in the name of our beliefs. For this, we have had to ask forgiveness from the world, and from ourselves. And through time, we have healed.”

Then she read to him from the Bible: “‘Do not resist an evil person. Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’”

That night, alone and in pain, Ávila stared into the mirror. The man looking back at him was a stranger. The nun’s words had done nothing to ease his pain.

Forgiveness? Turn my other cheek!

I have witnessed evil for which there is no absolution!

In a growing rage, Ávila drove his fist into the mirror, shattering the glass, and collapsing in sobs of anguish on his bathroom floor.

As a career naval officer, Ávila had always been a man in control—a champion of discipline, honor, and the chain of command—but that man was gone. Within weeks, Ávila had fallen into a haze, anesthetizing himself with a potent blend of alcohol and prescription drugs. Soon his yearning for the numbing effects of chemicals occupied every waking hour, diminishing him to a hostile recluse.

Within months, the Spanish navy had quietly forced him to retire. A once powerful battleship now stuck in dry dock, Ávila knew he would never sail again. The navy to which he had given his life had left him with only a modest stipend on which he could barely live.

I’m fifty-eight years old, he realized. And I have nothing.

He spent his days sitting alone in his living room, watching TV, drinking vodka, and waiting for any ray of light to appear. La hora más oscura es justo antes del amanecer, he would tell himself over and over. But the old navy aphorism proved false over and over. The darkest hour is not just before the dawn, he sensed. The dawn is never coming.

On his fifty-ninth birthday, a rainy Thursday morning, staring at an empty bottle of vodka and an eviction warning, Ávila mustered the courage to go to his closet, take down his navy service pistol, load it, and put the barrel to his temple.

Perdóname,” he whispered, and closed his eyes. Then he squeezed the trigger. The explosion was far quieter than he imagined. More of a click than a gunshot.

Cruelly, the gun had failed to fire. Years in a dusty closet without being cleaned had apparently taken a toll on the admiral’s cheap ceremonial pistol. It seemed even this simple act of cowardice was beyond Ávila’s abilities.

Enraged, he hurled the gun at the wall. This time, an explosion rocked the room. Ávila felt a searing heat rip through his calf, and his drunken fog lifted in a flash of blinding pain. He fell to the floor screaming and clutching his bleeding leg.

Panicked neighbors pounded on his door, sirens wailed, and Ávila soon found himself at Seville’s Hospital Provincial de San Lázaro attempting to explain how he had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the leg.

The next morning, as he lay in the recovery room, broken and humiliated, Admiral Luis Ávila received a visitor.

“You’re a lousy shot,” the young man said in Spanish. “No wonder they forced you to retire.”

Before Ávila could reply, the man threw open the window shades and let the sunlight pour in. Ávila shielded his eyes, now able to see that the kid was muscle-bound and had a buzz cut. He wore a T-shirt with the face of Jesus on it.

“My name’s Marco,” he said, his accent Andaluz. “I’m your trainer for rehab. I asked to be assigned to you because you and I have something in common.”

“Military?” Ávila said, noting his brash demeanor.

“Nope.” The kid locked eyes with Ávila. “I was there that Sunday morning. In the cathedral. The terrorist attack.”

Ávila stared in disbelief. “You were there?”

The kid reached down and pulled up one leg of his sweats, revealing a prosthetic limb. “I realize you’ve been through hell, but I was playing semipro fútbol, so don’t expect too much sympathy from me. I’m more of a God-helps-those-who-help-themselves kind of guy.”

Before Ávila knew what had happened, Marco heaved him into a wheelchair, rolled him down the hall to a small gym, and propped him up between a pair of parallel bars.

“This will hurt,” the kid said, “but try to get to the other end. Just do it once. Then you can have breakfast.”

The pain was excruciating, but Ávila was not about to complain to someone with only one leg, so using his arms to bear most of his weight, he shuffled all the way to the end of the bars.

“Nice,” Marco said. “Now do it again.”

“But you said—”

“Yeah, I lied. Do it again.”

Ávila eyed the kid, stunned. The admiral had not taken an order in years, and strangely, he found something refreshing about it. It made him feel young—the way he had felt as a raw recruit years ago. Ávila turned around and began shuffling back the other way.

“So tell me,” Marco said. “Do you still go to mass at the Seville cathedral?”

“Never.”

“Fear?”

Ávila shook his head. “Rage.”

Marco laughed. “Yeah, let me guess. The nuns told you to forgive the attackers?”

Ávila stopped short on the bars. “Exactly!”

“Me too. I tried. Impossible. The nuns gave us terrible advice.” He laughed.

Ávila eyed the young man’s Jesus shirt. “But it looks like you’re still …”

“Oh yeah, I’m definitely still a Christian. More devout than ever. I was fortunate to find my mission—helping victims of God’s enemies.”

“A noble cause,” Ávila said enviously, feeling his own life was purposeless without his family or the navy.

“A great man helped bring me back to God,” Marco continued. “That man, by the way, was the pope. I’ve met him personally many times.”

“I’m sorry … the pope?”

“Yes.”

“As in … the leader of the Catholic Church?”

“Yes. If you like, I could probably arrange an audience for you.”

Ávila stared at the kid as if he’d lost his mind. “You can get me an audience with the pope?”

Marco looked hurt. “I realize you’re a big naval officer and can’t imagine that a crippled physical trainer from Seville has access to the vicar of Christ, but I’m telling you the truth. I can arrange a meeting with him if you like. He could probably help you find your way back, just the way he helped me.”

Ávila leaned on the parallel bars, uncertain how to reply. He idolized the then pope—a staunch conservative leader who preached strict traditionalism and orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the man was under fire from all sides of the modernizing globe, and there were rumblings that he would soon choose to retire in the face of growing liberal pressure. “I’d be honored to meet him, of course, but—”

“Good,” Marco interjected. “I’ll try to set it up for tomorrow.”

Ávila never imagined that the following day he would find himself sitting deep within a secure sanctuary, face-to-face with a powerful leader who would teach him the most empowering religious lesson of his life.

The roads to salvation are many.

Forgiveness is not the only path.

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