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CHAPTER 57

“I AM NOT a monster,” Ávila declared, exhaling as he relieved himself in a grungy urinal in a deserted rest stop on Highway N-240.

At his side, the Uber driver was trembling, apparently too nervous to urinate. “You threatened … my family.”

“And if you behave,” Ávila replied, “I assure you that no harm will come to them. Just take me to Barcelona, drop me off, and we will part as friends. I will return your wallet, forget your home address, and you need never think of me again.”

The driver stared straight ahead, his lips quivering.

“You are a man of the faith,” Ávila said. “I saw the papal cross on your windshield. And no matter what you think of me, you can find peace in knowing that you are doing the work of God tonight.” Ávila finished at the urinal. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Ávila stepped back and checked the ceramic pistol tucked into his belt. It was loaded with his lone remaining bullet. He wondered if he’d need to use it tonight.

He walked to the sink and ran water into his palms, seeing the tattoo that the Regent had directed him to place there in case he was caught. An unnecessary precaution, Ávila suspected, now feeling like an untraceable spirit moving through the night.

He raised his eyes to the filthy mirror, startled by his appearance. The last time Ávila had seen himself, he was wearing full dress whites with a starched collar and a naval cap. Now, having stripped off the top of his uniform, he looked more like a trucker—wearing only his V-neck T-shirt and a baseball cap borrowed from his driver.

Ironically, the disheveled man in the mirror reminded Ávila of his appearance during his days of drunken self-loathing following the explosion that killed his family.

I was in a bottomless pit.

The turning point, he knew, had been the day when his physical therapist, Marco, had tricked him into driving out into the countryside to meet the “pope.”

Ávila would never forget approaching the eerie spires of the Palmarian church, passing through their towering security gates, and entering the cathedral partway through the morning mass, where throngs of worshippers were kneeling in prayer.

The sanctuary was lit only by natural light from high stained-glass windows, and the air smelled heavily of incense. When Ávila saw the gilded altars and burnished wood pews, he realized that the rumors of the Palmarians’ massive wealth were true. This church was as beautiful as any cathedral Ávila had ever seen, and yet he knew that this Catholic church was unlike any other.

The Palmarians are the sworn enemy of the Vatican.

Standing with Marco at the rear of the cathedral, Ávila gazed out over the congregation and wondered how this sect could have thrived after blatantly flaunting its opposition to Rome. Apparently, the Palmarians’ denunciation of the Vatican’s growing liberalism had struck a chord with believers who craved a more conservative interpretation of the faith.

Hobbling up the aisle on his crutches, Ávila felt like a miserable cripple making a pilgrimage to Lourdes in hopes of a miracle cure. An usher greeted Marco and led the two men to seats that had been cordoned off in the very front row. Nearby parishioners glanced over with curiosity to see who was getting this special treatment. Ávila wished Marco had not convinced him to wear his decorated naval uniform.

I thought I was meeting the pope.

Ávila sat down and raised his eyes to the main altar, where a young parishioner in a suit was doing a reading from a Bible. Ávila recognized the passage—the Gospel of Mark.

“‘If you hold anything against anyone,’” the reader declared, “‘forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’”

More forgiveness? Ávila thought, scowling. He felt like he’d heard this passage a thousand times from the grief counselors and nuns in the months after the terrorist attack.

The reading ended, and the swelling chords of a pipe organ resounded in the sanctuary. The congregants rose in unison, and Ávila reluctantly clambered to his feet, wincing in pain. A hidden door behind the altar opened and a figure appeared, sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd.

The man looked to be in his fifties—upright and regal with a graceful stature and a compelling gaze. He wore a white cassock, a golden tippet, an embroidered sash, and a bejeweled papal pretiosa miter. He advanced with his arms outstretched to the congregation, seeming to hover as he moved toward the center of the altar.

“There he is,” Marco whispered excitedly. “Pope Innocent the Fourteenth.”

He calls himself Pope Innocent XIV? The Palmarians, Ávila knew, recognized the legitimacy of every pope up to Paul VI, who died in 1978.

“We’re just in time,” Marco said. “He’s about to deliver his homily.”

The pope moved toward the center of the raised altar, bypassing the formal pulpit and stepping down so that he stood at the same level as his parishioners. He adjusted his lavalier microphone, held out his hands, and smiled warmly.

“Good morning,” he intoned in a whisper.

The congregation boomed in response. “Good morning!

The pope continued moving away from the altar, closer to his congregation. “We have just heard a reading from the Gospel of Mark,” he began, “a passage I chose personally because this morning I would like to talk about forgiveness.”

The pope drifted over to Ávila and stopped in the aisle beside him, only inches away. He never once looked down. Ávila glanced uneasily at Marco, who gave him an excited nod.

“We all struggle with forgiveness,” the pope said to the congregation. “And that is because there are times when the trespasses against us seem to be unforgivable. When someone kills innocent people in an act of pure hatred, should we do as some churches will teach us, and turn the other cheek?” The room fell deathly silent, and the pope lowered his voice even further. “When an anti-Christian extremist sets off a bomb during morning mass in the Cathedral of Seville, and that bomb kills innocent mothers and children, how can we be expected to forgive? Bombing is an act of war. A war not just against Catholics. A war not just against Christians. But a war against goodness … against God Himself!”

Ávila closed his eyes, trying to repress the horrific memories of that morning, and all the rage and misery still churning in his heart. As his anger swelled, Ávila suddenly felt the pope’s gentle hand on his shoulder. Ávila opened his eyes, but the pope never looked down at him. Even so, the man’s touch felt steady and reassuring.

“Let us not forget our own Terror Rojo,” the pope continued, his hand never leaving Ávila’s shoulder. “During our civil war, enemies of God burned Spain’s churches and monasteries, murdering more than six thousand priests and torturing hundreds of nuns, forcing the sisters to swallow their rosary beads before violating them and throwing them down mineshafts to their deaths.” He paused and let his words sink in. “That kind of hatred does not disappear over time; instead, it festers, growing stronger, waiting to rise up again like a cancer. My friends, I warn you, evil will swallow us whole if we do not fight force with force. We will never conquer evil if our battle cry is ‘forgiveness.’”

He is correct, Ávila thought, having witnessed firsthand in the military that being “soft” on misconduct was the best way to guarantee increasing misconduct.

“I believe,” the pope continued, “that in some cases forgiveness can be dangerous. When we forgive evil in the world, we are giving evil permission to grow and spread. When we respond to an act of war with an act of mercy, we are encouraging our enemies to commit further acts of violence. There comes a time when we must do as Jesus did and forcefully throw over the money tables, shouting: ‘This will not stand!’”

I agree! Ávila wanted to shout as the congregation nodded its approval.

“But do we take action?” the pope asked. “Does the Catholic Church in Rome make a stand like Jesus did? No, it doesn’t. Today we face the darkest evils in the world with nothing more than our ability to forgive, to love, and to be compassionate. And so we allow—no, we encourage—the evil to grow. In response to repeated crimes against us, we delicately voice our concerns in politically correct language, reminding each other that an evil person is evil only because of his difficult childhood, or his impoverished life, or his having suffered crimes against his own loved ones—and so his hatred is not his own fault. I say, enough! Evil is evil! We have all struggled in life!”

The congregation broke into spontaneous applause, something Ávila had never witnessed during a Catholic service.

“I chose to speak about forgiveness today,” the pope continued, his hand still on Ávila’s shoulder, “because we have a special guest in our midst. I would like to thank Admiral Luis Ávila for blessing us with his presence. He is a revered and decorated member of Spain’s military, and he has faced unthinkable evil. Like all of us, he has struggled with forgiveness.”

Before Ávila could protest, the pope was recounting in vivid detail the struggles of Ávila’s life—the loss of his family in a terrorist attack, his descent into alcoholism, and finally his failed suicide attempt. Ávila’s initial reaction was anger with Marco for betraying a trust, and yet now, hearing his own story told in this way, he felt strangely empowered. It was a public admission that he had hit rock bottom, and somehow, perhaps miraculously, he had survived.

“I would suggest to all of you,” the pope said, “that God intervened in Admiral Ávila’s life, and saved him … for a higher purpose.”

With that, the Palmarian pope Innocent XIV turned and gazed down at Ávila for the first time. The man’s deep-set eyes seemed to penetrate Ávila’s soul, and he felt electrified with a kind of strength he had not felt in years.

“Admiral Ávila,” the pope declared, “I believe that the tragic loss you have endured is beyond forgiveness. I believe your ongoing rage—your righteous desire for vengeance—cannot be quelled by turning the other cheek. Nor should it be! Your pain will be the catalyst for your own salvation. We are here to support you! To love you! To stand by your side and help transform your anger into a potent force for goodness in the world! Praise be to God!”

Praise be to God!” the congregation echoed.

“Admiral Ávila,” the pope continued, staring even more intently into his eyes. “What is the motto of the Spanish Armada?”

Pro Deo et patria,” Ávila replied immediately.

“Yes, Pro Deo et patria. For God and country. We are all honored to be in the presence today of a decorated naval officer who has served his country so well.” The pope paused, leaning forward. “But … what about God?”

Ávila gazed up into the man’s piercing eyes and felt suddenly off balance.

“Your life is not over, Admiral,” the pope whispered. “Your work is not done. This is why God saved you. Your sworn mission is only half complete. You have served country, yes … but you have not yet served God!”

Ávila felt like he had been struck by a bullet.

“Peace be with you!” the pope proclaimed.

And also with you!” the congregation responded.

Ávila suddenly found himself swallowed up by a sea of well-wishers in an outpouring of support unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He searched the parishioners’ eyes for any trace of the cultlike fanaticism he had feared, but all he saw was optimism, goodwill, and a sincere passion for doing God’s work … exactly what Ávila realized he had been lacking.

From that day on, with the help of Marco and his new group of friends, Ávila began his long climb out of the bottomless pit of despair. He returned to his rigorous exercise routine, ate nutritious foods, and, most important, rediscovered his faith.

After several months, when his physical therapy was complete, Marco presented Avila with a leather-bound Bible in which he had flagged a dozen or so passages.

Ávila flipped to a few of them at random.

ROMANS 13:4

For he is a servant of God—

the avenger who carries out

God’s wrath on wrongdoers.

PSALM 94:1

O Lord, the God of vengeance,

let your glorious justice shine forth!

2 TIMOTHY 2:3

Share in suffering,

as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

“Remember,” Marco had told him with a smile. “When evil rears its head in the world, God works through each of us in a different way, to exert His will on earth. Forgiveness is not the only path to salvation.”

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