(This is a continuation of Neptune’s Payback – Part 1)
Cooper gets to his feet and brushes away the dust collected by his cargo shorts and old “Marku e Marley – Jamaican Me Crazy, Mon” t-shirt as he crawled along the tracks into the train station. He orients himself and heads to the main concourse, where he is brought up short by the vast space before him. His mouth drops open in awe. The Leopoldina Estação is magnificent, and totally empty. Closed years ago, the old railway station is used now only as a movie set and for events. A real fan of old buildings, Coop takes a moment to appreciate the majesty of this one. He’s glad it wasn’t torn down, and even gladder that it had been so easy to break into from trackside.
He locates the bay of old telephone booths and sees to his relief that the third booth is the center phone booth in the row. All the way over here, he’s been worrying how he will know if it were the third booth from the left or the right. As he steps into the booth and pulls the door closed, he feels like he’s stepping back in time. Who uses phone booths anymore?
Taking out his wallet, Coop digs through his credit cards for the prepaid phone card he’s carried for this call. He inserts it into the slot on the face of the phone, punches in the number, and quickly pulls the card from the slot. Until now, when he made his annual check-in call, he heard a tone acknowledging receipt of the call, and he was done.
Not this time, no siree bob. The only way he can explain what happened when he had pulled out the phone card is to say he lost consciousness. Well, either that or he fell through a worm-hole. Hey, it could happen. The next thing he knows, he is standing in a different and very high tech-looking phone booth still clutching his phone card, and a familiar woman in an unfamiliar uniform is just outside the booth. He feels as though the world is spinning, and he thinks he might faint. Again. The woman pushes open the door and says, “Welcome to the Pantheon, Neptune. You look a little woozy. Let’s go into the briefing room and you can sit down.”
“Woozy? Woozy??? Honey, you have no idea. What the hell just happened?” Cooper looks around but sees absolutely nothing familiar except for this beautiful woman he knows only as Minerva, whom he hasn’t seen for over five years. He seems to be in some kind of facility. The gleaming walls look like titanium or some other metal, and are featureless.
Minerva leads him down a long hallway. As they walk, she says, “You will probably be here a while, but don’t worry about your charters. You texted Heitor that you’ve been called away, and to cover for you.”
“Oh, I did, huh?” Heitor was Coop’s first mate on occasion. He’d take care of the customers as long as needed, Coop knew. “Glad I thought of it.”
About half way down the hall, there’s an open door and they enter a small conference room, where three men in civvies wait. The last time Cooper saw them, they were very much in uniform, serving as members of the tribunal he’d faced when he returned after what he’d come to think of as his Roman Fiasco.
“You remember Virtus, Vulcan and Mars?” Coop nods and gratefully sinks into one of the chairs at the table. “Howdy, fellas. Now does somebody want to tell me just where the hell I am, and how I got here?”
“We apologize for your unconventional mode of travel, Neptune,” Virtus says with a slight smile.
Coop snorts. “You’re shitting me, right? Unconventional? That’s what you call it?”
Mars clears his throat. “Yes, well, let’s get to the reason we sent for you, shall we? As you’ll recall, when we saved you from your just desserts, we told you that one day we would have a task for you. That day has come, I am afraid.”
“Yeah, got that idea.” Coop feels less dizzy, and he’s feeling better all the time as he remembers the full pardon he’ll be granted after he completes their little task. Besides, he plans to go back for that ring once this is over and he’s no longer being watched. His pardon will release him from Big Brother’s watchful eye.
Since it’s obvious they aren’t going to explain whatever gee-whiz technology got him here, might as well get to the point.
“So what’s the deal?”
Over the next several hours, Cooper listens as the four people with their spy-novel code names brief him. The more he hears about the task at hand, the less confident he is in his ability to pull it off. He wouldn’t have believed there was anything he couldn’t find and retrieve. He knew he was that good. For the first time, though, he is wondering if he is good enough.
It's a long, convoluted story, and if Coop is honest, it all sounds pretty damned far-fetched to him. Which, now that he thinks about it, should be no surprise, given it's coming from guys who call themselves Virtus, Vulcan and Mars. But given what rides on this, Coop is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Mars begins with the “back story,” as he calls it.
"According to our contact at the Vatican, there was a priest a couple of centuries ago who purportedly was visited by a vision during the Consecration prayer in the Mass. As he held the host aloft, and pronounced the words, 'hic est enim corpus meum' (this is my body), the host began to glow, he said. He claimed he and the host were encompassed in a golden light and Christ appeared to tell him something of great import."
Coop can't help himself. He knows he shows this “miracle” something less than the respect he perhaps should. His snort of derision was probably a giveaway to his disbelief.
"Please, Neptune. Let us finish," Vulcan chides. "It doesn't really matter if we believe it or not, does it? Apparently the Pope does."
Chastised, Cooper nods. "Sorry."
Mars picks up the story. "Apparently, this priest somehow documented his great moment of truth, and the Pope wants that documentation. Badly. Badly enough to call a fellow Knight of Malta and ask for help."
"What in God's name" -- Cooper pauses to chuckle at his choice of words as the others roll their eyes -- "is a 'Knight of Malta'?"
The others at the table exchange looks.
“None of this is anything Neptune couldn’t find with an Internet search,” Minerva says, “so there’s no reason not to tell him.”
She smiles at Coop, and he winks back at her, thinking, you got that right, Honey.
Nodding, Mars continues, “The ‘Knights of Malta’ has been known by many names. It began in the 11th century as an order of monks who cared for the sick. You may have heard the name ‘Knights Hospitaller’.”
“The organization’s history since has been the stuff of great conjecture and legend, much of it fictional. How much?” Mars shrugs. “There was some connection to the Knights Templar, though just what no one knows for sure. Historians differ on that. Though the organization most certainly spent time serving as a military entity, today they have no military involvement.”
“At least not publicly,” Virtus adds, with no small amount of sarcasm.
Mars shoots him a frown and continues.
“Today, the ‘Knights of Malta’ is a Catholic organization with the status of a sovereign entity. They maintain diplomatic relations with over 100 countries, the US being one of them, and it has observer status at the UN, much like that of the Red Cross.”
Mars pauses to take a drink of water from the glass in front of him, and Vulcan continues for him.
“Membership in the order is by invitation only, and must be approved by the Pope. There are over 13,000 members worldwide, many in the US. Since confidentiality is a part of the oath taken when a Knight is sworn in, we have no way of knowing just who they are. Suffice it to say that one of the US members is in a position to commandeer our services, and through us, yours.”
Coop raises his eyebrows. “This all sounds very, um, cloak and dagger. But, whatever. I’m in this now, so let’s get back to my mission. If I understood correctly, you want me to find the – what did you call it? – ‘documentation’ that the priest made, back in the day, of his vision and its secret message.” Cooper pauses, and rubs his hand over his eyes. “I can’t believe I’m actually saying those words. But given what’s happened today, I guess nothing should surprise me. Anyway, how am I going to do this? Obviously I need more than what you’ve told me.”
Minerva leans forward and meets Cooper’s eye. “We’ve been looking, or I should say, I’ve been looking, for this for some time. I’ve managed to pick up tidbits of information, and I’ll share what I’ve found with you. But I’ve got to warn you, Neptune, it isn’t much.”
“You’ve succeeded on assignments in the past when, frankly, we thought you had not a snowball’s chance in hell,” Virtus says. “This time you have something personal riding on it. If ever you wanted to bring it home, this would be the time. Literally.”
Virtus, Vulcan and Mars stand and come around the table.
“Good luck, Neptune,” Mars says. “We’re counting on you.”
After shaking Cooper’s hand, the three leave the conference room. Minerva stands, gestures toward the door, and says with a wide smile, “Shall we, Mr. Cooper?”