Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Cauldron Presents: The Lost Catacomb by Shifra Hochberg

           Beautiful art historian, NICOLA PAGE, flies to Rome to assess a newly discovered catacomb of enigmatic provenance at the invitation of Cardinal MAURO ROSTONI, who has been personally asked by the Pope to claim the catacomb and its contents for the Church.  Assisted by an Italian archaeologist, BRUNO RECANATI, Nicola discovers a buried parchment scroll detailing the shocking murder of a pope centuries earlier, a murder connected to priceless artifacts from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that have been buried in the Vatican since the time of the early Empire.  

            Nicola and Bruno soon find themselves caught up in a web of intrigue and peril stemming from a sinister bargain between the Holy See and Germany during World War II—for when the Nazis had accidentally learned of the existence of the Temple treasures, coveting them for their intended Museum of Dead Nations, Mauro Rostoni, rising star in the Apostolic Palace, agreed to cooperate in the deportation of the Jews of Rome in exchange for German silence.  

            Rostoni, moreover, has a shocking connection to Nicola's own family.  As Nicola discovers when she is recalled to her grandmother ELENA's sickbed in New York, Rostoni had been spurned by Elena during the German occupation of Rome, and, in revenge, had masterminded the murder of Elena's Jewish lover, NICCOLÒ ROSSI—Nicola's true biological grandfather—as well as the arrest of Elena's family.

            As Nicola looks into the Cardinal's wartime activities to confirm his identity, her determination and strong physical resemblance to Elena arouse Rostoni's suspicions, and he has her followed by his Fascist associates.

            Meanwhile, Nicola receives a tense phone call from Athens, from her friend MATT OSBORNE, an investigative journalist who has discovered records linking Nazi expropriation of Spanish and Greek Jewish artifacts during World War II to an organization called Catholic Charities International.  He asks Nicola to look for corroborating evidence in the Secret Archives of the Vatican and tells her that he believes he is being tailed. 

            Nicola and Bruno locate files on the activities of Catholic Charities International, but, unknown to them, they have been observed by one of Rostoni's operatives.
            The next day, Bruno sees a newspaper obituary for Matt, who has died of an apparent heart attack.  Bruno receives a package from Greece, containing papers cataloguing shipments of artwork from Athens to Rome during the War.  One of the documents is initialed "M.R.," and Bruno and Nicola suspect that Rostoni is involved, given his past as a Fascist collaborator. They now believe that Matt was murdered.

            Recalling the puzzling presence of a Spanish object buried in the catacombs, they return there at night and uncover a hidden chamber with carefully catalogued artifacts from Jewish communities that had been exterminated during the War.  Bruno realizes that this is a secret branch of the Museum of Dead Nations that Hitler had planned to commemorate the eradication of the Jews, Gypsies, and others.

            Suddenly they are confronted by one of Rostoni's thugs, and after a fierce struggle, Bruno kills their attacker. Bruno rushes to a news agency to expose the Museum, while Nicola heads for the Vatican to look for incriminating documents in Rostoni's office.  To her shock, the Cardinal is there, waiting for a report from his henchman. 

            When she confronts him about the Museum and his role in fencing stolen art during World War II, he boasts that the greatest treasure of all—from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem—is waiting to be reunited with the rest of the Museum and is concealed in a vault behind his office wall. Only he has the code that will safely deactivate the door.
            Determined to verify Rostoni's role in the murder of her relatives, Nicola asks if he had ever known Elena or Niccolò, and he boasts of his role in Niccolò's death and the pact with the Germans.  Suddenly, Rostoni lashes out at Nicola with a poisoned stiletto hidden inside his pectoral cross.  He is scratched during the struggle and dies, defiantly unrepentant.

            Father Benedetto arrives at the Apostolic Palace and shows Nicola a shocking letter unearthed in Church archives, proving that Rostoni was actually born Jewish and unaware of his true origins. Bruno brings reporters to the catacombs, and Rostoni's connection to the Museum is suppressed to save the Church from embarrassment, as is the existence of the Temple treasures, which can no longer be accessed. 

            Rostoni's confederates outside Italy, undeterred by his death, move their art collections to another location, convinced that the Reich will soon be reestablished and the Museum of Dead Nations finally built.

Shifra Hochberg has a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University and teaches at Ariel University in Israel. She has published 20 academic essays and is currently writing another novel.


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