WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE! c 1986, 2001, 2005

Part I
First Chapter
The Unleashing

Episode Three: Halloween Hauntings

       In Sydney, Australia the evening of the next day was in full swing. In Calcutta and Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo the searing sun was just reaching the high point of November 1st. Residents of Rome, Paris, Berlin and London were still enthralled in their dreams as the sun waited to make its appearance to shock the masses back to the reality of another day.

       In a small chapel just outside Qasr as Sabiyah, Kuwait, a tall, lanky altar server in his late 30's was pouring a small stream of water over the hands of another. The latter, a husky bearded priest in his early sixties, intoned "Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas" while wiping his hands with the small towel. Then the man in the cassock bowed and placed the cruet and bowl on a side table. The celebrant continued in Latin before returning to the center of the altar where he silently said the Secret of the Mass. The candles flickered on the altar as the breeze off the Persian Gulf began to pick up, always a precursor before the rising sun - just an hour away.

       The garish lights of Broadway were flashing neon as pedestrians of every sort moved quickly on their appointed missions in New York City. Some passersby would occasionally glimpse at the giant neon ticker and Sony widescreen in Times Square where GNN was running a debate on various congressional issues between a pompous Republican senator and an invective Democratic consultant as the moderator tried to curb the constant interruptions of the combatants. In a matter of hours GNN would bring the images of New Nasiriyah to all on this gigantic screen overlooking the Great White Way.

       The setting sun reflected a brilliant orange glow on the Luxor in Las Vegas as the neon jungle lit up the desert sky, the stream of headlights on the main strip created a spectrum of beams drowned out by the illuminated marquees above. Few in this Nevada city would be tuned to the events in New Nasiriyah this evening. They, more often than not, were more intent on the siren of the odds smiling on them. The gods of this modern Babylon were worshipped at the felt altars, incensed with the determination of a successful spin at the slots, praying for a bonanza that seldom came. The sacrifices were great as debts mounted, inhibitions decreased, and caution was cast to the wind.

       In Los Angeles the sunset was unable to penetrate the smog-filled atmosphere. A dull burnt umber reflected off the grotesque shadows of the sterile Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels rising eight stories into the gray sky, a reminder of all that had been lost through the new ecclesial architecture. On this night, with the famed Hollywood letters on the hill barely visible, the cathedral seemed exceedingly monstrous in the tone of its colors that gave it an eerie reddish glow as if hell itself was beckoning.

       An hour and a half to the south in San Diego flashlights were dancing on lawns as trick-or-treaters raced from house to house in various costumes on this brisk Halloween evening. The cool autumn breeze off the Pacific prompted them to move just a bit quicker to capture the spoils before willing neighbors ran out of Snickers and other confectioneries that drove dentists crazy.

       In Dallas an eclectic mix of costumed guests mingled, holding drinks and making small talk - stilted though it was - in a ballroom of the Anatole Hotel. On the dance floor a costumed devil and nun were doing the Texas two-step to the twangs of Dwight Hokam flooding from the speakers. Joining them were various assortments of characters from Frankenstein to French maids, witches and convicts, monsters and ghosts. A tableau of absurdity painted this fluorescent-lighted room, casting an uneasy abstractness to the scene. All hail Halloween.

_____________________________________

Dateline: Dallas, Texas, October 31, 11:45 p.m.

       Outside the wind howled with its customary North Texas fury, driving most people into warm sanctuaries-whatever those might be on this last night of October in Big D. People of common sense were already snug at home, many already asleep. There were always those die-hards who mocked sensibility, who sought to party night and day. If nothing else, it was already being said that this new millennium was a 'time to party' for world-peace was on the tip of nearly everyone's tongue these days. World peace-surely a phenomenon that would be the most spectacular event in all of recorded history. World peace, the great compromise, the great miracle, the great mirage! Time waited for no one.

       The passing of time and the siren of world peace were the farthest thing on the minds of Patrick Gallagher and his long-time heart-throb Corrine Morelli this night. These two, though closer to middle-age, had youth on their side this night for love does such things, and that fleeting ally seemed to blind those who considered themselves above time, its changes, and its ravages. The consequences of being mere mortals did not seem to enter the equation…at least for now.

       This Halloween night was colder than recent memory and the promise of colder weather yet to come had the entire metroplex of Dallas-Fort Worth braced for a frigid winter. Within the dimly-lit confines of The Crooked Spigot, Pat and Corrie, fresh from the shallow glitz of the Mirror-sponsored party at the Anatole, had settled down in more comfortable surrounds to have a few drinks and to pay their respects to the owner Ben O'Fallon.

       His little bar fit regular customers like an old glove for it had long been the famous and infamous refuge for those working nearby at the Metroplex Mirror, the very paper where Pat had been employed for years. The Crooked Spigot had long been the source of rumor and tips, where journalists huddled while combing the city night and day for any and all scoops that would titillate the mass audience of the city, state, the country, even the world at large.

       The crowd that had gathered earlier had dispersed to more modern hoots, lured by the deafening, mind-blowing sounds of what today passed as music. Old man O'Fallon would never cave to that modern cacophony. He still maintained an archaic jukebox off to the right of the main bar; still only cost a quarter to play a pop tune from the 40's, 50's or 60's. He had stopped stocking any platter after 1965. Matter of principle he would state defiantly when challenged by the new breed that invaded.

       On this night of goblins the Spigot resembled more of a ghost town. An eerie, tinny rendition of "Flying, purple people-eater" strained from the outmoded hi-fi system in the relic-like glass-encased nickelodeon machine with the crack spanning the entire face, the result of a pretty impressive brawl back in '89. Disco folks against the punk rockers. O'Fallon had 'em all thrown out. He was known for that. No nonsense. In the mind of the owner, bartender and chief dishwasher, Benjamin O'Fallon, now in his late 70's, principle always took precedence over crass trends, no matter the economic benefits.

       Ben had sought to break down walls through his easygoing father-like manner. With a thick brogue that took on a Texas twang he would offer his advice to those willing to listen. More often than not the subject always came around to faith and God. Ben was never ashamed or afraid to speak his piece even if it meant peace might be harder to achieve because of distilled enmity over misunderstood cultures and beliefs. Compromise was not in Ben's vocabulary, but compassion was. That is what endeared so many to the aging Irishman.

       O'Fallon was now silver-haired, slightly overweight with sparkling blue eyes and a perpetual smile. He carried on this night as if it was merely one of the "slow nights" that had happened occasionally over the last four decades.

       O'Fallon even counted on his regular clientele to come to celebrate, for the last time, at his old-fashioned Spigot. After all, he reasoned silently, this was to be the last Halloween that his establishment would open its doors to the public. On January 2nd The Crooked Spigot would close its doors forever, giving way to that insidious progress of pavement. The weathered and timeworn buildings and the entire block and more would be razed in a matter of days to make way for an extension of the freeway which transversed the metroplex.

       He had gone all out with Halloween decorations. They literally littered the place: jack-o-lanterns smiled garishly; dog-eared black cats stared and smirked, pumpkins rested on the bar and the small booths and tables; cut-out witches kept yellow eyes on the entire scene, having been hung from the wooden beams overhead, some even peeking out from their post on wooden columns that were as polished now as they had been when O'Fallon had taken over The Crooked Spigot some forty years before.

       His Irish temperament had gotten him through more than one rough patch in his life and so tonight his expression seemed to say "Nothing to be a worrying about. Tomorrow the Spigot will be a teeming once again with press people, all gossiping and tripping over themselves to get the by-line on the best scoop of the day. Rumor be a running rampant again." Rumor, O'Fallon thought, would haunt this place, this area, long after a freeway extension replaced the actual building.

       Journalists and Ben had one thing in common: They were opinionated. On nothing was old Ben more vocal than the state of religion today, especially his own Catholic faith. The times were legendary when he would go into a diatribe about how the old faith was no more and that the Conciliar Church had usurped the Roman Catholic Church. "Hijacked her they did! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints preserve us." He was referring to how the much-vaunted Vatican II Council had changed so much and caused the confusion that the world faced today. No one could convince him otherwise and his logic was solid, his facts a benchmark of an intelligent man of the faith. Few there were like him.

       The one he cajoled the most was Patrick Gallagher. Ben's chief antagonist, though Irish in name, was nothing like Ben. Pat had been born in Shreveport, Louisiana. After getting his degree from Tulane he had signed on for a four-year stint in the Air Force as an Information Officer. There he had been groomed as a military journalist at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, but when his tour of duty was up he had opted for life on the other side. Never liked taking orders. He was a rebellious sort. Called it the U.S. Air Farce. More than a few times he came close to getting censured, but, like a cat, always landed on his feet.

       Journalism was in Pat Gallagher's blood and, though born in the era of the Beatles, his interior fortitude belied his age. He was a crack writer. That was what landed him a plum assignment with the Metroplex Mirror in the late 80's. Had to go through several interviews, the last a disturbing one with the chief publisher - a man he instantly hated. For the sake of expediency, he hid his disgust well and was hired. Nearly 20 years he had evaded turnover and layoffs. He called it luck that at 38 he had seniority. He was top dog, and he flaunted it. Might have lost his job a few times were it not for the calming counsel of ol' Ben. For fifteen years Pat was drawn back to the Spigot more than a few times a week. At first it was the camaraderie of his fellow workers; then it became the necessity for a drink to relieve the tension. Thanks to Ben that dissolved into Pat's need to retreat to this old bar backing up the Trinity River basin south of the Dallas loop. It had become an asylum from the constant clatter of banality and deadlines. With the advent of the laptop computer, Gallagher found an excuse to evacuate his office and set up shop at The Crooked Spigot. Once he even slipped by the dateline as The Crooked Spigot. Even his keen editor Vic Van Wess did not catch it until it was too late. Inside joke. Journalists were known to do that, especially Pat Gallagher.

       As different as Ben and Pat were, they had one common link - both were Catholic. Ben in practice, Pat in name. Many nights, even long after the last call went out, Ben would motion to Pat to stay behind to help put up the chairs. At first Pat did so willingly, but after awhile he grew tired of the ruse for Ben would always bring up religion and morals. Ben was the soothing, but sticking thorn in Pat's live-and-let-live life. It would grate on this cynical reporter, but Ben would extend the carrot cleverly by issuing a challenge and Pat could never pass up a contest. It was his nature to compete. That's all Ben needed. Through well-crafted syllogisms, liberally spiced with idioms and life situations, Ben would draw him in like an angler landing a struggling walleye. He relished displaying that gesture to Pat, who would sit there dumbfounded at the awareness that indeed Ben knew whereof he spoke. Imitating a fisherman reeling in his catch, Ben would hold up his fists rotating them in and then, in that Bostex brogue, "Gotcha good, me boy!"

       Most would resent being flaunted, but Ben's manner was always gentle and never personal. If anything it caused Pat to think increasingly, to examine his own conscience. As much as Pat tried to suppress it, that "angel" Ben had introduced him to seven years before was always there to remind him.

       Corrine Anna-Maria Morelli, an Italian-American beauty, had taken him by storm. Maybe it was those glistening burnt umber eyes, that perky, pouting mouth, that quick-witted dry humor and common sense approach that counterbalanced his own skin-deep cynicism, curbed his quick-tempered irascibility, and tamed his need for wanderlust. Though Corrie could not be said to be the most chaste of single women, she was far more discerning of the moral repercussions than Pat and, at times, it took all her Catholic schooling-conscience to say no to his advances. Oh there were a few times she had succumbed, but she loved him and, because of that, wanted it right. She knew Pat was the one. Pat did too, but with the male there is always hesitation when it comes to commitment.

       Some call it preservation of the species, others dub it cold feet. Yet celibacy was not in Pat's lexicon. Ben had several knockdown, drag-out discussions on that topic. Ben had also imparted this wisdom to Corrie and urged her to share it with Pat, until they were married - as if that happy day would ever come. Always Ben was kind but blunt: Noli me tangere! Do not touch me! "Remember it well, lad and lass, and you will be avoiding the temptations of sin. God'll be blessing you for it."

       They were in love. Ben knew that. He intuitively knew it was even more than that. Both of them were being prepped for something yet unknown. Not known as a matchmaker, nevertheless the school of hard knocks behind the bar had given Ben a diploma in human relations. He always felt he was merely an instrument in carrying out his Creator's will. He did not know how or why always, but enough reasons convinced him he did not need to. Just follow that intuition that welled up in his gut and, more often than not it worked out for the best. "God's will be done" or "God be blessing you" were favorite refrains of this likeable old-fashioned gent from the olde sod.

       Faith was something Ben brought up often with Pat and Corrie, too, on those occasions when she would accompany Pat to this rusty old bar on the inner outskirts of the city. It took faith to keep a level head in these times when the area had been blighted by graffiti plastered on storefronts by ravaging gangs of blacks, Hispanics and, lately, Korean lads. Ben had gone out of his way to offer the olive branch, inviting various members of the community to meet at his place to discuss how to combat these more frequent intrusions into citizen safety. Nevertheless, not all had gone well. The insistence of this old fogey on no rap or hip-hop had not played well with the demands of a radical branch of young dialogers. Nevertheless, they had forged an agreement to put on a citizens patrol 24 hours a day and add an extra beat cop to the area. That seemed to stay the rash of violence, even on this night of the devils as Officer Ray Carson cruised by in his black-and-white every fifteen minutes while patrolling an area bordering the ever-increasing incendiary community of Oak Park.

       The heightened crime rate in the area had forced Ben to hire a bouncer, a Puerto Rican who stood six foot seven in his sandals. Juan Pablo Rivera had added kung fu to his self-defense arsenal and few messed with this 280 pound mass of flesh who, in essence, was a gentle giant whom Pat had come to respect and kid.

       On this night Juan was slumped by the door, leaning back on a folding chair, headset slightly askew listening to the latest Latin sounds on his Walkman tucked into his low-slung pants pocket. Against the wall seated at tables and booths with circular glass candles flickering were a various assortment of masquerade characters. Most had shed their masks, some even their costumes for it was hot inside The Crooked Spigot. The rotting pipes were clanging almost in rhythm as the radiators cranked while belching forth all the warmth they still could, surviving on pure resolve and confounding plumbing experts, who had told Ben years ago they would someday burst.

       That day had still not come. Ben gave God credit for this miracle of longevity. With the wind whipping strongly against the awning outside and through the ever-widening cracks in the storm window panes, the pipes were getting their strongest test on this All Hallows Eve.

       The gleam of the polished wood reflected the glow of pagan symbols this evening. One of the concessions Ben made for the sake of patronizing the holiday. The plastic jack-o-lanterns with the small bulbs gave the lie to the worn and cracked leather of the barstools and small booths. These nooks and carrels had been the source of many journalistic fervors, of rumor and truth mixed together by the fifth estate. Furrowed stenciled scarecrows peered down from the ceiling beams, seeming to smirk at the numerous polished glasses, which once brimmed with booze. The cardboard cutout black felines, haunted houses, pumpkins and white ballooned ghosts seemed to settle in quite nicely above the length of the bar.

       Ben did not seem his old self tonight. Perhaps it had been his apparent instant shock at seeing Pat disguised in a proverbial consumer-oriented cliched devil costume, replete with horns and tail sans pitchfork. Ben had always had a loathing for the devil. No matter what consumers thought he looked like, he was a beast not to be reckoned with lightly. Maybe it was the stark contrast of Corrie's costume this night. Dressed in the full regalia of a nun from the pre-Vatican II days, O'Fallon, wasn't sure whether to compliment her or reprimand her for this habit that had once been so sacred and meant so much to so many dedicated nuns; women who had willingly given their lives to God - and vowed it as well - before a liberating Conciliar Church had gone too far, in Ben's estimation, and thrown caution and disciplines to the wind. How times had changed from those pious days of his own youth, his own young adulthood. He didn't approve of the choice of costume his two special customers opted for on this night, but years of tending bar had taught him to say little at the outset, while his eyes observed much. Discretion was the better part of valor. In his earlier, brasher years his Irish tongue would have had more than a few words to say to these two.

       The two were whispering together in a small booth 30 feet from the bar, oblivious to O'Fallon, and unmindful to the small TV mounted above the bar. As always it was tuned to the familiar nightly news channel, volume way down. Yet, between songs, with the place next to deserted, the sound from the TV seemed amplified this night.

       Pat looked up once, when the sports report came on. "How'd the Stars do?" he wondered outloud. As the box scores scrawled along the bottom of the screen the result was confirmed. The Wings had shut them out 3-0. "Figures. Don't think it's their year."

       Corrie, not as big a fan, was clearly not interested in sports tonight and reached to clasp his hand. "Hey, diablo, there's more to life than sports."

       "Yeah, I know, Corr, and please don't call me that."

       "Sorry, but your getup entices me to say 'diablohhhh," the last syllables formed a kissing friendly demeanor on her soft lips.

       "Well, if you want enticement, cara mia..." Standing up and stretching, Pat ripped the hooded horns and cape off, as he quickly unvested himself of the devil costume. Before Corrie could say a word, Pat had completely unfastened the velcro that wrapped the red jumpsuit together. He was back in his familiar attire of jeans and a tee shirt. The devil's costume lay at his feet, which he summarily kicked under the table and out of sight. O'Fallon saw, but said nothing.

       "Hot as hades in here, cara mia, how long you gonna stay in that habit?"

       Corrie took the hint. She stood up and deliberately, enticingly, and evocatively began to disrobe. Pat watched with undisguised fascination and with not a little masculine desire welling in his mind and loins as his loved played well the role of temptress. The tight headdress of the nun's outfit came off, divulging her long, shiny black hair. She shook out her flowing raven locks until her hair touched upon her shoulders, covered in the form-fitting tee shirt she was accustomed to wearing. Then the scapular, belt, and finally the full-length black costume fell to the floor. Much more comfortable in those tight blue jeans and form-fitting tee shirt which barely covered her midriff.

       O'Fallon noticed. Sad, he thought how easily the real nuns had done the same, shed their armor for the world, the flesh and the devil. His introspection reminded him of a time when men and women dressed according to their gender, and such attire as Corrie wore would never have seen the light of day, even in a bar.

       "Ah, that's better, cara mia," Pat approved, as she kicked the habit under the table where the two opposing costumes seemed to scorn one another where they lay in a tangle. "Last time we go to any costume party. That stuff is passé", he remarked, motioning for Corrie to join him on the dance floor as Bill Haley's "Rock around the clock" began pulsing through the juke box.

       "Remember the Lindy, cara mia," Pat sparked, holding her hand up with his as he readied to twirl her.

       "Before my time, Patrick."

       "Mine too, but it'd be fun to try."

       "To this music? Tell me you're kidding," as she pulled his arm back around her waist. "Can't help but feel sad for him," Corrie inserted, motioning toward Ben seemingly in a melancholy mood behind the bar.

       "He's doin' fine," he reassured his partner.

       "No, Pat, it's something else and I can't put my finger on it. It's too quiet in here tonight."

       "You worry too much, cara mia, always have." With a glint that betrayed he was really concerned, Pat flirted with the dark-haired beauty, "What say we head over to my place where it's even quieter?"

       "Shall we ask Ben?" Corrie gave him a furtive glance.

       "Oh, get off the chaperone bit, Ms. Morelli. That's the problem, Ben's ideas just keep crampin' my style."

       "Well, it's not cramping mine and you know in your heart it's helping you, Mr. Gallagher."

       Corrie pressed Pat's hand, leaning her head on his shoulder as she looked up into his eyes, "Ben keeps us on the straight and narrow, and that's not a bad thing. Besides, lets spend some time with him. He could use a little pepping up.

       Relunctantly, Pat guided her off the wooden floor onto the matted brown carpeting near the bar. "I'll buy the final round. You're right. Let's cheer him up."

       Almost on cue Ben approached the two, "Chivas on the rocks and a Chablis?"

       "You know us too well, Benj," Pat answered, scooting up to the bar as he pulled out the stool for Corrie to sit. "Too bad business wasn't better tonight," Pat opined as Corrie gave him a stiff jab with her elbow.

       "'You can lead a horse to water, me boy, but you can't make 'em drink', me Da always told me."

       Corrie tried to soothe the atmosphere, "They'll be better nights."

       Ben kept his head down, the reality biting hard at his heart and wallet. Pat sensed uneasiness.

       "Careful, cara mia, you'll get him goin' and we'll hear all those old stories again. That's the scariest thing I can think of tonight!" Pat's attempt to force the kidding was backfiring as he tried to prevent the scene from getting maudlin.

       However, Ben's mind wasn't on chitchat this night. He wasn't even concerned with the mass exodus of customers earlier in the evening for other, more modern and hep haunts. After setting down the drinks, with a small napkin beneath in front of Pat and Corrie, he placed a small bowl of fresh cashews between the glasses. Then, without a word, he ambled over to the TV in the corner above the bottles. Pulling out the footstool, he mounted the two steps and switched channels.

       "Sports Center ain't on for another 10 minutes, Benj?" Pat queried.

       "No sports tonight, my lad. Pope Clement's in Iraq."

       "Yeah, forgot. Networks are covering it by satellite. Tried to talk Vic into sendin' me over there last week but he nixed it."

       "You know why, Patrick," Corrie remanded.

       "Everyone's protectin' me. If it ain't Ben it's Vic. I'm a big boy. I can handle it. I think you sabotaged it, cara mia. Don't want me to spread my wings."

       "Believe what you will, Pat, but Blix wouldn't approve it and Vic knew how dangerous it was."

       "She's right, Paddy. Saddam may be long gone, but his hateful legacy be livin' on. That area still be a hot-bed of terrorism and don't you believe for a minute, me boy, that this world peace document be a changing anything." A sad look covered Benjamin's face. The sparkle in those old Irish eyes had lost their glitter.

       Corrie sensed it and tried to instill some positives into the conversation. "Well, with the Pope as the cornerstone I think it is possible, Benj. If not, what's the sense in signing it?"

       "You can lead a horse to water, but…"

       Corrie impatiently interrupted him, "Aren't you the one who says trust in God, Mr. O'Fallon? Well, then, maybe we should put our trust that He's guiding this and…"

       This time Ben countered, halting Corrie in midsentence. "This not be God's work, I can be telling you that." His veins seemed to bulge. "It be the work of the devil, it be."

       Taken back by the bar-owner's brusqueness, Corrie stammered, "Why on earth would you say that, Ben?"

       Ben had turned and was back on the stool turning up the volume. Trevor Anders, a well-known reporter for GNN, was giving his audience the details of the story. Behind him various graphics displayed the significant points. Finally a live-feed via satellite brought into the last minutes before midnight the event that had long been anticipated, had long been sought after, had long been foretold as the 'great miracle' of the new millennium. They were rehashing that on the morning of November 1st halfway around the globe, in that place near Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham of the Old Testament had been called by God to gather together the Chosen People, where a great Ecumenical treaty was to be signed by the heads of all the religions of the earth.

       Pat couldn't hide his disappointment, "This last scotch was just gettin' me in the mood. Now this!"

       Without turning to Pat, O'Fallon said, quite brusquely, "Mood?!!! Go ahead, sneer all you want. To me this is the stuff of fairy-tales. Ecumenical treaty! God in Heaven preserve us! You, Pat! You should know that. The world's gone off half-cocked believing in this nonsense, and I, for one, be seeing great trouble ahead."

       "Yeah, and I'm the devil," Pat chortled weakly.

       "Sure n' you got rid o' the horns. That be that pile over there" he pointed to the small heap where the red and black costumes melded into one grayish mass in the shadows beneath the booth. "Besides, Paddy, 'tis nothing to be joking about" was all O'Fallon said, and turned up the sound another decibel.

       "Let it be, Pat," Corrie laid a restraining hand on her lover's arm. "It's his place, he only has a few months left. It's his last hurrah. C'mon, let's listen. What harm can it do?"

       "Not a damn thing! I shoulda been there. Damn Vic."

       "Stop your griping, Paddy," O'Fallon said sternly. "'Tis something we should all be a watching, 'cause you never know what to make of these things…especially what's been agreed to behind closed doors. Never have liked such meetings, that's for sure," he went on. "Something too secretive about this whole affair, if you ask me."

       Pat started to speak, but again Corrie laid her hand on his arm, and he swallowed whatever retort he had wanted to articulate.

       Unbeknownst to Ben O'Fallon, Pat Gallagher, and Corrie Morelli, and billions of others there had been much activity around the globe within the past twelve hours. The mysterious black figure had seen to that. Few would have believed what was going on. Not one would have put any credence in these things. One could only guess what their respective reactions might have been.

       Only a few kernels remained in the sands of time.


Next: PART I: The Unleashing FIRST CHAPTER, Episode Four: Bewitched and Betrayed


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