Episode One: All Roads Lead to Rome
"For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evils, for Thou art with me."
Psalms 22: 4
The bowels of hell had never been so empty. Many of its inhabitants now swarmed the earth as shadows haunting every nook and cranny, smothering and suffocating hopes as one by one those enlisted to make a stand against the unrelenting Legion of the Basilisk were felled. The obituaries of the good were long, but short on comprehension. Many asked what kind of God would allow such havoc. It was not unlike the cries that surrounded the events of December 7, 1941, the horrific conditions of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the atrocities behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, the genocide of countless despots, the unspeakable horror of September 11, 2001, the total destruction of Jerusalem and less than two days ago the annihilation of a million people on the Field of Abraham. It was an Armageddon-like event that still had no answers for the common man, for the media at large. In fact, only one reporter was close to the truth and, for the integrity of those few left to battle this nefarious monster, he was isolated from his craft, asleep in a hotel room in the City of the Seven Hills.
While Pat slept not terribly soundly, the sounds of activity were well underway on the outskirts of the city at a secure airstrip attached to Fiumicino International.
Dateline: Rome - Tarmac near Fiumicino Airport - November 3, 2:15 A.M.
Southwest of the city a convoy of C-130's were lined up behind a hanger detached from Rome's Fiumicino Airport. There in the darkness several trucks rolled in and out. All else was dark as Rome slept. A Host of security personnel, vans and a few trucks swarmed toward the cargo planes. Rows of coffins were being checked through red tape customs before release. These were the caskets representing all Vatican personnel who had been annihilated on the Field of death - from laity to the pope. Though few knew, none of the pine boxes contained bodies, only the token remains of something that represented each person. Coffins were never lighter, and yet, never heavier for what they carried would be mourned even greater.
Security guards stood near the rows of caskets as they were unloaded from the last C-130. The very same craft Father Niki Andriopoulos had taken sanctuary in five hours earlier in Iraq, just escaping the piercing search of Colonel Hudec, the man who had engineered the terrible conflagration of Fasif's estate and its inhabitants - Niki's close and dear friends and, to many, the only hope left in the battle with the Legion.
All seemed lost, but Niki forged on; partly out of survival, mostly out of his deep abiding belief that he would not fail God, for he knew intuitively that God would not fail him.
Niki had slept little in his Jonah-like journey from the Iraqi military base to Rome. Despite the hour, he was still alert, his senses intensified out of necessity. He knew when to lift the coffin's lid and slip out into the darkness. The time was at hand as a gentleman of importance approached the security guards.
He was a man of great stature, his firm ebony traits featured a short-cropped salt-and-pepper beard seemingly chiseled on high cheekbones that framed a strong jaw. His imposing presence alerted the nervous guards of his authority. These part-time guards were unaccustomed to standing watch over such a ghostly scene and welcomed his gesture of relief.
"Gentlemen, I am quite able to manage this." The African gestured to the guards, "you look uncomfortable with the artifacts before you."
One of the guards answered quickly, "Oh Senor, This is too eerie for me."
"Perhaps," the black man encouraged, "you might like to get a cup of espresso? I will notify you the moment I am finished inspecting, so the unloading may begin."
"Grazie." Both guards were only too eager to comply.
The African patronized them. "Adesso. I will take responsibility."
The Italian guards couldn't scurry down the ramp and towards the hangar fast enough, away from the contingent of vans, protocol and trucks that awaited the release of the coffins to the care of Roman authorities.
The ebony one turned his head slowly, "I see you've taken great pains to come to Rome."
Niki could see no one else there as he lurked in the shadows waiting for the man to leave.
"You are very clever, no?" The black figure was now addressing the very shadows that contained the concealed Greek. "But not quite clever enough."
Like a cobra flicking at its prey, he whirled around staring Niki in the eye, demanding, "Who are you?"
Niki's cover had been compromised. He was a dead duck he thought as he stammered, "If you do not know, it is safer."
Ogidi pressed harder, "What are you doing here?" Not getting an immediate reply, he continued, "I see you ponder your tale."
Niki shrugged sheepishly, "You could say I was considering it. We Greeks are good at stories."
"Ah, you are of Grecian descent," remarked the discoverer.
"And you?" Andriopoulos counter-grilled.
"From Somalia." The African snapped matter of factly, then his tone turned serious. "You must know you will never get off this plane unseen...without help."
Niki was puzzled. "And you're going to help me...or turn me in?"
"That depends...after all, you have said nothing to convince me that you are worthy of any assistance I may give. I assure you the authorities do not look kindly on stowaways."
"Let us just say," Niki stammered, "I am an extra envoy who has seen to the safe arrival of these holy remains."
The tall black man gave off a guffaw, "Remains yes. Holy? I would doubt that. But you jest with me. This is no time for joking."
Niki seized the opportunity to take the offensive, "And what is your purpose here?"
"I am Dr. Makuta Ogidi. I work for the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Assistance, and it is my job to verify to the countries involved that these coffins are accounted for and meet the respected health requirements."
"And what else?" Niki pressed.
"I wonder what the parties involved would say were I to tell them I found not only one of the coffin lids unlatched, but found this man all dressed in black sneaking out of one of the coffins?" Ogidi had regained command of the confrontation.
Niki had little rebuttal. "There could be some difficulties in that. Some serious consequences"
"I see," Ogidi nodded. "Then let us start with a few basics and be swift - we have little time."
"I am Niki Andriopoulos. I was covering the events in Iraq."
"Then you were at the Field of Abraham?"
"Now the Field of Death, sir," Niki corrected his inquisitor. "Yes, I'm following up several leads. It was expedient that I get to Rome as quickly as possible."
Ogidi gestured over the array of caskets, "This you call expedient?"
Niki countered impishly, "Enterprising. No?"
"Yes, but dangerous," the doctor reminded him. "I too am not unfamiliar with the scene in Iraq. I possess many credentials and from them obtain much knowledge."
"What are you talking of, Doctor?"
"I am a man of medicine. I have many contacts."
"Then you knew of the medical examiner for Kuwait, who..."
"Yes," Makuta interrupted Niki. "I believe I know of whom you speak."
Niki was taken aback. "You knew Fasif?"
"Ah, Fasif Khadid. Yes. I know him well."
Niki was incredulous, never having heard Fasif speak of Ogidi. "You did?"
"Why yes, eh, I notice you put that in the past tense, my Greek friend."
"He is dead. Murdered in his home last night. That is why I fled. There is much evil afoot."
Ogidi seemed to recognize immediately the situation. "I know of the great fight he waged against this Legion of the Basilisk. I can see in your face it is the Legion also which brings you here."
A paralysis seemed to overcome Niki, remaining silent, not sure whether to trust this mysterious African. Ogidi could sense this apprehension. "If you are going to get out of here undetected, you will have to trust me, friend of Fasif."
"I am at your mercy, Dr. Ogidi."
"Then conceal yourself behind those boxes in the front hold. After the coffins are unloaded, wait one half hour. Then go through that door out the side gate and back to the main terminal. From there, take a taxi. You have money?"
"Excellente," Ogidi cut in. "La chiave, per favore."
From Niki's puzzled look, Ogidi knew immediately the Greek's limited knowledge of Italian. He shifted back to English, reminding Niki that he will encounter mostly the Italian tongue when in Rome. "Here is a key. Go to my flat on the south side at Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos. Sei Albergo. The key for apartment six is on this chain, corner unit. Wait there for me. We will talk more in the morning. The conciliators of the coffins are approaching. Buona fortuna."
With that Niki darted for the front hold, concealing himself behind cover of the containers just as the first contingent reached the hold of the plane. He held his breath, hoping against hope that Ogidi could be trusted.
"Gentlemen, I am Dr. Makuta Ogidi. All is in order. I have inspected each. You are clear to deliver them to their final resting place. I will sign them off one by one at the bottom of the ramp. Come."
Niki could hear the group shuffle down the ramp and out of the plane. He was left to the darkness again, this time a new adrenaline began to gush forth as he checked his watch and felt the key in his pocket. Could this key and what he had extracted from the lining of the coffin keep the flickering flame of hope alive?
Dateline: Rome - Esperia Hotel - November 3, 2:30 A.M.
For Pat, after that one Jack Daniels, sleep had come quickly, but not restfully. The subconscious state of 44-year-old Patrick Gallagher's psyche was caught in a swirling vortex of hypnos as he tossed restlessly in his hotel room bed, passing through a virtual nightmare as the events over the past two days preyed on his hallucinations. He might have plunged deeper had he not been extricated by the persistent, unfamiliar ring of the Italian phone system. Thank God he was dreaming he rationalized as he groggily reached for the receiver, fumbling in the dark, trying to make his mind function to the reality of the present.
"Pronto," Pat wheezed into the phone, his throat still half-asleep.
"Pat Gallagher?" the voice inquired. Pat sprung up, grabbing the alarm clock. "God it's two-thirty in the morning for Chrissake, who is this?"
"That doesn't matter. I'm a friend."
Geez, Pat thought, there was something trusting and American about the voice, but at the same moment he detected no vibrations, no tonal quality that he could pinpoint. A friend? Then who?
"The hell it doesn't, pal" Gallagher barked, deciding not to take any chances.
"Listen," the voice commanded. "You must listen to me." The urgency was there. A pleading, really. Pat bit back a bitter comment and held his tongue as he listened further. "The danger is imminent. More potent than ever. Tonight, earlier, the Legion struck again."
"When? Where? Who?" Pat demanded.
"Pat, lower your voice. Don't be rash. The walls have ears everywhere in Rome."
Gallagher ran his fingers through his already-tousled hair as if that action might stimulate his brain cells into pinpointing what exactly about the voice seemed to find a response within him.
"It is Fasif and Elias."
"What about them?" Pat shot back with caution.
"It is why I call you at such a late hour. You must be informed. They're dead." The statement was flat, unemotional. It only made Gallagher's fears worsen.
"How?" he managed to speak.
"Horrible," said the caller. Truly the mark of the Legion. House most likely wired with explosives. Everything destroyed. No remains. Nothing ---"
Pat groaned involuntarily. This wasn't possible. How could the Legion have gained access to Fasif's home? He had just left Fasif late in the day. "You sure it was them? And how do you know this and where'd you get this number?"
"There's no way anything could survive the destruction," the voice was certain, calm. Pat was anything but. His stomach churned uncomfortably as the caller continued. "You are indeed a journalist, Gallagher."
It was a compliment but Pat was not paying attention to such praise for his head was now hanging low. Fighting back tears, he whispered almost inaudibly to himself, "Two less to fight the Basilisk."
Not inaudibly enough for the caller to discern. "The fight is not finished, Pat. It is actually three less for Helene Shenneker's home was also torched. We fear she was murdered as well. I call only to warn you, that's all. With our good friends gone, can anyone who fights the Antichrist be far behind the Legion's list of enemies? Take every precaution when you rendezvous with Karel in the morning."
That took Pat off guard. "How do you know about the rendezvous? And I'm not gonna ask you again, pal. How'd you get this number?"
"Some things must be taken on faith, Gallagher. For the safety of all I must not reveal who I am just yet. Remember, common sense is the key. We'll meet soon. Trust me."
The phone click did not interrupt Pat as he demanded, "Wait a minute, what about Niki? Niki Andriopoulos, the Greek priest?... It was then he realized the caller had already hung up. Staring at the phone in disbelief, he reached for a Pall Mall lighting it quickly and inhaling deeply, eyes closed as if to suppress a scream. What was worse the surreal nightmare he had been awakened from or the one he now realized was very real?
Either way he wouldn't give up as he remembered the splendid man who he had met less than 24 hours ago. Fasif had left a major impression upon his life. It was, Gallagher reflected, almost as if Fasif had somehow remolded him, reshaped him, structured Pat for the coming conflict. Exhaling he spoke quietly but firmly into the swirling smoke dancing in the shadows of darkness, "Somehow, Fasif, somehow we're gonna finish what you began. Karel and me...and Niki, too. If...if he's still alive. We'll get that damn lizard come hell or high water!"
And then Pat did something he hadn't done for years. He prayed. "Well, God," he whispered, "You got me into this fine mess. You're the one with all the answers. What's it gonna be? I'm on Your side...guess I always have been. And You need me now. Yeah," he sighed, "I gotta admit I need You too. More than ever."
In the darkened hotel room he groped for his pants draped over the chair near the bed and pulled out of the front pocket the rosary Elias had given him at Fasif's express wish. Unconsciously his fingers began to move over the beads.
Dateline: Rome - Tarmac near Fiumicino Airport - November 3, 2:35 A.M.
As Niki hid in the darkness of the hold, various personnel gathered at the base of the ramps of each C-130. A plethora of security personnel were on hand to see the planes depleted of their somber cargo. Yet, secrecy veiled the enterprise. As requested by the Roman State, the Vatican had sent two mandatory representatives to welcome home the remains of their slain brethren once they passed through security and were released to the Holy See's care.
Very visible by his imposing, uninvited presence was Cardinal Antonio Macelli. The other was Monsignor Stephen Navarro. Ten minutes ago Navarro had begged off and returned to the other side of the hangar. Macelli had not followed. As suspicious as the Italian prelate had been, his duties did not allow him to leave. He was visibly upset that he could not alert his assistant Father Roberto Urazzi to tail the American priest to the far side of the hangar. As much as Macelli hated Navarro, he didn't want the young American zealot anywhere in the vicinity of the coffins for fear he might discover the real agenda Macelli kept hidden. Yet he couldn't afford to let Navarro out of his sight. So mistrusting was Macelli. That is why he tolerated having the proud but lazy Roberto Urazzi as his assistant. Urazzi would be his eyes and ears. This time, Macelli realized, Urazzi had let him down again for Stephen had been gone for ten minutes. What was he doing? Suspicion reigns supreme with those who try to rule the shadows.
As much as Stephen despised Macelli not as a person but because of his disregard for the sacred office he held, the young monsignor found Urazzi's company the least compatible. Urazzi was an empty shell, a yes-man gopher, not a priest. Macelli had insisted Urazzi drive Stephen to the airfield this night. They had left the Vatican garage around 1:45 a.m. and reached their destination in time to watch the private cargo planes bearing no insignia land uneventfully at Fiumicino and taxi to a hangar at a remote end of the field. The interval from Vatican City to the field while waiting for the planes to land had been spent in welcome silence. Stephen firmly believed the less said, the better. He would give Macelli no scent whatsoever.
As the last of the coffins were unloaded, the American monsignor returned from wherever he had been. Macelli gave a suspicious glance. Stephen ignored it, trying to concentrate on his real purpose for being here...to gather facts and information about the return of the slain priests, brothers, nuns, bishops, cardinals and the late Pontiff, which would later be published in the Vatican press and reported over the powerful Vatican radio and television communications network. Stephen knew this tragedy had also endangered his own position as head of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications. Everything depended, Stephen was sure, on which of the noble cardinals would be chosen to fulfill the role as Christ's Vicar on earth, and how much influence Macelli would have over the new Pope.
Stephen's thoughts kept coming back to the rotund Italian prelate standing just twenty-feet away. He knew Macelli was shadowing him. He realized that his fight with this powerful cardinal had only just begun, and he felt weary with the thought. Thank God he hadn't tailed him several minutes ago when Stephen made a certain phone call on the other side of the hangar.
As speculation arose among those gathered on which coffin carried the late Pope, Stephen's thoughts wafted back to when the late Pope had been alive, how Macelli's power had been somewhat curtailed. Though most of the Curia had betrayed their office and faith, there were still a few - a very few - within the Holy See who remained faithful to their calling. Macelli was not one of them. Neither was Cardinal Vendhem. The Holy Father had favored using the multi-media power of the Vatican to evangelize, while Macelli had seen Navarro's growing importance as an affront to him personally because not only did Stephen do an excellent, thorough job, but he had been placed there through the influence of Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn. Macelli had likened it to nepotism ethnic-wise. Yes, this Italian cleric actually looked at nations as families and was most distrustful of anything from the gli Stati Uniti.
The fact that Stephen, like his mentor Cardinal Zachmunn, were both American, and traditional clerics at that, only made Macelli fume more.
"Insolent bastards," is what Macelli had called American Traditional Catholics right to Stephen's face several times. Oh, he had wanted to haul off and lay a left hook on the bulging, progressive prelate but discretion won out over impulse.
Just then Stephen's thoughts were interrupted by the noticeable impatient, cold steel of Antonio's beady eyes targeting on him like a lazer. The glare made Navarro even more uncomfortable in the chill of the night.
Urazzi broke the beam shortly, "Quando verra il dottore?"
"Presto." Macelli shot back rudely at the Italian monsignor.
Navarro stood in the shelter of the hangar, dressed in priestly black, a coat thrown over his shoulders, while beside him Urazzi fidgeted unmercifully.
Fr. Urazzi whined on, "Non mi sento bene."
Macelli just huffed insolently at Urazzi's complaints that he didn't feel well. Typical reactions from both of these two sorry men. Stephen tried to block out the sight and sound of Macelli and Urazzi quibbling by diverting his attention to others in the vicinity. Besides the security personnel, there was the representative from the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Health who had to clear all the coffins before release. Ever since this shadowy figure had debarked from the last plane, he had been standing off to one side by himself watching the slow proceedings as the coffins were unloaded. Navarro noted that his presence so dominated the hangar that he seemed to be its focal point.
Was it, Stephen wondered, the man's very silence that bespoke an inner strength of character, a wisdom lacking among the others, that made one notice him? Navarro wasn't sure. But he found himself at once fascinated by the man and it served as a welcome alternative from the coldness of his counterparts.
Yet, there was a down-side that Stephen couldn't put his finger on. It was as if the man in the shadows could read Navarro's thoughts. Did he know where Stephen had gone to make a strategic call just a few minutes ago? Was this dark figure in the shadows or anyone else aware of Cardinal Zachmann's call to him in his quarters before they left for the airport? Throughout the journey to Fiumicino sadness and acceptance tried to smother the natural reactions - feelings - of anger and revenge that welled up within Stephen's mind and heart. Anger still dwelled, but he had harnessed it exteriorily. His cool, calm manner belied the turmoil within. This was not paranoia. That he was convinced.
Within a few minutes the head of the security force approached. Macelli stepped toward him and the man continued right past the spurned prelate to the man in the shadows.
"Dr. Ogidi? Dr. Makuta Ogidi?" the uniformed head of security questioned the man in the shadows.
"You are completely finished?" The tall doctor queried authoritatively. "We will need the signatures of the Vaticanista representatives, no?"
"Yes, most assuredly, Doctor." the head of security responded.
It was in that moment - consuming mere seconds only - that Ogidi's full attention was directed toward Stephen. His gaze was equally steady, seeming to probe into Monsignor Navarro's heart and mind. It was a powerful sensation that left Stephen quite weak, and wondering what had just happened. He was drawn toward Ogidi as his frame moved hypnotically towards the Doctor. This unusual altered state was interrupted, this time thankfully, by Urazzi's raspy voice.
"Subito," Urazzi shrieked right behind Stephen as he picked up his pace to beat the American to sign the documents. "The coffins can finally be released," said the Italian priest with impatient boredom leaking from his vocal chords, while quickening his step to catch up.
"Yes. Finally." Stephen said as patiently as possible.
"God, I feel we being here for years," Urazzi complained in broken English.
As they approached Ogidi, Navarro solemnly rebuked Urazzi, "I doubt that the people who died in Iraq have that same complaint, Father. After all, they've already gone to their eternal reward. Can we not afford a few minutes of our time to bid them farewell?"
Urazzi's expression clearly told Stephen that he preferred to take a slightly less pious route, but the two men merely looked away from each other as they stopped in front of the imposing representative for the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Health (IOWMH).
Did it seem a coincidence or did the wind whip up fiercer when he shook hands with Ogidi? Stephen rationalized it could be attributed to the steady, swirling breeze coming off the Tyrrhenian Sea just five miles away. The Doctor led the two men to the area where the trucks waited on the tarmac near the hangar, diesels chugging as if gnawing at the bit, so to speak, to be rid of Fiumicino and on to the Vatican. As they approached the area, the exhaust fumes enveloped Stephen. Makuta Ogidi followed in step behind, silent as ever. Navarro felt his heart quicken at the sight which awaited him. There, in the hold of the trucks were stacked wooden coffins neatly lined up and fastened in place. The workers had done their job well in getting them off the planes and onto the trucks.
All the coffins were of cheap pine, no polish, no brass or any decorations to alleviate the solemnity of the plain box of death. Stephen tried to think of them as simple and humble. But he felt cheated in his sorrow. To have died in such a manner, for an unknown cause, seemed to him a reason to merit a return in a much more remarkable manner.
"You will please inspect, and assure yourselves that all is in order, reverend fathers" said the head of security to the two priests. "Once you have accomplished this, you will sign the papers Dr. Ogidi has prepared. Is this clear?"
"Yes, thank you," answered Stephen after Urazzi fumbled an answer, looking dumbfounded by the sight of the coffins and the overwhelming red-tape. Definitely not a man of caliber who could look forward to a promotion within the Holy See, Navarro had noted several times.
Stephen stepped forward and walked toward the trucks, touching one coffin in each of the four trucks rumbling in neutral. Gently he touched each opening, marking the sign of the cross over the stack of coffins. Which one was the Holy Father's he did not know for there were no visible markings on any from his vantage point, but he had been assured the Pope's remains were on one of those trucks and would be separated from the rest once it arrived at Vatican City.
As protocol called for, once Stephen had finished inspecting, mostly blessing the coffins, he called for Urazzi to proceed with the same gesture, but Roberto only frowned, moved forward quickly and, in one sweeping, rather sloppy sign of the cross, blessed all four trucks at once from a distance. He could not bring himself to touch those hideous pine boxes. That was evident in his expression as he huffed off, mumbling to himself, "We have come all this way for just this. I do not understand."
Stephen knew, as Macelli swept by him toward the waiting courier limo, that this night had finally been complete. The coffins would not be unloaded until tomorrow morning with the trucks carefully guarded behind St. Peter's by a special contingent of gendarmes and Swiss Guard. Relief soared through his tired, chilled bones and the warmth of the interior of the extended Mercedes Benz was a welcome respite as was the ride back to the Vatican in hushed tones. Yes, Macelli was watching Stephen, but little did the plump prelate know Stephen was making a point to tail Macelli's moves as well. Such are the tactics one must employ when confronting the enemy of Christ. As the limo motored back towards the Holy See, Urazzi slept unabashedly. Meanwhile, as Macelli fidgeted impatiently plotting interiorily, Stephen prayed silently for strength.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 3, 3:45 A.M.
Ornate golden candle holders had been put in place beneath the great cupola in St. Peter's Basilica. Though the coffins were missing, the stanchion for the Pope's bier, replete with white velvet and adorned with the papal seal, was set in place along with markers for numerous other caskets which would take their place in this magnificent house of God later this morning in hierarchical order.
Behind the main altar, beyond the massive stained glass window of the dove image of the Holy Spirit, stood silently the four trucks along the roadway. Standing sentinel by each cab a Swiss Guard, at the back of each truck two gendarmes. No one was going to wrest the dead from their resting place in the darkness of the night.
Two brass priedieus were placed strategically at the top of the base of St. Peter's Crypt facing where the Pope's coffin would be placed, facing away from the main altar above. Beginning at noon they would serve as twin kneelers for two cardinals every half-hour, along with two Swiss Guards standing at their sides. All the College of Cardinals would take their turns praying before the caskets as was the Catholic custom. Within hours most of the princes of the Church would have arrived from all parts of the world in preparation for both the funeral and the Sacred Conclave to elect a successor.
There, in the shadows over to the side away from the main altar with the priedieus fronting it were two figures lurking in the flickering darkness. Cardinals Vendhem and Macelli were inspecting, scoping out the arena before moving swiftly out of the empty church and through a deserted dim marbled side corridor toward their quarters. As they walked they talked in just above a whisper.
Vendhem moved with a brusque manner to his gait as he complained, "I long for the opportunity to shed this wretched clerical garb...to wear the royal robes of -"
"I am not surprised," Macelli interrupted him, "you do not wear it with the aplomb of a cardinal of the Church. You must learn to deceive. Do not betray your aversion to anyone, less -"
"Do not lecture me, Antonio. You, are you sure everything was secure this evening?"
"Si, Josef, you need not worry. No one was the wiser. Navarro may suspect me, but he has no idea of the package. That I assure you."
"Ja, but will your Urazzi muck up the works, my dear brother of the Basilisk?"
"Roberto knows even less than Navarro, Josef. You must realize that by now. I remind you that it is I who have taken every precaution, can you say the same?"
"You need not preach to me, Frer Macelli. I have kept my secret...the Legion's mission, well hidden and speaking of the Legion, what news have you heard?"
Unbeknownst to the two animated shadows, another shadow had crept into their midst, hiding unseen behind a pillar off a corridor alcove. Monsignor Stephen Navarro's heart skipped several beats as he strained his ears to hear every word, his pulse becoming more rapid. He was afraid it might give away his presence. But the senses of Macelli and Vendhem this night were more intent on pride and other vices, revealing, as Fasif had reasoned, the Achilles heel of the Legion, the one crack in an otherwise seamless wall that would allow the Resistance to penetrate the flanks. This night was no exception.
"I have good news from both Tel Aviv and Kuwait," Macelli boasted.
"Ah, then the Shiites who have joined ranks with us. They have succeeded?" was Vendhem's query.
"Yes. Colonel Hudec saw to it in Kuwait and the Master assigned someone special in Tel Aviv. Our chief enemies have been eliminated. There is nothing to fear now, Josef."
"Then Phase Two has begun without obstacles? Good. The Master will be pleased. The details, Antonio?"
Snidely Macelli countered, "I'm sure you know already...being so in touch with the Basilisk as you are."
Vendhem's tone turned sinister. "Enough, Lord Macelli. To the business at hand. You're handling Navarro?"
"Yes. He does what he's told." The Italian curled his lip into a sly smile, "I'm a stern taskmaster."
"So you've told me and others. But he outwardly disagrees with you. He could be trouble."
"Leave that to me, Vendhem. When it is time to dispose of the nuisance it shall be done."
Those words sent a chill up Stephen's spine as he strained to hear everything from his perilous refuge just a stones-throw away.
Vendhem emitted a cruel, twisted laugh. "Naturally. Why should we be concerned with such a small, insignificant foe. Our main agitators have been eliminated. All that remains is the glory."
"It's been a long night, Josef." I must retire for now. Will you give my regrets to our fellow colleagues of the cloth who will be gathered for Matins?" The words oozed like slime from Macelli's lips.
"By the Basilisk, never! Not I, Antonio. Rather I will see to the delivery of the menu. The wine and cheese will be in place in due time."
"Then I vow we have a drink to celebrate, Vendhem. A good stiff one in my quarters. And then, maybe..."
His furtive glance told volumes. The sodomy tendencies of this bloated Italian served the perverted feminine side of Vendhem's lust and it was so obvious and nauseating to Stephen's ears and stomach. What other blasphemies had visited these hallowed halls and chambers within the Vatican? Stephen chose to concentrate on other things, like staying undetected as the two, arm in arm ambled off toward Macelli's room for a devilish good time that only the Basilisk could celebrate, while Monsignor Navarro stood shuddering in the shadows with disgust for such sins that brought down Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously man had not learned from history, and destined to repeat the errors, was now flaunting it in the Almighty's face.
Dateline: Rome - Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos, Sei Albergo - November 3, 3:50 A.M.
Niki's cab dropped him on the corner. He preferred to walk the distance to Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos, Sei Albergo. He wanted to check out the neighborhood, see what escape routes might be available if one was needed. He wanted to see just what kind of place this Dr. Makuta Ogidi had acquired.
It was a street slumbering through the quiet side of the early morn; a normally busy street where numerous shops, now shuttered, lined the sidewalk and the shopkeepers had residences above their stores. With the fullness of sunrise, activity would flourish here, Niki thought as he moved along the ancient pavement. An area of anonymity. Niki hoped he could stay low until he tracked down Gallagher. Pat had to know what happened to Fasif and Elias. His very life depended on it. But how would Niki reach him?
Niki's uneasiness increased as he came to the address Makuta had given him only a few hours earlier. Why had the Doctor helped him? Who knew what the man intended? It puzzled Father Andriopoulos as he entered a tattered lobby. It was empty. How could a man of such importance live in a squalid place like this? He climbed a short flight of stairs and turned to his left down a narrow hallway. Number Six was on the far end, a corner room. He took the key from his pocket and opened the door with barely a click. It swung open on well-oiled hinges.
The apartment was a small affair, comprised of a main sitting room which Ogidi must have used for sleeping purposes since the sofa was strewn with blanket and a pillow. Niki went immediately to the window and pulled down the shade, cutting off the view which looked out over the heart of Rome. No sense giving the Legion a chance to find him...that is, if they didn't already know he was here.
Quickly he checked out the rest of the apartment. There was a tiny bathroom that one could barely fit into, but at least it had modern-looking plumbing. He was thankful for that and the opportunity to freshen up. The other room, when he switched on the overhead light, was a bedroom. There was no sign of it having been used. The bed was stripped bare and looked uncomfortable and unwelcome in the ghostly glare from the bare bulb which cast eerie shadows over much of the room. The closet door stood open at an awkward angle and Niki walked cautiously across the bare wood floor to close the door, conscious of any sound he might make. He glanced quickly into the closet, but found only several coats, similar to the one he had seen Ogidi wearing tonight, stretched out on hangers. Nothing else. Not even a spare pair of shoes.
Niki could not comment on the lack of belongings. He had none himself. Only the clothes on his back, which were grimy and in places tattered after what he had put them through in escaping Basra. He gave a silent sigh - a prayer to God - grateful for what he had. His life.
There was no phone. No way for now to contact Pat at the Esperia, or Karel at her place. How would he analyze the piece of plastic he had peeled off the side of the coffin while inside on the flight to Rome?
That was a puzzle that bewildered him as somnia set in and he retreated to the outer room after dousing the light, taking up his position on the couch. From there he could see anyone entering the front door before the person actually saw him. And he could also have access to the window, where a ledge served as an emergency escape route to the fire escape if needed.
Tired to the marrow of his bones, Niki Andriopoulos prayed in the dark, waiting for Ogidi to return to his own apartment and explain a few things to a questioning Greek. He had no idea as he waited just what would occur when Ogidi got back, but somehow Niki couldn't clear from his mind that Makuta seemed possessed of that same type of power which had characterized Fasif...a calm sureness that what he was doing was going to be victorious in the end. A certainty of spirit that refused to face the odds and give up. He liked that. Liked the fact that perhaps with Fasif's own death, God had sent another into their midst who would be a beacon light to their flagging spirits when the going got rough. It was rough enough right now, thought Niki. Yet, how much more turbulent things would get Niki wasn't sure, just that he knew they would. He just wanted to make certain that when they did he had a firm anchor in his own faith and belief in God, and that the rest of the Resistance to the Basiliskos was firmly entrenched as well.
He felt again the lining of his pocket, felt the rolled plastic and beneath it, the six-sided pin he had uncovered on the Field of Death as well as the charred cross wrapped in linen which he had taken from the room where Elias had died. Why had he taken it? He hadn't given it a thought. Perhaps because it was a sacramental. Perhaps in memory of Elias and Fasif. On the other side of his lined vest jacket, also secretly hidden, were the miniature vessels he used to say Holy Mass. He appreciated his ability to adapt to the situation and thought of the Apostles and of men like St. Francis and the holy missionaries who owned nothing and yet gained everything. A good missionary, he thought of himself. If not a good mercenary. But on this latter score he was learning...fast.
He leaned back, resting his head against the sofa and listened to the silence that poured in around him, washed over him and lulled him into sleep. Niki's exhaustion had caught up to him. Fight though he might to overcome the drowsiness, he surrendered unconsciously into a deep sleep that brought no dreams, no memories of this horrendous, long and forgetful day. In his prayers he had sought the Almighty to shorten the days of the enemy's wrath. As the sun prepared to make its appearance in the east, the shadows slinked into stillness as well.
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