Episode Two: Transparent Caissons
The early morning hours of November 3rd were a solemn time for the Vatican. A private matter, well-guarded from the general public. The entire Papal household had been alerted and after Lauds, the majority were on hand, cleaning and performing various sacristan duties as the coffins began to be escorted in the side door. Slowly each was extracted from the trucks, emptying the venerated cargo from the bowels of the ten-wheelers. By noon St. Peter's would be open for public mourning which would go on for the next two days - from noon to 8 p.m. and then from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the following day. Normally the Roman Pontiff's body would lie in state for three days, symbolic of the three days in the tomb Christ spent, but things were not normal and thus, possibly through Macelli and Vendhem's machinations, the funeral had been moved up a day.
* * * * * * *
Dateline: Rome - St. Peter's Basilica - November 3, 7:15 A.M.
Already thousands of mourners had gathered in St. Peter's Square as the winter winds swirled in, bringing with it a cold rain that chilled the brave souls standing outside. Most tried to take cover under the Bernini Columns encircling the Square. Soon there was not even room for that. This prompted a decision by one of the higher-ups to open Paul VI Hall immediately to accommodate the mourners and protect them from the elements. It was unprecedented, but these were unprecedented times.
As grateful, but soaked and chilled mourners filed into the cavernous hall, Sister Bridie was busy polishing off candlesticks, carrying linens and palls into St. Peter's where scores of others were engaged in similar sacristan duties. Lauds had been completed, now the task at hand took precedence as workers prepared for the official viewing by the public.
Though sadness permeated the great basilica, Sister Bridget McCullough harkened back to what she had always been taught: The Church does not mourn death. Yet, even Sr. Bridie's superior Mother Agnes de Christi looked upon the row of coffins and seemed to age before the junior nun's eyes. The Church rejoices, the Irish nun told herself, trying to be brave for her fellow sisters, especially Mother Superior. Death was but a beginning of eternity. A foreverness without pain or fear. Only the love of God awaited if one loved God when alive. Oh, there might be a delay - from a day to several hundred years, quite possibly, Sister pondered in remembering the Church's teaching on Purgatory - a stopping-off point, so to speak, a way-station before being admitted into the celestial kingdom.
Why then was there such a pall in the church this morning, a grief so thick it was almost suffocating?
Sister Bridie had no answers on this bleak morning. She tried to encourage and be enthusiastic, but under the circumstances even the usual spark she exhibited seemed out of place today. She silently prayed for each person as they were brought in contained in their inconspicuous pine boxes. All was sealed. No coffins would be open, even the Pope's.
As each coffin was brought in and placed on its marker, a cadre of sacristans soon covered it with an appropriate bier cloth suitable to the office of the deceased. Cardinals who had accompanied the Pope at the Field of Abraham were placed to either side of the Holy Father's. Scarlet shrouds covered those coffins, lined up in their order of seniority rather than rank or Curial office. The biers of Bishops spanned out in a semi-circle flanking the Pope and the Princes of the Church. Whether archbishop or bishop, each was covered with a magenta shroud. Two priests followed each coffin, setting a placard with the respectful name of the cleric on the edge of the coffin, flanked by three floor-length candlesticks on each side of every coffin. The remains of priests fanned out behind the bishops' coffins and past them came the nuns, only a few, and several lay persons employed by the Vatican. The coffins of twelve Swiss Guards were given a special place on the outer edge in a semi-circle that encompassed all the other coffins. Even in death they would stand sentinel over the Pope and others in the hierarchy.
A hush filled this massive basilica as word spread like dominoes that they were bringing the Pope's coffin in. All stood respectfully in place as twelve Swiss Guard proceeded the cortege, followed by a monsignor with the censer incensing the air. Eight Swiss Guards carried the coffin, a unique molded brass one specially prepared for the Pope. The pine box had been inserted inside the larger, more ornate casket. Behind a bishop in a black cope with matching humeral veil held aloft the Monstrance exposing the Blessed Sacrament. His hands wrapped in the veil so that only cloth touched the sacred vessel that held the true presence of Christ. The procession moved slowly as the choir followed behind, chanting in low tones the Dies Irae as if in dress rehearsal for the funeral in two days. As the somber cavalcade came into view, all knelt blessing themselves and bowing as the Blessed Sacrament passed them. Tears and sniffles could be heard from not only the nuns, but several men as well. It was a solemn, somber moment.
Sister Bridie helped Mother Agnes back to her feet, the arthritis shooting up to her hip. The younger nun braced the elder's frail frame on her shoulder and eased her to a chair. "You be mindin' the good Lord and pray seated, please, Mother Agnes. Please?"
The Mother Superior raised the surrender flag with an exhausted nod. No longer could she keep up with the others. Quite possibly she had become more of a burden than a help to the younger sisters, but they showed the utmost respect and no one was more helpful, more understanding than Sister Bridget.
The funeral train had reached the center before the altar as the uniformed pall bearers lifted and slid the heavy casket into place on the prepared stanchion. The Pope's crest was very visible on top as a contingent carried a white velvet shroud to cover the casket. It, too, bore the papal seal. Gently it was laid over the casket and all knelt and prayed as the monsignor incensed the casket walking completely around it. All that could be heard in this huge chamber was the clinking sound of the chain hitting the gold-plated censer. After five minutes the lead cantor intoned the Litany of Saints. The words Exurge Domine, adjuva nos filled the basilica, bouncing off the accoustical panels which were so expertly positioned and camouflaged that they were not noticeable to the human eye. They that had been first put in place during the pontificate of Pius XI.
Another priest was just finishing the Litany, Et fidelium animae per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace. Amen. Then silence again as the monsignor placed two heaping spoons of incense into the censor which a deacon held, then handed it to the monsignor to incense the casket again. Then the choir began singing the Asperges Me. The procession slowly began to wind its way toward the back chapel. Leaving the Swiss Guards behind, the six altar boys led the bearer of the sacred monstrance as the monsignor, aided by a deacon, walked backward incensing the Blessed Sacrament with the choir following behind as they made their way to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the rear side of St. Peter's. It was in this magnificent side chapel, the size of a small church itself, where the monstrance would be once again placed on the immaculate three tiers of white linen that covered the massive marble altar. To each side of the impressive, imposing gold tabernacle stood two ornate candelabras. To the side of the altar a sacristan waited for the procession to enter the chapel before lighting the candles. Many of the faithful waited in the chapel on their knees in anticipation of the Blessed Sacrament returning to this hallowed place of perpetual adoration.
Even for Sister Bridie, the marble floor felt colder this morning, harder on the knees. She could appreciate how it affected Mother Superior. Just as the younger nun was about to utter a silent complaint, she thought of her dear Lord traipsing up Calvary barefoot, falling on the hard, jagged rocks, the sweat and blood beading with dirt and grime. His throat parched by the dust, His shoulder aching from the heavy weight of the crude wooden tree he carried. If He could do that, 'Surely then, Sister Bridget Mary McCullough, you be kneelin' and not be a complainin' now,' she told herself.
She could not see it, no one could. Only the angels and saints could see the graces pouring into the soul of their protegé - a simple, holy nun who felt no more important than any of the others in this basilica as she resumed her work ever more reverently.
Dateline: Rome - Sei Albergo - November 3, 8:00 A.M.
So deep was Niki's sleep that he didn't know if Ogidi had returned to the apartment. Nothing disturbed his rest. No sound of an opening door, or footsteps tip-toeing across the floor aroused him, no voice calling him from his oblivion. Just his body clock. Four hours was the norm for Niki. Like clockwork
With a sudden awareness the Greek priest's eyes flew open. He looked hurriedly, but blurringly at his watch. He was off the couch and looking around the small apartment for Ogidi or any sign he had been there.
On the small table, which stood against the far wall, Niki noticed a paper bag which he hadn't seen earlier when he entered. How did he miss it? He had no doubt Makuta had been there. Why hadn't Ogidi awakened him? He berated himself silently for sleeping so soundly that he had missed the man. Anyway, the good doctor had the forethought to provide some sustenance for his Greek guest.
From the bag Andriopoulos pulled out a loaf of fresh bread and a slab of cheese, and hungrily tore off a piece of the bread as his eyes searched for a knife to slice the cheddar. God, he was famished. Makuta had been wise to bring this. Why hadn't he stayed?
In his search for a utensil to part the cheese he spied a note neatly penned near the bag. The script was like fine lace, a style of penmanship Niki hadn't seen in many years and certainly the last type of calligraphy one would ever expect from a medical man's pen.
Yet Ogidi's note was clear and precise. He wished his Greek friend to refresh himself and rest. He would return to the room after he had completed another task assigned to him by his International Organization. He would be back by early afternoon.
Niki was thankful he would have more time to make his own plans and see to his own preparations.
He didn't know where the feeling came from or why, but he was seized by a powerful sense of relief...a reprieve, as it were, from the inevitable meeting between him and Dr. Makuta Ogidi.
Perhaps, Niki told himself as he broke off another piece of bread and cheese and began to pat his pockets, he would feel more comfortable after he tended to what he needed to do. Maybe he had to make certain just where things stood here in Rome before he too eagerly accepted Makuta's observations, opinions and, perhaps, even his aid.
Andriopoulos began to move quickly. There in the bathroom was an extra toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor. His opinion of Makuta skyrocketed immeasurably as he pulled off his tattered clothes and turned on the nozzle to the shower. Ten minutes later he was a new man. Breaking off a last piece of cheese, he stuffed it into his pocket, and headed out the door, relocking it behind him as he stuck the key into his shirt.
Activity on the Via de S. Basileos was in full swing as Niki ducked under a welcome awning, the rain pelting the canvas above. Despite the weather he couldn't stay there all day. Taking a cardboard box from near a stack of produce, he covered his head and scurried to the corner, turned left and headed up Via L. Bissolati, keeping an eye open for a clothing shop.
He spotted a small thrift shop half way up the street. Within minutes he had found some non-descript, plain and rugged clothing that would allow him a chance to better blend in. He emerged in dark trousers, a very faded sports shirt over which he had placed a navy blue sweater, and, of course, his own jacket, the pockets still containing his treasures. He had exchanged his worn shoes for a pair of sturdy walking shoes with rubber soles.
It was still early in the day. Makuta wouldn't be around until mid-afternoon, Niki calculated. He would take the opportunity to do some investigating. His whole priesthood had been an active, underground ministry. The catacomb Church necessitated it. It was a constant test in learning how to think on his feet with Fasif guiding him, calling the plays. All those years had given Niki assurance, confidence. It had kept him lithe and sinewy in build, a man seasoned to rough times, bad weather, scant food and abundant faith. All this he needed now...and more!
"Gallagher," he whispered as he hailed a taxi, "I'll find you tonight, my friend. When we meet again we're going to perform miracles. With God all things are possible."
Dateline: Rome - St. Peter's Square - November 3, 8:30 A.M.
The modern, spacious auditorium of Paul VI Hall was practically filled to capacity. Someone had begun a series of Ave's and soon all were praying the Rosary in Latin. It was truly a sight to behold. Faith builds character and character depends on God's graces and providence. This morning He was smiling on His little ones enveloped in a reverent rote of Ave Maria's interrupted every ten by a Gloria Patri and Pater Noster.
The wave of Ave's had not yet penetrated the exterior, or into the circular Square that was blanketed with umbrellas and wet pavement.
Pat was prepared. A wide umbrella kept him dry as he walked gingerly under the Bernini Colonade towards the Bronze Doors. He had placed the medical pin on his sportcoat and the Rosary was very visible in his right hand, as instructed. Several young ladies passed by him. He smiled, some smiled back but moved on. No recognition yet. The sea of mourners had moved closer to the western side of the square away from him and he was grateful for that as he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"You've come. I'm glad" It was Karel Shenneker.
He turned to see a beautiful young woman, partially hidden beneath a large rainhood, on her coat the identical pin. Awkwardly he blurted, "You are Karel?"
She laughed with a lilt that reminded him of Corrie. "The rain was not expected."
"You got that right," Pat nodded, "It's no picnic."
"Such phraseology, you Americans." Karel's tone turned serious. "Listen my friend of Fasif, I'll leave here first. Do not follow. Remain in the square for awhile."
"Take a taxi in exactly one hour to this location." She slipped him a piece of paper, smiled and soon exited behind a column and seemingly dissolved into the crowd.
Pat stood like a flummoxed Yank as more mourners filed past him.
Dateline: Rome - Near Citta Universitaria - November 3, 8:55 A.M.
Niki's cab dropped him at the corner of Viale dell'Universita and Viale di Scienze. Students were scurrying past on bikes, on foot, even a few skateboards here and there. With his rugged look he fit right into the college atmosphere. Across from him was the impressive Citta Universitaria. To his right was the Ministereo Difesa Aeronautica. Perfect, he thought as he mounted the flight of marble steps to the entrance of the aeronautics building and moved quickly to the front desk. A bespectacled woman looked up, methodically suspicious of Niki's presence.
"Scusi," Niki's brown pupils searched his eyelids for the perfect words. "Vorrei parlare a Lorenzo Stravianzzi? Ahh, Puo dirmi? Ah, plastica, di che cos e?" He was stumbling with his Italian he knew.
"No, scusi," Niki apologized as he strugged on, "La Grecia" Parla grecia?" He hoped they could converse in his native tongue if not Italian, but it didn't look good.
"No, mi dispiace." A pause and then she asked, "hmmm, capisce...parla inglese?"
"Bene, what may I do?"
Niki decided to cut to the chase and just ask for his old friend. "Is Lorenzo Stravianzzi in?"
She told Niki, "momento. wait over there, per favore."
Niki complied, thanking her as he backed away and over to a reception area to wait. Niki had not seen Stravianzzi in five years. Old seminary buddies. Lorenzo left after the second year of theology. He was a scientist at heart and had followed his ambitions in technology and research. For seven years he had worked for the Ministry of Defense, specializing in aeronautics. Niki wanted Lorenzo to examine the plastic material he had peeled off the side of the coffin during his claustrophobic journey to Rome. Something didn't add up.
A few minutes and the soprano voice of Lorenzo could be heard humming a cantata as he sauntered down the hallway toward Niki. Lorenzo could never sneak up on anyone, Niki chuckled as he warmly embraced his former classmate.
"Nikolas, you are a sight, a beooootiful sight - multa bene por l'occhio!"
"And you, Lorenzo, a few pounds you have added, no?"
"Ah, si, the good life, Nikolas. I must admit a priest I would never have made," said Lorenzo with a wide smile on his face. "Fasting and Lorenzo do not mix. You see?" He broke into a wider grin.
It was infectious as Niki's eyes danced with delight at his friend. God knew what was best for Lorenzo. A brilliant mind, but analytical, not aptly suited for theology or philosophy for that matter. A contemplative Stravianzzi was not.
"What brings you here, my friend?"
His question brought Niki back to the matter at hand as he retrieved a small strip of plastic he had rolled up. "This, Lorenzo, can you analyze it for me?"
"Hmm, it looks familiar. How long do you have?"
"Not much, it's vital I know as soon as possible. Sorry to inconvenience you and-"
"Think nothing of it, Nikolas. If it is this small piece of plastic that brings us together, then I accept that. Oh, it is so good to see you again. Say, 11:30? That's two hours or so. I need that time. I'll meet you here and we have lunch?
"Sounds wonderful. On one condition, Lorenzo."
"I buy the lunch."
"Fine, and I'll buy the vino." Lorenzo chuckled as he embraced Niki's shoulder with his right arm, giving it a good squeeze. "I will see you in two hours then. In sequito fino, arrivederci."
With that he scooped up the plastic roll carefully and picked up in perfect melody where he left when he spied Niki. That was Lorenzo. Niki looked at his watch. Two hours he could relax and walk about in the soothing rain in the park across the street, get in his daily prayers and a Rosary or two. Perfect. Something going smoothly wasn't what he had been accustomed to over the past twelve hours.
* * * * * * *
Dateline: Rome - Piza San Croce in Gerusalemme - November 3, 9:35 A.M.
Five miles or so south of Niki the taxi conveying Pat to his next rendezvous turned onto Vialle Carlo Felice and he could see the church ahead. A baroque building with a high steeple on the right. It was the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem where the relic of the True Cross, retrieved by Saint Helena early in the fourth century, was venerated. As the cab swung to the right off the road and to the wide but narrow plaza in front of the church, he grabbed his umbrella, paid his fare and exited the taxi.
The rain had subsided considerably and Pat discarded any idea of opening his umbrella. Just a short ways to go and he'd be inside. He crossed the cobblestones and up the series of steps unaware of a figure watching him from the shadows across the street.
Opaque light drifted through the high windows of the dimly lit nave and apse as Gallagher blessed himself at the large marble holy water font and moved up the side aisle toward a confessional where he was instructed to meet Karel again. Cloak-and-dagger. That's what this was, thought Pat. It all seemed so surreal. What was it? God getting even for all those years he had turned away from Him and His Church? Well, he was back now, but was it too late? First the Pope, now Fasif and Elias. What about Niki? Had he been there? Just who was that person who called? Pat pondered as he neared the confessional.
Pulling the curtain behind to conceal him in this small, dark space, he knelt down, the squeak amplified in the echoes bouncing off these ancient walls. How would or could he tell Karel about her uncle?
The wooden screen separating the booth slid back and he could see a hooded figure.
"Now we can speak. I am Karel. I come from Shenneker."
"Yeah, I know. Pleased to meet 'ya. I'm Pat. Pat Gallagher."
"Good. Then we have no secrets between us," Karel exhaled as she removed her hood revealing a chestnut mane of dark hair that cascaded over her shoulders. In the light he couldn't tell if it was totally black or dark brown. Definitely not blonde.
Innocence personified thought Pat as he tried to summon up the courage to tell her the bad news.
"In that case, there's something I gotta tell yo---"
Karel interrupted immediately, her eyes rolled to the side as if hearing an interloper. "Shhhh."
They both froze as a worshipper outside the enclosed cubicles walked dangerously close to where they were. Once the person continued, Karel changed the tone.
"We must not tarry," the young Shenneker cautioned. "First, I give you my news. Then you will have knowledge in the event we must go separate ways."
"I'm listening," Pat was resigned to wait for the opportune time to break it to her gently.
"I talked with a man, a street beggar, the day after the massacre." Karel continued, "He told me of a clandestine meeting of four who we suspect are a key cell of the Legion. We must find this place, try to search for clues."
Karel nodded, "I've scheduled a meeting with Tenazi the beggar tonight at 8. I will be able to get a clearer descriptions of these members for Tenazi saw the eyes of one of the men. It scared the wits out of the old vagrant. He said the man's eyes glowed with an inner fire - red - the fire of evil."
"Sounds like the Basilisk to me," Pat affirmed. "But, I've got to tell-"
Again disturbance outside their confines prevented him from telling her. This time they would not go quietly. It was a busload of tourists. They can be the noisiest.
Whispering, Karel warned, "We must be careful. The Legion can infiltrate any group."
"If we can't stay here, Karel, where can we meet?"
"The Zona Via Dulce, a small marketplace near the Pantheon. We'll meet in one hour. That will give you time to get there and blend in. We'll meet near the fruit."
How ironic thought Pat, he would have to tell her then. He would have to bruise the fruit, so to speak, with the worm of reality. God he hated being the bearer of bad news. "I'll be there," is all he could manage.
Dateline: Rome - Near the Via Dulce Market - November 3, 10:40 A.M.
Roman taxis. Ah, thought Pat, they outta be outlawed he grimaced as the cabbie was truly lost. It was amazing how they found their way as soon as the passenger produced more money. Amazing. That is what Pat had to resort to. Ah, zona dei negozi! exclaimed the driver as if he just had an epiphany.
"Near the Pantheon," Pat reminded him again.
Si, Pantheon. Prego.
In no time he had deposited the American reporter in the midst of a crowd of shoppers. No tip for this driver. Just my luck, thought Pat, that I'd get him again!
As the taxi lit out before the door was even closed, Pat started to make a typical Italian gesture with his one hand on his elbow but saw the worthlessness in such behavior and stopped himself in time, just waving his hand in disgust instead as he started surveying the area looking for Karel.
He found her, or rather she found him right where she said near the fruit stand.
"You're late." She was reprimanding him, this lass possibly twenty-years younger than him.
"Yeah, well, you know this city. Me, I'm just a damn tourist!"
With a lilt to her voice she shot back, "I didn't see you staying behind with that busload of them at the church."
It broke the ice and prompted a chuckle from Pat. "Hey, I apologize, I'm new to this game, Karel."
"And, believe it or not, Patrick, I am too. In fact, I'm very worried."
"No kiddin'," he kibitzed, but Karel was dead serious now.
"Just minutes ago I tried to call Shenneker. There was no answer. When I checked with the operator she said it had been disconnected. I also tried Fasif. The same results."
No time like the present to break the news Pat decided as he swallowed hard and tried to be tenderly in tone. "Karel, I know this may sound cold, coming from a stranger and all, but--"
"What are you trying to say?" Her face showed she expected the worst.
"I'm afraid it's bad. Mighty bad. Fasif was murdered last night. I'm sor--"
Karel buried her head in his chest sobbing, the realization of her worst fears evident. He clutched her, trying to console her while his thoughts raced to Corrie. "There, there, it'll be okay." How stupid that must sound, Pat thought as he heard himself parroting those same words everyone always says when they don't know what else to say in consolation.
He handed her a handkerchief. Thank God he hadn't used it. At times like this crazy thoughts and concerns fly into the conscious, invaded by the subconscious. "Here, wipe the tears."
"Thanks," she managed. Soon she had regained her composure. Still sniffing, she asked hoping against hope that he was wrong, "Are you sure? You have proof?"
"Uh, no, of course not. I got a call in the middle of the night about Fasif and Elias."
"Elias, too? From who? Who called you?" Now she was demanding.
"I don't know, Karel. But he knew about you. He called to warn us. I'm concerned about Niki, whether--"
Now my concerns for my mother grow stronger. If they could reach my uncle, then--"
It was Pat's turn to interrupt, trying hard to ease her worries. "I'm sure she's gone into hiding, Karel."
"Oh, I hope to God you are right, Mr. Gallagher. We must pray."
"Yeah, and watch our own tails."
He noticed a string of garlic cloves hanging a few feet away and lifted them off the hook. "They say wearin' garlic can be good luck."
Trying to be brave, Karel retorted, "And leave a scent the Legion can easily follow? No!"
"Ya got a point there."
"It's vital, Pat, that all of us be very cautious."
"I hear ya there. So what's the battle plan?"
"Now we must search for that basement corridor for clues."
"I'm ready when you are."
"Definitely," she replied, trying to keep a stiff upper lip. "Time is of the essence and we have no other solid lead as yet on their location."
"Then let's get it done." Nothing like the direct, rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread approach.
"Don't be too hasty, my rash American friend. Now is not the time. Better to carry out our plans under cover of darkness."
"Ah, in other words, take a few tricks out of the Legion's book."
"Exactly. For now, go back to your hotel. Rest and pray. Do not contact anyone."
"No one?" Pat's face showed disappointment but resignation to do as she asked.
"No one," she insisted. "Tonight at 9 we will meet at the Via Magdalena, next to the cobbler's shop. Study the area maps well and wear dark clothes. There's a sign beneath a pair of wine velvet shoes on display. I will be in the alleyway about thirty to forty feet down the street. Carry your rosary, Pat, but not the pin."
"Yeah, but what's the Rosary for? I mean what good--"
"A lot of good, Patrick. It is your most powerful weapon. Never be without it."
"Boy, you sound just like Fasif and Niki."
"Indeed, I was taught well. I will make amends for Fasif's death, but it will be of no avail if we discard this link to Heaven."
"Now you sound like my grandma."
"Sound advice, Patrick, listen to her, listen to your heart. When you arrive in the alley, just whistle something, just a few notes that I'll recognize."
Almost on cue, he whistled a few notes of Take me out to the ballgame. "It's the only tune I know," he replied sheepishly.
"I recognize it. "Take me to the game?"
"Close," patronized Pat, "Just be careful, Karel. Three strikes an' yer out at the ol' bawwwl game!"
If one were a cherub looking down upon the city of Rome this day, one would be blinded by the Roman rays of the Mediterranean noon-day sun that briefly broke through the clouds of the morning, glancing harshly off the wet gilded rooftops, domes, and spires of the eternal city, multiplied on the chrome and glass of an endless line of vehicles scurrying around the damp serpentine streets like metallic ants racing from the exterminator. Extermination was the plot this day as one of those ant-like autos darted through the puddles in the shadows of the trees and buildings heading away from Vatican City.
Like a roach emerging from his dark space, Cardinal Antonio Macelli's plump torso was at the wheel of his small Fiat. Cleared by an acknowledged wave of a Swiss Guard, Macelli had steered out of the shadows into the glare, meshing with the hundreds of other Italian-made cars owned by the masses; all simultaneously navigating the roadways established centuries ago, yet resurfaced many times to accommodate the heavier fare that traversed these routes. The accumulation of rain was already evaporating as the sun beat brighter.
While others had hurried about to prepare for the pending funerals and attend daily services, Macelli was above that. He had long ago established his habit of absensia from the normal religious procedure at the Vatican. Busyness always takes preference over holiness was his creed. What would one expect from one whose very sanctimony was sacrilegious to the core? Whenever questioned about his lack of spirituality, the prelate of girth would remind the questioner of the fact that his awesome responsibilities as head of Internal Affairs were paramount. Few would argue further, except those who clung to orthodoxy like Father Stephen Navarro. No wonder he was such a pest to this cockroach of the cloth.
Macelli had eluded Navarro this day, taking satisfaction that his destination was safe. No one would spy on him now with so much to divert their attention. As Antonio crossed the Tiber and headed southeast, he knew little nor cared little for the seraph above. Navarro preyed on his mind. Macelli could not trust this Oblate who was so meticulous about doctrine. Last night there was an uneasiness while waiting on the tarmac. Where did Navarro go for that short time? What did he know and who was he in communication with? His hopes of Fr. Urazzi being the cardinal's eyes and ears had been a dismal failure. Failure. That was not acceptable. And that is why he was making this midday trip.
Dateline: Rome - Outskirts of Rome - November 3, 12:20 P.M.
Macelli's car snaked up a cypress-shaded driveway where behind walls stood magnificent villas. A well-to-do neighborhood to be sure, looking down with apparent disdain at peasant homes snuggled in the valley; most were empty since the inhabitants were, by and large absent, either at work or in church in silent vigil. Another vigil was taking place this day as Antonio swung onto a side road which bore an old, dilapidated sign, "Monastery of the Sacred Heart." About 1.3 kilometers he pulled the car under a canopy of weeping willows and idled. The shades of clouds once again shut out the sun and they darkened on the western slopes of the hills. Dry sunlight gave way to liquid sunshine as Macelli forced himself from the comfort of the car. Exiting, he opened an oversized black umbrella and began to pace back and forth in the grassy area just off the road, looking in no particular direction, but listening with sharp ears to every sound that came his way.
Therefore he wasn't surprised when a figure suddenly appeared from the shadows of the large acacia trees. Soon he found himself staring into the wide eyes of a woman who neither smiled nor frowned, but seemed to blend in with the gray sky.
She was the first to speak, "You're punctual, Antonio. All goes well? You weren't followed?"
These damn infernal questions, he raged inwardly. Must he take them from this upstart German, too? " I was not followed," came his terse reply. "My comings and goings are my own concern."
A small chortle escaped Elena Grabe. An unpleasant sound. He bridled at the pitch of it.
Desirous of being out of the rain and back in his office where a bottle of the finest fermented potion was hidden in his desk, he did not hide his impatience. Yes, to go with his many vices, add alcoholism to the list.
"You've brought the material?" he inquired gruffly.
"Yes," Elena replied as she reached into the pocket of her raincoat and handed the cardinal a small container, similar to a vial.
Immediately Macelli pocketed it without as much as glancing at it. Questions were beyond him this afternoon as the clouds grew darker. All this was a nuisance to Macelli. There had been as many of them in recent days as the raindrops now deluging the meadow.
"You know how to use it?" Grabe inquired.
Macelli looked at the woman. He was thankful she was his contact for only this one part of the master's plan. He didn't like her. A human piranha, to be sure. Not that she didn't get the job done. Had to give her that much credit. Yet, what was her part in the expedition of the explosion in Iraq? No matter her smugness, something had gone wrong and she had no right to not admit her part in the mix-up. However, he did not question further for he felt his own personal role in the coming of the master was much more challenging, much more covert and clandestine. It fitted his overblown image of himself, that of a disciple of the Basilisk concealed beneath the robes of the Church. A fitting parody. A reptile of rancor.
"Why don't you tell me," he finally answered, and Elena drew herself up even straighter and eyed the old priest for whom she felt nothing but contempt.
The Master said he was loyal to their cause, this Antonio Macelli who still wore the robes of a cardinal as disguise. More loyal than many of the others, Ezerbet had affirmed, since Macelli continued to pretend his role as priest while paving the way for the Basilisk - their Master. There had to be fortitude in that kind of commitment, she thought, with a tinge of fake admiration that she suppressed before it could color her perspective. Would this old man have enough energy left to perform one final task?
"The vial contains potassium cyanide. Extremely deadly," was her proud comment. "The Master is precise in the method to be used."
"Yes?" was his tight-lipped inquiry. He made no effort to conceal his contempt for her. A machine, that's what Elena was. He wondered fleetingly if she ever felt pain and reacted to it, wondered if she'd have been able to endure the abomination of being locked within a despicable place for most of your life as he had been at the Vatican. He doubted it. There was pleasure and an aura of superiority in the doubt.
"You've told us that there are syringes available at the Vatican, which the late pope needed to control his diabetic condition. You'll use one of them. Only a small amount of the potassium cyanide is necessary to kill. But as a safeguard, fill the syringe half-full. You mustn't hesitate even a second once you begin the injection."
"I'll be successful," he countered proudly. "Have no fear."
"Fear!" the word snaked up from her drawn lips and seemed to curl into smoke, mingling in the damp air for a fraction of a second. "What is fear to us who are vowed to the Master? He is the power, the force behind everything that is and will be. We have nothing to concern ourselves with but his bidding."
"I will use the injection. It will be easy. When does the Master wish me to do this? And has he determined to whom?" Macelli was noticeably defensive but inquisitive. Damn Teutonics! She was so similar to Vendhem with that blatant outward Arian superiority. Adding to his pique was the weather which by now was affecting his arthritis. Damnation, he thought. Pain was something Macelli did not cater well to.
"It would be unwise to keep the vial on the premises of the Vatican, or even on your person for an extended period of time." Grabe intoned with little emotion.
"So what do you propose I do, fraulein?"
"When do the cardinals arrive?" She responded.
"The telegrams and e-mails officially went out early yesterday." Macelli answered. "The content of the urgency left no room for tarrying. I should say that by tomorrow they will be here. But, of course, we cannot forget the matter of the funeral."
"Unfortunately," she oozed sarcastically, "a hollow show." Any reverence for the dead was alien to her psyche. "You can hurry this matter along, no?"
"To a point," he conceded. "With Vendhem's help, of course. There will be those cardinals who will oppose the minutest deviation from the traditions. It may not be easy-"
"You will see that these fools do not get their way. We are interested now in only one of them. When he arrives, you will be alerted. Then you will know your target. When the body..." Here she permitted herself a laugh, "when the ashes are interred you will strike. That, mein cardinal, leaves the way clear for the Master."
"As I have been working toward for countless years," he reminded and remanded her. "Anything else?"
"No." Grabe then held her finger to his neck, "Death will come immediately when the injection is employed. But it will be detected if you do not get it into the carotid artery." She pressed the side of his artery to emphasize her point. "Understand?"
"Yes." And she had to accept that. Macelli wanted with all his force to be rid of this woman. He turned abruptly back to the car. They spoke no more, but went their separate ways. Macelli departed immediately, backing the Fiat out of the glen and back upon the paved road that snaked downward and back towards Rome.
Had he been missed from the Holy See? Probably not. He had long ago established this scenario of absences from his office due to the infirmities of age. All knew he also had a drinking problem. Vice can be helpful in covering other vices.
Elena wasn't so sure that this fatuous old fool was the man they needed to carry out this crucial step in the overall plan of the Master. But it wasn't her place to question, yet she wondered, as she watched Macelli's car disappear onto the main roadway to this nook, how could he ever have advanced so far within the hierarchy of an institution that is supposed to pride itself on scrutiny? Then again, the entire hierarchy had been called to task for their failure to curb the sodomy and sexual abuses and for their role in covering up the guilty. No wonder Macelli had remained.
Dateline: Rome - Il Trattoria Bistro - November 3, 1:15 P.M.
It was around 1:15 when Niki and Lorenzo finally got down to business after forty-five minutes of reminiscing and good food. Niki had to wait well over half an hour for Lorenzo. Punctuality never was Lorenzo's strongpoint. Nevertheless, Niki felt relief speaking of the old days, better times as did Lorenzo. They had settled on a small bistro two blocks from the University.
"Nikolas, you get better with age," Lorenzo bellowed as he raised his third glass of wine.
Niki chuckled and quipped, "A few more glasses of the vino and I will be flattered as a god."
"Not glasses, my friend, carafes!" Lorenzo boomed. They both laughed heartily.
"Tell me, Lorenzo, what did you find."
Lorenzo looked puzzled. "It is an unusual piece. The properties are not natural."
"Huh?" Niki questioned.
Lorenzo smiled, "No, it is not supernatural, my friend. But it is a fabricated composition that is quite puzzling. Tell me, where did you get this and was there more?"
"Well, it was dark. To tell you the truth there was much more. This was just a small piece I was able to tear off."
"Off of where, Senor?" Lorenzo inquired.
"The side of the interior wall of a coffin."
"A coffin?" Lorenzo seemed incredulous. "That's strange."
"Yes, I know it's strange, I had to conceal myself in one to get out of Iraq."
"Iraq?" He pulled the piece of plastic out of a carefully wrapped velvet pouch and held it to the light, stretching it completely out. "Do you see, Nikolas, there is more to this. Do you see the fine lines leading towards the corner?"
Niki squinted, moving his head lower to look up. As he did, the pouch in his vest pocket poked at his ribs and he instinctively pulled it out and placed it on the table, freeing his chest to get nearer to the table.
"I'm not really sure I see what you are talking of, Lorenzo."
"Ah, perhaps my imagination, Nikolas. I have one, no?"
"That would be, how you say, an understatement." Both laughed heartily again as the waitress laid the check on the table.
Lorenzo grabbed her arm, "Posso pagare con la carta di credito?"
She, nodded affirmatively, "Si."
Niki reached over with his palm facing Lorenzo, "My friend, it is my treat. I have some money. I will buy, please."
"Since I have not accomplished what you ask, Nikolas, I cannot expect you to pay. I will pay and if you want to remain my friend you will not argue!"
Lorenzo was being jestful through a mock sternness. Niki feigned agitation, slamming his hand down hard on the packet on the table in placing it back in his vest.
"Oooh, ouch!" Niki brought his hand up, instinctively looking to see if it had a puncture wound.
"What did you do now, Nikolas?"
"I will tell you in a moment, Lorenzo. Something pierced me." He unraveled the smudged linen cloth as the charred crucifix, which he had retrieved from Fasif's after the explosions, rolled onto the table.
"That needs polishing, my friend." Lorenzo smiled, hoping Niki had not taken him seriously about his friendship.
"It was near Elias before he died. It had been on the wall near Fasif's study. Fasif had just put it there yesterday. It was a gift from the gardeners. They had six of them they gave him as a gesture of friend..."
Niki stopped in mid-sentence as small pieces of shards littered the table near the scorched silver crucifix. "Lorenzo, could these be pieces of plastic explosives?"
Lorenzo gathered up a few and, as every good scientist, pulled out his magnifying glass, holding it to the light. Within seconds he discovered what Father Niki now realized.
Lorenzo confirmed it. "Nikolas, this is the same texture as the piece you gave me!"
"Could six small crucifixes coated with this explosive detonate an entire estate, Lorenzo?"
"I'm afraid they could. Very powerful. Without analyzing the properties I couldn't tell you the force of the composition, but it is very possible, Nikolas. Do you think that is what happened at Fasif's?"
"Very much so, Lorenzo, very much so. But that is not what concerns me right now." His eyes grew wider as the Eureka thundered through his conscience. "The coffin I was smuggled in was lined with plastic explosives, Lorenzo!"
"The whole coffin?" Nikolas was dumbstruck.
"I fear it is not just one coffin, Lorenzo, but all the coffins shipped to Rome. I must find out where they are now."
"How will you do that?"
"The man who cleared them. I am staying at his apartment. I must see if he has returned and warn him."
Niki rose quickly and Lorenzo, sobered now by the discovery, grabbed Niki's wrist tightly. "My friend, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. You told me that many times. How do you know that this man didn't know? You could be walking into a trap."
"You are wise beyond your girth, Lorenzo my good friend. Words well spoken. I will keep that in mind."
"Good. I will come with you and..."
Niki interrupted his eager friend. "You can do me much more good if you will take this crucifix back to your lab and analyze the properties to know the force it had. Then compare to the plastic strip I peeled off and let me know what we are dealing with."
The waitress returned with the credit card along with a tray of complimentary drinks from a nearby table where the inhabitants' generosity had translated to drinks for everyone.
Lorenzo's sincerity in helping Niki was evident as he politely told the waitress no thank you. "Grazie. No. Mi dispiace, me adesso dobbiamo andare."
He quickly signed the credit card slip, adding a generous tip and they were out the door. Niki's heart was heavy. He must stop the Legion's clandestine counter now, but how? The weight of guilt bore down on him as the chagrin set in. In his flight from certain death, he had, in truth, chauffeured in these very weapons of destruction. He had to warn Ogidi that these caskets, which no one suspected - so transparent was the method they had used to float these caissons right into Rome - were now inside the great Basilica of St. Peter's itself.
"White Smoke, Black Fire!" is an original work, registered with the Writers' Guild and all rights are the exclusive rights of The Daily Catholic who owns the copyright. Because of the nature of the internet and the importance of sharing, we hereby give the reader permission to collect and disseminate by e-mail each episode as it is presented in each issue of The Daily Catholic, provided that one includes this 1986, 2001, 2005 copyright statement and source - www.DailyCatholic.org - and take nothing out of context, nor reproduce it for profit. This work, nineteen years in the making, is a work of fiction that replicates the reality of today in many ways. Each day the fiction of this novel is shockingly becoming fact. However names, characters, places and incidents are used fictionally and any resemblance to actual persons and events, except those recorded in history, are purely coincidental. We have been retooling and bringing everything up to date since its second release in 2001. Because of the times, we are most interested in publishing this work and are open to any help anyone can provide in seeing this become a reality.