Episode Six Twin Piques over the Puzzle of the Prize
The sun was bidding adieu just west of the magnificent cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, but the countless mourners who were huddled in the great Square were unaware for the clouds had shrouded the light from their eyes. Like the weather, a cold, damp and ill wind had blown in with the advent of November. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 were being rehashed by media talking heads the world over in light of the more horrendous events of November 1st this year. Everywhere people were in a near state of panic, alert status at the highest in every nation. Everyone seemed to be looking over their shoulders anticipating the next shoe to drop - the next terrorist act anywhere in the world. It was a time of nervousness and sorrow. Truly a time of antithesis.
IL PAPA VIVO. AIUTO. R.
The sorrow was manifested in a seamless blanket of umbrellas that stretched throughout the square, broken only by the Obelisk in the center and the aging stone Bernini Colonnade covered by the stone saints that had stood sentinel for several centuries above the massive circular square. Inside the modern Pauline Hall a perpetual Rosary was continuing as mourners stood shoulder to shoulder, protected from the elements and lost in the meditation and mystical power of the beads. Like those who stood on this same spot in 1571, they prayed for the impossible, that God would preserve them from perdition and that, like Don Juan of Austria's impossible victory over the Ottoman Turks on the Ionian Sea in the Battle of Lepanto, they too would somehow be victorious against an enemy few knew.
This shroud of secrecy gave even more power to the foe - the nefarious Legion of the Basilisk - a conglomeration of Islam, Marxist, Masonic and Modernist elite 'chosen ones' who were hell-bent on destroying all order to pave the way for the final enthronement of the prince of darkness. They had long ago sold their souls to the devil and so few of those, who still believed in God, realized the agenda of the Almighty's infernal foe. This ignorance only facilitated the Basilisk's mission.
On this bleak, Roman afternoon late on the fourth day of November, only a few brave souls held out hope. That's all they had: hope...and faith.
One of these was the weak and scuffled loyal Swiss Guard Captain Riage Benziger. As the sky darkened, he had left the comatose pontiff wrapped in burlap, comfortably - if one could be so in that state - protected against the night chill in a cramped turret cubicle off the secret corridor into Castel Sant'Angelo. Also disguised in a burlap cowl, Riage had stolen back into the Castle and down a side passage to a boarded-up entrance. Removing a few slats with a rusty shovel, which he had retrieved from an abandoned storeroom in the Castle's lower regions, he was able to squeeze his tattered body through the small opening and stealthily raced across the dormant lawn northwest of the ancient circular castle. Hiding behind a shrubbery near Piazza Adrianna on the street that bordered the northwest corner of the property, he waited until there was a clearing in traffic and darted across to Via Alberico where he clung to the shadows as he moved swiftly a few blocks, then cut south across the nearly deserted Piazza A Capponi down the Via Ombrellari. A quick right at Borgo Vittorio and he was almost there. His heart beat faster as he picked up the pace.
Dateline: Rome, Side Gate of Vatican City - November 4, 6:18 P.M.
Keeping his face concealed, Benziger approached the stately guard whose colorful pantaloons billowed noticeably in the November breeze that grew colder by the minute.
"Halt, stand and be recognized."
When Riage was within two feet, the guard recognized the mysterious figure who had approached him.
"Captain Benziger, Ya, I thought you were a beggar. We have been worried, no? Where, pray tell have you been?"
"You don't know how good it is to see a friendly face," Benziger heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm famished. I must get to the infirmary and..."
"I will call an escort immediately," the guard interrupted as he stepped back to pick up the phone on the stanchion next to his post.
"But I don't need an escort, I can - "
The guard held up his hand to quiet Riage so he could hear, "Yes, your Eminence." Cupping his hand over the phone, the guard motioned to Benziger to move to a side area inside the gate, "You are to wait over there. They shall be here shortly to help you."
"Thank God, at last," sighed Benziger as he leaned his battered body against the cold wall just inside the entrance.
Within a minute two other Swiss Guards, in civilian black suits approached from inside the compound. Saluting the halberdier guard on duty, they turned to Riage without saluting; a protocol unacceptable in the presence of a higher commanding officer, which Benziger was.
The first plain-clothed guard announced in authoritative tones, "Captain Benziger. This way." He fell in behind the first guard, the second guard let Benziger proceed, then dropped behind him. Strange, thought Riage. Instead of marching three abreast, they were flanking him vertically, as if a prisoner being sent to the brig. Marching through the courtyard, they mounted some steps into a corridor past the barracks of the Swiss Guards. As they walked, Benziger grew more and more suspicious that something was not right. The briskness and aloofness of the two guards confirmed his fears. Also, as the guard ahead swung his arms back and forth in cadence, Riage noticed a cufflink exposed as he stretched back. It was red with a mysterious, ominous symbol on it, definitely not regulation uniform code. Benziger began to realize if he did not act now, all would be lost.
"Permesso. I must go. Adesso." Benziger said with an air of urgency, feigning a kidney cramp, "My apartment is right over there. Just a quick flush and I will be back out, per favore? "
The guards looked at each other quizzically. One shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate what will it hurt. The other gestured toward his watch, then said. "No harm, but be quick."
"Prego, the second guard shot back, "we have promised to deliver you within minutes."
They filed quickly down the north corridor to Riage's apartment where the first guard produced the key and opened it. Benziger knew they had already searched his room, something was amiss as they escorted him through the small living quarters to his bedroom and the bathroom door.
Quickly inside, Riage closed the door. Fear surfaced on his face as he desperately searched for something to write with. The white towel on the rack would serve as his papyrus, and the shoe polish under the sink his vehicle to save the pope. Grabbing a wad of toilet paper, he wrapped it around his finger and dabbed it deep into the thick polish, then with a heavy wad of black wax, feverishly wrote on the towel.
Putting the lid on the shoe polish and back in place beneath the vanity, he discarded the toilet paper and flushed. Glancing at almost a six-day stubble over his rugged face, so grimy with dried sweat, he put the faucet at full blast and cupped his hands, soaking his dirt-stained face in the cool water. Quickly he then washed his hands as thoroughly as he could. There was still some black residue on his finger as he opened the door, concealing the towel behind him. Thankfully the guards had retreated into the outer room. Benziger scurried to his bed and stashed the towel underneath the pillow, then fluffing it up, he promptly rejoined the guards in the other room.
"Ah, bene. I feel better now. Let us proceed."
They resumed their march toward their destination, one Riage knew instinctively once they passed into the Apostolic Palace and down the elaborately marbled corridor to a door at the end of the hall. He had been there a few times. It never gave him comfort, this office. The first guard opened the door and escorted Benziger into the room.
"Captain Benziger. We have been waiting for you to surface. You have some explaining to do. Shall we begin?" The inquisitor was none other than Cardinal Macelli.
"I shall return shortly but for now please account to these gentlemen your whereabouts for the past week." Macelli meant business. "I shall expect answers upon my return. Many have suspected you had something to do with letting the intruders pass the Papal Quarters. Do you realize how much you have failed us all? Think about that. God wants you to confess. Now."
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 6:45 P.M.
Darkness had descended on Rome, particularly Vatican City this evening of the fourth day of November. It was particularly dark in the bowels of a chamber beneath St. Peter's where the black hearts of Cardinal Josef Vendhem and Cardinal Antonio Macelli melded in hushed tones of urgent conversation. Two figures, illuminated by flickering candles against the rough-hewned walls of the crypt beneath the massive basilica, cast menacing shadows for all humanity.
"Is it true that Benziger has surfaced?" Vendhem asked incredulously.
"Si. Now we are closer to clearing up this mess you have made, Josef."
"I beg your pardon, Lord Macelli. Do you have the prize as well?"
"Not yet. My people are grilling Benziger now. Soon he will break and we will know where he is."
"He had better, Antonio, for not to have the prize, ah, that mistake can be fatal. The Master will not tolerate these delays."
"We have all the tentacles out, ready to latch onto the prize as soon as we narrow the area down, Josef. Benziger will break. I have filled him with guilt for allowing it to happen on his watch. He'll talk eventually."
"That could be too late, Antonio."
"It is already too late for them. Three of the members of the Master's enemy are dead. Phase Two has begun without obstacles. The entree has arrived, Josef."
"Then let me attend to that and you tend to Benziger. We must go now before we are detected."
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 6:55 P.M.
The Angeles dinner bell had brought Monsignor Stephen Navarro back to the reality of the moment. He had risen from his knees at the priedieu where he had remained since fleeing from the corridor. Emotionally spent, he had gone through the motions in showering and preparing for the evening rendezvous. He had struggled out into the hallway; his decision made. He was ready to face the demons, no matter what they hurled at him.
Deliberately he had made his way down the hallway to Father Roberto Urazzi's room as the clock ticked closer to seven. He knew Roberto was usually there, being among the last to answer the dinner bell.
The white knuckles wrapped on the mahogany door of Fr. Roberto Urazzi's room on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace. In the dim light the knock echoed through the marble corridor. Within seconds Fr. Urazzi had opened the door to find Monsignor Stephen Navarro, O.M.I., head of the Social Communications Council, looking like death warmed over.
"Prego, Monsignor, you do not look well."
"Father, I've come down with a case of the flu. Could be the change in weather. Nothing serious I think. Please cover me with Macelli."
"Si. Would you like I should call the house physician?"
"No. Not necessary," Stephen shot back nervously, "Just a temporary bug. Be gone by morning. Just need rest. "I'm going right to bed."
"Not to worry, Stephano, I will take care of His Eminence if he pokes and pries. Besides, nothing is happening tonight. Tomorrow it starts. Rest now. Go, Pronto."
"Thank you, Father. I will."
Heading down the corridor towards his room, he could sense Fr. Urazzi watching him. A few more steps and he dared turn his head back to check. The door had just clicked shut. Turning towards the staircase that would take him up to his room or down to the back entrance, he feigned heading up, then backtracked and quickly and silently bounded down the steps and then down the long marble corridor on the first floor toward the Bronze Door. Several hundred yards from it, he cut to the left, taking a shortcut down the back staircase, then turned right and went through a doorway into a tiny corridor which, in ancient days had more likely served as a place for carriage drivers and servants alike to wait while their masters talked with the Pope.
It was a room used now by the Swiss Guards, and only one guard was on duty in this back section of the Vatican. The man was busy looking over the daily reports filed by the previous guards, and didn't even glance up as Navarro stole past and let himself out soundlessly into the night.
To escape identification, Navarro turned down paths few of the Vatican staff were even aware of, finally coming to a door in the wall that opened to the north out to the side street which marked the end of the Vatican State boundary. He walked briskly in the rain for a half dozen blocks before he hailed taxi on the Viale Guilio Cesare.
IL PAPA VIVO. AIUTO. R.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 7:30 P.M.
Above and to the left where Monsignor Navarro had exited the ancient room, a group of nuns were busy preparing the Swiss Guard quarters for the evening, turning back sheets and fluffing pillows of those guards who were on duty.
Banned from the Papal quarters and righteously piqued by Macelli's orders, Sister Bridget McCullough was still the obedient nun. Thus, in this spirit she assisted her fellow sisters in tending to her new duties of maintenance and cleaning of the Swiss Guard quarters. This was not new to her, for she had begun in this area of the Holy See. Often this was where the novices began and, upon profession, were promoted to other areas within the Vatican. Many would consider this demotion humiliating, but Sister Bridie, ever the loving, humble soul, took it all in stride, offering all to Jesus to Whom she toiled for joyfully on this place called earth.
It was sheer divine providence that Sister Bridie entered the living quarters of Riage Benziger this night. While one of the novices busied herself in the outer room, the Irish nun moved quickly into the bedroom area. It was then that she noticed that something was wrong with one of the pillows. Immediately and instinctively she picked it up to fluff it and discovered a crumpled towel beneath. Picking it up she tossed it into the laundry cart she had brought with her, then reached for a new towel.
Then she saw it, the thick black markings on the towel. Carefully retrieving it, she laid it out on the bed.
She knew Riage Benziger well. She recognized something was amiss for the polish was still fresh. Macelli had told her Benziger had accompanied the Holy Father to Iraq. How and why then would Riage have left this under his pillow. Something was amiss. She tucked the towel beneath the cart, hiding it from anyone's sight. Flustered, but trying desperately to cover up her nervousness. She said a quick ejaculation and rejoined the novice. "We best be movin' on to the next apartment."
Dateline: Dallas - Blix's Limo - November 4, 12:35 P.M.
"Sir, a call from Rome."
Edwin Blix, reclining in the back area of his luxurious limo, pressed a button and the glass panel separated him from his driver Ans Ichariak.
"He is alive!"
"Who? Damn you!" Blix barked.
"The prize. The Swiss Guard guarding the quarters turned up at the Vatican this evening."
"Where the hell has he been?" Blix's tone prompted a shudder from Ans who could hear his boss' voice despite the glass muffler. Ichariak guided the limo onto Northwest Highway.
"We don't know, but we'll soon find out," responded the voice on the other end sheepishly.
"You better, damn you. The Master will not put up with that kind a crap, hear me, boy?"
"Just take care of things on your end and we'll attend to matters here."
"So, has Grabbe shown yet?"
"Tomorrow. She has the ignition key."
"Good! Then it would sound like you gool ol' Romans have things in place, ya hear?"
"But, of course, I was only alerting you so that you will carry out phase two on your end."
"Done, jackass. Don't preach to me. Ah'll warn ya again, ya' don't mess with a Texan - especially this Texan. Do ya git mah gist, pardner?"
"Certainly. There is nothing further. Goodbye."
Blix slammed down the phone. "Damn fools, they're getting sloppy." He pressed the intercom key still perturbed. "Ans, forget about Las Colinas for now. Ah need to head downtown. We'll pick her up later."
As Ans pulled into the next gas station to turn around and head back to the toll road, Blix made another call. This time he was calm. This time there was no shouting. There was no answer but he left a short message which the receiver would reply to later when he had time to retrieve his messages. It was Blix's fail-safe method of assuring his other Legion contacts in Rome would not foul this up. Too much was at stake. The Conclave was just days away. The world wouldn't understand until it was too late.
A throaty, unearthly laughter emitted from the back of the limo as it sped south on the Dallas North Tollway. The bowels of hell were stirring, ready to regurgitate all the evil it could muster.
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