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

Part III
Eighth Chapter
The Shadowing

Episode Seven Last Supper with the Serpent

       The rain that had begun early in the afternoon of November 4th, had now stretched into a steady stream of cold water that cascaded off the tiles of Roman rooftops, forming tiny rivers and inlets in the streets. It made for a shimmering mirage when the city lights and headlights of passing cars were added to the mix of the neon light of the Ristorante Romano. Nestled between two taller buildings - one a pensione, the other an apartment, from the outside the restaurant showed nothing special. A green awning, heavy with rain water, protruded from the base of the two-story resident quarters above. The blustery weather fogged the windows as though one was looking through smoked glass.

       Pat Gallagher had no difficulty getting to this meeting place near the Piazza Alessandria. In fact, it worried him a bit that, to the best of his knowledge, no one so much as glanced in his direction once he'd exited Ogidi's apartment. Just another old man on the streets of Rome. If only they knew. Yet, it was much better no one knew. Pat tucked the idea away in his subconscious that perhaps a disguise in the future might gain him admittance to places the press are normally not allowed. Clever fellow this Ogidi, mused Pat as he slowly crossed the street, staying character as he eyed this vine-covered brick wall that framed the restaurant. It was a thoroughly inviting site on this dreary night.

       Little did Pat realize as his hand reached for the front door handle that he would not walk out of this restaurant this night. Little did he realize there would be a Judas in their midst and one would not make it this evening. Death beckoned, but Pat shuffled forward into the valley of death which wafted the air with that pasta aroma so uniquely Italian.

Dateline: Rome - Ristorante Romano - November 4th, 8:45 p.m.

       A blast of liquid air followed on Pat's heels as he entered the warmth of the crowded restaurant. It gave him solace that the Legion most likely wouldn't be so careless as to try something in the presence of so many. Yet, a million people at the Field of Abraham probably thought the same thing on that first morning of November. So much for safeguards.

       He approached the maitre'd, gave the right name, and was escorted by a waiter to the reserved Christiano table in the back. All the while Gallagher's eyes never stopped roving toward the other diners engrossed in their meals and conversation. No one converses like the Italians and there is no better setting than an Italian restaurant. Ah, perfecto.

       The layout of the Ristorante Romano was rambling and large, and the waiter led Pat out onto an enclosed patio which was less crowded, facing the street behind. Heat lamps kept this area nice and toasty.

       "The fumari section, Signor," the waiter gestured as he directed Pat to a table for four in the far corner. No one was here yet as he glanced at his watch. 8: 47.

       "Perhaps some vino, Signor?"

       "What would you recommend?" Pat drawled in his best senile voice.

       "I would recommend a bold Chianti rose to clear the palate for the evening."

       "Then, my good man, Chianti rose it will be. There will be four of us so bring enough."

       Within a minute the waiter had returned, uncorked the bottle and poured a third of a glass for Pat to sample. When Pat nodded approval, the waiter promptly filled the rest of his glass and set it down on the table. "Your server will be with you when all in your party have arrived. I will leave you now to enjoy your vino. Prego."

       "Grazi," Pat responded lighting up a Pall Mall and stretching his frame back. He had to be careful with the cigarette that the heavy make-up Ogidi had applied wouldn't melt. He hoped it was fire retardant. Never thought to ask the good Doctor. He gulped down the glass of wine and poured himself another. He was beginning to wish someone else would come. He felt very vulnerable at this table. His nerves were raw, like scraped carrots ready to be boiled to mush.

       A movement in the doorway behind him, a back entrance, captured his attention and he saw an old man with a limp coming toward him, a splendid grin on his face. Who else but Ogidi? Halfway to their destination, thought Pat.

       Niki was next. Despite his military disguise as a major in the Italian army, replete with mustache and beard, Pat knew it was him by the jaunty verbiage passing between him and the waiter, and the wink and nod he gave to the pretty waitress who waited off to the side to serve.

       "It is truly neither fit for man or beast out there," Niki said conversationally as he pulled out a chair next to Pat.

       "Which certainly leaves one to wonder why you're out and about," Pat retorted in code to acknowledge contact. It brought a mischievous twinkle to Andriopoulos' eyes.

       "Would I pass up a free meal?" Niki demanded and then continued without waiting for an answer as he grabbed the Chianti. "And I will refresh myself with some wine. I think the dampness has penetrated to my bones."

       The waitress approached, asking politely if there was anything she could get the three gentlemen. Makuta glanced at her briefly, nodded no, and informed her that they were still waiting for the fourth in the party. She moved back to her service station, arranging glasses of water while another customer three tables over was trying to gain her attention. She was oblivious to his waving.

       The fourth member of the party was late. It was 9:10 before Stephen Navarro rushed into the restaurant, a scarf covering the lower part of his face. He was breathless from having ran the last three blocks after his cab had broken down. He hoped they were still there.

       As he approached the table, still huffing and puffing he rasped the code, "It is truly not fit for man or beast out there."

       Ogidi responded in kind, "Which certainly leaves one to wonder why you're out and about."

       Quickly sitting in the chair next to Pat, he thrust out his hand. Pat could see the same blue and white medical pin under his scarf. "I'm Monsignor Navarro, Stephen Navarro O.M.I., I take it you are the famous Mr. Gallagher?"

       "You're lookin' at him," Pat enthusiastically squeezed Stephen's hand, "though I ain't as old as I look tonight."

       "Yet you all grow old waiting. Forgive my tardiness," Stephen apologized humbly.

       "Ah, another Padre," announced Niki, extending his hand to greet Stephen. "Andriopoulos. Father Niki Andriopoulos. This strange creature to my right is Dr. Makuta Ogidi...a mutual acquaintance."

       A puzzled glance at the old beat-up man still slumped in his chair, whose elaborately brushed back hair stiff as steel wool and the wireless glasses perched upon his nose, made Stephen shake his head. "Then you are the one who sent the note?" Stephen wanted to know, still staring at Ogidi. "Should I recognize you? Sorry, but I've never met you before..."

       "You have not met me till now. And the disguise, Stephen, a necessary one, I assure you."

       Ogidi gestured with a short wave of his hand for everyone to order from the menus placed on the table. "We don't want to appear too conspicuous."

       "Not this eclectic group," Pat blurted facetiously.

       Turning to Navarro, Makuta asked bluntly: "Did you encounter any trouble?"

       "Only a taxi that decided to run out of gas over on Via Salaria after taking every wrong turn in the city." Stephen let out a chuckle. "Other than that, clear sailing."

       "Let's order," was Niki's suggestion, as the waitress approached. "Then we'll talk."

       It didn't take long. The restaurant served excellent pasta and prided itself on fast and efficient service. The men sipped the Chianti, talked about the weather and other unimportant trivia, waiting until the waitress placed their food before them and inquired if there was anything else she could obtain for them.

       Pat had been studying her on and off since he'd been seated at the table. He was amazed to find a stirring within himself that suggested his hormones were still functioning. She was very pretty - no, very beautiful. Tall, slender, her black hair perfectly brushed back from her diamond-shaped face. Her complexion was priceless, without blemish and, Pat suspected, without make-up. Her lips begged to be kissed, he fantasized.

       But then that was hardly what he'd come here for, he harshly reminded himself, cutting into the lasagna. A one-night stand with an attractive woman would hardly do any good where the Legion was concerned. He thrust the thought from his mind, trying to conjure up thoughts of his cara mia back in Dallas. God it seemed like forever since he had seen or talked to Corrie. Yet this waitress kept luring him back to the forbidden. There was a quality about her which lingered, like the aftertaste of fine brandy. He wanted more. The bait was ripe.

       "Now", said Makuta. "Monsignor Navarro is head of the Global Communications Department at the Vatican. A priceless position, do you not agree?"

       "Another of Fasif's recruits?" Gallagher asked mildly, welcoming the distraction of conversation to dull his thoughts.

       "Niki was a very close associate of Fasif Khadid," Ogidi revealed. "And this gentleman here, Patrick Gallagher, comes to us by way of Texas. The Metroplex Mirror I believe his paper's called. Now that these essentials are finished, let us get down to more serious business."

       Stephen, with a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, spoke somewhat suspiciously. "I'm certain you'll appreciate my concern over, shall we say, extreme precautions? What credentials do you all bring to this enterprise?"

       "Faith," said Niki quickly, lowering his voice to whisper that all strained to hear. "Faith in the cause that links us together. Belief in the reason that Divine Providence has seen fit to bring us together with a common goal: To stop the Antichrist."

       Navarro's face paled at the word. "Then you , too, believe it's already here."

       "I do not doubt it for a moment," countered Makuta. "The Basilisk has been seen, even felt. I would say it grows more powerful by the hour."

       "We must try to uncover it," Niki added. "Where it seeks to reside. We must destroy it before we are faced with the reign of the prince of the nether-world."

       "My friends," Stephen said very deliberately, "It is no small matter of which you speak. "I---" He wanted to, but he dare not reveal yet what he experienced in the confluence of the Sistine Chapel just three hours before. "Please," he gestured to Niki first. "Tell me something of why you're committed to this cause."

       Andriopoulos smiled at the youthful intensity in this determined priest's face, but answered him in brief phrases that left no doubt as to his intentions. Navarro was obviously much impressed when Niki spoke about his travels, which had led him to Fasif, who, in turn, had also believed in the rise of the Basilisk. And when he had mentioned so casually his presence at the Field of Death, Stephen had actually the common sense to bow his head to hide his embarrassment for having doubted Niki.

       "And you, Patrick," Stephen turned his attention to the man with the heavy make-up that was already curling at the edges of his chin. "You've come all the way from big "D"? I know it well. What brings you to Rome sitting with this motley crew here tonight?"

       "Because I'm a journalist, or least I'm supposed to be. I flew charter to the Field of Death for my paper. My editor sent me to get to the bottom of the horror that took place. But from the moment I stumbled over Niki -"

       "Literally," mused the Greek priest.

       "Ah yeah," Pat harrumphed, returning to his trend of thought. "nothin's been the same. I've been stymied in doing any journalistic work. I haven't even been able to contact my paper, let alone the woman I left behind. She probably doesn't know where I am."

       "And if she did, would she approve?" Stephen asked.

       "I don't know," Pat answered truthfully. "It' been a lot to absorb, to take on 'faith' as Niki and Fasif kept tellin' me. But does it really matter? The fact remains that after I'd listened to Fasif and Niki, and put a lid on my natural skepticism, I too believed. Whether it's my imagination spooking me or it's really out there we shall see. I'm beginnin' believe it is real. It - - it's hardly something I can turn my back on now..." Pat's words trailed off as though lost in thought.

       Stephen smiled. "I know what you mean. Van Wess was very wise in his choice of you for this assignment. Pat, I - -"

       "Van Wess?" Pat was taken back, "How did you know his name?" Ogidi shrugged in ignorance as Pat searched for an answer. Niki remained mute. Pat looked back at Ogidi, hastily adding, "Vic Van Wess - editor of the Metroplex Mirror. The guy who sent me over here. A good man...sort of a mentor in a way. Stephen," Pat's tone was severe, "how did you know about Vic?"

       "I suppose you could say he's been my mentor, too, Pat. You see, I grew up in a small rural town in northern Minnesota - on the Iron Range. I longed to be a priest, but there was no money for education. When I was still quite young, not even twelve, I was sent to spend the summer with relatives in Florissant, on the outskirts of St. Louis. I got a job delivering papers. And Victor Van Wess' home was on my route."

       "Yeah, come to think of it, Vic did work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a while," Pat nodded. "Go on."

       "Every morning when I'd be passing his house he'd be coming home. And after a week of passing one another, he stopped me one morning and we started talking. It was the beginning of a friendship that has endured many trials and separations, but has found a true basis in God."

       "So you knew Vic?" Pat's perly whites betrayed his make-up, but he was beaming with pride.

       "Yes," Stephen continued, exchanging the beam, "Victor approved of my desire to enter the priesthood. He offered to put me through St. Henry's Seminary in Belleville. And after much serious discussion about charity, my parents agreed. There was another gentleman who also contributed to my education but I've lost touch with him. He wasn't from the area, owned a saloon down south somewhere. Victor was with me every step of the way. I shall never forget how, on the day of my ordination to the priesthood, it was Victor who presented me with the sacred chalice I would use henceforth to consecrate the holy wine into the Blood of Christ."

       "So how did you arrive at the status you hold today?" Niki inquired.

       "Shortly after my ordination, the Provincial Father of the Oblates assigned me to further theological studies at St. Louis University under the tutelage of Monsignor Gregory Zachmunn."

       Ah, thought Gallagher, like a fine woven quilt the threads were beginning to weave about all of them, ever connecting them in the cause he had signed on for. This worldly, know-it-all Texan of all people! Van Wess, Fasif, and now Zachmunn, the latter one of the favorites in the coming papal election. These then were the triumverate of seasoned men who'd had the vision to share their wisdom with a younger generation.

       "After I completed studies with Cardinal Zachmunn," Stephen went on, "I was fully intending to begin my missionary life, most likely somewhere in South America or the Philippines. But while I was back at the Provincial House making a retreat, the Provincial Father called me aside and informed me of another mission. I was assigned to learn the ropes in the Pontifical Council of Social Communications as it was called back then under John Paul II."

       "Yes, it was his successor Benedict XVI who changed the title to Global Communications," Niki chimed in.

       "So you were groomed to head it up?" Pat deduced.

       "Yes, though he didn't say it directly, I knew that was Cardinal Zachmunn's wish."

       Pat shook his head in disbelief, "And Vic knew the cardinal. I hope he didn't use his normal salty language around His Eminence."

       "I doubt that very much, Pat. There is a side to Vic few of us know. But Cardinal Gregory knew."

       "I'd say the cardinal and Vic have been pretty busy fellows plantin' seeds," Pat concluded.

       "That they have," Stephen affirmed. "Oh, and you'll be pleased to know, Pat, that despite your lack of journalistic endeavor, you've not been forgotten back home. Victor called me earlier today. He figured you'd be in Rome. Asked me to keep an eye on you. I told him I'd have to meet him first."

       Finally it hit him. Pat recognized the voice. He clutched the stem of his wine glass and took a hefty swig, only to choke as it went down the wrong way. Niki pounded him on the back.

       "Old men shouldn't drink so fast, my friend," chided Niki. "We seem to have many surprises for you, no?"

       "It is good, is it not, Mr. Gallagher, to find out that you have never been alone since this thing began?" Ogidi offered.

       "Tell me," Pat gasped, trying to clear the wine out of his windpipe, "Van Wess called you?" he marveled.

       Stephen nodded. "Discreetly, of course. There are many dangers, especially now within the Vatican."

       "Then you're the one who called me the night Fasif died," Pat blurted, putting more of the pieces together.

       Again Monsignor Navarro nodded affirmatively.

       "Have you seen Zachmunn yet?" asked Ogidi.

       "Only from a distance, Dr. Makuta. Naturally we can't appear too friendly. He's made no attempt to single me out, and I've been careful to appear not the least interested. Besides, Cardinal Macelli is watching me like a hawk."

       "And he would be?" Pat quizzed.

       "A man who is up to no good, Pat, definitely dangerous." Stephen seemed to shudder.

       Pat resumed his regular breathing, even taking a few more sips of the Chianti but far more careful this time. "You know," he said deliberately, calling the attention of the three to himself, "it's truly amazin' to me that in this whole affair there's a common thread which binds us." The wine was taking its effect, Pat was more talkative than usual.

       Niki looked puzzled. "I don't particularly follow, my friend. I don't think you speak of the Basiliskos."

       "No, Nik, not exactly. I mean, that's what brought us all to Rome, and what we're tryin' to halt. But...look, I'd like to share somethin' with y'all about myself. Right now it seems mighty important."

       "Very well," Ogidi murmured. "Let's have coffee, or would you prefer more wine?"

       "Wine for now," Gallagher encouraged, "Let's save the caffeine for the nitty-gritty business we've yet to discuss."

       It seemed as though the waitress was there in an instant at Ogidi's beckon call. She had another caraffe of Chianti and this time there was no mistaking the look she gave Pat. It was an open invitation to flirt. It said she had noticed him, despite his disguise, and seemed to desire what was beneath the make-up. Who said beauty was skin deep, thought Pat as she brushed against him in retrieving a few plates.

       His smile for her was warmer than the wine flowing into his stomach. And the glistening of his eyes was his way of suggesting that there might be more to come. Wine has a way of diluting virtue and encouraging inhibition. Little did Pat realize how much for this night the vino was getting the best of him. The umbra of the sultry, curvacious waitress played on Pat's libido.

       He could not shake the shadow.

* * * * * * *

       Despite the heavy rain now pelting the streets of Rome, inside the Ristorante Romano few were aware, lost in their cuisine, conversation and liquid spirits. Most of the customers were in union with the fruits of the vine this evening, including the disguised foursome at a back table. For nearly two hours Pat Gallagher, Fr. Niki Andriopoulos, Dr. Makuta Ogidi, and Msgr. Stephen Navarro chatted and exchanged strategies, enjoying a seven course meal.

       As the rain rapped against the window panes and the door of the patio enclosure, Stephen struggled to find adequate words to describe his last few hours at the Vatican late this afternoon.

       Firmly, but quietly he described what he saw in the outer corridor near the Sistine Chapel, how the Legion had penetrated the Holy See. What might have been most disturbing about his terrifying tale was that neither Niki, Makuta or Pat showed even the slightest sign of disbelief. Their features seemed etched in stone as they listened, digested his information and finally grew silent. Monsignor Navarro had, in essence, left his three friends with the same sensation of fear which caused him to flee the corridor and find solitary comfort at his priedieu less than five hours ago. This fear would manifest itself far worst and the four of them were about to discover this very fact soon.

Dateline: Rome - Ristorante Romano - November 4th, 10:30 p.m.

       "Oh, there is one more thing," Stephen added as he finished up telling what he had experienced.

       "And that would be?" Ogidi coaxed.

       "Just before I left my room this evening, I received a phone call from an Irish nun assigned to the papal chambers. She is one of the elite chamber nuns who, just yesterday was demoted by Macelli to the Swiss Guard quarters."

       "I don't get it, how would - - -" Pat was interrupted in mid-sentence.

       "She was pretty upset about something she found in Captain Benziger's room, but she couldn't go into details because she was afraid of detection."

       Niki was quick to chime in, "We can relate to that, my friends."

       Stephen continued, "I don't know if the phones are tapped or not, but I hope she deciphered my code to see Cardinal Zachmunn. God I hope so."

       "Who's this Benziger guy?" Pat quizzed.

       "He was one of the pope's favorites," Ogidi replied. "The scuttlebutt is that he went AWOL before the Holy Father left for Iraq. Perhaps he was in on the sabotage."

       "That's what they're posturing to the press," Stephen injected, "but I don't buy it. No one's seen him and he was one of those above reproach. I wonder if what Sister Bridie found has anything to do with foul play."

       "Do you think this Sister Bridie can be trusted then, Stephen?" Niki asked softly.

       "Yes, I think so, Niki." Stephen was pensive. "But for the present other than the Cardinal and Sister Bridie, there is no one else within those hallowed halls whom I trust."

       "Nor should you," was Makuta's sage advice. He motioned to the waitress for a round of caffe espresso.

       Almost slurring his words, Pat confided to the group, "Ya know, guys, after hearin' 'bout what Stephen's gone through, what I've experienced and Niki's close call at Fasif's, I gotta tell ya. They're gunnin' for us!

       "Brilliant deduction," Niki retorted sarcastically.

       "But why us?" Pat was searching, could it be because all three of us had the same formation?"

       "Huh?" Stephen shrugged.

       "Well," Pat took a swig of Chianti, "Hear me out, guys. I should really be scared, but somehow, I'm not as afraid as I was before."

       "It could be the wine, my friend," Ogidi interjected.

       "Maybe, but I gotta share shumthin'." Pat was groping, trying to be serious as he stumbled over his words.

       "No more wine for you, my friend," Niki scolded, pulling Pat's glass closer to him.

       "That'shokay, I gotta sober up, Nik. Look, I gotta share somethin'"

       "Shoot," Stephen nodded.

       "Ya see, I was once a man of commitment and morality, too," Pat blurted. "Believe it or not, guys, I was gonna be a priest at one time. Might as well spill mah guts. I was in the seminary for five years. Yep, me. Believe it or not."

       "Mighty oaks grow from small acorns." Niki opined, smiling but still apprehensive where Pat was going with this thread. "I believe you, Patrick," Niki assuaged him.

       "Yeah, I was. But then other things got in the way and, before you knew it, I left. Couldn't live without the gals!" A twinkle flashed in his eyes beneath the bushy brows.

       "Perhaps another time, Mr. Gallagher," Ogidi cautioned, but Pat was on a roll, the wine loosening his lips, stirring pent-up memories that had never been resolved.

       "Seriously, guys, until I ran into Niki -

       "Literally!" Niki chuckled.

       "That's gettin' old, Nik." Pat was serious now, skepticism dissolved. "I guess you could say I rebelled. I'd just live day to day as if there was nothin' else. Live for the moment. Eat, drink n' be merry stuff. To cover any conscience, I just denied that I'd ever been in the sem, let alone bein' Catholic."

       "So you fell away," Stephen comforted, "which is common since the Second Vatican Council. I fear you're in the majority, Pat. Sadly so many have lost the Faith."

       "Normally that wouldn't bother me. Heck, corruption breeds contempt and I had plenty, Stephen. But it was Victor and Ben who kept me tethered to the Faith by not pressin' me, lettin' me learn on my own."

       The Greek philosopher in Niki responded to Pat's words. "It takes a lot of wind and rain to make a tree grow strong and straight. We're all sinners. The key is to keep from giving in, my friend. God knows our human foibles."

       "Well, He's got a real challenge in me, Nik."

       "So that's why Vic sent you, Pat," Stephen affirmed, but Pat would have none of it.

       "Wrong, pal. Vic didn't want to send me. I badgered him for the gig."

       "Some gig!" Ogidi added.

       "So what's the point, Patrick?" Niki probed.

       "I guess - I guess I'm beginnin' to see God's hand in all this, guys." Pat confided. "I guess my professor in the seminary was right 'bout what he told me."

       Niki was trying to refocus Pat. "And that was?"

       "Just that I could reach more people without a Roman collar than..." He stopped in mid-sentence, looking sheepishly towards Niki and Stephen. "Uh, no offense, but..."

       Niki reassured him with a huge grin, "No offense taken, Patrick. I concur with your train of thought. Just realize God has given you the talent. Now it is up to you to use it wisely. A reporter of your stature can have a great influence on others -for good and for bad."

       Pat got the cue, "I appreciate y'all lettin' me spill my guts, guys."

       Stephen pressed his hand on Pat's shoulder to assert his support, "I think we all realize that there's no doubt God has brought the four of us together."

       "Amen," Niki chimed in raising his glass in a salut, then realizing that another drink was the last thing Pat should have.

       Ogidi brokered the awkward moment. "We must go. We can't linger too long in one place. No matter our disguise, we've overstayed our time here. We will meet where the fish go."

       "Sad isn't it?" Stephen commented as they pushed their chairs back, "the place where trust should abound, there is mistrust everywhere."

       They nodded in agreement as Pat rose and put one arm in his coat. It was then, he saw her. The waitress Maria coming toward them, her name tag prominently centered atop flirting, bulging breasts stretched revealingly by the cotton blouse that could not hide her amplitude. Like a magnet Pat was drawn to the orbs, rather than the eyes. First mistake. While the Chianti had oscillated Pat's senses of nostalgia, this was a moment he would like to have forgotten.

       As Maria moved back toward the table to return the credit card receipt to Ogidi and something else in her hand. Pat didn't see it, so mesmerized was he by her surface beauty. Slowly, she raised her head, until there was a collision of focus.

       When their eyes met Pat froze in place, a marble-like quality stretching his skin. She knew he knew. Her cover had been compromised. It would be a fight to the death.

       Horrible he cried inwardly, remaining paralyzed, unable to alert his companions. He willed them to look up, to see this woman advancing, so close now he could feel her breath entering and leaving her body. They were the same eyes he had seen in the alleyway when he had come within a hair's breath of being clubbed to death by a man named Ezerbet, a disciple of the Legion.

       The smile that had invited and encouraged his passions was now a leer, sinister and wicked and ugly. So ugly. There was nothing here he wanted to touch...ever. Even as he stared, anesthetized by the powerful eyes which seethed with a fluorescent, sickly green, he could see that more transformation was taking place. Her breath was growing hot and ragged, a hissing sound escaping from her teeth which looked dangerously sharp; behind which her tongue seemed to elongate and press forward as if to strike at him like a whip.

       He had to move! Had to warn the others just a few feet away! He realized at that instant they had let down their guard. They had been too complacent even when they thought they were most vigilant. Too naive! The Legion was here. Inches away and advancing. Theirs and his deaths were but seconds away unless he did something.

       With every ounce of willpower he managed to swing the loose arm of his coat at the table, knocking over the coffee carafe. The liquid raced across the checkered tablecloth, spilling into Niki's lap as he began to rise. An inner warning mechanism finally clicked as Andriopoulos looked up, springing to his feet in a movement that saved Pat momentarily for Niki came into her sight and she turned her gaze at him. Pat felt his knees grow weak, his heart constrict, but he was far more fearful that they would die without seeing their mission finished.

       "Move!" Niki shouted at his companions, "Run!"

       Those two commands, spoken with all the authority he could muster, prompted Stephen and Ogidi to spring to their feet, the table toppling and throwing Maria off-balance just for an instant. It was enough. Makuta grabbed Stephen, hauling him away from the malevolence, propelling him toward a side door that led from the patio to the street. It seemed to be miles away, when actually it was a mere fifteen feet.

       But Pat remained frozen, rooted to the spot as Maria made a grab for him. There was a sound of sizzling flesh - an incinerating, scorching hiss followed in the next instant by a scream of human torment.

       The entire restaurant was now alerted. Panic ensued.

       Niki grabbed Pat's other arm , pulling him back as Gallagher tried to yank his other arm free from Maria's grasp. Possessed of incredible, inhuman strength, she would not relinquish as the hideous reptilian features manifested themselves more with every second. Shrieks and screams from every corner of the Ristorante Romano.

       Gallagher was sated with tearing pain. Every nerve of his body weakened. Was it really true your entire life passes before your eyes just before you die? He was going to die. He was going to stand in this spot with this hideous creature gloating over him, watching his flesh slowly shrivel as she burned it from his skeleton. He'd be a pile of ashes, just like those million on the Field of Abraham.

       With every ounce of his strength, Niki slung Pat over his shoulder and wheeled just out of reach of the lunging claw as the creature's hiss grew louder, madder. Niki tried to reposition Pat for better balance but the weight knocked him over and the two crashed into another table, utensils and plates smashing onto the terrazzo.

       The Venezuelan brunette known as Maria Figuerido was now fully transformed into the Basilisk beast, intent on destroying Pat and all others who stood in the Legion's way. Pat was trying to regain his focus and balance, draped over the chair from the fall with Niki below him on the floor, groping for something as his hand clutched a steak knife.

       The beast wanted Pat first and lunged at his neck for the final kill.

       Death would be swift! Pat could smell the stench of her scabrous breath, its sickening odor of all that was unclean and unholy. He closed his eyes, ready for the inevitable. Trying in a split second to make his peace with God as no doubt Karel, Helene Shenneker, Fasif, Elias and the countless souls on the Field of Death had. He awaited the red-hot death that was to be his end.

       And then the scream - an unholy, unearthly sound that screached in mortal pain as the knife found its mark. It gorged into the lizard's black heart. Niki twisted it with all the strength he had as Maria's face, contorted with a hatred no one had ever seen before, morphed from the cold-blooded reptile to a bloodless cadaver.

       Disintegrating before everyone's very eyes, Maria fought to the end. If she was going to die she was going to take Pat into hell with her. The rotting carcass twisted away from the knife in Niki's grip and made one final lunge at Gallagher as he yelled out, "No, God, please -- nooooo!"

       The last thing he saw were the hideous, deformed jaws coming directly at him, bellowing her last breath as she determined to bury herself in Pat. Both the beast and Pat toppled to the floor in a sickening thud. A thick black smoke curled up, engulfing the two bodies in an eerie silence as Niki, Stephen and Ogidi stood helpless, watching, wishing and praying that the events of this night had gone otherwise.

        "For behold I will send among you serpents, basilisks, against which there is no charm: and they shall bite you, saith the Lord."
        Jeremias 8: 17

"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.

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