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

Part IV
Ninth Chapter
The Shrouding

Episode Three Machinations, Miscreants and Michelangelo

       Like a vice tightening, the air seemed heavier than usual nearly midway through the fifth day of November. With the funeral less than a day away perhaps it was the unusually wet, but fairly warm November that hung so heavy. Perhaps it was the somber mood of the world, especially those who had congregated in St. Peter's Square for the final day of viewing the Pope's coffin. Or perhaps it was the fetid stench of the Basilisk growing stronger by the hour.

       All around the Vatican the international press were preparing for tomorrow's somber event. ABC, the BBC, CBS, NBC and CNN had long ago reserved prime locations on top of the colonnade that encircled the square. The BBC had been assigned the pool captain, providing video access to all other networks. Mutual Radio was there as well, utilizing the facilities of Vatican Radio. For those networks, news organizations and affiliations who had not grabbed the most advantageous spots, they had improvised quite well. Fox News had established a virtual studio on top of a building along the Via de Concilliazione, while another had rented space on the top floor of the Holy Spirit Hospital on Borago Santo Spirito. If the media was anything besides vulturous, it was innovative.

       Workmen were putting the finishing touches on the sturdy wood platforms on the slanted roofs. One of the stipulations established was that all news organizations would follow architectural guidelines. These rules had first been made before the Jubilee celebrations several years prior. They predicated that whoever built any additions would design and finish them in the same style as the architecture that existed. This was necessary so as not to compromise the setting. Thus workers were giving two 100' x 30' foot flat platforms a metallic gray and beige finish to match the exterior. A similar crew across the square above the Bernini Colonnade was doing the same in mirror fashion. As they worked, various technical crews hopscotched in and between the craftsmen, employing their own craft in testing equipment, setting cameras in place, or securing them in position with special locks. With these locks and the rain gear over them, there would be no need to post their own guards on the roofs. The press, at least, would sleep well tonight, while, like carrion crows, they waited.

       From above the Square on the parapets built above the Colonnade a few reporters spoke live to their audiences in various languages. Down in the Square among the people other cameras and reporters were busy conveying the latest news to their viewers. Across town Niki had returned to the city, dropping Makuta off at his flat for a few hours.

       On their return to Rome Niki had said little and Ogidi even less. A lead to the Basilisk could mean only one thing. The planned victory was soon to come. For those on the side of good, it might very well mean not only their deaths, but the end of all they held sacred. The thought had prodded Niki to press harder against the accelerator as the small Fiat shot along down the highway, soon merging into the urban traffic toward the shabby one room flat Ogidi temporarily called home.

       Niki prayed that the stolen car wouldn't be missed...at least not for a while. His conscience was very acute to what he had done. Despite his exquisitely honed conscience, he knew God had understood. The problem, Niki realized, was his fears that the local authorities would be as lenient.

       He kept an eye out for the Polizia as he steered the stolen Fiat southeast on the Viale Regina Elena toward the Citta Universitaria. He turned onto Viale di Scienze where the angels provided a perfect parking place right in front of the steps of the Ministereo Difesa Aeronautica.

       His good fortune continued as he mounted the marble steps. Exiting the door to his far right was none other than the man he sought: Lorenzo Straviannzi.

Dateline: Rome - Ministry of Aeronautical Defense, November 5, 12:10 p.m.

       "Lorenzo!" Niki called out, gaining the professor's attention.

       "Nikolas, my friend!" Lorenzo's jowls jiggling as he rushed to his former classmate. "Come, join me for lunch, just across the commons."

       "I do not have much time. And your time, Lorenzo? Do you have some time this afternoon?"

       The two had reached the bottom steps. Lorenzo smiled. "Walk with me. I will buy lunch." He laughed heartily. "My schedule is clear for you, Nikolas. What do you have in mind?"

       "I need a favor, a huge favor."

       "More analysis?"

       "No, though I do want to know what you discovered on the charred crucifix."

       "Ah, yes, it is strange, my friend. It is definitely an explosive."

       "That is what I was afraid of, Lorenzo."

       "But it cannot detonate of its own. It must be triggered."


       "There is a small chip, at least part of a chip, in the mylar. This is far thinner than C-4 plastic high explosives, so much more advanced. Yet, there was so little left I could not determine what exactly, but I know it was computer generated."

       "Then that is how they devastated the Field of Abraham."

       "When you think of it, si, that makes sense."

       "Then it must be detonated from a remote site?"

       "Yes, but I would suspect it cannot be too far away. Like the limitations of the Scud missiles Saddam Hussein used in those fated wars, so also the accuracy and quantity would mean a proximate location."

       "You are sure of that, Lorenzo?"

       "Relatively so. There is always the chance that the technology is so advanced they could have weapons we do not know of. Still, we are kept abreast on most new systems. The plastic and chip, though seemingly perfected in our day, still have flaws."

       "If we could find this detonator, how do we diffuse it?"

       Lorenzo's tone turned serious. "You sound as if they are going to strike again, Nikolas."

       "I fear they will. That is why I need your help, Lorenzo."

       "Anything for my friend."

       "Do you have any transportation I can use?"

       "Well, there is my brother-in-law's car," Lorenzo pondered. He is still in Sicily and will not be back for another few days. It is not much to look at but it will get you where you want to go."

       "Ah, Lorenzo, magnifico. May I ask another favor?"

       "But, of course, Nikolas."

       "On the way to pick up your brother-in-law's car, can you follow me to an area near the Ristorante Romano so I might drop off the car I have now?"

       "Yes, but I do not understand. Why-- uh? Oh!" Lorenzo had turned to look back toward where Niki had parked his car in front of his building. Three policemen were now surrounding the car, looking inside. Another police car pulled up behind the car. "Scusi, my friend, but you have company."

       Niki turned and knew immediately that he was in trouble. "I do believe lunch will have to wait, Lorenzo. We must go now?"

       "Nikolas, tell me what kind of trouble are you in?" Lorenzo hurriedly left a generous tip, knowing they would put his fare on his bill.

       "I will explain once we are safely in your car."

       "Then my stomach gives way to my heart," Lorenzo sighed as he fell in step beside his friend. "We will double back over there across that road, Nikolas. My car is parked in the garage to the right of the building. Do not give the impression you are in a hurry, or they will surely suspect you."

       "You are truly a friend, Lorenzo."

       "I would like to think so, Nikolas. I also think you will never change, my dear, dear friend. Always a man of mystery."

Dateline: Vatican City - Corridor outside the Chapel of Nicholas V, November 5, 12:20 p.m.

       Sister Bridie had just completed the Angelus and the Office of None as she exited the second floor chapel dedicated to St. Lawrence and built by Pope Nicholas V. Dipping her fingers reverently into the holy water font near the door, she was in the midst of the sign of the cross when she recognized Sister Hildegarde du Bonnet. The latter was the Order's coordinator of accommodations. She was standing in the corridor ten feet from the entrance with another nun whom Sister Bridie did not know.

       "Sister Bridget, posso avere minuto, per favore?"

       Sister Bridie bowed and moved quickly and obediently to Sister Hildegarde's side.

       "Sister, this is Sister Elena. She is taking Sister Agnes' place. She will be your immediate superior for now. Sister Elena this is Sister Bridget McCullough whom I told you about."

       Sister Bridie humbly bowed, then looked up. At this point she did not yet realize that she was gazing into the slate-gray eyes of Elena Grabe posing as a senior nun. The German fraulein's face was chiseled like marble. She stood as if she had steel in her spine. Though she soon would, Sister Bridie could not yet recognize the imminent evil. As the chameleon conceals itself when in the presence of an enemy, Elena hid her evil heart. It was also difficult for Sister Bridie to perceive anything different since Elena kept her eyes lowered, the full veil and coif, which she shuddered to don, keeping much of her face hidden.

       "Welcome, Sister," managed the Irish nun with a forced lilt. "How is Mother Agnes? I had no idea she---"

       Grabe impatiently interrupted, "Ah, Sister McCullough," she spoke the unfamiliar surname, managing a false smile, as the younger nun instinctively questioned how she knew that since in this hallowed place she was always called by the diminutive name of 'Bridie' rather than 'Bridget McCullough.' "I spoke with Sister Agnes before coming here. She has told me much about you..."

       Again Elena lowered her eyes lest Sister Bridie know her true intent.

       "I see, n' be she recoverin'?"

       "Her condition remains unchanged. She suffers from high fever and is often delirious. In the meantime, Sister, I suggest we go about our duties. It is what she would want, do you not agree?"

       "Of course," agreed Sister Bridie.

       "Why don't you show Sister Elena to Sister Agnes' room, Sister." Sister du Bonnet was eagerly and literally dumping this new nun off on Sister Bridie.

       With an obedient bow, Sister Bridie led the way down the hall and up the stairs to the nuns' quarters on the third floor wing. This was a special cloistered-off convent in the Apostolic Palace which Clement XV had also established for practicality sake.

       As they walked, Elena remarked, "I am eager to see what accommodations are in need of preparation for the Holy Father. Soon we will have a new leader." She said it confidently, but Sister Bridie noticed that it lacked the reverence that she thought appropriate for the occasion. It was hard to tell what the senior nun was thinking. She walked silently, but firmly, beside the younger nun, and for the first time in Sister Bridie's religious life, she felt hemmed in, imprisoned by the presence of another religious.

       Yet, Sister Bridie had been trained not to judge, to accept with blind obedience the thoughts and wishes of her superiors. It had been the Achilles heel of many a religious who had been conquered by blind obedience. This false obedience had given entrance to widespread apostasy; all the result of the novelties adopted by the Second Council of the Vatican and all that followed. The ideas introduced were foreign to the Catholic order of right and reverence as had been practiced for tens of centuries. Obedience bid them to be silent and through that silence the wrong agendas crept in. Though Sister had never subscribed to the innovations, she was loyal to her vow of obedience. This allowed no room to suspect her new Mother Superior.

       She silently hoped this Sister Elena would look over her new surroundings quickly, then relieve her of any other duty for the day so she could finish the chores, of which she was already behind. She had to meet Monsignor Navarro at two and that was now less than two hours away.

       Together they entered the small room which had formerly belonged to Mother Agnes. Sister Bridie noticed with surprised shock that all of dear Reverend Mother Agnes de Christi's belongings had already been removed. Cardinal Macelli wasted no time, thought Sister Bridie, as she surveyed the room.

       "Ideal!" nodded Sister Elena, glancing casually about the austere room.

       "Tis very bare, Sister," remarked Sister Bridie, hoping to make this new nun feel welcome. "Everything's been taken from the walls. Not even a crucifix be there."

       "I am having my trunk delivered from the mother house tonight," explained Elena authoritatively. "I will see to the arrangements of the room myself. It will not be necessary for you to assist me."

       Though Sister Bridie realized a brush off when one sees it, she was relieved. "Very well, if you be insistin'."

       "I do insist. Now, please show me where the Papal Apartments are, Sister."

       It was a silent journey they made back to the second floor and through the still corridors that normally would be crowded with priests and Prelates, visiting diplomats and dignitaries as well as scholars. Today, only a few lay servants moved about keeping the floors polished and the gilt shiny. Their movements echoed the emptiness, the loneliness of the place.

       They reached a door which led to another corridor. This brought them to a separate wing of the Apostolic Palace. They descended the Scala Pia to the first floor and proceeded down another wide corridor all the way to the Scala Nobile, the masterful staircase that led back up to the second floor and the Sala Clementina. They crossed this large hall toward the back. Built by Pope Clement VIII, this great room was the area where many had waited before being admitted into the Sala Concistoriale for a Papal audience. Today, no one waited. It was empty except for two guards standing sentinel at the entrance to the Papal Quarters.

       The massive, magnificent chandelier looming above them in the center of the ceiling lit the entire area in a green hue, reflecting on the frescoes on each wall. The 4' 11" Irish nun felt even shorter as she walked beside the very tall Sister Elena. The wainscoting here lifted over six feet high, the walls reaching two stories above where it blended seamlessly in a smooth curve with the ceiling. Elena's rigid dignity, her aloofness gave Sister Bridie the impression she didn't seem to notice or care.

       The guards signaled them through and to the right. They entered another small hallway which opened onto another room; at the far end: an elevator.

       The special lift dinged and the two entered. Sister Bridie retrieved a ring of keys and inserted a gold plated key in the panel to the side of the door. It was a duplicate of the one she had entrusted to Stephen. Immediately the elevator lunged upward, soon stopping again. As the doors opened to the third floor, this restricted area that so few ever saw, they were met by two more Swiss Guards standing adjacent to the elevator doors. No one got by these men of the ancient army, thought Sister.

       Little did she realize how wrong her perception was. It had been the same trail the intruders had taken a week ago when they had penetrated the inner sanctum of the Papal Quarters. It had been the same avenue the dark figure had taken in affixiating two similar guards and then Captain Benziger, before daring to enter the Pope's Private Chambers.

       As they traversed the elegant corridor replete with ancient tapestries, exquisite paintings, and priceless sculptures, they could see two more guards standing at attention on either side of the large double doors which led to the papal residence.

       Sister Bridie halted about ten feet short of the guards, drawing Sister Elena to a stop beside her with a gentle tug at her sleeve, as she whispered to her new superior. "Naturally, Sister, we cannot be enterin' now. 'Tis customary the doors be locked and covered by two strips o' red cloth in the form of an 'X'. After the funeral a seal o' red wax be melted on those doors. It not be broken 'til the new Pope be elected. 'Tis sad."

       "Oh, I would not say that." The curtness of the German woman's tone sent a shiver down Sister Bridie's faith-filled spine.

       Though Sister Bridie couldn't see Elena's face fully, she nevertheless felt the senior nun probing, as if she might see beyond the wood to the place where Christ's successor would reside.

       "Sister," Sister Bridie whispered, "We must not be lingerin' here."

       Sister Elena turned, as an iron presses cloth. She fixed her gaze on the Irish nun. Her stare made it very clear that she would make all the decisions in this place henceforth, and Sister Bridie had better get used to that idea.

       "Sister McCullough." Elena's lips were curled tightly. "While I am aware that you have served well, we must not forget that in some respect Mother Agnes had grown lax in her duties over the past years. We are beginning a new reign now...and I will be in complete charge. Do I make myself clear?"

       "Absolutely, Sister," nodded an admonished Sister Bridie, lowering her own gaze in humble subservience from the cold glacial stare of Elena. "Whatever you be wishin'."

       "Very well. For now I wish you to assist Cardinal Macelli, who is in the process of preparing for tomorrow's funeral ceremonies. We will send for you when we need you."

       "What of me duties in the Swiss Guard quarters?" Sister Bridie was perplexed.

       "Give me your keys."

       As she reached under her scapular for the ring of keys, she gave silent thanks to God that she had given Monsignor Navarro the two keys - one to the utility room and a special one which very few knew about. It pained her less as she unhooked the key chain from her cincture. In a way she was glad for the dismissal, no matter how deeply the senior nun's manners cut to the quick. She would gladly hand over the keys to the Swiss Guard quarters and all the other keys. Maybe she would tell this Sister Elena later, but something within told her definitely not to tell her of the missing keys for now.

       "That be all of 'em," Sister Bridie nervously twitched as she handed the key ring over to Elena.

       "Very well," said Elena as she took the medium size ring of keys from her, "I, or Cardinal Macelli, will send for you when we need you."

       Sister Bridie scurried away, relieved her new immediate superior didn't suspect that two keys were missing from that key ring. Considering what the Monsignor and Pat had confided to her, she might be needing them. As the elevator doors closed in on her, taking her downward, she wished she could pin down the uneasiness she felt. Was it because she had been again demoted? Was it because of what Pat Gallagher had told her? Was it because of Monsignor Navarro's own fears? Was the Holy Father truly still alive? Oh, she hoped against hope! Was she imagining the disquieting sensations which seemed to emanate from the walls and corridors of this holy place? How could the Basilisk have penetrated these hallowed halls?

       Sister made her exodus from the elevator towards where she had left the laundry cart in the east wing before her noon prayers. As she walked she mulled over in her mind that perhaps she wasn't as strong as she had thought. The devil had a way of playing with the psyche. Her antidote for this was a short ejaculation, "Jesus, Mary n' Joseph, I love You, give me strength."

       Sister Bridie didn't realize the strength she was going to need or she'd have prayed all the more. No one could visualize the hideous dangers ahead. No one except the Basilisk.

       The day had reached one hour past the halfway point as the sun stretched its rays around dissipating clouds. Stone walls and iron gates were the only thing that would keep the light out; that, and cold, stubborn hearts.

       Most hearts were brimming over with sorrow this November afternoon as mourners stood in St. Peter's Square. They were either waiting in line for one last trip into St. Peter's to view the Papal bier or just lingering, praying and being in close proximity to other mourners. A little more than three hours of viewing remained before the doors of the great Basilica would be closed to the public.

       Workers and members of the Vatican protocol, including surviving diplomats and all Bishops, save for the Cardinals, would view and pray the full Rosary after Vespers at six p.m. The Basilica would again be cleared and at eleven p.m. the Cardinals would convene exclusively for Matins and a full Rosary, making their last respects before the funeral the following morning at ten a.m.

       The Archpriest of St. Peter's and Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Josef Vendhem - the coldest of hearts - saw to everything. Despite his demonic mission, he had a talent for organization. What had caught and then swayed him to the Devil's side? Power and Pride. He could have been a great credit to the Church. Because of his and Macelli's black hearts the Church stood on the brink of all-out annihilation.

       As Camerlengo, Cardinal Antonio Macelli called the shots. He had used the final disaster in Iraq as a loophole to circumvent long and hallowed traditions. Through forgery, Macelli had changed not only the rules of the Conclave, but the time frame and procedure for the preceding funeral. Because of the circumstances globally - the fear following the terrible tragedy on the Field of Abraham - few objected to the stark changes made. Few realized the significance of altering the time-honored rituals during this time considered by the Church as interregnum when the Chair of Peter was empty - sede vacante.

       The Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis proclaimed by John Paul II in 1996 had signaled some drastic changes. One of them was the issue of a majority vote plus one after the thirtieth vote, outlawing voting by delegation - compromissum and by acclamation or quasi inspiratio . It was a departure from over 800 years of protocol within the Sacred Conclave. Clement XV's decree Quodcumque Solveris superceded that, returning to the mandatory two-thirds plus one vote for election of the Roman Pontiff whether it was the 30th time to vote or 300th. In addition to emphasizing the importance of per scrutinium - by secret ballot - he reinstituted the possibility of a vote by inspiration, concluding that man could not stand in the way of the Spiritus Sancti.

       Yet in Clement's Apostolic Constitution he had worded paragraph 39 in such a way that Macelli was able to interpret it to serve the Legion's purposes. The sentence in particular, which provided the way to circumvent the rules was the following. "In the case of dire necessity such as acts of God, or widespread plague, the time between death, the funeral and the Sacred Conclave of the College of Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church may, and only under the severest circumstances, be expedited if there exists a sufficient danger to the health and welfare of the faithful."

       His Holiness - who at this very moment, unbeknownst to all living beings, lay rasping for breath in an isolated, dank room facing southwest in Castel Sant'Angelo - had intended that only for rare exceptions. He had made provisions in the happenstance of widespread contagious diseases; whether it be of the medieval variety bubonic plague or smallpox or of modern means such as chemical warfare or nuclear fallout.

       Macelli pounced, claiming that, during the time termed interregnum, the viewing time of the nine days of mourning - referred to as novendiales before the funeral and Sacred Conclave - must all be moved up. His reasoning, which was not questioned by most, was because of the danger of more terrorist threats universally. Little did anyone realize he was one of those orchestrating these "threats." Everything had been "planned" ahead of time. Had only Clement XV been more precise, had only he been even more meticulous in eliminating all the ambiguities that were so prevalent during the times of the Vatican II Popes, Macelli's loophole might have become the Camerlengo's noose.

       Though others within the College of Cardinals - including Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn - had vociferously registered their opposition, they had no recourse to offset that loophole. As the acting Camerlengo, Macelli had pulled off the stratagem. Working in unison with Josef Vendhem, these two black-hearted Prelates were in the process of pulling off a coup d'état - the likes of which had never been seen in the long and storied history of the Church. Clement had unfortunately inherited the questionable cleric Vicar General and Archpriest of the Basilica. Much like the cancer that was Archbishop Annibale Bugnini who loomed in the background of Pius XII's court and infested the curia of John XXIII before becoming a full-blown malignant tumor metastasizing Paul VI's mind and methods that devastated the vineyard, so also Josef Vendhem, a protegé encouraged by fellow countrymen Cardinals Karl Lehman and Walter Kasper, who pressured Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to coax John Paul II to confirm Vendhem well before Ratzinger was ever elevated as Benedict XVI. Tragically in hindsight, the Clement XV had replaced Kasper and cleaned out the curia save for a few; one of them was this tall Deutschland Prelate and the other a stout Italian named Macelli. If only the pope had been more vigilant.

       Yet this infernal revolution had been foreseen by prophets and saints, alerted by Heaven at La Salette and elsewhere, even within these hallowed halls where his predecessor Pope Leo XIII had seen a vision of St. Michael and Lucifer a century before. All he had seen had now come to pass, including that the Pastor Bonus (Good Shepherd) would be struck, and the sheep scattered, and the workers of iniquity rising to the highest levels within the Holy See. When this rebellion from hell arrived, few there were who recognized it, so hardened their hearts, and so soft their defenses, so apathetic their concerns. It was a fait accompli.

Dateline: Vatican City - Office of the Head of Universal Communications, November 5, 1:05 p.m.

       He was no prophet and hardly, to his thinking, a saint, yet the Oblate priest Monsignor Stephen Navarro knew danger lurked very near. He had circled back to his office on the second floor. This office had formerly been in the Sala Stampa della Santa Sede behind St. Peter's and southwest of the Basilica, due west of Domus Sanctae Marthae when it was the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

       A few months after Clement XV had been elected, he gave notice he would be a hands-on Pontiff in the mold of Pope Pius XII, curtailing travels to stay at home and clean up the curia. He had consolidated and reorganized several curial offices. He had changed the name from Social Communications to Universal Communications. He also felt it was important that the head of Universal Communications be closer to the heartbeat of the decision-makers and the Pope's press secretary. The pressroom was retained in the Sala Stampa dela Santa Sede, but the official office was now in the Apostolic Palace where security was better able to keep prying reporters at bay.

       Stephen was thankful security was not this tight today. Thank God no guards were posted at his door as he had feared. They thought, wrongly, that he would not return to the scene of the crime. He quickly slipped inside. Time for a little sprucing up. He ran his Norelco over a heavy stubble, then selected a new change of clothes which he kept in his office closet for emergencies such as this, though no one could have planned for the events Stephen was encountering.

       Discarding his tattered, blood stained and muddy cassock for a finely pressed traditional black cassock with magenta trim and cincture, he buttoned it on the go as he grabbed his biretta, breviary and cell phone. In a matter of minutes he had slipped out the side door before anyone saw him and down an archway to the Scala Pia, then through the Portone di Bronzo to the outside.

       He silently nodded to both Swiss Guards standing sentinel at the great Bronze Doors, the main entrance into the Vatican Palaces. Were these two Swiss-born sentinels still loyal to their oath? Had they been approached with promises and resisted, or had they succumbed to temptation? Their expressions would not give Stephen a clue as he quickly proceeded down the steps and to the right beneath the columns, staying close to the wall to avoid the throngs that still packed St. Peter's Square.

       Yet, one of those among the crowd recognized Stephen, as if he had been waiting for him. He called out, "Ah, Monsignor Navarro? Head of Communications?"

       "Yes, and you are?" Stephen tried not to sound impatient, though he was, as well as showing some trepidation considering Macelli had his spies and now he was a marked man.

       "Colin Rembert, with Global NetSat International out of Sydney, mate."

       "What can I do for you Mr. Rembert?" Navarro kept walking towards his destination.

       The Australian continued after him. "I will be overseeing operations for Global NetSat and would dearly love to see how the Sistine Chapel is set up and where the Cardinals will be so I can describe it to our viewers. I'd be most grateful since I am aware of the time-honored traditions of any outside interference or transmission."

       "Well, Mr. Rembert," Stephen smiled, immediately feeling an affinity for this Australian. "Why not? I believe you're in luck. I was just heading that way. Why don't you follow me. I need to follow up on the second wave that should be in progress right now for electronically sweeping the chapel of any bugs or electronic equipment."

       "You got a deal, mate -- I mean Monsignor."

       They passed two more guards and Stephen cleared Colin through. They then climbed a flight of stairs, traveled through two corridors to the Loggie di Giovanni da Udine and through the Cortile di San Damaso and past the Pauline Chapel. Workers were finishing up here which caused Stephen and his guest to detour outside again into a courtyard and up a short flight of stairs to another corridor by the Sala Regia that led to the Sistine Chapel.

       At the entrance to the Sistine Chapel security was even tighter. Stephen surrendered his cell phone with the assurance he could retrieve it upon leaving. Then he and Rembert were thoroughly scanned. Within minutes they were inside the famed old chapel built in the fifteenth century, the one where the Master Michelangelo Buonarroti had basically made his home for nearly five years. Laboriously this greatest of artists had created, on his back, the magnificent opus on the ceiling. It was a work of love carried out in great agony. He had done so under the constant vigil of Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope, and Pope Leo X. Because of the laxity of prior Popes to reinforce the foundations, the beleaguered Leo X had not been able to hold back the dam of reformation flowing over Europe and beyond.

       For Monsignor Navarro the activity within the Sistine Chapel was a welcome relief after the unusual stillness that had pervaded the Vatican in recent days. The pounding, hammering, sawing and general hustle going on around and over him was a welcome respite. Most of the workers never looked up. They were in a zone for they had to finish by noon tomorrow. Less than 24 hours and much work yet to do.

       Workers were everywhere, readying the chairs or sedentias against the walls where the frame of a baldacchino had been built above each, with a desk in front, and over each chair individual baldacchinums to be hung at the proper time. The Papal Throne had been removed, making each sedentia the same to signify no one was greater than the other. It was also more spacious than the last two conclaves where 115 and 107 were elbow to elbow at tables to fit them within this esteemed, but small cavernous historic chapel.

       Yet there were still problems to be worked out for the upcoming conclave. With 21 Cardinals scheduled to vote, the workers had a conundrum on their hands. Hopefully it would all be worked out before the start of the Conclave at the General Congregation tonight. Macelli had circulated a decree of forty Bishops who had been selected for the next consistory as preconized Cardinals. The problem was there was no seal by the Holy Father. They could forge his signature, but not his seal. Without the waxed seal, the body of Cardinals could not in all conscience allow a suspect preconized consistorial document to be introduced as official.

       That was another reason Macelli was so furious that they had failed to find the body of the Pope. Vendhem was to have had the ring removed the night the intruders had infiltrated the Papal Quarters. They had rushed it, opting to toss the unconscious bodies of Captain Riage Benziger and Pope Clement XV into burlap body bags so they could return after the catastrophe. Though the devil may be stronger, an inhuman spirit, like man he made and continues to mistakes. Those resisting the Legion would give thanks for that if they only knew.

       Without Clement XV's signet Fisherman's Ring, Macelli could not make the decree official. That was another reason why his forgery on the Jews would never pass muster before the General Congregation; thus he had taken the media route to disseminate it. Yet, that too, as Vendhem had so insipidly notified him, had failed.

       Nevertheless, workers had been instructed to have ready 40 more baldacchino sedentias in the event the 40 possible future Cardinals were approved. If so the workers would line up 32 on one side, 31 on the other. For now there were ten spaced evenly on one wall beneath the six stained glass windows and various cycles of the Old Testament and the life of Moses. On the opposite wall beneath an identical set of six stained glass windows were eleven baldacchino sedentias spaced appropriately against a colorful wall depicting New Testament scenes and the life of Christ. These paintings stretched from either side at the entrance to the high altar. They stood as a testimony of the contributions of the great Florentine and Umbrian Masters of the Renaissance; men like Botticelli, della Gatta, Diamante, Fiammingo, Ghirlandajo, Matteo da Lecce, Perugino, Pier di Cosimo, Pinturicchio, Rosselli, Salviati, and Signorelli.

       Before the main altar were three chairs. These were for the Scrutinarians, those chosen to monitor and announce the votes.

       As Stephen and Colin snaked their way around sawhorses and scaffolds, they had a clear view of the far wall. The Australian was in awe of the magnificent scene where Michelangelo's Last Judgment overpowered the room from floor to ceiling. Rembert did not want to move from his spot as he surveyed this masterpiece.

       The two men stood gazing at the marvels of such an eschatological event as envisioned by 'God's artist.' The thought flashed through Navarro's mind that men like Michelangelo were neither party to the mechanizations of the sinning Popes, nor part of the necessary reform. Buonarotti had nothing to do with the recovery wrought by grace-filled holy Popes who would follow in the times of the Tridentine era.

       Yet, as Stephen craned his neck to focus his eyes on the ceiling and Michelangelo's vast and ingenious depiction of creation, the figure of man and God reaching for each other, just inches out of touch, caused him to think. Here was credence that this masterful artist could have been a Doctor of the Church for he taught through his art. For ages to come Michelangelo would evangelize and be an inspiration to sinner and saint alike through his magnificent, indescribable works translated on canvas, ceiling, mosaic, ceramic, stone, wood, terrazzo, marble and granite.

       A master to be sure.

"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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