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

Part IV
Eighth Chapter
The Shrouding

Episode Seven: Point of No Return

       Serious efforts were underway this evening to plot the course of rebellion, preparing the way for the enthronement of the prince of the world. Evil incarnate. The Devil had already claimed his field marshals. Now he was ferreting the ranks of the lukewarm, the compromised, and the amoral.

       In two halls of the Holy See two groups of Cardinals were meeting. Neither fully realized the results of these meetings, not, that is, until the General Congregation would commence at 8 p.m. in the Sala Regia.

       In the reception room of the Secretary of State Cardinals Macelli and Vendhem were narcissistically confident they had four Cardinals - men already compromised - solidly in the Master's camp. Meanwhile in the Sala Regia the Dean of the College of Cardinals and Cardinal Zachmunn continued to scope out the ideologies of thirteen others in their efforts to recruit strength and grace. They needed the numbers to fend off the impending, unknown strategy of the Camerlengo.

       Gregory Zachmunn had rescued Cardinal Plinio from the clutches of three who the American Prelate knew could not be counted on.

       Shortly the two Cardinals joined the 79-year old Cardinal Julies Mendoza, the Dean of the College of Cardinals. He stood with Cardinal Kazimierz Strovinsky, the medium-built Archbishops of Warsaw whose 5' 10' size gave the impression he was taller thanks to a thick crop of bushy gray hair. No Rogaine for this Polish Prelate.

       Strovinsky's role model, despite the long pontificate of a Polish Pope, was the deceased Cardinal Primate of Poland Stefan Wyszynski. It was he who had counseled a young Bishop Karol Wojtyla to move slowly, not to trust the Communists, and not to move too rapidly in changing traditions. Kazimierz' roots were solid and he could be counted on to nix Macelli's move to add the 'dubious forty.'

       It was time for Gregory and Julies to compare notes, plan their strategy. The American Prelate politely begged leave of Cardinal Strovinsky and Cardinal Plinio so he could discuss a few things with Cardinal Mendoza. They politely responded and soon the two had repositioned themselves beneath the magnificent frescoes from the talented brushes of Italian artists Giorgio Vasari and Taddeo Zuccaro.

Dateline: Vatican City - Sala Regia Hall near the Sistine Chapel, November 5: 6:40 p.m.

       "Are we set at 21?" Cardinal Mendoza asked, taking Gregory into his confidence.

       "For now, Julies, for now," responded Gregory. "Six will not be able to make it. Cardinals Unsara, Daviani, and the Czech Cardinal Imo Yndobovsla are too ill to travel. Those are three we could have counted on."

       "And the other three?" queried Mendoza.

       "I fear," requiemed Cardinal Zachmunn, "the Patriarch of Venice Cardinal Emilio Marcellus di Crema will not make it through the night."

       "The liver cancer has spread?"

       "Yes, very swiftly.

       "So sad," lamented Cardinal Mendoza.

       "Equally sad is the fact that the other two have been detained."

       "I would venture to say one is Cardinal Yao Seng Ling," reasoned Julies.

       "Yes. We were counting on his vote to help, Julies."

       "Si. We will pray to the holy Virgin that he can count on Heaven's help. And the other?"

       "Cardinal Juan Pablo Azevedo," notified Gregory. "Last we heard he is still being held captive by guerillas in the mountains of Colombia."

       "Not good. Not good."

       "Tell me, Julies, who can we count on? If Macelli gets his wish and the forty are allowed in, I fear the papacy as Christ intended will be lost."

       "I understand your fears," nodded Mendoza. "I believe Cardinal Lewiston, Cardinal Wetherby, Cardinal Strovinsky, Cardinal Plinio, Cardinal Bondi, along with you and I are solid."

       "That makes seven. What about Cardinals Medelia and Estrado, Julies?"

       "I have not talked to them. I will make a point. Si?"

       "Definitely," encouraged Zachmunn. "I have also notified some of the trusted 'apostles.' They will keep it confidential."

       "Do you not believe it should be announced tonight?"

       "No, Julies, we do not want to show our hand just yet. Our first priority is negating the forty. We will save the other surprise for the Sacred Conclave."

       "Even so, my dear American brother, I am concerned about the Eastern Europeans Kravic and Radkalionis, the Chilean Carteaga, the African Kabwela, the French one Cardinal Maurin, the Americanized Lopez."

       "Count out the Lithuanian and Carteaga. Lopez I think has sunk too far," determined Gregory. "As for Kravic and Kabwela, I believe we can count on them. Maurin is whom I need to key on. If you can do the same with Medelia and Estrado, Julies, I believe we can stave off the first wave they will throw at us."

       "Si. Providence blesses us. They are together over there."

       As Cardinal Mendoza joined Cardinal Pedro Maria Medelia, the Archbishops of Quito and the Archbishops of Los Angeles Cardinal Gustavo de Jesus Estrado, Gregory watched. He was relatively sure Medelia would listen to reason.

       The tall Ecuadorian Prelate had adopted strong conservative measures in his see and was a strong advocate of Our Lady of Good Success. He sincerely believed the prophesies imparted to the holy mystic Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres by the Mother of God in his diocese back in the last decade of the sixteenth century and the first three decades of the 1600's. This Spanish nun, a victim soul, had received warnings of these very times the Church found herself in today. Medelia took them seriously.

       Now Cardinal Estrado was a different story. Gregory realized he would be a tougher nut to crack. He had been born in Guadalajara and, after ordination was gradually transferred to Los Angeles where he moved up through the ranks. He had been selected by default as the new Archbishop of Los Angeles after Clement had stripped the old Cardinal of all faculties in the City of Angels, the largest diocese in the United States. The scandal had gone even deeper than Boston if any one could have imagined that. Because of the majority of Hispanics in LA, Clement XV had agreed the time was right to appoint a Hispanic as head of that sprawling see. How much had Estrado been influenced by those of the past regime in Southern California, only God knew. If any one could penetrate the psyche of this young Prelate, Julies Mendoza was the man.

       Cardinal Zachmunn took solace in that as he watched from a distance. The three red hats spoke rapidly in Spanish in an animated fashion. He couldn't help but notice the significance of this trio standing directly beneath the fresco of the great battle of Lepanto in 1571. Cardinal Zachmunn could almost hear Don Juan of Austria encouraging his undermanned Christian navy on against the superior Turkish armada. The Saracen goal was to destroy the Church. Could God provide another miraculous victory against similar, far worse forces in this third millennium?

       The only answer to that would be the same means by which St. Pius V galvanized the troops and the faithful on: through praying the holy Rosary and a convincing belief in Christ's promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail.

Dateline: Vatican City - Secretary of State reception room, Nov 5, 6:45 p.m.

       Six other Prelates were absent from the early gathering in the Sala Regia this night. Instead they were preparing for what lay ahead in the outer reception room adjacent to the office of the Secretary of State. The hierarchs in this room were, in effect, the most visible example of how far the bar had been lowered. These men may have put on the airs of holiness in public, but beneath the veneer they were worse, far worse than the Scribes and Pharisees who were so chastised by Christ Himself. In private they could be the most perverted, the most base animals. The triggers varied. Those who had sold their souls, who had no moral values, didn't need much to be ignited, whatever their perverseness.

       It was the Legion's way of incriminating, of blackmailing those who might not have been coerced so easily. Vendhem had sin-sheets on many, hideous scandals on the men in that room which would embarrass the most seasoned, ruddy sailor. Really all six men in the room had already been compromised, already hiding grievous sins. Many were so bold that they no longer hid them.

       Who were these men who so violated their sacred vow, who dared dance with the Devil, nay, even lead? How did they rise to such prominence? The answers were shocking to anyone who still cherished morals and values.

       The Frenchman Cardinal Leon Tourrieu Visserant, had knowingly ordained nineteen priests who were blatantly homosexual. He had encouraged sodomy as an alternative lifestyle among seminarians. The seminary, which he oversaw, was mockingly referred to as the "Lavender Louvre" or the "Holy Lido." That was because most who attended were obvious in their comportment and effeminate ways; so much so that they stood out as rare oddities, even among their own peers.

       Visserant had been responsible for spreading the cancer of corruption himself by consecrating five Bishops who were gay. Known deridingly as the "Prissy of Toulouse," most did not know he had slept with more than 300 altar boys, defiling them as a serial rapist defiles anything in a dress. And the press thought scandal consisted of a few misguided priests and Bishops in America? If they only knew how deep and how high the rot went.

       Cardinal Raul Carteaga had continuously scammed the funds of four dioceses to pay hush money for the men he had appointed Bishops, including two of his auxiliaries. One had been having an illicit affair with the mayor's wife. When the mayor discovered it he co-opted with the Cardinal to cover it up by extorting the Archdiocese. Naturally Carteaga paid up.

       He was also known to lavish expensive gifts on choice young seminarians and their professors. The old man named simply Raul was merely a spectator. He paid handsomely to watch others. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more he would pay. This, the rumor had been spread, began when he was a young seminarian in Rome in 1977 and a hierarch of the highest order, disguised but desperate, paid an unexpected night visit.

       The crafty one was Cardinal Frederico Eijo Lopez, a protegé of Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez. Lopez had been afforded the finest education, the greatest opportunities to be a shepherd to the flocks of Puerto Rico. But rather than spreading grace, he fostered fear. He played one against the other, from extorting members of the curia to the Spanish media. Simony took on a whole new meaning in San Juan. He bought and sold like a stockbroker on Wall Street except the Prelate Frederico's commodities were to buy and sell souls.

       The last in that room this night was the Lithuanian assassin Cardinal Teofilius Radkalionis, consecrated on October 8, 1985 by Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky. The latter, a Ukranian, had been elevated to the Bishopric for the Archeparchy of Philadelphia by none other than John Paul II on November 12, 1979. To many Myroslav and Teofilius were Russians; to those who understood the culture, Lithuania and The Ukraine were akin to Germany and France. Alliances were unlikely.

       Teofilius Radkalionis, truth be known had not really been ordained a priest. He had a record of more than a dozen kills as a ruthless KGB agent who had taken great delight in torturing his victims and then taking advantage of their wives if it pleased him. This was not rumor but contained within the top secret government documents revealed after the KGB was disbanded in the early nineties.

       While there was plenty of documentation to his espionage exploits, there was none for his ordination. He had just mysteriously showed up as a priest in the northern seaport of Palanga and then somehow managed a transfer to Vilnius in April 1980. No Church records could ever be found to verify this assignment.

       Rumors were rife that Radkalionis had helped plan the assassination attempt on John Paul II's life on May 13, 1981. Radkalionis had made several round trips to Rome from Vilnius through Vienna during the nine months leading up to May 13th. One who documented passports in Italy had verified Radkalionis had traveled to Rome the evening of May 12th. The following evening he boarded a return flight, not back to Vilnius, but directly to Moscow: the Kremlin.

       Another point to consider was that Massimo Ascalessi, who under oath had provided this information to the Italian Government, had been found with his throat slashed, hanging from the balcony of the Spanish Steps. Many suspected the Masonic Propaganda Due or P-2, or it could have been the KGB themselves to cover tracks for Ascalessi who had been set to be a witness for the defense in the trial against the Turk Mehmet Ali Agca. Yet, despite all this incriminating evidence the Pope saw fit to clear Lubachivsky for apostolic consecration. The bargain continued when Archbishops Radkalionis was later awarded a red hat.

       With men like this, one shuddered to think that any of these black hearts could be the next Pope. A sacrilege by its very nature that would besmirch the holiest office on earth. But this was the agenda of the devil and he was well on his way with this motley crew gathered with Cardinals Antonio Macelli and Josef Vendhem this night. Those two had long ago abandoned dialogue in favor of coercion and inequity.

       "In an hour or so it begins, Antonio. Are you prepared?"

       "But of course, Josef. I feel confident that we will have our forty tonight."

       "I would like to share your enthusiasm, Antonio, but we must never underestimate the determination of those few we are up against. They are clever."

       "But we will outfox them, my dear Josef. You forget the Master has deemed it so."

       "And you forget, that when one is cornered they will fight back even more ferociously. They will not go quietly, Antonio."

       "Nevertheless we have enough votes to overcome whatever they might throw at us, dear Vicar General."

       "Can you be so sure, mein camerlengo?"

       "Si. Six in this room. Add to that Hong-Ju, Krementz, Dietrich, Maurin, Kravic, Luzlo, and Estrado and we have thirteen to their eight. Simple majority, Josef."

       "I do not share your optimism, Antonio. I have my doubts on Kravic and Estrado. Maurin could go either way."

       Vendhem's fears would be realized shortly. The counter-revolution was on and the devil's disciples, while suspecting it, did not expect it. The shedding of information was serving to neutralize those whose vote would determine the battlefield. There could be no middle ground in this battle. The stakes were too high.

       To such depravity had these men plummeted that were their deeds known to the other Cardinals gathering in the Sala Regia, to a man they would have wretched and vomited; including the most modernist of progressivists like Krementz and Kalschthoeler.

       Even they would have seen to it that these chronic and hardened sinners, already under the Basilisk's spell, were censured and banished. Like a deadly contagious disease they would have quarantined them for indeed there is nothing more deadly, more vile than mortal sin.

       Hell hath no fury like the wrath of one foiled by good. The Devil would have been ever more furious had he realized he was being outflanked.

       The Oblate of Mary Immaculate priest and head of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications Monsignor Stephen Navarro had brailled his way along the narrow basement tunnel that led to the storage room where Sister Bridie still remained unconscious.

       Under cover of darkness the body of the noble Captain Riage Benziger was being escorted to the Swiss Guard Chapel by Captain Royce Schuster and Lieutenant Alexis Geraud. Since those who had betrayed their vow would have no time for religion, it was doubtful they would discover his casket until tomorrow. Schuster would make sure it was securely closed so others would not pry, not make it widely known about this stray coffin.

       Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn was in deep conversation with Cardinal Philippe Maurin, hoping to convince him of the necessity of keeping the Sacred Conclave proceedings pure with the twenty-one appointed Cardinals, while not complicating it by adding the very questionable 40 preconized candidates.

       Across the great Atlantic and beyond, the sun had still quite a few hours before calling it a night; especially in Dallas where a few resisters determined the next step they must take.

       Meanwhile back in Rome, as they approached the old Coliseum, Father Niki Andriopoulos and Dr. Makuta Ogidi were keeping their distance while following Legion members Guillaume Brunatti and Luciani Serrano in the black Mercedes. Where were they heading? Why?

Dateline: Rome - Just north of the Coliseum, November 5, 6:50 p.m.

       The imposing ancient structure of the Roman Coliseum loomed in Niki's side-view mirror as he steered the 1999 BMW into an alley.

       "Pull it over there," Ogidi directed Niki.

       "We can surely go further, Makuta."

       "No. They'll see us. Park here."

       Fr. Andriopoulos pulled the car over and doused the lights. Lorenzo Straviannzi was right. The car he had loaned Niki was not the best looking car; a few dents and scratches made that evident. But his brother-in-law's wheels were welcome considering the alternative. Were the police still looking for Niki and Makuta? Did they get an ID on them or was it just the car. If the latter, then he could rest assured that restitution had been made: the owner had retrieved his car. Niki felt a pang of guilt that he had not refueled the 'borrowed' vehicle. He vowed special prayers for the owner and prayers of thanks for Lorenzo's understanding.

       But that had been earlier. After Lorenzo dropped him off at his sister's Niki had taken the blue BMW back to pick up Ogidi and had motored out to the foothills of the Paloma Estates where they had waited for the black Mercedes. They had followed at a safe distance up to the Coliseum. Ogidi had known immediately where they were going once they arrived in the neighborhood.

       Now they were mounting the high hill of bermed stairs on foot. Maybe he shouldn't have had that additional helping of tiramisu at lunch regretted Niki as they passed a pair of forlorn gypsy teens on the top landing. They looked so young, so innocent, and so deceptive. One was carrying a child no older than six months, the other was at least six months pregnant. They smiled as they offered Niki a newspaper.

       "No. Scusi. No grazie." Niki insisted, spinning deftly away from them to make sure he didn't bump them.

       Clutching at his wallet pocket, he squeezed through the typical phalanx these girls posed in trying to deceive tourists, bilking them out of thousands a year. They weren't as poor as they looked, that was for sure and Niki continued the next ten steps sideways, making sure they were not following nor were their nebulous accomplices at the top of the stairs. No wonder Rome had the reputation for being the pickpocket capital of Europe.

       Niki and Makuta reached the summit, free of the gypsy ring but with another problem ahead. Half a block away was a two-story warehouse. They darted across the street, hugging the shadows littered by trash, scrap metal and squalor, and crouched behind a trash bin that had not been emptied in at least a month according to Niki's nose. From this putrid vantage point they could see the men they were following - Guillaume Brunatti and Luciani Serrano. They were talking with men loading relatively heavy boxes in the back of a mid-size Peter-Built truck, more like a mini semi-truck, a moving van; shorter in length, but tall in cargo capacity and about ten feet wide.

       Ogidi motioned Niki to wait. A minute passed and then Makuta made a dash, positioning himself just behind the black Mercedes parked next to the truck. Safely behind the car, he signaled for Niki to follow, staying low. Like a deer fleeing a hunter's scope, Niki high-tailed it to the same spot. From this spot they could better hear the conversation.

       Just their luck! Brunatti and Serrano moved deeper into the warehouse where workers were assembling candles. A short man greeted them enthusiastically, proud of the progress as he gestured liberally toward the handiwork of the packers. Neither Ogidi nor Niki knew the man. Had Pat been with them he would easily have been able to identify this pathetic little man as the eunuch Soto Ichariak...the lackey of Edwin Blix, publisher and mogul of the Metroplex Mirror and Blix International.

       Andriopoulos did not know it at the time, but beyond any doubt Blix was financing the Legion lock, stock and barrel. Blix was, in his own mind, Satan's right hand man.

       Niki turned to ask Ogidi if he knew who the small man was when he discovered Ogidi was no longer there. He looked up again to see Makuta distracting the dock-Master.

       "Scusi. I am truly lost," pandered Ogidi, posing as a lost tourist. "I am supposed to catch metro from Coliseum to Piazza del Trieste, but I do not know..."

       The distraction was just enough. Niki made his move as Ogidi kept the dock-Master occupied. Andriopoulos capitalized, moving quickly behind and grabbing a hat off a wall rack as he continued on deeper into the warehouse past a clipboard hanging on the wall. He retracted it, looking back. Niki could see Ogidi was doing a masterful job frustrating the dock-Master with Makuta's perplexed tourist act. He was truly a pro, polished in so many ways.

       "Mama mia," the dock-Master moaned. "How you wind up here, Senor? I show you route, old man."

       As Ogidi maneuvered the man to keep his back to Niki, the Greek eased deeper into the warehouse, scanning the manifest on the clipboard. Definitely going to the Vatican. 90 boxes.

       One of the workers not too far away from Niki was getting frustrated. "Puo aspettarmi?"

       The other rebuked him, "Ho fretta." He then spotted Niki. "Hey, get back to work. These things are heavy. Here, load these."

       "Si, mi dispiace." Niki nodded, trying not to betray himself with his broken Italian, then turned his head and stooped down, setting the clipboard down while hoisting one of the heavy boxes on his left shoulder. It would block his face from anyone on his left, allowing him to move towards the bay, keeping to the right side of the wide aisle leading to the truck.

       "Grazie. Grazie. I am truly stupido to have strayed so far." Ogidi was stalling as long as he could. He saw Niki approaching swiftly and clasped the dock-Master's hand, distracting him with another "Grazie."

       "Prego. Careful, old man," the dock-Master responded throwing up his hands in defeat, his eyes following Niki as he rumbled past Ogidi and towards the truck "That worker almost knocked you ove...wait! I do not recognize him."

       The dock-Master was alarmed as he watched Niki slide the box onto the truck's back bed, then take off behind the truck like a bat out of hell. "You there. Hold on. Arieto!"

       The dock-Master turned back to where the old man had been, only to discover he was gone. "Che?"

       Both men had vanished. "Achhh, gypsies!" He railed disgustedly, spitting at the name.

       Soto, Brunatti, Serrano, the dock-Master, none were the wiser as to who had really scoped out the warehouse. Just as Ogidi had planned. Get in and get out before they knew what hit them.

       That was exactly what Victor Van Wess should have done. Hindsight was always so convenient when it dealt with someone else. Man was an expert in everyone else's affairs, but seldom his own.

Dateline: Dallas - The Crooked Spigot, November 5, 12:15 p.m.

       Because he had doubted his own gut instincts, Vic had sought the counsel of a dear friend - one whom he had confided in for many years: Benjamin O'Fallon. The owner of The Crooked Spigot was not really the hard-crusted tavern owner so many might have surmised, but a caring, very Christian sort of man who had been Vic's friend through thick and thin.

       Ben O'Fallon and Vic had become good friends after Vic, then a younger writer for The Dallas Morning News, had often started frequenting Ben's place. Over the years their friendship had grown. They had shared and cared. When Vic and Amy were having a spat, Ben was the ear for Vic to get it off his chest. When Blix had increased the pressure on Vic, Ben had always been there to listen.

       Many years ago Ben had shared his perception with Vic about a certain young man who O'Fallon felt had a definite vocation to the priesthood. Vic had learned to trust Ben's instincts, for he knew that if a potential priest had O'Fallon's stamp of approval then that young man would forever serve God well. That is why Vic had agreed to take young Stephen Navarro under his wing while he was completing his last year at the University of Dallas.

       Through Vic's financial help and Ben's influence with the auxiliary Bishops of the Fort Worth Diocese, Stephen advanced and Vic came to better know another man who would be a friend for life - Bishop Gregory Zachmunn. Unbeknownst to most, Vic and Ben had kept in contact with Gregory over the past five days, as well as with another who, like the St. Louis Cardinal, wielded great respect.

       With the early lunch crowd pretty much thinned out and the jukebox playing a golden oldie-but-goody rendition of Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights," Ben had time to give Vic his full attention during this brief lull. Leaning over the bar, Ben's face betrayed the macho image. His eyes revealed a true concern for Pat, their mutual friend Gregory and, now, for Vic himself. Vic had just confided his plan to Ben and the latter was very apprehensive.

       "Are you sure that's the best way to approach this, Vic?"

       "Ben, if I don't act now, all might be lost."

       "What about Amy?"

       "We talked long into the morning last night, Ben. She knows the risk. She, too, has placed it all in God's hands. It had to be a joint decision. We're both aware we may be called to be martyrs. But when you consider the alternative, what choice do we have?"

       "Are you positive it's Blix?" Ben wanted assurance.

       "Definitely. The evidence uncovered proves he is funding the terrorists of the Legion of the Basilisk. I also believe he's calling the shots, Ben."

       "But to venture into the cobra's den is suicide, Vic."

       "I know, but if we don't stop him now, tomorrow another million or more will die."

       "Yeah, this is no time to be apprehensive, but it doesn't hurt to tread carefully, Vic."

       "Time is of the essence, Ben. I'll have the Mirror Reflector card on me. It should record everything. If I get out of there alive it will be on the news tonight. If I don't, you know where to find it. We'll get him, Ben. Have faith."

       "That's all we have, Victor. That's what you're going to need the most. Faith!"

       "Yeah, that's what Amy said."

       "What about Corrie, Vic?"

       "I suppose you should notify her. It does not look good for Pat. Coming from you, I think your shoulder is softer to cry on than mine, Ben."

       Ben felt a lump in his throat, "I hate it when you be puttin' it like that."

       Both O'Fallon and Van Wess realized the inevitable had arrived. There was no way around it. The Devil himself must be confronted head on. Fools may rush in where angels fear to tread, but Ben knew intrinsically that Vic was no fool. Too many had been fooled into believing the demon didn't exist and now society had become the unknowing, sacrificial pawns on a very deadly chess board that preserved no prisoners.

       Vic and Ben had made their good-byes short, as unemotional as possible. After all they were men. Men don't cry, don't show their feelings, unless they truly care, truly love as a true friend. Though they didn't show it, more than a few tears flowed from each man's eye after Vic left The Crooked Spigot. He had one more thing to do before his appointed mission at the Turtle Creek home of Edwin Blix.

       Ben had consciously wiped the moisture from his face, cleared his throat, and made the call to Corrie on her cell phone. How do you tell someone his or her one true love might not be coming back? How do you break it to them when you yourself don't know the outcome, have no idea what is really happening?

       Corrie was in shock. Was it better to know the possible or the impossible? She had no idea Pat was sleeping soundly in a comfortable bed, recuperating in the Vatican infirmary this night. The light of day in Dallas could not infuse her with that knowledge. Ben did not know yet, and neither did Vic. The last time Ben had talked to Cardinal Zachmunn had been this morning. Gregory had expressed fear that there was much sabotage afoot, but couldn't pinpoint it. He hoped he would learn more and get back to Ben after he and his fellow Cardinals had paid their respects to those who fell on the Field of Abraham. He would do so during Matins at St. Peter's late in the evening.

       The St. Louis Archbishop blanched at the whole concept of One Eucharist. It should never have been. The devil had a way of luring souls in and not letting go until it was too late. Gregory knew that; so did Ben, Vic, and a few others. They needed to warn the masses of the danger. To convince the doubters, the good guys needed proof, viable proof that could not be denied. Vic had to confront Blix, force him to show his hand.

       As he drove towards his appointed destination, he made one more call, one last call to his beloved Amy. It would help spur him on in his Calvary, in the same manner Christ was spurred on by His Blessed Mother's kind, loving look and Veronica's gentle touch to clear the blood from His face. So also Vic would not give up. Yes, death awaited at the pinnacle of Golgotha, but it was necessary for the redemption of mankind. It was part of the Divine Plan. So also was Vic's mission.

       His conversation with Amy was short and sweet. As he turned off I-35 towards Blix's Turtle Creek Mansion, he couldn't help but think of how far the world had plummeted; how much farther it was about to plunge.

       The poles of right and wrong had been turned topsy-turvy. Sin was in, virtue and vigilance isolated, even worse persecuted.

       Vic's thoughts turned to the clever, insidious legislation that had rendered abortion a human right in 1973 and, then, subsequent loop hole-free statutes passed a few years ago which even a Supreme Court could not overturn. The Homeland Security Branch, introduced by George W. Bush in 2002 in the aftermath of the tragic event - simply referred to as "9-11" - had enabled the State to take over under the guise of protecting the citizens after the U.S. had been lured into a war that had lasted much longer than anyone had anticipated. As the casualties on all fronts had mounted, the exceptions had become the norm and Martial Law had been liberally applied in the subsequent years. This had been employed through a joint effort of the Total Information Awareness team which had reached its tentacles into every community, and UN forces which had been authorized by legislation to oversee jurisdiction in every state of America, and throughout the world.

       Vic realized the agenda. The U.S. had become one big melting pot with too many cooks in the kitchen. Immigration laws had been suspended, opening the floodgates for anyone and everyone to surge across the borders. If you couldn't beat 'em, join 'em. George Orwell's "Big Brother" had been more than several decades late, but it had arrived with a vengeance. Surveillance had intensified in keeping tabs on all citizens, especially those who went against the grain of conformity.

Dateline: Dallas - Enroute to the mansion of Edwin Blix, November 5, 12:30 p.m.

       As Victor Van Wess swung his car onto Blackburn Road past the Diocesan Chancery, he couldn't help but regret how the Church, for over half a century, had followed the siren of the world, not realizing the pied-piper was the Devil himself. It seemed so simple, so innocent, so innovative at first. After all, the Pope - John XXIII - had announced on January 25, 1959 that he was going to call a council. Surely a Pope and council could be trusted.

       The Pope had promised a council would make the Church more user-friendly. He would open the windows and let in the fresh air of modern thought and ideas that would make it more compatible for others to accept Catholicism. Aggiornamento he called it. What could have been better? It had caught on big, so much so that it made it much easier for the Devil to do his thing. It had allowed the Angel of light, the ancient serpent to blot out goodness through relativism and revolution. The counter-culture of the sixties had been followed by the "do your own thing" malaise of the seventies, enabling the drug culture and gods of the wasteland to take center stage.

       By the third generation most Christians had been completely dumbed down, completely numb to the evil that had seeped in as a trickle, and which now engulfed the world in a tsunami of indifference and amorality. Morals were so blurred that few believed hell even existed. God was love. So many rationalized that God would not condemn even those who knowingly dismissed the Commandments He imparted to Moses. Toleration and diversity had become the watchwords of the times. Abortion, euthanasia, contraception, sodomy, cloning, and even ethnic cleansing had become less obtrusive, less evil in the mindset of the populace. Those who objected had been submitted to mind-control through sensitivity programming, where governments from China to the U.S. had continued to attempt to brainwash the masses on the necessity of such social programs for the citizens' own safety and protection. It had become a subliminal magma flow of propaganda which had rendered so many as nothing more than pillars of salt; sodium souls who had lost their savor, especially the shepherds for they were no longer the salt of the earth.

       The onus could not be put fully on the Church for the evil that ran amok today. No, the evil one was already here; had been here since Eve had bitten into that apple. What the Church could be blamed for was withdrawing the sentinels that had safeguarded so many from the traps laid by the evil one and his minions. By letting down her guard, by accommodating those who were not willing to live the Gospel, by dispensing of prayers, rituals and disciplines, the modern Church had abdicated her moral authority. The results had been catastrophic not only in the dwindling numbers of converts, but also in the alarming surge of Muslims who had taken over Europe, changing cultures, ideas and ideals.

       The great crusades of the middle ages had been revisited by the revisionists with great distortion. This had only further polarized those who had sought to warn of the impending doom so many were heading toward by not resisting those forces, which were the antithesis of Christ's followers. Their omens had only landed on deaf ears and reprogrammed minds.

       This paralysis of good had continued, metastasizing further through compromised principles which favored the encouragement of an earthly utopia. This had been evident through the all-embracing terms of a "civilization of love," "a new springtime," and other ambiguous phrases that had become part of the political correctness creed. Never mind the Nicene Creed. Now it was the "Nice Creed." The former had been considered antiquity in the new developing doctrines that had evolved in these enlightened, high technology times when science was worshipped at the altar of tolerance and diversity. All for man in the name of humanity.

       What a great way to get along! What an ideal way to achieve world peace! What better goals could there be than to strive for utopia on earth?

       It was perfect in every way - for the Prince of the world. For those born of the flesh, destined to toil for the small treasures of this trial period - this drop of water in an ocean of eternity - it was not the plan to follow. But when offered a short cut, how many would opt to stay with the longer, surer, but boring and much tougher route? Sadly, many had chosen the easy way, the wide path strewn with roses...camouflaged thorn-covered bushes that over the centuries had prevented so many from turning back from the path to perdition.

       A roadblock had to be set up to slow those souls plunging unwittingly on the slippery slope. That was why Vic had to literally enter the jaws of hell to save the rest. He would have to travel that very narrow ledge between Heaven and the precarious infernal regions of eternal darkness in order to expose the evil one. Only in that way could he unveil him for the demon he was in the light of the awareness of truth.

       Vic knew, as he passed the massive gargoyles at the entrance to the driveway into the Blix mansion, there was no turning back. This foreboding edifice of stone, vine and wood sat in the middle of the old, elite section of Dallas where Bohemian, homosexual and blue blood tried to coexist in the most eclectic of ways.

       The grounds on Blix's property were immaculately groomed. The snow from the night before had melted and left a verdant carpet behind. The green would soon transform back to the dormant stage, becoming brown until spring would bring forth new life, a new cycle of growth. Would Vic live to see it?

       He slowed to a stop under the great canopy of mortar and grotesque stone figures; monsters to any one with a soul. Thinking better of blocking the entrance, he steered his car further about fifty feet and over to the right. He retracted his Reflector pilot and inserted his Mirror Reflector card, setting it to remote. All would be recorded for posterity. Slowly he got out of his car, leaning on the door as if frozen in the moment as he drank in the medievality of the exterior palatial expanse. The realization that it was even gloomier and more macabre inside would have detained even the most valiant Conquistador from his quest. But Vic was undaunted. This modern Don Quixote was not chasing windmills, but very real dangers. Heroic virtue was necessary and Van Wess, though trembling in human fear, was up to the task.

       A foreboding sense seemed to hover around in the gray light as he slowly shuffled toward the entrance, leaning on his cane. The pain in the old leg was excruciating but he pressed on. Silently he prayed that when his body was reunited with his soul at the Last Judgment God would be merciful and give him new legs.

       As he moved closer to the front door, Vic tried to dismiss the sensation that a thousand eyes watched from a large copse of trees off to the left. Haunted or not, he would press on as he lifted his throbbing leg onto the top step. Before him two large ebony doors loomed, highly polished and carved with intricate patterns of vines and fruits; in the center an oversized knocker, its golden luster ring somewhat tarnished, beckoned all visitors to summon those within. Vic bypassed the distinctive knocker for the more expedient doorbell.

       The chimes were eerie; not quite as bazaar, however, as the Lilliputian who answered the door. He had met this man and his twin brother several times during his tenure as editor of the Metroplex Mirror. At each interval, he had shuddered with feelings of nausea at the sight of these impish creatures whose faces better resembled bleached jack-o-lanterns. This day was no exception. He swallowed hard staring straight into the eyes of the pale faced man whose own eyes resembled minute pieces of coal, like those a child might steal for punctuating a snowman.

       "Vic Van Wess to see Edwin Blix. It's urgent."

       "I am so sorry, Mr. Van Wess, Mr. Blix is indisposed at this moment."

       "Then I'll wait," groused Vic, as he gruffly squeezed past the greeter and inside the foyer.

       The whining one was not prepared for such bravado. "I'm afraid, sir, that you will have to- -"

       Vic was in no mood for this wimp. "Or you will have to what?" He stood on his haunches, masking the pain in his leg. Still, he towered above the eunuch. The latter was duly intimidated.

       "Very well, sir," the servant simpered. "You may wait in the study. If you will follow me."

       With much effort Vic lugged his leg toward the imposing study, through a great hall of expensive ebony and redwood. Not a good match. But then he realized nothing in this godforsaken house was a good match.

       "I can never get the two of you straight." Van Wess made small talk. "Are you Ans or Soto?"

       "I am Ans, Ans Ichariak."

       "So where's your brother then?"

       "He is- -." Ans caught himself in time. No need for this disgruntled newspaperman to pry. "--on a special assignment for Mr. Blix."

       "I'll bet!" muttered Vic.

       They arrived at the entrance to the study. Ans stopped, gesturing Vic to go first. Reluctantly the old veteran limped past the gaunt eunuch into the room. Bookcases reached to the ceiling, ancient works of rare find, many in various languages, the vast majority there for show - pretense. Blix didn't read. He dictated.

       Vic's eye caught sticky streaks, like juice, on the wallpaper across from the desk adjacent to the massive fireplace. On the floor a few orange peels authenticated his deduction. Strange, he thought. But then everything in this Gothic, dark hellhole was strange including its occupants; especially them.

       Ans returned. "I must run an errand, sir. Mr. Blix will be with you shortly. Until then, make yourself comfortable. Help yourself to some Sherry on the table there."

       "No thanks. If I need anything I'll just grab an orange," Vic retorted facetiously. He was glad to be rid of this spooky dwarf of a man.

       "You may be waiting for quite some time, Mr. Van Wess." Ans endeavored to retaliate with smugness.

       But Vic defeated his attempt very simply. "Then if I have to wait. I'll wait. I'll wait until hell freezes over."

Dateline: Rome - North side of the Coliseum, November 5, 7:55 p.m.

       Niki raced across the moat of light that separated the street from the ancient, worn walls of the Coliseum. Quickly he ducked through one of the arches, jumped a fence and found himself inside this ancient structure. In recent decades this historic place had undergone a complete renovation. It was floodlit in parts, and Niki had chosen wisely this north entrance where there were no prominent lights. Walking into this place was like stepping back in time. As he eased forward, staying close to whatever wall was available, he felt his feet crunch on loose stones. He wondered if the early Christians, the very same ones who had faced death so courageously in this very place, had also crunched those stones as they'd marched to their deaths.

       Andriopoulos said a silent prayer for these brave souls, especially for those who went to their death with some trepidation. Such doubt was only human. Niki marveled that faith was by word of mouth in those days, not dogma written down and ingrained in them from birth. He realized the great fortitude they must have had as he walked further into the bowels of the stadia, dwarfed by the immensity of the stone more ancient than he could imagine. With every few steps he hoped to hear a signal that Makuta Ogidi was near, waiting for him. Nothing. Deeper and deeper into the recesses of this Roman monument he probed, his breath forming steam around him like a protective halo.

       Suddenly, he felt but did not see what he'd been waiting for. A hand clutched him by the collar and jerked him backward into a side alcove between two rock formations.

       "You are late, Father."

       "Doctor, did you need to hide so deep into this place?" Niki reacted, dusting himself off.

       "I thought you would head directly here after fleeing the warehouse," wondered Makuta.

       Niki tried to explain, "Well, Makuta, the direct route is not always the most expedient. I did not know if they--"

       "That is quite alright, dear Father, you need not explain. You are here. That is enough. The Mercedes left with the two men ten minutes ago. We need to rest for the next few hours. I will awake you at 11 p.m. We will return to the warehouse and slip inside the truck."

       "Three hours to sleep. I can use it. I hope that truck has good suspension."

       "Whatever it has, it will get us in and we will know more of the Legion's plan, Niki. I have prepared a makeshift mattress for you over there. Go, you need to rest."

       Niki was grateful as he plopped down on the straw bedding which Ogidi had prepared. Putting his head on some towels, bunched up to form a pillow, he tried to close his eyes and sleep. It seemed as if he could hear the lions roar as they lunged at helpless Christians ripping and tearing flesh, drowned out only by the roar of the blood-thirsty spectators clamoring for more, more, more... Niki was lost in the void of time as sleep saved him from visualizing more carnage in his imagination.

       While the Greek priest slept, Ogidi busied himself with preparations for later this night. Before they left this hovel within the Coliseum to return to the warehouse and stowaway in the truck heading for the Vatican with its mysterious shipment, Ogidi might catch a few winks of sleep. And then he might not.

       Once inside the Holy See, what would they discover? What dangers awaited? Would they be able to communicate with Pat and Stephen? What contacts had Gallagher and Navarro made? Were they safe from detection? For that matter, were they still alive? Many questions remained this night; so many that sleep would take a low ranking on Dr. Makuta Ogidi's list of priorities.

"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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