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

Part V
Eleventh Chapter
The Shedding

Episode Two: Open Sesame!

       Various layers of the atmosphere pinpointed the principals this night. Their locations ran to the extremes. 30,000 feet above Kapuskasing, Ontario the black Blix International Jet darted through the dark sky on its course to Rome.

Dateline: Vatican City - Subterranean passage beneath St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 1:10 a.m.

       Nearly thirty feet below St. Peter's Basilica three figures burrowed their way through the narrow caverned corridor that led away from the crypt. Where they were heading Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn could only guess as he held the flashlight aloft, pointing it into the fuliginous region ahead, advancing further into the bowels beneath the Holy See.

       The St. Louis Archbishops had anticipated this journey, and so he had packed an Eveready. Be prepared. His Boy Scout training as a young boy growing up in Rolla, Missouri had served him well. He was eminently qualified as a spelunker for he had explored many of the caves hidden below the lush, low-slung Ozark Mountains. There were no stalactites hanging from the ceiling of this subterranean passage, only crusted clay and dirt. At one point in their exploration Monsignor Navarro had bumped the side, knocking loose some of the ceiling, a clay plaster that disintegrated into dust particles when picked up. Any kind of loud noise or pressure on the walls could bring the entire fronton of this crude tunnel down upon them, at the very least possibly trapping them from going further.

       "So where does this lead, your Eminence?" Stephen queried, his words echoing through the dark chamber.

       "Luigi never told me," Gregory rejoined, "just that it was a way out of the crypt."

       "Who might I be askin', Your Eminence, be Luigi?"

       "He, Sister, was a great friend at the Biblicum several decades ago. We were classmates in Theology. He had studied archeology and geology and his Master's thesis was on the catacombs and subterranean passages. He let me read part of it. Fascinating."

       "Where's Luigi today, your Eminence?" Stephen inquired.

       "In God's loving arms, I hope, Stephen. He became a missionary and was killed in Uganda seven years ago. Rest his soul."

       "My condolences, your Eminence," Sister Bridie offered.

       "That's okay, my dear Sister. Always remember God has a reason for everything."

       "Even this predicament?" Stephen quipped.

       "Yes, my son, as strange as it seems even this. Therefore, we must keep going. I sense an incline in this tunnel. Can you keep up, Sister?"

       "I be doin' my best, your Eminence."

       In true motivational fashion, Stephen encouraged, "You heard the good Sister, your Eminence. Lead on!"

Dateline: Vatican City - In the antechamber stairway of St. Peter's Dome - November 6, 1:12 a.m.

       In another passageway two others forged onward and upward.

       "Where's this lead, Niki?" Pat panted, trying to catch his breath as they mounted the stairs between the pendentive wall lining the interior of the dome and the exterior shell of the great dome concepted by the ingenious mind of Michelangelo.

       "Where do you think, my friend?" Niki said, not turning around, but keeping his eyes straight ahead.

       "Then what?" Pat asked in puzzlement, trying to catch his breath.

       "Then we go from there," Niki nonchalantly responded.

       "Of course," Pat muttered to himself, "I had to ask."

       "There it is, Patrick," Niki pointed to the balcony of the Lantern above the Cupola.

       "Ah, fresh air. Finally we can rest," a relieved Pat expressed.

       "But only for a short while, my friend." Niki hated to be a spoilsport, but fugitives had no choice.

       Pat reached the crest of the dome, scanning the skyline of the eternal city. Truly impressive, he admitted, as he circled the pavement of the Lantern, frantically realizing there was no exit save from where they had come. That would not be a wise choice for no doubt Macelli and Vendhem had sent more guards after them.

       "Niki, we're marooned. There's no way down."

       "Oh, ye of little faith," Niki replied with resolute calm and determination, as he looked over the railing down the steep exterior slope of the gray dome.

       Pat joined him in perceiving at once what Niki was looking at, what he was thinking. He knew without asking. "Oh, noooo. You can't be thinkin..."

       Niki nodded, climbing over the rail and placing his foot on one of a series of foot-long rivets. These narrow ledges jutted out in ladder fashion from the summit all the way down the side in three-foot intervals on the extended ribs of the dome. Here, centuries ago, workers had placed torches to illuminate their way while completing work on the dome through the night. Before electricity they were used for special occasions to illume the dome.

       "Be careful to place your foot securely on these rivets. They are spaced approximately one yard apart in single file. Follow me and be ever so careful, my friend."

       They began their perilous descent over 400 feet above the Gate, which they had passed through just a little over an hour ago. In the early morning Roman sky the wind from the sea to the southwest had died to a calm. Both would give thanks for that as they climbed down the slanted surface of the great dome, two fleas on this centuries-old venerated spherical skin. Any kind of gust could sweep them off this man-made mountain to their death below. More than a few times Pat wiped the sweat from one hand and then the other as he hung on to the incredibly narrow half-foot ridge, his toe clinging to a similar ledge three-feet below. Slowly, painstakingly slowly, they descended. One slip and it would be over.

Dateline: Vatican City - Near the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 1:18 a.m.

       On the polished inlaid marble floor below in St. Peter's Basilica, the Legion scurried to cover their tracks in the aftermath of the catastrophes of this last hour. The casualty list included three dead from the Legion, no fatalities from the resisters who had eluded them. The Master would surely not be pleased.

       Elena Grabe had completed the coordinates. She was calmer now. The Papal bier had been resealed. She sat down on a nearby sedelia off to the side, near where Cardinal Josef Vendhem was standing, watching and calmly overseeing the process. She stretched her Amazon frame, so encumbered by the confining material of the nun's habit, and directed her conversation toward her fellow countryman.

       "I vill be happy to shed these clothes. Soon, Josef, soon."

       "You are too impatient, Elena. That causes mistakes."

       "Do not lecture me, Herr Vendhem," she railed. "You did not collect the prize when it was available."

       "That is because the fools did not follow my orders, fraulein. Never trust the servants. I fear Clement XV escaped the clutches of Brunatti and Serrano. But where?"

       "Ah, that is the question that haunts us, nein?" Elena interjected. "Is the Pope still alive?"

       "You have only yourself to blame if he is," jabbed Macelli as he approached with one of the guards. "You let the Irish nun escape."

       Grabe ignored him, directing her question toward Serrano. "That was one of our candles. How did they get it?"

       "I do not know, but I will find out and when I do..." Luciani assured.

       "Beautiful was it not?" Vendhem injected, "We saw first hand what one little candle can do. Multiply that, Antonio, Luciani and Elena, by hundreds and...poof. No more!" The German Prelate was perniciously delighting in the possibility as if he could visualize it all before him.

       His partner from the Motherland was not as creative. Elena turned to the accompanying guard. "How many more guards can you muster?"

       "Maybe three, four at the most. Our ranks are diminishing. It is not going as Macelli promised."

       "We will be the judge of that," Macelli broke in. "We shall find the nun, as well as Navarro and the American pest and the other black clad one who almost fell to his death."

       "I wish he had," an emotional Serrano added, "instead of my dear friend Guillaume. Horrible, horrible! No one should die like--"

       "Regardless, Luciani, your friend Brunatti is dead. You cannot wish for what will never be," Vendhem reproved him coldly. "Is the clean-up complete?"

       "Si. Presto," Serrano answered obediently, still stinging from the rebuke. "The bald Turk is mopping up the remains now."

       "Good," interpolated Macelli. "Dispatch as many guards as you can to the roof near the dome. Alert local security that two madmen are loose on top of the Basilica. They are armed and dangerous. We need Gallagher or Navarro alive."

       "The same for the nun, Signore Macelli?" quizzed Serrano.

       "Si. We can dispatch of them later.

       "You, Luciani," Vendhem plied Serrano with promises, "may have the privilege of exacting just revenge."

       "Si. Grazie. Bene grazie," the olive-skinned Roman gratefully replied. To those who have sold their souls, there is no word sweeter than revenge.

       "Guard," Macelli commanded, "post sentries outside Herr Vendhem's and my rooms tonight."

       The guard came to attention, saluted, and turning on his heels, was off to carry out his orders.

       "I take it you intend to sleep then, Antonio," Vendhem asked in a bit of puzzlement.

       "We must be fresh for the funeral, Josef.

       "Ah yes," the German Prelate's lips parted in a sinister smile. "The funeral." The word seemed to linger on his tongue, catching in his throat like a suffocating volcano preparing to vomit forth its molten lava.

Dateline: Blix's Jet - Airborne towards Rome - November 5, 7:35 p.m.

       Corrie had not spoken for over an hour. She'd dropped off and then she'd been brought quickly back to this nightmarish reality and the beast who sat across the aisle from her. After she had taken a swig of the champagne, choking on it as if it were hemlock, he had not bothered her again. She could see he was breathing irregularly. She had heard the bullets from Vic's gun, had seen the blood pouring out of the monster's chest. Could Blix and the... The idea was too hideous to believe. What she had seen was worse than any Jeckyll and Hyde. Yet, as she glanced over at this heaving mass of flesh, seemingly gasping for air as he slept, she took note of the small tufts of gray hair that stood up even more pronounced from his balding scalp. The resemblance to horns was not lost on the savvy Italian-American prisoner on this flight.

       She tried to sort everything out in her mind as she tried to isolate this loathsome individual Blix into her subconscious so she could consciously focus on finding a kernel of truth. It was there somewhere. Beyond the sealed windows she searched, casting her eye towards the black sky with its stars reflecting on clouds adrift in an endless sea of darkness. She watched them float by, distracted by lights in the far distance through rips in the clouds. The Aureole Borealis flickered on the horizon. Beautiful. Yet she could not relish its beauty, nor drink in the magnificent value of this rare phenomenon this night. If only she could reach beyond the glass and touch the clouds, if only she could feel something as common and everyday as the cool condescension of an evaporating cloud, maybe she could wake from this nightmare.

       Ans Ichariak walked up and down the narrow aisle. Did he ever sleep? Corrie wondered. He nodded towards her as if to acknowledge he knew she was awake. His look made her feel as if she'd just fallen into a pool of slime. God, she detested this runt of a man. But could she use him? Could she wrest his allegiance in the slightest way from Blix long enough to aid her? Covertly she studied him, noted his weaknesses, his shallow eyes that were mirrors of a lifeless soul. Ichariak saw her only as Blix desired him to. Could she change that perspective?

       Blix? Could she manipulate him? The pathetic old buzzard in the chair might have been malleable at one time in his life. The creature that would awaken was not. She was trapped. Was there any way out?

       Though Blix had not indicated to her the final destination, she guessed it was Rome, maybe even Iraq. In her heart she hoped it would be Rome. More familiar, more civilized. Besides, her Patrick was there. Had to be. She wished, not for the first time, that Van Wess had told her everything. She regretted not pestering ol' Ben O'Fallon more when he politely told her not to ask why, but to believe and pray. Her information was so limited. All she had to go on was the special phone number Ben had given her and the password "Redbird." He had instructed her to call the number only if she did not hear from him. Without her cell phone, what good would that do now? She resolved in her heart that she would arm herself with love for Patrick and a relentless determination to survive. She prayed it'd be enough to keep her alive. She needed enough time to figure out what Blix's weak spot was. He had to have one.

       After a while the silence in the cabin ate at her, that and knowing that she preferred her own thoughts to whatever Blix and Ans would do or propose. As the world sped by, taking her from one side of the world to another, from one day to the next, she sought refuge in sleep and prayer.

       Before she allowed the mind-numbing rest to take over, she found wordless prayers in her heart. She couldn't help but regret leaving the safe sanctuary of Christ the King. It was so peaceful there. Why had she ventured into the Devil's lair after being in the angels' assuring arms while kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament?

       Prior to this last week, prayer had been foreign to her way of thinking. Too many things to do and think about than to worry about what God wanted, what was truly best for Corrine Anna Maria Morelli. Ben had reminded her so many times and yet she merely patronized him, not taking her faith as seriously as she needed to. Now God was the only lifeline she had, one she clung to in desperation.

       "Please," her heart whispered so only He might hear, "take care of Patrick wherever he is. And help me stop this man - this beast - from whatever it is he's determined to bring about."

       Whatever Blix would do to her, he could never still the idea that lived in her soul: She would see him dead before she died. Before God, she would!

Dateline: Vatican City - On the roof of St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 2 a.m.

       The fates had been kind to Patrick Gallagher and Father Nikolas Andriopoulos on their unusual odyssey in the early hours of this sixth day of November. There had been a few close calls when Pat had almost slipped off the six-inch ledges jutting out from the ribs of the great Basilica of St. Peter's. Though their expedition had taken them a good 35 minutes to descend the steep dome, Niki had moved down the slope effortlessly, totally reliant on God's mercy and providence. Pat had not learned that unique art, had not received that special gift quite yet. But he was improving. He gave great glory to the Almighty when they finally, firmly planted their feet on a piece of property wider than half a foot. He might also have given thanks that the remaining Swiss Guards which Macelli had recruited - the men he had lured, intimidated, and deceived - were of the caliber one might term lazy, stubborn and slow afoot. Were they not, they would have been there waiting to take the trespassing trekkers into custody.

       With no one to impede their progress, Pat and Niki slid down a buttress to the main roof and ran towards the front of the Basilica, past the gift shop, empty guard quarters and roof restaurant, all locked tighter than a drum. A drum. They had just escaped the cylinder of a drum - the tambour - passing from the interior to the outer side and down. Except for the explosion of the candle Niki had dropped, this safari from sanity had been relatively quiet. Not so when the clock struck two hours the other side of midnight.

       The moonlight danced on the rooftop of St. Peter's, the statues in the distance loomed as giant sentries. Would they warn Pat and Niki of impending danger? The warning came from the bell-tower in the room below the clock to their right, in the left front facade of the Basilica - the Gospel side. Their proximity meant they could not escape the chimes that penetrated every nerve. The hourly bells rang out. The booming clarion, magnified a hundred times to those nearby, turned a melody into a din.

       Pat was wobbly, holding his ears, wondering if it would ever stop, when, in truth the two-o'clock clarion was very short. Nevertheless it was an eternity to those in its immediate shadow.

       "What's going on?" Pat shouted over the echo of the bells that remained. "I think I'm deaf now."

       "That," Niki urged him to pick up the pace, "was our wake-up call to keep moving, my friend. We must get to the castle. He pointed to the old circular edifice at the end of the Via Della Conciliazione where the Tiber was visible, the reflection of Castel Sant'Angelo sparkling in the moonlit ripples on the river below.

       Pat nodded. "If the Pope's still alive...and if he's even there...and if we can get inside."

       "Have faith, my American friend," Niki advised, as they ran nearer to the giant statue of Christ. There, Bernini's sculpture of the Lord - flanked by immense congruences in stone of St. John the Baptist and the five apostles to the right and six apostles to the left - stood majestically on the balustrade of St. Peter's facing out towards the Square. "Have faith."

       Pat couldn't help but think how ironic it was that earlier tonight he had started out on the roof, been rescued and now was on a roof again. He had to be crazy. In fact, ever since he had linked up with this mysterious Greek it was one close shave after another. What was it that so attracted danger to Niki and whoever was with him, wondered Pat, as his imagination played with his psyche. He was soon shocked back to the present as they reached the railing and the tall stone statues that looked out upon the Square. Where Pat was just a few hours ago was for kindergartners compared to where they were now.

       Niki didn't give it a thought. He tapped Pat on the shoulder. It was his silent signal to follow him. Quickly the Greek priest slipped behind one of the statues and opened another trap door to the attic of the Basilica behind the huge clock, topped by Bernini's granite triregno and keys in magnificent relief. How did he know where these things were? marveled Pat. Before long, both were descending an iron circular stairway lit only by the moonlight pouring through open portals in the Facade. They passed through the room of the huge electronic bells in the impressive Bell Tower room. Thank God they'd just gone off, thought Pat as they continued to descend via another circular stairway until they reached the level of the central loggia. Their journey took them to a small corridor. It was basically a 3-foot ledge spanning the interior cornice of the atrium below. Pat took Niki's cue and followed until they arrived at another ledge, four feet higher. It seemed like a dead end, except that it led to the outside through an aperture six feet high and five feet wide beneath the corner loggia. Niki boosted himself up on the ledge, then extended his hand to help Pat.

       They carefully traversed the ledge to the corner. There it was roughly a twelve-foot drop to the roof of the annex building below, the same building which would connect to the southern Colonnade. Oh, great, thought Pat as he leapt to the roof with Niki, here we go again.

       Niki led the way away from the Basilica, taking basically the same route Pat had taken on the other side of the Square. Without realizing they were being tracked he blurted to Niki, "This is deja vu all over again. I was on that side--"

       "Shhhhh." Niki silenced him. "They have spotted us. Over there."

       He didn't have to point, Pat saw them immediately. Two plain-clothed Swiss guards were entering the roof of the annex colonnade from the Basilica by a more conventional means - a door.

       "Stay close to me," Andriopoulos whispered to Pat, "we must get to the end of the columns. Are you ready?"

       "Do I have a choice, Nik? Let's go."

       They took off, crouching low, but the moonlight outlined them. And then they discovered another problem. The hum of a helicopter. Damn. Macelli must have known someone within the military, for an Italian Air Force chopper was bearing in with its beam weaving up and down on the tiled roof. They froze as it passed over them, then picked up the pace as the aircraft circled again ready to zero in on the search.

       Mourners who had been camping out in the Via Della Conciliazione were now abuzz. Anyone who had been sleeping had been awakened by the whir of the chopper's blades. As it passed over to position for a better angle for shining its beam, the helicopter stirred up dust and papers in a vortex of swirling confetti. What was going on? People craned their necks as they started to congregate, curious to the action which was now focused on the Colonnade. It was directly across from where Pat had used the belt and Velcro tips attached to Sergeant Dionis' belt to lasso the cable that extended to the building on the Italian side. Corrie wouldn't believe it. Velcro had saved his life. Would he ever be able to tell her, to see her, to hold her in his arms again?

       Thoughts of Corrie soon dissolved into panic and prayer as the helicopter's searchlight zoomed in, catching Pat's backside. The white T-shirt stood out against the darker tiled roof. Niki's black shirt concealed him more even in the glare of the spotlight. Pat tried to escape the light, but the beam found its source. Curtains for sure. Niki motioned Pat to take cover behind one of the statues at the end. The angle blocked the view from the chopper. To get a better bead on the hunted, the hovering vehicle lifted and banked, intending to swing around again.

       "Now," shouted Niki as he darted for cover behind the stone Coat of Arms of Alexander VII on the southeastern corner. The chopper was swinging back, its beam narrowing in on its target as Pat dove for cover, sliding behind the statue. As the light tried to focus on any movement behind the statue, Niki's hand grabbed Pat's T-shirt and pulled him into the blackness. Then the former slammed shut the stone door on the back of the monument of Pope Alexander VII, the Chigi Family Pontiff who had commissioned Bernini to build this magnificent portico on the entablature above the huge Doric columns.

       Subconsciously both men of the present blessed two master artists of the past who made this escape possible. Pat and Niki were locked within a marvel of the 17th century - a monument to a Pope in their journey to find the Pope. It was a very narrow room no less built by the Master of Baroque: Gian Lorenzo Bernini on the cornice of the columns that bore his name. Little did Gallagher and Andriopoulos realize the irony of their journey. They could not comprehend Providence's role for they had entered the Holy See beneath one of Bernini's greatest achievements - the Altar of the Throne of St. Peter's. Later they had come perilously close to plunging to their death near the great Baldacchino rising above the Main Altar; the very Masterpiece the Neopolitan Bernini had carved and created. They had escaped certain death through the passageway which Michelangelo had designed in the great Cupola which the Florentine had also conceived; on the very narrow pedestals down the outside of the great dome that he had drafted. Though Pat and Niki were unaware at the moment, soon they would exit the Vatican through a special cavity Bernini himself had sculpted out in his later years...as if both Baroque Masters knew this day would come.

       Standing in total stillness and darkness, they could hear the droning outside, then voices in Italian, English and German.

       "Now what?" Pat had to ask, shifting to give Niki more room in this tight space of blackness.

       "We wait. We wait."

       "Can't see a thing, Nik. You got any more candles?"

       "Not a good idea right now, Patrick. Definitely not a good idea."

       The voices grew closer, very close. "They are gone. Where did they go?"

       Pat and Niki froze in place, daring not breathe.

       Another guard circled the statue, peering over the ledge of the portico. "Down," he deducted. "That is the only way off this roof. They must have jumped."

       "No one could live from this height."

       "Si. Let us hope that is true. Macelli will want proof. We go. Adesso! Check for bodies or blood."

       "Si," shouted the first guard above the roar of the helicopter as he signaled the pilot that the search on the roof had ceased.

       "Especially the blood," the second guard emphasized, a sadistic twist to his voice.

       Soon the voices had trailed off. They were heading back

       Niki realized they had to move quickly; he dropped to his knees digging at the dirt below his feet.

       "Nik, how'd ya know so many secret doors?"

       "Study and the Holy Ghost, my friend."

       "Wish I'd have known that earlier. I wouldn't have had to hang there on the other side."

       "Patrick," Niki said, as he kept chipping at the dirt, "if it is any consolation, the same monument on the other side has no escape hatch. Only this side; that is why we came this way."

       "Now you tell me!" said an exasperated Gallagher. He felt as if he were a blind man caught in a maze. He was used to being the informed one, the one who informed others. Here, he was up against the Devil himself, and he felt left out of the loop. For now, he had no choice but to follow, listen and learn.

       "If you can maneuver your body and move to this side," Niki guided his hand on Pat's leg, pushing him to the other side, "I believe there is another opening here somewhere." Niki dug deeply and found the source of his joy, the inset grip of a circular slab. "If you can kneel and help me with this I do believe we will find our way out."

       Pat stooped in the most awkward position in the pitch-blackness and grabbed hold of the edge, Niki guiding his hand to the other grip indent.

       "Now, Patrick, lift!

       They lifted, with not a little difficulty, the manhole cover type of slab, tipping it on its end. All Pat could hear was Niki calling from down below, a hollow echo, "Follow me, grab the polllllll."

       "I have so far. Why not now?" He brailled for the pole, grabbed it with both hands and alighted downward in the darkness, descending the length of one of Bernini's great Doric columns. Clever devil, thought Pat, this Gian Lorenzo Bernini who was the 17th century Mastermind behind this magnificent structure surrounding St. Peter's Square.

       "What took you so long?" Niki teased as Pat hit the bottom, braced by Niki's grip.

       "I was sightseein'," Pat shot back.

       "I hope you didn't bring any souvenirs," was Niki's touché. "We must travel light."

       "And just where are we headin' now?"

       "To the castle, Patrick, to find the Pope." Niki unlatched a hook, and slid the concrete slab to the right, squeezing his frame out onto the pavement at the far end of St. Peter's Square. They were now at ground level, outside the farthest Doric column beneath the great Colonnade portico. Pat followed suit, exiting three feet above the ground. Then Niki reached up and glided the concrete slab back on its hinges to where it snapped into place with a thud. Soon the two were across the street, out of the Vatican City State and on Italian soil. They easily blended in with the throng of mourners.

       Above, the helicopter was still circling. On the sidewalk someone had left a leather jacket. Niki knew it wasn't right, but Pat was getting cold. He'd need more protection against the elements and hide the obvious whiteness of his t-shirt. Niki had already snared a car and some candles. What was a mere jacket? He stooped and picked it up as he continued on. No reaction. Thank you, God, he silently prayed and passed the jacket back to Pat. "Put it on. You will need it."

       "Where'd ya get this?" Pat hadn't seen him lift the coat.

       "Do not ask, my friend. Do not ask."

Dateline: Vatican City - Subterranean passage beneath St. Peter's - November 6, 2:20 a.m.

       "By my calculations, your Eminence, we have been climbing steadily," Stephen deduced.

       "Yes, Stephen, your direction is good," Cardinal Zachmunn acknowledged. "I'm amazed but I believe Luigi was right."

       "About what?" asked Stephen.

       "Where this leads. If I am right, we are not far now. Sister, we're in for a bit of a steep climb. Are you up to the task?"

       "Sure n' I be tired, but I trust you be knowin' best, your Eminence. I be doin' whatever you say."

       "I can appreciate the physical fatigue. I too am feeling it. I'm not as young as I once was."

       "We'll make it," Stephen tried to prod them both on optimistically. "Just where does this lead?"

       "If Luigi was right and I'm relatively sure he was, this connects to the Leonine wall. It connects with a series of canals within the walls of the Holy See to escape foreign attacks. There are 30 secret stairways and corridors in the Vatican. This is one of the main passageways. Once we started climbing upward I knew. We will soon be on the second floor of the Papal Palace."

       "You're kidding," Stephen blurted out in disbelief.

       "No, in fact we should be quite near the Pope's private chapel. Ah, Deo Gratias. Yes, see that." Gregory panted as he pointed the flashlight at a plain wooden door, crusted with dust and cobwebs.

       "A door! But where does it lead?" Stephen wondered.

       "I need to rest, my son," Gregory rasped. The journey had exhausted him. He slumped down by the door. He was noticeably weak. "Go on a - - head, my son." The flashlight slipped from his hand as Stephen caught his mentor falling faint. He braced him as he gently placed him against the wall near the door. Then Monsignor Navarro retrieved the flashlight. Pointing it to the side of Gregory, Stephen and Sister could see his condition was not good. Zachmunn was tired, worn out. Sister Bridie placed her hand on the good Cardinal's forehead.

       "Your Eminence, you be feelin' clammy, you be," Sister Bridie was alarmed.

       "My heart pills, I'm afraid," Gregory barely managed a whisper as his lungs and heart were fighting him. "I didn't bring an extra supply."

       "He be needin' them, Monsignor. He be gettin' weaker. O God, please be helpin' this good man."

       "Stephen, I need you to do something. If my calculations - - are correct - - if --." Zachmunn was now breathing heavily, his voice weaker. "If you see - - a ladder take it," Gregory insufflated with great effort. "Watch for - - a, a door. You should," he gasped for more air, "be able to smash through it, get to a phone. Call a - - doctor. Have him--"

       "Relax, your Eminence, you not be talkin'. You be needin' to save--"

       "Bring the Doctor to - - the - - Papal - - Sac--ri--"

       "Sacristy?" Stephen coaxed.

       Gregory could barely acknowledge, "Yes I - - I must rest...now."

       The St. Louis Archbishop was totally spent. His head slumped to the side, the breathing slower. Stephen realized time was of the essence.

       "Watch over him, Sister. I'll try to get to a phone. Pray for me, Sister. Pray for us all."

       He aimed the flashlight into the darkness and followed the probing beacon. It led him around a corner and out of sight or sound of the Irish nun as she nestled down in the dark next to the Cardinal, placing her arm around him so his head would rest on her shoulder. Softly she prayed the Memorare and several other prayers. Would this catacomb-like chamber be the Cardinal's final resting place? Would she die here as well? "Oh, hurry, Monsignor, hurry," she whispered between prayers.

       Stephen could not hear her prayers but knew it, felt it. It spurred him on to the point where a narrow, steep circular stone stairway protruded from the wall ascending to a higher vault in the ceiling. He lifted his cassock up, tucking the folds as best he could into the back and sides of his pants to give him better mobility. He hoisted himself up on the first pedestal and proceeded to the next step 18 inches apart. The rock staircase slanted steeply. The Monsignor climbed higher until he reached a carrel that led to the right into another chamber.

       The flashlight first spotted it. Stephen explored further, discovering on the stone floor several torn pieces of burlap. As he panned the beam of light further he could see that someone had dragged something away. Away from where? There seemed to be only a wake of dirt that had been disturbed, granules funneled into a wave of smooth repositioning. Continuing to explore the area, his eyes focused on the impression in the dirt that ran to the wall. It looked as if someone had been sitting there, and not too long ago. Footprints revealed someone had been there. From the faint imprints it looked like size 12 boots.

       Whoever it was had not covered their tracks here. Large enough for a person, Stephen deduced. He followed the marks in the dirt to the stone ledge rising up at the wall. A door roughly 7' high by 3' wide. He traced the edges with his flashlight to the hinges. Setting the flashlight down he pinched his fingers between the edges, first pushing, then pulling.

       Putting all his weight into pulling, it unlodged easier than he expected. This created a problem, however, for the inertia threw him off balance, back onto the dirt. He had held onto the wooden postern as it flew off the hinge, crashing to the side on top of the flashlight, smashing the bulb. He was without light.

       Groping for the opening, he stepped over the foot high ledge and eased his body through the portal and into another room. The surface here was smooth marble. Brailling his way further along, his fingers discovered a small rounded piece of wood of some kind. Upon further examination he realized it was nothing more than a coathanger. Crawling along the floor he flailed the air until his fingers found a wall. Getting to his feet, he followed the wall until he reached the moldings of a door. He found the handle and twisted it.

       The moonlight illuminated the room. Adjusting his eyes he surveyed the sight. It was familiar, a place he had been only once, but an experience one never forgets. Was he really here? How did Gregory know?

"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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