The sights and stench of the Field of Death would have had to dissuade anyone from ever taking up the profession of coroner. Yet there were plenty of instantly-appointed 'coroners' sifting through the hopeless remains littered and buried beneath the human rubble that less than 24 hours ago teemed with living flesh. Now all was burnt to a cinder. The night air grew heavier as the early morning atmosphere clashed with the soot and smaze that penetrated the psyche of all who had committed themselves to this unenviable task of sorting. Where did one begin?
For Pat Gallagher that was a question he still could not answer as he continued into the other side of 2 a.m. on the day of All Souls, treading carefully over and through the remains of whatever was left on this fetid Field of Death. The powerful lens in his Reflector computer pack picked up things that the human eye could not discern. As Pat studied the images on his Dick Tracy-like watch, he failed to notice a man crouched over the shattered remains of what once had been a living human being. Pat lost his balance as his leg bumped against the man and both tumbled to the ground, coming very close to toppling into the rubble.
It was difficult for the two men to get a good look at one another in the uncertain light. Hurriedly both fought to extract themselves from a tangle of their own arms and legs, and stood upright, each brushing the debris on his anti-contaminated suit off as if he'd fallen into a pit of crawling insects with a burning bite.
"Of all the ---" began the man Gallagher had stumbled into.
"Sorry," Pat sheepishly admitted, trying to apologize and feeling unclean suddenly, as if death had personally touched him.
They looked at one another, and Gallagher found himself gazing into the countenance of one of the most penetrating pair of ebony eyes he had ever beheld. Even beneath the oxygen mask their gaze was riveting and only after blinking several times did Pat focus on the entire man who stood well over six feet and who was powerfully built, though lithe.
Suddenly, the other man smiled and the immediate transformation was one Pat took gratefully, for he had no intention of getting off on the wrong foot with anyone here if he could help it. He was already uptight with the pompous military guards. Who could this man be, a medic, a reporter, an investigation expert? Pat needed cooperation, inside information, a pipeline of news he could filter through and back to Vic at the Mirror.
"So...we meet," said the as-yet stranger. "But not in a very good place, I think we're agreed on that. Not a place for losing one's self in one's thoughts. Right?"
"Right," Pat finished dusting himself off. "I was a bit preoccupied, I guess. Name's Pat Gallagher. I represent UPI source for the Metroplex Mirror out of Dallas-Fort Worth." The perplexed reply from the stranger prompted Pat to identify further. "Texas."
"Ah, United States. You've made good time, my friend," he said conversationally, still not giving any pertinent information about himself. "Except for the reporters that were already land-based in Europe or sent to Baghdad to cover the event, you are among the first reporters to arrive. You will, undoubtedly, not be the last."
"I wouldn't think so. But, let's just say I like gettin' the upper hand in my investigative reportin'."
"Hmm..." The man looked back to the ground where he had been carefully combing a patch of darkened dirt where there were visible remnants of cloth, the glint of metal, a piece of leather, perhaps from a shoe, but nothing else except ashes. He looked back up at Pat with a smile.
"Forgive me. I am Niki Andriopoulos. I am, how do you say? A free-lancer from Athens. But I could not somehow resist the pull of this incident, despite the overwhelming tragedy it was. I saw it...not first hand, of course, but via satellite."
The statement was flat, delivered without emotion. Nonetheless Gallagher nodded, murmuring, "I know. So did I."
His stilted reply still prompted a response from the man from Athens. "It was, was it not, as if you were present? As if the ripping, tearing explosions were in the very room with you, and you could not dismiss them."
"Something like that," Gallagher responded, eyeing this Greek for further clues to his inner feelings.
"Ah, anyway, I am here... And it is precious little that I have accomplished grubbing my way along the ground. Yet..."
He broke off abruptly as there was a scream from somewhere farther away in the darkness, and both men stood rigidly till the echoing sound faded into oblivion, and Pat found himself shaking.
"You will gradually get used to it, my friend. It was monumental, what happened. I cannot comprehend even now. But the destruction, the panic, the fire and explosions which must have been projected with terrific force through the crowd in an arching pattern have left piles of flesh, as yet, not even touched."
Good line, Pat reflected, but only said, "Yeah, ouch!"
"You can imagine the task of trying to account for well over 150,000 people, plus all the officials and delegations. This country is poorly equipped to handle something like this, and stubborn about allowing help into their borders."
"You got that right," Pat joined in.
"But they will have no choice now, these prideful dignitaries." Pat sensed a political bent to Niki's tone as the Greek continued. "This incident belongs to the world, not their own corner of it, and there will be much hell to pay if the world does not get a hand in cleaning up and sorting out this tragic mess."
"Do you think, Mr. Andropolous, that the world has already seen hell, the real thing?"
"Ah, my American friend, you may be right about that. But I must correct you on one thing. It is Andriopoulos - An dri OP oo lohse" His lips phonetically pronounced his last name.
"Uh, sorry, man."
"No problem. It is a very difficult name for westerners to pronounce. No?"
"Yeah, but I shoulda got it right. Damn I'm just shook up about all this...and angry."
"Indignation has nothing to do with the extent of what has happened here."
"Yeah, but it can get to ya when you have to deal with these snot-nosed soldiers. The last checkpoint guard told me there was a group of global experts already on the scene hunting for clues, but I haven't come across 'em yet. How 'bout you?"
"Ah yes, the rather large obnoxious man," Niki acknowledged. "He is a classic. No? A real charmer, with the class of an asp and the brain of a fossil. Yes, there is such a group at work. They are in the bowl area."
"Oh, the restricted area, huh?" Pat was wising up.
"Yes. They have been hastily assembled from several countries. Explosive experts, small arms experts, anti-terrorist experts, forensic experts, medical examiners, intelligence, counter-intelligence..."
"The whole gorilla," Pat added.
"Of course, a potpourri of, how you say - egg-head individuals, who will sift, sort, argue, wrangle and bandy politics about until they are content to release a story to the world that they can all agree upon."
"Which," Pat noted, "will undoubtedly take some time."
"And why not?" Niki countered, "the longer they put it off, the more suspense builds, the more secure become their jobs. It is the perfect example of what you Americans call, I believe, the Peter Principle."
"You got a pretty good grasp of us, I see. Can't argue." Pat was warming to this man from Greece. "Whaddya gonna do? That's life."
"Ah, that is where you are wrong, my friend. I for one do not intend to sit idly in some rotting hotel room waiting for these idiots to speak. I will find the cause, and from that find who is responsible, if in the meantime that is not achieved for me when the person or parties responsible come forward to claim credit for this hideous deed. A crime of this magnitude cannot be long without a by-line. No?"
"No," agreed Gallagher. "And what, if I may ask, have you uncovered so far?"
"You may ask, but I may choose not to tell you." Niki's tone hinted of extreme caution.
"Fair enough," Pat shot back in self-defense. "Why should you share your font of wisdom with me? I can do my own digging."
"Be careful, my friend," Andriopoulos said softly, his words edging closer to Pat as if to test his sincerity by shock value. "Be vigilant that you do not stumble upon an unexploded device, or fall ill at the sight of this ravaged place."
"Don't worry," Pat brushed it off.
Niki was not convinced. "I have seen men more practiced in the art of dying become so overwrought at sights not nearly as hideous as this that their own deaths were marked upon their faces and stamped upon their hearts. I would not wish that to happen to you."
"You won't. I'm a survivor, if I didn't mention that fact before." Pat was in self-denial, though he was not as aware as Niki was. "I don't become 'overwrought'. That's not my job."
"No. I'm sure it isn't." Niki decided to lighten up. "But it is the function of the human mind to block the horrible, to deny evil. I have seen it...only too often. It is meant only as a warning, sincerely meant. Perhaps we will meet again."
"Yeah, who knows," Pat offered, beginning to move away from this strange and articulate man who bore all the marks of what Gallagher imagined the ancient Greeks to have looked like. He didn't care for the underlying current of Andriopoulos' statements, yet something in them had punched a button in his psyche and he felt unnerved again. Dammit, Pat cursed. Now was no time for nerves. He had to be steel-plated.
Pat walked on, partially ignoring the Greek's warning, passing in and out of light and shadow as he progressed from point to point, some illuminated by the hastily constructed generated-run spotlights, other places bathed in a suffocating ebony. The latter did not show up at all on his camera which continued transmitting via satellite back to Vic's office in Dallas. The further into the abysmal mess he ventured, the further he fancied he was getting away from reality, from the world where Corrie existed, away from the last vestiges of hope.
Pat could only reflect on how one could hold on to hope when one's feet tread upon scoriae and ashes...soot that might have once composed a human being who had laughed and cried and loved.
It was, Pat surmised, like walking on your own grave before you were dead and buried.
Gallagher hated it. He hated it with a passion, but still he moved on. There was no way left to go but onward, tiptoeing through the embers of anxiety.
Next issue: Fourth Chapter - Episode Three
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!