The global mood was somber to say the least. Yet none could imagine what Pat was experiencing first hand; a fetid odor that he thought would never leave him. As bad as he felt, he realized it could have been worse. He could have been one of the charred victims. That alone kept him motivated.
The news had reached most of the world. From Singapore to Seattle, from Buenos Aires to Berlin, from Melbourne to Montreal everyone had expressed dismay and outrage, and, for the most part, continued their routine. That was the way of the world. The vast population of generations had become so insensitive to violence and shock, that they treated it as another ugly occurrence - a terrible one for sure - but another that would run its course in a matter of days or weeks and another headline would push the story to page 12 or further. The majority failed to see the significance of so many world and religious leaders wiped out in a flash. It only added fuel to the fires of their political opponents.
Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 5 p.m.
The afternoon traffic crept along the Airport Freeway, bottlenecked at the 114 exchange and backed up all the way to the I-35 East interchange as the November sun was fast setting on the Dallas skyline. In the Metroplex Mirror building overlooking this maze Victor Van Wess had been working feverishly all day balancing stories, proofing copies and bumping stories as more news surfaced.
The one receiving most of the publicity was the pope who had been the most notable and respected of all the rest. Throughout the day Vic had marshaled extra staff members to compile detailed obituaries from the files on all the leaders that perished in the pyrotechnic cremation that shook the world. He had devoted the front page to the pope and the bishop of Fort Worth who had traveled to Iraq for the occasion with a high Baptist official from Dallas. He was holding a spot open on the right front page to pop in a photo he had anxiously been awaiting from Pat. As bad as his leg felt, as tired as Vic felt, he knew he had to wait until Pat's photos came in before fleeing back to his home in Mesquite and the warm embrace of his rock - his wife Aimee.
The photos were coming in now as Vic clicked them up on his computer, lining them up by frame to choose the best photo and caption Pat had sent to identify the image. With a few more clicks he focused on one that illustrated the piles of human flesh with an earthmover's shovel up, all silhouetted in the eerie glow of the spotlights. Despite the haze the photo was remarkably clear.
"That a boy, Pat. Good shots." Vic muttered to himself as he cropped the photo and moved it to another file, then copied it and retracted a CD, all the while calling out. "Gwen. Please get this down to composing now. Thanks." He handed it to a short, somewhat stocky twenty-something woman sporting pig-tails whose shape belied her speed as the spunky torso took off down the aisle, realizing the urgency of Vic's request.
Finally Vic could take a breather, get a fresh cup of coffee for the java had kept him going throughout the night and day. As he stretched his aching leg to lift himself out of his chair, the phone rang on his desk. This wasn't the newsroom phone. Staff handled those. This was cleared through to him. With trepidation he reached for the receiver. "Yeah, Vic here."
"Gallagher's got one helluva mess on his hands." Blix began without preamble. Vic had a premonition it would be Blix. He wished, not for the first time, that this cadaverous man on the other end of the phone wouldn't talk while dangling a cigar between his mealy-mouthed teeth. It was obnoxious.
"I've got confidence in him, Blix. You know that. We'll hear from him. Don't worry."
"Worry? Not me. That's your problem. Isn't it, Vic?" Blix intimidated.
Van Wess was exceedingly tired. His legs, both of them this time, were like two swords jabbing at his nervous system. His whole psyche was teetering on edginess.
"Yeah, it's my job to worry," he snarled at Blix. "I sent him there. No matter that you agreed to it, that you put your jet at the paper's disposal, with your blessing bestowed. I sent Gallagher. I'm responsible for him."
"And now he's missing, Vic." The words dripped off Blix's tongue like acid on velvet.
"What do you mean missing?" Vic became concerned.
"He ditched my man at the airbase. Who knows where he is now?"
Vic realized Pat was okay. The photos he had received confirmed that. He also knew Pat's stubborn independent nature would not stand for anyone accompanying him. Silently he gave a kudos to Pat for his fortitude and returned to his conversation with his damnable boss.
"He'll show up. I know him. Your man would only slow him down."
"You think so, Van Wess?"
"I know so, Blix."
"Why is that?" Blix was trying to bait Vic.
"I think you know the risks." Vic waited for a reply.
"I know the risks as well as you. This is a business of taking risks."
"Yeah, and I'm risking getting sick. Hey, look, I've been on this for 24 hours and very little, if any, sleep. I think I'm going to turn it over to my assistant and..."
Blix was blunt, "If you can't take the pressure, Vic, maybe you'd better think about retiring."
"Knock off the bullcrap threats, Blix," Vic retorted. "This isn't the first rough case I've seen. I know the routine. Dig deep, get the facts. And to hell with the consequences."
"Good. Then we both know the rules of the game. I suggest you stay right where you are and keep me informed. No one is indispensable, Vic. You can be replaced you know." Blix's words tore at Vic's tired psyche.
Furious, Vic hung up, not bothering to acknowledge the command. Painfully he lumbered to the coffee machine to pour himself another cup. Whether the cup was as steaming as he was could be left to conjecture.
Dateline: Vatican City, November 2, 12:05 a.m.
The evening had not been kind to Antonio Macelli. Monsignor Navarro was still pestering him, claiming he had the backing of Gregory Cardinal Zachmann of the United States to challenge the release of the document Navarro had labeled 'heretical.' Damn him, thought Macelli. Yet Navarro was not the only problem he had encountered. The call from Brunatti had truly upset him. He could hear Serrano in the background whining and whimpering. That oaf. What did they mean the dry cleaning was missing?
Had they not taken care of that two days ago? That had been Macelli's order. How dare they defy a direct order. No, he did not know if Vendhem had someone else remove the bodies, but he would get to the bottom. Oh, where the hell was that Arian beanpole?
He drummed his fingers nervously on the ridge of the pew to the side of the main altar of St. Peter's. The only ones in this vast basilica were the nuns of the Holy Spirit, those sisters in light blue who foolishly kept vigil in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the back of this huge edifice. There the many candles lit up the ornately, traditional room of worship with the great tabernacle - the one those nuns devoted perpetual adoration to, believing that the Son of God was actually present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. What rubbish scoffed Macelli. The thought turned his stomach. The rays from the back chapel cast a glow onto the magnificent marble floor of the main apse, 100 yards away and just out of view of the pew where Macelli sat impatiently. Save for the infrequent lights in the great dome above and a few lights behind some of the statues that the night watch guards had not caught, Macelli was bathed in darkness.
Finally he heard a rustle and looked up.
"Vendhem, where have you been?" He sneered in hushed tones impatiently.
"Still flustered I see, Antonio. I have been quite busy preparing things for the master." He was quite proud of his calmness and fastidiousness.
"Did you remove the bodies?" Macelli snapped.
"What bodies are you talking of?" Vendhem questioned.
"You know damn well what bodies. The ones we had to leave in the papal closet three days ago."
"Ah, those, they were removed by the waiters."
"The waiters?" Macelli was incredulous.
"Yes, Guillaume Brunatti and that large one Luciani Serrano. They disposed of them two nights ago, did they not?"
Macelli's jaw sunk deeper into his double chins. "I was afraid of this, Josef. We have lost the bodies."
Vendhem was now alarmed. "They did not remove..?"
The rotund cardinal, his shoulders slumped over the edge of the pew, shook his head. "No, I'm afraid someone else is afoot."
"It can't be!" stormed the now furious German. "No one has the keys to the papal apartment other than the nuns and surely they wouldn't..."
"I don't think so either, Vendhem, because Guillaume said the keys were in the same place he left them. We, of course only have his and Luciani's word on it, but why would they lie?"
"That does not make sense. The nuns much be watched. How many are there?" Vendhem demanded.
"Three. Two Italians, one Irish. I could put a tail on all three, but I think we would be better to transfer them to another area of the Vatican for now," Macelli reasoned.
"What do you propose then, Antonio?"
"I'll cut orders for them to work in the Guard Apartments. We have plenty who can keep their eye on them there."
"Good," nodded the tall German. "When next the master contacts me I will inquire further."
"Perhaps that may not be a good idea, Josef."
"Why do you think such a thing?" Vendhem was perplexed.
"It's possible the master designated someone else to do the deed. He may be testing us. I suggest we watch our backs and continue with Phase Two as planned. Brunatti has informed me the After Hours meeting tonight went quite well." Macelli sought to reassure the dubious Bavarian.
"Then we must proceed with Phase Two, Antonio. I will make sure the necessary corridors are cleared and you the caskets."
"I'm still awaiting word from Elena on how to proceed on that." Macelli had regained his composure. "Because of the total destruction we will move everything up to expedite the process."
"I will be ready as usual. I wait with anticipation for the moment. The document? Has there been acceptance over it I hope?"
"Not as much as anticipated yet. It is early, Josef, the media is consumed with the details of the destruction and those mindless obituaries that honor the dead. What trivial nuances."
"You have learned well from the master, Antonio. I suggest we proceed without hesitation, with all confidence that his total dominance is near."
"Very well, Josef, we stand together."
There on the hallowed ground where St. Peter willingly gave his life, where countless other martyrs were slain for the Faith and where many Popes were buried, the two men of the darkness repeated the oath of evil, pledging their fidelity to the master and the Legion of the Basilisk. That moment a hiss echoed through the dark halls of the magnificent basilica, possibly waking the saints whose statues stood sentry in this cavernous center of universal Catholicism.
Next issue: Fourth Chapter - Episode Four
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!