While the serpent slithered through the halls of the Holy See, the world was still in a coma-like unbelief at the events that had happened less than 24 hours earlier. By morning the pack of media wolves would descend on the littered remains of the Field of Abraham. If the Iraqi sentries were disgusted with the small trickling of early journalists, then they would be beside themselves when the international media hordes arrived around daybreak, especially the tabloid newsmongers who had little respect for anything alive, let alone the dead.
Dateline: The Field of Death, New Nasiriyah, November 2, 2:25 a.m.
The search continued in the nothingness of the night as Pat ambled over and between blackened scoriae that he could not determine had been inanimate or, 18 hours earlier, very animate. Every step brought a sharper assessment of how much revulsion ripped at him like a tsunami. Mounting fury stoked a furnace whose coals were hate. Beyond lay an incendiary of untouched emotions.
There were countless photographic essays here to feed the public. A gluttony of abuse and horror. He had filed four stories as he walked, dictating his words into the tiny microphone. Ah the wonders of technology Pat pondered. Here he was on this Field of Death on the other side of the globe seemingly alone, and yet those surfing the Mirror's website could see a ReflectorCam while he walked. His words were running on a slow moving ticker beneath the images, to be filed into respective articles across the fiber optic streams that would automatically be formatted for the webmaster and sent to the editor for final editing and print placement. He wondered if Corrie was tuned in to all this. Why had she left her phone off when he tried to call her on the way to Love Field? Damn, did she know where he was? He couldn't send her an e-mail because his personal electronic communication had been blocked once the Reflector code had been activated. He had tried to override it on the plane, but no use. She would see the paper in the morning and realize. God he missed his cara mia.
His very anger kept his feet moving; it fashioned the nucleus of his present strength. No matter what it took, no matter how long, he would see it through. Time evaporated in the unremitting presence of death. Pat's nerves were beginning to unravel - a definite sign of stress - that was evident when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Still working your side of the street I see, my American friend." It was the Greek again.
"You still here? Hell, there's nothing here. I'm afraid I got the leftovers." Pat mewled through eyes glazed with fatigue and misery.
"There's not much leftover, my friend." Niki gestured over the field. "We work together - not against each other."
"I work better solo anyway." Pat shrugged distrustingly.
"Then you prefer to stay here throughout the night, my friend?"
Pat's exhaustion was obvious. "It's...difficult to leave. I keep thinking- - " He broke off, feeling suddenly foolish.
Niki picked up Pat's trend of thought. "- - That perhaps you will find that one clue which will piece this together, that will answer the wailing question: WHY? That, with luck, you may find a survivor. Ah, my friend, it is the hope of the human spirit which refuses to buckle in the face of overpowering odds. And," the Greek slid his dark eyes further toward the area where once stood the main center stage, "you wish to go down there."
"Sure. Why not?" Gallagher asked testily. "Looks like nobody's gonna get closer than 50 yards away from the phalanx of SWAT squads down there."
"Ah, these officials. A nuisance," noted Niki. "But one to be endured. They must do all they can to save face before the world's opinion. No? Yet, what does it really matter? It is no different down there than it is up here. In the grand scheme those on the stage were no more important than those who died here where we stand. Each had a soul. Each is now meeting his Maker."
"You must have that on good authority," Pat cynically snarled.
Niki laughed. A soft sound etched with sadness. "My American friend, I always have everything on good authority. It is one of my best trademarks." He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture, "Look, the hour grows late. There is little either of us can accomplish when we are bone-weary. We scurry like rats, but find nothing. No? My friend, the dawn will come soon. Very soon. I, for one, need to be well-nourished before daylight illuminates what I have so far half-pictured in my mind."
"Ya gotta point, Kimosabe," Pat admitted.
"But of course." Niki opined. "We all know what happened here. We must be leery of when it could happen again, how, where and to whom."
"Ya forgot the what and why"
"Yes, the why. There are many reasons, my friend, all of which, I fear, bode evil for us and the entire world because of the what."
Pat waited for him to continue, but he didn't. "Which is what?" Pat prompted.
"You are a font of questions. No?" Niki seemed to playing games with his mind again.
"Hey, I'm a reporter."
"Reporters have to rest, too" Andriopoulos offered.
"Tell ya what - I'll rest if you will?" Pat was offering his own olive branch.
"Ah, the American competitive spirit. You need not fear me, Patrick Gallagher."
"That's what Brutus said to Caesar," Pat countered.
"Ah, but he was Roman, not Greek." Niki instigated,
"Okay, but remember what they said about Greeks bearing gifts." Pat expanded.
"Beware...I know," nodded Andriopoulos. "Also beware of knowing who to trust."
"I don't trust easily." Pat's body stiffened.
"Allow me to prove my intentions. I offer you the laurel of peace by extending shelter and an invitation to breakfast, my Texas friend."
Incredulously Pat looked around. "Where???"
"Ah, not here, that is for sure. I am staying in a private residence...the home of a friend of mine," Niki smiled mischievously.
Pat started to object, except he was so fatigued he really wanted nothing more than a hot shower and the oblivion of sleep.
Niki needed to convince him now. "You must come with me. It is imperative. There will be someone else joining us at the meal...someone you must meet."
Gallagher was suddenly more alert. "Oh?"
"Yes." Niki would say no more.
"Where?" Pat inquired, weakening in his resolve to resist.
"75 miles south, just across the border in Kuwait." Niki painted the image that would sell Pat on the idea. "An estate on a tributary of the Euphrates. It is an oasis."
"Sounds temptin'. Hard to pass up a bed and free meal. Sure could use a hot shower," Pat rationalized.
"Let us depart from here. I assure you that nothing will change if we gather our thoughts, renew our strength and fortify ourselves with some information."
Was there an argument to that? If there was, Pat couldn't find it. He instinctively liked Niki, found himself intrigued by this Greek who free-lanced, committing himself to a case of such ugly proportions when he could be lounging on a sun-drenched yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean.
"Okay," he agreed. Let's get the hell outta here!"
"Use that word sparingly, my friend," Niki cautioned abruptly. "I cannot help but sense that the mythological 'Hell' that we have heard about since the dawn of religion is seeping up from beneath the ground...and this, my friend, is the forerunner."
On that bitter note the two reporters began to pick their way back among the charred remains, past continuing clean-up crews, and roving police, military and inspection teams who paid no attention to the two newsmen exiting this eerie scene.
Niki's Humvee was parked just 40 yards from Pat's jeep. It would be easy to follow. As the two vehicles rumbled out of the compound regions, Pat experienced a shiver which traversed his spine, as if an unseen skeletal hand toyed with his nerves. Only his subconscious understood the euphony.
He tailed Niki's Humvee through the clutter of sentries and obstacles that made off-roading truly an adventure. Finally they were away from the maddening crowd and speeding south. He couldn't help but wonder where they were headed since his newly-found Greek friend preferred to keep things to himself, imparting only sparse information, and then only when necessary.
He concentrated on keeping Niki in sight. Gallagher's jeep bumped along huffing and puffing to keep up with the more all-encompassing Humvee that seemed to glide over the desert terrain bathed by a full moon. Thirty miles out of New Nasiriyah the night air was brisk and clear as Pat glanced up to see the stars glistening above and started to breathe a little easier in anticipation of a hot shower and soft bed. Ah, sleep, perchance to dream.
Dateline: Palatial Oasis Estate in Kuwait on the Iraqi border, November 2, 4:10 a.m.
At length they arrived. Pat pulled his battered nuts and bolts machine up behind Niki's in a circular driveway of a magnificent villa nestled among tall cypress trees that silhouetted as stillettoes against the mighty moon.
Niki gathered his pack and scurried over to Pat who had turned off the ignition, finally relaxing his neck and gazing at the constellations. It was so peaceful.
"Come, my friend. You need some sleep." the Greek Samaritan intoned.
"I don't know! I'm beat, but I doubt I can sleep." Pat responded, pulling his eyes from the celestial display and back to the man beside the jeep. Not for the first time was Pat struck by the fact that Andriopoulos seemed an odd combination of a hard-boiled, tough-as-nails reporter and a man who could read souls, and who appreciated the need to be refreshed by the sight of beauty which no man couldn've created...like the sky above. "I don't think I want to sleep."
Niki caught his drift. "Don't worry. You won't dream. At least not yet. Your mind will blot it all out for a while. In the meantime, without rest you will not be able to pursue your mission."
Pat held his tongue. No use telling this man that right now he seriously doubted the wisdom in pursuing his 'mission.' He was filled with desolation and the stirrings of despair disturbed him. He took a cigarette from the pack in his dust-crusted shirt pocket and lit it, inhaling deeply.
"And, my friend," continued Niki without noticing the smoke that invaded his nostrils, "in but a few hours I will introduce you to someone who may just chase the doubts from your mind, no?"
That mysterious someone. Pat wanted to prod. He didn't. He knew Niki wouldn't tell him anymore this night, or morning as the case may be. Besides, he was truly beat. It was time to put everything on pause. That he knew, if nothing else. "It's just good to feel the fresh air," Pat blurted, as he continued to stretch the kinks of his equally long journey and time at the Field of Death.
"Yes, I know. The Field of Death, it gives one claustrophobia, no?" Niki opined.
"Maybe. Something like that," Pat shot back in a zombie tone.
"It will pass. It always does," assured Niki. "Trust me. On claustrophobia I am an expert. A sensation I am well-acquainted with."
The Texan's face relaxed a bit as he exited the jeep, grinding his cigarette out on the ground. "We all have hang-ups. Claustrophobia. Cigarettes. In short, we're vulnerable."
"So true. We will go in now," Niki motioned as he headed toward the front door.
Pat gathered up his equipment and followed the tall, muscular Greek up a flag-stone path between the towering cypress trees. They came to a front portico before a house that had somehow miraculously withstood the worst of the continuous conflict in this area from well before the Gulf War to the present.
Niki's knock was promptly answered by a mannerly Mid-Easterner who bowed politely, smiled and ushered them into the safety of the abode. Pat was in awe. What a home! Unblemished. Beautifully appointed, offering, Pat detected, every affordable luxury. Well, he could do with a little luxury right now. There'd been precious little since his odyssey began if one didn't count the ostentatiousness of Blix's trappings on the Lear jet. Van Wess could wait a little longer before Gallagher started more news feeds. He'd provided enough to carry through to tomorrow's late edition. That appeased his conscience and he accepted his good fortune to be Niki's guest.
"Ah, Signore Andriopoulos, we've been expecting you," said the rather short dark man who'd ushered them inside. The man smiled up at Pat, and one corner of his right eyebrow rose, a signal both Niki and Pat noted.
Niki laughed softly. He had the most infectious laughter. Like music, the American thought.
"Don't fret, Elias," Niki said, laying a reassuring hand on the servant's arm and, with his other hand, placing an envelope in Elias' hands. "This is Mr. Pat Gallagher from the United States, and he is a friend of mine. I will explain in more detail to our host in the morning. But for now, if you don't mind, Elias, we're both extremely tired and need at least a few hours of sleep."
"But of course," Elias apologetically proclaimed, this time smiling broadly at Pat. "I'll show you to your rooms."
Elias was of short build, perhaps a year or so younger than Gallagher. Elias lead them up a curving staircase to an upper floor. In his hand he held aloft a candelabra of highly polished silver set with glittering semi-precious stones. He remarked conversationally that even in this relatively safe place one could not give the enemy an opportunity to strike; therefore, no electricity was used after the sun went down.
Pat rather enjoyed the mellow glow of the seven tall candles in their exquisite frame. It was right out of an American Gothic film. He half expected it to be thundering and lightning outside for effect. Their rooms were off the second floor landing down a smaller side hallway that Pat calculated lay to the west. Elias paused before a door of heavy cedar intricately carved, opened it and lighted the way for Niki. Pat waited in the corridor, too tired to take any unnecessary steps. Soon he could see that several candles had been lit within the room, and Elias was back in the hallway ready to get him settled.
As they moved down the corridor, Pat heard Niki call. "Rest well, my friend. I will have Elias awaken us as soon as our host is ready to see us."
And on that ambiguous statement Pat walked beside Elias, his own shadow appearing large and grotesque upon the walls. Soon they were inside a large and airy room with an inviting bed elevated on a one-foot high platform. Elias lit two candles and placed one on a table near the door and walked across to the other side where he lit another near the bed. Turning to Pat at the entrance to the room, Elias' warmth was evident. "If you need anything, Mr. Gallagher, there's a bellpull by the bed. I'll come at once. Everything we have here is at your disposal. We ask only one thing."
"Yes?" Pat inquired mechanically.
"The windows," Elias indicated a pair of heavy draperies pulled tightly over a hidden window at the far side of the room. "Do not open those drapes. Not even if you extinguish the candles. We take no unneccessary chances here. I'm sure you understand."
He did. Perhaps better than Elias could imagine. When you lived in a country that had been riddled by war for decades, and when factors were at work within your country that could pull off the type of slaughter he had just come from, you kept yourself safe at all costs.
"Don't worry, Elias. Tonight I enjoy knowing I'm behind heavy drapes and that for a little while I need do nothin' but sleep."
"Good. Then, if you do not mind. I shall take my leave. I have some unfinished tasks before he returns. I'll see that you and Signore Andriopoulos are left undisturbed, and will waken you in time to make ready for the morning meeting."
With that he was gone as he shut the heavy cedar door behind him without so much as a click, and Pat stood for a moment in the center of the room, studying the surroundings with what energy remained in him, trying to find its heart. It seemed to find him as a wood-carved crucifix peered down from above the bed. Flanking it were wood-carved angels that blended into the carved woodwork of the walls and expanded out where bookshelves jutted out on either side of the bed. The floor was heavily carpeted so no sound of footfalls could be heard. The furniture, though overly-large and heavy, was nonetheless exquisite, and the bed looked terribly inviting as Pat crossed to a door he saw to the side, opened it and checked out the bathroom through the shadowy light of the candles.
In less than five minutes he was in bed, feeling the cool softness of the sheets against his troubled body. Despite his earlier protest to Niki he sensed sleep washing over him almost at once. Gratefully, he gave in.
Next issue: Fifth Chapter - Episode One
"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 copyright statement and source - www.DailyCatholic.org - and take nothing out of context, nor reproduce it for profit. This work, fifteen years in the making, is a work of fiction that replicates the reality of today in many ways. 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.
WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!