Down the long, dark, dank stone corridor the noble Swiss Guard traipsed with the precious insentient cargo slung over his shoulder.
Twenty-five hundred miles away down through the darkness the Lear jet descended on final approach to the Iraqi airbase on the northern edge of the Iraq-Kuwait border. It too was carrying select cargo, a sentient payload in the person of Pat Gallagher. He had left in darkness from Dallas and was now arriving in darkness, a passage that seemed to haunt him as if he were imprisoned in an ominous vortex from which he could not escape.
Dateline: Iraqi Airbase outside of Safwan across the border from Kuwait, November 1, 10:15 p.m.
Pat Gallagher had always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy from his earliest upbringing just west of Shreveport in Louisiana's hill country. For this reason he held no fancy for the nauseous ministrations of the eunuch-like Soto Ichariak. Yet to quiet the annoyance, he had allowed himself to be served in flight a full course meal on fine china, with crystal and silver. With his stomach churning from both anxiety and apprehension, his appetite had not been up to the repast served. He had been more interested in the pattern etched upon the Waterford, the china and even the silver than the food it bore. He had wound up just moving his food about the plate to better study the distorted image burnished into the fineware.
He was not sure what it was, but it looked like an animal of some kind, almost a heraldic phoenix or griffin, yet with all the semblance of a reptile as well. Blix had possibly dug up the thing in connection with long-ago ancestry.
After coffee, he had asked Soto to provide him with a real drink to add to the enjoyment of the cigarette he had lit as the disapproving servant scowled over the uneaten cuisine. At least Blix had Jack Daniels along for the ride. That had helped Pat to get a little sleep, but not enough. Nevertheless, the thud of the Lear's wheels hitting the shoddily paved runway, told him sleep would have to wait. He studied the dark, bleak landscape as it flew by, the flaps clinging for gravity and the brakes screeching. Within 30 feet of a twelve-foot barrier the aircraft skidded to a halt and then taxied back toward a dimly-lit area near a military compound of some kind.
He could see that the ever-efficient Blix had a car waiting for him at this airstrip. Great, chauffeured to the Field of Death in a limo? No way, Pat asserted, both to fend off the wealth and power of Blix and also in keeping with his journalistic nature.
Soon he was down the stairs and Soto had scurried in front of him to open the back door of the Mercedes-Benz. Gallagher was aware of the scheme as he stopped short. It was if he had come to Iraq on vacation. He wasn't going to have Blix's lackey tailing him or driving him around.
"Look, tell Blix I truly appreciate all he's done," Pat tried to suppress a smirk. "But this ain't no place for a neon sign spouting wealth. I need something rugged, inconspicuous. A jeep. Where I need to go this fancy car won't make it."
Soto looked highly affronted, but wasn't going to quarrel with this transplanted Texan who had a reputation at the Metroplex Mirror as a man who could only be pushed so far. And Blix had been very specific in his instructions to Soto.
It was Soto's only strength, really, that of dog-eared obedience to Blix. Edwin kept him and his brother Ans more than adequately rewarded for his canine-like acquiescence and unquestioning allegiance. Neither of the Ichariak twins were the brightest creatures alive - more like short-circuited computers who would run amok if pressed to consume too much information at one time. Pat made sport of trying to put Soto on overload.
"C'mon. Quick, Soto. Find me a jeep! Whaddya gonna tell Blix? You couldn't find me a jeep in Iraq? Think of the consequences, Soto."
Against his better judgment, Ichariak pocketed the keys to the Mercedes and headed across to a shed on the other side of the gate-enclosed compound to speak with the guard on duty. Soto was not going to jeopardize one iota of his privileges at this late date. He would tough it out and ride with Gallagher. He had no idea how to drive a standard transmission so he would let the reporter drive. But he would stay with him at all times just as Blix had ordered.
From Pat's vantagepoint he could see another soldier join the conversation as Soto pointed toward the Mercedes. The guards looked surprised. They looked back at Soto, then the Mercedes and over their shoulders, yelling out something, then nodding approvingly. Within a few minutes, they unlocked a gate and a four-wheel jeep rumbled through and barreled to a stop near the Mercedes.
What a contrast. The shimmering black Mercedes next to this prehistoric vehicle encased in dirt and grime that had eaten into the outer surface. Nowhere was there a piece of metal that wasn't dented, pinged or marred by bullet holes, rocks thrown up from the rugged terrain...or worse.
Soto and the two other soldiers raced to it and again negotiations started anew. The soldiers were angry. They aimed their outmoded, yet still very deadly M-16's at Pat and Soto. The pilot, still in the Lear cockpit, ducked below the window, fearing gunfire.
"Give him the damn keys to the Benz, Soto! For God's sake, man. Do it. Now!!!" Pat barked, truly afraid these trigger-happy soldiers would open fire.
Trembling, Soto reached into his pocket and presented the keys to the Mercedes. The ranking lieutenant stepped from the jeep. His gesturing hand toward the battered vehicle telling Pat all he needed to know. They were trading the jeep for the Mercedes. Fair trade as far as Pat was concerned. Blix and Soto wouldn't think so, but so what. One of the soldiers snatched the keys from Soto's hand and spritely marched towards the military officer who now was rubbing the hood in approval. The soldier stood at attention, presented the keys and saluted. The recipient did not return the salute; just gestured for the soldiers to join him as he slipped behind the wheel of the slick and expensive German motorcar.
They signaled the third soldier who withdrew his rifle and quickly jumped in the back seat as the three drove off in the polished luxury car across the tarmac and north, away from the compound gate. They were going on a fling, Pat guessed as he expired a deep sigh of relief and darted for the jeep. He jammed his small suitcase and sleek briefcase containing his laptop, computer camera and Reflector code kit behind the driver's seat, and revved the engine.
"Mr. Gallagher," Soto's voice whined above the engine. "I will be only one minute. I must get my suitcase from the plane and..."
Pat saw his opportunity. "I ain't waitin'! Tell Blix you delivered me safe and sound."
"But, Mr. Blix gave implicit instructions that I be with you at all times for your safety," Soto realized this repugnant reporter had the upper hand.
"Too bad," growled Gallagher. "You get that expensive jet refueled and take the hell off, Soto. I don't give a damn where you go personally, as long as it's okay with Blix. But I don't want you here. Got it? You ruin my whole game plan. Get lost. Scram. And tell Blix he'll get the best dam story he's ever had...but not till I'm ready to give it to him. Got that?"
Soto did. In spades. "How will I know when to return for you?"
"I'll call home, don't worry," snarled Pat. "Now git!"
Before the bantam servant of one of America's most powerful men could find further objections, Gallagher put the jeep in gear and sped off in a spray of dirt and gravel that disgusted the fastidious Ichariak.
That sight in Pat's rear-view mirror prompted the first hearty laugh in over 12 hours - not since just before midnight at Ben's place had he chuckled about anything. The impish bastard Soto was wiping grime off his face, hands and clothing as the pilot was appearing at the doorway totally perplexed. That in itself was funny, but Pat realized all too well that the mission he was on was no laughing matter.
The satisfaction of Soto's predicament was soon clouded by the swirl of dust as Gallagher sped off in the bullet-ridden military jeep on the same course the Mercedes had headed - away from the base and north. He glanced down at the gage and breathed a sigh of relief. The gas tank was over 3/4ths full. Thank God.
Dateline: Rome, November 1, 8:30 p.m.
Having just completed his Compline prayers for the day, Monsignor Stephen Navarro slipped quietly back into his office, flashlight in hand. It was a sure sign he did not intend to turn on the overhead light. No one was to know he was there. Reaching his desk he quietly and quickly dialed a phone number in St. Louis.
"Cardinal Zachmann's office. May I help you?"
"His Eminence please. Hurry." Stephen was noticeably nervous.
"May I ask who's calling, Sir?"
"Pardon me?" She queried. The operator must be new Stephen thought.
"He'll know. Just say 'Apache' like the Indian tribe."
"Very well, please hold on."
Dateline: St. Louis, November 1, 1:31 p.m.
The secretary for the cardinal, Father Robert Donaldson answered the intercom from the operator and instructed her to put him through, recognizing immediately the call was coming from his seminary classmate. He pressed the button and picked up. "Stephen, how's my bud?"
"I've been better, I can tell you that, Bob. Listen, I'd love to talk but I really need to speak with His Eminence. Is he there?"
"Yeah, just a sec, Steve, I'll get him."
Father Donaldson rose from his desk in his full-length cassock and cincture and headed for the cardinal's office. Since the archbishop's appointment to St. Louis, all priests at the chancery had been instructed to wear their cassocks while at work. It was one of the cardinal's ways of sending a message that the hierarchy was not going to be taken over by liberal factions of the laity or be infiltrated by modernist priests ashamed of wearing the uniform of their calling. The strictness to traditional garb had also had a very positive effect on all other employees and visitors who regarded the diocese and the Faith in a newer, more respectful light.
"Yes. Come in," called the 59-year-old graying prelate upon hearing Fr. Donaldson's knock at the door.
"Ah, Father Robert, I was just about to call you. Can you call Lambert International and check on flights out tonight to Rome?"
"I anticipated that, your Eminence, your bags are packed, your passport is on my desk and I have you booked first class on TWA - leaving at 7:15 and arriving 1:45 tomorrow afternoon at Fiumicino Airport."
"Second class would have been better. Nevertheless, you are indeed a blessing, Robert."
"Thank you, your Eminence. By the way, Monsignor Navarro is on line three."
The priest carefully closed the door and Cardinal Zachmann picked up the phone.
"Stephen, I knew you would call."
Expelling a sigh of relief, Stephen cupped his hand over the phone so as not to be heard outside of a ten-foot radius. "It's good to hear your voice, your Eminence. I'm afraid I have some disturbing news for you."
Looking at the picture of the Pope on the wall, Gregory exhaled deeply, assuming it was about the explosion in Iraq. "I know, Stephen, it was terrible. God have mercy on all their souls."
"No, it's not just that. That's bad enough. No, your Eminence, it's what is happening here."
"I would surmise from your tone, Stephen, that things are not all they should be within the holy walls."
"You surmise correctly, your Eminence. Cardinal Macelli has the Papal Letter "Qui et Dominum occiderunt Jesum et prophetas" which he claims was signed by the Pope before he left for Iraq."
"To my knowledge, Stephen, he hadn't written anything like that."
"Well, he's purported to have written that the Jews are responsible for Christ's death, but they can't be held accountable because theologically sin cannot be defined."
The cardinal picked up on the syllogism Stephen was reaching, "Ergo, there is no such thing as sin! That's heresy! And another spark to ignite the anti-Semitic factions against the Church and foment division. I am not surprised Macelli is pushing this forgery. It all makes sense now."
"But why would he release this with all the ecumenical talk and the signing in..." Stephen couldn't finish. The flood of memories of this morning welled up all over again.
"I understand, Stephen. I understand. It doesn't make sense. But neither did the ecumenical pact. Too many compromises. It was the work of Freemasonry through and through. All part of the plan to destroy the Church. I fear the devil has delved very deep within the Vatican, Stephen."
"Then you can see what I'm up against here, your Eminence?"
"More than you can imagine, Stephen. We will talk at length when I arrive tomorrow. The College of Cardinals will begin arriving then and I intend to be there to make sure others of my colleagues are not caught up in this heresy. Too much heresy has already been allowed over the past four decades. I dare say dear Pius XII, Padre Pio and Bishop Sheen would not recognize their beloved Church today."
"You were blessed to have known them, your Eminence."
"We would all be more blessed to heed their wise counsel. Before I arrive, I have something I wish you to do."
Cardinal Zachmann indeed had his pulse on the situation as he explained to Stephen steps the monsignor needed to take to assure no further damage could be done at least for now. As they talked on Stephen was unaware another conference was just beginning in a dark alley across the Tiber.
Next issue: Third Chapter - Episode Three
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!