Throughout history great generals have planned victorious battles for the forces of good and also the forces of evil in the smallest and most disagreeable of places - foxholes, dungeons and bunkers deep within jungles, high atop mountain crevices, on the flats of the barren desert. There have been those also who changed the course of civilization who were not recorded in the annals of time. Yet their deeds just as devious, just as resounding. Such was the scenario for four plotters from hell on this night of the dead.
They met in an ill-furnished room in the back basement of a nondescript store in the seedier section of Rome, hidden by an overhang which served as a stone awning to the ancient home above. The entire area exuded a sickly odor and a miasma that no amount of scrubbing could eradicate. It was much like the stench of moldering earth and rotting vegetation captured for too long beneath the ground. But the group that met here this evening had grown used to it after a number of years meeting at this secluded spot. They had furnished it sparingly so as not to arouse any attention in the neighborhood.
They had kept their meetings to infrequent rendezvous, and then never at the same time or on the same day or within any given month. They had perfected the art of sneaking to the meetings without detection - a hallmark that seemed to cloak the members of the Legion. With soft lighting issuing from several small lamps set strategically in the corners, no windows to give away their presence, and an air-tight door that let no light escape, not even underneath, they took every precaution. Brunatti, a craftsman by trade, had sealed the door and walls with a heavy soundproofing material that could tell tales of horror the world over if those rugged, unfinished pores had ears.
Dateline: Rome, November 1, 9:00 p.m.
Brunatti and Serrano had arrived separately, nevertheless early. For all four who would meet this night, their black garb was a viable cape of concealment from nosy neighbors or streetwalkers. Brunatti had brought the "wine" as he had been instructed. In this case the "wine" was one Maria Figuerido from Venezuela. Though in her late twenties, upon closer inspection her face bore ravages that bespoke a life of violence and trauma. No one, save perhaps a few of the highest officials of the Legion, knew the reasons behind those epidermis etchings. Whether they were due in part to events that happened to her or to events which she had been the instigator, only they and she knew. Nevertheless, she was a force, and one Guillaume, in particular, had come to appreciate during the last six years in which she had been a member of the nefarious Legion.
In fact, the ruthless Italian had fallen under her spell shortly after he had been introduced to her and they had pulled off a very successful coup just at the time when he had been scared stiff and hurting most from Larz Zimmerman's demise. In the course of their work Guillaume had found her womanly charms insatiable. In fact, he had come to a point where to him she was extraordinarily beautiful, the epitome of a complete woman. Their torrid and lurid lovemaking resembled two beasts acting out of basic instinct rather than any semblance of gentleness. These trysts were interspersed by long periods of separation, which neither ever questioned. Such was life with the Legion. Soon or later they were always thrown back together again, and Guillaume would melt all over, feeling a false sense of youth, intoxicated with this woman with raven hair, a rock-chiseled body that curved into fantasies of lust, and eyes that churned with seething emotions. This goddess of eroticism was as unmanageable as anything he had ever encountered. Now she sat across from him on a peasant-made wooden chair, legs discreetly but seductively crossed behind a simple wooden table.
As she sat there concealing all her hidden cravings beneath a black jumpsuit covered by a black trenchcoat, Brunatti tried to fantasize but his thoughts kept funneling back to the troubles he and Serrani had encountered earlier in the evening in the Papal Apartment. Damn that nun. Macelli had been none too happy when they had reported the missing baggage to him just an hour ago. In fact, he had been livid. They had not told Vendhem yet. Better for Macelli to break it to him rather than them. Perhaps Vendhem had removed them without telling them or Macelli. Damn Vendhem. Someone was not sticking to the rules.
"What went wrong?" Serrano spoke matter of factly as he poured Chianti for Brunatti, Maria and Usif Ezerbet. Perhaps Ezerbet would be able to shed light on the matter. The smiling assassin. That was Usif. This night he was smiling, despite the problems they faced; he smiled, letting the deeply-toned skin glimmer with the sweat of victory as he faced his companions in this stifling room. He was dressed as any modern man, shunning any manner of dress which might set him apart. However, a good look at the dark face and deep eyes as impenetrable as the strong expresso he gulped incessantly bespoke his heritage at once, and the accent to his speech gave further testimony to his Turkish ancestry.
"Elena was not notified of the switch," Ezerbet intoned inhaling the aroma of the freshly poured Chianti.
"The timing was not right. It was supposed to happen after the pope and the rest spoke." Brunatti brought his gnarled fist down on the wooden table. Figuerido did not flinch as she calmly watched her amorous partner continue. "That would have sealed it. Some one has either crossed us up, my friends, or we have not been notified of new plans. In either case, this is not good."
Serrano was getting worried, "Then has this altered the master's plan or has the master decided we are disposable as well?"
"You think the master must consult us on everything, Luciani?" Maria's words oozed with loathing. It was one of the traits that triggered the beastly passion in Guillaume and confounded Serrano so.
"I did not say that, Maria." In self defense Serrano defiantly shifted his body in an effort to gain superiority.
"While you bicker, my friends, you are unaware of the news?" Ezerbet sought to clarify and ease the tension.
"No," queried Brunatti, "just that our power plants all perished."
"For the cause I might add," Usif sought to assure all. "They didn't know either. It was better that way.
"Our imposters?" Maria asserted herself back into the conversation. "Were there any traces?"
"Quite unlikely, Maria." Ezerbet's smile widened. "Explosives were planted everywhere in the tiaras, crowns, miters, microphones, staffs, podiums, cloaks, aisle standards, what have you. Elena made sure our expendable operatives were spread out evenly everywhere. Even the children contributed to the cause - unbeknownst to them, of course."
"Then they did not know they too would be victims?" Brunatti quizzed Ezerbet. After all only Ezerbet had spoken to Elena after the explosion.
"Quite wise, my Italian friend. Just, poof and boom." Ezerbet was now ecstatic.
Brunatti sought to soothe the strain between the two people closest to him who were still icily staring each other down. "You see, Luciani, Maria has a point you too could agree to. Were the master to have revealed his plans it is quite possible many of those who had pledged their lives would have vacated much sooner and the destruction would not have been complete."
Serrani was not to be compromised quite so easily. "All well and good, Guillaume. However, what gain was achieved if we do not have the all-important documents. You recall they too were destroyed."
Maria again sought to trump this man whom she despised, quite possibly because of her intense jealousy over Guillaume. Though Brunatti was merely a plaything, and a weak one at that, yet her consumption had to be exclusive and with Serrano being Guillaume's constant shadow that was not possible. "Besides, Luciani, Vendhem and Macelli have things well in hand. One small set back, that is all. No?"
Serrano was quick to pounce. "Ah, no, senora. In fact, Vendhem and Macelli have far greater problems I fear."
Figuerido and Ezerbet were taken back by this puncturing of their confident mood. She shot back, "What do you mean by that?"
Again Brunatti tried to underplay the puzzle that still did not seem to fit. "When we returned to dispose of the main course tonight, it had been cleared from the table."
"Do you know who took this valuable entree?" The smile had disappeared from Ezerbet's face.
"We suspect Vendhem has acted on his own," Serrano offered. "We don't know for sure but we do know it took Cardinal Macelli by surprise."
"You mean without the master's approval?" Maria's eyes raged as she leaned her sensuous, but lethal body over the edge of the table.
"Again, " Brunatti added, "we don't know but Macelli has asked that we be silent for now, lest we give him the upper hand if indeed he is out to deceive us."
"And the master!" Maria was standing now glaring at both Italians. At once Guillaume realized there would be no tryst with this vixen tonight.
Ezerbet could see that emotions were supplanting the master's scheme. He had to quell the dissension. "I shall make inquiries and we will soon know if Vendhem has crossed over. Nevertheless, since I have heard nothing to the contrary, we will proceed as planned. Tomorrow we begin Phase Two. The internal phase. You know it well. Do not stray."
Brunatti finished his Chianti and breathed a sigh of relief, "Then we can prepare for the real crux of the mission which is yet to come."
Serrano caught the uptone, "The world will soon find itself within a crucible from which there is no escape."
Figuerido was not to be upstaged. "Only capitulation to the master."
"The hour grows late," Ezerbet reminded all. "You know your appointed missions. We leave now. Maria first. No contact until you hear. Now let us stand.
They stood in unison as Ezerbet intoned the pledge. "We pledge our loyalty to the master. We pledge our lives to make his reign possible. We are the Legion."
On cue, in a spectral chorus they concluded this meeting with the unearthly response, "Long live the Basilisk."
The room seemed to be engulfed for a moment in the grip of some sinister power. It was palpable. Its hissing breath was distinguishable from the shallow breathing of the disciples gathered around the table. It hovered and then the power receded.
Serrano gathered up the glasses and the wine, Brunatti dusted the cheese into a small container. Maria stood near the door as Ezerbet took the ingredients from Brunatti and Serrano stored the glasses and wine behind a cabinet. The Turk reached for the light switch. In absolute darkness they would soon exit. It did not bother one of them to be in this near tomb. They relished the dark. It represented for them the foreboding caliginous caverns of contempt for all that was good.
A single match flared which lighted their way to the door. Ezerbet blew it out and waited for a few seconds for any telltale smoke to dissipate. Then Brunatti eased open the wooden portal and the four people entered the deserted hallway which was even more dimly lit by a single low-wattage bulb beneath a dust-encrusted shade.
Maria strode noiselessly down the hallway whose walls and floors were stained with mold, mildew and other less than savory signs of human occupation, the lime-green linoleum turning gray with dirt.
Not even the click of the outer door told the others she had gone. Serrano waited a full five minutes, then he also departed. The soft-soled shoes all wore made no clatter. Brunatti went next, then Ezerbet. The last one cast one last look down the hallway as he moved toward the exit.
He didn't know why he always performed this final ritual of looking back. Habit, he supposed. But there was no one about, no one concealed in this fetid corridor. The door to the room where they had just met was the only portal on the floor. Pipes, and an accumulation of rubbish littered the passageway, boxes and crates from the produce store above tossed carelessly into a pile in the far corner to house the resident rats. Perhaps this was where the ever-present odor of decomposing vegetation originated, but such thoughts did not seem important to Ezerbet.
He rounded the corner and let himself out into the lonely side of midnight. Stuffing his hands in his pockets he strode briskly off, back to the sumptuous villa he shared with a lonely contessa who was always glad when his work brought him to Rome. It was a life of luxury in every way, provided by the master.
He was ordinarily a levelheaded man, not given to mood swings. Still, late on this evening of November he enjoyed a sensation of lightness. He thought himself invisible and invincible, a deadly combination. How marvelous the master was to those who served faithfully. He was particularly lucky that he had been chosen for this elite inner circle, the closest to the master himself. Oh, there were many in the Legion of the Basilisk worldwide. But only a handful of the very best disciples were allowed to carry out the plans, formulate them, gloat over them. The rest were merely pawns. For those in the inner circle, the master had promised shared power and wealth untold in his kingdom. Ah, Ezerbet could hardly wait.
If only he had gone back to that basement corridor and taken a third look. If only. He had not seen the shifting of the boxes in that far corner, farthest from the light. Had he paused, even for a fraction of a second, he might have heard the sound, investigated and discovered what the Legion feared most next to displeasing the master - detection.
The subtle racket was most certainly not rats. Far too noisy for that. Moreover, what rat, however huge, could move such a pile of boxes and wooden crates? After several seconds there was a solid crash as the offending, concealing interloper fell to the floor. Rising up from the depths of the basement foundation, like a demon from hell, came the figure of a man.
He was obviously a beggar from his unkempt clothes, unwashed body, and an alcoholic from the smell of his breath that permeated his pores. He stared down the corridor where the four figures in black had only disappeared minutes before. Satisfied all were gone, he drew forth from his grimy pocket a flask containing pure whiskey, tipping the neck of the bottle into his open mouth which revealed blackened, rotted teeth. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then licked the hand clean of all residue of the precious liquid.
He had seen what he had been sent to see, heard what he could. It would be enough. Now to go make his own report and get his reward. That was the best part. The man knew his needs, even the unspoken ones. He had given the fellow as many details as his failing eyesight would permit. Maybe embroider a few while he was at it. Ah, what the hell, better get on with it. His pint was nearly empty.
Of course as he crawled from beneath the cardboard-and-crate bedspread which had concealed him he had no idea that what he had just witnessed was about to forever change countless lives. He did not know as he ambled out to make his report that his own life was in grave peril.
For years alcohol had been Sebastiano Tenazi's shield. In the last few months he had acquired the need for heroin, too. A wonderful thing, that opiate. What the alcohol failed to blot out the heroin did. Such pleasant dreams. Always of the man who was, so to speak, his sponsor. The man who always met him on time, spoke gently, studied him intently and took great pains to see that he had everything his body craved. Ah, to have finally found a friend.
Poor Sebastiano, who had spent most of his life in a Roman gutter, was in no condition to deal with the indisputable fact that the Legion of the Basilisk would try by every means known to their master to destroy the world with Black Fire!
Ignorance! At least it alleviated fear.
Next issue: Third Chapter - Episode Four
"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 are used fictionally and any resemblance to actual persons and events, except those recorded in history, are purely coincidental.
WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!