As a humble, insignificant Irish nun berated herself for the smallest of faults, the seismic fault of hell widened ever further as the devil's own continued their pursuit of total domination. Elena Grabe had discovered the fatal flaw in her timing when the explosion shook the earth sixteen miles away. She turned to see the dark, black mass fill the sky and her curses could have been heard to An Nasiriyah were it not for the fact that all other vibrations were totally drowned out by the ungodly sounds of explosions and screams. A minute was all she wanted to watch as she ordered the driver to head off through a ravine. A convoy of Iraqi military trucks was heading straight towards them a quarter mile away. From the trail of dust behind the convoy it looked to be at least eight trucks. They were zoned in on the explosion. They would not stop for anyone until they reached their destination. What they would find would sicken every last soldier.
Grabe's vice-like grip on this most masterful of plans had slipped out of her grasp. The fleeting thought of pulling the pistol from the holster on the right side of her driver and putting it to her temple was enough to signal the need for survival. Pride would not have it that way. She knew she could not cover up, but she would find out why and deal with the one - or those - who crossed her. No one ever crossed Elena Grabe and lived to tell it.
The jeep screeched back onto the main road heading west after the convoy had passed. Five more miles and it pointed south, rumbling toward the Kuwait border.
Meanwhile, Macelli was growing impatient with the repetitious questions as he waited out Urazzi. Finally Fr. Urazzi appeared at the doorway, a smile signaling he was ready. Right behind him was a cadre of assistants loaded down with stacks of the documents.
"Should there be any further developments," Macelli pointed out in deflecting more inquiries, "we shall inform you immediately. I suggest you keep track through the Vatican website. For now my representatives have official press releases and the document in question available for you in Italian, French, English, German and Spanish. I trust that will suffice. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Good day."
As Urazzi and his cohorts came forward to distribute the packets to anxious hands stretching out in greedy fashion, Macelli quietly slipped out of the room. While the reporters reacted as a pack of hungry hyenas, the vast majority of religious remaining were not in a festive mood.
The great hall emptied slowly of the latter. Many of the priests, nuns, brothers and lay workers of various orders, ages and nations either sat there frozen to their chairs, or moved ever so slowly towards the exits as if this was all a bad dream. Each was inspecting their own surging emotions and chaotic thoughts. It was as if God had validated their hearts and souls, and offered the grace of acceptance for an act that was incomprehensible. Many wanted to cry out in the loudest, supplicating voice "Why?" There was an even stronger urge in some to stand up and shout to the entire world, "Will we let this crime go unanswered?"
Sister Agnes de Christi finally rose stiffly to her feet and left the room, followed by Sister Bridie.
"Mother," Sister Bridie began, concerned for the sake of her superior who seemed to have aged at least twenty years in the space of fifteen minutes.
"Sister Bridie," the older nun tried to smile but achieved only a saccharine imitation. "Please, let's retire to the privacy of our rooms for now. I- - I'm sure that each of us in her own way will find the strength, the solace we need to colloquy with God. And there's very little else we can do now, except hope and pray that God will bring good from this vile evil."
To the world it would have sounded like a ridiculous statement, actually devoid of feeling. Sister Bridie, however, accepted it with her heart and soul and it lit up a gentle smile that shone through with sincerity and grace. Her normal cheerful demeanor was returning, for she was still young enough to find a source of strength that in the older religious had been whittled down by years of struggle, disappointment and the advancing infirmities of the human condition.
"Sure n' you be right, Mother," the younger nun agreed, refraining from touching her superior who seemed in need of a tight hug. She wanted to make an exception but their Order held to ancient traditions, one of which was the same as another of her countrymen - old Benjamin O'Fallon - who espoused, noli me tangere. That was of course the honored and chaste practice of those vowed to God to never lay hands on upon another unless absolutely necessary, and then with great discreetness. Sister Bridie thought this was one of those necessary times.
"Ah, Sister Bridie," sighed Mother Agnes as the former carefully clasped her hands on her mother superior's fingers, "never lose your enthusiasm, your overpowering joy in the face of adversity. Mark my words, Sister. It will serve you well in the days and years to come, for you will be the one to see the advance of a new age...and whatever it is that awaits us therein. The events of this morning do not bode well I fear." There was a look bordering on envy in her time-worn eyes as the Mother Superior placed her other hand over this youthful Irish nun's hands and pressed them. "Go now, Deo Gratias."
On such an ambiguous note the two nuns parted ways. Soon Sister Bridie was moving with all allowable haste down long corridors and up several staircases to her small cell in the wing laid out at a right angle to the Papal Apartments. Here, in monastic simplicity, in a whitewashed room - save for a simple bed, a modest desk, a prie-dieu, a small shrine, and a small closet wherein she had her life's wardrobe - three habits, two veils and underclothing - Sister Bridie knelt at the prie-dieu and looked toward her Savior, His arms outstretched. The two-foot high Celtic crucifix was of the finest walnut grain, the crown of thorns, even the nails and drips of blood in minute detail. Truly a masterpiece of the finest sculpting that served as a daily reminder to her how much He loved her. It had been given to her on the day of she had made final vows three and a half years ago. The cross had been a special gift from her parents, the last time she had received anything from them.
At this moment a flood of emotions overcame her as she bowed her head and tears formed in those hazel eyes. Her father Sean passed on a year after her final profession and her dear mother Kathleen followed him into eternity three months later. She had been granted special permission to attend both funerals and, as the memories welled up, so did the tears this day. She cried not for her parents for they were in Heaven - she was sure of it; she cried not for herself, but for the Holy Father, the cardinals, bishops, priests, and all the other countless souls who, in the blink of an eye, had perished this morning.
Sister Bridie retrieved a linen handkerchief from beneath her sleeve and dabbed at her tears, looking up again at Our Lord. Crossing herself, she continued to look in awe at the Crucified Christ. Soon she was lost in colloquy with Him, one of the special graces He had blessed her with since birth. She was alone now. Alone with the God of the universe, the reason she existed. Therein lay solace, at least for now. In the evening she would have to do something she had always loved to do. But now she did not look forward to the task, not after the Holy Father had been so brutally murdered in the explosion. It would be left to Sister Bridie to clean the Papal quarters. It would be so difficult knowing he would never return. Soon she was once again lost in contemplation with Our Lord.
As she communed with a Higher Power, Monsignor Stephen Navarro was trying to communicate with Cardinal Macelli. It took a while but he finally managed to track the rotund one down near the rotunda. The cardinal practically ignored the American priest.
Navarro's 44 years belied the youngish exterior that made him look like one in his early 30's, a fact that annoyed the aging Macelli. He stood a good head taller than the cardinal, and was lean with good looks. High cheekbones offset his fierce brown eyes. His hair was sable and thickly waived. He was in his prime, and from the United States on top of that, which was insult to injury as far as the Italian was concerned. It galled Macelli every time he had to confer with Stephen upon matters which needed to be addressed before any announcement or publication went forth from the Holy See. What did this man know of political maneuverings? Navarro had been appointed secretary of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications four years earlier. That was bad enough, but when he was named the new President of the same organization, well that was a blow to this manipulative man from Milan. It had been one of the few battles Macelli had lost with the late Pontiff. Hell, he'd fought against Navarro's nomination with such unbridled passion that the master had actually communicated a warning to him to let it be, else he betray his true leanings toward the cause of the church.
The Legion of the Basilisk was intent on keeping all fifth columnists concealed. Macelli's ravings had endangered others among the clandestine. Macelli had grudgingly acquiesced because the master ordered it. Yet he felt he could have won, could have persuaded the late pope to abandon his personal promise to Gregory Cardinal Zachmann from the Archdiocese of St. Louis to appoint Monsignor Stephen Navarro, O.M.I. to this powerful post.
Macelli realized personal pride had to take a back seat to the Legion's plans but it still stuck in his craw. He had never looked at Navarro without a feeling of repugnance. Young upstart. Intruder. He was strong, this American climber. In mind, heart and soul. Macelli hated all three. He would have appointed Fr. Urazzi instead. Damn Navarro! What did this monsignor know of Macelli's own personal strife over the years? He knew his power had reached its peak, but through tenacious struggle he had held on to his power. Although he had come close to going mad with frustration, he was even closer now. This abrasive brat had better not challenge him now. Yet that is exactly what Stephen was doing.
"Excuse me, Eminence, but this can't be right. I'm afraid there must be a mistake." In his hand he held a copy of the document. It had been handed to him on the stage while Macelli was taking the questions and he had begun reading it then. He had just finished it and he was not happy with what he had read.
"Monsignor, you have the prepared statement given you. There's nothing more. That's what we release to the world."
Stephen was incredulous. "With due respect, Eminence, I don't think you're considering the full impact of the world press in there. The Pope could not have said what you attribute to him."
The wound zinged Macelli's ego, "What is written is written" he gritted.
Stephen was not to be dismissed. "I don't think you're considering the fact that all the wire services and news outlets in the world will have full coverage blaring around the clock on this incident this morning. This will only make the situation more incendiary. There'll be wild speculation and panic. It goes against two millenniums of tradition. I beg you, your Eminence, we have a duty..."
Macelli interrupted him abruptly. "Your duty is to me. You have your orders, Monsignor. For now, in obedience, I suggest you adhere to them. Do I make myself clear?"
"Very well," Stephen countered. "But I go on record as voicing my dissent to this. I do not believe the Holy Father would ever have released such a statement, let alone write such a heresy."
"Heresy, you call it." Macelli had to be careful. "I fear there is much you will learn as to the ways...and means of this hallowed place, bambino." His inflection on hallowed and bambino indicated his disgust only too well. "Regardless, I have noted your constant disagreements with me in the past. It does not surprise me of your resistance now. I dare say I would be careful where you step. I have friends in many places who might not be as permissive as I am with such obstinacy. Speaking of friends, one of my colleagues awaits. Buon giorno, Monsignore." The sarcasm dribbled off his closing volley as he ambled away toward his next rendezvous.
Stephen knew he had to contact his mentor Cardinal Zachmann. He glanced at his watch. 11:50 a.m. Ten minutes before the Angelus. Not enough time to truly discuss this with him, Stephen realized. Besides it was only 4:50 a.m. in the gateway city. Gregory would still be sleeping another hour before rising for Mass. He would not be available until 9:30 a.m. at the earliest. That would be 4:30 Roman time. He made a mental note to set some time aside and utilize the secure line.
Macelli waited behind a pillar until Stephen had headed off in another direction, then retraced his steps and headed down another corridor to an alcove off to the side where Vendhem was waiting. He had heard most of the conversation. Vendhem glided out with nary a sound, making Macelli wonder how the tall man managed to move so effortlessly.
"You made the contact?" He asked brusquely in his upper German dialect.
"Yes, Vendhem. As planned. Phase Two will begin shortly," replied the portly one.
"You'll be at the meeting?"
"Not this time, Josef. There's no need," he hurriedly added as Vendhem looked at him sternly. "I have my watchdogs to keep me informed. And I am needed here more than at a covert meeting across the Tiber. No?"
Vendhem declined to confide the truth, which he and many others felt as well: the Vatican would suffer no loss with Macelli's absence. But he relished the thought nonetheless as he coldly declared, "You will of course, keep me fully informed."
"Si. Naturally," Macelli suppressed a confrontation with his taller cohort.
"The priest Navarro seemed less than happy with you just now," Vendhem continued to dig.
Macelli sighed. For the time being this was no business of Vendhem's. He knew this beanpole of a prelate was playing games with him again. Vendhem thrived on strategy. He was an expert chess player. Damn him. It always gave him the feeling of power and he relished it. Well, the power belonged to the master, not to either of them...yet. It remained to be seen who would have the largest portion of the power. "Navarro is a fool, Vendhem. But I control him, as I control the rest of the Vatican through my office now." He was feeling haughtier with ever word. "As I will continue to control it, especially through the important days ahead. I suggest, my dear Josef, that instead of these pointless conversations, we concentrate on the duties each of us must fulfill. It would bode ill for us if we were to fail now."
"I will not fail." Vendhem always believed the best defense was to go on the offensive. "I have worked out all the plans for the funeral and the election. You are aware, I presume, that we will go against tradition this time, set a new precedent, and elect a new pontiff with haste?"
The curved spine on Macelli's torso straightened just a bit more. "Why should I not be aware, Lord Vendhem? The master has also kept me informed of the overall plan. But I must decide the right time. We can have no suspicion fall upon us or any member of the Legion, especially now. We are so close. So, go back to your office and be still and let me get my work done. And do not worry about Navarro. He is a mere fly I swat as I please when he draws too close."
"Are you so sure of yourself, Antonio?"
"Si. Now I suggest we concentrate on the duties at hand. Ciao."
With that Macelli moved off like a bouncing red ball, his scarlet robes swishing as he boinged down the corridor and out of sight. He had thought of attending the meeting, but only briefly considered it. No, Guillaume and the others were capable individuals. He had personally seen to their recruitment. Truth was he did not want to leave Vendhem alone in the Vatican. Trust was not something Macelli gave or took freely. He would deal with the gnarly German in his time, after he had served the master's purpose and his own. That problem would be eliminated after the new kingdom was firmly established.
Next issue: Second Chapter - Episode Six
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!