Those of the Legion - they who ascribed to evil - had always been cunning, ruthless and merciless. However, if they had an Achilles heel, it might have been overconfidence. Elena Grabe had great regrets for this lack of foresight as she sulked in a compound on the border of Iraq and Kuwait, awaiting her next instructions. Though putting on a brave face to the world, she feared the repercussions that would come from the master and his henchmen for the earlier explosion that, though it was total in destructive scope, was indeed premature - way too early for the Legion's purposes. How could she compensate for her failure, how could she eradicate the mounting problem of not getting the all-encompassing fully signed document? She realized plan A had to be abandoned. Would she be able to survive the wrath of the master?
Two time zones away in Rome there was another faux pas that had to be rectified. It would be concluded by Guillaume Brunatti and Luciani Serrano, two of the master's main executioners. As they slipped into a laundry chamber inside the Vatican, ushered in by one of several turncoat Swiss Guards, these two savage Sicilians realized they had to complete the deed within the next few minutes. Failure to do so could spell detection and their plans and ambitions could unravel. They too had succumbed to overconfidence by not finishing the task when assigned. Time was the only ally of the captive this night for indeed Brunatti and Serrano assumed that, since their prey was captured and totally vanquished, they could take some time to relish the kill. Whether it was because they decided to await the ideal time to dispatch the victims or a masochistic tendency to permit their quarry to suffer and weaken, their oversight was the only glimmer of hope for the captive: time!
Dateline: Vatican City, 7:10 p.m. November 1
The folds of burlap brushed his eyelashes, his parched lips and three-day-old stubble as he groped in the darkness, struggling with the wrap that encompassed him. Where was he? Why? How? Though those questions remained unanswered, he gave immediate thanks to God that he was still alive. Woozy, weak, but alive! Once he had come to full consciousness, Riage Benziger flailed wildly and successfully.
After some maneuvering he was able to rise up and stand, leaning against a wall that seemed solid and then suddenly it gave way. He tumbled over a ledge and his shoulder hit hard on a rock-hewn surface. The impact of the thud had ripped an opening in the burlap shroud he was wrapped in. Pulling an aching arm to the side he ripped frantically at the shredded aperture. Within seconds he had shed his crude burial garment. Groping in the dark of this dank room, he reached into the pockets of his pantaloons and his fingers soon found the lighter he had hidden there for those sneak smokes during his breaks.
Thank God, Benziger thought, he had not quit smoking altogether. Had he, it was likely he would not have included a lighter in his repertoire. Clicking the small wheel, the flame cast an eerie glow over a rock wall on all sides and the door he had fallen through. Holding the lighter at arm's length, he followed the flickering incandescence that led him back through the door to a small compartment. Feeling around he felt robes and other garments along the wall of this room. Moving a few steps more, his boot tripped over something, sending him crashing to the floor. The lighter extinguished in the fall. Fumbling for this source of sight in the darkness, Riage heard something or someone moan and froze.
"Oh, ah, oooh."
It was within inches of him and he immediately recognized the source. Rising to his knees he brailled for the lighter and discovered it a few feet away. "Deo Gratias," he exclaimed as he directed the flame toward the muffled moans. A body lay wrapped in the same type of burlap sack he had escaped. The moaning had stopped. His hands reached to feel a heart beat below the canvas skin. Leaning over the hemp-entombed person inside, Benziger focused his ear on trying to hear the rhythm of the heart.
"Whew, there's still a pulse."
His auditory senses also picked up another sound that immediately alarmed him. The sound of a door opening and then voices.
"They're in the bedroom closet," barked one voice in brusque Italian.
"We must hurry, Luciani, before the nun comes."
Riage could hear the doorknob rattle just a few feet away. His heart stopped, the sweat oozing from his pours.
"Damn. It's locked."
"Of course it is, you fool, you forget the keys are on the wall, under the painting."
Benziger had only seconds as he hoisted the heavy sack partly over his aching shoulder and nudged toward the opening in the wall.
"This one, the green tag. Hurry up."
"Si, grab the cart."
The key found its groove and soon the rays of the outer room light flooded the room just as Benziger eased the other door shut, leaning against it in the rock-walled room. In fear and trepidation, Riage heaved a deep sigh, totally spent from both the adrenaline of the moment and the weight of dragging the body with him to temporary refuge in this dark abode.
"Where the hell are they?" a startled Brunatti shrieked as he started to fling garments down in a heap desperately looking for the two bodies they had left there 72 hours ago after the black figure had eliminated all barriers to the Papal Apartment. Macelli had decided it was too risky to remove the bodies at that time for there were still key Swiss Guards who could not be compromised. He had instructed Brunatti and Serrano to dispose of them the next day. However complications had arisen in trying to slip in and they had to abort the task until later. That later had evolved into the next day and then the next until they stood this night in the closet of the pope frantically wondering what had happened to the burlap bags. Where were the body bags in which they had stuffed the pope and the Swiss Guard? They had placed them there temporarily until they could return and smuggle the bodies out in the laundry cart they had steered into the outer room.
"For Christ's sake, I left them here myself. Who could have moved them?" flailed Brunatti.
"I didn't and you didn't," Serrano was now in a near state of panic.
"We should've killed them and disposed of the bodies much earlier," sneered Brunatti. "Macelli was too cautious. Damn."
Serrano searched for clues, "Could Vendhem or Macelli have done so without informing us?"
"They would have told us, they would not compromise our..."
His voice trailed off as the front door opened and another person approached.
"Shh, someone's coming." Serrano cautioned.
Just then the figure of Sister Bridie, ready for work in her white apron covering her bluish-gray habit, glided into the bedroom. Almost immediately she spotted the laundry cart and her eyes found the two intruders as still as statues standing in the closet. "Sorry to be disturbin' ya. I've come to make sure chambers be clean. An' what might I be a askin' are you gentlemen doin' in the pope's wardrobe? Our beloved deceased pontiff's no less?"
Brunatti and Serrano scurried out of the closet, trying to feign innocence, as Luciani attempted to cover up. "Removing all garments to be cleaned or stored, Sister."
She peered over Brunatti's shoulders, toward the bare-walled closet and clothes strewn all over the floor. "I see, an' who be a sendin' ya to be doin' it so late?"
"Cardinal Josef Vendhem!" Brunatti blurted out more in annoyance at this interloper. They already had enough problems with the missing bodies, now this annoying nun.
Now Sister Bridie was getting more suspicious, "I not be rememberin' you two among the regular papal staff."
Serrano tried to assuage her inquisition; "The cardinal called us in because of the tragedy."
"That be why you be wearin' all black?" She queried with a dubious tone.
"We're just showing our respects, Sister." Serrano's voice sounded sincere. "All are in mourning over the demise of His Holiness and the rest."
"Then be doin' it while I be tidyin' up this room."
The beleaguered Swiss Guard Riage Benziger breathed easier at the epiphany of Sister Bridie, yet still dared not move a muscle until they had gone. He could not take that chance of detection. Who were they? How did they get in? Who was in the other sack? Those questions would be answered shortly as he kept his ear glued to the wall to monitor the activities on the other side. By now he realized the door he had fallen through was a secret portal to this room. He prayed the two men would not discover it while he also pondered what room he now was in, where it led.
Questions also flooded Brunatti and Serrano's consciences. Where were the bodies of the pope and the Swiss Guard which Serrano had stuffed into the closet? Should they knock off this Vatican nun now? What good would that do? It would only raise more snoopers and these two Italians did not need that, especially with the meeting of the wine and cheese within an hour. Suppressing the urge to silence Sister Bridie, they scooped up all the robes and tossed it in the laundry cart they had wheeled into the outer room. They had wanted to fill both laundry carts, but the Irish nun made sure they left hers there. So what if the handcart was piled too high, there were two of them - one to push, the other to steady the leaning tower of papal apparel. Out it went with the two Italians and a suspicious Sister Bridie was left to her thoughts and duties.
Benziger had thought of alerting her, but his instincts quickly gained control over such a gamble. Perhaps she was alone, and then again, could the two Italian voices still be there? He had no idea of knowing, only that the voices had grown dim. He took this chance to search this dank room further, trusting on his lighter again. How long would the lighter fluid last? Very little light left he deduced. As he inched his sore body along the rock chiseled wall he could see something jutting out just 20 feet away.
Extending his flickering, fast-fleeting flame toward it, a eureka swelled up within him. It was a torch. Slowly the ancient, brittle straws caught the heat and a small fire gave sight to greater vision for Riage.
He was in a long tunnel, a corridor. But where did it lead? He flipped the lighter off and, with not a little effort, extracted the torch handle from its encrusted holder. Waving it carefully in a panoramic movement he could see clearly the body at the end of the tunnel near the door; the same door he had fallen through earlier; the same door he had shut just before certain detection and ultimate execution. His eyes fell on the body still enshrouded in burlap on the cold, hard cobbled floor.
The torch was deteriorating fast. He replaced the torch in its holder and began gathering the pieces of the burlap which he had shed minutes before. Frantically he shredded the course pieces into smaller cords of material, then grabbed a handful and twisted the screw at the bottom of his lighter, conservatively sprinkling the fluid over the pieces of burlap.
Just as quickly he raced back to the torch just as the darkening corridor shrunk into blackness again. He felt for the torch and wrapped the burlap around the top end of the torch, pushing folds upward with folds beneath for longer burning. He knew the gamble of using up lighter fluid in his precious lighter, but the torch would take him further. Could he count on the lighter one last time? He flicked it a few times. Nothing. Then a silent prayer of pleading. A spark. That was enough, the few flames soon became a welcome pyre atop this torch. Waiting a few seconds to make sure the flame had caught and would not fizzle, he returned to the limp body bag. The burlap illuminated the room even brighter.
He knew now where he was. He knew he had to move as quickly as possible while there was still torchlight. He quickly ripped open the primitive cloth coffin. Beneath was a cloth much purer, much finer: The cloth of white - a full white cassock. The man inside the cassock was lying face down. Benziger knew immediately as he gently turned the figure's head upward that it was indeed the Holy Father. Yes, he was still alive. Again, Benziger ejaculated a grateful "Deo Gratias."
There was a pulse, but the pope was unconscious. He had to be weak. Three days without food or water. Benziger himself was hurting and he was as strong as an ox. Swiss Guards had to be. Physical fitness was mandatory for this elite platoon of loyal protectors of the Pontiffs since 1505. Despite Riage Benziger's excellent physical shape, even after 72 hours the after effects of the nauseous gas had taken its toll on his body. How bad off then was the Holy Father? At his age how long before hypothermia would set in?
He pulled the rest of the burlap casket away from the unconscious pontiff, collecting the rest of the crude hemp material. It would be most useful for this extra material might double the time of the torch's flame. Gently and with great effort he hoisted the pope over his shoulder, until the fulcrum of the body was steady enough for Benziger to balance him. The Swiss Guard's shoulder ached beyond description, but it was a small price to pay for the duty he had been privileged to carry out.
As he moved ever so slowly carrying the dead weight of the Vicar of Christ, the hunched-over Benziger ignored the pulsing pain. Determined and dedicated, he could only think of his Lord and Savior carrying the heavy wood to Calvary. At least he had shoes, Riage realized, at least he was not being spit upon, whipped or climbing a steep incline. Thoughts of the Via Dolorosa - a route that led to certain death - was exactly what spurred Benziger onward, farther away from the jaws of hell and closer to the graces of God, no matter what struggles he would face ahead.
Next issue: Third Chapter - Episode Two
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!