Like a nightmare of nuclear proportions the mushroom of misery spread across borders with the speed of fiber optics. Over ocean, hill and dale, the awareness reverberated across the earth with bewildered echoes of the cataclysmic event that had taken place less than an hour ago. One million people, known - many well-known - and unknown, engulfed in that saucer of horrors - the likes of which the world had never seen. Half of the globe was still in repose, unaware of the asphyxiation of spirit that had suffocated Europe, Asia and Oceania. The REM of their dreams would be rudely interrupted by grassroots network of the telephone, ringing incessantly across the western hemisphere. In a ray of illuminated dominoes across landscapes from sea to shining sea the bluish glare of television sets lit up each household as the bedraggled inhabitants, most garbed only in nightware, gaped incredulously at the reports on every network. Stark reality and unrest had interrupted their quiet, restful night.
Dateline: Vatican City, November 1, 9:15 a.m.
The news of the Papal party's demise had flowed across the Eternal City like molten lava, leaving all in a state of shock, all in instant mourning, all praying like there was no tomorrow. For indeed, despite their faith, the finite had doubts. Hope can be so fleeting in the face of calamity. It would take heroic virtue to hold up under the circumstances in which the world and the Holy See found themselves on this heretofore glorious feast of the Omnes Sancti.
All optimism had been placed in a comatose state as workers and clerics filed into St. Peter's Square as if drawn by the magnet of the haunting moment to the heart of Christianity. Would Christendom survive this horrible assault?
While millions prayed that it would, the Legion continued its nefarious goal to see that it would not. Within the hushed and requiem-like atmosphere of the Vatican, two of its residents - both highly-placed officials - met in the shadows of the Apostolic Palace.
The first was Antonio Cardinal Macelli, a short stocky stuffed apple in his cardinal robes who was in charge of the Vatican Department of Internal Affairs. He was, in many respects, the Chief of the Vatican Police as well as holding sway over the vaunted Swiss Guard. Though not directly in charge of the latter, he had more than a little influence and had easily installed many whose heart was not in the tradition of those halberd bearers who had gone before them. Through the many infiltrators Macelli had maneuvered into position, there was very little of which he was unaware. Often times he would know much more before it ever reached the Pope himself, if indeed it ever did. Over the course of two centuries many Vicars of Christ had been kept in the dark as the infiltration was escalated by an ever-increasing number who had betrayed the cross, the faith. They had sold their souls to Satan. The two who met this morning were just two of the ten horns of Apocalypse 12.
The other prelate who joined him was Josef Marie Cardinal Vendhem, who held the title Master of Ceremonies - the Camerlengo. He stood six two on a lithe frame, sporting a short-cropped salt and pepper goatee that matched a course crewcut. His sunken eyes were a cobalt blue that sometimes looked as if they had fire beneath them. More often than not, however, they merely appeared cold and still. His voice was a rich baritone, the guttural tenor often heard booming instructions to Vatican staff when one of the elaborate ceremonies or events were being prepared. This Munich-born prince of the Church had ruffled his share of feathers. It bothered him not in the least.
"The annihilation in Iraq is complete," a very agitated Macelli intoned, looking up at Vendhem who was still standing.
"But the Pope did not speak, he did not sign. What went wrong?" A worried Vendhem shot back.
"I don't know yet. First reports were hasty. Our contacts were also extinguished." Macelli was clueless.
"Did not Grabe assure us?" The tall one quizzed.
"Si, but we can do nothing about that now," Macelli shrugged. "We must dispose of the main repast."
Vendhem leaned against the desk. "It shall be done. You'll make further inquiries as to the menu, ja?"
"We must make changes in the cuisine, Josef. The wine and cheese must be next."
"Do we release the letter, then, Lord Macelli?"
"Do you have the signature and seal?"
"I will meet with our Padre Urazzi soon. " Vendhem assured him.
"We can't appear too eager. We must feign humility and shock for yet a little while longer, Monsignor." Macelli's sagging jowls belied the thin voice that grated on many of the Vatican household. Nevertheless, he did his job well. Too well many of the staff thought. And that, Antonio determined, made even the mighty Vendhem dependent upon him in this matter. "Make sure, Josef, it is secure and authentic - with the seal. The ring?"
"The cleaners will extract it, my dear Antonio. Again, I ask you. When do we release the letter?"
Macelli seemed impatient now, "Again, I repeat, we must exercise caution. The Legion will sort it out."
Rising he moved around his ornate desk where he came to within five inches of Vendhem's course chin. The round little man's bulging eyes met the German's beady ones at a 45 degree angle, "Do not indicate to anyone what we have spoken of. Not by word or deed. It's the only safeguard we have to make sure the remainder of the plan is completed."
"You don't need to lecture me, Lord Macelli. You forget yourself. I..." Vendhem allowed his cerulean pupils to glow for a fraction of a second as he continued, "I am the chosen one, am I not? Has that not always been the plan?"
"My Lord Josef, we do what we're told. Until the moment when our master decides we are all his servants." There was no meekness in Macelli's manner.
Pride vied with pride as Vendhem straightened up, throwing his head back, and clicking his heels together "Yes, I will honor the master as he sees fit. He will be proud of what I shall accomplish." It was as if Hitler had returned for some unfinished business, that of usurping Eugenio Pacelli's rightful role in history as the true good Pope Pius XII.
If one had been a fly on the wall in the fires of gehenna over the past sixty years, most likely one could have seen, even felt the regrets that served as a never-ending reminder that had to have stuck in the fuhrer's craw. Near the top of this wretched soul's list was quite possibly that he had not marched on the Holy See when he had the chance in 1943. That pesky pontiff - the man known in so many circles as the Last Traditional Pontiff - had foiled so many of Adolph's fail safe orders. So cleverly, so deftly he had preserved innumerable Jew from their appointed round, foiled the great Third Reich with so humble a demeanor. It would give the condemned despot little consolation that his kidnapper - the beast - had sought so hard to totally demean and vilify this holy guardian of the Faith and austere man of God through innuendo and lie over the past fifteen years. While many, in the same confines which Pius justly ruled, had lost their cool and credibility, the irony was truly lost on these two curial infiltrators as they stood face to face beneath a framed oil painting of Pius XII himself. The brush stroke was masterful; the artist had captured the sternness and sanctity so well in that narrow face.
The two cardinals had not noticed this. Little did they realize that the painting behind them and many other paintings and priceless statues of saints and popes throughout the Vatican had come to life in the great vault of Heaven and were conveying all they had heard to the high court. There were no secrets in Eternity. They had intercepted the enemy. The only hope for the world rested in the celestial clarion that rallied the forces of St. Michael for the battle ahead. The Apocalypse was here.
Dateline: Dallas, Texas, November 1, 2:20 a.m.
Pat zipped his Miata into the nearly-empty parking garage owned by the Metroplex Mirror and scurried into the stall on the fifth level nearest to the side entrance to the offices. He yanked hard at the heavy steel door and found himself in a brightly lit passage. The familiar sights and sounds of the newspaper immediately greeted him; a deep sigh escaped. It was the gasp of a frightened prey who had suddenly, and only momentarily, found safety from the insanity of the past hour.
From a distance he could see his editor Vic Van Wess just hanging up the phone at his desk. Pat's entrance was both obvious and welcome. Vic needed company and answers. "You saw it?" Vic asked gruffly.
"Yeah, tell me it's a video game," Pat's voice searched for assurance as he plopped down on the chair facing Vic's desk, "Tell me I'm gonna wake up. Just a damn nightmare!"
"I wish. God, I wish." Vic's voice trailed off.
"And you? Did you see it, Vic?"
"Christ. It was appalling. Like being there, know what I mean?"
Pat nodded in agreement.
"Why did I ever give up smoking? God, for a cigarette right now." Vic pined.
"Got some contraband with me, Vic. The finest Pall Malls this side of Carolina."
"Tempting, but you know the damn no smoking rules, Pat."
"Yeah, and you think with what just happened the PC police are going to worry about a couple guys breaking the holy rule against smoking when half the world leaders and 90 percent of the religious leaders, includin' the Pope just went up in smoke?!?"
"You're right, screw the rules." Vic bolted forward in his chair as Pat offered him a fresh Pall Mall.
Pat motioned toward the corner, "Grab your chair and wheel it over there. No smoke detectors and sprinklers. No one'll be the wiser."
"Who cares!?" Vic said as if he were a kid again giddily rolling his chair toward the corner of the office as Pat offered a lighter. Vic drew in deep and started to cough. "Damn, forgot it takes time to get used to these things again."
"Wouldn't know, Vic, I've been addicted so long there's no quittin' for me."
"Hey, we all gotta go sometime. Nobody's going to get out of this life alive." Vic rationalized. "He can take anyone, anytime. A million in the blink of an eye!"
"Any line feeds yet? Reports from AP, UPI or Reuters?" The reporter in Pat was surfacing.
"Just the same old droll, no new leads. Very little on the networks either. Only those boobs in the studios analyzing something like a clinical autopsy. All they've been showing is file footage and stock photos ad nausea. Everything else - dead as a damn doornail." Vic moaned noticeably. The dizziness from the first few drags of his first cigarette in seventeen years was subsiding. "Damn, poor Johannsen and Roybal," Vic groaned. "I've still got to notify their wives and kids. Damn, it's times like this I hate this job."
"Whaddya need, Vic. I'm here."
"Answers. Facts, figures. The whole enchilada down to the stinking skeleton and where the hell it leaves the world now."
"In one helluva mess, Vic. And I emphasize hell."
Vic looked up at the clock on the wall. 2:25 a.m. "Where the hell's Collier?"
"That wimp? Whaddya want him for?" Pat shot back.
"Blix is sending him to Iraq in half an hour."
Pat sprung out of his chair, squashing the butt of his half-lit cigarette into the waxed tile beneath his size ten Adidas running shoes. "Why can't Blix but out?"
"Same ol' same ol'. Blix's plane is idling at Love Field as we speak. He wants one of ours as UPI source for the Mirror." Vic hacked as he handed his cigarette to Pat. "Here finish it."
"I'll finish it alright." Pat took Vic's cigarette, flicking off the ash. "I can guarantee Jordan Collier won't. That wimp can't write. He's nothin' but a 'yes' man for Blix."
"Can't argue with you, Pat, but...Blix's orders. But, if he's not here pretty soon it won't matter. The Morning Beacon will beat us to it."
"If Collier goes everybody will beat us to it!" Pat was now looking Vic in the eye. "Send me, Vic."
Vic tried to back away, "I can't, son."
Slamming his fits emphatically on the desk, Pat responded as expected. "Bullcrap! I can take this and shake it 'til its skeleton rattles and trace it step by step."
"Heard that Pulitzer spiel before and it won't work, Gallagher."
"Screw Blix. Screw Collier. I'm your man, Vic."
"It's not that easy, Pat."
"Your choice, Vic: Sell your soul to Blix or do the right thing?"
"I hate when you put it like that."
"You know I'm gooood." Pat's ego was surging now as he extinguished the second Pall Mall into the tile, then leaned over to pick up both butts so no one would be suspicious. Over the years as a crack reporter Pat had become an expert at covering his tracks.
"So. I give you the green light and what? You come home in a damn shoe box?"
"Shoe boxes are cheaper than coffins." Always quick with a quip, Pat had Vic reeling.
"When Blix finds out, he'll be..."
Pat didn't wait for Vic to finish. "Does he have to? Ignorance is bliss."
Vic had pushed his chair back to his desk and plopped down behind it. "Blix is a lot of things, Pat, but he isn't ignorant. He knows everything. That's what scares me."
"Hey, it's easier to say 'sorry' than ask for permission. My passport's current and I'm perpetually packed."
Vic was a beaten man. He looked up at the clock and at the door. "I don't see Collier anywhere in sight. Oh, what the hell! Blix's Lear jet is on tarmac 6 and ready. Just show Soto Ichariak this."
He had pulled out of his desk drawer a palm pilot, a slim laptop and a Mirror Reflector Code card. This patented wonder could track all communications, serve as a credit card and interact with other codes to do practically everything but make coffee. Its main purpose was to zap information in microseconds to the main computer at the Mirror. They had been in use for just six months and the results had been revolutionary. Both Johannsen and Roybal had been using them up until the explosion. The images had been conveyed from the tiny video cam that molded into the slim carrying case with the laptop. They were the only images Vic had to run in the morning edition of the November 1st Metroplex Mirror. It was already on line at MetroplexMirror.com. Yet, Vic knew he needed more, even if it did take half a day to get someone there.
Victor Van Wess knew either way he would incur the wrath of Blix. If he waited any longer there would be no representation for the Mirror. What was worse? By fate Collier had been a no show. Vic was not one to mull on something once he made a decision.
"Here's your ticket and the Reflector card. You know all about it. Just sign here and punch in your pin number here. Don't go on a binge. Sure you're packed?"
"In the car," the excitement showed in Pat's voice.
"This card will give you encrypted access, Pat. Send all reports that way. Record on the available data drive on the second strip. We'll track the video when it's on."
Pat tucked the sleek gray molded briefcase under his arm, "No problem! Technology's terrific today!"
"And terrifying," Vic inserted. "Somehow I'll explain it to Blix after you're airborne. Don't like sending you, Pat...but, it's your funeral."
"I wish you wouldn't put it quite like that." Pat had been brought into the reality of the moment. Vic had a way of doing that. He had to. Getting the news out on time on an international and local basis never depended on fantasy.
"I'll let them know you're on your way, Pat. God, be careful, son."
"I'm on my way. I'll call Corrie and fill her in from the car." He was out the door and, despite a bitter norther settling in too comfortably in the region, and the acoustics of the building, the roar of the two-seater sports coupe could be heard tearing out of the parking garage.
Van Wess sat back pensively in his chair, stretching in pain as he swiveled his metal hip joint and lifted his scarred left knee laboriously to rest on top of the messy desk. Damn weather, made the old leg ache like Satan himself was trying to take the blasted thing off, he thought. God, life was such a picnic. Full of ants and...terrorism. It wasn't just the pain in his arthritic leg that gnawed on him. The feeling surged, casting a pall over his mind and heart on what he had just done. He had caved to Pat's coaxing and dispatched this reporter, whom he loved like a son, into the fetid furnace of hell.
Next issue: Second 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 used fictionally and any resemblance to actual persons and events, except those recorded in history, are purely coincidental.
WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!