"For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evils, for Thou art with me."
Psalms 22: 4
The bowels of hell had never been so empty. Many of its inhabitants now swarmed the earth as shadows haunting every nook and cranny, smothering and suffocating hopes as one by one those enlisted to make a stand against the unrelenting Legion of the Basilisk were felled. The obituaries of the good were long, but short on comprehension. Many asked what kind of God would allow such havoc. It was not unlike the cries that surrounded the events of December 7, 1941, the horrific conditions of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the atrocities behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, the genocide of countless despots, the unspeakable horror of September 11, 2001, the total destruction of Jerusalem and less than two days ago the annihilation of a million people on the Field of Abraham. It was an Armageddon-like event that still had no answers for the common man, for the media at large. In fact, only one reporter was close to the truth and, for the integrity of those few left to battle this nefarious monster, he was isolated from his craft, asleep in a hotel room in the City of the Seven Hills.
While Pat slept not terribly soundly, the sounds of activity were well underway on the outskirts of the city at a secure airstrip attached to Fiumicino International.
Dateline: Rome - Tarmac near Fiumicino Airport - November 3, 2:15 A.M.
Southwest of the city a convoy of C-130's were lined up behind a hanger detached from Rome's Fiumicino Airport. There in the darkness several trucks rolled in and out. All else was dark as Rome slept. A Host of security personnel, vans and a few trucks swarmed toward the cargo planes. Rows of coffins were being checked through red tape customs before release. These were the caskets representing all Vatican personnel who had been annihilated on the Field of death - from laity to the pope. None contained bodies, only the token remains of something that represented each person. Coffins were never lighter, and yet, never heavier for what they carried would be mourned even greater.
Security guards stood near the rows of caskets being unloaded from the last C-130. The very same craft Niki Andriopoulos had taken sanctuary in 5 hours earlier in Iraq, just escaping the piercing search of Colonel Hudec, the man who had engineered the terrible conflagration of Fasif's estate and its inhabitants - Niki's close and dear friends and, to many, the only hope left in the battle with the Legion. All seemed lost, but Niki forged on; partly out of survival, mostly out of his deep abiding belief that he would not fail God for he knew intuitively that God would not fail him.
Niki had slept little in his Jonah-like journey from the Iraqi military base to Rome. Despite the hour, he was still alert, his senses intensified out of necessity. He knew when to lift the coffin's lid and slip out into the darkness. The time was at hand as a gentleman of importance approached the security guards.
He was a man of great stature, his firm ebony traits featured a short-cropped salt-and-pepper beard seemingly chiseled on high cheekbones that framed a strong jaw. His imposing presence alerted the nervous guards of his authority. These part-time guards were unaccustomed to standing watch over such a ghostly scene and welcomed his gesture of relief.
"Gentlemen, I am quite able to manage this. You look uncomfortable with the artifacts before you."
One of the guards answered quickly, "Oh Senor, This is too eerie for me."
"Perhaps," the black man encouraged, "you might like to get a cup of espresso? I'll notify you the moment I'm finished inspecting, so the unloading may begin."
"Grazie." Both guards were only too eager to comply.
The African patronized them. "Adesso. I'll take responsibility."
The Italian guards couldn't scurry down the ramp and towards the hangar fast enough, away from the contingent of vans, protocol and trucks that awaited the release of the coffins to the care of Roman authorities.
The ebony one turned his head slowly, "I see you've taken great pains to come to Rome."
Niki could see no one else there as he lurked in the shadows waiting for the man to leave.
"You are very clever, no?" The black figure was now addressing the very shadows that contained the concealed Greek. "But not quite clever enough."
Like a cobra flicking at its prey, he whirled around staring Niki in the eye, demanding, "Who are you?"
Niki's cover had been compromised. He was a dead duck he thought as he stammered, "If you do not know, it is safer."
Ogidi pressed harder, "What are you doing here?" Not getting an immediate reply, he continued, "I see you ponder your tale."
Niki shrugged sheepishly, "You could say I was considering it. We Greeks are good at stories."
"Ah, you are of Grecian descent," remarked the discoverer.
"And you?" Andriopoulos counter-grilled.
"From Somalia." The African snapped matter of factly, then his tone turned serious. "You must know you'll never get off this plane unseen...without help."
Niki was puzzled. "And you're going to help me...or turn me in?"
"That depends...after all, you've said nothing to convince me that you're worthy of any assistance I may give. I assure you the authorities do not look kindly on stowaways."
"Let us just say," Niki stammered, "I am an extra envoy who has seen to the safe arrival of these holy remains."
The tall black man gave off a guffaw, "Remains yes. Holy? I would doubt that. But you jest with me. This is no time for joking."
Niki seized the opportunity to take the offensive, "And what is your purpose here?"
"I am Dr. Makuta Ogidi. I work for the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Assistance, and it is my job to verify to the countries involved that these coffins are accounted for and meet the respected health requirements."
"And what else?" Niki pressed.
"I wonder what the parties involved would say were I to tell them I found not only one of the coffin lids unlatched, but found this man all dressed in black sneaking out of one of the coffins?" Ogidi had regained command of the confrontation.
Niki had little rebuttal. "There could be some difficulties in that. Some serious consequences"
"I see," Ogidi nodded. "Then let's start with a few basics and be swift - we have little time."
"I am Niki Andriopoulos. I was covering the events in Iraq."
"Then you were at the Field of Abraham?"
"Now the Field of Death, sir," Niki corrected his inquisitor. "Yes, I'm following up several leads. It was expedient that I get to Rome as quickly as possible."
Ogidi gestured over the array of caskets, "This you call expedient?"
Niki countered impishly, "Enterprising. No?"
"Yes, but dangerous," the doctor reminded him. "I too am not unfamiliar with the scene in Iraq. I possess many credentials and from them obtain much knowledge."
"What are you talking of, Doctor?"
"I am a man of medicine. I have many contacts."
"Then you knew of the medical examiner for Kuwait, who..."
"Yes," Makuta interrupted Niki. "I believe I know of whom you speak."
Niki was taken aback. "You knew Fasif?"
"Ah, Fasif Khadid. Yes. I know him well."
Niki was incredulous, never having heard Fasif speak of Ogidi. "You did?"
"Why yes, eh, I notice you put that in the past tense, my Greek friend."
"He is dead. Murdered in his home last night. That is why I fled. There is much evil afoot."
Ogidi seemed to recognize immediately the situation. "I know of the great fight he waged against this Legion of the Basilisk. I can see in your face it is the Legion also which brings you here."
A paralysis seemed to overcome Niki, remaining silent, not sure whether to trust this mysterious African. Ogidi could sense this apprehension. "If you are going to get out of here undetected, you will have to trust me, friend of Fasif."
"I am at your mercy, Dr. Ogidi."
"Then conceal yourself behind those boxes in the front hold. After the coffins are unloaded, wait one half hour. Then go through that door out the side gate and back to the main terminal. From there, take a taxi. You have money?"
"Excellente," Ogidi cut in. "La chiave, per favore."
From Niki's puzzled look, Ogidi knew immediately the Greek's limited knowledge of Italian. He shifted back to English, reminding Niki that he will encounter mostly the Italian tongue when in Rome. "Here is a key. Go to my flat on the south side at Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos. Sei Albergo. The key for apartment six is on this chain, corner unit. Wait there for me. We will talk more in the morning. The conciliators of the coffins are approaching. Buona fortuna."
With that Niki darted for the front hold, concealing himself behind cover of the containers just as the first contingent reached the hold of the plane. He held his breath, hoping against hope that Ogidi could be trusted.
"Gentlemen, I am Dr. Makuta Ogidi. All is in order. I have inspected each. You are clear to deliver them to their final resting place. I will sign them off one by one at the bottom of the ramp. Come."
Niki could hear the group shuffle down the ramp and out of the plane. He was left to the darkness again, this time a new adrenaline began to gush forth as he watched the clock and felt the key in his pocket. Could this key and what he had extracted from the lining of the coffin keep the flickering flame of hope alive?
Next issue: Seventh Chapter - Episode Two
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!