For Pat, after that one Jack Daniels, sleep came quickly, but not restfully. The subconscious state of 38-year-old Patrick Gallagher's psyche was caught in a swirling vortex of hypnos as he tossed restlessly in his hotel room bed, passing through a virtual nightmare as the events over the past two days preyed on his hallucinations. He might have plunged deeper had he not been extricated by the persistent, unfamiliar ring of the Italian phone system. Thank God he was dreaming he rationalized as he groggily reached for the receiver, fumbling in the dark, trying to make his mind function to the reality of the present.
Dateline: Rome - Esperia Hotel - November 3, 2:30 A.M.
"Pronto," Pat wheezed into the phone, his throat still half-asleep.
"Pat Gallagher?" the voice inquired. Pat sprung up, grabbing the alarm clock. "God it's two-thirty in the morning for Chrissake, who is this?"
"That doesn't matter. I'm a friend."
Geez, Pat thought, there was something trusting and American about the voice, but at the same moment he detected no vibrations, no tonal quality that he could pinpoint. A friend? Then who?
"The hell it doesn't, pal" Gallagher barked, deciding not to take any chances.
"Listen," the voice commanded. "You must listen to me." The urgency was there. A pleading, really. Pat bit back a bitter comment and held his tongue as he listened further. "The danger is imminent. More potent than ever. Tonight, earlier, the Legion struck again."
"When? Where? Who?" Pat demanded.
"Pat, lower your voice. Don't be rash. The walls have ears everywhere in Rome."
Gallagher ran his fingers through his already-tousled hair as if that action might stimulate his brain cells into pinpointing what exactly about the voice seemed to find a response within him.
"It is Fasif and Elias."
"What about them?" Pat shot back with caution.
"It is why I call you at such a late hour. You must be informed. They're dead." The statement was flat, unemotional. It only made Gallagher's fears worsen.
"How?" he managed to speak.
"Horrible," said the caller. Truly the mark of the Legion. House most likely wired with explosives. Everything destroyed. No remains. Nothing ---"
Pat groaned involuntarily. This wasn't possible. How could the Legion have gained access to Fasif's home? He had just left Fasif late in the day. "You sure it was them? And how do you know this and where'd you get this number?"
"There's no way anything could survive the destruction," the voice was certain, calm. Pat was anything but. His stomach churned uncomfortably as the caller continued. "You are indeed a journalist, Gallagher."
It was a compliment but Pat was not paying attention to such praise for his head was now hanging low. Fighting back tears, he whispered almost inaudibly to himself, "Two less to fight the Basilisk."
Not inaudibly enough for the caller to discern. "The fight is not finished, Pat. It is actually three less for Helene Shenneker's home was also torched. We fear she was murdered as well. I call only to warn you, that's all. With our good friends gone, can anyone who fights the Anti-christ be far behind the Legion's list of enemies? Take every precaution when you rendezvous with Karel in the morning."
That took Pat off guard. "How do you know about the rendezvous? And I'm not gonna ask you again, pal. How'd you get this number?"
"Some things must be taken on faith, Gallagher. For the safety of all I must not reveal who I am just yet. Remember, common sense is the key. We'll meet soon. Trust me."
The phone click did not interrupt Pat as he demanded, "Wait a minute, what about Niki? Niki Andriopoulos, the Greek priest?... It was then he realized the caller had already hung up. Staring at the phone in disbelief, he reached for a Pall Mall lighting it quickly and inhaling deeply, eyes closed as if to suppress a scream. What was worse the surreal nightmare he had been awakened from or the one he now realized was very real? Either way he wouldn't give up as he remembered the splendid man who he had met less than 24 hours ago. Fasif had left a major impression upon his life. It was, Gallagher reflected, almost as if Fasif had somehow remolded him, reshaped him, structured Pat for the coming conflict. Exhaling he spoke quietly but firmly into the swirling smoke dancing in the shadows of darkness, "Somehow, Fasif, somehow we're gonna finish what you began. Karel and me...and Niki, too. If...if he's still alive. We'll get that damn lizard come hell or high water!"
And then Pat did something he hadn't done for years. He prayed. "Well, God," he whispered, "You got me into this fine mess. You're the one with all the answers. What's it gonna be? I'm on Your side...guess I always have been. And You need me now. Yeah," he sighed, "I gotta admit I need You too. More than ever." In the darkened hotel room he groped for his pants draped over the chair near the bed and pulled out of the front pocket the rosary Elias had given him at Fasif's express wish. Unconsciously his fingers began to move over the beads.
Dateline: Rome - Tarmac near Fiumicino Airport - November 3, 2:35 A.M.
As Niki hid in the darkness of the hold, various personnel gathered at the base of the ramps of each C-130. A plethora of security personnel were on hand to see the planes depleted of their somber cargo. Yet, secrecy veiled the enterprise. As requested by the Roman State, the Vatican had sent two mandatory representatives to welcome home the remains of their slain brethren once they passed through security and were released to the Holy See's care.
Very visible by his imposing, uninvited presence was Cardinal Macelli. The other was Monsignor Stephen Navarro. Ten minutes ago Navarro had begged off and returned to the other side of the hangar. Macelli had not followed. As suspicious as the Italian prelate had been, his duties did not allow him to leave. He was visibly upset that he could not alert his assistant Father Roberto Urazzi to tail the American priest to the far side of the hangar. As much as Macelli hated Navarro, he didn't want the young American zealot anywhere in the vicinity of the coffins for fear he might discover the real agenda Macelli kept hidden. Yet he couldn't afford to let Navarro out of his sight. So mistrusting was Macelli. That is why he tolerated having the proud but lazy Roberto Urazzi as his assistant. Urazzi would be his eyes and ears. This time, Macelli realized, Urazzi had let him down again for Stephen had been gone for ten minutes. What was he doing? Suspicion reigns supreme with those who try to rule the shadows.
As much as Stephen despised Macelli not as a person but because of his disregard for the sacred office he held, the young monsignor found Urazzi's company the least compatible. Urazzi was an empty shell, a yes-man gopher, not a priest. Macelli had insisted Urazzi drive Stephen to the airfield this night. They had left the Vatican garage around 1:45 a.m. and reached their destination in time to watch the private cargo planes bearing no insignia land uneventfully at Fiumicino and taxi to a hangar at a remote end of the field. The interval from Vatican City to the field while waiting for the planes to land had been spent in welcome silence. Stephen firmly believed the less said, the better. He would give Macelli no scent whatsoever.
As the last of the coffins were unloaded, the American monsignor returned from wherever he was. Macelli gave a suspicious glance. Stephen ignored it, trying to concentrate on his real purpose for being here...to gather facts and information about the return of the slain priests, brothers, nuns, bishops, cardinals and the late Pontiff, which would later be published in the Vatican press and reported over the powerful Vatican radio and television communications network. Stephen knew this tragedy had also endangered his own position as head of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications. Everything depended, Stephen was sure, on which of the noble cardinals would be chosen to fulfill the role as Christ's Vicar on earth, and how much influence Macelli would have over the new Pope.
Stephen's thoughts kept coming back to the rotund Italian prelate standing just twenty-feet away. He knew Macelli was shadowing him. He realized that his fight with this powerful cardinal had only just begun, and he felt weary with the thought. Thank God he hadn't tailed him several minutes ago when Stephen made a certain phone call on the other side of the hangar.
As speculation arose among those gathered on which coffin carried the late Pope, Stephen's thoughts wafted back to when the late Pope had been alive, how Macelli's power had been somewhat curtailed. Though most of the Curia had betrayed their office and faith, there were still a few - a very few - within the Holy See who remained faithful to their calling. Macelli was not one of them. Neither was Cardinal Vendhem. The Holy Father had favored using the multi-media power of the Vatican to evangelize, while Macelli had seen Navarro's growing importance as an affront to him personally because not only did Stephen do an excellent, thorough job, but he had been placed there through the influence of Cardinal Gregory Zachmann. Macelli had likened it to nepotism ethnic-wise. Yes, this Italian cleric actually looked at nations as families and was most distrustful of anything from the gli Stati Uniti.
The fact that Stephen, like his mentor Cardinal Zachmann, were both American and traditional clerics only made Macelli fume more.
"Insolent bastards," is what Macelli had called American Traditional Catholics right to Stephen's face several times. Oh, he had wanted to haul off and lay a left hook on the bulging, progressive prelate but discretion won out over impulse.
Just then Stephen's thoughts were interrupted by the noticeable impatient, cold steel of Antonio's beady eyes targeting on him like a lazer. The glare made Navarro even more uncomfortable in the chill of the night.
Urazzi broke the beam shortly, "Quando verra il dottore?"
"Presto." Macelli shot back rudely at the Italian monsignor.
Navarro stood in the shelter of the hangar, dressed in priestly black, a coat thrown over his shoulders, while beside him Urazzi fidgeted unmercifully.
Fr. Urazzi whined on, "Non mi sento bene."
Macelli just huffed insolently at Urazzi's complaints that he didn't feel well. Typical reactions from both of these two sorry men. Stephen tried to block out the sight and sound of Macelli and Urazzi quibbling by diverting his attention to others in the vicinity. Besides the security personnel, there was the representative from the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Health who had to clear all the coffins before release. Ever since this shadowy figure had debarked from the last plane, he had been standing off to one side by himself watching the slow proceedings as the coffins were unloaded. Navarro noted that his presence so dominated the hangar that he seemed to be its focal point.
Was it, Stephen wondered, the man's very silence that bespoke an inner strength of character, a wisdom lacking among the others, that made one notice him? Navarro wasn't sure. But he found himself at once fascinated by the man and it served as a welcome alternative from the coldness of his counterparts.
Yet, there was a down-side that Stephen couldn't put his finger on. It was as if the man in the shadows could read Navarro's thoughts. Did he know where Stephen had gone to make a strategic call to Pat just a few minutes ago? Was this dark figure in the shadows or anyone else aware of Cardinal Zachmann's call to him in his quarters before they left for the airport? Throughout the journey to Fiumicino sadness and acceptance tried to smother the natural reactions - feelings - of anger and revenge that welled up within Stephen's mind and heart. Anger still dwelled, but he had harnessed it exteriorily. His cool, calm manner belied the turmoil within. This was not paranoia. That he was convinced.
Within a few minutes the head of the security force approached. Macelli stepped toward him and the man continued right past the spurned prelate to the man in the shadows.
"Dr. Ogidi? Dr. Makuta Ogidi?" the uniformed head of security questioned the man in the shadows.
"You are completely finished?" The tall doctor queried authoritatively. "We will need the signatures of the Vaticanista representatives, no?"
"Yes, most assuredly, Doctor." the head of security responded.
It was in that moment - consuming mere seconds only - that Ogidi's full attention was directed toward Stephen. His gaze was equally steady, seeming to probe into Monsignor Navarro's heart and mind. It was a powerful sensation that left Stephen quite weak, and wondering what had just happened. He was drawn toward Ogidi as his frame moved hypnotically towards the Doctor. This unusual altered state was interrupted, this time thankfully, by Urazzi's raspy voice.
"Subito," Urazzi shrieked right behind Stephen as he picked up his pace to beat the American to sign the documents. "The coffins can finally be released," said the Italian priest with impatient boredom leaking from his vocal chords, while quickening his step to catch up.
"Yes. Finally." Stephen said as patiently as possible.
"God, I feel we being here for years," Urazzi complained in broken English.
As they approached Ogidi Navarro solemnly rebuked Urazzi, "I doubt that the people who died in Iraq have that same complaint, Father. After all, they've already gone to their eternal reward. Can we not afford a few minutes of our time to bid them farewell?"
Urazzi's look clearly told Stephen that he preferred to take a slightly less pious route, but the two men merely looked away from each other as they stopped in front of the imposing representative for the International Organization for Worldwide Medical Health (IOWMH).
Did it seem a coincidence or did the wind whip up fiercer when he shook hands with Ogidi? Stephen rationalized it could be attributed to the steady, swirling breeze coming off the Tyrrhenian Sea just five miles away. The Doctor led the two men to the area where the trucks waited on the tarmac near the hangar, diesels chugging as if gnawing at the bit, so to speak, to be rid of Fiumicino and on to the Vatican. As they approached the area, the exhaust fumes enveloped Stephen. Makuta Ogidi followed in step behind, silent as ever. Navarro felt his heart quicken at the sight which awaited him. There, in the hold of the trucks were stacked wooden coffins neatly lined up and fastened in place. The workers had done their job well in getting them off the planes and onto the trucks.
All the coffins were of cheap pine, no polish, no brass or any decorations to alleviate the solemnity of the plain box of death. Stephen tried to think of them as simple and humble. But he felt cheated in his sorrow. To have died in such a manner, for an unknown cause, seemed to him a reason to merit a return in a much more remarkable manner.
"You will please inspect, and assure yourselves that all is in order, reverend fathers" said the head of security to the two priests. "Once you have accomplished this, you will sign the papers Dr. Ogidi has prepared. Is this clear?"
"Yes, thank you," answered Stephen after Urazzi fumbled an answer, looking dumbfounded by the sight of the coffins and the overwhelming red-tape. Definitely not a man of caliber who could look forward to a promotion within the Holy See, Navarro had noted several times.
Stephen stepped forward and walked toward the trucks, touching one coffin in each of the four trucks rumbling in neutral. Gently he touched each opening, marking the sign of the cross over the stack of coffins. Which one was the Holy Father's he did not know for there were no visible markings on any from his vantage point, but he had been assured the Pope's remains were on one of those trucks and would be separated from the rest once it arrived at Vatican City.
As protocol called for, once Stephen had finished inspecting, mostly blessing the coffins, he called for Urazzi to proceed with the same gesture, but Roberto only frowned, moved forward quickly and, in one sweeping, rather sloppy sign of the cross, blessed all four trucks at once from a distance. He could not bring himself to touch those hideous pine boxes. That was evident in his expression as he huffed off, mumbling to himself, "We have come all this way for just this. I do not understand."
Stephen knew, as Macelli swept by him toward the waiting courier limo, that this night had finally been complete. The coffins would not be unloaded until tomorrow morning with the trucks carefully guarded behind St. Peter's by a special contingent of gendarmes and Swiss Guard. Relief soared through his tired, chilled bones and the warmth of the interior of the extended Mercedes Benz was a welcome respite as was the ride back to the Vatican in hushed tones. Yes, Macelli was watching Stephen, but little did the plump prelate know Stephen was making a point to tail Macelli's moves as well. Such are the tactics one must employ when confronting the enemy of Christ. As the limo motored back to the Holy See, Urazzi slept unabashedly. Meanwhile, as Macelli fidgeted impatiently plotting interiorily, Stephen prayed silently for strength.
Next issue: Seventh Chapter - Episode Three
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!