Ornate golden candle holders had been put in place before the great cupola in St. Peter's Basilica. Though the coffins were missing, the stanchion for the Pope's bier, replete with white velvet and adorned with the papal seal, was set in place along with markers for numerous other caskets which would take their place in this magnificent house of God later this morning in hierarchical order.
Behind the main altar, beyond the massive stained glass window of the dove image of the Holy Spirit, stood silently the four trucks along the roadway. Standing sentinel by each cab a Swiss Guard, at the back of each truck two gendarmes. No one was going to wrest the dead from their resting place in the darkness of night on this night that would soon turn to day.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 3, 3:45 A.M.
Two brass prie-dieus were placed strategically at the top of the base of St. Peter's Crypt facing where the Pope's coffin would be placed, facing away from the main altar above. Beginning at noon they would serve as twin kneelers for two cardinals every half-hour, along with two Swiss Guards standing at their sides. All the College of Cardinals would take their turns praying before the caskets as was the Catholic custom. Within hours most of the princes of the Church would have arrived from all parts of the world in preparation for both the funeral and the Sacred Conclave to elect a successor.
There, in the shadows over to the side away from the main altar with the prie-dieus fronting it were two figures lurked in the flickering darkness. Cardinals Vendhem and Macelli were there inspecting, scoping out the arena before moving swiftly out of the empty church and through a deserted dim marbled side corridor toward their quarters. As they walked they talked in just above a whisper.
Vendhem moved with a brusque manner to his gait as he complained, "I long for the opportunity to shed this wretched clerical garb...to wear the royal robes of -"
"I am not surprised," Macelli interrupted him, "you do not wear it with the aplomb of a cardinal of the Church. You must learn to deceive. Do not betray your aversion to anyone, less -"
"Do not lecture me, Antonio. You, are you sure everything was secure this evening?"
"Si, Josef, you need not worry. No one was the wiser. Navarro may suspect me, but he has no idea of the package. That I assure you."
"Ja, but will your Urazzi muck up the works, my dear brother of the Basilisk?"
"Roberto knows even less than Navarro, Josef. You must realize that by now. I remind you that it is I who have taken every precaution, can you say the same?"
"You need not preach to me, Frer Macelli. I have kept my secret...the Legion's mission, well hidden and speaking of the Legion, what news have you heard?"
Unbeknownst to the two animated shadows, another shadow had crept into their midst, hiding unseen behind a pillar off a corridor alcove. Monsignor Stephen Navarro's heart skipped several beats as he strained his ears to hear every word, his pulse becoming more rapid. He was afraid it might give away his presence. But the senses of Macelli and Vendhem this night were more intent on pride and other vices and, as has been noted, that is the Achilles heel of the Legion, the one crack in an otherwise seamless wall that allows the resistance to penetrate the flanks. This night was no exception.
"I have good news from both Tel Aviv and Basra," Macelli boasted.
"Ah, then the Shiites in Iraq, those who have joined ranks with us. They have succeeded?" was Vendhem's query.
"Yes. Colonel Hudec saw to it in Kuwait and the master assigned someone special in Tel Aviv. Our chief enemies have been eliminated. There is nothing to fear now, Josef."
"Then Phase Two has begun without obstacles? Good. The master will be pleased. The details, Antonio?"
Snidely Macelli countered, "I'm sure you know already...being so in touch with the Basilisk as you are."
Vendhem's tone turned sinister. "Enough, Macelli. To the business at hand. You're handling Navarro?"
"Yes. He does what he's told." The Italian curled his lip into a sly smile, "I'm a stern taskmaster."
"So you've told me and others. But he outwardly disagrees with you. He could be trouble."
"Leave that to me, Vendhem. When it is time to dispose of the nuisance it shall be done."
Those words sent a chill up Stephen's spine as he strained to hear everything from his perilous refuge just a stones-throw away.
Vendhem emitted a cruel, twisted laugh. "Naturally. Why should we be concerned with such a small, insignificant foe. Our main agitators have been eliminated. All that remains is the glory."
"It's been a long night, Josef." I must retire for now. Will you give my regrets to our fellow colleagues of the cloth who will be gathered for Matins?" The words oozed like slime from Macelli's lips.
"By the Basilisk, never! Not I, Antonio. Rather I will see to the delivery of the menu. The wine and cheese will be in place in due time."
"Then I vow we have a drink to celebrate, Vendhem. A good stiff one in my quarters. And then, maybe..."
His furtive glance told volumes. The sodomy tendencies of this bloated Italian served the perverted feminine side of Vendhem's lust and it was so obvious and nauseating to Stephen's ears and stomach. What other blasphemies had visited these hallowed halls and chambers within the Vatican? Stephen chose to concentrate on other things, like staying undetected as the two, arm in arm ambled off toward Macelli's room for a devilish good time that only the Basilisk could celebrate, while Monsignor Navarro stood shuddering with disgust for such sins in the shadows.
Dateline: Rome - Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos, Sei Albergo - November 3, 3:50 A.M.
Niki's cab dropped him on the corner. He preferred to walk the distance to Sessantasei Via di S. Basileos, Sei Albergo. He wanted to check out the neighborhood, see what escape routes might be available if one was needed. He wanted to see just what kind of place this Dr. Makuta Ogidi had acquired.
It was a street slumbering through the quiet side of the early morning; a normally busy street where numerous shops, now shuttered, lined the sidewalk and the shopkeepers had residences above their stores. With the fullness of sunrise, activity would flourish here, Niki thought as he moved along the ancient pavement. An area of anonymity. Niki hoped he could stay low until he tracked down Gallagher. Pat had to know what happened to Fasif and Elias. His very life depended on it.
Niki's uneasiness increased as he came to the address Makuta had given him only a few hours earlier. Why had the Doctor helped him? Who knew what the man intended? It puzzled Father Andriopoulos as he entered a tattered lobby. It was empty. How could a man of such importance live in a squalid place like this? He climbed a short flight of stairs and turned to his left down a narrow hallway. Number Six was on the far end, a corner room. He took the key from his pocket and opened the door with barely a click. It swung open on well-oiled hinges.
The apartment was a small affair, comprised of a main sitting room which Ogidi must have used for sleeping purposes since the sofa was strewn with blanket and a pillow. Niki went immediately to the window and pulled down the shade, cutting off the view which looked out over the heart of Rome. No sense giving the Legion a chance to find him...that is, if they didn't already know he was here.
Quickly he checked out the rest of the apartment. There was a tiny bathroom that one could barely fit into, but at least it had modern-looking plumbing. He was thankful for that and the opportunity to freshen up. The other room, when he switched on the overhead light, was a bedroom. There was no sign of it having been used. The bed was stripped bare and looked uncomfortable and unwelcome in the ghostly glare from the bare bulb which cast eerie shadows over much of the room. The closet door stood open at an awkward angle and Niki walked cautiously across the bare wood floor to close the door, conscious of any sound he might make. He glanced quickly into the closet, but found only several coats, similar to the one he had seen Ogidi wearing tonight, stretched out on hangers. Nothing else. Not even a spare pair of shoes.
Niki could not comment on the lack of belongings. He had none himself. Only the clothes on his back, which were grimy and in places tattered after what he had put them through in escaping Basra. He gave a silent sigh - a prayer to God - grateful for what he had. His life.
There was no phone. No way for now to contact Pat at the Esperia, or Karel at her place. How would he analyze the piece of plastic he had peeled off the side of the coffin while inside on the flight to Rome?
That was a puzzle that bewildered him as somnia set in and he retreated to the outer room after dousing the light, taking up his position on the couch. From there he could see anyone entering the front door before the person actually saw him. And he could also have access to the window, where a ledge served as an emergency escape route to the fire escape if needed.
Tired to the marrow of his bones, Niki Andriopoulos prayed in the dark, waiting for Ogidi to return to his own apartment and explain a few things to a questioning Greek. He had no idea as he waited just what would occur when Ogidi got back, but somehow Niki couldn't clear from his mind that Makuta seemed possessed of that same type of power which had characterized Fasif...a calm sureness that what he was doing was going to be victorious in the end. A certainty of spirit that refused to face the odds and give up. He liked that. Liked the fact that perhaps with Fasif's own death, God had sent another into their midst who would be a beacon light to their flagging spirits when the going got rough. It was rough enough right now, thought Niki. Yet, how much more turbulent things would get Niki wasn't sure, just that he knew they would. He just wanted to make certain that when they did he had a firm anchor in his own faith and belief in God, and that the rest of the resistance to the Basiliskos was firmly entrenched as well.
He felt again the lining of his pocket, felt the rolled plastic and beneath it, the six-sided pin he had uncovered on the Field of Death as well as the charred cross wrapped in linen which he had taken from the room where Elias had died. Why had he taken it? He hadn't given it a thought. Perhaps because it was a sacramental. Perhaps in memory of Elias and Fasif. On the other side of his lined vest jacket, also secretly hidden, were the minature vessels he used to say Holy Mass. He appreciated his ability to adapt to the situation and thought of the Apostles and of men like St. Francis and the holy missionaries who owned nothing and yet gained everything. A good missionary, he thought of himself. If not a good mercenary. But on this latter score he was learning...fast.
He leaned back, resting his head against the sofa and listened to the silence that poured in around him, washed over him and lulled him into sleep. Niki's exhaustion had caught up to him. Fight though he might to overcome the drowsiness, he surrendered unconsciously into a deep sleep that brought no dreams, no memories of this horrendous, long and forgetful day. In his prayers he had sought the Almighty to shorten the days of the enemy's wrath. As the sun prepared to make its appearance in the east, the shadows slinked into stillness as well.
Next issue: Seventh Chapter - Episode Four
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!