T he overwhelmingly depressing news of the second day on all networks worldwide had confirmed the obvious. There were no survivors. So devastating, so complete was the destruction of the assembly of 973,570 who had passed through the turnstiles. Add to this the 10,000 dignitaries who had entered without security checks, and the 30,000 workers who had been so carefully screened by radar and bomb-sniffing canines and the count was over one million missing - all presumed dead.
* * * * * * *
They had all gathered at the seat of creation, as it were, daring to hope for peace and an end to the terrorism that had so haunted the planet for the past several decades. The fear of the unknown had so gripped the world in the new millennium that few were surprised despite the security measures. The question remained. How? Was there any hope left?
Dateline: Rome - Castel Sant'Angelo, November 2, 1:30 p.m.
The search had been successful. Riage Benziger had drenched himself in the drinking fountain he discovered on the third level of this ancient castle overlooking the Tiber, bathing in the cool liquid that flowed out from a now rusting faucet. He did not care. He was almost giddy with delight as he drank his fill. His billowing, colorful Swiss Guard sleeve torn, he dabbed at various sores and cuts from his encounter with the stone wall and floor. It had been, despite the bruises, a welcome encounter when he fell through the secret door in the Papal closet into the dark confines of the escape corridor that led from the Apostolic Palace to this abandoned refuge. He could hear the street noises below and took heart that he was not alone. That, and parching his thirst and body, gave him the strength to continue the search for nourishment for himself and the precious cargo he had carried to a protective shelter. In this vast circular edifice known as Castel Sant'Angelo there were many places to hide, so many nooks and crannies. Near the top level of the castle he found an abandoned restaurant. He managed to jam his boot into the window and eke through, finding in the kitchen some left over canned goods, a can opener and bags of flour. He grabbed two empty canisters, filled them with water and stuffed some coffee filters into a coffee bean burlap bag that had been discarded. Everything else in this deserted restaurant was useless. With stock in hand, he headed back to the third level where the Holy Father was still unconscious, terribly dehydrated.
The midday sun was pouring through the open turret and Benziger slowly shifted the beleaguered Pontiff up so that he could rest his arm behind the Vicar of Christ's head. He took the coffee filters and formed a cone, putting his thumb over the lower opening so he could scoop water from the canister and gently he let it run down over the Holy Father's withering face. He repeated this several times, slowly dropping water on the Pope's lips, gently rubbing the water on his eyelids and moistening the lips. He repeated this for nearly an hour when the Pontiff's eyes flickered, opening just slightly - but enough to alert Riage.
"Your Holiness, here sip this."
With much effort and pain the weakened sovereign pontiff inhaled the drops of water, then the breathing became heavier and he gasped for air, trying to drink more, frantically gesturing with his eyes for more water. It had to taste so good. Riage thought this moment about how Christ must have thirsted so and there was no water for Him, only bitter vinegar. What monsters could have done this, Benziger pondered as he continued to minister to this stricken Bishop of Rome to whom he had sworn his allegiance.
The Pope was appreciative and tried to speak, but he was too weak. Slowly he was able to intake more water, coughing up dry phlegm and gagging at times trying to swallow it. Benziger took some of the flour and wadded it up and placed it on the tongue of the Pope for nourishment. How similar that His Holiness had so often placed on Benziger's tongue in the Papal Chapel the Bread of Life.
"Rest, Your Holiness. I am here. Our Lord Jesus Christ is with you here. He will not fail you. Drink slowly. You are very, very weak. Sleep, I will pray," Benziger consoled him as he made sure the Pope could sip clearly.
As the hours waned the Pope regained some strength. Now he needed medical attention. Yet to move him could jeopardize him further both in the motion and in detection. It is one thing to carry an unconscious body that cannot feel pain, it is quite another to carry someone who feels tremendous pain with every step, translating it into a thud to the senses. Benziger decided the best course for now was to stay with his Sovereign Pontiff, to be there for him through the rest of the day and into the night. This would also afford him time to regain his own strength for the journey back. The Swiss Guard felt his own body giving out and he gave into sleep, ah restful sleep in restless times.
The sun poured in on the two still figures, their shoulders propped against the wall. The Swiss Guard's arm pillowing the Holy Father's head. The warmth of the rays filled their bodies, but they were unaware of the sunshine for they were in an unconscious sleep - a merciful time of rest that God allows to take away the pain - at least for awhile.
Dateline: Vatican City, Antechamber of the Apostolic Palace, November 2, 2:45 p.m.
At the other far end of the Leonine Wall, in a special audience hall in the Apostolic Palace, Cardinal Antonio Macelli had summoned all within the household, lay staff and religious alike. Meetings such as this he found abhorring. This was beneath him, he thought rebelliously, staring out at the pious faces of somber priests, nuns and brothers. What a bunch of stupid superstitious sheep, he thought. What a pack of fools! Pawns, nothing more. Pawns destined for death. He found pleasure in that thought, mocking made him feel stronger, urged him onward.
He was smiling saccharinely when he spied Monsignor Stephen Navarro sitting just inside the doorway, again watching him with a knowing stare that reminded one of a hound-dog who is zeroing in on the scent relentlessly. Damn nuisance, Macelli fumed inwardly. An interfering upstart. Full of Godly ideals and holy virtues that would have to be done away with soon. He was a danger. Not only because he headed the Pontifical Council of Global Communications, but also because he was zealous...and damn effective, too. Pity, thought Macelli. The master might have had a place for one such as Navarro, if there had been time to root out the good first.
Macelli glanced at the one who had forsaken those virtues - Father Roberto Urazzi and thought, surely the master could have done better than that. Urazzi was lounging lazily in a chair, leaning back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. He was bored. It showed. Yes, Urazzi was a poor choice for a leader of any kind, Macelli deducted. Yet he was malleable enough to be used. He just had to cope with the fool a little longer.
Antonio sighed. The sooner he completed the business at hand, the sooner he could have his supper and his well-earned leisure after that, stealing off to a special guest room where Vendhem had arranged a wench for his carnal desires this night. Celibacy is such a worthless, empty attribute he mused.
Stephen was deep in thought as well. He realized, because of Macelli's machinations, he had to keep his eye on him. That prevented him from meeting Gregory Cardinal Zachmann this afternoon at the airport. He needed to talk further with his Eminence, but when he didn't know. He would leave that to the Holy Spirit to bring them together. Stephen was like that, let go and let God.
"The International Red Cross has informed the Holy See," Macelli informed the gathering, "that they have identified the remains of our dear, dear Holy Father." The words slithered over his tongue. "He, along with other slain prelates, will arrive very early tomorrow morning."
"When tomorrow morning?" Fr. Urazzi blurted out without thinking.
A perturbed Macelli zoned in with dagger eyes at the slovenly priest, "Before sunset! All the coffins will arrive then via cargo planes from Basra."
He refocused his attention on the rest of the assembly in this rather ample room with paintings and tapestries from the fourteenth century. "It is left to us to receive these remains and in our presence to do them the expected reverence required. Naturally, there will be some remains that will be flown on to their respective homelands, but the majority will be buried here in Rome, or in neighboring villages. As Director of Internal Affairs, along with His Eminence Josef Marie Cardinal Vendhem, who heads our Ceremonial Department, we have decided that the circumstances do not warrant such a transgression into private mourning."
Stephen interrupted the cardinal, "Meaning?"
Macelli showed his visible irritation. "Meaning, Monsignore, that there will be no secular press within the Vatican tonight. Guards shall be posted around the clock at all entrances. They can have St. Peter's Square, but no access to anything within. Anything! Our own news department will be carefully monitored by Cardinal Vendhem and myself."
Stephen knew what that meant. Those two prelates would censor everything in an effort to stop the truth from getting out. He had to get to Cardinal Zachmann as soon as he could.
"I suggest to all of you that in the ensuing days," Macelli continued pompously, "you guard your tongues a well as your souls. The world presses close upon us at this grievous time. We do not wish to become swept up in a storm of false sentimentality. We have a job to do. Let us do it. Let us do it in loving memory of our dear departed Keeper of the Keys. And speaking of keys, I will need the household staff to turn in all keys to me immediately. As long as I have the keys in my custody there will be no need to seal the Papal Apartments as had been the custom of the past."
Stephen and many others in the room felt a rush of anger. How dare he discard a tradition kept for thousands of years. Any rebuttal at this time was futile however for Macelli reminded all of obedience and that was the buzzword that silenced the audience.
"Please see me with your key immediately afterwards." Macelli was winding things up, an impatience in his voice. "Oh, and for the three nuns in charge of the Papal Apartment they will be immediately transferred to the Swiss Guards Apartments until further notice."
"Until further notice?" grumbled Sister Bridie under her breath, "God be with me. You know this not be right. Please be a forgivin' me for what I be about to do." With that Sister slipped one key off the key ring she had and slipped it into her habit to a concealed pocket beneath her scapular. She rose and marched obediently toward Macelli and handed him the key ring, bowing and quickly exiting the room. She could not stand to look that man in the eye. Evil there was. That she knew.
There was a pall that came over her as she scurried away from the room down the corridor. She felt sorrow for all those other priests, bishops, brothers and sisters who had also died in that terrible catastrophe along with the Pope. Somehow, she knew they would get lost in the shuffle. There was pain in that thought. The pain of loss unexplained and never to be mourned. Pain in knowing that the funeral which would follow was but a prelude to the beginning of a new chapter in the Roman Catholic Church as a new leader would be elected within the next month to lead the Church, the world out of the morose it had fallen into.
She felt a pang that she had been removed from tending to the Papal Apartments. She felt so much a part of all that went on here in these hallowed halls. It was her home, this holy place that nourished her. And she took as much interest in its every happening as any woman did in her household.
But her passionate interest went unnoticed among her fellow religious. She was considered by most as simply an extraordinary cheerful nun of great faith and happiness. This perception didn't bother her. What went beneath her habit, within the confines of her heart and soul - and mind - remained between God and herself.
She knew as she turned the corner towards the office of her Order, that she was not mentally ready to report to the Mother Superior to receive her new instructions for the Swiss Guard Apartments. But she had not taken vows to fulfill what she wanted, but what God willed. She doubted this was His holy will, but she was obedient and thus entered the office. She hoped her enthusiasm would return in the days and weeks to come. Though doubts arose that perhaps she would find her perceptive nature was more a hindrance to her overall inner peace and well-being. Something she really never imagined.
Next issue: Sixth Chapter - Episode Two
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!