If one were a cherub looking down upon the city of Rome this day, one would be blinded by the
Roman rays of the Mediterranean noon-day sun that briefly broke through the clouds of the morning, glancing harshly off the wet gilded rooftops, domes, and spires of the eternal city, multiplied on the chrome and glass of an endless line of vehicles scurrying around the damp serpentine streets like metallic ants racing from the exterminator. Extermination was the plot this day as one of those ant-like autos darted through the puddles in the shadows of the trees and buildings heading away from Vatican City.
Like a roach emerging from his dark space, Cardinal Antonio Macelli's plump torso was at the wheel of his small Fiat. Cleared by an acknowledged wave of a Swiss Guard, Macelli he had steered out of the shadows into the glare, meshing with the hundreds of other Italian made cars owned by the masses; all simultaneously navigating the roadways established centuries ago, yet resurfaced many times to accommodate the heavier fare that traversed these routes. The accumulation of rain was already evaporating as the sun beat brighter.
While others had hurried about to prepare for the pending funerals and attend daily services, Macelli was above that. He had long ago established his habit of absensia from the normal religious procedure at the Vatican. Busy-ness takes preference over holiness always was his creed. What would one expect from one whose very sanctimony was sacrilegious to the core? Whenever questioned about his lack of spirituality, the prelate of girth would remind the questioner of the fact that his awesome responsibilities as head of Internal Affairs were paramount. Few would argue further, except those who clung to orthodoxy like Father Stephen Navarro. No wonder he was such a pest to this cockroach of the cloth.
Macelli had eluded Navarro this day, taking satisfaction that his destination was safe. No one would spy on him now with so much to divert their attention. As Antonio crossed the Tiber and headed southeast, he knew little nor cared little for the seraph above. Navarro preyed on his mind. Macelli could not trust this Oblate who was so meticulous about doctrine. Last night there was an uneasiness while waiting on the tarmac. Where did Navarro go for that short time? What did he know and who was he in communication with? His hopes of Fr. Urazzi being the cardinal's eyes and ears had been a dismal failure. Failure. That was not acceptable. And that is why he was making this midday trip.
Dateline: Rome - Outskirts of Rome - November 3, 12:20 P.M.
Macelli's car snaked up a cypress-shaded driveway where behind walls stood magnificent villas. A well-to-do neighborhood to be sure, looking down with apparent disdain at peasant homes snuggled in the valley; most were empty for the inhabitants were by and large absent, either at work or in church in silent vigil. Another vigil was taking place this day as Antonio swung onto a side road which bore an old, dilapidated sign, "Monastery of the Sacred Heart." About 1.3 kilometers he pulled the car under a canopy of weeping willows and idled. The shades of clouds once again shut out the sun and they darkened on the western slopes of the hills. Dry sunlight gave way to liquid sunshine as Macelli forced himself from the comfort of the car. Exiting, he opened an oversized black umbrella and began to pace back and forth in the grassy area just off the road, looking in no particular direction, but listening with sharp ears to every sound that came his way.
Therefore he wasn't surprised when a figure suddenly appeared from the shadows of the large acacia trees. Soon he found himself staring into the wide eyes of a woman who neither smiled nor frowned, but seemed of a piece with the gray sky.
She was the first to speak, "You're punctual, Antonio. All goes well? You weren't followed?"
These damn infernal questions, he raged inwardly. Must he take them from this upstart German, too? " I was not followed," came his terse reply. "My comings and goings are my own concern."
A small chortle escaped Elena Grabe. An unpleasant sound. He bridled at the pitch of it.
Desirous of being out of the rain and back in his office where a bottle of the finest fermented potion was hidden in his desk, he did not hide his impatience. Yes, to go with his many vices, add alcoholism to the list.
"You've brought the material?" he inquired gruffly.
"Yes," Elena replied as she reached into the pocket of her raincoat and handed the cardinal a small container, similar to a vial.
Immediately Macelli pocketed it without as much as glancing at it. Questions were beyond him this afternoon as the clouds grew darker. All this was a nuisance to Macelli. There had been as many of them in recent days as the raindrops now deluging the meadow.
"You know how to use it?" Grabe inquired.
Macelli looked at the woman. He was thankful she was his contact for only this one part of the master's plan. He didn't like her. A human piranha, to be sure. Not that she didn't get the job done. Had to give her that much credit. Yet, what was her part in the expedition of the explosion in Iraq? No matter her smugness, something had gone wrong and she had no right to not admit her part in the mix-up. However, he did not question further for he felt his own personal role in the coming of the master was much more challenging, much more covert and clandestine. It fitted his overblown image of himself, that of a disciple of the Basilisk concealed beneath the robes of the Church. A fitting parody. A reptile of rancor.
"Why don't you tell me," he finally answered, and Elena drew herself up even straighter and eyed the old priest for whom she felt nothing but contempt.
The master said he was loyal to their cause, this Antonio Macelli who still wore the robes of a cardinal as disguise. More loyal than many of the others, Ezerbet had affirmed, since Macelli continued to pretend his role as priest while paving the way for the Basilisk - their master. There had to be fortitude in that kind of commitment, she thought, with a tinge of fake admiration that she suppressed before it could color her perspective. Would this old man have enough energy left to perform one final task?
"The vial contains potassium cyanide. Extremely deadly," was her proud comment. "The master is precise in the method to be used."
"Yes?" was his tight-lipped inquiry. He made no effort to conceal his contempt for her. A machine, that's what Elena was. He wondered fleetingly if she ever felt pain and reacted to it, wondered if she'd have been able to endure the abomination of being locked within a despicable place for most of your life as he had been at the Vatican. He doubted it. There was pleasure and an aura of superiority in the doubt.
"You've told us that there are syringes available at the Vatican, which the late pope needed to control his diabetic condition. You'll use one of them. Only a small amount of the potassium cyanided is necessary to kill. But as a safeguard, fill the syringe half-full. You mustn't hesitate even a second once you begin the injection."
"I'll be successful," he countered proudly. "Have no fear."
"Fear!" the word snaked up from her drawn lips and seemed to curl into smoke, mingling in the damp air for a fraction of a second. "What is fear to us who are vowed to the master? He is the power, the force behind everything that is and will be. We have nothing to concern ourselves with but his bidding."
"I will use the injection. It will be easy. When does the master wish me to do this? And has he determined to whom?" Macelli was noticeably defensive but inquisitive. Damn Teutonics! She was so similar to Vendhem with that blatant outward Arian superiority. Adding to his pique was the weather which by now was affecting his arthritis. Damnation, he thought. Pain was something Macelli did not cater well to.
"It would be unwise to keep the vial on the premises of the Vatican, or even on your person for an extended period of time." Grabe intoned with little emotion.
"So what do you propose I do, fraulein?"
"When do the cardinals arrive?" She responded.
"The telegrams and e-mails officially went out early yesterday." Macelli answered. "The content of the urgency left no room for tarrying. I should say that by tomorrow they will be here. But, of course, we cannot forget the matter of the funeral."
"Unfortunately," she oozed sarcastically, "a hollow show." Any reverence for the dead was alien to her psyche. "You can hurry this matter along, no?"
"To a point," he conceded. "With Vendhem's help, of course. There will be those cardinals who will oppose the minutest deviation from the traditions. It may not be easy-"
"You will see that these fools do not get their way. We are interested now in only one of them. When he arrives, you will be alerted. Then you will know your target. When the body..." Here she permitted herself a laugh, "when the ashes are interred you will strike. That, mein cardinal, leaves the way clear for the master."
"As has been worked on for countless years," he reminded and remanded her. "Anything else?"
"No." Grabe then held her finger to his neck, "Death will come immediately when the injection is employed. But it will be detected if you do not get it into the carotid artery." She pressed the side of his artery to emphasize her point. "Understand?"
"Yes." And she had to accept that. Macelli wanted with all his force to be rid of this woman. He turned abruptly back to the car. They spoke no more, but went their separate ways. Macelli departed immediately, backing the Fiat out of the glen and back upon the paved road that snaked downward and back towards Rome.
Had he been missed from the Holy See? Probably not. He had long ago established this scenario of absences from his office due to the infirmities of age. All knew he also had a drinking problem. Vice can be helpful in covering other vices.
Elena wasn't so sure that this fatuous old fool was the man they needed to carry out this crucial step in the overall plan of the master. But it wasn't her place to question, yet she wondered, as she watched Macelli's car disappear onto the main roadway to this nook, how could he ever have advanced so far within the hierarchy of an institution that prides itself on scrutiny. Then again, the entire hierarchy had been called to task for their failure to curb the sodomy and sexual abuses and for their role in covering up the guilty. No wonder Macelli had remained.
Dateline: Rome - Il Trattoria Bistro - November 3, 1:15 P.M.
It was around 1:15 when Niki and Lorenzo finally got down to business after forty-five minutes of reminiscing and good food. Niki had to wait well over half an hour for Lorenzo. Punctuality never was Lorenzo's strongpoint. Nevertheless, Niki felt relief speaking of the old days, better times as did Lorenzo. They had settled on a small bistro two blocks from the University.
"Nikolas, you get better with age," Lorenzo bellowed as he raised his third glass of wine.
Niki chuckled and quipped, "A few more glasses of the vino and I will be flattered as a god."
"Not glasses, my friend, carafes!" Lorenzo boomed. They both laughed heartily.
"Tell me, Lorenzo, what did you find."
Lorenzo looked puzzled. "It is an unusual piece. The properties are not natural."
"Huh?" Niki questioned.
Lorenzo smiled, "No, it is not supernatural, my friend. But it is a fabricated composition that is quite puzzling. Tell me, where did you get this and was there more?"
"Well, it was dark. To tell you the truth there was much more. This was just a small piece I was able to tear off."
"Off of where, Senor?" Lorenzo inquired.
"The side of the interior wall of a coffin."
"A coffin?" Lorenzo seemed incredulous. "That's strange."
"Yes, I know it's strange, I had to conceal myself in one to get out of Iraq."
"Iraq?" He pulled the piece of plastic out of a carefully wrapped velvet pouch and held it to the light, stretching it completely out. "Do you see, Nikolas, there is more to this. Do you see the fine lines leading towards the corner?"
Niki squinted, moving his head lower to look up. As he did, the pouch in his vest pocket poked at his ribs and he instinctively pulled it out and placed it on the table, freeing his chest to get nearer to the table.
"I'm not really sure I see what you are talking of, Lorenzo."
"Ah, perhaps my imagination, Nikolas. I have one, no?"
"That would be, how you say, an understatement." Both laughed heartily again as the waitress laid the check on the table.
Lorenzo grabbed her arm, "Posso pagare con la carta di credito?"
She, nodded affirmatively, "Si."
Niki reached over with his palm facing Lorenzo, "My friend, it is my treat. I have some money. I will buy, please."
"Since I have not accomplished what you ask, Nikolas, I cannot expect you to pay. I will pay and if you want to remain my friend you will not argue!"
Lorenzo was being jestful through a mock sternness. Niki feigned agitation, slamming his hand down hard on the packet on the table in placing it back in his vest.
"Oooh, ouch!" Niki brought his hand up, instinctively looking to see if it had a puncture wound.
"What did you do now, Nikolas?"
"I will tell you in a moment, Lorenzo. Something pierced me." He unraveled the smudged linen cloth as the charred crucifix, which he had retrieved from Fasif's after the explosions, rolled onto the table.
"That needs polishing, my friend." Lorenzo smiled, hoping Niki had not taken him seriously about his friendship.
"It was near Elias before he died. It had been on the wall near Fasif's study. Fasif had just put it there yesterday. It was a gift from the gardeners. They had six of them they gave him as a gesture of friend..."
Niki stopped in mid-sentence as small pieces of shards littered the table near the scorched silver crucifix. "Lorenzo, could these be pieces of plastic explosives?"
Lorenzo gathered up a few and, as every good scientist, pulled out his magnifying glass, holding it to the light. Within seconds he discovered what Father Niki now realized.
Lorenzo confirmed it. "Nikolas, this is the same texture as the piece you gave me!"
"Could six small crucifixes coated with this explosive detonate an entire estate, Lorenzo?"
"I'm afraid they could. Very powerful. Without analyzing the properties I couldn't tell you the force of the composition, but it is very possible, Nikolas. Do you think that is what happened at Fasif's?"
"Very much so, Lorenzo, very much so. But that is not what concerns me right now." His eyes grew wider as the Eureka thundered through his conscience. "The coffin I was smuggled in was lined with plastic explosives, Lorenzo!"
"The whole coffin?" Nikolas was dumbstruck.
"I fear it is not just one coffin, Lorenzo, but all the coffins shipped to Rome. I must find out where they are now."
"How will you do that?"
"The man who cleared them. I am staying at his apartment. I must see if he has returned and warn him."
Niki rose quickly and Lorenzo, sobered now by the discovery, grabbed Niki's wrist tightly. "My friend, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. You told me that many times. How do you know that this man didn't know? You could be walking into a trap."
"You are wise beyond your girth, Lorenzo my good friend. Words well spoken. I will keep that in mind."
"Good. I will come with you and..."
Niki interrupted his eager friend. "You can do me much more good if you will take this crucifix back to your lab and analyze the properties to know the force it had. Then compare to the plastic strip I peeled off and let me know what we are dealing with."
The waitress returned with the credit card along with a tray of complimentary drinks from a nearby table where the inhabitants' generosity had translated to drinks for everyone.
Lorenzo's sincerity in helping Niki was evident as he politely but told the waitress no thank you. "Grazie. No. Mi dispiace, me adesso dobbiamo andare."
He quickly signed the credit card slip, adding a generous tip and they were out the door. Niki realizing now, to his chagrin, that he might very well have chauffeured the weapons of destruction himself. He must stop it now, but how?
Next issue: Seventh Chapter - Episode Seven
"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!