T he gray sky wrapped itself around the city of Rome as if a mourning shroud, and shed tears from leaden clouds that hovered low to the ground, creating a mist of fog and steam rising from the warm pavement. Indian Summer was about to pass and winter was just around the corner. It was surrealistic. Unreal. Just the proper setting for the events taking place, for all of Heaven wept for the devastation that man had wrought.
Dateline: Rome - Castel Sant'Angelo - November 4, 3:45 P.M.
To the faithful mourners pouring now into St. Peter's and those watching on global TV around the world, the symbolism was much more Heaven-sent, as if the angels were crying for the bodies of prelates who laid in state near their fallen pontiff. But the real pope was not interred in the coffin draped in white; the real pope, elected less than a year before, was slumped against the dank stone of a hidden corridor leading into the now-abandoned Castel Sant-Angelo bastion that had stood sentinel above the Tiber for centuries. Like the rest of the world in a psychological coma of shock after the tragic event on the Field of Abraham four days earlier, the real pope lay in a comatose state. Unlike the rest of the world, he had no awareness of the catastrophic conflagration in Iraq.
Sitting near him was his loyal Swiss Guard Riage Benziger who, despite his own dehydration, sought to nourish the weakening pontiff with water and rice. Throughout the day, Riage had moved the pope along the wall so the warmth of the sun could keep them warm, beaming through the narrowly slit parapets in the thick stone wall. Truly a protector of the Sovereign Pontiff in every way. Relying on the sun, Benziger also turned to the Son, praying ceaselessly to Jesus and His Blessed Mother for help.
Slowly but surely Benziger had regained some strength and realized he must go for help, under cover of darkness this night. He, too, was unaware of the cataclysmic event of November 1, but he was aware that something was amiss by the fact of where he was and how he got there, lugging the pope with him through the long corridor connecting the Apostolic Palace and Sant'Angelo. He could not afford to betray the Vicar of Christ. Who knew what was afoot?
Dateline: Rome - Ogidi's Flat - November 4, 3:50 P.M.
Across the city, in a small room not unlike the corridor where Benziger huddled with the pope, the gray light created a chilling atmosphere. On the single bed in the room Pat tossed and turned, his face bathed in sweat. Suddenly, he began to moan aloud and at once Niki Andriopoulos was up and across the room a few steps to his side. Yet, before Niki could get there Pat let out a scream that would terrify the Italian mother retrieving her laundry from the line outside her window a block away. Despite his wrapped ribs and bruised flesh, Pat bolted upright in bed, sitting as if he had seen a ghost.
"Patrick, are you okay? It's me, Niki."
Pat's eyes sprung open wide, the pupils dilated. A nightmare! God, what a nightmare! Gallagher breathed heavily as if he'd run the whole length of the dream, and the reminder and reality of pain seared through his chest. "Owwwh."
Niki placed his hand gently on Pat's forehead, concerned for the fever. "You make a lot of noise when you sleep, my friend," the kind Andriopoulos gently teased.
"Niki! My God, I'm glad to see you."
"Twenty-four hours no less," Niki quipped. "Well at least I serve some purpose, no?"
"Yes and no." Pat shot back, the pain subsiding but still rattling the rib cage.
"What, my friend, does that remark imply," Niki queried.
"Yes, you're here to help me, but if I hadn't met you I wouldn't be in this goddamn state of..."
"I see even sleep has not cured you of your cursing, Patrick."
"Well if you knew how much pain I..."
"God does and that suffices, my American adventurer."
"Well tell Him to take it away, will ya? In case you hadn't noticed, it hurts like hell."
"You've been through hell, my friend. In fact, if I may be so bold to say, you look like you are still there. Please, tell me of this nightmare and allow it to be washed away in the Precious Blood of Christ."
"Ah, the priest in you, Niki. Gotta admit it's comfortin' at a time like this." Pat looked around the room. "Where's Ogidi? What time is it?"
"He'll be back shortly, Patrick. Don't concern yourself. He went out quite early to see what he could learn. Also, he wished to make contact with another member of the resistance."
"Ogidi's learned from you already, huh, Nik? Always have a friend in your hip pocket."
"And why not? It's certainly better than having a dirty handkerchief. And, Pat Gallagher, you're avoiding the issue. I wish to hear of your nightmare so that it can be vanished and you can be of use to us."
"You're too thoughtful," Pat growled the pain searing through his upper body as he tried to sit back against the rumpled, sweat-soaked pillows and bed clothes. Niki made no effort to assist him for he knew Pat had to use his body, to the make the muscles perform no matter the pain. His very life depended on it.
"Alright," Pat sighed, closing his eyes only momentarily, then popping them open fearful he'd have to face his horrors alone in the dark space of his own mind. "I dreamed," he began in a somber tone, "first of Corrie...someone I left back in Dallas. I ain't talked to her since the night I dropped her off before flying to Iraq. I couldn't even get through to her by phone or e-mail to tell her I was going or where I am."
"I'm sure by now she has an idea, no?" Niki opined as he retrieved the chair by the table and moved it closer to the bed. "Please, continue."
"Anyway, other things began to intrude in the dream. You, for one, Niki. And Fasif, Karell..."
Here his voice grew emotional, shaking, Niki remained silent.
"I was in the alleyway. I could see Karel as she was in death. Only, as I watched she began to sway and move as if motivated by an unseen hand, and she changed, Nik. Suddenly, it wasn't Karel's body I was looking at, but Corrie's. I rushed forward, screaming over and over that it couldn't be. Corrie couldn't be dead. I wanted to untie the bounds, hold her in my arms, anything to convince myself that I was dreaming."
"It is a common sensation when one is in a deep altered state," Niki consoled.
Pat continued rapidly as if not hearing Niki's voice. "But as I got near, she turned her head to me. And those great staring eyes belonged neither to Corrie or Karel. They were the eyes Fasif spoke of, the eyes I saw upon this Ezerbet. Evil, Niki. Pure evil. It's hard to describe."
"I understand, Patrick. You need go no further."
"No, I do, Nik. I tried to back away, fear clutching at me like a vise. I could feel the pain in my guts, and I couldn't get enough air into my lungs. The 'thing' which hung from the sign above the shop transformed." Pat was getting more animated. He knew instinctively this nightmare would never leave him. He knew it was a part of him now, engraved upon his soul, forever to haunt him.
"And what did this 'thing' become, my friend?"
"A...lizard. Human, yet not human," answered Gallagher in a strangled voice. "It slithered free from the wires which restrained the human body, and stood erect. God, it was tall. I - I know it's not possible but it appeared in my dream to be taller than even Shaq O'Neal. And the eyes! Pools of sickly green-black that seethed and pulsed as I watched. The pupils. They were black vortexes that wanted to devour me, draw me into a nothingness from which there was no escape."
"It truly sounds like you were in hell, Patrick."
"That's not the half of it, Nik. I turned to run, but the thing came after me. It was swift. Very swift. I couldn't outrun it. My legs wouldn't move. I heard its movements, a hissing, reptilian rush of putrid air and sound that made me sick. Suddenly, I knew I had no choice. I had to face it. I had to die, but I'd die staring the devil down itself if I did nothing else."
"Your faith is still there, Patrick, don't suppress it. Express it."
"Well, when I turned around it was only several feet from me, close enough that if I reached out I could touch it. It wanted me to touch it, to feel its 'flesh' that was inhuman. Instead, I looked at it, willing myself not to succumb to the horrid, hypnotic stare it shot back at me."
"Sounds like Satan personified, my friend. You are blessed to have awakened from such scene."
"You telling me!? Then, just when I knew I couldn't hold out any longer the 'thing' opened its mouth. By now it had transformed its face into a more human form, and the lips curled back in a grimace of rage, revealing a dark orifice more horrible than the pupils of the seething eyes. It laughed, Nik. A gruesome, victorious laughter that echoed throughout the alleyway, and, I felt, beyond to the whole world. It rocked me. Made me lose my balance. I fell to my knees, forced down by the sound that came from deep within the 'thing' that stood over me, gloating, mocking. It wanted to destroy me. Nothing could stop it. I screamed then. Screamed and screamed...and woke to find you standing beside me."
"Thank God it was only a nightmare. In reality, Patrick, Karel is at peace. I removed the body and saw to the burial."
A ponderous silence kept them company in this small room, an awkward stillness that wanted no words to fill the gap.
After a few moments that seemed an eternity, Gallagher signed weakly, and leaned back against the pillow, utterly exhausted. He didn't even look to see what Niki was thinking. It didn't matter, not really. The fiendish dream had been his and he'd have to learn to deal with it. Little did he notice at the time that Niki was already dealing with it, having blessed Pat with holy water and praying for deliverance from these images emblazoned on his psyche.
Then Niki, retrieved a plate containing thick slices of fresh baked bread, more cheese and fruit, and a mug of hot tea. "My friend, you must eat," handing the tray to Pat. "It' not much, but for now it will suffice."
"You believe me, don't you, Nik?" Gallagher sought assurance after he'd taken a few bites.
"Of course. It doesn't really surprise me, Patrick. Yesterday you heard Makuta and I speak of the basiliskos. The same thing Fasif told you that day in the sunlit breakfast room of his home. And now you have seen first hand something of what this hellish basiliskos is. Its power was partially revealed to you. Its ability to transform, to devour, to take unto itself whatever it needs in order to gain power. You looked into the face of hell, Pat Gallagher. You were lucky it was only a dream. Before you have to face hell in reality, we must arm you with the proper weapons."
"There aren't any weapons against something like that, Nik." Pat shook his head, sipping on the hot tea and enjoying the warmth it gave his aching body and battered mind. "It's not some movie fantasy, Niki. Not those ancient celluloids where the army can be called out, a few rockets launched, and 'boom' end of the enemy. This basilisk isn't going to be subdued that easily, buddy."
"No that is true," Niki agreed. "But there are weapons, Pat. Though they may not appear to be effective, it is your faith in them that will make them so. You comprehend, no?"
"I don't really understand anything, Niki. Not right now." Wearily Pat set aside the plate and the cup of tea and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, a process that was slow and painful. But now the pain cleared his mind. "I thought I was a pretty level-headed guy. Thought I'd made all the right decisions in my life. No regrets, no reason to look back. Now I don't even have that assurance."
"We all have gone through that, my friend."
Pat would not be patronized as he continued, "Here I am, Mr. Macho, yet In the face of this basilisk I've begun to doubt my very sanity, much less my reason for being alive. No, Niki. It's not easy. The answers you cling to...hey, they're alien to me right now. I'm lost, floating in a limbo of fear and uncertainty."
"Very reminiscent of the dark night of the soul which St. John of the Cross wrote of," Niki tried to reassure his American friend.
"Well, whatever. Maybe it'd be best if I finish this assignment alone. I might be a liability."
"Makuta and I will not permit that, Patrick Gallagher. Don't dwell on the natural doubts of your mind. Rather, concentrate on the resources in your soul, those resources that you've allowed to lie dormant for a long time. Yes, my friend?"
Gallagher knew he was right, but refrained from commenting immediately. He wasn't anywhere near ready to face those hidden coves of his soul. He had buried all that a long time ago, or so he thought. Now glimpses of his Catholic training flashed through his mind. It was as if he could hear his grandmother prompting him on. A flush came over him.
"Nik, don't tell anyone but I gotta admit...I'm scared."
"You are not alone, my friend."
"God, Niki, it's a nightmare whether I'm asleep or awake.
"Considering the time you've been away from the sacraments, you should be, my friend." The sacerdotal nature of Niki was now coming through. "It is God's way of reminding the prodigal son that He waits patiently for the sinner to return. Do you comprehend?"
"It' all Greek to me. No offense. I'm still a little weak," Pat gestured toward his chest and legs, "here, here and here."
Niki sensed Pat was getting ready to confide in him as a confessor, but the Greek priest also sensed an interloper outside and realized this was not the time for confession, for soon their sanctuary would be interrupted. Quickly Niki adapted, changing the mood.
"What you need is nourishment," Niki laughed, "plenty of pasta."
"Well, who delivers in this area, Nik?"
"Not someone we should trust, I fear. But, as you Americans would say 'not to worry', for we, my friend, are eating out tonight."
"Great, but if they're looking for us..?"
"Ah yes, if they can recognize us."
Two more raps and then silence, followed by one more rap on the wood. Both Pat and Niki froze. Then Niki quickly crossed to the locked portal. "Yes?" He whispered cautiously, ear pressed against the door.
"Makuta," answered a voice and Niki immediately slid the bolt free. Gallagher had heard him say Ogidi's name, but this individual who hobbled into the room wasn't Makuta Ogidi. The man who came into the center of the room awash in opaque light was a withered, bent old man with a beard long and unkempt, and a back rounded with the ravages of age and malnutrition. The hand clutching a cane was gnarled. Pat felt the urge to hop from his bed and put a chair under this man before he toppled over.
The old man turned to stare at Gallagher, and it was Pat's turn to feel foolish and look in astonishment at a disguise so perfect he marveled at it. Ogidi was certainly not his conventional idea of a doctor, thought Pat. More of a black Sherlock Holmes. The only thing about this human being that gave this person away, which Pat instinctively knew, were the eyes. There was no age there. No infirmity. Beyond that, he'd not have known this old man was the stately Ogidi.
"So, you're awake. Good," said Makuta matter of factly, sitting down easily enough. "Sorry if I startled you. I've been out and about seeking information, making what I think will prove a particularly important contact. I didn'' think it wise to show myself in the streets where the Legion could easily spot me."
As he spoke Ogidi began to peel off the beard, to strip from his face and hands a latex covering which had given him the appearance of aging. He stood up, removed the heavy overcoat and withdrew a skin-colored lump of material which had created a hump-back effect.
As Gallagher fumbled for a cigarette, his interior feelings of guilt and humble repentance faded fast with the entrance of Ogidi. His macho, confident, albeit cocky side returned to the surface. "You learn that in med school?" Pat cracked trying to cover his sensitive side.
"No. But it mightn't be a bad course to add to the curriculum, do you not think?" answered Ogidi with a grin.
"Makuta," Niki interjected, "what is it like out there? Were you followed? Did you see the person you went to contact?" Niki was getting down to basics.
Ogidi replied as he pulled off the remaining vestiges of latex. "It's miserable outside," he sighed, stretching out his legs to uncramp feet which had been stuffed into too-tight shoes in order to perpetrate a limp. "The warmth is waning. The rain is growing colder and steadier. The crowds are thick and somber at St. Peter's. I don't think I was followed, but who can be certain when it comes to the Legion? I took every precaution. The disguise helped, no?"
"Yes," Gallagher answered, then asked, "Who'd you go to meet?"
"Someone who works for our cause, though we've never before met. Fasif told me of him... An added precaution. I was not able to get to him personally this time. He is rather occupied at the moment. But I left a discreet message for him. He will respond. Of that I am sure."
"You still haven't told us who---", Pat was getting consternated again.
"You will meet him soon, Mr. Gallagher. Along with Niki and me. Until then, content yourself to read these." With that Ogidi retrieved from beneath his coat the morning newspaper, English version. "Tomorrow the pope will be buried...and you can be sure the Legion will strike again. I just know they will."
He was deadly serious.
"If only we knew where and when," Niki moaned.
"Shouldn't we be out and about, mingling with the people, the mourners? Trying to get clues?" Pat's journalistic side was taking over again.
"No," was Makuta's firm reply. "We risk only death by being so foolish. The Legion has marked us for certain death. That is a fact."
"Makuta is right, Patrick. Why make ourselves an easy target?"
"Yes, Mr. Gallagher," Ogidi chimed in, "Think what little we'd really learn from the common people. All they know right now is that it is a time of mourning for a slain pope and prelates. They do not fully comprehend the seriousness of the situation which has created a vacancy in the most powerful office in the world. Even now they weep and pray and seek God's mercy on His Church, but do not see or hear the evil that walks beside them and pretends to pray. Only we, my friends, can sense the evil."
"Do you see his logic, my friend," Niki asked Pat, "It is real to us, and we are very real to it. No, we will bide our time and wait for darkness which will be here within the hour, and then do as Makuta has already arranged. Sometimes, Patrick, victories are won by waiting and letting the enemy make a move first. Not by impetuosity."
"Well spoken like a wise philosopher," praised Ogidi.
"Why not? He's Greek," quipped Pat.
Gallagher had to agree. Though it pained him to think that he still hadn't conquered his impatience or, as he recently discovered, his fears, he knew he was going to have to take a crash course in dealing with these monsters in his mind. He took another cigarette from the pack on the bedside table, lit it and scanned the newspaper, feeling a tinge of regret that his byline was not on any of the stories.
As he inhaled deeply, Pat thought about Niki's words. Niki had a damnable habit of being right.
Next week: Eighth Chapter - Episode Five
"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!