T he sun was setting just west of the magnificent cupola of St. Peter's Basilica, but the countless mourners who were huddled in St. Peter's Square were unaware for the clouds had shrouded the light from their eyes. Like the weather, a cold, damp and ill wind had blown in with the advent of November. The tragic events of September 11, 2002 were being rehashed by media talking heads the world over in light of the more horrendous events of November 1st this year. Everywhere people were in a near state of panic, looking over their shoulders anticipating the next shoe to drop - the next terrorist act anywhere in the world. It was truly a time of nervousness and sorrow. A time of antithesis.
The sorrow was manifested in a seamless blanket of umbrellas that stretched throughout the square, broken only by the Obelisk in the center and the aging stone Bernini Colonnade covered by the stone saints that had stood sentinel for several centuries above the massive circular square. Inside Paul VI Hall a perpetual Rosary was continuing as mourners stood shoulder to shoulder, protected from the elements and lost in the meditation and mystical power of the beads. Like those who stood on this same spot in 1571, they prayed for the impossible, that God would preserve them from perdition and that, like Don Juan of Austria's impossible victory over the Ottoman Turks on the Ionian Sea in the Battle of Lepanto, they too would somehow be victorious against an enemy few knew.
This shroud of secrecy gave even more power to the foe - the nefarious Legion of the Basilisk - a conglomeration of Islam, Marxist, Masonic and Modernist elite 'chosen ones' who were hell-bent on destroying all order to pave the way for the final enthronement of the prince of darkness. They had long ago sold their souls to the devil and so few of those, who still believed in God, realized the agenda of the Almighty's infernal foe. This ignorance only facilitated the Basilisk's mission.
On this bleak, Roman afternoon late on the fourth day of November, only a few brave souls held out hope. That's all they had: hope...and faith.
One of these was the weak and scuffled loyal Swiss Guard Riage Benziger. As the sky darkened, he had left the comatose pontiff wrapped in burlap, comfortably - if one could be so in that state - protected against the night chill in a cramped turret cubicle off the secret corridor into Castel Sant'Angelo. Also disguised in a burlap cowl, Riage had stolen back into the Castle and down a side passage to a boarded-up entrance. Removing a few slats with a rusty shovel, which he had retrieved from an abandoned storeroom in the Castle's lower regions, he was able to squeeze his tattered body through the small opening and stealthily raced across the dormant lawn northwest of the ancient circular castle. Hiding behind a shrubbery near Piazza Adrianna on the street that bordered the northwest corner of the property, he waited until there was a clearing in traffic and darted across to Via Alberico where he clung to the shadows as he moved swiftly a few blocks, then cut south across the nearly deserted Piazza A Capponi down the Via Ombrellari. A quick right at Borgo Vittorio and he was almost there. His heart beat faster as he picked up the pace.
Dateline: Rome, Side Gate of Vatican City - November 4, 5:00 P.M.
Keeping his face concealed, Benziger approached the stately guard whose colorful pantaloons billowed noticeably in the November breeze that grew colder by the minute.
"Halt, stand and be recognized."
When Riage was within two feet, the guard recognized the mysterious figure who had approached him.
"Captain Benziger, Ya, I thought you were a beggar. We have been worried, no? Where, pray tell have you been?"
"You don't know how good it is to see a friendly face," Benziger heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm famished. I must get to the infirmary and..."
"I will call an escort immediately," the guard interrupted as he stepped back to pick up the phone on the stanchion next to his post.
"But I don't need an escort, I can - "
The guard held up his hand to quiet Riage so he could hear, "Yes, your Eminence." Cupping his hand over the phone, the guard motioned to Benziger to move to a side area inside the gate, "You are to wait over there. They shall be here shortly to help you."
"Thank God, at last," sighed Benziger as he leaned his battered body against the cold wall just inside the entrance.
Within a minute two other Swiss Guards, in civilian black suits approached from inside the compound. Saluting the halberdier guard on duty, they turned to Riage without saluting; a protocol unacceptable in the presence of a higher commanding officer, which Benziger was.
The first plain-clothed guard announced in authoritative tones, "Captain Benziger. This way." He fell in behind the first guard, the second guard let Benziger proceed, then dropped behind him. Strange, thought Riage. Instead of marching three abreast, they were flanking him vertically, as if a prisoner being sent to the brig. Marching through the courtyard, they mounted some steps into a corridor past the barracks of the Swiss Guards. As they walked, Benziger grew more and more suspicious that something was not right. The briskness and aloofness of the two guards confirmed his fears. Also, as the guard ahead swung his arms back and forth in cadence, Riage noticed a cufflink exposed as he stretched back. It was red with a mysterious, ominous symbol on it, definitely not regulation uniform code. Benziger began to realize if he did not act now, all would be lost.
"Permesso. I must go. Adesso." Benziger said with an air of urgency, feigning a kidney cramp, "My apartment is right over there. Just a quick flush and I will be back out, per favore? "
The guards looked at each other quizzically. One shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate what will it hurt. The other gestured toward his watch, then said. "No harm, but be quick."
"Prego, the second guard shot back, "we have promised to deliver you within minutes."
They filed quickly down the north corridor to Riage's apartment where the first guard produced the key and opened it. Benziger knew they had already searched his room, something was amiss as they escorted him through the small living quarters to his bedroom and the bathroom door.
Quickly inside, Riage closed the door. Fear surfaced on his face as he desperately searched for something to write with. The white towel on the rack would serve as his papyrus, and the shoe polish under the sink his vehicle to save the pope. Grabbing a wad of toilet paper, he wrapped it around his finger and dabbed it deep into the thick polish, then with a heavy wad of black wax, feverishly wrote on the towel: IL PAPA ALIVE. HELP. R. Putting the lid on the shoe polish and back in place beneath the vanity, he discarded the toilet paper and flushed, then washed his hands as thoroughly as he could. There was still some black residue on his finger as he opened the door, concealing the towel behind him. Thankfully the guards had retreated into the outer room. Benziger scurried to his bed and stashed the towel underneath the pillow, then fluffing it up, he promptly rejoined the guards in the other room.
"Ah, bene. I feel better now. Let us proceed."
They resumed their march toward their destination, one Riage knew instinctively once they passed into the Apostolic Palace and down the elaborately marbled corridor to a door at the end of the hall. He had been there a few times. It never gave him comfort, this office. The first guard opened the door and escorted Benziger into the room.
"Captain Benziger. We have been waiting for you to surface. You have some explaining to do. Shall we begin?" The inquisitor was none other than Cardinal Macelli.
Dateline: Rome - Ogidi's apartment flat - November 4, 5:30 P.M.
"Man, this is ridiculous," Pat complained while sitting upright in a wooden chair near the table as Ogidi began applying a base makeup to Pat's face. To Makuta's side his bag which contained a plethora of theater makeup and old tattered clothes.
"I can work much better, Mr. Gallagher, if you are quiet and cooperative," Makuta intoned in an authoritative voice.
"He wants to make you older, much older, Patrick," Niki added, trying to get Pat to sit still and cooperate.
"Man, I'm already gittin' old just sittin' here."
Makuta reprimanded, "Be patient, my impatient American, especially if you want to, as you say, 'grow old gracefully.'
Niki couldn't resist, "If you think you look bad now, Patrick. Wait until the good doctor is through with you."
Ogidi's sense of humor came to the fore. He emitted a grin. Regaining his decorum, he decided to get down to basics, "We'll meet at the Ristorante Romano at precisely eight o'clock. A table has been reserved for four in the name of Christiano."
"Appropriate, no?" Niki opined.
"Who's the fourth individual?" Pat inquired.
"We will know him by the same pin Fasif gave you. He will know us by the disguises," answered Ogidi.
"...and I thought Halloween was over," Pat moaned facetiously.
Niki warned, "the goblins are still out there, my friend."
"They'll be looking for a virile, healthy American. Not an old miser," said Ogidi as he handed Pat a small mirror, "I'm not finished yet, but perhaps you'll realize the goal I am trying to achieve."
Pat's eyes bulged. "Well, I'll be damned."
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 5:45 P.M.
Returning from his office on the other side of St. Peter's, Monsignor Stephen Navarro, the Oblate head of the Social Communications Council still had not been able to meet with Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn. He had confided what he knew by phone, but no opportunity to meet with him privately. Despite the privacy of Vatican City, there were very few places of privacy within this smallest of sovereign nations. The link between Cardinal Zachmunn and Stephen was their mutual dear friend Victor Van Wess. Pat's crusty boss was a key component of Stephen's vocation for he would not be a priest today if had not been for Victor.
Now he would be the contact with the few remaining resisters of the Basilisk. He had to clear his schedule for the evening so Macelli or Vendhem would not be the wiser. Stephen had wanted to see Cardinal Zachmunn this evening, but the St. Louis prelate had already been committed by Macelli to a social gathering of several of the papabili with the Romanita benefactors. As much as Gregory despised such pandering, he had no choice. Thus Stephen had to make alternative plans, and come up with a cover so he could steal away undetected from the Vatican.
With possibilities bouncing about inside his head with the boundless energy of a young child, Navarro wasn't immediately aware of another sensation that had crept into his system. Still on the main floor corridor, halfway to his room on the third floor, he paused, turned around and stared back along a corridor which led to the side entrance to the Sistine Chapel.
He frowned. He didn't stop to think why, but he turned and went back down the other corridor; this time at a faster pace and laid his hand against the handle of the side doorway.
He was getting to be a bundle of nerves! At the moment his entire system seemed to be out of kilter.
Very carefully, knowing only that he wanted to be unseen, undetected, Stephen eased open the door, thankful that the hinges were well-oiled and no sound seeped into the air. Only a small crack was necessary. Enough to let him see into the Sistine Chapel.
Everything was in order. Just as it should be as visible preparations for the next conclave were easily identifiable. The multi-level Dias platforms were set up, chairs set in place. The bunting was arranged around the walls and covering the bases of the platforms. Desks were in position for the secretaries of each eligible cardinal.
Shaking his head as if to say, "I must be crazy," Stephen closed the door behind him and then he felt it again, near him... Something he wanted to swat away, whatever 'it' was it was shadowing him. He looked about and finally up.
No! It couldn't be possible! He was permitting his imagination to run wild. Common enough after the strain of the last days, the call from Van Wess, the endless questions from the press, the stress of knowing his every move was being watched. What a ridiculous notion that he was allowing his mind to play tricks on him. There could be nothing in the Vatican except God Himself, and there was certainly no cause to be afraid of the Almighty.
But Stephen was afraid. The fear came to sneer at him as he gazed upward. Part of him wanted to run. He stood his ground. He was a man of God. A priest. Not a person given to fancies. But... The blackness above appeared to be moving, gathering in upon itself, seething, roiling, as giant thunderheads roll and mass before a storm. There was an oily quality to it, a gelatinous texture and nauseating odor.
He forced himself to look away from the black mass to the outer areas of the corridor, hoping to see someone and call their attention to this phenomena. No one was there. No one saw the 'thing' forming
Stephen didn't want to see it. Yet, he couldn't move. Unbridled terror took hold of his heart, squeezing the blood from it till he felt pain in his chest. He couldn't tear his eyes away as he saw, quite clearly, a face forming in that oily black smoke, and he wanted to scream.
The hideous face seemed to float nearer to him. With the strength of grace Stephen found the fortitude he needed. Heedless of any noise he might make, Navarro ran, cassock flying as he clutched his Oblate Cross tucked into his cincture, the tassels waving in the wind of his flight.
Several times he glanced back over his shoulder, expecting that the floating black mass would be right behind him. Almost out of breath he veered to his right, to a common area off the corridor. He was alone. He would make his last stand here. He waited for the oily mass to slither into his sight. He waited. And then he could breathe again. Was he going insane? He felt utterly alone in a world gone insane.
Quickly he regained strength and hightailed it to his room, taking two steps at a time until he was safely behind the locked door of his room. He leaned heavily against its strong wood and sighed deeply.
Dear God, he was losing his mind! He tried to make his breathing slow down along with his heartbeat. It was impossible what he'd just witnessed. This was a place of holiness; not a house of evil. Evil could not abide this place. Yet he had seen it. And, as certainly as he knew there was a God, Stephen Navarro knew that he'd looked into the face of God's enemy.
He went immediately to his prie-dieu and bowed his head, burying it in his upraised hands. He cried silently, but with sobs that shook his entire frame. If he was right, then the evil within these hallowed halls was already permeating this citadel of holiness that had stood for centuries as the vanguard of Heaven.
What was he going to do? How could this evil have penetrated so deeply? How was he or anyone going to rid this place of it? He sobbed anew, knowing no answers. The tears streamed down upon the open bible on the ledge of his kneeler, soaking into the open page of the Gospel, and onto the passage of Matthew 19: 26 where Christ, after blessing the children in Judea, had assured His frightened disciples, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Next issue: Eighth Chapter - Episode Six
"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!