Darkness had descended on Rome, particularly Vatican City this evening of the fourth day of November. It was particularly dark in the bowels of a chamber beneath St. Peter's where the black hearts of Cardinal Josef Vendhem and Cardinal Antonio Macelli melded in hushed tones of urgent conversation. Two figures, illuminated by flickering candles against the rough-hewned walls of the crypt beneath the massive basilica, cast menacing shadows for all humanity.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 6:30 P.M.
"Is it true that Benziger has surfaced?" Vendhem asked incredulously.
"Si. Now we are closer to clearing up this mess you have made, Josef."
"I beg your pardon, Antonio. Do you have the prize as well?"
"Not yet. My people are grilling Benziger now. Soon he will break and we will know where he is."
"He had better, Antonio, for not to have the prize, ah, that mistake can be fatal. The master will not tolerate these delays when things do not go his way."
"We have all the tentacles out, ready to latch onto the prize as soon as we narrow the area down, Josef. Benziger will break. I have filled him with guilt for allowing it to happen on his watch. He'll talk eventually."
"That could be too late, Antonio."
"It is already too late for them. Three of the members of the Master's enemy are dead. Phase Two has begun without obstacles. The entree has arrived, Josef."
"Then let me attend to that and you tend to Benziger. We must go now before we are detected."
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 6:33 P.M.
The Angeles dinner bell had brought Monsignor Stephen Navarro back to the reality of the moment. He had risen from his knees at the prie-dieu where he had remained since fleeing from the corridor. Emotionally spent, he had gone through the motions in showering and preparing for the evening rendezvous. He had struggled out into the hallway. He had made his decision. He was ready to face the demons, no matter what they hurled at him.
Deliberately he had made his way down the hallway to Father Roberto Urazzi's room as the clock ticked closer to seven. He knew Roberto was usually there, being among the last to answer the dinner bell.
The white knuckles wrapped on the mahogany door of Fr. Roberto Urazzi's room on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace. In the dim light the knock echoed through the marble corridor. Within seconds Fr. Urazzi had opened the door to find Monsignor Stephen Navarro, O.M.I., head of the Social Communications Council, looking like death warmed over.
"Prego, Monsignor, you do not look well."
"Father, I've come down with a case of the flu. Could be the change in weather. Nothing serious I think. Please cover me with Macelli."
"Si. Would you like I should call the house physician?"
"No. Not necessary," Stephen shot back nervously, "Just a temporary bug. Be gone by morning. Just need rest. "I'm going right to bed.""
"Don't worry, Stephano, I will take care of His Eminence if he pokes and pries. Besides, nothing is happening tonight. Tomorrow it starts. Rest now. Go, Pronto."
"Thank you, Father. I will."
Heading down the corridor towards his room, he could sense Fr. Urazzi watching him. A few more steps and he dared turn his head back to check. The door had just clicked shut. Turning towards the staircase that would take him up to his room or down to the back entrance, he feigned heading up, then backtracked and quickly and silently bounded down the steps and then down the long marble corridor on the first floor toward the Bronze Door. But he cut to the left, taking a shortcut down the back staircase, then turned right and went through a doorway into a tiny corridor which, in ancient days had more likely served as a place for carriage drivers and servants alike to wait while their masters talked with the Pope.
It was a room used now by the Swiss Guards, and only one guard was on duty in this back section of the Vatican. The man was busy looking over the daily reports filed by the previous guards, and didn't even glance up as Navarro stole past and let himself out soundlessly into the night.
To escape identification, Navarro turned down paths few of the Vatican staff were even aware of, finally coming to a door in the wall that opened to the north out to the side street which marked the end of the Vatican State boundary. He walked briskly in the rain for a half dozen blocks before he hailed taxi on the Viale Guilio Cesare.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 7:30 P.M.
Above and to the left where Monsignor Navarro had exited the ancient room, a group of nuns were busy preparing the Swiss Guard quarters for the evening, turning back sheets and fluffing pillows of those guards who were on duty.
Banned from the Papal quarters and righteously piqued by Macelli's orders, Sister Bridget McCullough was still the obedient nun. Thus, in this spirit she assisted her fellow sisters in tending to her new duties of maintenance and cleaning of the Swiss Guard quarters. This was not new to her, for she had begun in this area of the Holy See. Often this was where the novices began and, upon profession, were promoted to other areas within the Vatican. Many would consider this demotion humiliating, but Sister Bridie, ever the loving, humble soul, took it all in stride, offering all to Jesus to Whom she toiled for on this place called earth.
It was sheer divine providence that Sister Bridie entered the living quarters of Riage Benziger this night. While one of the novices busied herself in the outer room, the Irish nun moved quickly into the bedroom area. It was then that she noticed that something was wrong with one of the pillows. Immediately and instinctively she picked it up to fluff it and discovered a crumpled towel beneath. Picking it up she tossed it into the laundry cart she had brought with her, then reached for a new towel.
Then she saw it, the thick black markings on the towel. Carefully retrieving it, she laid it out on the bed. IL PAPA ALIVE. HELP. R. She knew Riage Benziger well. She recognized something was amiss for the polish was still fresh. Macelli had told her Benziger had accompanied the Holy Father to Iraq. How and why then would Riage have left this under his pillow. Something was amiss. She tucked the towel beneath the cart, hiding it from anyone's sight. Flustered, but trying desperately to cover up her nervousness. She said a quick ejaculation and rejoined the novice. "We best be movin' on to the next apartment, we be."
Dateline: Dallas - Blix's Limo - November 4, 12:30 P.M.
"Sir, a call from Rome."
Edwin Blix, reclining in the back area of his luxurious limo, pressed a button and the glass panel separated him from his driver Ans Ichariak.
"He is alive!"
"Who? Damn you!" Blix barked.
"The prize. The Swiss Guard guarding the quarters turned up at the Vatican this evening."
"Where the hell has he been?" Blix's tone prompted a shudder from Ans who could hear his boss' voice despite the glass muffler. Ichariak guided the limo onto Northwest Highway.
"We don't know, but we'll soon find out," responded the voice on the other end sheepishly.
"You better, damn you. The Master will not put up with that kind a crap, hear me, boy?"
"Just take care of things on your end and we'll attend to matters here."
"So, has Grabbe shown yet?"
"Tomorrow. She has the ignition key."
"Good! Then it would sound like you gool ol' Romans have things in place, ya hear?"
"But, of course, I was only alerting you so that you will carry out phase two on your end."
"Done, jackass. Don't preach to me. I'll warn ya again, ya' don't mess with a Texan - especially this Texan. Do ya git mah gist, pardner?"
"Certainly. There is nothing further. Goodbye."
Blix slammed down the phone. "Damn fools, they're getting sloppy." He pressed the intercom key still perturbed. "Ans, forget about Las Colinas for now. I need to head downtown. We'll pick her up later."
As Ans pulled into the next gas station to turn around and head back to the toll road, Blix made another call. This time he was calm. This time there was no shouting. There was no answer but he left a short message which the receiver would reply to later when he had time to retrieve his messages. It was Blix's fail-safe method of assuring his other Legion contacts in Rome would not foul this up. Too much was at stake. The Conclave was just days away. The world wouldn't understand until it was too late.
A throaty, unearthly laughter emitted from the back of the limo as it sped south on the Dallas North Tollway. The bowels of hell were stirring, ready to regurgitate all the evil it could muster.
Next issue: Eighth Chapter - Episode Seven
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!