The rain that had begun early in the afternoon of November 4th, had now stretched into a steady stream of cold water that cascaded off the tiles of Roman rooftops, forming tiny rivers and inlets in the streets. It made for a shimmering mirage when the street lights and headlights of passing cars were added to the mix of the neon light of the Ristorante Romano. Nestled between two taller buildings - one a pensione, the other an apartment, from the outside the restaurant showed nothing special. A green awning, heavy with rain water, protruded from the base of the two-story resident quarters above. The blustery weather fogged the windows as though one was looking through smoked glass.
Pat Gallagher had no difficulty getting to this meeting place near the Piazza Alessandria. In fact, it worried him a bit that, to the best of his knowledge, no one so much as glanced in his direction once he'd exited Ogidi's apartment. Just another old man on the streets of Rome. If only they knew. Yet, it was much better no one knew. Pat tucked the idea away in his subconscience that perhaps a disguise in the future might gain him admittance to places the press are normally not allowed. Clever fellow this Ogidi, mused Pat as he crossed the street to this vine-covered brick wall that framed the restaurant. It was a thoroughly inviting site on this dreary night.
Dateline: Rome - Ristorante Romano - November 4th, 8:45 p.m.
A blast of liquid air followed on Pat's heels as he entered the warmth of the crowded restaurant. It gave him solace that the Legion most likely wouldn't be so careless as to try something in the presence of so many. Yet, a million people at the Field of Abraham probably thought the same thing on that first morning of November. So much for safeguards.
He approached the maitre'd, gave the right name, and was escorted by a waiter to the reserved Christiano table in the back. All the while Gallagher's eyes never stopped roving toward the other diners engrossed in their meals and conversation. No one converses like the Italians and there is no better setting than an Italian restaurant. Ah, perfecto.
The layout of the Ristorante Romano was rambling and large, and the waiter led Pat out onto an enclosed patio which was less crowded, facing the street behind. Heat lamps kept this area nice and toasty.
"The fumari section, Signor," the waiter gestured as he directed Pat to a table for four in the far corner. No one was here yet as he glanced at his watch. 8: 47.
"Perhaps some wine, Signor?"
"What would you recommend?" Pat drawled in his best senile voice.
"I would recommend a bold Chianti rose to clear the palate for the evening."
"Then, my good man, Chianti rose it will be. There will be four of us so bring enough."
Within a minute the waiter had returned, uncorked the bottle and poured a third of a glass for Pat to
sample. When Pat nodded approval, the waiter promptly filled the rest of his glass and set it down on the table. "Your server will be with you when all in your party have arrived. I will leave you now to enjoy your vino. Prego."
"Grazi," Pat responded lighting up a Pall Mall and stretching his frame back. He had to be careful with the cigarette that the heavy make-up Ogidi had applied wouldn't melt. He hoped it was fire retardant. Never thought to ask the good Doctor. He gulped down the glass of wine and poured himself another. He was beginning to wish someone else would come. He felt very vulnerable at this table. His nerves were raw, like scraped carrots ready to be boiled to mush.
A movement in the doorway behind him, a back entrance, captured his attention and he saw an old man with a limp coming toward him, a splendid grin on his face. Who else but Ogidi? Halfway to their destination, thought Pat.
Niki was next. Despite his military disguise as a major in the Italian army, replete with mustache and beard, Pat knew it was him by the jaunty verbiage passing between him and the waiter, and the wink and nod he gave to the pretty waitress who waited off to the side to serve.
"It is truly neither fit for man or beast out there," Niki said conversationally as he pulled out a chair next to Pat.
"Which certainly leaves one to wonder why you're out and about," Pat retorted in code to acknowledge contact. It brought a mischievous twinkle to Andriopoulos' eyes.
"Would I pass up a free meal?" Niki demanded and then continued without waiting for an answer as he grabbed the Chianti. "And I will refresh myself with some wine. I think the dampness has penetrated to my bones."
The waitress approached, asking politely if there was anything she could get the three gentlemen. Makuta glanced at her briefly, nodded no, and informed her that they were still waiting for the fourth in the party. She moved back to her service station, arranging glasses of water while another customer three tables over was trying to gain her attention. She was oblivious to his waving.
The fourth member of the party was late. It was 9:10 before Stephen Navarro rushed into the restaurant, a scarf covering the lower part of his face. He was breathless from having ran the last three blocks after his cab had broken down. He hoped they were still there.
As he approached the table, still huffing and puffing he rasped the code, "It is truly not fit for man or beast out there."
Ogidi responded in kind, "Which certainly leaves one to wonder why you're out and about."
Quickly sitting in the chair next to Pat, he thrust out his hand. Pat could see the same blue and white medical pin under his scarf. "I'm Monsignor Navarro, Stephen Navarro O.M.I., I take it you are the famous Mr. Gallagher?"
"You're lookin' at him," Pat enthusiastically squeezed Stephen's hand, "though I ain't as old as I look tonight."
"Yet you all grow old waiting. Forgive my tardiness," Stephen apologized humbly.
"Ah, another Padre," announced Niki, extending his hand to greet Stephen. "Andriopoulos. Father Niki Andriopoulos. This strange creature to my right is Dr. Makuta Ogidi...a mutual acquaintance."
A puzzled glance at the old beat-up man still slumped in his chair, whose elaborately brushed back hair stiff as steel wool and the wireless glasses perched upon his nose, made Stephen shake his head.
"Then you are the one who sent the note?" Stephen wanted to know, still staring at Ogidi. "Should I recognize you? Sorry, but I've never met you before..."
"You have not met me till now. And the disguise, Stephen, a necessary one, I assure you."
Ogidi gestured with a short wave of his hand for everyone to order from the menus placed on the table. "We don't want to appear too conspicuous."
"Not this eclectic group," Pat blurted facetiously.
Turning to Navarro, Makuta asked bluntly: "Did you encounter any trouble?"
"Only a taxi that decided to run out of gas over on Via Salaria after taking every wrong turn in the city." Stephen let out a chuckle. "Other than that, clear sailing."
"Let's order," was Niki's suggestion, as the waitress approached. "Then we'll talk."
It didn't take long. The restaurant served excellent pasta and prided itself on fast and efficient service. The men sipped the Chianti, talked about the weather and other unimportant trivia, waiting until the waitress placed their food before them and inquired if there was anything else she could obtain for them.
Pat had been studying her on and off since he'd been seated at the table. He was amazed to find a stirring within himself that suggested his hormones were still functioning. She was very pretty - no, very beautiful. Tall, slender, her black hair perfectly brushed back from her diamond-shaped face. Her complexion was priceless, without blemish and, Pat suspected, without make-up. Her lips begged to be kissed, he fantasized.
But then that was hardly what he'd come here for, he harshly reminded himself, cutting into the lasagna. A one-night stand with an attractive woman would hardly do any good where the Legion was concerned. He thrust the thought from his mind, trying to conjure up thoughts of his Cara Mia back in Dallas. God it seemed like forever since he had seen or talked to Corrie. Yet this waitress kept luring him back to the forbidden. There was a quality about her which lingered, like the aftertaste of fine brandy. He wanted more. The bait was ripe.
"Now", said Makuta. "Monsignor Navarro is head of the Global Communications Department at the Vatican. A priceless position, don't you agree?"
"Another of Fasif's recruits?" Gallagher asked mildly, welcoming the distraction of conversation to dull his thoughts.
"Niki was a very close associate of Fasif Khadid," Ogidi revealed. "And this gentleman here, Patrick Gallagher, comes to us by way of Texas. The Metroplex Mirror I believe his paper's called. Now that these essentials are finished, let us get down to more serious business."
Stephen, with a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, spoke somewhat suspiciously. "I'm certain you'll appreciate my concern over, shall we say, extreme precautions? What credentials do you all bring to this enterprise?"
"Faith," said Niki quickly, lowering his voice to whisper that all strained to hear. "Faith in the cause that links us together. Belief in the reason that Divine Providence has seen fit to bring us together with a common goal: To stop the Antichrist."
Navarro's face paled at the word. "Then you , too, believe it's already here."
"I do not doubt it for a moment," countered Makuta. "The Basilisk has been seen, even felt. I would say it grows more powerful by the hour."
"We must try to uncover it," Niki added. "Where it seeks to reside. We must destroy it before we are faced with the reign of the prince of the nether-world."
"My friends," Stephen said very deliberately, "It is no small matter of which you speak. "I---" He wanted to, but he dare not reveal yet what he experienced in the confluence of the Sistine Chapel just three hours before. "Please," he gestured to Niki first. "Tell me something of why you're committed to this cause."
Andriopoulos smiled at the youthful intensity in this determined priest's face, but answered him in brief phrases that left no doubt as to his intentions. Navarro was obviously much impressed when Niki spoke about his travels, which had led him to Fasif, who, in turn, had also believed in the rise of the Basilisk. And when he had mentioned so casually his presence at the Field of Death, Stephen had actually the common sense to bow his head to hide his embarrassment for having doubted Niki.
"And you, Patrick," Stephen turned his attention to the man with the heavy make-up that was already curling at the edges of his chin. "You've come all the way from big "D"? I know it well. What brings you to Rome sitting with this motley crew here tonight?"
"Because I'm a journalist, or least I'm supposed to be. I flew charter to the Field of Death for my paper. My editor sent me to get to the bottom of the horror that took place. But from the moment I stumbled over Niki -"
"Literally," mused the Greek priest.
"Ah yeah," Pat harrumphed, returning to his trend of thought. "nothin's been the same. I've been stymied in doing any journalistic work. I haven't even been able to contact my paper, let alone the woman I left behind. She probably doesn't know where I am."
"And if she did, would she approve?" Stephen asked.
"I don't know," Pat answered truthfully. "It' been a lot to absorb, to take on 'faith' as Niki and Fasif kept tellin' me. But does it really matter? The fact remains that after I'd listened to Fasif and Niki, and put a lid on my natural skepticism, I too believed. Whether it's my imagination spooking me or it's really out there we shall see. I'm beginnin' believe it is real. It - - it's hardly something I can turn my back on now..." Pat's words trailed off as though lost in thought.
Stephen smiled. "I know what you mean. Van Wess was very wise in his choice of you for this assignment. Pat, I - -"
"Van Wess?" Pat was taken back, "How did you know his name?" Ogidi shrugged in ignorance as Pat searched for an answer. Niki remained mute. Pat looked back at Ogidi, hastily adding, "Vic Van Wess - editor of the Metroplex Mirror. The guy who sent me over here. A good man...sort of a mentor in a way. Stephen," Pat's tone was severe, "how did you know about Vic?"
"I suppose you could say he's been my mentor, too, Pat. You see, I grew up in a small rural town in northern Minnesota - on the Iron Range. I longed to be a priest, but there was no money for education. When I was still quite young, not even twelve, I was sent to spend the summer with relatives in Florissant, on the outskirts of St. Louis. I got a job delivering papers. And Victor Van Wess' home was on my route."
"Yeah, come to think of it, Vic did work for the St. Louis Dispatch for a while," Pat nodded. "Go on."
"Every morning when I'd be passing his house he'd be coming home. And after a week of passing one another, he stopped me one morning and we started talking. It was the beginning of a friendship that has endured many trials and separations, but has found a true basis in God."
"So you knew Vic?" Pat's perly whites betrayed his make-up, but he was beaming with pride.
"Yes," Stephen continued, exchanging the beam, "Victor approved of my desire to enter the priesthood. He offered to put me through St. Henry's Seminary in Belleville. And after much serious discussion about charity, my parents agreed. There was another gentleman who also contributed to my education but I've lost touch with him. He wasn't from the area, owned a saloon down south somewhere.
Victor was with me every step of the way. I shall never forget how, on the day of my ordination to the priesthood, it was Victor who presented me with the sacred chalice I would use henceforth to consecrate the holy wine into the Blood of Christ."
"So how did you arrive at the status you hold today?" Niki inquired.
"Shortly after my ordination, the Provincial Father of the Oblates assigned me to further theological studies at St. Louis University under the tutelage of Monsignor Gregory Zachmunn."
Ah, thought Gallagher, like a fine woven quilt the threads were beginning to weave about all of them, ever connecting them in the cause he had signed on for. This worldly, know-it-all Texan of all people! Van Wess, Fasif, and now Zachmunn, the latter one of the favorites in the coming papal election. These then were the triumverate of seasoned men who'd had the vision to share their wisdom with a younger generation.
"After I completed studies with Cardinal Zachmunn," Stephen went on, "I was fully intending to begin my missionary life, most likely somewhere in South America or the Philippines. But while I was back at the Provincial House making a retreat, the Provincial Father called me aside and informed me of another mission. I was assigned to learn the ropes in the Pontifical Council of Social Communications as it was called back then under John Paul II."
"Yes, it was his successor who changed the title to Global Communications," Niki chimed in.
"So you were groomed to head it up?" Pat deduced.
"Yes, though he didn't say it directly, I knew that this was Cardinal Zachmunn's wish."
Pat shook his head in disbelief, "And Vic knew the cardinal. I hope he didn't use his normal salty language around His Eminence."
"I doubt that very much, Pat. There is a side to Vic few of us know. But Cardinal Gregory knew."
"I'd say the cardinal and Vic have been pretty busy fellows plantin' seeds," Pat concluded.
"That they have," Stephen affirmed. "Oh, and you'll be pleased to know, Pat, that despite your lack of journalistic endeavor, you've not been forgotten back home. Victor called me earlier today. He figured you'd be in Rome. Asked me to keep an eye on you."
Finally it hit him. Pat recognized the voice. He clutched the stem of his wine glass and took a hefty swig, only to choke as it went down the wrong way. Niki pounded him on the back.
"Old men shouldn't drink so fast, my friend," chided Niki. "We seem to have many surprises for you, no?"
"It is good, is it not, Mr. Gallagher, to find out that you have never been alone since this thing began?" Ogidi offered.
"Tell me," Pat gasped, trying to clear the wine out of his windpipe, "Van Wess called you?" he marveled.
Stephen nodded. "Discreetly, of course. There are many dangers, especially now within the Vatican."
"Then you're the one who called me the night Fasif died," Pat blurted, putting more of the pieces together.
Again Monsignor Navarro nodded affirmatively.
"Have you seen Zachmunn yet?" asked Ogidi.
"Only from a distance, Dr. Makuta. Naturally we can't appear too friendly. He's made no attempt to single me out, and I've been careful to appear not the least interested. Besides, Cardinal Macelli is watching me like a hawk."
"And he would be?" Pat quizzed.
"A man who is up to no good, Pat, definitely dangerous." Stephen seemed to shudder.
Pat resumed his regular breathing, even taking a few more sips of the Chianti but far more careful this time. "You know," he said deliberately, calling the attention of the three to himself, "it's truly amazin' to me that in this whole affair there's a common thread which binds us." The wine was taking its effect, Pat was more talkative than usual.
Niki looked puzzled. "I don't particularly follow, my friend. I don't think you speak of the Basiliskos."
"No, Nik, not exactly. I mean, that's what brought us all to Rome, and what we're tryin' to halt. But...look, I'd like to share somethin' with y'all about myself. RIght now it seems mighty important."
"Very well," Ogidi murmured. "Let's have coffee, or would you prefer more wine?"
"Wine for now," Gallagher encouraged, "Let's save the caffeine for the nitty-gritty business we've yet to discuss."
It seemed as though the waitress was there in an instant at Ogidi's beckon call. She had another caraffe of Chianti and this time there was no mistaking the look she gave Pat. It was an open invitation to flirt. It said she had noticed him, despite his disguise, and seemed to desire what was beneath the make-up. Who said beauty was skin deep, thought Pat as she brushed against him in retrieving a few plates.
His smile for her was warmer than the wine flowing into his stomach. And the glistening of his eyes was his way of suggesting that there might be more to come. Wine has a way of diluting virtue and encouraging inhibition. Little did Pat realize how much for this night the vino was getting the best of him.
The umbra of the sultry, curvacious waitress played on Pat's libido. He could not shake the shadow.
Next issue: Eighth Chapter - Episode Eight
"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!