Despite the heavy rain now pelting the streets of Rome, inside the Ristorante Romano few were aware, lost in their cuisine, conversation and liquid spirits. Most of the customers were in union with the fruits of the vine this evening, including the disguised foursome at a back table. For nearly two hours Pat Gallagher, Fr. Niki Andriopoulos, Dr. Makuta Ogidi, and Msgr. Stephen Navarro chatted and exchanged strategies, enjoying a seven course meal.
As the rain rapped against the window panes and the door of the patio enclosure, Stephen struggled to find adequate words to describe his last few hours at the Vatican late this afternoon.
Firmly, but quietly he described what he saw in the outer corridor near the Sistine Chapel, how the Legion had penetrated the Holy See. What might have been most disturbing about his terrifying tale was that neither Niki, Makuta or Pat showed even the slightest sign of disbelief. Their features seemed etched in stone as they listened, digested his information and finally grew silent. Monsignor Navarro had, in essence, left his three friends with the same sensation of fear which caused him to flee the corridor and find solitary comfort at his prie-dieu less than five hours ago. This fear would manifest itself far worst and the four of them were about to discover this very fact soon.
Dateline: Rome - Ristorante Romano - November 4th, 10:30 p.m.
"Oh, there is one more thing," Stephen added as he finished up telling what he had experienced.
"And that would be?" Ogidi coaxed.
"Just before I left my room this evening, I received a phone call from an Irish nun assigned to the papal chambers. She is one of the elite chamber nuns who, just yesterday was demoted by Macelli to the Swiss Guard quarters."
"I don't get it, how would - - -" Pat was interrupted in mid-sentence.
"She was pretty upset about something she found in Captain Benziger's room, but she couldn't go into details because she was afraid of detection."
Niki was quick to chime in, "We can relate to that, my friends."
Stephen continued, "I don't know if the phones are tapped or not, but I hope she deciphered my code to see Cardinal Zachmunn. God I hope so."
"Who's this Benziger guy?" Pat quizzed.
"He was one of the pope's favorites," Ogidi replied. "The scuttlebutt is that he went AWOL before the Holy Father left for Iraq. Perhaps he was in on the sabotage."
"That's what they're posturing to the press," Stephen injected, "but I don't buy it. No one's seen him and he was one of those above reproach. I wonder if what Sister Bridie found has anything to do with foul play."
"Do you think this Sister Bridie can be trusted then, Stephen?" Niki asked softly.
"Yes, I think so, Niki." Stephen was pensive. "But for the present other than the Cardinal and Sister Bridie, there is no one else within those hallowed halls whom I trust."
"Nor should you," was Makuta's sage advice. He motioned to the waitress for a round of caffe espresso.
Almost slurring his words, Pat confided to the group, "Ya know, guys, after hearin' 'bout what Stephen's gone through, what I've experienced and Niki's close call at Fasif's, I gotta tell ya. They're gunnin' for us!
"Brilliant deduction," Niki retorted sarcastically.
"But why us?" Pat was searching, could it be because all three of us had the same formation?"
"Huh?" Stephen shrugged.
"Well," Pat took a swig of Chianti, "Hear me out, guys. I should really be scared, but somehow, I'm not as afraid as I was before."
"It could be the wine, my friend," Ogidi interjected.
"Maybe, but I gotta share shumthin'." Pat was groping, trying to be serious as he stumbled over his words.
"No more wine for you, my friend," Niki scolded, pulling Pat's glass closer to him.
"That'shokay, I gotta sober up, Nik. Look, I gotta share somethin'"
"Shoot," Stephen nodded.
"Ya see, I was once a man of commitment and morality, too," Pat blurted. "Believe it or not, guys, I was gonna be a priest at one time. Might as well spill mah guts. I was in the seminary for five years. Yep, me. Believe it or not."
"Mighty oaks grow from small acorns." Niki opined, smiling but still apprehensive where Pat was going with this thread. "I believe you, Patrick," Niki assuaged him.
"Yeah, I was. But then other things got in the way and, before you knew it, I left. Couldn't live without the gals!"
"Perhaps another time, Mr. Gallagher," Ogidi cautioned, but Pat was on a roll, the wine loosening his lips, stirring pent-up memories that had never been resolved.
"Seriously, guys, until I ran into Niki -
"Literally!" Niki chuckled.
"I guess you could say I rebelled. I'd just live day to day as if there was nothin' else. Live for the moment. Eat, drink n' be merry stuff. To cover any conscience, I just denied that I'd ever been in the sem, let alone bein' Catholic."
"So you fell away," Stephen comforted, "which is common since the Second Vatican Council. I fear you're in the majority, Pat. Sadly so many have lost the Faith."
"Normally that wouldn't bother me. Heck, corruption breeds contempt and I had plenty, Stephen. But it was Victor and Ben who kept me tethered to the Faith by not pressin' me, lettin' me learn on mah own."
The Greek philosopher in Niki responded to Pat's words. "It takes a lot of wind and rain to make a tree grow strong and straight. We're all sinners. The key is to keep from giving in, my friend. God knows our human foibles."
"Well, He's got a real challenge in me, Nik."
"So that's why Vic sent you, Pat," Stephen affirmed, but Pat would have none of it.
"Wrong, pal. Vic didn't want to send me. I badgered him for the gig."
"Some gig!" Ogidi added.
"So what's the point, Patrick?" Niki probed.
"I guess - I guess I'm beginnin' to see God's hand in all this, guys." Pat confided. "I guess my professor in the seminary was right 'bout what he told me."
Niki was trying to refocus Pat. "And that was?"
"Just that I could reach more people without a roman collar than..." He stopped in mid-sentence, looking sheepishly towards Niki and Stephen. "Uh, no offense, but..."
Niki reassured him with a huge grin, "No offense taken, Patrick. I concur with your train of thought. Just realize God has given you the talent. Now it is up to you to use it wisely. A reporter of your stature can have a great influence on others -for good and for bad."
Pat got the cue, "I appreciate y'all lettin' me spill my guts, guys."
Stephen pressed his hand on Pat's shoulder to assert his support, "I think we all realize that there's no doubt God has brought the four of us together."
"Amen," Niki chimed in raising his glass in a salut, then realizing that another drink was the last thing Pat should have.
Ogidi brokered the awkward moment. "We must go. We can't linger too long in one place. No matter our disguise, we've overstayed our time here. We will meet where the fish go."
"Sad isn't it?" Stephen commented as they pushed their chairs back, "the place where trust should abound, there is mistrust everywhere."
They nodded in agreement as Pat rose and put one arm in his coat. It was then, he saw her. The waitress Maria coming toward them, her name tag prominently centered atop flirting, bulging breasts stretched revealingly by the cotton blouse that could not hide her amplitude. Like a magnet Pat was drawn to the orbs, rather than the eyes. First mistake. While the Chianti had oscillated Pat's senses of nostalgia, this was a moment he would like to have forgotten.
As Maria moved back toward the table to return the credit card receipt to Ogidi and something else in her hand. Pat didn't see it, so mesmerized was he by her surface beauty. Slowly, she raised her head, until there was a collision of focus.
When their eyes met Pat froze in place, a marble-like quality stretching his skin. She knew he knew. Her cover had been compromised. It would be a fight to the death.
Horrible he cried inwardly, remaining paralyzed, unable to alert his companions. He willed them to look up, to see this woman advancing, so close now he could feel her breath entering and leaving her body. They were the same eyes he had seen in the alleyway when he had come with a hair's breath of being clubbed to death by a man named Ezerbet, a disciple of the Legion.
The smile that had invited and encouraged his passions was now a leer, sinister and wicked and ugly. So ugly. There was nothing here he wanted to touch...ever. Even as he stared, anesthetized by the powerful eyes which seethed with a fluorescent, sickly green, he could see that more transformation was taking place. Her breath was growing hot and ragged, a hissing sound escaping from her teeth which looked dangerously sharp; behind which her tongue seemed to elongate and press forward as if to strike at him like a whip.
He had to move! Had to warn the others just a few feet away! He realized at that instant they had let down their guard. They had been too complacent even when they thought they were most vigilant. Too naive! The Legion was here. Inches away and advancing. Theirs and his deaths were but seconds away unless he did something.
With every ounce of willpower he managed to swing the loose arm of his coat at the table, knocking over the coffee carafe. The liquid raced across the checkered tablecloth, spilling into Niki's lap as he began to rise. An inner warning mechanism finally clicked as Andriopoulos looked up, springing to his feet in a movement that saved Pat momentarily for Niki came into her sight and she turned her gaze at him. Pat felt his knees grow weak, his heart constrict, but he was far more fearful that they would die without seeing their mission finished.
"Move!" Niki shouted at his companions, "Run!"
Those two commands, spoken with all the authority he could muster, prompted Stephen and Ogidi to spring to their feet, the table toppling and throwing Maria off-balance just for an instant. It was enough. Makuta grabbed Stephen, hauling him away from the malevolence, propelling him toward a side door that led from the patio to the street. It seemed to be miles away, when actually it was a mere fifteen feet.
But Pat remained frozen, rooted to the spot as Maria made a grab for him. There was a sound of sizzling flesh - an incinerating, scorching hiss followed in the next instant by a scream of human torment.
The entire restaurant was now alerted. Panic ensued.
Niki grabbed Pat's other arm , pulling him back as Gallagher tried to yank his other arm free from Maria's grasp. Possessed of incredible, inhuman strength, she would not relinquish as the hideous reptilian features manifested themselves more with every second. Shrieks and screams from every corner of the Ristorante Romano.
Gallagher was sated with tearing pain. Every nerve of his body weakened. Was it really true your entire life passes before your eyes just before you die? He was going to die. He was going to stand in this spot with hideous creature gloating over him, watching his flesh slowly shrivel as she burned it from his skeleton. He'd be a pile of ashes, just like those million on the Field of Abraham.
With every ounce of his strength, Niki slung Pat over his shoulder and wheeled just out of reach of the lunging claw as the creature's hiss grew louder, madder. Niki tried to reposition Pat for better balance but the weight knocked him over and the two crashed into another table, utensils and plates smashing onto the terrazzo.
The Venezuelan brunette known as Maria Figuerido was now fully transformed into the Basilisk beast, intent on destroying Pat and all others who stood in the Legion's way. Pat was trying to regain his focus and balance, draped over the chair from the fall with Niki below him on the floor, groping for something as his hand clutched a steak knife.
The beast wanted Pat first and lunged at his neck for the final kill.
Death would be swift! Pat could smell the stench of her scabrous breath, its sickening odor of all that was unclean and unholy. He closed his eyes, ready for the inevitable. Trying in a split second to make his peace with God as no doubt Karel, Helene Shenneker, Fasif and the countless souls on the Field of Death had. He awaited the red-hot death that was to be his end.
And then the scream - an unholy, unearthly sound that screamed in mortal pain as the knife found its mark. It gorged into the lizard's black heart. Niki twisted it with all the strength he had as Maria's face, contorted with a hatred no one had ever seen before, morphed from the cold-blooded reptile to a bloodless cadaver.
Disintegrating before everyone's very eyes, Maria fought to the end. If she was going to die she was going to take Pat into hell with her. The rotting carcass twisted away from the knife in Niki's grip and made one final lunge at Gallagher as he yelled out, "No, God, please -- nooooo!"
The last thing he saw were the hideous, deformed jaws coming directly at him, bellowing her last breath as she determined to bury herself in Pat. Both the beast and Pat toppled to the floor in a sickening thud. A thick black smoke curled up, engulfing the two bodies in an eerie silence as Niki, Stephen and Ogidi stood helpless, watching, wishing and praying that the events of this night had gone otherwise.
"For behold I will send among you serpents, basilisks, against which there is no charm: and they shall bite you, saith the Lord." Jeremias 8: 17
Next issue: Ninth Chapter - Episode One
"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!