Midnight had crossed over the Texas plains. The hustle and bustle of the night life of Dallas remained inside on this clear, chilly November night. Within a few hours the bars would empty and the Metroplex law enforcement would face their daily routine of ferreting out the drunk drivers before their weakness took life and limb on the Lone Star highways and biways.
* * * * * * *
One who was safely home, but still laboring after a long day and evening at the Metroplex Mirror, was Victor Van Wess. He had finally called it a day regardless of what repercussion his boss Edwin Blix would render. As usual he had missed dinner with his loyal spouse Amy. Expected around six, he hadn't arrived until 11:30. His temperament was already frayed and Amy quietly prepared a barbeque rib sandwich for him before retiring to the bedroom to leave Vic time to unwind.
Not only unwind, but hope to God Pat Gallagher was still alive. That possibility lessened with every news report.
Dateline: Dallas - Vic Van Wess Mesquite home - November 4, 12:20 A.M.
The TV flickered in the Van Wess living room as Vic stretched his 5' 10" aging frame on the couch. With his aching leg elevated on the arm, he munched on the sandwich while swigging down a Dr. Pepper.
"Unrest continues in the mideast," a reporter on the cable news channel intoned in true cookie cutter fashion. No doubt the same newscast that had been repeated constantly for the past four or five hours. "Details of the latest bombing of the Kuwait Medical Examiner's home yesterday evening are still sketchy. Shiite Moslem authorities in Basra blame the Israelis while a Jewish spokesman in Tel Aviv calls it a 'smokescreen.' "
"Got that right," Vic snapped as the reporter droned on.
"And in Tel Aviv officials are investigating a mysterious fire last night that erupted on the upscale west side where two apartments were gutted; one belonging to Israeli government official Helene Shenneker. Three bodies were found in one. In Shenneker's there was no trace of the woman though observers swore she was in her apartment."
"It's the Legion. I know it," Vic lamented.
"In a related story," the anchor took the cue, "the ashes of the slain Roman pontiff have been flown back to Rome. Preparations are underway tomorrow morning in St. Peter's for mourners to pay their respects. His casket, and those of all important Vatican officials will lie in state for 36 hours before the funeral in Rome."
Vic pushed his right hand over his forehead through his wavy gray hair. "Well, Pat, if you're still alive you're on your own now. I just hope to God Stephen can help you."
He watched with special interest as the other anchor picked up on the next story.
"Meanwhile, the small majority of the College of Cardinals have arrived for the funeral and conclave, scheduled to commence in less than three days. The frontrunners now seem to be Cardinal Mendoza of Spain, Cardinal Peignot of Quebec, Cardinal Vendhem of Germany, and American Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn. The head of the St. Louis Archdiocese arrived in Rome earlier today where our news correspondent Cheryl Ascot caught up with him."
The wind was whipping up gusts on Ascot's tan raincoat. The reporter had one hand firmly on her head to hold down her rain hood, with the other she faced the camera giving a quick intro. "I'm here at Fiumincino Airport with Gregory Cardinal Zachmunn, the most prominently mentioned successor to the late pope. He has just arrived. Your Eminence, how do you feel about being the odds-on favorite to be the first-ever American pope?"
"TV journalism," Vic snickered, "No substance."
The Cardinal took it all in stride. "You make this sound like a horse race. I'm afraid I don't share the media's enthusiasm in the same way."
"From that do I take it you know something we don't?" was the inane response of this young reporter.
Gregory just smiled. "No. Just that we...my esteemed colleagues in the College of Cardinals will look to the Holy Ghost for guidance."
Vic thrust his fist upward, "Touche, Gregory. Where do they get these puff pushers anyway?"
Nevertheless this 'puff-pusher' wasn't about to give up. "Isn't it unusual the proceedings are being stepped up so rapidly?"
"Yes it is," the prelate responded patiently as the wind continued to swirl. "But we live in perilous times. We must take every precaution that what happened in New Nasiyirah does not take place here."
Dateline: Dallas - Turtle Creek Mansion - November 4, 12:22 A.M.
"Oh, but it will. It will!"
The voice was not Vic's, but that of his boss Edwin Blix, who was stirring himself into a frenzy in his Oriental study within his secluded Turtle Creek Mansion across town, while watching the same interview on the cable news. Obviously with quite a different reaction. Such is the behavior of those who freely, though fatefully choose to follow Mammon. On the juice-splashed plate on his desk, orange peels barely covered an exquisite jade etched symbol - one of power and to which Blix had sold his soul. The symbol: a reptilian, satanic basilisk.
* * * * * * *
If one were listening attentively, one might possibly have heard the hiss - the same horrific hiss that clawed at Pat's psyche, which was now struggling helplessly in unsettled sleep in Makuta Ogidi's apartment. The sun was just making its debut for the day as it peeked between the cyprus trees on the eastern hills of Rome above the Doctor's humble apartment. But Pat remained in total darkness. Not even the brightness of the day could free Pat's battered body from this sonambulent madness. No matter how much he tried to free himself from the nightmarish maze, the American reporter was haunted by the image of the vile, unspeakable lizard. No matter where he turned, he found himself floating, hanging, grappling, kicking, yet totally lost in a vortex of hopelessness. Unreal images surrealistically toyed with his dreams - his worst nightmares. Glowing red eyes glared from all directions and none. Gallagher's world in this altered state, enhanced by the medicinal effects of the drugs, was turned into a virtual vacuum of no escape. Explosions, blood bursting everywhere, a literal hell - all grew more intense as the hissing morphed into shards of fiery darts projected with great force into bottomless chasms, black holes of despair and destruction.
Dateline: Rome - Vatican City - November 4, 7:25 A.M.
As Pat fought the demons of his imagination across town the shadows of the Bernini Columns in St. Peter's Square stretched to the west, quickly shrinking as the morning sun rose higher in the east. The rays were a welcome respite from the cold drizzle that had peppered Romans the day before. Now a warm front from the Mediterranean had settled on the seven hills and already tens of thousands of mourners were shedding their raincoats and umbrellas, soaking up the morning rays on this unusually mild November day. They were there in droves, waiting patiently in line to view the caskets of the pope and pay their respects to the head of the Church and the vast number in the hierarchy, as well as the noble Swiss Guards who had been senselessly slain in Iraq.
Outside the Basilica, the Square was already full, spilling through the colonade into the streets. Inside the cavernous St. Peter's there were less than 100, all cleared through security because they were either Vatican personnel or clergy. The small remnant of cardinals eligible for conclave began to gather, some to say Mass at side altars or in the crypt, others to pay their own respects before the public would be admitted at ten.
For now they were sheltered from the outside stirrings and the voracious press, camped out in their strategic broadcasting posts for the past two days in preparation for the funeral and in speculation of the pending conclave.
The ranks of the College of Cardinals had been greatly reduced from 105 to 24 due to the horrendous holocaust in Iraq four days ago; a global tragedy that took the lives of 81 cardinals, including all curia cardinals save, by design, for Macelli and Vendhem. Yet despite their terribly thinning ranks, already the political lobbying had begun, very evident even amidst the pall that had set on the Holy See. Those who had been papabile - the Romanita term for frontrunners or odds-on favorites to be elected the next Sovereign Pontiff - had all been eliminated on the Field of Abraham, forever now referred to as the Field of Death. In various sectors of the Holy See small groups of the princes of the Church were already recruiting votes for the pending conclave.
The practical needs of housing these prelates and their aids fell to the Papal Household staff, which meant that Mother Agnes de Christi, Sister Bridget McCullough and Sister Teresa Barimcalli were in the midst of the massive effort. With only two dozen cardinals eligible and four of them already with quarters, plus the available quarters of the deceased, there would be room but much preparation had to be made swiftly. Nothing like short notice for the hard-working nuns. Vendhem had issued an emergency waiver late yesterday afternoon to allow all cardinals to be housed in the Apostolic Palace. The reasoning made sense, if not the motive. From the funeral they would proceed immediately to the Sistine Chapel where quarters had been established for them and their secretaries. The total with guards and personnel would come to only 98 with 24 actual cardinals voting in Conclave.
Yet a contingency was being prepared by one group of progressives who hoped to curry a vote to open the conclave to 50 more bishops who had been on the list as potential recipients of the coveted red birettas. They were lobbying heavily for votes but they were not in the majority. Vendhem wanted no part of the politics for his intentions were to overwhelm them with his opening address at the Conclave. Most of the twenty he could manipulate for they had been forewarned by clever communiqués not to attend the ecumenical ceremonies in Iraq. They were already in the Legion's ranks. Perhaps he was a bit overconfident this day for he would need 18 solid votes to garner a 2/3 majority.
Votes were not on the mind of Sister Bridie as she helped the other two sisters with the necessary chores. Though the Irish nun had been banned by Macelli from her duties in the Papal quarters, she was still assisting her fellow sisters to meet the various deadlines. Each cardinal's room was prepared along with special menus for many required special diets.
"Why not all eat good Italian food?" Sister Teresa Barimcalli protested in her broken English with a noticeable Bari dialect.
"We be meetin' the needs of each, Sister" Sister Bridie assuaged. "We be makin' them feel at home, we be."
"That be the problem with today's hierarchy, Sister," the Italian nun bellowed, espousing her traditional beliefs. "Too many comforts, not enough self-sacrifice and penance."
"Ah, n' ye got a point, Sister Teresa," Sister Bridie agreed. "They be panderin' to worldly things while so many be foresakin' heavenly gains."
"Si, the reason for so much collapse of doctrines, no?"
"Ya be speakin' the truth, Sister, just as our dear Lord said in the gospel that no man can serve two masters, either he be lovin' the one and hatin' the other."
"Capisco, Sorella, too much politics and power seekers. Dear St. Francis and St. Padre Pio, now they were men who lived what Jesus preached."
Sister Bridie agreed, but realized she was getting baited into a long polemics with this older nun who knew her faith and was aghast at the flippancy and unpractice of it by so many within the Curia, not to mention those who tended to the confused flocks out there in the pastures of the world. Few had a clue what skeletons lurked inside Vatican City. Sister Bridie had seen more than her share of things that would scandalize the most seasoned sailor, but she kept it to herself, saying a prayer of redemption for the poor sinners who posed in shepherd's clothing.
All her fears had become reality over the past three days and now there seemed no one to confide in, no confessor she could trust except a mere handful within these hallowed halls. She would remain silent during her duties, but she had to contact the one she hoped to God she could trust. If he had gone over to the other side, then all was lost. Sister Bridie refused to accept that scenario. Hope kept her going.
And the hope of finishing her chores in time prompted her to push these concerns into the background. Sister Bridie hadn't even confided in Sister Teresa, a rock-solid religious whose most grievous sin was snarling if something wasn't done right. For these minute transgressions, the Italian nun was forever mortifying herself in seeking sanctity.
As much as Sister Bridie enjoyed the no-nonsense, traditional discussions with Sister Teresa, the Irish nun realized little work would get done and at this point that was paramount. Pillow-cases needed to be fluffed, sheets made, bathrooms scrubbed in preparation for the privileged Conclave contingent that would soon occupy these quarters which had not seen activity since the dark days of World War II when Pius XII had authorized these rooms for the sole purpose of secretly hiding Jewish families from the Nazis during the German Occupation of Rome. Trying times not unlike these times, thought Sister Bridie.
Mother Agnes' body language said all Sisters Bridie and Teresa needed to hear. Because of both nuns' adherence to the Evangelical Counsel of Obedience, they picked up the pace on cue, continuing the rest of their work in silence. Because of these nuns' thoroughness, all would be in readiness by noon.
Sister Bridget McCullough welcomed the contemplative labor, but pangs of her banishment from the Papal Quarters were still stinging her memories as she recounted Macelli's stern and hard-hearted rebuke of her. Certainly it was not merited. Yet she suffered in silence offering all to her divine Bridegroom - the Man-God to Whom she had devoted her life. These latest obstacles were part of her cross and she willingly accepted it. Such religious as these three nuns - the cream of the crop, so to speak - were a rarity in these times. In fact, any kind of religious zeal or adherence to piety was even rarer as the coals of the world, the flesh and the devil stoked the egos of those who were supposed to be dedicated to the Divine Will. With every malpractice, violation or even lukewarm acceptance of the rationalization of sin, their souls and the souls they were responsible for - in many cases thousands, even millions - crept closer to the abyss. The Legion of the Basilisk was a mere conductor, augering them into the furnace of futility.
Dateline: Rome - Castel Sant'Angelo - November 4, 12:00 P.M.
The Angeles bells throughout the eternal city rang clear, awakening the sensibilities of a weakened Riage Benziger, slumped against the stone-cold ancient rock-hewn wall high in the medieval stronghold of the Castle of the Angel which had been closed for the past year to the public.
The loyal, but discouraged Swiss Guard had hoped to regain his strength with rest inside the dank corridor lighted during daylight only by the deep turret slits in the rock. Instead he had been further depleted because of the frigid conditions through the night. Huddled next to the comatose pontiff, the warmth of the noon rays - narrow though they were - surged through his body. He prayed it would be a catalyst to strengthen his fallen Vicar of Christ to whom he had pledged his very life. Now he would do anything he could to protect the Holy Father. Anything but get help - for his own body could not yet respond. He was still partially paralyzed by the poison which had somehow attacked his nervous system that fateful night as he stood vigilance at the pope's front door. What happened? How? Someone had to have penetrated at least five other guard posts to reach his watch. He was the last line of defense for protecting the sovereign pontiff. Now he was the only defense.
The hazy events of that night seemed eons ago, yet the guilt ate at him. Riage felt he had betrayed his leader and now, he prayed he could regain the necessary strength to make amends by somehow summoning help. With all the modern technology, he was literally no better off than those guards who had stolen Pope Clement VII away in these very same climes five centuries ago. Benziger was truly in a medieval state and little did he know that preparations were being made a mile away in St. Peter's to bury the man who, though failing fast, was still alive.
Little did Benziger know of the horrendous holocaust on the Field of Death.
Little did this dehydrated Swiss Guard realize the battle was just heating up. If only the blood in his veins would react the same way, he might be able to contact someone, anyone in his valiant effort to save his holiness.
Little did Benziger, or for that matter, most of the world, realize that the sense of sanctity and decency had been under attack for several decades.
Little did he or anyone else realize that the molten lava which visually erupted over the globe on All Saints Day was the magma hell had prepared for these apocalyptic times.
Next issue: Eighth Chapter - Episode Four
"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!