Like a vice tightening, the air seemed heavier than usual this day. With the funeral less than a day away perhaps it was the unusually wet, but fairly warm November that hung so heavy. Perhaps it was the somber mood of the world, especially those who had congregated in St. Peter's Square for the final day of viewing the Pope's coffin. Or perhaps it was the fetid stench of the Basilisk growing stronger by the hour.
All around the Vatican the international press were preparing for tomorrow's somber event. ABC, the BBC, CBS, NBC and CNN had long ago reserved prime locations on top of the colonnade that encircled the square. The BBC had been assigned the pool captain, providing video access to all other networks. Mutual Radio was there as well, utilizing the facilities of Vatican Radio. For those networks, news organizations and affiliations who had not grabbed the most advantageous spots, they had improvised quite well. Fox News had established a virtual studio on top of a building along the Via de Concilliazione, while another had rented space on the top floor of the Holy Spirit Hospital on Borago Santo Spirito. If the media was anything besides vulturous, it was innovative.
Workmen were putting the finishing touches on the sturdy wood platforms on the slanted roofs. One of the stipulations established was that all news organizations would follow architectural guidelines. These rules had first been made before the Jubilee celebrations several years prior. They predicated that whoever built any additions would design and finish them in the same style as the architecture that existed. This was necessary so as not to compromise the setting. Thus workers were giving two 100' x 30' foot flat platforms a metallic gray and beige finish to match the exterior. A similar crew across the square above the Bernini Colonnade was doing the same in mirror fashion. As they worked, various technical crews hopscotched in and between the craftsmen, employing their own craft in testing equipment, setting cameras in place, or securing them in position with special locks. With these locks and the rain gear over them, there would be no need to post their own guards on the roofs. The press, at least, would sleep well tonight, while, like carrion crows, they waited.
From above the Square on the parapets built above the Colonnade a few reporters spoke live to their audiences in various languages. Down in the Square among the people other cameras and reporters were busy conveying the latest news to their viewers. Across town Niki had returned to the city, dropping Makuta off at his flat for a few hours.
On their return to Rome Niki had said little and Ogidi even less. A lead to the Basilisk could mean only one thing. The planned victory was soon to come. For those on the side of good, it might very well mean not only their deaths, but the end of all they held sacred. The thought had prodded Niki to press harder against the accelerator as the small Fiat shot along down the highway, soon merging into the urban traffic toward the shabby one room flat Ogidi temporarily called home.
Niki prayed that the stolen car wouldn't be missed...at least not for a while. His conscience was very acute to what he had done. Despite his exquisitely honed conscience, he knew God had understood. The problem, Niki realized, was his fears that the local authorities would be as lenient.
He kept an eye out for the Polizia as he steered the stolen Fiat southeast on the Viale Regina Elena toward the Citta Universitaria. He turned onto Viale di Scienze where the angels provided a perfect parking place right in front of the steps of the Ministereo Difesa Aeronautica.
His good fortune continued as he mounted the marble steps. Exiting the door to his far right was none other than the man he sought: Lorenzo Straviannzi.
Dateline: Rome - Ministry of Aeronautical Defense, November 5, 12:10 p.m.
"Lorenzo!" Niki called out, gaining the professor's attention.
"Nikolas, my friend!" Lorenzo's jowls jiggling as he rushed to his former classmate. "Come, join me for lunch, just across the commons."
"I do not have much time. And your time, Lorenzo? Do you have some time this afternoon?"
The two had reached the bottom steps. Lorenzo smiled. "Walk with me. I will buy lunch." He laughed heartily. "My schedule is clear for you, Nikolas. What do you have in mind?"
"I need a favor, a huge favor."
"No, though I do want to know what you discovered on the charred crucifix."
"Ah, yes, it is strange, my friend. It is definitely an explosive."
"That is what I was afraid of, Lorenzo."
"But it cannot detonate of its own. It must be triggered."
"There is a small chip, at least part of a chip, in the mylar. This is far thinner than C-4 plastic high explosives, so much more advanced. Yet, there was so little left I could not determine what exactly, but I know it was computer generated."
"Then that is how they devastated the Field of Abraham."
"When you think of it, si, that makes sense."
"Then it must be detonated from a remote site?"
"Yes, but I would suspect it cannot be too far away. Like the limitations of the Scud missiles Hussein used in those fated wars, so also the accuracy and quantity would mean a proximate location."
"You are sure of that, Lorenzo?"
"Relatively so. There is always the chance that the technology is so advanced they could have weapons we do not know of. Still, we are kept abreast on most new systems. The plastic and chip, though seemingly perfected in our day, still have flaws."
"If we could find this detonator, how do we diffuse it?"
Lorenzo's tone turned serious. "You sound as if they are going to strike again, Nikolas."
"I fear they will. That is why I need your help, Lorenzo."
"Anything for my friend."
"Do you have any transportation I can use?"
"Well, there is my brother-in-law's car," Lorenzo pondered. He is still in Sicily and will not be back for another few days. It is not much to look at but it will get you where you want to go."
"Ah, Lorenzo, magnifico. May I ask another favor?"
"But, of course, Nikolas."
"On the way to pick up your brother-in-law's car, can you follow me to an area near the Ristorante Romano so I might drop off the car I have now?"
"Yes, but I do not understand. Why-- uh? Oh!" Lorenzo had turned to look back toward where Niki had parked his car in front of his building. Three policemen were now surrounding the car, looking inside. Another police car pulled up behind the car. "Scusi, my friend, but you have company."
Niki turned and knew immediately that he was in trouble. "I do believe lunch will have to wait, Lorenzo. We must go now?"
"Nikolas, tell me what kind of trouble are you in?" Lorenzo hurriedly left a generous tip, knowing they would put his fare on his bill.
"I will explain once we are safely in your car."
"Then my stomach gives way to my heart," Lorenzo sighed as he fell in step beside his friend. "We will double back over there across that road, Nikolas. My car is parked in the garage to the right of the building. Do not give the impression you are in a hurry, or they will surely suspect you."
"You are truly a friend, Lorenzo."
"I would like to think so, Nikolas. I also think you will never change, my dear, dear friend. Always a man of mystery."
Dateline: Vatican City - Corridor outside the Chapel of Nicholas V, November 5, 12:18 p.m.
Sister Bridie had just completed the Angelus and the Office of None as she exited the second floor chapel dedicated to St. Lawrence and built by Pope Nicholas V. Dipping her fingers reverently into the holy water font near the door, she was in the midst of the sign of the cross when she recognized Sister Hildegarde du Bonnet. The latter was the Order's coordinator of accommodations. She was standing in the corridor ten feet from the entrance with another nun whom Sister Bridie did not know.
"Sister Bridget, posso avere minuto, per favore?"
Sister Bridie bowed and moved quickly and obediently to Sister Hildegarde's side.
"Sister, this is Sister Elena. She is taking Sister Agnes' place. She will be your immediate superior for now. Sister Elena this is Sister Bridget McCullough whom I told you about."
Sister Bridie humbly bowed, then looked up. At this point she did not yet realize that she was gazing into the slate-gray eyes of Elena Grabe posing as a senior nun. The German fraulein's face was chiseled like marble. She stood as if she had steel in her spine. Though she soon would, Sister Bridie could not yet recognize the imminent evil. As the chameleon conceals itself when in the presence of an enemy, Elena hid her evil heart. It was also difficult for Sister Bridie to perceive anything different since Elena kept her eyes lowered, the full veil and coif keeping much of her face hidden.
"Welcome, Sister," managed the Irish nun with a forced lilt. "Sure n' I be glad you be comin' so soon. Be you havin' word o' Sister Agnes?"
"Ah, Sister Bridie," she spoke the familiar name, managing a false smile, as the younger nun instinctively questioned how she knew that in this hallowed place she was called by the diminutive name of 'Bridie' rather than 'Bridget.' "I spoke with Sister Agnes before coming here. She has told me much about you..."
Again Elena lowered her eyes lest Sister Bridie know her true intent.
"I see, n' be she recoverin'?"
"Her condition remains unchanged. She suffers from high fever and is often delirious. In the meantime, Sister, I suggest we go about our duties. It is what she would want, do you not agree?"
"Of course," agreed Sister Bridie.
"Why don't you show Sister Elena to Sister Agnes' room, Sister." Sister du Bonnet was gladly dumping this new nun off on Sister Bridie.
With an obedient bow, Sister Bridie led the way down the hall and up the stairs to the nuns' quarters on the third floor wing. This was a special cloistered-off convent in the Apostolic Palace which Clement XV had also established for practicality sake.
As they walked, Elena remarked, "I am eager to see what accommodations are in need of preparation for the Holy Father. Soon we will have a new leader." She said it confidently, but Sister Bridie noticed that it lacked the reverence that she thought appropriate for the occasion. It was hard to tell what the senior nun was thinking. She walked silently, but firmly, beside the younger nun, and for the first time in Sister Bridie's religious life, she felt hemmed in, imprisoned by the presence of another religious.
Yet, Sister Bridie had been trained not to judge, to accept with blind obedience the thoughts and wishes of her superiors. It had been the Achilles heel of many a religious who had been conquered by blind obedience. This false obedience had given entrance to widespread apostasy; all the result of the novelties adopted by the Second Council of the Vatican. The ideas introduced were foreign to the Catholic order of right and reverence as had been practiced for tens of centuries. Obedience bid them to be silent and through that silence the wrong agendas crept in. Though Sister had never subscribed to the innovations, she was loyal to her vow of obedience. This allowed no room to suspect her new Mother Superior.
She silently hoped this Sister Elena would look over her new surroundings quickly, then relieve her of any other duty to her for the day so she could finish the chores, of which she was already behind. She had to meet Monsignor Navarro at two and that was now less than two hours away.
Together they entered the small room which had formerly belonged to Sister Agnes. Sister Bridie noticed with surprised shock that all of dear Sister Agnes de Christi's belongings had already been removed. Cardinal Macelli wasted no time, thought Sister Bridie, as she surveyed the room.
"Ideal!" nodded Sister Elena, glancing casually about the austere room.
"Tis very bare, Sister," remarked Sister Bridie, hoping to make this new nun feel welcome. "Everything's been taken from the walls. Not even a crucifix be there."
"I am having my trunk delivered from the mother house tonight," explained Elena authoritatively. "I will see to the arrangements of the room myself. It will not be necessary for you to assist me."
Though Sister Bridie realized a brush off when one sees it, she was relieved. "Very well, if you be insistin'."
"I do insist. Now, please show me where the Papal Apartments are, Sister."
It was a silent journey they made back to the second floor and through the still corridors that normally would be crowded with priests and Prelates, visiting diplomats and dignitaries as well as scholars. Today, only a few lay servants moved about keeping the floors polished and the gilt shiny. Their movements echoed the emptiness, the loneliness of the place.
They reached a door which led to another corridor. This brought them to a separate wing of the Apostolic Palace. They descended the Scala Pia to the first floor and proceeded down another wide corridor all the way to the Scala Nobile, the masterful staircase that led back up to the second floor and the Sala Clementina. They crossed this large hall toward the back. Built by Pope Clement VIII, this great room was the area where many had waited before being admitted into the Sala Concistoriale for a Papal audience. Today, no one waited. It was empty except for two guards standing sentinel at the entrance to the Papal Quarters.
The massive, magnificent chandelier looming above them in the center of the ceiling lit the entire area in a green hue, reflecting on the frescoes on each wall. The 4' 11" Irish nun felt even shorter as she walked beside the very tall Sister Elena. The wainscoting here lifted over six feet high, the walls reaching two stories above where it blended in seamlessly in a smooth curve with the ceiling. Elena's rigid dignity, her aloofness game Sister Bridie the impression she didn't seem to notice or care.
The guards signaled them through and to the right. They entered another small hallway which opened onto another room; at the far end: an elevator.
The special lift dinged and the two entered. Sister Bridie retrieved a ring of keys and inserted a gold plated key in the panel to the side of the door. Immediately the elevator lunged upward, soon stopping again. As the doors opened to the third floor, this restricted area that so few ever saw, they were met by two more Swiss Guards standing adjacent to the elevator doors. No one got by these men of the ancient army, thought Sister.
Little did she realize how wrong her perception was. It had been the same trail the intruders had taken a week ago when they had penetrated the inner sanctum of the Papal Quarters. It had been the same avenue the dark figure had taken in affixiating two similar guards and then Major Benziger, before daring to enter the Pope's Private Chambers.
As they traversed the elegant corridor replete with ancient tapestries, exquisite paintings, and priceless sculptures, they could see two more guards standing at attention on either side of the large double doors which led to the papal residence.
Sister Bridie halted about ten feet short of the guards, drawing Sister Elena to a stop beside her with a gentle tug at her sleeve, as she whispered to her new superior. "Naturally, Sister, we cannot be enterin' now. 'Tis customary the doors be locked and covered by two strips o' red cloth in the form of an 'X'. After the funeral a seal o' red wax be melted on those doors. It not be broken 'til the new Pope be elected. 'Tis sad."
"Oh, I would not say that." The curtness of the German woman's tone sent a shiver down Sister Bridie's faith-filled spine.
Though Sister Bridie couldn't see Elena's face fully, she nevertheless felt the senior nun probing, as if she might see beyond the wood to the place where Christ's successor would reside.
"Sister," Sister Bridie whispered, "We must not be lingerin' here."
Sister Elena turned, as an iron presses cloth. She fixed her gaze on the Irish nun. Her stare made it very clear that she would make all the decisions in this place henceforth, and Sister Bridie had better get used to that idea.
"Sister Bridie." Elena's lips were curled tightly. "While I am aware that you have served well, we must not forget that in some respect Sister Agnes had grown lax in her duties over the past years. We are beginning a new reign now...and I will be in complete charge. Do I make myself clear?"
"Absolutely, Sister," nodded an admonished Sister Bridie, lowering her own gaze in humble subservience from the cold glacial stare of Elena. "Whatever you be wishin'."
"Very well. For now I wish you to assist Cardinal Macelli, who is in the process of preparing for tomorrow's funeral ceremonies. We will send for you when we need you."
"What of me duties in the Swiss Guard quarters?" Sister Bridie was perplexed.
"Give me your keys."
As she reached under her scapular for the ring of keys, she gave silent thanks to God that she had given Monsignor Navarro the two keys - one to the utility room and a special one which very few knew about. It pained her less as she unhooked the key chain from her cincture. In a way she was glad for the dismissal, no matter how deeply the senior nun's manners cut to the quick. She would gladly hand over the keys to the Swiss Guard quarters and all the other keys. Maybe she would tell this Sister Elena later, but something within told her definitely not to tell her of the missing keys for now.
"That be all of 'em," Sister Bridie nervously twitched as she handed the key ring over to Elena.
"Very well," said Elena as she took the medium size ring of keys from her, "I, or Cardinal Macelli, will send for you when we need you."
Sister Bridie scurried away, relieved her new immediate superior didn't suspect that two keys were missing from that key ring. Considering what the Monsignor and Pat had confided to her, she might be needing them. As the elevator doors closed in on her, taking her downward, she wished she could pin down the uneasiness she felt. Was it because she had been again demoted? Was it because of what Pat Gallagher had told her? Was it because of Monsignor Navarro's own fears? Was the Holy Father truly still alive? Oh, she hoped against hope! Was she imagining the disquieting sensations which seemed to emanate from the walls and corridors of this hallowed place? How could the Basilisk have penetrated these hallowed halls?
Sister made her exodus from the elevator towards where she had left the laundry cart in the east wing before her noon prayers. As she walked she mulled over in her mind that perhaps she wasn't as strong as she had thought. The devil had a way of playing with the psyche. Her antidote for this was a short ejaculation, "Jesus, Mary n' Joseph, I love You, give me strength."
Sister Bridie didn't realize the strength she was going to need or she'd have prayed all the more. No one could visualize the hideous dangers ahead. No one except the Basilisk.
Next: Tenth 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, seventeen 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.