"He is chasing ashes - a thing that cannot
save itself when the flame consumes it;"
Isaiah 44: 20
The bowels of hell had never been so empty. Many of its inhabitants now swarmed the earth as the scriptures had foretold. The beast had been unleashed. What had been planned had been executed. Now it was up to the world to sift through the incineration and figure out the how and the why.
This was all too evident to Pat Gallagher as his jeep crawled to a stop behind a convoy at yet another checkpoint. It had been the fourth sentry post in weeding down entries into the area of the Field of Abraham. Had security been stronger, Pat was left to deduce that perhaps the disaster might have been prevented.
His heart pounded painfully as he drew closer. Some thirty miles out the stench filling the air had been the first sign Pat was close. Closer than he wanted to be considering the circumstances. He had wrapped his handkerchief over his nose and mouth, but his eyes were left vulnerable to the ashen dust in the air. Only the dilapidated windshield, braced against the wind, prevented him from being blinded. Through the thick haze he had been able to make out on the horizon various banks of klieg lights casting a dust enshrouded glow over the black remains of the horrific conflagration the morning before.
After an hour of idling in line he had rudely received clearance, a gas mask, gloves and a NATO-issued anti-contamination suit that was two sizes too big. Hell, he thought, just roll up the sleeves and cuffs and get going. No way he was going to wait around until a new batch was delivered to the post. There already were over 200 waiting for the right size and he figured that delay would cost him precious time. He wanted to beat the other American journalists to the punch if he could. He knew there were already plenty of press there, but few could get here from the states as fast as he had. One of the benefits of having a private jet at your disposal. A commercial flight would have taken him to Paris, then Baghdad. Those on that route would still be in flight towards the Iraqi capital.
He had been fortunate to find the main road in the dark out of the Iraq airbase. He had chuckled anew when passing a bar eight miles or so north of the base where some kind of Persian music permeated from this stark oasis. Out front the Mercedes; inside the three soldiers most likely bragging on the deal they had made. Soon the dim lights of the bar were a distant spec in the rear view, just as he found the main road through Al Basrah and north to An Nasiriyah. He had not needed a roadmap. All he had to do was follow the fetor choking the night air. He had fought his way through one roadblock after another the closer he came to the site of the earlier funeral pyre.
The military and police of this land were not too well disposed to foreigners coming in to view what they took as a personal affront that such a massacre could happen in their country. Pat wanted to knock some sense into them. He had wanted to scream that they had been perpetuating the same kind of violence upon their neighbors and the Kurds for centuries, so why should they get squeamish now? He held his tongue. He had presented his press pass, passport and other identification, feeling all the while he was wasting precious time. Didn't these guards and authorities realize that there was no reason to patrol now? The deed had been done.
Finally he had inched past the last roadblock and found himself crawling down a road that was so pot-holed that he wasn't sure his internal organs would survive. As he rolled slowly along, he had seen stretcher after stretcher, bodies and body parts on canvas litters being carried to where ambulances and trucks kept returning time and time again to transport the dead to makeshift morgues, body bags being piled up in a huge pit freshly carved into the earth to bury the dead. It had given Pat a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach as thoughts of the scrawny, emaciated bodies of the holocaust came flooding into his memory. Some progress the world had made he thought.
Dateline: New Nasiriyah, November 2, 1:15 a.m.
"Why couldn't it get light?" Pat fumed unreasonably as he shuffled on foot along the crude pathways that bulldozers had cleared. What was he looking for? Where could he begin? He had walked the distance to the edge of the restricted area and found nothing. Despite the sporadic lights, the generators providing the power had clattered and sputtered, a bank near him finally giving out. In a way it was a welcome relief, trading light for hearing. Every sense throbbed with pain. The gas mask and suit had been a welcome necessity. Despite their encumbrance it had allowed him to maneuver closer to the edge of the bowl. That area was still off limits as helicopters hovered above shining their lights over mounds of black mass and earthmovers surged and heaved, clearing more pathways in the distance.
Pat cursed the night. Peering through the haze and ashes he could see a few stars twinkling above, the same sky he had noticed on his arrival in this God-forsaken country. He wanted to rage further against a God who could let the stars shine so benignly on a scene that rivaled anything Dante could have described.
He took several deep breaths from the oxygen in order to concentrate. He tried to find a focal point while he breathed, so he would not fall victim to the reek of death all around him, the ravages of the past explosions. Pat realized that perhaps it was better to view what he was seeing under the hand of blackness until he could better accustom himself to the ungodly sight and stench. Morning with its startling clarity would come all too soon, the graphic horror all to easily spread out on the ground for the world to see, as it surely would once communications were restored throughout the world with New Nasiriyah.
A virtual army of rescue workers, medics, military personnel, police, civil experts in any number of categories, and newsmen combed the site like an invasion of ants. Pat followed the roped-off trail until he came to a clearing where there stood an 8 foot high porta-potty, or so he thought, until he heard an official of the Iraqi government demand he produce his credentials yet again.
The source of the command came from a soldier, stuffed inside that molded plastic 4' x 4' wide cocoon with a 2' x 2' plexiglass shield. Through an amplifier the Iraqi sentry huffed, "Nasty business."
"Yeah," Gallagher almost choked on the monosyllable as he held up his passport and press pass.
"You reporters, always the ghouls, huh?" said the mocking official. "Poke and probe and give the public their dose of the latest guts and gore."
"That's about all we do," Pat quipped, wanting to be rid of this insensitive goon, his beady eyes peering through the plastic window. Thoughts of Halloween pranks behind the cabins on Shreveport's Cross Lake conjured up the temptation to tip over this temporary structure, but he thought better of the latter, seeking instead to pump this military pimp for information. "Have there been any reports, press releases, even any acknowledgment from some fringe fanatical group?"
"No. Silence," grinned the ghoulish official, whose own attitude seemed even more menacing to Pat than the smoldering fires sprinkled throughout the area once peopled by tens and tens of thousands. "But we've got a team of crack experts on explosives and they will find out soon. Meantime, we pick up what is left, stick it in a sack and either identify it or bury it. Yet that is the way it must be. Nasty, yes?"
"And so are you, pal" Gallagher murmured under his breath as he stared at this oaf inside. The military man just threw back his head, opened his lips revealing the large black orifice of his mouth, and laughed from the depths of his toes into the night, the sound incongruous with the cackle of flames still being extinguished.
Pat couldn't get away fast enough. As he continued on he could hear the frequent cries of others who had discovered the horrendous sight of seared flesh up close. On one side men 80 yards away he could decipher men lined up three feet apart in conveyor fashion passing bags up out of the bowl. He could not see the end of the line. The 'meat wagons' appeared endless.
He drew nearer to an area where the rumble of the generator echoed and a bank of lights illuminated the area better. The generators had not seemed so loud this time. Perhaps he was getting used to it. Who knows? He thought. Regardless, this light would provide better pictures. He had better start recording so he could send something back to Vic. He hunched down and keyed up the briefcase camera and then flipped a switch. The handle of the briefcase popped up. There, molded into the casing, was a small wireless remote which triggered the camera and provided a wireless monitor he could attach to his watch. Fastening it into place, he activated his Reflector card, swiping it over a beam in the molding. Immediately it signaled a small green light. Go! it beckoned him as he resumed his walk, aiming the case toward various areas that could be seen through the haze of the artificial light.
Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 4:28 p.m.
The images projected shot in lazer-like fashion from satellite to the computer terminal in the Metroplex Mirror's mainframe situated on the third floor of the Dallas-headquartered publishing building on Inwood Road south of I-35 East and overlooking the drybed of the Trinity River. There the bytes and pixels were captured and could easily be downloaded in Vic's computer for him to scan and drop into the formatted pagelayout on the latest Quark Xpress program. Such were the marvels of high technology and the patented Mirror Reflector card.
But for now, they would remain merely pixels and bytes. Because of the catastrophe and all-night vigil, Vic had ordered an early edition with the stock footage and wire-service photos of before the explosion, gambling on Pat having something to him by mid-evening so he'd have something for the morning delivery edition. If he left by 4:30 p.m. he could have dinner with Amy in their modest Mesquite home. He could relax before returning to the office at ten that evening. It was important to get away by 4:30 p.m. Vic knew if he waited a half-hour more he'd be delayed in commute for up to an hour and a half once Interstate 30 East turned into a virtual parking lot.
Despite the fact he was totally wiped out by the all-night schedule which had sent his body clock reeling, Vic also knew he couldn't leave. Even though he had re-triggered his sciatic nerves, he couldn't leave yet. This in turn sent a stinging pain surging from the hip down through his legs. Still something cloyed at him to stay later this night. Was it the demons or his journalistic instincts? Vic hoped and prayed it was the latter as he chugged down yet another cup of coffee and wolfed down a vending machine pastry. He knew he would have to confront Corrie, as well as Blix again. But before those encounters he'd call Amy. And there was one other call he had to make, one that linked him to these events more than anyone would realize.
Next: PART II: The Smoldering FOURTH CHAPTER, Episode Two
"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.