The birds were now singing in Fasif's garden as the soft, delicate petals opened to the inviting morning rays. Khadid was still busy at his desk, pouring over papers he had extracted from his briefcase and satchel. The draught from the window caused the cigar smoke to lazily curl upward above his head, only to drift down again to enshroud him in a pale mist. It was still the same one he had lit an hour and a half ago. It was the third time he had reignited it. No use wasting a good cigar. It was his manner to always conserve, never to discard anything that could still be of value to someone.
* * * * * * *
He picked up the phone, dialed and swiveled in his large chair to face the sun-bathed garden as he awaited an answer.
"Shenneker," he said rapidly as the person on the opposite end responded. He paused, listening.
"Yes, Fasif, I've been waiting for your call."
"I've been at it all night. A grizzly affair to be blunt, my dear Helene."
"You've a knack for understatement," Helene Shenneker quipped. "Have you any further information?"
"Nothing extraordinary. No doubt the work of the Legion. We were too late to stop it. As yet I've no solid evidence to indicate where they will strike next."
This time the voice on the opposite end of the line considered his statement more carefully. "Yes. My own findings confirm the same. If anything, Fasif, we know for certain that the basilisk is growing in power, making ready for the final strike. It is only logical. The results of the document bear this out."
"You have definitive proof?" Fasif inquired anxiously.
"Yes. The Rabboni was most cooperative. The water mark was unmistakable," Shenneker confirmed. "Hidden well, but through my sources of scientific detection there is no doubt it was authentic. Because of it, I suspect Rome will be their next offensive."
"Then we must proceed to the matters at hand with haste," Khadid went on, well aware as was Shenneker of the enormity of their responsibility. "Every contact is doing double-duty to get information on the Legion's next move. For my part, I am presently mired in the tangle of getting the semblance of the bodies - what's left of them - back to their homelands."
"I see. And the main shipment?" Helene queried.
"Tonight," was all Fasif would say. "Every precaution is being taken."
"I am sure of that. But will it be enough?" Shenneker worried aloud.
It was the same question Cardinal Zachmann had asked and the same one Fasif himself had endlessly probed for answers ever since the massacre at the Field of Abraham had occurred. He and his compatriots had failed to stop the Legion of the Basilisk this time. Could they do it next time?
"My dear Shenneker," he said gently, "only time will tell. No?"
"True. But it is so frustrating, dearest brother," she confided.
"And Karel? You've seen her? Spoken to her?" he asked eagerly, but with great tenderness.
"Recently. She's well. Striving as we are to halt the Legion. You may well be proud of her, Fasif. She does an excellent job. She feels she is on to something in her search there in Rome."
"As much as I fear for her, I'm delighted at that. She honors you, her father...and your humble brother here." A soft, patriarchal tone eked through.
"As she should. She has some very special persons to measure up to." Helene was beaming.
"You have prepared her well, my beloved Shenneker. She may have to move quickly and into grave danger."
"She knows that already, Fasif. We all do. The fate that befell her father spurs her on to avenge the evil."
"She must proceed cautiously. I fear they have just begun. I will keep in touch when necessary. Shalom." Khadid concluded, stemming any display of sentimentality. The call was done.
He sat for a moment staring out at the garden. Flowers of every conceivable color were abloom now in an array that dazzled the eyes. Elias tended it so well. This tiny patch of earth with grass and flora and trees in full-leaf filled with bird-song was their glimpse of Heaven amidst the horrors of hell, he thought. How long would the beauty remain?
"Fool," he reproved himself. He went over to the door and called for Elias. Within seconds the obedient servant was there. Fasif towered over Elias, but still could not match Andriopoulos' height. Like Elias, Khadid's skin was a smooth olive hue, with tightly cropped gray follicles fighting for survival over the impending bald area atop his head, almost as if he had been tonsured there. Well into his sixties, Fasif stood erect and powerful, his character demanding nothing less. "Did you take my advice, dear Elias?"
"I did. Two hours I slept and am much more refreshed I assure you, dear master."
"You do need more. You know that of course. But for now I believe it is time to rouse our guests. I do believe they will relish your Eggs Florentine." Fasif allowed a smile to curl on his lips that motivated Elias to do even more for this good man he served.
Pat believed he had been in bed only moments before he indubitably knew the shaking motion was not part of his REM. This was real. He managed to open a groggy eyelid only partially to focus on a form. He peered harder. It was Niki hovering over him, the Greek bearing a broad smile which affronted the sleep-soaked brain of Gallagher.
"Go to bed, Niki," he growled. "Jesus!"
"I have been to bed, my friend. I am here to announce that we begin another day."
Pat definitely didn't want to hear that as he burrowed his head under the pillow.
"Get up, Patrick," Niki insisted. "The sun is shining. Birds are a-wing. And we have been summoned to dine with our host. Do try to make yourself presentable, will you?"
Gallagher gave in, tossing off the sheet and sitting on the edge of the bed, his head buried in his hands, only his boxers affording him any privacy.
"You indeed are a sorry sight," Niki chided.
"And you're too damned cheerful to be allowed out of your room before noon, " Pat retorted. "Are you always like this?"
"True. I try always to be happy." Niki assured.
"Lucky for you there's breakfast. That's the only way you'll get me outta the sack."
"You Americans have such a way with, how you say it, slang."
"By the way, who is our host? Pat resumed the questioning.
"I will not tell you just yet." Niki relished keeping him guessing, using that carrot to get him up and moving.
"Playin' games again, huh?" Pat realized the ploy.
"First you must get ready, my Texas friend."
"Oh, Christ almi---" Pat blurted, but was caught from finishing the curse by Niki's wagging finger as the Greek looked to the ceiling, quietly and charitably reminding Pat of his use of the Lord's name.
"Now you sound like my mother," Pat moaned.
"I've been accused of worst. I suggest you apply a razor to that nasty stubble on your chin." He handed Pat a Gillette pack. "Look sharp. Feel sharp. It will help your entire demeanor to appear fresh and new."
Pat was in an arbitrary mood. "Just the opposite, Nik, I'm tired and old."
"I have the cure for fatigue and aging: a hot steaming shower. I'll start it for you." Niki was so accommodating.
"I'll still feel old and tired!" The jet lag had caught up with the Mirror reporter. Cynicism was greater in the a.m. and this morning was no different.
Dateline: Rome, November 2, 6:15 a.m.
The sun's beam hit Riage Benziger square on his face, awakening him from his exhausted slumber. Where was he? Within seconds a rush of memories flooded his conscience and he knew well it was no nightmare. It was very real. The still body of a weak and emaciated Pontiff lying unconscious three feet away from him on the dank stone floor affirmed that fact. Several times on his journey down the long tunnel the surviving Swiss Guard had to rest. The burden of the Holy Father's weight on Riage's injured shoulder had demanded it. In addition Benziger himself was weak. No food or water for three days. He knew dehydration would set in soon. The trek had taken its toll on the torch. It had gotten him to this point before it flickered out. How long had he been here? From the direction of the sun he knew morning was just dawning. Surveying both directions he could see slits of light darting in from narrow turrets that illuminated this passageway by day.
He knew now where he was. He knew too that this same passageway had been the means of escape for Pope Clement VII on May 6, 1527, the day of the Sack of Rome by the Protestant forces under King Charles V during the tumultuous Reformation. He realized many of his predecessors in the vaunted Swiss Guard had given their very lives for the Pope's safety on that very day. Now nearly a half millennia later he was doing the same. He was only one. Back then 147 had perished in protecting the Pontiff, while 42 lived, stealing the Medici Pope away from danger and hiding him at Castel Sant'Angelo. This is where this corridor led. It had been built within the Leonine Walls that connected the Vatican to Hadrian's Tomb, today known as Castel Sant'Angelo. He knew there was a walkway above, but he had never realized there was a similar secret corridor below. He gave God thanks for whoever built this passageway. He knew from the distance he had traveled that the Castle was not far. He knew also it had been closed to tourists a few months ago after a ceiling had given way crushing two pilgrims beneath and now lawsuits had forced its closure. Could there still possibly be some water or food on the premises? That hope spurred Riage's psyche and survival instincts.
The sounds of the city penetrated this corridor as the cacophony of traffic blended with the sounds of voices on street corners and on balconies welcoming a new day. He wondered how long he could subsist, how badly off was the Pope, how long could he escape detection from those who had infiltrated the papal palace. Who were they? How could he get help?
Those questions poured through his consciousness as he hoisted the insentient body of the pope over his aching shoulder, intent more than ever to get the Pontiff to a comfortable, safe place in the castle and then to search for food and water. Little did he realize as he began slumbering eastward down the corridor that outside the world was in mourning for the very man he was carrying. Nevertheless, they were mourning a different man who perished in Iraq. Who was the imposter? There was no doubt the real pope was still alive, but for how long? Time was of the essence and Riage realized this only too well. The adrenaline flowed through his veins as he pushed on down the passageway, now illuminated by the shafts of sunlight darting through the thin slots in the impenetrable stone wall every 100 feet or so. It was a lonely trek, but a necessary one. This loyal Swiss Guard would never realize how much so.
Next: PART II: The Smoldering FIFTH CHAPTER, Episode Three
"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.