He stared into the small refrigerator in his room at the Esperia, peering over the generous selection of liqueurs and potables. What did the Italians have against Budweiser? Pat thought as he scanned the shelves, finally spotting a welcome miniature Jack Daniels and a cold soda water. As he poured the refreshing liquid into a half-filled glass of whiskey, he sighed deeply, determined to turn in early so he would be fresh for the morning rendezvous with Karel.
Pat was a trooper. As much as he wanted to contact Corrie, he followed Fasif's directions literally to the letter - a sealed letter he had been given by Niki at the airport in Kuwait City. He was not to open the envelope until he had safely arrived at his hotel room. Espionage of the sort of mission Pat was on demanded such cautions.
Little did he know of the tragic course of events this evening for his mind tried to focus on his cara mia. He realized she was probably in a pique, he pictured her probably fretting with her typical Italian temper. Though he didn't want to confront her under such circumstances, he felt that was small potatoes to what lie ahead with the mission he had been entrusted with. "Wait for me, cara mia, I won't let you down." He prayed she'd understand. Hoped his message would get through to Corrie without being traced.
It was as if telepathy penetrated the mystical science of the mind and heart.
Dateline: Corrie's sedan - Dallas, Texas, November 2, 1:40 p.m.
The cell phone distracted Corrie from the road ahead as she cruised north on the expressway towards Plano. Her appointment in McKinney was still fifteen minutes away on this early afternoon of fairly mild traffic.
"Yea, Corrine Morelli."
"Ah, Corrine. Benjamin O'Fallon here."
"Benj, it's good to hear from you."
"I've talked with Pat."
Corrie almost lost control of her car as she veered into the next lane.
"Corrine, be you there?"
"Yea, Benj, I'm so anxious. Tell me, tell me. How is he? Where is he?"
Ben O'Fallon suggested she pull over at the next exit so they could talk. The signal was going in and out and he didn't want to be responsible for an accident. Damn cell phones were the biggest distraction on the road, thought Ben. Ah, for the good old days of phones that cranked, when a real live operator came on the line. Forever wed to the past, O'Fallon silently remanded himself to be patient as he waited for Corrie to park.
"Okay, Benj, I'm pulled off at Addison. Quick, tell me," Corrie begged nervously.
"Right now he be in Rome and he be safe."
"Thank God," Corrie muttered to herself, her eyes focusing upward. "What's he doing there?"
"Ah, let us just be sayin' he be safe, Corrine," Ben tried to assuage her. "Don't be a askin' too many questions, me lass."
"Like hell you say! I'm a big girl, Benj. I have a right to know what..."
"For your own sake, Corrine," O'Fallon tried to calm her. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, missy, pray and shut up. You can't be a helpin' him with your histrionics. You need be calm and on your knees. God be protectin' him."
Taking a deep breath, Corrie attempted to put on a calm front, "Did Vic send him there?"
"In a roundabout way I be thinkin."
"You be thinkin! Hold on a second, Benj, what's going on here? First Vic blows me off, now you. Is Pat in trouble?"
"After what we saw on the telly, everyone be meetin' with trouble."
Corrie knew he wasn't going to divulge any more information to her, if he even knew. But why did he call Ben, why not her? Before she could get it out of her mouth, O'Fallon anticipated the question.
"He not be callin' me direct. A friend be the one who set up the phone call. We be trustin' in the Lord on this one, Corrine."
"Vic?" Corrie quizzed.
"No, an old acquaintance of Victor's via an old acquaintance. Tis a long story and you need be gettin' back on the road, but he did say he be missin' you 'mucho' and be countin' on me to let you know he be safe."
"Promise you'll keep me informed, Benj." Corrie searched for comfort.
"On me mother's grave I be promisin', Corrine. You be takin' great care, now. God be blessin' ya for your patience."
"And you too, Benj. Thanks. Really appreciate letting me know. You take care now, you hear?"
She doubted Ben heard the last sentence. He wasn't one to linger long on the phone. So Pat was at least alive. But why hadn't he called or e-mailed her. Was he having an affair? Oh, God, Morelli, how dare you think such a thing, she reprimanded her conscience, still searching for answers that had been stirred anew by this most recent news. The time on her digital CD player flashed her back to the reality of the moment. A quick call to her client that she was running late and she would be back on the expressway.
While Corrie was heading north on a modern thoroughfare in the bright Texas sun, Niki was parked in a knoll off a dirt road still in shock and dismay, trying to catch his breath on this bleak night in southern Iraq.
Dateline: Basra military complex in southern Iraq - November 2, 10:45 p.m.
The lights caught Niki's eye in his rearview. If he didn't move in the next minute he would be toast. He knew it as he revved up the Humvee and peeled back onto the road heading straight toward the airstrip. Twisting and careening forward the Humvee skidded over the rutted road, jolting every bone in his body.
Somehow he saw it ahead across the road in the dim light from the airfield. A shimmering thread of wire. Not even time to think, Niki instinctively bailed out of the Humvee, tumbling into the brush and down the embankment as he heard the vehicle go hurtling over the other side some thirty feet ahead. Then an explosion. The fire gave away his position and he slunk further into the brush while the pursuit cars pulled to a halt just short of the pack of Iraqi guerillas in military fatigues who suddenly emerged like maggots from hiding places along the road. They had set a deadly trap and somehow, someway, Niki had been given the grace to detect it just in the nick of time. Silently he gave his guardian angel and God a nod. Then voices.
"Ah, good, he's finished," shouted one guerilla as he stood at the edge peering at the flames engulfing the Humvee.
"Are you sure," questioned a second guerilla as he studied a few of the militia who had ventured closer, trying to douse the fire with an extinguisher in hopes of confirming a dead body - Niki's.
"It's too hot to get near," yelled another in the ditch within safe distance. "No one could survive. Take it on good authority. He's dead."
Another, one with greater rank demanded identification. "Make sure. He could have been thrown." Gesturing to the others he commanded them into action, "You, you, and you cover the brush on that side. You three take this side."
To avoid detection Niki scurried through the thorn bushes, ripping his clothing as he stumbled through the bramble, blood etching from his open cuts, slipping and sliding down a steep hill to the base of the airstrip compound. His battered body came to a halt at the other side of a dilapidated guardhouse, separated by an imposing monstrous barbed-wire fence, most likely erected by Saddam's Elite Guard just before the Gulf War in the last decade of the 20th Century.
From his prone position in the underbrush Andriopoulos could hear voices and commotion beyond the wire barrier. Climbing a nearby cedar tree with every ounce of courage left, he hung on the branch swinging his legs for momentum and thrust himself over the prickly circular steel shards probing the perimeter to keep out intruders. He landed with a painful thud ten feet from the shack. Moving stealthily back into the shadows near the shack he could now see the airstrip compound clearly. A bevy of cargo planes were lined up on the tarmac, engines revving and tight security as convoys of trailers brought by endless trucks transferred coffins and wooden boxes from their containers into the bellies of these C-130's.
No sooner could Niki catch his breath than a jeep pulled up to the guard gate less than twenty feet away. As far as Andriopoulos could decipher it was the guerillas chasing him. Focusing his senses he heard one guerilla militiaman bark out, "We must see Colonel Hudec. Immediately!"
The guard remained in military mode, "Your credentials?"
The guerilla shoved the rifle into the ribs of the startled guard, "How's this? Now get Juri Hudec here on the double."
As if on cue a motorcycle pulled up from the inside the compound and an imposing figure dismounted, fearless of the guerilla's rifle. "This is my jurisdiction," the figure snapped.
Immediately the guerilla lowered his rifle and all the other guerillas took note as the figure motioned them away from the guard's earshot, yet closer to Niki.
"Oh, it's you. Move over here quickly."
The militia guerillas recognized the voice. It was Colonel Juri Hudec himself who sought answers as he continued to interrogate the guerilla charges. "The mission? Successful?"
"Like clockwork," beamed the lead guerilla, "We did a thorough job on Khadid's house."
Hudec was not convinced. "Are you sure Khadid is really dead?"
The second guerilla piped in, trying to reassure the Iraqi colonel. "Stop worrying. No one could escape...except the Greek. We blew up his jeep around the bend."
Another guerilla stepped forward. "No body yet, sir."
"Make sure you find him," demanded Hudec.
"We'll find him if he doesn't slip inside the compound," another guerilla asserted, "if he's still alive that is."
"Not to worry about the inside," Hudec was defensive. "I'll stake extra troops on the perimeter. I assure you all will be well. My men do not fail."
"For your sake, Colonel, they better not. The Greek's the last one left."
Staring down the insolent guerilla, Hudec shot back, "You are in no position to order...if indeed the Greek still breathes."
The first guerilla managed to avoid a confrontation, intoning, "We'll find him. When we do, we'll be able to convince the citizens that the Greek killed Khadid out of outrage for plotting with the Shenneker woman and the Israelis to kill the pope and other religious leaders."
The second guerilla gruffed, "The world will focus on the Israeli State and detest those usurpers for their heinous acts in the Mid-East. We must not forget the memory of Saddam."
Hudec wanted no part of the propaganda for he had more important things on his mind. "And the Jew Shenneker?"
A third guerilla noted the time, "The deed should be finished. She will interfere no longer."
Decayed teeth were barred for all to see as the guerillas beamed proudly. Hudec joined in, "Then truly we have won the day. The master will be pleased. Now, I must get back to the planes. The hour grows late. The coffins must be airborne in minutes. He waits for their arrival in Rome."
That was all Niki needed to hear. There was no place to go but onward. As the two guerillas spun their jeep around, a swirl of dust choking the atmosphere and screeching tires Niki made his move, bolting across the tarmac pell mell toward the chugging engines idling on the runway. Hiding between the trailers carrying coffins, he dodged in and out, closing in on a conveyor belt penetrating the belly of a C-130. One guard at the top of the ramp, none at the bottom. Providence provided a loose bolt near Niki's foot. He clutched it and hurtled it into the hold clanging off the inside wall. The distraction worked as the guard left his post to check the disturbance. That gave Niki enough time to leap for the bottom rung of the ramp half way up and in the dark shimmied onto the conveyor belt clinging to the girders supporting it. The guard would return to his post in seconds. No time to be choosy Niki reasoned as he pried the top of one of the countless coffins open and plunged his worn, torn and exhausted frame inside, rearranging the lid over him as he felt a thud and he was motionless in the coffin daring not to breathe.
"Ouch!" He wanted to yell out, but that would mean certain detection, certain death. He was safer here among the departed even though it was cramped enough. He could feel grooves where containers had been set in place, no doubt makeshift urns for the remains. No body survived the holocaust on the Field of Death. Surprisingly, there was not the stench he expected. Thank God for that. They must have really sealed the urns tight he thought. From within this dark, cramped chamber Niki could hear footsteps and then a voice shouting from the tarmac. "All clear. They are all loaded. Clear to take off."
The guard on the plane picked up his pace as Niki could hear him panting, yelling in a heavy mid-east accent, "Wait. I am getting off this death flight."
With that the superstitious guard had cleared the hold as the heavy door subsequently closed with a metallic bang that reverberated through the wood of Niki's container. The engines' roar drowned out everything else and Niki could sense the semblance of taxiing and then airborne as he thought to himself aloud, conversing with the charred remains of the bodies within this dark wooden cocoon within the entrails of a larger metallic cocoon.
"Whoever you are, your urns are safe with me. I know you will not mind sharing your ride to Rome. While you are at it, you might mention we could all use some Divine help in this quest. Our ranks are growing thin." A short silence, and then a pained whisper from a tired, exhausted Greek priest: "And I am getting claustrophobic!"
Niki never in his wildest dreams imagined himself traveling in this manner. Of all the ungodly, dark, cramped ways to travel... It reminded him of the Apostle Paul who had to be lowered over the city walls in a basket in order to make good his escape from an angry horde of Jewish zealots who refused to accept Christ. Not a bad analogy, he considered. He was in a casket, instead of a basket, and he was fleeing for his life from the clutches of the Antichrist. And if he hadn't taken Pat to Kuwait City for his flight to Rome, or had he not tallied a while in checking up on some of his catacomb flock there, he might very well have been there with Fasif and Elias when the explosions occurred. Somehow, with God's grace, he would be allowed to finish Fasif's work. On this sad, but determined note, he waited patiently in the dark, sensing this winged monster was gaining speed.. Other than the drone of the engines, it would be a silent journey. A time to think, to ponder and plan. With the Legion of the Basilisk literally clutching at his throat he couldn't afford to make a mistake, even a small one. With Fasif gone, he winced, those united against the Antichrist had suffered the loss of their guiding light. But, then, he reminded himself, God lets happen to us what must happen...and where He orders He also gives.
"God, the time of giving is at hand," Niki prayed in his heart. "Time's about run out, No?"
Then the C-130 lifted with a tremendous thrust into the dark sky, where he was heading only God and the pilot knew at this moment. Sealed within the confines of this pine box, Niki adjusted his body to brace himself better for the jostling of the fight. Strange, Niki thought as he felt the sides of the interior. They were not wood, not velvet or silk. No, they were padded by soft plastic strips all along the sides. He was grateful that they provided a softer cushion against the bumpiness, but curiosity started to eat away at Niki. As the plane moved farther away from Juri Hudec and closer to its destination, Niki was bathed in fear, choking on his own phobia in this dark sky-born tomb.
Next: PART III: The Shadowing SEVENTH 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, 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.