t has often been said 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' This day it was the angels who silently encouraged and guided those men foolish enough to believe they could make a difference in altering the fates.
While Niki prayed, his thoughts and intentions were shrouded in mystical prayer. Silently his request was carried by angelic wings to the gates of Heaven and beyond...to the very Throne itself. In the linear timeframe of the finite, he and Makuta crouched beneath the window of Guillaume Brunatti's Paloma Hills Estates villa, trying to find clues to the Legion's next move.
Within the Holy See, another squadron of Seraphim had been dispatched to the second floor of the wing of St. Raphael or the Loggie di Raffaello. Here Stephen hid behind the imposing 7-foot statue of St. Michael the Archangel, a magnificent work by Raphael placed on the right side of the entrance to the chapel; an oratory used by Vatican personnel. Slowly clerics and religious were arriving for the chanting of the Office of Terce. He watched, hoping, praying and waiting for Sister Bridie, the one nun he knew he could trust.
Dateline: Vatican City - The second floor of the Apostolic Palace, November 5, 8:57 a.m.
He saw her. Gliding almost effortlessly toward the entrance to the chapel. He had one chance to catch her attention.
"Sister, do you have a minute?" Stephen blurted in a throaty whisper.
The Irish nun turned slightly to see someone peeking out from behind the stone archangel.
"It's me, Father Navarro." He emitted, hoping no one else would hear.
Sister Bridie discreetly recognized the urgency and floated quickly to the side to him. They melded into the shadow of the statue; beneath the angelic wingspan of the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts.
"Father, faith n' begorrah, what you be needin'?"
"I need help. You've had some medical training, correct?"
"Sure n' I --"
"Good, come with me. Quickly."
They left the shelter of Satan's archenemy, heading down the corridor away from the chapel to another marbled corridor, then under the central stairwell where a stone statue of St. Joseph peered out towards the main loggia. To the right was a door that led to an interior hallway. It was the same back mezzanine where Stephen had dragged Pat. Soon they reached the back door of the supply room. Stephen twisted the knob. Nothing.
"O great! I locked it. Okay," turning to the nun. "You have the keys, right, Sister?"
Without saying a word she fumbled for the right key in a jangle of keys on a large ring kept beneath her scapular. Two clicks and they were inside. Sister reached for the light switch and Stephen's hand firmly pulled her hand away.
"No, Sister. No light for now."
"Faith n' begorrah, Monsignor, why be all the cloak n' dagger doin's?"
"I wish I could explain fully, Sister. Just trust me."
Somewhat adjusted to the darkness, Stephen retrieved two nightstand lamps from the shelf among a handful of replacement lamps stored in this seldom-used supply room for the entire second floor. He swiftly moved to where Pat was lying and felt for the wall socket. Finding it, he plugged the two lamps in and switched them on.
The Irish nun was taken aback at seeing Pat lying injured on the towels. "Father, who be this man?"
"His name is Patrick Gallagher. He's a reporter from Texas. He has been badly injured and needs medical attention."
"N' will you please be tellin' me what be goin' on, dear Father?"
"I can't right now, Sister. At least not all of it. But this man is my friend...a good man I assure you. I need to keep him out of sight for a while. There are reasons..." He let the sentence hang between them for her to examine.
Sister Bridget McCullough searched the room. Ah, a bucket and a sponge. She retrieved some clean linens and rinsed the container out, filling it with warm water. She carted it over next to Pat and knelt down beside Gallagher, tilting the lamp as she tried to get a better look at his arm. Her touch was very gentle, very professional, but nonetheless it roused him from the world of dreams, back to reality. Startled, he opened feverish eyes to look upon her delicate face, filled now with concern for him. Her countenance provided a sudden calm. No frown lines on that milky white face. He envied her. She seemed like an angel to him.
"Faith n' begorrah, you be a sorry sight."
"Yeah, but who are ya?"
"It's okay, Pat," Stephen piped up. "She's Sister Bridie and she's here to help you. Trust her."
"If you say so that's good enough for me," he rasped, in obvious pain.
"I've got to go now," Stephen announced. "I have to attend to my regular duties in preparation for the English broadcast of tomorrow's funeral and ensuing conclave. Still a lot of press accreditations to process. I'll be back as soon as I can. Thanks again, Sister. God will surely bless you for your help."
"That's all I be askin', Father. Go with God."
Stephen slipped out as quickly as he came in.
She hunched down, to get a closer look at this man sprawled on a mattress of towels and sheets. "I be Sister Bridget McCullough of the Religious Sisters of the Holy Family of Santa Cruz. You may be callin' me Sister Bridie, you may. May I be askin' how you got here?"
"That, Sister, oooh, ouch, is a long story."
"Since you be coherent, there be no concussion. That be the good news, Mr. Gallagher."
"You know who I am?"
"Sure n' a transplanted Irishman. 'Tis good to meet you, though not under these circumstances I be thinkin'."
She set about carefully removing the blood-soaked bandages.
"Ouch," Pat tried to muffle a moan.
"Sorry if I be hurtin' you. I not be meanin' to."
"I know that, Sister. I'm grateful you're here and --"
"Hush. Don't try to be talkin' now," Sister Bridie interrupted him. "Sure n' you be wearin' yourself out even more." Noticing Pat's arm and the unraveled blood-clotted bandage Navarro had tried to fix, Sister could see the problem. "You be needin' medical attention right quickly I be thinkin'. I'll clean and bandage your arm with fresh linen for now."
"It's okay, Sister," he said. "Can you help me sit up?"
She did, easing him into a straightened position, braced against a tall shelf stocked with cleaning detergents. She worked expertly, snipping away the temporary bandage Ogidi had applied back in the catacomb. He watched her face and winced as she uncovered the charred flesh. He saw her blanche at the awful sight of shriveled skin, raw bones that needed medical attention of a specialized kind.
"Dear God," she exclaimed. "I be takin' it that either you be in big trouble or you be lovin' this utility supply room."
"So, that's where we are."
"An' what have you been doin' to yourself? You be needin' a hospital, I be sure of it."
"I need to be here, Sister. Monsignor Navarro needs help, especially now."
She gave him a look that suggested she thought he might have his priorities in the wrong place, but went on working, snipping now at the sleeve of his shirt, exposing a bit more of the unmarred flesh.
"Very well, you needn't bother tellin' me any o' this," she inclined her head towards the arm. "But I be equally sure the Good Lord wouldn't mind if you went n' had this seen to properly."
"Later, Sister," he stalled, with teeth tightly clamped together as she peeled off the remainder of Ogidi's handiwork and began to cleanse the wounded area with the damp sponge.
Her touch was gentle, soothing. For the next few minutes she concentrated only on doing what she could to clean the wound, and then she rebandaged it very carefully with the cool white linen sheets from another shelf which she tore into strips. It still hurt like hell when she was done, but Pat managed to smile in gratitude.
"Sorry to disrupt your routine, Sister," he attempted in levity.
"There be nothin' routine this day, Mr. Gallagher."
"Guess I should've made an appointment first, huh?" Pat continued.
"Maybe you and Monsignor Navarro hadn't time to be foolin' about with appointments. Sure n' Father Navarro be too conscientious a man to act foolhardy o'er nothin'. So, I be supposin' that this is all for somethin' that be pleasin' to the good Lord. If so, then I be here to help."
She busied herself covering her tracks. She thoroughly cleaned the area, discarding the bandages and pieces of shirt she snipped from Pat's arm. She stuffed the bundle into a bottom drawer of a nearby cabinet.
"Where did Stephen go, Sister."
"He'll be back. You be feverish. What be the good father thinkin' of, leavin' you here when you be ill? I should be fetchin' the house doctor."
"Don't think that'd be a good idea, Sister."
"And why, Mr. Gallagher?"
"We might be walkin' right into another trap, even here in the Vatican."
"You be right. Sure n' I can tell that it be the last thing you be wantin' me to do."
"Exactly, Sister. Secrecy for now. It's the name of the game."
"Aye, 'tis a good point you be havin'," she admitted carefully as she sat down on a chair a few feet away. "But tis to me way o' thinkin' that there be no good in secrets. Tis truth what you be wantin', I be thinkin'."
"Yeah, you got a point, Sister, but sometimes to get to the truth you gotta go about it in a roundabout way."
"Tell me, then, why you be in trouble?"
"Ah, you're an inquisitive nun, Sister Bridie. Much like the good holy sisters who taught me years and years ago. But seeing as how you're helpin' me, you gotta right to know. Despite this collar, I'm not a priest. Hope that doesn't prejudice you against me...and yes, I am in trouble. We're all in trouble to put it bluntly."
"Ah, n' what kind o' trouble you be talkin' of?"
"There's a lot of truth in the maxim 'Curiosity killed the cat'," he offered. "Be grateful for your ignorance, Sister."
He could see her stiffen at his words, immediately regretting the chauvinism in his tone.
"I may be young, sir, but I be a mature woman n' certainly no feline. Saints be praised I be not stupid."
"I didn't mean anything by that, Sister, I'm sorry. It's just..."
"I know. Me eyes be seein' the fear on Father Navarro's face. He be fearin' for you, for himself. He be afraid o' Cardinal Macelli just as I be fearin' that creature, especially after finding that towel in Major Benziger's room."
"It be marked with shoe polish, It said 'IL PAPA VIVO. AIUTO. R.' "
"You found it?"
"Yes, while I be doin' me chores yesterday."
"My Italian ain't that great, Sister." admitted Pat
"Translated it says: THE POPE IS ALIVE. HELP. RIAGE'."
"You have it now?"
"It be safely tucked away. You ask a lot of questions too, Mr. Gallagher."
"Can't help it. I'm a journalist, Sister. Or at least I thought I was. Ahh, it's a long story."
"Well, I'm already late for Terce. God forgive me. So we be havin' a little time for communicatin'. Me parents always told me it be the best way to bring souls closer to the good Lord, it be."
God, she had the effervescence of Niki and the wisdom of Fasif wrapped up in that innocent, youthful face that belied an intelligence that might just prove very useful, not only to Navarro and himself, but also the Church itself. Gallagher considered the consequences of telling her his real mission here, risking scorn and detection. He decided it was worth the risk. He hoped to God that she was as trustworthy as she seemed.
"Sister," he began, his voice low and rhythmical as she leaned forward to catch his every word. "I sure hope what I'm about to tell you won't cause you to do anything rash."
"A rash person I not be," she answered patiently, "but sure n' a good listener I be."
"My part in all this began the moment the explosions ripped through the crowd in Iraq," he relayed. "I was in Dallas at the time, in a bar, celebratin' Halloween."
"Americans!" Sister Bridie chuckled as Pat continued. She did not interrupt as he found the words pouring out of him. Simple. Unadorned. No exaggerations. The truth, as this intuitive Irish nun had prompted him earlier. He left out some of the more grizzly details of finding Karel Shenneker's body in the Via Magdalena, of the scene where Niki related finding Elias and looking for Fasif's body before escaping with his life. As he spoke, Pat could see Sister Bridie's eyes studying him as each word was formed and placed before her scrutiny. He knew that she could see beyond mere words and actually envision what he had actually seen. Sister had only to look again at the bandage she'd placed over the charred flesh to know that he spoke the truth. This sank in even more as he related the events of the basilisk; the very beast which breathed with the fire of blackness straight out of Hell.
"Dear God," she uttered, crossing herself as Pat's account up to the present drew to a close. Now that he'd told her what she wanted to hear, he sat back exhausted. Had he done the right thing? Had he used good judgment in including this fragile, yet strong-in-faith nun in this quest to stop the Antichrist? If she believed him, then she was now in as much jeopardy as he and Navarro were, as well as Niki and Ogidi out there somewhere in the city.
"After what you be tellin' me you'd dare be bringin' the Basilisk awake within these hallowed walls? You dare be riskin' the lives o' these good prelates who be gatherin' already to do homage to our dear late Pontiff, n' who even now be searchin' their hearts for a successor?"
"Boy you're a tough cookie, Sister. Yeah, I dare risk it!" Pat retorted firmly.
She backed away from him then, taking several tiny steps in the weak light that washed the room.
Pat decided on another approach. "Sister Bridie, the Basilisk is already awake. It's waitin' its chance. We can't allow it to get that chance. Don't you see? Its power is frightening, awful, paralyzing. Already we might be too late to act. But, Sister, can we afford not to?"
"No. I suppose you be right, though God be helpin' us all. The Antichrist!" Her hands slipped out from beneath her scapular as she made a firm sign of the cross. "You'd be well to be armin' yourself with His sign, too," she reprimanded Gallagher. "No matter what you be intendin' to do, sure n' you can accomplish nothin' without the good Lord."
"You're tellin' me!" Pat huffed. "That's gotta be the only reason why He deposited me, so to speak, in your lap. All the events of these last days, Sister, have led me here...have placed me in the path not only of Father Navarro and others of his kind, but within the direct gaze of the Basilisk. It knows me."
"Then you best be careful, Mr. Gallagher."
"Ah, but, Sister, I also know it. I can seek it out and, with God's help, destroy the damn thing before the damage becomes greater than it is."
"Tis a noble thought, Mr. Gallagher," she admitted. "But faith n' begorrah how do you propose to be goin' about it? You can barely be sittin' up straight. Hardly a seasoned soldier you be."
"Ya gotta point, Sister. I realize that. Only too well. But somehow I'll manage. Because I want to...and...because I have to. We all have to!"
To many that may have sounded like the proverbial fool hell-bent for failure, but to the countless assigned angels hovering about and listening in on the session, one might even imagine these heavenly beings high-fiving each other. Such is the exhilaration of celebrating fools for Christ.
Next: PART III: The Shadowing TENTH CHAPTER, Episode Three
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