Monsignor Stephen Michael Navarro, O.M.I., Head of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications was not one to panic. Through the grace of the Paraclete his plan of action became clearer as he wheeled the laundry cart with the good martyr Riage Benziger buried beneath the oft-used towels.
He gave silent thanks in his heart that no guard had been posted at the stairwell. He steered the deep gurney past the statue of St. Joseph, then through the doorway into the narrower back hallway where he had dragged Pat to safe refuge in the auxiliary utility closet.
It was here that he returned. Depositing the cart, he covered it up with even more towels. He found some toilet deodorant cakes on one of the shelves. They were the kind of disinfectants hung in urinals and on the edge of commodes. He placed those strategically on top and at various layers within the towels to mask the smell.
This terry cloth crypt was only temporary, Stephen vowed to himself and to the lifeless Riage Benziger. "I will not leave you here to rot, Major. I will see to it that, when it is feasible, you shall be afforded a proper burial befitting your noble deeds, good and faithful servant."
The Monsignor wheeled him into a corner, and grabbed more deodorant cakes, emptying the box on top of this temporary bier. He hoped it would last until he could return and move the body later. Before departing, Stephen retrieved the pen Rembert had given him - the "penultimate." He must find out if this was a tracing device.
With that in mind, he left the cart to stagnate for the time being in this enclosed room, and quickly exited the side door, retracing his steps and stealthily, swiftly slipping outside into one of the courtyards.
Dateline: Vatican City - Sistine Chapel, November 5, 2:35 p.m.
Cardinal Marcini was still tinkering with camera angles, joyfully immersed in his work; so much so that he didn't look up until Stephen gained his attention.
"Ah, Monsignore, Buon giorno. Back again. What can I do for you?"
"Si, your Eminence. When you turned the equipment on for a scan, did it register waves?"
"Si. They are recorded until I re-engage the scanners."
"I need for you to check this pen thoroughly."
"Lucky for you, Monsignore, I have not erased the data." Marcini's laugh was warm, "No problemo."
It told Stephen he had nothing to worry about. If only that were true.
"Well, we can never be too careful," Stephen sheepishly spoke.
"Me lo mostri," the elderly Prelate motioned in asking for the pen which Stephen soon produced. "Interesting. No?"
Cardinal Guido Marcini traced the tracking waves to the point where it triggered the pen. Stephen leaned over the Prelate's right shoulder. "I need to know if that has a tracking device on it and, if so, can you trace it, your Eminence?"
"Hah, you Yankees are always suspicious. Spies everywhere, no?" His laugh was hearty. No one ever took offense at anything this good Cardinal said, for it was the way he said it which verified no malice was intended.
Stephen knew that this likeable old Prelate had tweaked the equipment so that nothing would escape his scrutiny, be it the smallest bug. Even the inventor Q, who emerged from the imagination of Ian Flemming's James Bond series, couldn't have fooled this Neapolitan Prelate.
"Ah, Padre, set your fears at ease. I assure you this is exactly what Mr. Rembert assured us it is."
"Monsignore, see this line?"
"Si," acknowledged Stephen.
"It would be fluctuating if there was any feedback within ten miles. This originates only between the satellite and Sydney. Is there anyone in Sydney you do not trust?"
"I sure hope not," smiled Stephen, relieved that the pen held no danger to compromising the conclave or him.
And then it hit him. He remembered how Colin had demonstrated it. He could use it as a backup in case he was cornered. If he was to die for the cause the world would know those who caused it.
The Cardinal was anxious to show Stephen a few other things he had been working on since Rembert was there. Stephen feigned interest, his mind on other things when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn with Cardinal Thomas Wetherby walking towards the far exit. He had only a few minutes. He hoped his timing would be right, that he would catch him on time.
As Stephen descended the ramp, he could see the two Cardinals go through the door to the sacristy. It was the room which served as the area where, upon election, the chosen Pontiff would retire to be clothed in the garments of the Papal Office. During this time the electing Cardinals awaited him to pay the new Vicar of Christ the first homage. Then with a contingent of Cardinals he would be escorted to the balcony of St. Peter's where the world waited for the first look at the new Sovereign Pontiff. Every camera would be focused on that balcony once the white smoke wafted from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel to the right of the Basilica. The Dean of the College of Cardinals would step forward first, announcing to the world, "Habemus Papam!" Then the new Pope would appear, the very moment the entire world would anticipate with baited breath.
Stephen was just catching his breath as he reached the door and entered. Cardinal Zachmunn was seated in a plush chair of wine velvet, head bent forward as he listened to the words spoken by Cardinal Thomas Wetherby, a small-framed man from Ontario. The Monsignor could not make out the Canadian Cardinal's words, but from the look of serious concentration on Gregory's face, he knew it must be quite important.
Nonetheless he came forward with purpose and verve. "I beg your pardon, your Eminences."
Both men looked up, somewhat startled.
"Oh, Monsignor Navarro," the American Cardinal said evenly, showing relief that it was Stephen and not someone else.
"Yes?" politely inquired Wetherby, who seemed plainly annoyed by the interruption.
"I have news for Cardinal Zachmunn," Stephen began, trying to sound like a mere courier for Wetherby's sake. "From the Cardinal Camerlengo. If I may--?"
Gregory realized the signal immediately. "I'll only be a few minutes, Thomas," Zachmunn assured the shorter man. "I'll meet you in the Court of the Sentry. We'll continue our discussion then."
The Canadian Cardinal rose and left, leaving Navarro with the one man who long ago had first suspected the rise of the Basilisk. It was Cardinal Zachmunn who had managed to assign Stephen here in Rome to watch for any telltale signs of its coming.
"Your Eminence," Stephen reached out after Wetherby had gone, bowing to kiss Gregory's signet ring.
"Stephen," he said with a fondness that the young priest well remembered. It had been so long since he'd heard such a warm tone. It suddenly struck him how painful his exile had been here in this place which should have been a holy refuge.
"I have urgent news," Navarro whispered, glancing over his shoulder. "I don't know where to begin."
"I see," Gregory assured, rising. "Come, let us walk a bit through the outer corridors. I need to stretch these old legs of mine anyway."
Stephen contented himself to silence until they were well away from the hubbub of the Sistine Chapel, moving at a sedate pace down one of the long corridors. No one saw them as they moved on through two great rooms and then out into the Borgia Courtyard, where they stood together in the shade offered from a high overhang of stone canopy. The sun felt good but they needed to communicate in the shadows for now.
"Now, tell me what you have learned, Stephen," Gregory coaxed gently. "I'm sure there's danger for both of us. So be quick."
Stephen quickly summarized everything that had happened since he had last talked briefly with the good Cardinal a few days ago by phone. He told him about the envelope he had given Sister Bridie which contained evidence of tampering with the 'document' Macelli had forged.
Zachmunn did not interrupt, showing no surprise about any of the events Stephen related, nor surprise that he had linked up with three other men - Father Niki Andriopoulos, Patrick Gallagher, and a Dr. Makuta Ogidi. Nor was the St. Louis Prelate surprised that the Basilisk had grown so great in power that its disciples would use everything in their power to safeguard his final entrance into the world. Stephen filled the Cardinal in regarding his own experience in the hallway the night before. He related, in chronological order, the close shave at the Ristorante Romano and the subsequent time in the catacomb. He told how Sister Bridie had tended to Pat's wounds and smuggled him into the infirmary and then Sister's revelation that Pope Clement XV was still alive. Stephen also informed the Cardinal on what he had entrusted Sister to bring to His Eminence. Navarro explained how Sister tried to smuggle the Monsignor to the infirmary in order to check up on Pat and how Macelli had intercepted her and taken her to the basement, then how he had overpowered the guard in Urazzi's office and subsequently stashed Benziger's body until someone could provide a casket for proper burial. It was a veritable Perils of Pauline.
By the time he had brought Gregory up to date, Stephen looked slightly taken aback, then realized there would be little, if anything, that would shock Gregory at this time.
"This Sister Bridie. Is she in imminent danger?" the Cardinal inquired.
"I'm afraid so. No telling what Macelli will do. I know the guards with him are bad ones."
"There are a few who can still be trusted." Gregory stated. "I will see what I can do."
"I'm concerned for Pat. If Macelli suspects Sister Bridie then perhaps he knows about Pat. Also, there is the new nun, a Sister Elena whom Sister Bridie told me about. She did not have a good feeling about that woman."
"I'm sure Sister Bridie's instincts are good for she sounds virtuous. There aren't many here we can really rely on until we've managed to isolate the Devil's coven."
"You know, your Eminence, if they find that letter on Sister your life won't be worth a hill of beans."
"Hmph," chortled the Cardinal, "no life is worth anything to those who serve Mammon."
"Nevertheless, your life is threatened by the mere fact that you're considered by many of your fellow colleagues in the conclave and, by popular opinion as well, to be the most logical choice for the papacy."
"Yes," Gregory sighed, for the weight of this burdened him greatly. "A very undesirable position to be in, I assure you, Stephen. Nonetheless, it affords me this opportunity to mingle with my brothers in the College and attempt to draw forth their opinions. There is a move to allow 40 Archbishops into conclave to boost, if you will, the numbers. I quite suspect that idea germinated with both Vendhem and Macelli. I cannot believe His Holiness authorized such a list. I pray the majority of my brothers will vote it down in the first General Congregation tonight."
"Then, that threat is dissipated?" Stephen asked with concern.
"It will be the first motion on the docket and I'm relatively sure we have enough votes to defeat it. Too many of those who wear the miters have compromised their faith, forgotten their flocks and followed after the promises of the prince of the world, not seeing, until it's too late, the ugly, horrific facade of the beast."
"I have seen and felt it firsthand here inside the Vatican, your Eminence."
"Yes, what you've told me, Stephen, only confirms my fears. Tell me, how did Macelli first justify to you his moving up the funeral and conclave?"
"I believe his exact words were 'these are non-traditional times'," Stephen answered.
"Non-traditional!" scoffed Zachmunn. "In a way, I suppose there's much truth to that. But I've always been of the persuasion that we must work within God's time, not man's. Especially in this time of great crisis. It does not bode well for the Church or the world to rush an election that was not properly prepared for in the spirit of tradition. Indeed, if anything, this is a time for tradition."
"As you have long advocated, your Eminence, the time is imminent for a return to tradition."
"Definitely, my son. The last 50 plus years are evidence of that. There's much unease among the twenty-one electors. Many were shocked that Macelli as Camerlengo would so drastically veer from the directives left. Of course the media was thrilled. Instant news."
"Yeah," Stephen opined, "Get on with it, get it over with, and get on to something else."
"In a manner of speaking, yes. But now your news that the Holy Father could still be alive! That would be very, very good news indeed. But I need proof to prevent the conclave from advancing."
"We're all trying, your Eminence...and praying!"
"Never hurts, does it, Stephen?" He had a twinkle in his eyes, knowing the danger but calmed by the sure sense that God would never allow the gates of hell to prevail.
"Do all you can to find out where the Holy Father might be and how he is. I have someone else I need to notify."
"In effect the lobbying has already begun," chuckled Stephen, trying to bring some levity to the seriousness of the subject matter, if only to see his dear mentor smile. When Zachmunn smiled it always eased Stephen's world, a visible sign that all would be right with God.
A curl formed on his lip, but only his eyes sparkled. "I fear we will be watched even moreso from now on, Stephen."
"That is my fear as well, your Eminence."
Zachmunn spoke slowly, deliberately. "He will come this way. I have long watched and studied the slow but painstakingly sure progress of this Basilisk and his Legion. Since 1958, Stephen. That long ago time when, quite suddenly and without explanation, the new Pope unleashed so many dissenters of doctrine. Without realizing it he allowed them access to positions of authority, positions of influence. We know the results only too well. Twenty years later the then newly elected Pontiff Cardinal Albino Luciani was dead a month after election. Prior to that, Stephen, violence had been suppressed within these walls. At that time, however, if it was the Basilisk who oversaw the demise of John Paul I, then it was merely testing its power, paving the way, as it were, for this moment."
"If only I could be a fly on the wall."
"You're doing fine, Stephen."
"But I feel at times I've failed you and God."
"Truth be known, Stephen, we've all failed. We've had the intervening years to struggle against the incarnate evil, but we've failed to take the initiative. We've been lax, torpid, and phlegmatic in our approach to serious evil. The Church Militant has become the Church Milquetoast, softened in its disciplines and enamored with novelty and innovation, overwhelmed by ambiguity and tolerance for those very things that every Pontiff and saint warned against. We must be cleansed of the corruption that infects the Mystical Body of Christ; from abortion; from contraception; from sodomy; from blind obedience to men who would lead souls astray; and from unmitigated laziness and ignorance. Heaven has tried to warn us and still we proceed on the path of folly - the animus delendi of all we believe. The wonder is that God has not yet vomited the lukewarm from His mouth. Perhaps because God alone knows the outcome. Yet, we cannot sit idly by and wait for the scenario to be completed. If we do we deserve to become so much apocalyptic regurgitation that will rot away, fit only for the infernal maggots. No! As long as the last line remains unwritten, we must struggle. And, if necessary, be the living ink. Sacrificial ink that, if needs be, must mix with the blood of the Lamb for the good of Our Lord and His Church. We must hold up our end of the bargain in the great Communion of Saints; for the final demise of the Antichrist. The victory can never be for our glory. God will be the victor, we His beneficiaries. We will reap the harvest only if we're willing to toe the mark, till the hoe, bear the sword, and carry the cross. It is the epic struggle of the soul resolved on the most sacrosanct stage at the crescendo of civilization. I do believe, though this battle transcends time, that we have arrived at the moment of truth."
Stephen couldn't help but think that had His Eminence's soliloquy been written on an envelope that it might very well have rivaled Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But only Stephen knew it had been uttered. The only other witnesses were the ancient statues that graced this garden; silent sentries who would remain forever voiceless.
"I know, your Eminence," Stephen managed, seemingly coming out of a mesmerized state so enhanced had he been by the Cardinal's words. "I will do my best. If I need to reach you, where can I find you?"
"I'm afraid I cannot answer that, Stephen. I may have to find you."
"Well, I'll make myself available, your Eminence, though I have to try to be at the Coliseum tonight."
"Yes, Pat and I were to rendezvous with Fr. Niki and Dr. Ogidi."
"Ah, yes, send my deepest regard and gratitude to Father Andriopoulos."
"You know Father Niki?" Stephen was delighted.
"Yes," nodded Gregory.
"And Dr. Makuta Ogidi from Africa?" Stephen inquired.
Gregory was pensive. "I am afraid I am not familiar with him, Stephen."
"But how do you know Niki, your Eminence?"
"Through my good friend Cardinal Fasif Khadid. "
"Ah, I see...did you say 'Cardinal'?" The realization hit Stephen squarely in the heart.
"Yes, he had been chosen by Pope Clement in pectore three years ago. Because of the tenuous and tumultous situation in the Mideast, the Pope felt it was not prudent to make it known to anyone else about this Palestinian-born man, a very holy one at that. His Holiness feared if it were known his mission would be compromised, as well as his sister's. His life would be in danger, especially with the enemies of the Church."
"So he could move about more freely?"
"Exactly. He has long been a source of vital information; a spy and a Prelate with so few knowing until somehow, the Basilisk, discovered his prowess and moved to silence him in their attempt to destroy the Church as well."
"Yes, and they accomplished it," Navarro's voice dropped. "Fasif was killed. Niki affirmed that he found--"
"We can only pray that God preserved him. Remember, Stephen, with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
"Ah, yes, Matthew 19: 26."
"Stephen, you've done well. Very well." The Cardinal was beaming with pride for he considered Stephen like a son. "Remember that I am always with you in prayer, and that above all, God does not abandon us. Ever. Even in this hour when death is everywhere."
"I have been taught well, remember?"
"You honor me, but I am humbled. It is not I but God Who has molded you, my son. Oh, before I go, I have one more thing I would like to share."
"Yes, your Eminence?"
"I have prepared some very important - nay, vital - documents. I have made three copies. Two are safely deposited, the third I will attempt to have sent to you. Stephen, in the event of my death, in the event that you are in grave peril, be sure that the contents of this package are not delivered into the hands of our enemies. Trust only those who are joined in the fight against the Legions of hell."
"Your Eminence, you shouldn't talk of--"
"Stephen, If I should not make it through the Conclave, see to it that this document is revealed only within the Sacred Conclave."
"But--?" Stephen began, bewildered. As his friend, his role model, his mentor stood there facing him, Stephen felt a heaviness of heart. It was as if God would soon take this dearly loved friend home. This man had truly been a spiritual father to Navarro. Victor Van Wess had originally taken him under his wing and fostered his vocation before passing a raw recruit on to this molder of men, builder of saints - Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn. Would he live to become Pope?
Only God held that answer as Stephen felt the Cardinal place his left hand firmly on Stephen's shoulder and with his right palm raised, proceeded to bless his faithful pupil, "Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus."
"Amen" Stephen instinctively replied. And so be it. It felt as if a shroud had been placed on his heart, on the hearts of all who believed. A shroud of sadness, and yet also a shroud of grace - necessary grace to protect against the wickedness and snares of the Devil and those who prowled about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Next: PART IV: The Shrouding ELEVENTH CHAPTER Episode Two
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