WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE! c 1986, 2001
White Smoke, Black Fire!
TMore than just a few had scattered as the dark side of midnight passed into the sixth day of November. Yet all along the Via della Concilliazione, and practically every adjacent street near the Vatican, in alleys and entrance ways, despite the coolness of the night, the homeless were huddled. These were not the homeless of the destitute pauper type, but those who were homeless of heart, mourning the loss of their leader. Many could afford the comforts of a hotel, but chose, for various reasons, to spend the night vigil in prayer, sleep, and mortification of the flesh. For these it was the Catholic way, faith and culture that kept them on their knees in prayer.
They had wanted to camp out in St. Peter's Square, beneath the porticos, near the steps of the great Basilica in anticipation of the funeral that would begin at ten a.m., now less than ten hours away. But Vatican gendarmes and Italian police had been under orders to vacate the Square, clear it out for security reasons. Nevertheless, many of the dispatched would be ready, first in line. Some would even be privileged to get inside. Thus they waited on the cold hearth of the pavement, blanketing two entire blocks where no one could pass. They whiled away their time praying, talking, singing, crying and laughing. Some even tried to sleep, huddled in various contortions to stay warm beneath makeshift hovels of blankets, coats, umbrellas and other material this night that reflected a strange tableau from above as the moon shone brightly in the southeastern sky.
The moon glimmered off the Tiber as a truck rumbled over the bridge, heading west down the wide Via Della Concilliazione where few looked up. They did not know or care about the contents of this rig barreling towards the Vatican. Inside the cargo hold, two men clung to grip handles to prevent being jostled to and fro. Jonah had spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. The Greek priest Father Niki Andriopoulos and Dr. Makuta Ogidi were relieved their journey in the paunch of this truck would be less than twenty minutes. The crates had been secured, not so the human cargo that had stowawayed this night.
Two traffic gendarmes signaled the truck to detour. The flood of mourners blocked a clear path on the main avenue. The driver was instructed to turn right for one block then left to the Colonnade and left again. A cordoned off path had been made for necessary traffic. Few were allowed to proceed, but the driver provided a pass that left the police officer unquestioning the reason. He signaled the rig through.
Dateline: Vatican City - Roof of the Bernini Colonnade - November 6, 12:14 a.m.
The moonlight caught the glimmer of a heavy-duty cable wire extending from the base of the portico out from the farthest corner of the elliptical colonnade across the street to the six story building on the Italian side. It was too far for Pat Gallagher to reach. He paced the ledge, frustrated, knowing the other guards would return. Think, Gallagher! Think! He berated himself, the adrenaline surging through his body.
Despite the heavy static on Dionis' telecom unit, Pat knew they were close. Glancing at the unit, he remembered the rope. Decisively he grabbed the guard's discarded knife that had nearly missed ending Pat's life. He bent down to extract the hawser fastened to the dead guard's belt by cutting the belt itself. The sturdy Velcro tips on the belt might be a lifesaver, he hoped, as his mind formulated a plan.
In a matter of seconds he rehearsed his next move in his head, visualizing it clearly in his mind's eye. Maybe it would work. He'd seen enough Tarzan movies, even marveled how Indiana Jones had done it on the silver screen, as well as several actors from the Errol Flynn-era to the present, all of whom had perfected the swinging rope trick. But that was stunt work, make believe. This was real.
Pat didn't have time to debate the wisdom of his actions. The other turn-coat guards were already climbing the tiles on the other side. Within seconds they'd discover him. If he was going to go, he might as well do it with flare. With the clip end for weight he gave it his best fling. It serpentined out into the darkness like a honing missile zoning in on its target ten feet out from where he was standing on the edge. Zrip, zzrip, zzzrip, zzzripp it whipped instantly around the cable. Had the Velcro grabbed? It was now or never. Wrapping his uninjured right wrist around the end of the rope, Pat swung his body out over the abyss of concrete below, just as a truck turned left heading south on Largo Degli Alicorni. the one-way street that served as the canyon between the six-story building on the Italian side and the east end of Colonnade.
Pat felt himself plunging as the rope vibrated to its source. In bungee fashion it grabbed him, whipping him back up and then down again. Would his weight hold him? He knew the Velcro could not hold much longer. Dangling forty feet above the street he would plunge to his death or be shot down from above. Dilemma and peril had become his middle names. He could feel the rope slipping. Beneath him he could see a black truck approaching. He prayed the rope would hold long enough. Above, the voices of the Legion's guards became clearer as they searched for him. They had not seen him fly off the ledge. Despite the lunar luminescence, they could not see the figure desperately clinging to the very same type of hemp that had been used to bind Sister Lucy to the chair earlier.
The truck rumbled closer, sounding like a death train approaching. The Velcro gave way. Pat felt himself plummeting; not even enough time for his entire life to flash before his mind's eye. Thump! The centrifugal force of his body ripped through the canvas covering the top of the truck.. He might have plunged to his death had he not, for the mere sake of survival, instinctively grabbed the steel bar framing the cargo hold.
He could feel someone tugging at his legs, pulling him down. What strength he had left was waning. He couldn't hang on any longer. He sank into the dark guts of the rig, overwhelmed by two men who wrestled him into submission, trying to asphyxiate him with the canvas tarp.
"Keep him quiet," commanded Ogidi boosting himself up hoping to see from where he had descended. No clue as the truck rolled past the concrete hitching posts - those stone barriers that jutted up from the pavement bordering the open end of St. Peter's Square. The truck veered right around the outside of the south Colonnade.
"Where'd he come from, Dr?," a puzzled Niki inquired as Makuta lowered himself back down to where Niki had Pat pinned against the bed of the truck. Niki held the ripped canvas around his head, smothering Pat who flailed in desperation.
"Perhaps we should ask him," suggested a cautious Ogidi, motioning for Niki to lift him up, but very carefully.
The canvas was pulled from his face. Pat exhaled deeply, gulping at the air now available. It took a few seconds to realize Providence had again provided the impossible.
Even in the dim light of night Niki recognized him immediately. "We have got to stop meeting like this, my American friend."
"God, I thought I was a goner! But how...?"
"We can talk later," Ogidi cut him off. "I must stay close to this shipment."
"They will surely see the hole in the roof, Makuta," Niki gestured upward.
"Yes," Ogidi agreed. "Once we pass through the gates and behind the Basilica you and Pat jump off. I shall stay with the truck to its final destination."
"Do you think that is a good idea, Dr?" Niki challenged.
"For now, yes."
"What's in this truck, gang?" Pat interjected, the reporter in him surfacing once again.
"That we shall soon find out," Ogidi responded. "For now, help me gather up the tarp so the guards will not suspect."
The three men scurried to neatly fold the ripped section of the tarp as the truck rumbled toward the side gate.
"Pat," Niki inquired intently, "I must get into the Basilica, see what is in the coffins. Can you - how you say - keep up with me?"
"I'm beginnin' to feel like a cat and my nine lives are runnin' out, But don't worry, Nik, I'll keep up."
The truck slowed at the gate as they all crouched low so as not to be detected. The driver was speaking rapidly in Italian with the guard. Fortunately for the three stowaways in the bed of the truck, the guard had already been bought off. He had no intention of being suspicious of this intruding vehicle. Thus, he quickly motioned the driver through. Soon the rig was moving again passing between the great Basilica on the right and St. Martha's Place on the left, heading behind St. Peter's.
"Now!" commanded Ogidi.
"What about rescuin' the Pope?" Pat remembered, looking at Ogidi just as Niki grabbed him. The two tumbled to the ground as the truck continued on with Ogidi still undercover. Would they discover him? What tricks did the resourceful doctor have left in his repertoire?
They both hit the pavement running once they had landed and rolled, heading for a copse of trees that would give them cover from detection in the moonlight. They huddled near a batch of cypress, blending into the shadows.
"Now what, Nik?"
"I am thinking," he retorted looking up toward the backside of the great Basilica. The angels!
"That's it, Pat!" Niki announced. "Wake the Angels and the Holy Doctors. Over there. Let us proceed at once."
"Why not?" trailed Pat facetiously, trying to catch his breath, as he followed Niki on his crusade to God knew where.
"Over there by the moat, Patrick."
They moved swiftly towards the base of the Basilica. A stone railing barricaded the sidewalk from the ten-foot deep by fifteen-foot wide gutter. Across the waterless moat the massive edifice of the Basilica towering above reaching from the base of the trench. The backbone of the building arching straight up where two 24' high windows flanking the center rib interrupted the flow before continuing skyward. A faint glow emanated from the windows.
"Now what, Nik?"
"Jump, my friend. Use your legs." Niki sprang into the pit, landing, tumbling, and rolling to a stop. "I am okay, Patrick. Quickly. Jump."
Pat didn't stop to think as he hurtled forward, landing and rolling. "Kinda like parachute jumpin'!" he exclaimed, wincing a bit as the pain in his arm reminded him of the wounds.
One hundred feet or so beneath the circular stained glass window a 4x4 stone marker jutted out. It almost resembled a gravestone. There was about a foot of space between it and the exterior wall of St. Peter's at the base of this moat-like pit that spanned the backside of the Basilica.
"How strong are you, my friend."
"Legs are pretty strong."
"Good. You will need them."
"I hate it when you say things like that, Nik. It always means trouble."
"My friend, please help me slide this out," Niki gestured, deliberately ignoring Pat's remark.
Pitching in with all the muscle Pat and Niki could muster, the two loosened the stone barrier. It sat on a pedestal that swung on a rusty, cranky pulley. With some difficulty they were able to pry the two-foot by two-foot trap door open. A dark tunnel within beckoned them like a siren on speed.
"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.
WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!