WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE! c 1986, 2001

Part V:
White Smoke, Black Fire!
The Shedding

Thirteenth Chapter

      Episode Two

             Long had it been said: 'All roads lead to Rome.' At least on this night all paths guided the principals toward the heart of Rome, the heart of Christianity, the heart of the essence of Christ's sacrifice - the high altar beneath the great baldacchino of Bernini in St. Peter's Basilica. The players on this stage would arrive by different ventricles.
             Just as Jonah knew not where the whale would take him, so also Pat and Niki had been transferred from the belly of the truck to the narrow viscera of a dark tunnel. This narrow cavity spiraled upward with no light to identify where this capillary led...only that it sloped upward, steeper and steeper, no end in sight.
             Meanwhile, unbeknownst to all parties, the forces of good were outflanking the Legion. From the artery of the crypt Gregory and Stephen climbed the stairs within the colossal pillar connecting the right transept to the nave. Sister Bridie remained hidden in the Clementine Chapel, an intercessory ally - a source of powerful prayer, more powerful than the explosives being placed this night.

      Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 1:10 a.m.

             Elsewhere within the vast walls of this Basilica, Pat and Niki forged onward and upward as the candle flickered, wax dripping to the hard dirt surface by their feet.
             "Just where are we goin', Nik?" Pat wheezed, huffing and puffing as the ascent became more declivitous, the flight higher. "I know they're lookin' for me. What about Stephen and Sister Bridie. Have you seen 'em?"
             "Not yet," Niki answered easily.
             "Well, I'm worried they're in deep shit."
             "Please, Pat," Niki remonstrated his vulgar American friend, "we are in the house of the Lord."
             "You sure about that, Nik?"
             "Relatively sure," he responded.
             "So where in the hell are we...oops, sorry, where in God's name are we Niki?"
             "By my calculations just about there," gushed Niki as he felt for something on the wall in the dark. "Ah, hah. This is it."
             Niki pushed on the wall after he extinguished the candle. It couldn't have come at a better time. The wick had burned down to a point where, in less than another minute, the explosive within the candle would have rendered the tunnel they were in and the tambour of the great Cupola they were about to enter totally destroyed by the impact of the explosive within the wax that had been planted one third of the way down the candle. Little did they realize how close they had come to this tunnel becoming their tomb; little did they realize the impact of the explosive Niki held in his own hand.
             To Pat's amazement, and gratitude, a soft light flooded into the dark crawl space. His eyes had adjusted over the good fifteen minutes or so they had been in this ascending artery. Even the least bit of light was blinding to one who had developed the senses of a mole. That's exactly how Pat felt after burrowing through the trap door beneath the great stained glass window of the Dove. They had entered by the gutter below the exterior wall of St. Peter's, directly beneath the Altar of the Throne of Peter where the Holy Doctors of the Church stood vigil and the Angels hovered above the Chair. Now Niki seemed like an angel suspended in the doorway, the glow emanating off of him. He flowed into the light, a mere silhouette as Pat blindly followed.
             "At last," Pat exclaimed in relief, "the 'light at the end of the tunnel'."
             The luminescence came from the natural and man-made lighting which reflected off the reliefs and works of art adorning the inside of the great dome of St. Peter's. The two quietly closed the door behind them, their backs to the massive lettering on gold mosaic. Pat stood frozen in place on the narrow circular catwalk, looking out in awe and fear. The enormity of the great Basilica hit him squarely in the gut. He felt utterly suspended between Heaven and earth, between paradise and hell.
             His eyes beheld the majestic pendentive ribs rising and tapering to the open Lantern above. Massive. Cherub heads looked down on him from above - sixteen of them encircling the pendentives at the base of the lantern. The immensity of this building hit home with Pat. The Sistine Chapel was a mere dollhouse compared to this. While many assumed Michelangelo's legacy lived in the power of the frescos that lined the ceiling and walls of the otherwise plain rectangular Sistine room, the real genius came from the architectural feats of God's artist. It was evident in this awesome dome of St. Peter's. Everyone had said such an accomplishment was not possible, but Buonarotti knew it was. Because of his ironclad will, millions had held and would forever hold the great Michelangelo in esteem for the technological wonder he had designed centuries ahead of its time. This, Pat finally realized as he stood there - a mere speck, a mere brush stroke within this elliptical canvas of an impossible architectural achievement - this monumental dome was the Florentine artist's true legacy.
             He stood there mesmerized by this marvel until Niki brought him back to reality. Niki motioned Pat to look down through the railing towards the source of voices that Gallagher finally became aware of, barely audible some 200 feet below in the Presbytery area around the main altar.
             "What're they doin'?" Pat whispered, looking down. The sensation seemed to trigger a sense of vertigo, which started to play with his psyche.
             "I wish I knew," Niki replied, "but it does not bode well. We must be careful. Stay low."
             "We're not the only ones who better stay low," Pat informed. "Look, near the far corner of that pillar, Nik."
             "It could be Dr. Ogidi, my friend."
             "Look again, sharp eyes. They're two of 'em. From here it sure looks like Stephen and a Cardinal."
             "Ah, you're right. Cardinal Zachmunn. They looked trapped...like us."
             At the distance of a football field's length below, the conversation of Macelli, Vendhem, Grabe and the other Legion operatives rigging the coffin and candles was not distinguishable. The acoustics were good, but not that good.
             Crouching on the third step from the top and peering over the top of the stairs, Zachmunn and Navarro were much closer. They could hear bits and pieces.
             "Josef, how long does it take for Elena to program the detonator?" Macelli asked nervously.
             "She is one third of the way through, Antonio."
             "Can we hurry it up any?"
             "My dear Cardinal Macelli," Vendhem mocked, "you, above all, should know that a master at their craft must not be rushed."
             "I know, but I fear Gallagher or Navarro may summon reinforcements."
             "Are your guards not on duty, Antonio?"
             "Si."
             "Well, then, fear not. If your organization is competent we will find all three, Nein?"
             Macelli still felt uneasy for Vendhem was toying with him, gaining the upper hand. Nothing frustrated a follower of Lucifer - the Fallen Angel of Light - more than chipping away at pride. A surge of rejuvenation coursed through the rotund Prelate's cholesterol-encrusted veins at the sight of Soto Ichariak.
             Ans' twin brother had just arrived from the Paul VI Hall. He had been there for the past 30 minutes overseeing the progress of the implementation of the covert ammunition supplied by his employer Edwin Blix and assuring the coffins were all locked and in place.
             "Ah, Mr. Soto," Macelli patronized, "How are things with your master?"
             "He should be here before the funeral, sir."
             "Then we better have everything ready. Ja?" Grabe pushed her way in, glaring at the little man. Her tone suggested that Soto was a mere gnat, and an unwelcome one at that.
             Soto realized her intent, but did not fear her. How could a servant of Edwin Blix fear anyone? Ichariak cut to the quick. "Your Eminences, fraulein, the coffins in the Pauline Hall have all been secured."
             Brunatti looked to Vendhem, wondering if he needed to carry out the earlier command the Archpriest of the Basilica had given him. Vendhem did not look up. Guillaume took that as a no and remained silent as Macelli spoke up. "Good, then we are on schedule."
             "Regardless, I will personally check them." Grabe insisted, her tone a direct insult to Soto's integrity, as if any among the Legion had any.
             Macelli had felt the barbs, and the disgust for this partner in crime grew. "And I suggest, Elena, once you have finished programming the coordinates that you find the intruders before they find these." The Italian gestured towards the open crates scattered about, "Or before the Master finds you!"
             The fraulein ignored the rantings of the pudgy busy body Macelli, ignored the simpering of the eunuch Soto and returned to her work. Farther away, behind the pillar two figures quietly slipped back down the stairs to the mouth of the crypt.
             "What do we do now, your Eminence?" Stephen's question was laced with urgency.
             "First we've got to somehow get those coffins out of the Nervi Hall."
             "How?"
             "That is the million dollar question, Stephen. Especially since Macelli and Vendhem have choreographed the entire proceedings for the funeral."
             "Then we pray."
             "I couldn't have said it better myself, Stephen. Did you see above the altar?"
             "What?" Stephen was totally puzzled for he had locked onto the Legion members on a horizontal plane, paying no attention to the surrounding areas from a vertical perspective.
             "Father Andriopoulos and the Dallas reporter."
             "You saw them?"
             "Hiding on the Cupola catwalk."
             "Then Pat made it! Thank God they're safe."
             "For now."
             "And us, your Eminence?"
             "Several years ago, while studying in Rome, an Italian seminarian showed me a passage. Let's hope it's still there," Cardinal Zachmunn expressed, as he pointed towards a darkened, rustic rock corridor beyond the lighted crypt, past the guard rails with the signs emblazoned liberally with the warning 'NO ENTRATA.'
             As they headed in that direction they could clearly hear from above the booming voice of Macelli. "Put four boxes of the candles in the crypt chapels."

    "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.

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