arious layers of the atmosphere pinpointed the principals this night. Their locations ran to the extremes. 30,000 feet above Kapuskasing, Ontario the black Blix International Jet darted through the dark sky on its course to Rome.
Nearly thirty feet below St. Peter's Basilica three figures burrowed their way through the narrow caverned corridor that led away from the crypt. Where they were heading Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn could only guess as he held the flashlight aloft, pointing it into the fuliginous region ahead, advancing further into the bowels beneath the Holy See.
The St. Louis Archbishops had anticipated this journey, and so he had packed an Eveready. Be prepared. His Boy Scout training as a young boy growing up in Rolla, Missouri had served him well. He was eminently qualified as a spelunker for he had explored many of the caves hidden below the lush, low-slung Ozark Mountains. There were no stalactites hanging from the ceiling of this subterranean passage, only crusted clay and dirt. At one point in their exploration Monsignor Navarro had bumped the side, knocking loose some of the ceiling, a clay plaster that disintegrated into dust particles when picked up. Any kind of loud noise or pressure on the walls could bring the entire fronton of this crude tunnel down upon them, at the very least possibly trapping them from going further.
Dateline: Vatican City - Subterranean passage beneath St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 1:10 a.m.
"So where does this lead, your Eminence?" Stephen queried, his words echoing through the dark chamber.
"Luigi never told me," Gregory rejoined, "just that it was a way out of the crypt."
"Who might I be askin', Your Eminence, be Luigi?"
"He, Sister, was a great friend at the Biblicum several decades ago. We were classmates in Theology. He had studied archeology and geology and his Master's thesis was on the catacombs and subterranean passages. He let me read part of it. Fascinating."
"Where's Luigi today, your Eminence?" Stephen inquired.
"In God's loving arms, I hope, Stephen. He became a missionary and was killed in Uganda seven years ago. Rest his soul."
"I be sorry for you, your Eminence."
"That's okay, my dear Sister. Always remember God has a reason for everything."
"Even this predicament?" Stephen quipped.
"Yes, my son, as strange as it seems even this. Therefore, we must keep going. I sense an incline in this tunnel. Can you keep up, Sister?"
"I be doin' me best, your Eminence."
In true motivational fashion, Stephen encouraged, "You heard the good Sister, your Eminence. Lead on!"
Dateline: Vatican City - In the antechamber stairway of St. Peter's Dome - November 6, 1:12 a.m.
In another passageway two others forged onward and upward.
"Where's this lead, Niki?" Pat panted, trying to catch his breath as they mounted the stairs between the pendentive wall lining the interior of the dome and the exterior shell of the great dome concepted by the ingenious mind of Michelangelo.
"Where do you think, my friend?" Niki said, not turning around, but keeping his eyes straight ahead.
"Then what?" Pat asked in puzzlement, trying to catch his breath.
"Then we go from there," Niki nonchalantly responded.
"Of course," Pat muttered to himself, "I had to ask."
"There it is, Patrick," Niki pointed to the balcony of the Lantern above the Cupola.
"Ah, fresh air. Finally we can rest," a relieved Pat expressed.
"But only for a short while, my friend." Niki hated to be a spoilsport, but fugitives had no choice.
Pat reached the crest of the dome, scanning the skyline of the eternal city. Truly impressive, he admitted, as he circled the pavement of the Lantern, frantically realizing there was no exit save from where they had come. That would not be a wise choice for no doubt Macelli and Vendhem had sent more guards after them.
"Niki, we're marooned. There's no way down."
"Oh, ye of little faith," Niki replied with resolute calm and determination, as he looked over the railing down the steep exterior slope of the gray dome.
Pat joined him in perceiving at once what Niki was looking at, what he was thinking. He knew without asking. "Oh, noooo. You can't be thinkin..."
Niki nodded, climbing over the rail and placing his foot on one of a series of foot-long rivets. These narrow ledges jutted out in ladder fashion from the summit all the way down the side in three-foot intervals on the extended ribs of the dome. Here, centuries ago, workers had placed torches to illuminate their way while completing work on the dome through the night. Before electricity they were used for special occasions to illume the dome.
"Be careful to place your foot securely on these rivets. They are spaced approximately one yard apart in single file. Follow me and be ever so careful, my friend."
They began their perilous descent over 400 feet above the Gate, which they had passed through just a little over an hour ago. In the early morning Roman sky the wind from the sea to the southwest had died to a calm. Both would give thanks for that as they climbed down the slanted surface of the great dome, two fleas on this centuries-old venerated spherical skin. Any kind of gust could sweep them off this man-made mountain to their death below. More than a few times Pat wiped the sweat from one hand and then the other as he hung on to the incredibly narrow half-foot ridge, his toe clinging to a similar ledge three-feet below. Slowly, painstakingly slowly, they descended. One slip and it would be over.
Dateline: Vatican City - Near the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 1:18 a.m.
On the polished inlaid marble floor below in St. Peter's Basilica, the Legion scurried to cover their tracks in the aftermath of the catastrophes of this last hour. The casualty list included three dead from the Legion, no fatalities from the resisters who had eluded them. The Master would surely not be pleased.
Elena Grabe had completed the coordinates. She was calmer now. The Papal bier had been resealed. She sat down on a nearby sedelia off to the side, near where Cardinal Josef Vendhem was standing, watching and calmly overseeing the process. She stretched her Amazon frame, so encumbered by the confining material of the nun's habit, and directed her conversation toward her fellow countryman.
"I vill be happy to shed these clothes. Soon, Josef, soon."
"You are too impatient, Elena. That causes mistakes."
"Do not lecture me, Herr Vendhem," she railed. "You did not collect the prize when it was available."
"That is because the fools did not follow my orders, fraulein. Never trust the servants. I fear Clement XV escaped the clutches of Brunatti and Serrano. But where?"
"Ah, that is the question that haunts us, nein?" Elena interjected. "Is the Pope still alive?"
"You have only yourself to blame if he is," jabbed Macelli as he approached with one of the guards.
"You let the Irish nun escape."
Grabe ignored him, directing her question toward Serrano. "That was one of our candles. How did they get it?"
"I do not know, but I will find out and when I do..." Luciani assured.
"Beautiful was it not?" Vendhem injected, "We saw first hand what one little candle can do. Multiply that, Antonio, Luciani and Elena, by hundreds and...poof. No more!" The German Prelate was perniciously delighting in the possibility as if he could visualize it all before him.
His partner from the Motherland was not as creative. Elena turned to the accompanying guard. "How many more guards can you muster?"
"Maybe three, four at the most. Our ranks are diminishing. It is not going as Macelli promised."
"We will be the judge of that," Macelli broke in. "We shall find the nun, as well as Navarro and the American pest and the other black clad one who almost fell to his death."
"I wish he had," an emotional Serrano added, "instead of my dear friend Guillaume. Horrible, horrible! No one should die like--"
"Regardless, Luciani, your friend Brunatti is dead. You cannot wish for what will never be," Vendhem reproved him coldly. "Is the clean-up complete?"
"Si. Presto," Serrano answered obediently, still stinging from the rebuke. "The bald Turk is mopping up the remains now."
"Good," interpolated Macelli. "Dispatch as many guards as you can to the roof near the dome. Alert local security that two madmen are loose on top of the Basilica. They are armed and dangerous. We need Gallagher or Navarro alive."
"The same for the nun, Signore Macelli?" quizzed Serrano.
"Si. We can dispatch of them later.
"You, Luciani," Vendhem plied Serrano with promises, "may have the privilege of exacting just revenge."
"Si. Grazie. Bene grazie," the olive-skinned Roman gratefully replied. To those who have sold their souls, there is no word sweeter than revenge.
"Guard," Macelli commanded, "post sentries outside Herr Vendhem's and my rooms tonight."
The guard came to attention, saluted, and turning on his heels, was off to carry out his orders.
"I take it you intend to sleep then, Antonio," Vendhem asked in a bit of puzzlement.
"We must be fresh for the funeral, Josef.
"Ah yes," the German Prelate's lips parted in a sinister smile. "The funeral." The word seemed to linger on his tongue, catching in his throat like a suffocating volcano preparing to vomit forth its molten lava.
Dateline: Blix's Jet - Airborne towards Rome - November 5, 7:35 p.m.
Corrie had not spoken for over an hour. She'd dropped off and then she'd been brought quickly back to this nightmarish reality and the beast who sat across the aisle from her. After she had taken a swig of the champagne, choking on it as if it were hemlock, he had not bothered her again. She could see he was breathing irregularly. She had heard the bullets from Vic's gun, had seen the blood pouring out of the monster's chest. Could Blix and the... The idea was too hideous to believe. What she had seen was worse than any Jeckyll and Hyde. Yet, as she glanced over at this heaving mass of flesh, seemingly gasping for air as he slept, she took note of the small tufts of gray hair that stood up even more pronounced from his balding scalp. The resemblance to horns was not lost on the savvy Italian-American prisoner on this flight.
She tried to sort everything out in her mind as she tried to isolate this loathsome individual Blix into her subconscious so she could consciously focus on finding a kernel of truth. It was there somewhere. Beyond the sealed windows she searched, casting her eye towards the black sky with its stars reflecting on clouds adrift in an endless sea of darkness. She watched them float by, distracted by lights in the far distance through rips in the clouds. The Aureole Borealis flickered on the horizon. Beautiful. Yet she could not relish its beauty, nor drink in the magnificent value of this rare phenomenon this night. If only she could reach beyond the glass and touch the clouds, if only she could feel something as common and everyday as the cool condescension of an evaporating cloud, maybe she could waken from this nightmare.
Ans Ichariak walked up and down the narrow aisle. Did he ever sleep? Corrie wondered. He nodded towards her as if to acknowledge he knew she was awake. His look made her feel as if she'd just fallen into a pool of slime. God, she detested this runt of a man. But could she use him? Could she wrest his allegiance in the slightest way from Blix long enough to aid her? Covertly she studied him, noted his weaknesses, his shallow eyes that were mirrors of a lifeless soul. Ichariak saw her only as Blix desired him to. Could she change that perspective?
Blix? Could she manipulate him? The pathetic old buzzard in the chair might have been malleable at one time in his life. The creature that would awaken was not. She was trapped. Was there any way out?
Though Blix had not indicated to her the final destination, she guessed it was Rome, maybe even Iraq. In her heart she hoped it would be Rome. More familiar, more civilized. Besides, her Patrick was there. Had to be. She wished, not for the first time, that Van Wess had told her everything. She regretted not pestering ol' Ben O'Fallon more when he politely told her not to ask why, but to believe and pray. Her information was so limited. All she had to go on was the special phone number Ben had given her and the password "Redbird." He had instructed her to call the number only if she did not hear from him. Without her cell phone, what good would that do now? She resolved in her heart that she would arm herself with love for Patrick and a relentless determination to survive. She prayed it'd be enough to keep her alive. She needed enough time to figure out what Blix's weak spot was. He had to have one.
After a while the silence in the cabin ate at her, that and knowing that she preferred her own thoughts to whatever Blix and Ans would do or propose. As the world sped by, taking her from one side of the world to another, from one day to the next, she sought refuge in sleep and prayer.
Before she allowed the mind-numbing rest to take over, she found wordless prayers in her heart. She couldn't help but regret leaving the safe sanctuary of Christ the King. It was so peaceful there. Why had she ventured into the Devil's lair after being in the angels' assuring arms while kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament?
Prior to this last week, prayer had been foreign to her way of thinking. Too many things to do and think about than to worry about what God wanted, what was truly best for Corinne Anna Maria Morelli. Ben had reminded her so many times and yet she merely patronized him, not taking her faith as seriously as she needed to. Now God was a lifeline, one she clung to in desperation.
"Please," her heart whispered so only He might hear, "take care of Patrick wherever he is. And help me stop this man - this beast - from whatever it is he's determined to bring about."
Whatever Blix would do to her, he could never still the idea that lived in her soul: She would see him
dead before she died. Before God, she would!
Next: PART V: The Shedding THIRTEENTH CHAPTER Episode Four
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