By the time Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn had arrived in the Sala Regia, his fellow red-robed Princes of the Church were already gathering in this antechamber to the Sistine Chapel; the dress rehearsal room. Though its inhabitants would not process into St. Peter's for another three hours, many were there to continue lobbying or to seek further enlightenment as to where their fellow cardinals stood for the all-important initial opening of the Sacred Conclave which would follow the funeral this morning.
Others were there just for the fellowship and morning cappuccino, replete with the to-die-for sweet croissants so liberally provided by the Sistine refectory. Nourishment would be needed for this day and yet, to a man, these red-hats - at least those who were not diabetic - were grateful for these sugary delights.
The conversation was not quite as sweet for through saccharine countenances sour thoughts were forming within, especially with the rumor flowing freely that the twelve senior Cardinals of the Church - those normally ineligible to vote after age 80 - would be given special consideration to boost the number of electors from 21 to 33. Many were scurrying about trying to do damage control or trying desperately to find out if such a rumor held credence. After the political moves last night in the General Congregation in which the 40 potential Archbishop electors had been negated by one vote, tension traveled on slippers this morning. If another proposal, to place before the assembly the possibility of allowing in twelve elders, were put to a vote the question was circulating: Would there be a majority that would allow it? Such was the flavor of pre-Conclave strategy.
Dateline: Vatican City - Sala Regia - November 6, 7:15 a.m.
Gregory finally found Cardinal Julies Mendoza over to the side of the room beneath the powerful fresco of the valiant Pope Gregory XI returning the papacy to Rome after the Avignon Exile. Julies was standing with his countryman Cardinal Asante Carvajal, the 87 year-old shepherd from Saragossa, a man Mendoza trusted with his life. Also standing with the two men was the Peruvian prelate Cardinal Auguste Ribera Lorenzo. They were conversing exuberantly in Spanish as Gregory approached. He quickly pulled Julies aside.
"Sorry to interrupt, Julies, but we must be in the Nervi Hall as soon as possible. Do not tell anyone where you're going. Trust me, my friend."
Without hesitating, Julies fell in step along with Cardinal Wetherby who was waiting for them at the door. Quickly they slipped out, flanked by Captain Royce Schuster, Lt. Alexis Geraud and two other Swiss Guards. The seven men were on a mission that would not wait.
Dateline: Vatican City - Papal Apartment - November 6, 7:20 a.m.
A rustling near the closed closet interrupted the contemplative prayer of Stephen and Sr. Bridie as they knelt in the Papal Apartment living room. Monsignor Navarro gestured to the Irish nun with a forefinger to his lips as he stealthily stole to the kitchen. Clutching a frying pan, he inched closer to the closet door ready to bring the cast-iron skillet down on the head of the intruder. He suspected the German Nun Elena Grabe had discovered the tunnel in the Sacristy.
The handle of the doorknob turned. Beads of sweat formed on Stephen's brow as he re-gripped the handle of the heavy skillet, ready to bring it down full force. As the door swung open a foot or so, the American priest started forward with his stroke. In mid-air he suddenly aborted the direction of his trajectory, swinging the cumbrous utensil against the side door panel with full force to evade his intended target, for it wasn't who he suspected. Rather his fears were allayed as a disheveled Pat Gallagher emerged.
"I don't believe it, Pat," Stephen gushed, embracing him, "you're alive!"
Gazing at the cast-iron weapon in Navarro's right hand, Pat heaved a sigh of relief. "For a second there I wasn't so sure."
"I can't believe it's you!" Stephen inquired, still squeezing his compatriot.
"Where am I?" Pat managed to exhale, his ribs constricted from the warm embrace.
"The Papal Quarters," Stephen informed as Sister Bridie came forward.
"What are you two doin' here?" Pat asked, as he tried to take in the surroundings.
"Sure n' we be askin' you, Patrick. 'Tis a vision to behold. We thought you be a goner."
"Wouldn't the Legion wish," Pat smiled, his pearly whites emanating the confident American ingenuity. "So how'd you guys get here...and why? Wouldn't--"
Stephen anticipated his next question, "Cardinal Zachmunn's idea. It's the last place the Legion would look, but the German nun is snooping and I thought you were her."
"Give me a little credit. I don't look that bad, do I?"
Sister Bridie couldn't contain a blushing smile, realizing he hadn't seen a mirror in quite some time. "Nothin' a bath couldn't cure."
"That bad, huh?" Pat embarrassingly acknowledged.
"Could be worse," Stephen encouraged. "But we've all lived to fight another day."
"Talk about Providence," Gallagher confirmed.
"When last we met you be in bad shape. How ya be escapin' the infirmary?"
"That, Sister," Pat mused, "is ancient history after what we've been through."
"Niki. Father Niki Andriopoulos. Met him in Iraq. We've had so many close calls you wouldn't believe..."
"From the looks o' ya, I be thinkin' ya be famished," the good nun reasoned.
"Got that right, Sister. How much food ya got?"
"Plenty, Patrick. What be ta yer likin'? I be fixin' it for you."
"First a tall glass of cold water. Then pack up all ya got. We gotta get it to the Pope and Niki."
"What?" Stephen seemed confused.
"Pope Clement XV. The real Pope is alive! But he's in bad shape."
"The Castle - Sant'Angelo."
"Of course," Stephen recognized, "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Then Major Benziger took him there," Sister Bridie deduced.
"Thank God you found that towel, Sister," Stephen sighed.
"Tunnel leads from here to there," Pat explained. "That's how he got him there. They were escapin' from the Legion. Pope's really weak, needs medical care. Hell, he needs a miracle!"
A chagrin filled Stephen's words. "And Ogidi just left. The Legion is lurking all around."
"Figured as much," Pat gruffed. "They don't miss a trick."
"I'll go with you," Stephen offered. "Sister will be safe here."
"Damn!" Pat emoted. "We've got to stop the funeral. You can't. You've gotta get the candles and the caskets as far away from here as possible. And now!"
"We're already working on it, Pat," Stephen assured.
"You mean you know about the rigged coffins and the plastic explosives embedded in the wax?"
"Yeah. Cardinal Zachmunn and Ogidi are countering the Legion as we speak. If the Pope's still alive we've got to get him help."
"Father, Ogidi be leavin' his bag if that helps," Sister informed with hope in her lilt.
"Just might," Pat responded. "Where is it?"
"In there," she pointed.
While Pat raced to the Papal bedroom, Sister drew a tall glass of icy cold water from the faucet in the kitchen and handed him the refreshing aqua on his return. He gulped it down in one big swig. "More please, Sister." As she returned to refill the glass, Gallagher rifled through the black bag. "Bandages, Tylenol, a syringe. What's this?"
Taking it from Pat's hand, Stephen examined it. "I'd say it's some kind of barbiturate. Looks like Demerol."
"Good, we can use that," decided Pat. "Sister, can you fill this bag with all the food you can? And water, we need water. Towels, too."
While the obedient religious quickly rounded up what Pat asked for, including a gallon jug of water,
Stephen pulled out his Penultimate. He only hoped Rembert could reach Dr. Ghislieri once again.
Dateline: Vatican City - Outside St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 7:25 a.m.
A mysterious white Mercedes stretch limo idled quietly beneath the loggia on the Via Sacrestia just south of St. Peter's between the great basilica and St. Martha's Place. One prelate had just entered to join the four others in the limo. They waited for one other before proceeding on to their appointed meeting of the world's most powerful. A summit of six on the sixth.
Within five minutes Soto Ichariak successfully steered another limo - this one a black stretch Cadillac - around the phalanx of mourners crowding the Sant'uffizio and through the roped off restricted area and onto the Via Teutonica which turned right onto the Largo Sacres around St. Charles Place and another right brought the ebony Mercedes directly behind the waiting white Mercedes.
"It'll be a good three hours. Y'all know where to wait," Edwin Blix mumbled as he exited the back.
"By the Tiber?" Ans called after his boss, seeking reassurance.
"Yeah, don't get lost," Blix wisecracked, then oozed, "and watch out for our precious little witch there."
Corrie glared daggers back at the gaunt Texas billionaire while he peered back momentarily into the limo. "She's a dangerous little filly so keep her hog-tied, ya hear?" With that Blix slammed the door shut and just as quickly entered the front limo. Swiftly the white Mercedes glided away down the Piazza out of the Citta del Vaticano to the Largo Di Porta Cavaleggeri which would take the mysterious limo on a one-way thoroughfare past the Piazza della Rovere across the Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta, the bridge that spanned the Tiber to the eastern side towards the group's destination - the heart of the Piazza della Rotonda.
Once the white limo was out of rearview sight, Jordan Collier had exited the black limo and headed toward St. Martha's Place. A few minutes later he was back.
"I'll wait here," Collier asserted to Soto without waiting for the eunuch's answer. "You can go on and we'll meet at our rendezvous after the funeral."
"Are you sure you should - -?" Ans stammered.
"Yeah, Blix won't mind, I'll be fine," assured a smug Jordan. He banged his hand on the back fender of the limo in giddy-up fashion. It was a signal to Soto to get moving, slowly at first as it wound around and followed the same avenue the white limo had taken a few minutes earlier.
As Soto merged onto Via Aurelia and began climbing, he was unaware of the steam engine pulling two freight cars that passed over the Mercedes on the viaduct above. On this morning a train would attract little notice. However, where it was heading should have alerted someone in the car. The fact neither of the Ichariak twins took note that the massive sliding iron gate blocking any rail traffic into the Holy See had been opened, would work in favor of the resisters. Early this morning all sorts of help had been summoned, a fruit of the conversation and planning by Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn and Monsignor Stephen Navarro with the help of a few very reliable allies. As the locomotive chugged through the just opened portal beneath the stone arch in the thick Vatican battlement wall, an exodus was being prepared in the Nervi Hall, which had been cleared of mourners the night before.
Throughout the night only two guards had kept vigil within where 148 coffins rested in wait for today's funeral. Both were Legion guards. They had been relieved of duty at 6 a.m. by four more Legion guards, headed by Sergeant Kutsch. Captain Lubac had remained near Macelli, assigning the guard who had been overwhelmed by Monsignor Navarro in Urazzi's office the day before as the lead guard. They had not anticipated another set of guards to join them. Particularly, they had not expected three Cardinals, red hats who Macelli would not approve of, to storm into the modern edifice known as Paul VI Hall. Gregory had announced, in a calm manner that the four morning guards - men who had sold out to the Legion - were under house arrest. A skirmish had ensued but Captain Royce Schuster and Lt. Alexis Geraud, with the aid of the two other loyal guards who had accompanied them with Cardinals Zachmunn,
Mendoza and Wetherby, soon had the situation under control.
With that accomplished the three cardinals had ventured out into the square, each seeking trusted mourners to help them in their quest. Within ten minutes they had recruited enough muscular Italian volunteers to accomplish their task. Sworn to secrecy by Cardinal Mendoza, they began their part in helping the Church Militant by lifting the caskets, one by one, forming a caisson that led through a side entrance to a little used corridor. This led to a subterranean tunnel about 300 yards long beneath St. Martha's Place and St. Charles' Place that sloped up to an opening 50 yards from the abandoned Vatican City State Railway Station.
Gregory was already there, standing on the main platform above the trestle as the mighty steam engine came to a stop. The great iron horse that forged the frontiers in the American West from the Gateway of the West in St. Louis, was now the means for this shepherd of the Gateway to steal away the deadly explosives on the steel of expediency and necessity - dire necessity for the welfare of all.
Next: PART V: The Shedding FOURTEENTH CHAPTER Episode Four
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