Like dominoes, the chain reaction of events were just catching up. The Legion's candle-caper had been snuffed for the time being, but a much larger problem loomed too close to home.
While engineer Dominic Nicolosi had passed Poggio and was chugging into the higher elevated, rugged climes of the Apennine foothills, his radioman Pietro Ciappi struggled with the reality and embarrassment of revealing to Nicolosi and to someone in the Vatican that not all of the coffins had been loaded.
Adding to the plight was the fact that Pietro, mainly a switchman and not a man accustomed to details, had not paid particular attention to the dire danger these coffins posed when Cardinal Gregory Zachmunn had confided the contents to Nicolosi and the others. The original bill of laden of shipping had shown 144 caskets on it, so the error had not been noticed until well after the confusion created by Collier's stupid action of shouting 'Fire!' Those who had abandoned their cargo had fled back around toward the Nervi Hall, while those clear of the gates had returned to complete their task. Both Pietro and Luigi Rosmini had signed off and signaled Dominic that all was ready for departure. It had not been until the trains pulled out that a few volunteers told Pietro about the coffins still in the tunnel area.
Over an hour and a half had gone by before Pietro was able to summon the courage to divulge the gaffe. He decided he had to leave his radio post and notify someone. With the funeral Mass underway, Ciappi circled around to the back entrance to the Nervi Hall, the very same area Stephen had used to access his temporary office quarters off the press room. Pietro needed to find out how many coffins had been abandoned. Perhaps he could get to them through the Nervi Hall entrance to the tunnel and raise the gate. He, nor few others, realized Jordan Collier was trapped inside the tunnel.
Collier himself was not aware of the potent explosives lining the 28 caskets as he paced the tunnel, calling out periodically. But the sounds from the Basilica over the loudspeakers drowned out any plea for help.
Dateline: Vatican City - Nervi Hall - November 6, 11:10 a.m.
Stephen had just left enroute to meet Corrie. Yet, still standing sentinel in the Nervi were two loyal guards. One of them spotted Pietro heading toward the corridor leading to the tunnel.
"Halt!" commanded Lieutenant Alexis Geraud. "What authority do you have here?"
Ciappi stopped in his steps, sheepishly turning around. "Scusi, Signore. Sono qui per affari. Sono Pietro Ciappi da Vaticano Stazione. Noi abbiamo problemo."
"What do you mean, problem?" Geraud shot back, now on guard that something might be afoot.
"The caskets. They still in tunnel."
"No, Monsieur," relaxed the Swiss Guard. "They were all loaded on the train."
"No," Pietro replied, "not all. The gate was closed. Only 144 caskets were shipped out."
The realization hit Alexis squarely between the eyes. "Mon Dieu! That means 28 coffins are still in the tunnel." Immediately he retrieved his cell phone and dialed.
Within three minutes Captain Royce Schuster and two other guards accompanying him had descended the sloping ramp and arrived at the western end of the tunnel. He held the key as Alexis, Pietro and the rest swiftly headed for the entrance to the tunnel where a huge metal door blocked entrance to the wide underground shaft from the east.
Royce inserted the key in the wall and the whir of hydraulics prompted the heavy door up. From a distance he could hear abrasive profanity coming nearer.
"About time you assholes got here," Jordan Collier ranted. "Y'all spooked me out with these dead - -"
"Guards," Captain Schuster commanded after getting a closer look at the man in the somewhat rumpled, sweat-soaked Armani suit. "Place that man under house arrest for sabotage."
The brash reporter's coat was slung over his shoulder with one hand, his shirt and trousers full of dust and grime, the polished Gucci's all scuffed up. The Swiss Guard had recognized Collier immediately as the same one who had given Cardinal Zachmunn a hard time in the Vatican when Royce and His Eminence had switched coffins, stealing away the explosive Papal Bier and replacing it with Riage Benziger's coffin.
Two Swiss Guards advanced toward Collier, who was caught unaware. "Hey, hold on here, guys. I got trapped in here. Y'all gotta lighten up on --"
"Sir," Royce interrupted curtly, "your actions have jeopardized tens of thousands of souls." Turning to Alexis, he commanded, "Lieutenant Geraud, have your men place him in detention in the dungeon hold beneath the Governor's Palace until we can sort all this out."
Saluting his commanding officer, Alexis turned and the other two guards were already complying as they saluted back.
"I want to see my lawyer. Dammit!," blared Collier. "I demand to see my lawyer. I demand to see the American Embassy."
They ignored his rants as Lt. Geraud turned back to Royce, "Captain, what do we do about the caskets?"
"That is a real problem," Captain Schuster replied nervously. "Where is Sergeant Gervase?"
"Most probably in the office by the Portone di Bronzo," responded Lt. Geraud.
"Have him bring the case he found in the German nun's room after the fracas on the third floor today. I have a gut feeling it holds the key."
"Yes, Captain," complied Alexis.
"I must notify Cardinals Zachmunn and Mendoza immediately," Royce winced.
"But the Mass is still going on," Geraud objected.
"I know, that is a problem, Alexis. A big problem."
Dateline: Rome - Leonine Wall - November 6, 11:15 a.m.
Pat had reached the area in the ancient passageway over the Via Ombrelliani, when a light in the distance coming towards him caused him to freeze. As the person approached, Gallagher doused the candle and pushed himself to the side of the damp wall. Had the Legion discovered the tunnel? Who was this person? How many others were there? Only where the open slots in the wall allowed the light to pour in was it bright enough to see. Pat crouched down about three feet away from the one of these openings, concealed in the darkness as the figure came into the fused light.
He was of medium build, holding a heavy case in his other hand as he probed the darkness ahead. Pat focused on the face. It was familiar. It was friendly. He sprung to the center a foot in front of the flashlight, scaring the bejeebers out of Dr. Giuseppe Ghislieri.
"Didn't mean to scare ya', Doc, I just had to be sure you weren't with the- -"
"Legion?" the Vatican physician stammered, still trying to catch his breath from fright.
"Yeah, can't be too careful," Pat apologized again.
"I would just like, Signore, to be alive to help His Holiness." Ghislieri expressed.
"And that you will. That's great. He's had some Demerol and is resting now. I'm headin' back to get some stuff. I'll be back later."
"For one flat on his back on IV less than 24 hours ago, you are quite robust, no?" the Doctor marveled.
"Thanks to you, Doc."
"And the good Lord, my son," reminded Giuseppe.
"Yeah, definitely Him, too," agreed Gallagher.
"How much farther, my friend?" the doctor requested.
"You're about at the half-way point. It's a trek, Doc. There's a tricky step about 500 yards up the way or so, where the whole tunnel elevates a bit."
"I will be careful, Grazie. Buon giorno."
As Ghislieri started on his journey eastward, something told Pat the good doctor needed help. The medical bag he was carrying seemed heavy and the flashlight was failing. Compassion and charity flooded Gallagher's sentiments. "Listen, Doc. I'm young, lemme carry that for you and we can make better time. By now, I know this place like the back of my hand."
The dedicated Italian was grateful for both the company and the help. Besides, it would afford Pat the opportunity to fill the Vatican physician in on how bad things had deteriorated. He might lose half an hour at the most by returning to the turret, but if the Pope wasn't conscious, what good would stationery do?
Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's Basilica - November 6, 11:19 a.m.
The choir was in full throttle with the Agnus Dei when Royce located Cardinal Zachmunn. The urgency in his look left no questions on the St. Louis Archbishop's mind. Something was wrong. Immediately he genuflected on both knees, out of reverence for the True Presence of Christ on the altar, and quickly exited through the Sacrestia with Captain Schuster. Once clear of the main Basilica and out of ear range of the direct resonance of the Gregorian music, Gregory stopped Captain Schuster near the door way which led to the corridor near the Nervi Hall.
"What's wrong," Zachmunn asked, bracing for the worst considering all the alternatives.
"Not all the coffins made it on the train, your Eminence."
"What? How? Why?" Questions flooded Gregory's psyche.
"The railroad operator notified Lt. Geraud," answered Royce. "The rude Texan sabotaged the operation, closing the gate of the tunnel. From reports just provided we have 28 caskets remaining underneath both St. Martha's and St. Charles Palaces."
"Good God, man. That is a problem," sighed Zachmunn as they continued on to the Pauline Hall, where they found Alexis and Sergeant Rene Gervase with the case.
"Your Eminence, this was found in Grabe's room on the third floor," Lieutenant Geraud informed.
"Have you opened it yet?" Captain Schuster asked.
"No, Captain," Alexis replied. "We wanted to wait for you in case... in case we should not have."
"I applaud you for your discretion," Gregory assured the Swiss Guards. "But I'm afraid under the circumstances we have to find out what it is. So let's do it."
With Zachmunn's go-ahead they carefully set the case on the table and opened it cautiously. Click, click. Slowly Sergeant Gervase lifted the top. Nothing.
"It doesn't seem deep enough," observed Royce.
"Si, you are right, Captain," responded Lt. Geraud as he carefully reached in and felt the edges. "Si, there is something else." He slowly lifted out a black case that seemed to vibrate in his hands. Setting it down on the table, he unfastened the clip suppressing the handle. Gently he raised the lid to discover an LCD screen - a computer screen.
All sighed in both relief and anticipation of what it meant, what was programmed on it.
"Corporal," Captain Schuster motioned, calling forth one of the Swiss Guards standing behind them. Corporal Romuald Menthauen, a relatively new Swiss recruit, had been in the Guard for less than a year. This young chiseled soldier had impressed many with his mastery of computers and become quite an expert in overriding viruses in the Vatican's server since the Holy See was a prime target of hackers.
Menthauen hit a few keys and a clock in white letters against a black background flashed on the screen. The numbers to the right were descending rapidly. 38:42:07 and then it was 38:41:34 and then 38:40:16. It was a countdown clock. It was a detonator.
All knew the consequences. Romuald positioned himself in the chair. "I will try to break the code."
"How long will that take," a nervous Cardinal Zachmunn asked.
"In all honesty, your Eminence, I do not know. It is a system I am not totally familiar with."
"In the meantime," Gregory solemnly announced, "we have maybe a half hour to evacuate everyone. It would seem the detonation is set for high noon. Pietro, get back to the station and let Dominic know he's got to unload the boxcars before noon. Captain Schuster and Lieutenant Geraud, muster your men and pass the word to clear the Square as soon as possible. I'll get to Cardinal Mendoza right now. As much as I don't want to, we have got to expedite the Mass so we can get everyone out of the Basilica in as calm a manner as possible. God be with us."
All moved with a swiftness of urgency as Menthauen methodically continued to try to break in and defuse the trigger. He had always handled challenges with verve. Now he was being handed the assignment of all assignments. Deprogram a massive weapon of mass destruction.
Dateline: Rome - Steps of the Vittorio Emmanuel - November 6, 11:23 a.m.
Corrie recognized Monsignor Navarro immediately as he approached the stairs. Throwing caution to the winds she raced down the steps to him. Stephen didn't hesitate as he motioned her towards his car.
"Get in. It's safer in the car."
In a matter of seconds she was in his car and they began to circle the Piazza Venezia. Corrie fought tears of both joy and fear. "Oh, Father, I can't believe what's been happening. It is so good to see someone I can trust."
"I can appreciate how you feel, Miss Morelli."
"Please, call me Corrie."
Stephen consoled, "We, too, have had our share, Corrie, of tragedies. Tell me about Vic."
"It was horrible," Corrie stammered. "This monster--"
"The Basilisk," Stephen anticipated what she was talking about.
"Yes, Father, it's real."
"I know, Corrie, I know. It almost got me earlier and Pat the other night."
"How is he? Where is he?"
"I'm taking you to him, Corrie. Luckily, I have a pass for the back way away from most of the traffic. But we must be careful, very careful."
"You don't have to tell me, Father." Corrie pulled from her waist a small envelope. "Oh, Vic instructed me a day before he died to give you or Cardinal Zachmunn this envelope."
"I'll read it as soon as we get where it's safe."
They would quickly cross the Tiber and up the Borgo Angelico where he turned left on the Porta Angelica and then to the right through St. Anne's Gate, winding his Audi behind the Apostolic Palace.
Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's - November 6, 11:29 a.m.
Communion had just begun as Gregory re-entered the Basilica through the Sacrestia. In all haste he approached Cardinal Mendoza who was distributing the Holy Eucharist to a select line of cardinals before all others would receive. "Julies, a moment, please."
The celebrant stepped back a few feet, turning his back to the waiting communicants while holding the ciborium close to his vestments. Here he huddled with his confrere from St. Louis.
"What is it now, Gregory?" He seemed edgy. Who wouldn't considering the scope of the danger.
"They didn't get all the coffins. Still 28 left under the halls. We found the trigger. It is set to go off at noon." Both looked at their watches. "Half an hour to go, Julies. We've got to get the people out of here as soon as possible. You've got to let everyone know."
"I will. Five minutes to finish the Mass and then we'll evacuate," asserted Mendoza as he turned and mounted the stairs to the pulpit.
Tapping on the microphone, he managed to quiet the choir, already into the "Libera me". "My friends, these are indeed dangerous times. That is why we are here today. I have been notified that we need to finish up the Mass quickly and, out of precaution, everyone to evacuate Vatican City as soon as possible. I apologize to those who did not receive Holy Communion. Hopefully all will live to receive another day. Canonically we have completed the Mass. I ask the Choir to join those in exiting the Basilica. I now give you the final blessing, Requiescant in pace. Amen. Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus."
"Amen" rang out from many startled voices, as those within the Basilica became agitated, eyes darting everywhere as near-panic began to feed their imaginations and fears.
"Go now, go quickly," Cardinal Mendoza urged, "and may God be with you."
Deacon Kabwela responded immediately, "Ite Missa est" from the microphone on the main altar where he had been preparing the additional Sacred Hosts for distribution to the clergy and laity inside the Basilica.
Fortunately Julies' order of distribution had been followed where all distributors of Holy Communion would wait until every Cardinal had received before the rest would receive. Cardinal Mendoza had wisely decided distribution of the Holy Eucharist would be limited to those only within the immediate Basilica and not in the Square. His decision was based primarily on past abuses when Eucharistic Ministers would get lost in the flood of people causing Hosts to be desecrated, stepped on and spilled, as so much ordinary cookies or crackers and not given the proper adoration and care the True Presence must be afforded.
The wave of awareness slowly began to take form in the exodus of men and women. The Swiss Guards had already encountered resistance, but their insistence spurred many to realize it was not a hoax or a drill. This was the real thing.
Seeing the slow, incredulous reaction of many, Colin Rembert decided to take matters into his own hands from his perch above the nave. Drastic measures were called for in drastic times and this was indeed just that. With his Penultimate he patched into Sydney to notify and receive permission to override all channels. Once in place other networks trying to explain the sudden exodus were pre-empted by Colin Rembert.
"Ladies and gentlemen. All must vacate the premises and Vatican City itself. Please listen carefully to our instructions as you walk out with haste, but in an orderly fashion. Please. I repeat, this is not a drill. Those on the north side of the Square, please file out mannerly through the columns and down the side streets as far as you can. Those on the south side of the Square, please exit through the columns and down the Borgo Santo Spiritu, all the way to the river if needs be, mates. But please, move. Please leave the center of the Square open so those inside can exit orderly and continue on down Via de Conciliazione as far as possible. Again, this is not a drill. Thank you again, ladies and gentlemen, for your cooperation. I will repeat..."
Few realized how Colin's quick thinking would save so many lives. Never mind that competitors were furious that GlobalNetSat had commandeered their airways; lives were at stake here. Tempers would eventually reside, but right now reason and action had to take precedence over hard feelings. After the tragedy of November 1st, ingenuity and a take charge calmness was necessary for the sake of all. Today, time was of the essence as the clock on the facade of St. Peter's struck 11:45. Half of the Square was already emptying. The bells rang out.
Would they be the clarion of fate?
Next: PART V: The Shedding FIFTEENTH CHAPTER Episode One
"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.