Like a three-dimensional ripple in a pond originating on Vatican Hill, the solar rays had been blocked by the thick billowing clouds of smoke that undulated into the air, not dissolving until it reached the highest atmospheres. Soon all of Rome was enveloped in this shroud of smoke. A charcoal gray pall cast a dark, suffocating shadow over the eternal city. How many had been killed in this terrible disaster. Had it destroyed everything like the same explosions at the Field of Abraham?
Those were some of the questions Pat Gallagher had asked Niki once they had reached the turret room. Of course, Niki was as much in the dark as Patrick. All he could do was assume. One who would never assume was Dr. Guido Ghislieri, who was none the worse for wear. He immediately began examining the somewhat still dazed Holy Father. Both Pat and Niki knew His Holiness was in the best hands possible - his own personal physician. With that assured, Pat had headed back into the Leonine passageway. By hook or by crook he'd reach the Papal Quarters eventually.
Dateline: Vatican City - Apostolic Palace - November 6, 12:10 p.m.
Stephen had knocked on the massive carved oak doors to the Papal Quarters, but no answer. With no admittance he, along with a puzzled Corrie, had doubled back and down to the Pope's Private Chapel and through the Sacristy to the opening, still covered by the albs he had hung there this morning. Consider the surprise he encountered when he pulled back the white garment to confront his mentor Cardinal Zachmunn and Captain Royce Schuster, both smudged with dirt from the impact of the blast.
"Your Eminence," Monsignor Navarro stammered in disbelief, "I - I can't believe you're--"
"Safe, my son?" Gregory completed his sentence, revealing a wide smile creasing his face as they embraced.
"They couldn't get the candles and coffins all out?" Stephen asked, lamenting.
"The rude Texan fouled up the works, Stephen. It will take some time to assess the damage. I do believe most are safe, however. And who might this young lady be?" Cardinal Zachmunn asked as he extended his ringed hand.
"Oh, man, I'm sorry, your Eminence. This is Corrine Morelli. She's uh, uh, Pat Gallagher's fiancée."
Corrie bowed reverently, kissing the Cardinal's ring, which greatly impressed the St. Louis Archbishop. "I didn't know she had come with him," Gregory remarked.
"I didn't, your Eminence," Corrie replied. "But don't ask right now. It's a long story. I just want to see Pat. Please!!!"
"Where is he, Stephen?" the Cardinal inquired.
"To my knowledge," acknowledged Navarro, "still with the Pope and Fr. Niki at the Castle of the Angels."
"Let us keep moving, your Eminence and friends," informed an anxious Captain Royce Schuster. "We can see what has occurred from the Papal windows."
"Good idea, Captain," Gregory encouraged. "Carry on."
All four continued to the narrow circular staircase leading to the area near the Papal Closet and into the Papal Quarters.
The living quarters appeared empty, but had felt the shock of explosions, manifested by broken lamps and vases, furniture overturned. Where had Sister Bridie gone? The front doors were still locked from the inside. No sign of anyone, and then Captain Schuster saw her, crumpled against the wall behind a tilted chair.
"Over there, quickly," the Swiss Guard announced, "she could be injured."
Stephen raced to the Irish nun's side, blood from a gash in her temple was dribbling down her cheek and onto her immaculate white wimple. She was not aware. She was out cold, but there was a pulse. Lifting her gently he carried her to the bedroom where he carefully laid her unconscious body down on the Papal bed. Not proper protocol, but these, as had been proven time and again over the last few days, were not normal times.
Corrie rushed to her side, already armed with a wet towel to moisten her face. Captain Schuster produced a small vial, that he cracked open and held beneath Sister Bridie's nose. Soon she coughed and lunged forward, knocked back into consciousness by the strong camphor the Swiss Guard had waved beneath her nostrils.
"What be happenin' to me?" She seemed dazed, trying to collect more air into her delicate lungs.
Stephen was the first to answer, "The force of the explosions must have knocked you against the corner of that chair over there. I'd say from the looks of it, that you got the better of the two." He was trying to make levity during a time that few felt like smiling or laughing, yet, it was absolutely necessary to keep one's mind clear and focused. A little levity here was quite fitting, though it was lost on the diminutive nun who was still bewildered by the attention and what caused this.
"Monsignor, this be the work of the Legion?"
"Oh, dear God, how bad be it?!"
Cardinal Zachmunn spoke up as he entered the room, "Not as bad as we had feared, thank God."
While the other three had tended to Sister, Gregory took the opportunity to look out the windows to the devastation across the Square. From his vantage point he could see how the angels had protected the sacred foundations of the Holy See while so much else had been destroyed. Thank God, he winced, it could have been so much worse had they not removed all those candles. He gave another Deo Gratias that they had uncovered the detonator and knew the time. Think of the carnage had they not known. The thought caused the Archbishop to shudder for a second in place.
"Sister," Stephen directed, "permit me to introduce someone to you. This is Corrine Morelli from Dallas, Pat's fiancée."
"You can call me Corrie, Sister, it is good to meet you, even under these circumstances."
"Sure n' you have a good man, Corrie. You be standin' behind him, you be."
"I will, Sister, I will, I just can't wait to see him."
"Well, we'll leave you two to get to know each other better," the Cardinal announced. "We have work to do."
With that Stephen and Royce followed him out of the bedroom into the Papal living room where they gathered near the window, feeling the wind gust up as a helicopter was setting down in the Square below.
Dateline: Vatican City - St. Peter's Square - November 6, 12:25 p.m.
The plethora of ciboriums containing the consecrated Hosts that had been protected by the clerics led by Cardinal Kabwela, had safely deposited their priceless treasure in the Lateran tabernacle. Colin Rembert and two of his Penultimate camera men/reporters, who had accompanied the cardinals and bishops, had stayed with the tourist chopper. Once the prelates were away from the chopper in the parking lot in front of the Lateran, Colin directed the pilot to return toward the Vatican, lifting high enough to record the destruction below, then banking out of the swirling smoke racing upward ahead of the flames. Once Colin had confirmation that it was safe to land he had the pilot drop down in St. Peter's Square as the three resisters watched from the Papal window.
Colin and one of his assistants disembarked while his other assistant remained in the tourism chopper, which was now, for the next half hour or so - being converted to a news copter as it lifted and hovered, swinging around over the courtyards between the Vatican Museum and behind the Basilica to avoid the westerly winds that were now carrying the smoke eastward towards the Tiber and beyond. Beneath the layers, the chopper hovered to get as clear pictures as possible.
The bell-tower had taken a direct hit from flying granite from the side of Paul VI Hall. For now the bells were silenced, but not Colin, who was communicating with his technical director in Sydney and his cameraman in the chopper and with one of his assistants pointing a Penultimate towards him. With all operatives ready on his signal, Colin focused his Penultimate lens in a panoramic sweep of the destruction wrought.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the world, Colin Rembert here. The danger seems to have subsided. Mind you, it is not safe to return just yet, but I assure you, the fatality numbers are very, very low if not null. Yes, we thank God for that. But there is much damage as you can see through the rubble of the southern Colonnade where once stood the sloping, modern marvel of the Nervi Hall named after the late Paul VI. Like the World Trade Center earlier in this decade, it is no more. You can see beyond that three more buildings have been brought to the ground."
Colin shifted, looking toward the sky that was thick with smoke, as he continued to broadcast while walking toward the vacant ruins and venerated old church. "You can see from our eye above another angle and get a perception of the utter devastation. Firemen are fighting the blazes and, proudly I might say, winning the battle. The flames are being subdued. Though the smoke and fire are vastly clogging up the lowest biosphere at ground level here. Presently, it is becoming very difficult to breathe, ladies and gentlemen."
As the muted Penultimate from the chopper continued to survey the scene of destruction, Colin began walking toward the Vatican, already covering his nose and mouth with a clean handkerchief. "I beg the viewer's forgiveness for the muffled voice, but I must protect my vocal chords. Before I show you the left side of St. Peter's, I feel it is now safe to release the global satellite override we had taken to assure a thorough evacuation. I apologize to my fellow media members in the press, but it was a necessity, mates. I hope, in true journalistic fashion you are ready to pick up and keep your viewers informed. As a gesture of goodwill, and as CEO of Global NetSat, I freely give permission for any media outlet to utilize all video recorded by GNS. It is open domain, mates. I will now authorize unscrambling of the bugger. Gentlemen in Sydney, pull the plug on the blocking beam and clear access to video from 11:30 to present."
You could almost hear the cursing from those few privileged journalists and broadcast snobs seeking an exclusive. They were the ones who had complained the loudest - the same vermin who would deprive the full story or key shot to the rest, would bicker over legalities and hold other professional cohorts hostage over the rights, demanding a ransom for something the entire world should have a right to share. It just didn't seem fair that what should be pooled, was claimed as exclusive. More often than not the perks they received and commissions allotted to them came because of the opportunities they had been granted by the companies they worked for. Prejudicial pragmatism was not something Colin Rembert was fond of and he loved to rock the boat, if only to put these high-nosed sops in their place.
Rembert mounted a few steps at the base of the Basilica in the far end of the Square, looking back to assure his cameraman was still in step. "Those who are still with us, I must caution all that I am not going to do anything rash, mates. Until we get the all-clear from the authorities here, I don't think it is safe to go inside, nor to get too close to the building, yet. What we will do, however, is show you the sequence of events from the time the celebrant from Spain His Eminence Cardinal Mendoza, Dean of the College, announced the necessity to vacate the premises through to, oh, about one minute ago."
Signaling the chopper cam to take the video feed, he voiced over: "Again, for those just tuning in. Tremendous explosions rocked Vatican City at exactly noon today. Paul VI Hall, St. Martha's Palace, St. Charles Palace all suffered direct hits and are gone. Parts of the left side of St. Peter's and the noble Sacristy have sustained damage, and we don't know yet if there have been any casualties of human life. I honestly believe there were none. That, in itself, ladies and gentlemen, is a miracle."
He was finding it more difficult to breathe as he signed off and turned it over to the GNS studios in Sydney where capable anchors were ready to carry on. Quickly he headed for the Bronze Doors and inside where the air was clear.
Stephen, having monitored the event on his own Penultimate, gifted to him in the Sistine Chapel, had already descended the Scala Nobile to the Scala Pia where he greeted the Australian with a warm embrace at the base of the stairs.
"Colin, I can't thank you enough for your yeomen efforts. Thanks to you--"
"Shhhh, mate, you'll give me a big head, ya will."
"Come," Stephen confided, "Cardinal Zachmunn is waiting in the Papal Quarters."
Rembert was taken back. "You mean me? We can get into the inner sanctum?"
"Today, yes!" Stephen affirmed, as he started up the Scala Pia staircase. "You've earned at least that much of a perk. Accept it."
"Well, if you put it that way, Monsignor, I'm up to it, I am."
Dateline: Vatican City - Papal Apartment - November 6, 12:40 p.m.
Monsignor Navarro had left the Penultimate with Cardinal Zachmunn, Corrie and Sister Bridie to view the events while Captain Schuster stood guard over the Papal Quarters. Sister had recovered her senses enough to inform the Cardinal that Dr. Ghislieri had arrived before the explosions and she had directed him down the secret corridor to the Castle. Gregory was relieved and anxious to join the Doctor, but he would wait for Pat or Niki to return with news before venturing forth. He also had to contact Cardinals Mendoza and Wetherby, wherever they were to brief them and consult with them on the next move. Most had been prepared for the Conclave which was to begin at 2 p.m. That would undoubtedly be delayed. Besides, Gregory knew that really would be a mute point once the College was notified that Clement XV was still alive. However, for the sake of all, it might be necessary to continue the confidentiality until the entire College was safely within the confines of the Sistine and secrecy was assured. The advantages of the Penultimate had given the St. Louis Archbishop a brilliant idea if it could be pulled off.
The man Captain Schuster ushered in through the main doors to the Papal Quarters would be the man who could do it as Stephen and Colin entered the room.
"Your Eminence, I am honored," Colin humbled himself, genuflecting to kiss the Cardinal's ring.
"We should be the ones honored, Mr. Rembert," Gregory enthused gratefully. "You have done Holy Mother Church proud."
"If God is pleased, that is all I ask. And please, your Eminence, call me Colin."
"Let me introduce you, Colin," Stephen enthusiastically opined, as he escorted him to the Papal bedroom where Sister Bridie was now feeling much more chipper. While he was acquainting Colin with Sister and Corrie, an additional person entered the mix from the Leonine passageway.
Stephen, Colin, Sister and Corrie could all hear another familiar voice as he emerged from the Papal closet. Cardinal Zachmunn was the first to acknowledge him.
"Patrick, thank God you are safe. How is His Holiness?"
"As best as he can be under the circumstances. He's weak, but the Doc is with him now."
"I'm relieved. I think there's someone who wants to see you in the other room," Gregory grinned.
Stephen was standing at the door, a wide smile on his face as he greeted Pat.
"Father," Pat sighed, "thanks for sending the Doc."
"That was Sister Bridie, Pat," Stephen explained. "She's recuperating. Come on in and say hi to her. Oh, and there's someone I want you to meet."
His grin was getting wider as Pat entered the room. "Hi, Sister," Pat recognized her. "You okay?"
"I be doin' fine, Patrick, me boy. Just fine." She sported the same silly grin Stephen had.
"Pat," Monsignor Navarro diverted him, trying to build the moment, "I don't think you've met Colin Rembert."
Colin extended his hand, "I've heard you're a real trooper, mate. Glad to meet ya." He sported the same grin as the other two.
"Same here," Pat replied, gripping Colin's right hand in a masculine handshake. "Ya know, it's really refreshin' to see everybody smilin' for a change," Pat continued, "but somethin's goin' on. C'mon, guys, what's the joke?"
"Wouldn't you like to know!" The voice came from behind him. He knew it instantly as she emerged from behind the door. Corrie's smile was wider than the other three combined as they flew into each other's arms and embraced.
"I don't believe it!" Pat gushed, "I've died and gone to Heaven, Cara Mia. Is it really you?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" Corrie was crying deliriously.
"You're not dreamin', Pat," Stephen dared interrupt the moment, "After all the nightmares you've been through, you sure deserve a break buddy. A big break."
"Ya' got that right," Pat agreed, hugging her tighter. "Then it was you I saw this morning, Cara Mia!"
"Where?" Corrie asked, wiping tears of joy.
"By the river, near a black limo."
"That was me, I was calling Father Stephen."
"I'm really confused," Pat admitted.
"You're confused?," Corrie retorted, "Father Stephen has been filling me in on what's happened. My God, Pat. It's a miracle you're still alive."
Euphoria swept through their veins. It was only right to welcome the respite from the hideous evil that had permeated both their lives; an evil that, despite all resistance, was growing fiercer, and closer. These times of happy reunion were few and far between and every second cherished. Who knew when such an oasis could be reached again?
Next: PART V: The Shedding FIFTEENTH CHAPTER Episode Three
"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.