It had not been a full week, and yet, the world had been cast back into the black pall of shock and dismay once again with the devastating explosions at the Vatican. The dust had settled, the firefighters had subdued the flames, and the emergency crews were now poring over the rubble. As the thick smoke had subsided one could see a different landscape.
The view from the mouth of the Via della Conciliazione showed that the left side of the Colonnade had taken a tremendous hit, part of the roof structure, where Pat and Niki had escaped the night before, had collapsed. Thanks to the many sturdy pillars of granite the Colonnade had not crumbled totally.
Beyond where the modern, sloping Paul VI Hall once stood was nothing but ruins reaching all the way to the battered facade of the Vatican Railway Station. It had sustained severe exterior damage, but the structure still stood. The more modern structures of St. Martha's Palace and St. Charles Palace were gone.
Surrounding buildings had been brought to their adamantine knees, including the vaunted Sacrestia. The Palace of Jubilee would need to be rebuilt and the Mosaic Studio building had sustained considerable wreckage as well. But the great Basilica, other than exterior damage and broken windows, had withstood the force of hell, still standing as the rock.
Dateline: Vatican City - Papal Quarters - November 6, 12:45 p.m.
The euphoria of the moment for all who had gathered in the Pope's private quarters would quickly pass, for more urgent matters needed to be addressed.
"I hate to break up this happy reunion, my friends," Cardinal Zachmunn was smiling but firm. "We have urgent matters to tend to, primarily His Holiness."
"Colin is ready to broadcast that the Pope is alive," Stephen offered.
"Not just yet," admonished Gregory. "We need to be sure the Legion can't reach him. When we know he is safe, then we can announce it."
"I quite understand, your Eminence," agreed Colin Rembert.
"Father," Pat remembered as he addressed Stephen, "do you have your laptop with you?"
"Yea, Pat, as a matter a fact I do," Monsignor Navarro affirmed.
Pat narrowed it down. "Has it got a Flash Card slot?"
"Yeah, it does."
"Perfect," Pat enthused. "Let's go. Doc Ghislieri is with the Pope, and Niki can use some more refreshments. Cara Mia, give me a hand."
As he filled up a huge jug with cold water, Stephen and Corrie gathered up a few loaves of bread and rolls from the pantry and the last of the fruit. "The pastry's not real fresh," Corrie winced while informing the others.
"That's okay," Pat nodded, "it's food."
"Stephen, Pat," Cardinal Zachmunn approached them. "I'm coming with you and Captain Schuster will accompany us. Patrick, you know where you're going. Lead the way, my son."
"Wait!" Corrie's voice was raised. "I'm coming with you, too."
"It's too dangerou--," Pat objected, but Corrie had muffled his mouth with her soft hand.
"I'm going. I let you go without me before and look where it got me. I'm not letting you out of my sight again."
"Listen, Pat," Stephen spoke up. "Let her go in my place. Colin and I will take care of Sister Bridie and make sure everything is secure here and in the Sistine area. Besides, within the hour I must assess the damage, try to round up as many prelates as possible and set up a press conference. The world media will be clamoring for it, and right now Colin is the man to have by my side."
"Then be very, very careful, Stephen?" Cardinal Zachmunn counseled. "We know now the Legion is intent on destroying all. Tell only Cardinal Mendoza where we are, my son."
"Yes, Your Eminence. I'll be fine," assured Monsignor Navarro. "Take this Penultimate with you and we can keep in touch through Colin's."
"He's right, mate," Rembert chimed in. "Here, let me show you basically how it works, and what to press and what not to press."
Dateline: Rome - Gridlock on both sides of the Tiber - November 6, 12:50 p.m.
On the Vatican side of the river, pedestrians had totally blanketed the roads. There was no room for even a moped to eke through as those who had fled St. Peter's and the Square now stood waiting to be directed, talking with agitated gestures, some arguing, others praying, many others weeping openly.
Traffic was snarled all the way back across the Tiber. All six bridges, from the Ponte Sisto spanning the southern bend of the river on the south to the Ponte Umberto on north, were bumper to bumper. The animated cursings of drivers and passengers were drowned out only by the constant cacophony of horns blaring impatiently. Roman gendarmes were doing all they could to redirect the flow, but few were cooperating, forging their own roads across sidewalks, through alleys where inevitably they either created another jam, ran into a dead-end, or entered another gridlocked fray as bad as the one they had hoped to escape. Contributing to the chaos was the fact that some had abandoned their vehicles to reach their destination or shelter by foot, leaving several obstructed roadblocks for later or the fate of the tow-trucks, which were already on overload and stalled behind impassable traffic on the outskirts of the traffic jams.
Bogged down in this fen of stalled vehicles along the main artery of the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel was the white limo containing the summit of six who had left the Pantheon 45 minutes ago and had only accomplished one and a half miles in that interval. Three cars ahead, Macelli drummed his knobby fingers on the steering wheel, impatience bulging in his veins manifesting themselves beneath the folds of his obese jowls. In the creases of those flabs, cradled the cellphone braced on his shoulder as the Italian prelate tilted his head waiting for an answer from someone, anyone.
"Damn!" cursed Antonio, slamming the phone down on the dashboard. "No Elena. No Kutsch. No Serrano! Where is everybody?"
Trying to remain calm despite his own pique of frustration, Lord Vendhem tried to restore some sense to the madness that threatened his very ambitions. "I know Elena set off the charges. She was premature in Iraq and here again. She is definitely a liability. The Master will not tolerate such ineptitude. She has become a serious risk. She must be eliminated, Antonio."
"First, we have to find her, Josef!" Macelli shot back. "Right now that is impossible. Look at this traffic."
"Then we must return by foot," Vendhem insisted.
"And leave my car?" Macelli asked incredulously.
"It is only a vehicle," sneered the German Cardinal. "We must get back in time for the Conclave."
"You really think the Conclave will go on as scheduled?" Macelli countered.
"It must," huffed Vendhem, "it is all planned. If we delay, this window of opportunity could fade. Ve have the document and counterfeit seal now from the summit. It will assure the 40 bishops access to the Conclave and, with 35 of those votes assured and the 15 other votes, 50 will easily put us over the two-thirds necessity. No, Antonio, ve must return post haste before they take action. I have the document with a fairly good replication of the Papal seal. Ve must do it now! Mach schnell!"
Vendhem flew open the door of the Mercedes and slammed it. Reluctantly, Macelli got out of the car simultaneously, locking it down. "Wait, Joseph, we must tell the others." Straining his squat neck muscles, he spotted the white limo and waddled back to the side door to inform them of the necessity to get back to the Vatican immediately. Slowly the window rolled down to reveal the concerned, cadaver-like face of Edwin Blix.
"Y'all thank this is gonna clear up soon, Tony?" Blix drawled, a threatening tone to his voice.
"Scusi, no, Senor. That is why Josef and I are going to walk back and--"
"Hold on a minute, fat boy," Blix berated. "We ain't walkin' and we ain't waitin.' Ah got a chopper comin' any minute now."
"That is great," Macelli wiped the sweat from his sagging jowls. "We may have a problem. We cannot reach the Grabe fraulein or Senor Serrano or --"
"Ah'm havin' the same concern. Ah can't reach Collier or Ans and Soto. That ain't good, yah heah?"
Macelli nodded nervously. Why did this crude Texan intimidate him so? He was a prelate of the Church and yet Blix treated him like nothing more than a house-boy. Such impudence.
Dateline: Vatican City - Bronze Doors - November 6, 1:20 p.m.
Unnoticed in the evacuation was a simple prelate that had slipped back into the Vatican via the Portone di Bronzo. Only one guard was on duty, as the bishop came into the light.
"Que diable, Mon Dieu. Terrible," Dr. Makuta Ogidi expressed in French to the Guard.
"Oui, mon pere," the guard acknowledged.
"Outside ze are worried about looters, so I come in and go through this way to the Chapel." Ogidi explained.
"Very well. You have credentials," the guard asked.
"Oui. Ici." Makuta handed the guard a passport which confirmed he was Bishop Bantu Nukumba, Auxiliary Bishop of Zaire.
Satisfied, the guard returned the passport. "You are free to roam, your Excellency. Ciao."
Having passed this hurdle, Ogidi hurried up the marble staircase of the Scala Pia toward the Papal Quarters where he could change identities and resume his mission. As he reached the Cortile di San Damaso, he heard voices in the distant. Not sure who they were, Makuta ducked behind the same statue he had hid Stephen from sure detection a few hours before. As the source of the voices came into view, Ogidi's fears were allayed. It was Stephen and another gentleman. Whoever he was, he must be friendly. Believing he was safe, Makuta emerged from the stone shelter.
Stephen recognized him immediately. "Dr. Ogidi. Thank God you're safe."
"Barely, Stephen, barely." Makuta exhaled.
"The German nun Grabe is dead. She was the Basilisk - erh, one of them," Stephen tried to explain.
"Beware. One dies, another arises," noted Ogidi.
"That's not really very promising," Colin remarked.
"No, it's not. But, forgive me, Colin. This is Dr. Makuta Ogidi. Doctor, this is Colin Rembert from GNS in Australia."
"Please to meet you, your Excellency," Colin smiled, extending his hand.
"I am not really a bishop, Mr. Rembert. A necessary disguise, I assure you."
"Really?" Colin was impressed. "Could've fooled me, mate."
"Things are not always what they may seem," Ogidi said dryly, "especially in these times, my friend."
Dateline: Rome - Traffic jam along Corso Vittorio Emmanuel - November 6, 1:30 p.m.
While the Cardinals, who had been taken to the Lateran, were reboarding the tourist copter for a return trip to the Vatican, and as the news chopper was depositing Swiss Guards Lieutenant Alexis Geraud, Sergeant Rene Gervase and Corporal Romuald Menthauen safely back on the roof of the courtyard adjacent to the Apostolic Palace, another whirlybird was landing in the midst of the stalled traffic on the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel. With all the commotion and honking, the noise of the helicopter had snuck up on many until the swirl of wind swept through, creating a gusting wind tunnel. The bird settled onto the tops of four cars, its runners straddling two at a time. Immediately Blix, Kiang, Vendhem, Macelli, Renschausen, and Eislaume climbed up on top of the limo and boarded while the bottleneck of drivers leaning on their horns could do nothing. As soon as the last one had squeezed inside, the copter lifted up, leaving a litany of curses and swirling dust behind.
Dateline: Rome - Turret Room in Castle Sant'Angelo - November 6, 1:33 p.m.
The trip through the labyrinth known as the Leonine Wall had been quicker than Pat had anticipated.
Like a road traveled more often, the time seems to fly the more one traverses familiar paths. Perhaps it was the gnawing need for a Pall-Mall that kept Gallagher moving swiftly. He had not had a cigarette in over 6 hours and his edginess was beginning to show, offset only by the comfort of having Corrie with him and the reliable entourage of Cardinal Zachmunn and his trusted Swiss Guard Captain Royce Schuster.
A sigh of joy and relief escaped their lungs as they entered the room. Pope Clement XV was sitting up straighter, sturdy bandages around his chest, and his eyes open. Doctor Giuseppe Ghislieri had done wonders. Niki was resting across the room and sprung to his feet when he heard the troupe approaching.
"Patrick, Your Eminence," Niki beamed, "He is better."
"Deo Gratias," expressed Gregory as he and Captain Schuster rushed over to the Holy Father.
"Nik, may I introduce you to the chauffeur we both saw," Pat chuckled as he wrapped his arm warmly around Corrie's shoulders. "This is Corrie, my Corrie."
"Delighted to meet you, Corrie." A puzzled look showed on the Greek priest's face. "But how did--?"
"That's a long story," Gallagher sighed as Corrie moved away closer to the Pope, while Pat continued. "I still don't have all the details, but that can wait. We brought you some nourishment. How's His Holiness doing?"
"Much better, Pat, much better," Fr. Andriopoulos assured. "He is still confused about what all has happened."
"That figures. We all are and, for the most part, we've been conscious during it all."
"I'm ready to record whatever he has to say."
"Excellent, you have a computer that will work with your Reflector card." Niki recognized.
"Not only that," Pat beamed, "but Cardinal Zachmunn's got a contraption there that has recorded the events of the past two hours so the Holy Father can see what happened."
"Marvelous," exclaimed Niki as all three walked toward the Holy Father, now surrounded by Dr. Ghislieri, His Eminence, and Captain Royce Schuster. In deference to the Pontiff's stature and her feelings of unworthiness in the presence of so great a figure, Corrie stood farther back in total awe. It had been a week ago that she had witnessed from the cozy, comfortable confines of Ben O'Fallon's Crooked Spigot Bar and Grill, the annihilation of the Holy Father and a million other souls. It had been the last time she had seen Pat. Now here she was not only reunited with Pat but in the very presence of the Sovereign Pontiff, a mere four feet away from the Vicar of Christ who was miraculously alive. Goosebumps surged through her body, as Pat rejoined her and put his comforting arm around her. She cuddled closer to him, strengthened and reassured by his embrace.
Gregory had followed Colin's instructions expertly and within seconds, thanks to the technology of the Penultimate, they were all watching the evacuation and subsequent explosions projected on the big screen; a surface that for five centuries had only served as a stone wall.
As they watched, Pat grimaced about all that had happened. "Cara Mia, when I get back I'm gonna give Vic the best story, first hand. I'm gonna expose 'em all."
Corrie grasped his hand, squeezing it tightly while whispering to him. "Vic's dead and the Metroplex Mirror building was leveled to the ground. Everything gone just like the Field of Abraham and here at the Vatican."
"No," was all Pat could express. "Not Vic. How?"
"Blix," Corrie uttered his name with such disgust. "I was there at his mansion. He was devoured trying to kill the beast. The Basilisk does exist, Pat. Blix is the pure evil. I was able to escape from him by eluding his lackeys Ans and Soto. Thank God I was able to contact Fr. Navarro. Oh, I still can't believe it. I thought I would be killed for sure." She could no longer contain herself as she collapsed in his arms, weeping anew.
While explosions pounded out on the stone wall in vivid detail, Pat clenched his fist and gritted his teeth. "I don't know how, Cara Mia, but somehow, someway we're gonna win. Blix is gonna get his. The Devil will get his due, I promise ya."
"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.