Two hours had passed since the explosions had leveled the south side of the Vatican State. The press corps were now clamoring for answers as they moved back into St. Peter's Square. No amount of gendarmes could stay the Fifth Estate. They would get their story. Monsignor Navarro, head of Universal Communications for the Holy See anticipated the invasion. He had been able to locate Cardinal Julies Mendoza near the Sala Regia upon His Eminence's return from the Lateran. Stephen, who had left his cellphone with Gregory, notified the Spanish prelate where he could contact the Archbishop from St. Louis. It was vital they communicate.
Coming into the fray and hell bent for leather were Antonio Macelli and Josef Vendhem. Macelli had barged into Stephen's office shortly after Navarro had returned from huddling with Cardinal Mendoza and Wetherby. The obnoxious Macelli was none the wiser and it was obvious by his behavior as he picked up where he left off 24 hours earlier in ordering Navarro around as if the Monsignor was naive to the whole situation and blind to Macelli and Vendhem's nefarious roles in the destruction. Sly as a fox, Stephen played his part to perfection. The filthy flies were being lured into the trap, the finely spun web would enshroud these two and others in the sting. It was the only way to eradicate the Legion, to draw them out into the light - in the Sistine Chapel. Gregory's plan might just work to perfection.
Dateline: Rome - Turret Room in Castle Sant'Angelo - November 6, 2:05 p.m.
While all had been transfixed on the startling images projected from the Penultimate onto the vertical stone boundaries of the room, Cardinal Zachmunn had slipped into the tunnel area where he had made another call after talking with Cardinal Mendoza. After informing his party of the events that had taken place, he walked back into the room and respectfully handed the phone to Pope Clement XV.
"Your Holiness, I have him on the phone," Gregory informed. "He would like to speak directly to you. Are you strong enough to talk?"
Clement, still weak but much more aware, nodded and Zachmunn held the phone to his ear.
"My son," the Pope rasped, "you were right. Forgive me for delaying and doubting."
Who was this person who commanded the Sovereign Pontiff's attention and apology?
Clement listened attentively and then asked, "Do you think that is the wisest course right now?"
His eyes told the story. "Yes, I understand. I know what I must do and you know what you must do. May our Lord and Savior protect us from the one who prowls the earth seeking whom he might devour.
Libera nos, Domine."
With that he handed the phone back to Gregory. "Grazie, Gregorio. You know the plan?"
Cardinal Zachmunn nodded affirmatively. That was it. Whatever these key hierarchs had planned would remain mute for now. It was better that way for Lucifer had prying ears.
Dateline: Vatican City - Macelli's Office - November 6, 2:10 p.m.
Luciani Serrano had re-emerged, making contact with Macelli. He had been in a frantic looking for Grabe, totally confused about the double-cross Elena had planned, then leaving him high and dry as well. Lucio, scared out of his wits, had hidden out at the far end of the parking lot near the garden of the old ship. when the explosions went off. He thought he was a goner for sure. After all, he had made sure the candles were firmly in place in the Basilica. Any kind of spark would have taken down most of the buildings. He had hoped he was far enough away to be safe. After the destruction had subsided, he had emerged from his hole and camped out near Macelli's office in a room that had been left open. He was still visibly shaking when he drummed up the courage to surface and confide in Macelli Grabe's subterfuge.
As suspected, Macelli was livid. "Are you sure there is no sign of Elena anywhere?"
"Si," patronized Serrano sheepishly. "I fear she has left all of us to die."
"That double-crossing bitch," Vendhem blurted, bringing his fist down hard on one of Antonio's filing cabinets.
"But why?" the Italian prelate spit out. "Why would she go against the Master's wishes. Why would she destroy just the far side and not the Basilica and Palaces? What was the gain to that?"
"Now what do we do?" Luciani asked, hoping he wouldn't be implicated as an accomplice of Grabe.
"First of all," Vendhem insisted as he moved closer to the desk, "the Conclave must proceed immediately."
"It will, Josef," assured the Camerlengo Macelli. "Navarro is holding a press conference in less than half an hour on the Basilica steps to announce it. The 40 bishops will be ready."
"But what happened to the explosives in the Basilica?" asked Serrano.
"That, Luciani, is the billion Euro question," snapped Macelli. "Some one betrayed us. There is a traitor in our midst." He glared at Vendhem, suspecting the German Vicar General had undermined the efforts in some way or fashion by tipping off certain guards to remove the explosives. How else would they have had warning to evacuate the entire area in time?
"You think I would undermine the Master?" Vendhem was enraged. "How dare you question my integrity, you pompous, corpulent ass."
Macelli was not backing down. "Well if not you, Lord Vendhem, who? After all, who is Archpriest of the Fabric of Peter? Who has such grandiose plans to become Pope and to continue the charade with all these ancient trappings? Hmmm? Who?"
Vendhem was fuming. "Perhaps you are so jealous, Lord Macelli, that you are the one who has sabotaged the Master's plans. Und mein herr, to deflect suspicion you blame me."
Macelli was now sweating profusely. He knew he had not been involved, but the accusations from Vendhem enlightened him as to the reality that it couldn't have been Vendhem for he had not been out of Macelli's sight very much. It had to be someone else. He sought to appease the angry German.
"Perhaps, Josef, I have jumped to conclusions. I can assure you I did not have anything to do with this. It was planned to be detonated after you were elected and we had six hours to get away. Someone else has betrayed all of us."
"Who then?" Vendhem was still visibly irritated. "If Elena has turned, who else turned? What about Serrano here? Could he still be working with Grabe to set us up?"
Luciani dropped to one knee in desperate submission. "No, signors, I swear on my mother's grave I had nothing to do with it. Believe me, per piacere!
Macelli could tell Serrano didn't have the tools of intelligence to have pulled off such treason. "What about the six?" queried Antonio. "How much do we know of them?"
"We do not!" Snapped Vendhem, the realization that the traitor could be one of those at the Black Mass this morning. "How then do we compensate the Master for the damage?"
"Proceed with your election first of all, Josef," assured Macelli, thankful Vendhem had cooled down. Despite their natural aversion, they needed each other. "And swear by the Master that nothing said here leaves this room."
"I swear, Signor," Luciani piped up.
"Vell then, Antonio," commanded Vendhem, "you must introduce the document once the Conclave convenes."
"Understood," acknowledged Macelli. "And Serrano?"
"He will stay here to make sure no one snoops around in here."
"Gut" Vendhem grunted. "In just a matter of hours, the prize will be ours. The Master will be pleased."
Dateline: Rome - Near the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument - November 6, 2:20 p.m.
The gray chopper swung over the old ruins and banked back west to get a clearer view as the haze from the destruction several miles away still hung in the atmosphere. The pilot was the first to see it, and Blix, zooming in with his binoculars confirmed the location of the white limo. Within a minute the whirlybird had landed and Blix jumped off, hoping to find Ans or Soto or Collier. None of them were visible. The door was locked. The keys were gone. Where had they gone? Was that bitch Morelli still tied up in the back? Blix was growing angrier by the second.
The sheer privacy of the heavily tinted windows prevented him from being able to see inside. For a man of Blix's mindset, that didn't matter. He would find out by hook or by crook. He grabbed the Vector Mini Uzi machine gun from the cockpit, and jammed the magazine into the arsenal chamber, firing off a round that riddled the side of the limo, finally shattering the supposedly bullet-proof glass. If anyone were inside, they were dead. Blix didn't care. His rage was out of control, so much so the pilot was afraid for his life. The others inside were concerned. This Texan, no matter his status in the Legion, had jeopardized their position. They couldn't dare be caught together.
"Take off now," ordered Renschausen.
The pilot started to object, but the American in the black suit held a gun to his neck. Within seconds the copter was away, putting distance between the crazed Blix and the others among the summit of six.
So enraged had Blix become that he hadn't noticed they had abandoned him until the chopper was airborne. No one would leave him high and dry. Realizing the betrayal, he whipped the Uzi around and madly discharged a volley towards the copter. The pilot tried to gain elevation, but the bullets found their mark, hitting the rotor blades. He tried to correct the balance, but it was too late as the chopper plunged earthward a short ways from the Victor Emmanuel II Monument into the colonnade ruins of Trajan's Forum. A ball of fire shot up from the massive pit created by the fiery impact. There would be no survivors. They had crossed the Rubicon into hell. Assuming the for-hire pilot was ignorant of the Legion's agenda, the rest on board would now realize what they had bargained for - eternal damnation where there would be no perks, no joy, no fulfillment; only everlasting pain too horrible to describe. The lives of Heng Shi Kiang, Gestarde Eislaume, the unknown American, and Maximilian Renschausen and four other nameless ones, who had served as acolytes, had been as fleeting as the few seconds between lifting off and then diving helplessly to their death. Now only four remained from all of those who had participated in the Satanic Mass earlier at the Pantheon.
One of those survivors, Edwin Blix, the powerful publishing and manufacturing mogul was in a state of shock. He had been reduced to a common criminal, a guerilla. He would now be a hunted man. Frantically, he aimed the Uzi at the nearest car as he ventured into the line of traffic. An Audi came to a screeching halt. The fear of God flooded the driver, a middle-aged matron on her way to the Campo del Fiori. Her itinerary would be delayed.
At least she would live to visit the Market of Flowers another day, for Blix was more interested in car-jacking a vehicle than killing the woman as he yelled, "Out!" and she raced away as fast as she could, not looking back. Blix slid behind the wheel and threw the gun on the passenger seat. Now what? He hadn't driven in well over twenty years. It couldn't be that difficult.
He bolted out, nearly clipping a car that skidded off the road into a row of parked cars, creating more of a commotion as the fire continued to rage across the street. The Texas mad-man veered the Audi out of the circle and south on the Via Teatro Di Marcello that would take him to the Tiber and then up the Lungotevere on the east side of the river.
In a matter of minutes the police would be issuing a city-wide alert to find the Audi. The confusion of the last two and a half hours had exhausted most of the emergency services of the city. Blix counted on that as he sped toward the only place he could regroup. In his rear-view mirror, the flames began to subside from the burning crash of his comrades. He didn't need them. He would find another way.
Dateline: Vatican City - the steps in front of the Basilica - November 6, 2:58 p.m.
A makeshift podium had been set-up with a row of chairs behind. Television cameras and still photographers were already in place as the press jockeyed for position like leeches on a catfish. As head of Universal Communications it was Monsignor Stephen Navarro's responsibility to bring the world up to date on casualties and what exactly happened. Not an easy task, especially in light of the vacuum of the past three hours.
Macelli had emerged into the daylight from the Portone di Bronzo, and Stephen shuddered at the sight of this nefarious excuse for a human being waddling towards the crowded area in front of St. Peter's. Cardinals Mendoza, Wetherby, Kabwela, Strovinksy, and Lewiston were approaching from inside the Basilica. They had arrived via the Scala Regia through the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Already seated were Cardinals Maurin, Kracic, Medelia, Visserant, Krementz and Vendhem. Gathered to the left were several dozens of bishops and priests.
All, except Stephen and Cardinal Mendoza, really had no clue what was going on. Everyone was hungry for answers. The press and the rest would be given only what they needed to hear, nothing more.
Macelli huffed his way up the stairs to his place near the podium. Thank God he was out of breath. This would allow Stephen to speak first and then turn it over to Cardinal Mendoza before Macelli had a chance to recover. He glanced behind him. All were seated. This press conference would begin on time. It was three o'clock. The hour of great mercy.
"Your Eminences, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the press," Stephen began, speaking into a bank of microphones as camera lights went on. "As you can see what occurred here at noon today was an unbelievable catastrophe. However, I am so happy to announce that there have been, after nearly three hours of searching, no fatalities and no one missing. Not one life was lost that we know of. We owe that to the quick response of Colin Rembert of Global NetSat and his thorough professionalism in evacuating both the Basilica and St. Peter's Square. Had he not, I fear there would have been thousands killed."
Hands were waving. The impatient fifth estate would not wait. "Please," Stephen insisted. "We will answer questions when we have disclosed all that needs to be disclosed. I would hope that will soothe your anxiety."
Stephen continued. "Once the damage had been assessed, the Papal Bier was taken to the crypt. Until further notice St. Peter's main Basilica remains off limits to all until safety inspectors can assure it is safe. There have been cracks in the sides of the wall, many broken windows and extensive damage to the Sacristy that has effected the far left wing. Pictures will be available by 6 tonight. Check in under the Right Colonnade by the Bronze Doors by 5:45 if you need accreditation.
Agitation was undulating in the crowd of reporters as they tried to catch Navarro's attention. Undaunted, Stephen forged on. "We do not have information for you yet as to how this happened or who exactly set off the charges or how we were alerted to evacuate. We hope to be able to provide this information shortly. I can tell you that Cardinal Macelli has insisted the Sacred Conclave will go on. Even though it was scheduled to have started an hour ago, it will now begin promptly at 4 p.m. this afternoon. Depending on the length of the first session, we cannot guarantee there will be a first ballot tonight. We will keep you abreast. Now--"
Taking a deep breath, he tried to begin again but was drowned out by more distractions by press members demanding answers. Cardinal Macelli pounced on the opportunity. He ambled to the podium, pushing Stephen out of the way.
"Please, such boorish behavior by the media. You should be ashamed of yourselves," Macelli chastised the throng of reporters. It seemed to work. "The Monsignor will keep you abreast of what goes on and I quite suspect there will be another press conference tonight and you may ask questions then."
A smug smirk curled on Vendhem's lips as he confidently scanned the assembled press. They would know soon enough about him, but it would be too late. He would have won. They would be putty in his hands. One man Josef didn't see was Cardinal Mendoza who smiled ever so slightly as he studied Vendhem's body language. Yes! He was taking the bait. Come into the web said the spider to the fly.
Next: PART V: The Shedding FIFTEENTH CHAPTER Episode Five
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