Episode Two: Fate, Fasif, and Faith
By now the entire world had been made aware of the apocalyptic destruction that had erupted in a place which was once Paradise. One lacking faith could ask how God could allow such evil to surface and satiate souls, and then, as He promised through His Divine Son in the Scriptures, in a split second it is over. How fleeting, how futile the fertility of feelings in the overall scope. Man's time on this planet is a mere drop of water in an endless ocean of everlasting life.
* * * * * * *
Yet, God knew the thoughts of every soul whose life was wiped out in one swift fatal flash. To theologian and philosopher alike, conjuring up the vision of the crowded lines waiting for their Particular Judgment was mind-boggling. The question subconsciously asked this day was if His Eternal Honor would be so preoccupied with the souls in waiting, were it possible He might not be able to focus His attention on helping the souls still walking this earth? Such assumptions are faithless for true faith knows no bounds. It's so simple. God is all-omniscient. Though such a mystery cannot be comprehended, few also could comprehend the why of what happened 16 hours before.
Despite reassuring passages of Holy Writ and hope, despair was globally gaining a grip on the minds and hearts of the living. "Oh ye, of little faith."
Dateline: Palatial Oasis Estate in Kuwait on the Iraqi border, November 2, 4:10 a.m.
At length they arrived. Pat pulled his battered nuts and bolts machine up behind Niki's in a circular driveway of a magnificent villa nestled among tall cypress trees that silhouetted as stillettoes against the mighty moon.
Niki gathered his pack and scurried over to Pat who had turned off the ignition, finally relaxing his neck and gazing at the constellations. It was so peaceful.
"Come, my friend. You need some sleep." the Greek Samaritan intoned.
"I don't know! I'm beat, but I doubt I can sleep." Pat responded, pulling his eyes from the celestial display and back to the man beside the jeep. Not for the first time was Pat struck by the fact that Andriopoulos seemed an odd combination of a hard-boiled, tough-as-nails reporter and a man who could read souls, and who appreciated the need to be refreshed by the sight of beauty which no man could have created...like the sky above. "I don't think I want to sleep."
Niki caught his drift. "Don't worry. You won't dream. At least not yet. Your mind will blot it all out for a while. In the meantime, without rest you will not be able to pursue your mission."
Pat held his tongue. No use telling this man that right now he seriously doubted the wisdom in pursuing his 'mission.' He was filled with desolation and the stirrings of despair disturbed him. He took a cigarette from the pack in his dust-crusted shirt pocket and lit it, inhaling deeply.
"And, my friend," continued Niki without noticing the smoke that invaded his nostrils, "in but a few hours I will introduce you to someone who may just chase the doubts from your mind, no?"
That mysterious someone. Pat wanted to prod. He didn't. He knew Niki wouldn't tell him anymore this night, or morning as the case may be. Besides, he was truly beat. It was time to put everything on pause. That he knew, if nothing else. "It's just good to feel the fresh air," Pat blurted, as he continued to stretch the kinks of his equally long journey and time at the Field of Death.
"Yes, I know. The Field of Death, it gives one claustrophobia, no?" Niki opined.
"Maybe. Something like that," Pat shot back in a zombie tone.
"It will pass. It always does," assured Niki. "Trust me. On claustrophobia I am an expert. A sensation I am well-acquainted with."
The Texan's face relaxed a bit as he exited the jeep, grinding his cigarette out on the ground. "We all have hang-ups. Claustrophobia. Cigarettes. In short, we're vulnerable."
"So true. We will go in now," Niki motioned as he headed toward the front door.
Pat gathered up his equipment and followed the tall, lithe but muscular Greek up a flag-stone path between the towering cypress trees. They came to a front portico before a house that had somehow miraculously withstood the worst of the continuous conflict in this area from well before the Gulf War in the early 90's to the present.
Niki's knock was promptly answered by a mannerly Mid-Easterner who bowed politely, smiled and ushered them into the safety of the abode. Pat was in awe. What a home! Unblemished. Beautifully appointed, offering, Pat detected, every affordable luxury. Well, he could do with a little luxury right now. There'd been precious little since his odyssey began - if one didn't count the ostentatiousness of Blix's trappings on the Lear jet. Van Wess could wait a little longer before Gallagher started more news feeds. He'd provided enough to carry through to tomorrow's late edition. That appeased his conscience and he accepted his good fortune to be Niki's guest.
"Ah, Signore Andriopoulos, we've been expecting you," said the rather short dark man who'd ushered them inside. The man smiled up at Pat, and one corner of his right eyebrow rose, a signal both Niki and Pat noted.
Niki laughed softly. He had the most infectious laughter. Like music, the American thought.
"Don't fret, Elias," Niki said, laying a reassuring hand on the servant's arm and, with his other hand, placing an envelope in Elias' hands. "This is Mr. Pat Gallagher from the United States, and he is a friend of mine. I will explain in more detail to our host in the morning. But for now, if you don't mind, Elias, we're both extremely tired and need at least a few hours of sleep."
"But of course," Elias apologetically proclaimed, this time smiling broadly at Pat. "I'll show you to your rooms."
Elias was of short build, perhaps a year or so younger than Gallagher. Elias lead them up a curving staircase to an upper floor. In his hand he held aloft a candelabra of highly polished silver set with glittering semi-precious stones. He remarked conversationally that even in this relatively safe place one could not give the enemy an opportunity to strike; therefore, no electricity was used after the sun went down.
Pat rather enjoyed the mellow glow of the seven tall candles in their exquisite frame. It was right out of an American Gothic film. He half expected it to be thundering and lightning outside for effect. Their rooms were off the second floor landing, down a smaller side hallway that Pat calculated lay to the west. Elias paused before a door of heavy cedar which was intricately carved. To Pat the figures seemed to move, but it was only the heavy door being gently opened by Elias who lighted the way for Niki. Pat waited in the corridor, too tired to take any unnecessary steps and realizing his eyes were playing tricks on him. Soon he could see that several candles had been lit within the room, and Elias was back in the hallway ready to get him settled.
As they moved down the corridor, Pat heard Niki call. "Rest well, my friend. I will have Elias awaken us as soon as our host is ready to see us."
And on that ambiguous statement Pat walked beside Elias, his own shadow appearing large and grotesque upon the walls. Soon they were inside a large and airy room with an inviting bed elevated on a one-foot high platform. Elias lit two candles and placed one on a table near the door and walked across to the other side where he lit another near the bed. Turning to Pat at the entrance to the room, Elias' warmth was evident. "If you need anything, Mr. Gallagher, there's a bellpull by the bed. I'll come at once. Everything we have here is at your disposal. We ask only one thing."
"Yes?" Pat inquired mechanically.
"The windows," Elias indicated a pair of heavy draperies pulled tightly over a hidden window at the far side of the room. "Do not open those drapes. Not even if you extinguish the candles. We take no unneccessary chances here. I'm sure you understand."
He did. Perhaps better than Elias could imagine. When you lived in a country that had been riddled by war for decades, and when factors were at work within your country that could pull off the type of slaughter he had just come from, you kept yourself safe at all costs.
"Don't worry, Elias. Tonight I enjoy knowing I'm behind heavy drapes and that for a little while I need do nothin' but sleep."
"Good. Then, if you do not mind. I shall take my leave. I have some unfinished tasks before he returns. I'll see that you and Signore Andriopoulos are left undisturbed, and will waken you in time to make ready for the morning meeting."
With that he was gone as he shut the heavy cedar door behind him without so much as a click, and Pat stood for a moment in the center of the room, studying the surroundings with what energy remained in him, trying to find its heart. It seemed to find him as a wood-carved crucifix peered down from above the bed. Flanking it were wood-carved angels that blended into the carved woodwork of the walls and expanded out where bookshelves jutted out on either side of the bed. The floor was heavily carpeted so no sound of footfalls could be heard. The furniture, though overly-large and heavy, was nonetheless exquisite, and the bed looked terribly inviting as Pat crossed to a door he saw to the side, opened it and checked out the bathroom through the shadowy light of the candles.
In less than five minutes he was in bed, feeling the cool softness of the sheets against his troubled body. Despite his earlier protest to Niki he sensed sleep washing over him almost at once. Gratefully, he gave in.
While much needed slumber visited Pat and Niki, two time zones away in the magnificent city of Rome, Cardinal Antonio Macelli, Cardinal Josef Vendham, Guillaume Brunatti, Luciani Serrano, Maria Figuerido, and Usif Ezerbet also slept, but their dreams were quite different.
Theirs was of the nefarious Basilisk. They were instilled with the prescience of future glories that would be theirs in the new kingdom when the Basilisk would rule. They saw with unnerving perspicacity what awaited the world - the present world. They saw their roles in bringing the Basilisk into power, and were filled with sensations of glory and power, greed, lust and avarice. They no longer recognized these as elements of their human nature, so commonplace had this baseness become in them, as with other Legion members. Their entire beings, minds, hearts and souls belonged exclusively to the master, and, unlike the so-called Christian God, this master left no free will. There was only one way. The only other alternative was annihilation
Few could not be touched by the Basilisk if the master wished. Its power had grown so strong in the last half of the twentieth century and early 21st century that its ultimate revelation to mankind would come possibly on its next fetid breath, its next belch of horror. Yet it was so cleverly concealed that hideousness was portrayed as beautiful and inviting. Such is the way of the evil one in luring souls into his lair, his fatal factory of destruction.
So deep was Gallagher's sleep this night that he couldn't hear the demonic laughter which surreptiously entered his room. It was hardly a reverberation of merriment. Not a modicum of happiness anywhere in the grotesque sound that was inaudible to human ears. Just as the angels and Heavenly spirits are unintelligible to the vast majority of humans' senses, so also the demon and his nefarious legions lurk and scurry in and out of the id and libido. It rumbles low and deep and long, a clatter of both agony and hate, of diabolical power and might.
Even here, in the house where Niki had brought him, the Basilisk could enter at will. Despite the appalling tragedy of less than 24 hours ago, little did Pat realize that the Black Fire was just beginning to gain combustion. Out of the ashes came the smoldering.
Dateline: Kuwait Oasis Villa Estate, November 2, 6:35 a.m.
A gray sedan pulled up under the protective canopy of palms and cypress trees guiding the circular driveway just as dawn adorned the sky in cerise, as the last vestiges of stars gave way to the first peek of the sun over the eastern dunes. It maneuvered deftly past the dust-beaten jeep and Humvee and veered a few more feet into a nearly hidden driveway. In a matter of seconds, an elderly gentlemen in his late 60's exited the car, moving with masterful decorum through a side door into the great villa where he was met promptly by Elias. Though the latter was a faithful servant, he was a friend to Fasif Khadid first and foremost. Fasif was the resident owner of this brilliant estate. An olive-skinned man of Lebanese descent in his mid-60's, Fasif sported a short cut gray beard to match his closely cropped hairline. His demeanor was gentle and royal at the same time, every pore of his 6'2" frame emanated charity and love. This showed when he allowed Elias to take his attaché case and ease from his burdened shoulders the heavy satchel he had lugged with him from the car.
"I see Andriopoulos is here," he began, whispering in the stillness of the dawn. Elias had turned to pour from a distinguished tea set a steaming cup of tea for Khadid which he gratefully accepted, continuing, "There was another car, a jeep from the war zone. Is all in order, Elias?"
"Ah, yes," Elias replied, "I was waiting for the moment to tell you. A friend of Niki's. An American reporter from Texas. I assure you all is in order. Niki left this envelope for you."
"If Niki's sure and you're sure, then so am I." Fasif's voice was weary but strong. "Give me a few minutes, Elias. I have to finish this tedious paper work and make a phone call. What time did our guests get in?"
"Just a few hours ago, Sir."
"Well then, what say we allow them to sleep a few more hours and you can get them up then. Say breakfast at nine?"
"In the patio garden, Sir?"
"On this morning, my dear Elias, that would be ideal."
"Consider it done, Sir."
Fasif crossed from the foyer to his study off the main great room. His hallmark was immediately visible in the floor-to-ceiling cedar bookshelves which lined three sides of the four walls. The ornate desk of ebony stood atop a rug of deep blues and greens, and in the fireplace, Elias had been stoking the embers for an inviting welcome home glow. He retrieved a cigar from the humidor on the carved olive-wood mantle and eased his frame into the oversized chair behind the desk.
Almost immediately Elias wheeled in a cart containing a fresh pot of tea, a few scones, some fruit and Fasif's briefcase, and stacked papers and books that had been retracted from the satchel and neatly stacked. The faithful servant and friend pushed the cart to the side of Fasif where it was easily reachable. He then moved to the window where he drew open the heavy drapes revealing a splendid garden beyond. He opened the windows and the morning air filtered in, sweeping away any staleness of the night. "Will there be anything else you need at this time, Sir?"
"Yes there is, Elias. I will that you take some time for yourself. Get a few hours of sleep before waking our guests. Will you do that?"
Sheepishly, Elias nodded and closed the door to Fasif's study. Fasif lit his cigar and placed it in an oversized ashtray to the side near his phone. His body conformed perfectly to the molded indentations of his oversized chair, caused by years of use. On the desk were a tangle of papers sticking out of folders, and numerous notepads upon which he scribbled pertinent information that was totally harmless should any intruder happen upon it. That was commonplace in this region. Above the mantle was a masterful painting of Raphael's "Flight into Egypt" meaningful to Fasif in more ways than met the eye for indeed he had made his flight to Kuwait from his home in Beirut over three decades ago.
He took the envelope Elias had given him and, with his ivory letter opener - a gift from an intriguing acquaintance from Africa several years ago - he sought the ingredients. Inside was a note from Niki giving Fasif knowledge of Pat and a small, charred pin. It was unmistakable. Fasif needed this edge to fight his secret war. The vital information concerning the Legion of the Basilisk he kept stored within the gray cells of his mind, neatly catalogued and readily available whenever he wanted. In his quest of the Basilisk, Fasif had also become adept at forgetting much of what he really knew, and also much of what he really was. It meant survival.
He glanced over the rest of the papers in the briefcase and the satchel; enough to be bound into a legal tome and only the beginning of the Field of Death investigation. He put the pin in his pocket and picked up the phone.
Dateline: St. Louis, Missouri, November 1, 9:40 p.m.
Gregory Cardinal Zachmann was just finishing up some paper work at his desk in the Archbishop's residence before heading to Rome later this evening on the nonstop red-eye flight. They were diocesan directives to his Vicar General and Chancellor in case he did not return. There was that possibility though he recoiled at such talk that he was papabile, yet the media loved to promote that possibility. Even the liberal media in the United States - the media that so embraced the culture of death - even they were caught up in the recent talk and gladly allowed themselves to be engulfed in the enthusiasm for indeed he was an American. That was the unifying link that the western mindset clung to. "He's one of ours," they would boast. Those who were not Catholic, those who weren't even religious, those who couldn't tell the difference between the beloved baseball Cardinals and the role of a prince of the Church still hawked his cause for the good of American pride.
While a politician might be skewered for having a far-right viewpoint, the media had been mesmirized by this St. Louis' prelate's kind, but firm nature in dealing with matters that mattered with Americans. He was uncompromising in his approach to upholding the Sanctity of Life in all its stages and he didn't hide that fact. But his approach had always been charitable and, because of that, he garnered few enemies, winning over even the most avowed pro-abort. Gregory lived as Christ asked. This was evident to all - Christian and heathen.
Within his own Church he had not been as fortunate yet he had been a buffer between factions, showing the fruits of each and working toward harmony without compromising the truths and traditions of the Church he served. This was not easy in a sea of apathetic and pathetic prelates that had permeated the chanceries and sees from sea to shining sea. When his eminence John Cardinal O'Connor passed a void was left as to leadership in the American hierarchy. There were pretenders who sought that role over the ensuing years, but none proved themselves worthy until Pope Clement XV had surprised the world with a special consistory. It caught many by surprise and, from the look on many a curia member's face, was not expected. In this consistory the Holy Father, in effect, forced the retirement of not a few offending prelates including a cardinal on the west coast who had for years been leading his flock away from the Church. An ambiguous General Instruction of the Roman Missal had helped that exodus from the faith, failing to curb the degradation of so much that had been considered sacred and holy. Clement's move signaled a renewed hope and assurance that abuses in liturgy would be discontinued by a return to the tried and true. Some held out hope for a total return to the Latin Mass as it once enjoyed the exclusivity of rites.
The Mass codified by the holy Pope St. Pius V was the mainstay of Gregory's life. Despite his Novus Ordo colleagues in miters, he was part of the new wave of ultra-conservative, traditional prelates that sought to restore reverence to the sanctuaries. Upon his elevation to the Sacred Conclave along with the archbishop of Denver, who had finally seen the light and returned to the Latin rite, and a few other prelates who had begun in the heartland, a new fervor began sweeping the land. Yet it still met with resistance from the liberal, modernist factions who tried so hard to obliterate so much of what was passed down. Gregory realized it could not be done overnight. Indeed, he reasoned it might take 50 more years to undo the relativistic thinking that had engulfed so many. It might take the next generation or more, even the next century to restore all that had been held so sacrosanct for nearly 2000 years before the great upheaval, revolution they called it, of the sixties in the Church and society.
Cardinal Zachmunn still had his enemies. Holy men usually do. Part of it stemmed back to his traditional leanings for in his earlier years as a priest he had been privileged to attend several retreats given by Cardinal Giuseppe Cardinal Siri. He had studied under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre at Econe in Switzerland for a few years. In fact Gregory might well have been one of the bishops ordained by Lefebvre for he was good friends with Bernard Fellay and Richard Williamson. But a staph infection prevented him from continuing and he had to return to the United States for medical care in the autumn of 1987. It pained him greatly the cross Lefebvre carried for Gregory had known of the inner workings and vendetta of the Curia, having been a confidante of Siri and Silvio Angelo Cardinal Oddi. It had indeed been a dark day when the Vatican apparatus had forged an excommunication of Lefebvre and then the death of Cardinal Siri a year later. He didn't know which was the bleakest, the way the archbishop had been ostracized or the cunning, cold, uncharitable, even sinful acts of several members of the Roman Curia and liberal interests in their deceitful attempts to snuff out so many and all remnants of the past glories of the glorious Church he loved.
Cardinal Oddi had kept in contact with Gregory right up to his death on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2001. The aging Italian Prince of the Church had placed the hope of the Church he so loved in his
protegé from America. In fact, Gregory suspected, his own elevation had come through Oddi's prodding to the Pope. Oddi thought truthfully the Pontiff would be dissuaded, but with God all things are possible as Gregory realized when finally two popes later the call came through from Rome on his appointment.
While Gregory had wanted with his whole heart and soul to embrace the traditions that had been passed down and preserved up until the death of Pope Pius XII, he realized he must work within to effect good. He had to set the example without alerting the foe. As archbishop he carefully weeded out the 'We Are Church' and 'A Call to Action' radicals from his chancery and eliminated their influence in the parishes by placing holier men in charge in key positions. They were all accountable directly to him. He held an open-door policy with all staff of the diocese, all priests and even parishioners. He cut drastically his social activities, sending emissaries when necessary, calling on increased prayer life for both clergy and laity. He had strongly urged perpetual adoration in every parish and had resurrected the ancient Corpus Christi processions where parishes joined as one on that glorious summer Sunday to walk through the city as he humbly held Our Lord high in the monstrance for all to see and adore.
He had consecrated the city of St. Louis after the great saintly king whom Gregory held in such esteem. He upheld the virtues and values St. Louis IX had set for his kingdom eight centuries prior and strove to establish, even among the secular and civil authorities, a subliminal message that the Social Kingship of Christ was paramount to promoting true justice and peace for all - regardless of their creed.
He put a stop to the architectural abominations that had sacked so many churches and reinstated, despite protests from feminist movements, that only males would serve or be on the altar. He also had established that at least one Tridentine Mass would be said in every parish throughout his see no less than once a week in hopes of rekindling a true love and reverence for the Mass held in such esteem for so many centuries. In an even more shocking move, he eliminated the need for all lay ministers of the Eucharist in the sanctuary. Yes, it was more work for his priests he realized, but that was what they were there for, to minister to the faithful - to set the example for holiness. Gregory knew that began with him. He knew that was the only answer for every diocese, every parish, every home. Striving for sanctity in a world gone mad. It was not easy. That was the price one paid to follow Christ fully without compromise.
Gregory had always been an avid student of history, theology and Canon Law. He had studied meticulously the Conciliar documents from Nicaea on. Every papal document he had stored for reference, having read and understood each one. He was a virtual font of wisdom. He had mastered Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Arabaic, Greek and Russian. He was still studying the Chinese language as he prepared this evening to head toward the eternal city. This oriental language was the toughest by far, but he realized its necessity for beyond that great wall was a rich harvest of souls for Christ. He was a missionary in every way.
Yet he was still very much a part of the local community as the Cardinals, Rams, Blues and Steamers pennants on the walls signified. He had always been an avid sports fan, but his duties to God came first. Truth be known he had been discouraged by the greed and selfishness of the pro and collegiate game and would rather watch the young ones in a pick-up game; innocents frolicking unaware that this world would soon pluck that virtue from them, clouding their memories of better times when scores or standings didn't matter, only the fun and exercise, the team concept of working together. That was the excitement of the game that always thrilled Gregory.
The game being played this day was a deadly one he realized in the aftermath of the horrible holocaust in Iraq. As he put his pen down he pondered on what lie ahead, what did this purport for the world, for the Church?
His thoughts were interrupted as his private phone's shrill ring pierced the quietude. Even Stephen didn't have that number.
"Yes?" he cautiously mouthed into the receiver.
"Gregory? Khadid here."
A sigh of relief passed through the cardinal's lungs. "What news?"
"I've been at it all night. A grizzly affair to be blunt," Fasif confided.
"Dear Fasif, you've a knack for understatement. Any further developments?"
"Nothing extraordinary. No doubt the work of the Legion. We were too late to stop it. I should have seen it forming. How could I have been so---"
"Do not berate yourself, Fasif. You could not have prevented it. None of us could. We must concentrate on stopping them next time."
"That is the problem, Gregory, I do not yet have solid evidence to indicate where they will strike next. All I know is that they will."
"Yes, I agree. If anything, Fasif, we know for certain the Basilisk grows in power. I fear they are deeper within the Holy See than even I suspected."
"Then every contact must do double time to get information on their next move. Helene and Karel are following clues as we speak. I have not yet talked to Niki but he has uncovered proof the Legion did it.
We must be so careful. We need every able body available. Our numbers are already small and I fear will diminish even further. All are being targeted. You must be careful, Gregory. They lie in wait for you in Rome I fear."
"I'm sure of that, Fasif. I do know we will need a contact for Karel and Stephen in Rome."
"I'm working on that. Maybe Andriopoulos."
"No, Fasif. They know of him. It won't work."
"Give me some time, Gregory. We have so few left."
"God willing, the few of us will be enough. Will you be at the Conclave, Fasif?"
"My in pectore status prevents me from being revealed yet. I must remain hidden for now."
"You know in these times your leadership would be so valuable."
"Not at this time...in God's time. I would say anyone's leadership would be valuable in these times, Gregory. You sell yourself short for you are the one who should lead us."
"That, my friend, we will leave in the good graces of the Holy Ghost."
"Oh, one other thing. my friend from Dallas Victor Van Wess alerted me he has sent a man to Iraq who could possibly be of help. He arrived last night."
"Yes. Patrick Gallagher. He's 44, about five-eleven, one ninety---"
"God works in strange and mysterious ways, Gregory. He is here at my villa. I will meet him at breakfast. Can he be trusted in Rome?"
"You have my word. According to Vic he's a bit of a renegade, but solid. His Catholicity needs work, but he is sincere. Because of his journalistic skepticism he might be a tad of a hard sell, but you can convince him. I will notify Stephen when I arrive in Rome."
"You have unbounded optimism of my abilities. I only hope God will give me the graces, Gregory."
"He will. I've a plane to catch. Go with God, my dear friend Fasif."
"And you, too, Gregory. Deo Gratias."
Fasif put the receiver down and swiveled in his chair to catch the rising sun beaming into his office off the garden. He boosted himself out of the comfortable chair and walked out into the garden, stooping to preen and prune a few blossoms as he conversed with the flowers. "Ah, garden of glory. Elias does well. The birds honor you. How long will you bloom? What fools be we? Why can't we exist as you do? In peace and beauty. Who among us is safe? What plan can be safe? There's something afoot in this world which defies description and has not been imagined by anyone, anywhere...except a few and they have not been listened to. Now the weeds grow stronger and we begin to suffer and suffocate."
As Fasif conversed with God's flora, Pat was deep in sleep, so exhausted that no dream or nightmare could penetrate his brief hibernation. Little did he realize that his mission was just beginning. Were he to know the full scope of his involvement he might have never wanted to leave The Crooked Spigot the night before. But man cannot turn back the clock. The sands of time would not allow it. Such is the fate of those seeking truth.
The birds were now singing in Fasif's garden as the soft, delicate petals opened to the inviting morning rays. Khadid was still busy at his desk, pouring over papers he had extracted from his briefcase and satchel. The draught from the window caused the cigar smoke to lazily curl upward above his head, only to drift down again to enshroud him in a pale mist. It was still the same one he had lit an hour and a half ago. It was the third time he had reignited it. No use wasting a good cigar. It was his manner to always conserve, never to discard anything that could still be of value to someone.
He picked up the phone, dialed and swiveled in his large chair to face the sun-bathed garden as he awaited an answer.
"Shenneker," he said rapidly as the person on the opposite end responded. He paused, listening.
"Yes, Fasif, I've been waiting for your call."
"I've been at it all night. A grizzly affair to be blunt, my dear sister."
"You've a knack for understatement," Helene Shenneker quipped. "Have you any further information?"
"Nothing extraordinary. No doubt the work of the Legion. We were too late to stop it. As yet I've no solid evidence to indicate where they will strike next."
This time the voice on the opposite end of the line considered his statement more carefully. "Yes. My own findings confirm the same. If anything, dear brother, we know for certain that the Basilisk is growing in power, making ready for the final strike. It is only logical. The results of the document bear this out."
"You have definitive proof, Helene?" Fasif inquired anxiously.
"Yes. The Rabboni was most cooperative. The water mark was unmistakable," Shenneker confirmed. "Hidden well, but through my sources of scientific detection there is no doubt it was authentic. Because of it, I suspect Rome will be their next offensive."
"Then we must proceed to the matters at hand with haste," Khadid went on, well aware as was Shenneker of the enormity of their responsibility. "Every contact is doing double-duty to get information on the Legion's next move. For my part, I am presently mired in the tangle of getting the semblance of the bodies - what's left of them - back to their homelands."
"I see. And the main shipment?" Helene queried.
"Tonight," was all Fasif would say. "Every precaution is being taken."
"I am sure of that. But will it be enough?" Shenneker worried aloud.
It was the same question Cardinal Zachmann had asked and the same one Fasif himself had endlessly probed for answers ever since the massacre at the Field of Abraham had occurred. He and his compatriots had failed to stop the Legion of the Basilisk this time. Could they do it next time?
"My dear Shenneker," he said gently, "only time will tell. No?"
"True. But it is so frustrating, dearest brother," she confided.
"And Karel? You've seen her? Spoken to her?" he asked eagerly, but with great tenderness.
"Recently. She's well. Striving as we are to halt the Legion. You may well be proud of her, Fasif. She does an excellent job. She feels she is on to something in her search there in Rome."
"As much as I fear for my niece, I'm delighted at that. She honors you, her father...and your humble brother here." A soft, patriarchal tone eked through.
"As she should. She has some very special persons to measure up to." Helene was beaming.
"You have prepared her well, my beloved Shenneker. She may have to move quickly and into grave danger."
"She knows that already, Fasif. We all do. The fate that befell her father spurs her on to avenge the evil."
"She must proceed cautiously. I fear they have just begun. I will keep in touch when necessary. Shalom." Khadid concluded, stemming any display of sentimentality. The call was done.
He sat for a moment staring out at the garden. Flowers of every conceivable color were abloom now in an array that dazzled the eyes. Elias tended it so well. This tiny patch of earth with grass and flora and trees in full-leaf filled with bird-song was their glimpse of Heaven amidst the horrors of hell, he thought. How long would the beauty remain?
"Fool," he reproved himself aloud. He went over to the door and called for Elias. Within seconds the obedient servant was there. Fasif towered over Elias, but still could not match Andriopoulos' height. Like Elias, Khadid's skin was a smooth olive hue, with tightly cropped gray follicles fighting for survival over the impending bald area atop his head, almost as if he had been tonsured there. Well into his sixties, Fasif stood erect and powerful, his character demanding nothing less. "Did you take my advice, dear Elias?"
"I did. Two hours I slept and am much more refreshed I assure you, dear master."
"You do need more. You know that of course. But for now I believe it is time to rouse our guests. I do believe they will relish your Eggs Florentine." Fasif allowed a smile to curl on his lips that motivated Elias to do even more for this good man he served.
* * * * * * *
Pat believed he had been in bed only moments before he indubitably knew the shaking motion was not part of his REM. This was real. He managed to open a groggy eyelid only partially to focus on a form. He peered harder. It was Niki hovering over him, the Greek bearing a broad smile which affronted the sleep-soaked brain of Gallagher.
"Go to bed, Niki," he growled. "Jesus!"
"I have been to bed, my friend. I am here to announce that we begin another day."
Pat definitely didn't want to hear that as he burrowed his head under the pillow.
"Get up, Patrick," Niki insisted. "The sun is shining. Birds are a-wing. And we have been summoned to dine with our host. Do try to make yourself presentable, will you?"
Gallagher gave in, tossing off the sheet and sitting on the edge of the bed, his head buried in his hands, only his boxers affording him any privacy.
"You indeed are a sorry sight," Niki chided.
"And you're too damned cheerful to be allowed out of your room before noon," Pat retorted. "Are you always like this?"
"True. I try always to be happy." Niki assured.
"Lucky for you there's breakfast. That's the only way you'll get me outta the sack."
"You Americans have such a way with, how you say it, slang."
"By the way, who is our host? Pat resumed the questioning.
"I will not tell you just yet." Niki relished keeping him guessing, using that carrot to get him up and moving.
"Playin' games again, huh?" Pat realized the ploy.
"First you must get ready, my Texas friend."
"Oh, Christ almi---" Pat blurted, but was caught from finishing the curse by Niki's wagging finger as the Greek looked to the ceiling, quietly and charitably reminding Pat of his use of the Lord's name.
"Now you sound like my grandmother," Pat moaned.
"I've been accused of worst. I suggest you apply a razor to that nasty stubble on your chin." He handed Pat a Gillette pack. "Look sharp. Feel sharp. It will help your entire demeanor to appear fresh and new."
Pat was in an arbitrary mood. "Just the opposite, Nik, I'm tired and old."
"I have the cure for fatigue and aging: a hot steaming shower. I'll start it for you." Niki was so accommodating.
"I'll still feel old and tired!" The jet lag had caught up with this Mirror reporter. Cynicism was greater in the a.m. and this morning was no different.
Dateline: Rome, November 2, 6:55 a.m.
The sun's beam hit Riage Benziger square on his face, awakening him from his exhausted slumber. Where was he? Within seconds a rush of memories flooded his conscience and he knew well it was no nightmare. It was very real. The still body of a weak and emaciated Pontiff lying unconscious three feet away from him on the dank stone floor affirmed that fact. Several times on his journey down the long tunnel the surviving Swiss Guard had to rest. The burden of the Holy Father's weight on Riage's injured shoulder had demanded it. In addition Benziger himself was weak. No food or water for three days. He knew dehydration would set in soon. The trek had taken its toll on the torch. It had gotten him to this point before it flickered out. How long had he been here? From the direction of the sun he knew morning was just dawning. Surveying both directions he could see slits of light darting in from narrow turrets that illuminated this passageway by day.
He knew now where he was. He knew too that this same passageway had been the means of escape for Pope Clement VII on May 6, 1527, the day of the Sack of Rome by the Protestant forces under King Charles V during the tumultuous Reformation. He realized many of his predecessors in the vaunted Swiss Guard had given their very lives for the Pope's safety on that day. Now nearly a half millennia later he was doing the same. He was only one. Back then 147 had perished in protecting the Pontiff, while 42 lived, stealing the Medici Pope away from danger and hiding him at Castel Sant'Angelo which formerly was known as Hadrian's Tomb.
This is where this corridor led. It had been built within the Leonine Walls that connected the Vatican to the old castle. He knew there was a walkway above, but he had never realized there was a similar secret corridor below. He gave God thanks for whoever built this passageway. He knew from the distance he had traveled that the Castle was not far. He knew also it had been closed to tourists several months ago after a ceiling had given way crushing two pilgrims beneath and now lawsuits had forced its closure. Could there still possibly be some water or food on the premises? That hope spurred Riage's psyche and survival instincts.
The sounds of the city penetrated this corridor as the cacophony of traffic blended with the sounds of voices on street corners and on balconies welcoming a new day. He wondered how long he could subsist, how badly off was the Pope, how long could he escape detection from those who had infiltrated the papal palace. Who were they? How could he get help?
Those questions poured through his consciousness as he hoisted the insentient body of the pope over his aching shoulder, intent more than ever to get the Pontiff to a comfortable, safe place in the castle and then to search for food and water. Little did he realize as he began lumbering eastward down the corridor that outside the world was in mourning for the very man he was carrying. Nevertheless, they were mourning a different man who perished in Iraq. Who was the imposter? There was no doubt the real pope was still alive, but for how long? Time was of the essence and Riage realized this only too well. The adrenaline flowed through his veins as he pushed on down the passageway, now illuminated by the shafts of sunlight darting through the thin slots in the impenetrable stone wall every 100 feet or so. It was a lonely trek, but a necessary one. This loyal Swiss Guard would never realize how much so.
Next: PART II: The Smoldering THIRD CHAPTER, Episode Three: The Universal Chess Game
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