Episode Five: Haunted and Hunted
Globally the news was depressing. Overwhelmingly despair permeated every pore. Every network confirmed the obvious. There were no survivors. So devastating, so complete was the destruction of the assembly of 973,570 who had passed through the turnstiles. Add to this the 10,000 dignitaries who had entered without security checks, and the 30,000 workers who had been so carefully screened by radar and bomb-sniffing canines and the count was over one million missing - all presumed dead.
* * * * * * *
They had all gathered at the seat of creation, as it were, daring to hope for peace and an end to the terrorism that had so haunted the planet for the past several decades. The fear of the unknown had so gripped the world in the new millennium that few were surprised despite the security measures. The questions remained. How? And: Was there any hope left?
Dateline: Rome - Castel Sant'Angelo, November 2, 1:30 p.m.
The search had been successful. Riage Benziger had drenched himself in the drinking fountain he discovered on the third level of this ancient castle overlooking the Tiber, bathing in the cool liquid that flowed out from a now rusting faucet. He did not care. He was almost giddy with delight as he drank his fill. His billowing, colorful Swiss Guard sleeve torn, he dabbed at various sores and cuts from his encounter with the stone wall and floor. It had been, despite the bruises, a welcome encounter when he fell through the secret door in the Papal closet into the dark confines of the escape corridor that led from the Apostolic Palace to this abandoned refuge. He could hear the street noises below and took heart that he was not alone. That, and parching his thirst and body, gave him the strength to continue the search for nourishment for himself and the precious cargo he had carried to a protective shelter in this vast circular edifice with so many nooks and crannies. Near the top level of the castle he found an abandoned restaurant. He managed to jam his boot into the window and eke through, finding in the kitchen some left over canned goods, a can opener and bags of flour. He grabbed two empty canisters, filled them with water and stuffed some coffee filters into a coffee bean burlap bag that had been discarded. Everything else in this deserted restaurant was useless. With stock in hand, he headed back to the third level where His Holiness Pope Clement XV was still unconscious, terribly dehydrated.
The midday sun was pouring through the open turret and Benziger slowly shifted the beleaguered Pontiff up so that he could rest his arm behind the Vicar of Christ's head. He took the coffee filters and formed a cone, putting his thumb over the lower opening so he could scoop water from the canister and gently he let it run down over the Holy Father's withering face. He repeated this several times, slowly dropping water on the Pope's lips, gently rubbing the water on his eyelids and moistening the lips. He repeated this for nearly an hour when the Pontiff's eyes flickered, opening just slightly - but enough to alert Riage.
"Your Holiness, here sip this."
With much effort and pain the Pope inhaled the drops of water, then the breathing became heavier and he gasped for air, trying to drink more, frantically gesturing with his eyes for more water. It had to taste so good. Riage thought this moment about how Christ must have thirsted so and there was no water for Him, only bitter vinegar. What monsters could have done this, Benziger pondered as he continued to minister to this stricken Pontiff to whom he had sworn his allegiance.
The Pope was appreciative and tried to speak, but he was too weak. Slowly he was able to intake more water, coughing up dry phlegm and gagging at times trying to swallow it. Benziger took some of the flour and wadded it up and placed it on the tongue of the Pope for nourishment. How similar that His Holiness had so often placed on Benziger's tongue in the Papal Chapel the Bread of Life.
"Rest, Your Holiness. I am here. Our Lord Jesus Christ is with you here. He will not fail you. Drink slowly. You are very, very weak. Sleep, I will pray," Benziger consoled him as he made sure the Pope could sip clearly.
As the hours waned the Pope regained some strength. Now he needed medical attention. Yet to move him could jeopardize him further both in the motion and in detection. It is one thing to carry an unconscious body that cannot feel pain, it is quite another to carry someone who feels tremendous pain with every step, translating it into a thud to the senses. Benziger decided the best course for now was to stay with his Sovereign Pontiff, to be there for him through the rest of the day and into the night. This would also afford him time to regain his own strength for the journey back. The Swiss Guard felt his own body giving out and he gave into sleep, ah restful sleep in restless times.
The sun poured in on the two still figures, their shoulders propped against the wall. The Swiss Guard's arm pillowing the Holy Father's head. The warmth of the rays filled their bodies, but they were unaware of the sunshine for they were in an unconscious sleep - a merciful time of rest that God allows to take away the pain - at least for awhile.
Dateline: Vatican City, Antechamber of the Apostolic Palace, November 2, 2:45 p.m.
At the other far end of the Leonine Wall, in a special audience hall in the Apostolic Palace, Cardinal Antonio Macelli had summoned all within the household, lay staff and religious alike. Meetings such as this he found abhorring. This was beneath him, he thought rebelliously, staring out at the pious faces of somber priests, nuns and brothers. What a bunch of stupid superstitious sheep, he thought. What a pack of fools! Pawns, nothing more. Pawns destined for death. He found pleasure in that thought, mocking made him feel stronger, urged him onward.
He was smiling saccharrinely when he spied Monsignor Stephen Navarro sitting just inside the doorway, again watching him with a knowing stare that reminded one of a hound-dog who is zeroing in on the scent relentlessly. Damn nuisance, Macelli fumed inwardly. An interfering upstart. Full of Godly ideals and holy virtues that would have to be done away with soon. He was a danger. Not only because he headed the Pontifical Council of Global Communications, but also because he was zealous...and damn effective, too. Pity, thought Macelli. The master might have had a place for one such as Navarro, if there had been time to root out the good first.
Macelli glanced at the one who had forsaken those virtues - Father Roberto Urazzi and thought, surely the master could have done better than that. Urazzi was lounging lazily in a chair, leaning back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. He was bored. It showed. Yes, Urazzi was a poor choice for a leader of any kind, Macelli deducted. Yet he was malleable enough to be used. He just had to cope with the fool a little longer.
Antonio sighed. The sooner he completed the business at hand, the sooner he could have his supper and his well-earned leisure after that, stealing off to a special guest room where Vendhem had arranged a wench for his carnal desires this night. Celibacy is such a worthless, empty attribute he mused.
Stephen was deep in thought as well. He realized, because of Macelli's machinations, he had to keep his eye on him. That prevented him from meeting Gregory Cardinal Zachmunn this afternoon at the airport. He needed to talk further with his Eminence, but when, that he didn't know. He would leave that to the Holy Spirit to bring them together. Stephen was like that, let go and let God.
"The International Red Cross has informed the Holy See," Macelli informed the gathering, "that they have identified the remains of our dear, dear Holy Father. He, along with other slain prelates, will arrive very early tomorrow morning."
"When tomorrow morning?" Fr. Urazzi blurted out without thinking.
A perturbed Macelli zoned in with dagger eyes at the slovenly priest, "After midnight! All the coffins will arrive then via cargo planes from Basra."
He refocused his attention on the rest of the assembly in this rather ample room with paintings and tapestries from the twelfth century. "It is left to us to receive these remains and in our presence to do them the expected reverence required. Naturally, there will be some remains that will be flown on to their respective homelands, but the majority will be buried here in Rome, or in neighboring villages. As Director of Internal Affairs, along with His Eminence Josef Marie Cardinal Vendhem, who heads our Ceremonial Department, we have decided that the circumstances do not warrant such a transgression into private mourning."
Stephen interrupted the cardinal, "Meaning?"
Macelli showed his visible irritation. "Meaning, Monsignore, that there will be no secular press within the Vatican tonight. Guards shall be posted around the clock at all entrances. They can have St. Peter's Square, but no access to anything within. Anything! Our own news department will be carefully monitored by Cardinal Vendhem and myself."
Stephen knew what that meant. Those two prelates would censor everything in an effort to stop the truth from getting out. He had to get to Cardinal Zachmunn as soon as he could.
"I suggest to all of you that in the ensuing days," Macelli continued pompously, "you guard your tongues as well as your souls. The world presses close upon us at this grievous time. We do not wish to become swept up in a storm of false sentimentality. We have a job to do. Let us do it. Let us do it in loving memory of our dear departed Keeper of the Keys. And speaking of keys, I will need the household staff to turn in all keys to me immediately. As long as I have the keys in my custody there will be no need to seal the Papal Apartments as had been the custom of the past."
Stephen and many others in the room felt a rush of anger. How dare he discard a tradition kept for thousands of years. Any rebuttal at this time was futile however for Macelli reminded all of obedience and that was the buzzword that silenced the audience.
"Please see me with your key immediately afterwards." Macelli was winding things up, an impatience in his voice. "Oh, and for the three nuns in charge of the Papal Apartment they will be immediately transferred to the Swiss Guards Apartments until further notice."
"Until further notice?" grumbled Sister Bridie under her breath, "God be with me. You know this not be right. Please be forgiving me for what I be about to do." With that Sister slipped one key off the key ring she had and slipped it into her habit to a concealed pocket beneath her scapular. She rose and marched obediently toward Macelli and handed him the key ring, bowing and quickly exiting the room. She could not stand to look that man in the eye. Evil there was. That she knew.
There was a pall that came over her as she scurried away from the room down the corridor. She felt sorrow for all those other priests, bishops, brothers and sisters who had also died in that terrible catastrophe along with the Pope. Somehow, she knew they would get lost in the shuffle. There was pain in that thought. The pain of loss unexplained and never to be mourned. Pain in knowing that the funeral which would follow was but a prelude to the beginning of a new chapter in the Roman Catholic Church as a new leader would be elected within the next month to lead the Church, the world out of the morose it had fallen into.
She felt a pang that she had been removed from tending to the Papal Apartments. She felt so much a part of all that went on here in these hallowed halls. It was her home, this holy place that nourished her. And she took as much interest in its every happening as any woman did in her household.
But her passionate interest went unnoticed among her fellow religious. She was considered by most as simply an extraordinary cheerful nun of great faith and happiness. This perception didn't bother her. What went beneath her habit, within the confines of her heart and soul - and mind - remained between God and herself.
She knew as she turned the corner towards the office of her Order of the Holy Family of Santa Cruz, that she was not mentally ready to report to the Mother Superior to receive her new instructions for the Swiss Guard Apartments. But she had not taken vows to fulfill what she wanted, but what God willed. She doubted this was His holy will, but she was obedient and thus entered the office. She hoped her enthusiasm would return in the days and weeks to come. Though doubts arose that perhaps she would find her perceptive nature was more a hindrance to her overall inner peace and well-being. Something she really never imagined.
Few could have ever imagined the inhumanity of the heinous act on the Field of Abraham. It had left the world in a depressed state that many felt they might never be extricated from. It was similar to the tragedy of the World Trade Center Towers in New York and other terrible senseless terrorist acts before and after, yet now on such a wider, more petrifying scale. Untold numbers had died needlessly, including world leaders in the religious and political scene at the highest echelons. How could man have become so intrinsically evil to destroy himself and his fellow man? What could stop such an evil? A world searched for answers as aerial shots of the Field of Death and other devastating shots of the blackened, cratered grave, where millions had been shattered and scattered, filled countless TV screens the world over including the 60" HDTV on the wall of Edwin Blix's mansion.
Dateline: Dallas, Texas - Edwin Blix's Turtle Creek Mansion, November 2, 8:00 a.m.
The eastern sun wou
ld not shine on the publisher of the Metroplex Mirror this morning. Edwin Blix would not allow it. The heavy Mandarin drapes were pulled to block out all sunlight. He preferred it that way. Blix hated company. He was truly a loner. Despite the facade of countless social functions, he relished his privacy and solitude. He tolerated Ans and Soto Ichariak. They could be used. Blix liked to use people. Any other human relationship was passe. It interfered with his twisted thought process.
That he was inordinately proud of his mind, which he felt superior to any man's perception of the world, did not phase him in the least. He had a right to be proud. Finally his genius would be properly compensated. It was not about money, but power!
He was not particularly attractive for a man of his stature. Not that Blix cared. It suited him to stand apart from the world, even if it meant being classified, "slightly cadaverous."
"Humph," he resented as he plucked an orange from the silver bowl of fruit Ans had placed on the table. He gripped a paring knife as his cantankerous thoughts engulfed him, the cable newscasters droning on in the background. People were inept. Best be rid of them. They'd had too many centuries to improve and had not.
Blix? He was far from inept. He was powerful. Influential. He was one of the world's greatest makers and shakers of policy, rules, laws and overall planning for the globalization of a one-world order. His media conglomerates had helped forge this agenda. Here, in his magnificent, yet macabre and eclectic mansion, he could luxuriate in the knowledge of his manipulation of lesser beings.
As the flames in the fireplace flickered this morning an eerie glow reflected on Blix's countenance. His peregrine eyes were narrow and furrowed beneath bushy gray brows that rose to a point which led the beholder to his high forehead, where the skin was stretched parchment thin. Atop the skull wisps of white hair sprouted in disarray. Blix was nearly fanatical about those stray strands. He labored every morning to get them to stand upright. This morning in the reflection of the pyre beneath the massive mantle in his study, those wisps reminded one of a set of horns.
He was already at his desk, fidgeting when Ans Ichariak appeared at the door.
"Excuse me, sire, my brother Soto has returned and you have a call from Rome on line one."
"Ah'll take it. That'll be all." Blix retorted bluntly, a hollow, empty void to his tone.
Muting the television, he lifted the receiver after Ans had closed the door. The caller could tell Blix was listening.
"I fear there are loose ends. Nasiriyah and on the border," a caller with a heavily accented masculine voice informed.
Blix recognized the voice immediately. "You've always been three step behind in this whole affair. Ah've already taken care of the potential problems."
"Then Collier made his contacts?" The caller was assertive.
"Let's just say Collier's no longer necessary to that cause. Ah'll use him elsewhere. You'd best be up-to-date to be of any help," Blix snorted, slitting yet another orange as juice splattered everywhere.
"You forget," the mysterious caller reminded, "I am the Keeper of the Calendar."
"For now." Blix replied icily.
There was a warning in the caller's tone. "The master will not be pleased if you are not cooperative, Edwin."
"The master has no reason to be displeased with mah efforts. Can the same be said for yours? Do not call meh at the mansion again. Do Ah make myself clear?"
"As you wish." With that the caller ended all communication with a click on his end.
"Good-bye," Blix said, cackling into the phone. "Try to do better."
The orange lay mutilated on the bone-china plate rimmed in 14-karat gold and bearing a peculiar design of red etchings.
Ah, Blix was satisfied. To work for the master was the epitome of exhilaration. It added so much twisted joy to the mundane tasks he still had to pretend mattered. Like the Metroplex Mirror. But the charade was nearly ended. Soon would come the great conquest - the final conquest. Victory.
Another cackle, this with the edge of insanity escaping his thin lips. His eyes glowed diabolically as he dialed Vic Van Wess' office, all the while stabbing at the pieces of fruity citrus flesh while he waited.
Van Wess answered. Blix knew he would.
"Victor," he began, flinging a piece of orange across the room and watching it splatter against the ebony sideboard which Ans would have to clean later.
"Blix!" Van Wess' voice was less than cordial.
"You aren't on top of this thing," the publisher chided maliciously. "Ah don't like incompetence."
"I told you I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances," an irritated Vic shot back.
"Really? Ah doubt it," Blix wheezed, "You haven't the imagination. So, Gallagher's gone incommunicado on us. Why?"
"Maybe things are tougher over there than we know. After all I don't know how many lunatics just murdered nearly a million people - what's one more to you?" Vic was going to take no guff and was returning a salvo of sarcasm.
"Might Ah add, Victor," as Blix's voice pitched to a lower tone, almost guttural one, "that one more might be you! Have you thought about that?"
"Don't threaten me, Blix. I don't cater to that kind of..."
"Tough!" The publisher shrieked into the speaker as he spun another piece of orange in a high arc across the room, this time leaving an orange splotch on the immaculate rug. "Doesn't do our circulation or reputation a damn bit of good having a silent reporter, who by the way, is spending mah money!"
Vic tried to mollify his boss. "We've got enough from the wire services for now, Edwin."
"If Ah had wanted to use second-hand copy Ah'd have ignored the whole incident," Blix shouted. "Not good enough. But - -" For some reason Blix allowed the alternative to hang, giving Van Wess a chance to snatch at it.
"But what?" Vic snapped.
"Ah'll be patient a while longer. You get on the phone now, hear me? Make some calls. Track Gallagher down. And if you don't, Victor, you can start worrying all over again. Ah don't tolerate fools."
"And I won't be intimidated," Van Wess had enough guff. "Gallagher's the best reporter we've got. I'll not jeopardize or compromise his position in that hellhole because you want revenues or your reputation to climb!"
"Give my regards to Amy," Blix oozed dryly. "Try to have a good day, Victor. Oh, and Ah hope the legs don't get any worse." Knowing he had exposed a raw nerve in his editor, Blix deliberately disconnected the call and rose from his desk.
"Annnnns!!!" he bellowed, hurling the last orange piece against the wall as he strolled toward the roaring fire in his study that Ans had prepared an hour before Blix awoke. There silhouetted by the glow of the black fire, he cackled in a way that was inhuman. It is likely his loyal eunuch servant Ans, cowering near the door, heard it. His rustling alerted Blix that he had entered the room.
"Ah've got a few messes to clean up overseas. Send Soto in. Oh, and clean up this mess in here." Blix' eyes glowed with hate. "Things have gotten a bit sticky wouldn't you say?"
Dateline: Rome, November 2, 4 p.m.
Oblivious to these horrific images were those who had plotted this demonic deed. Usif Ezerbet met the woman for a late afternoon lunch at an outdoor cafe near the Spanish Steps. Rome was just awakening from its afternoon siesta on an unusually warm November as Ezerbet and Elena Grabe soaked in the rays hitting them from the western sky. They were lucky, Usif realized, for the winds had shifted and brought them warmth from the Mediterranean. Soon the wind would shift and biting winter winds would descend from the north. All boded well for them...an omen of success!
Like Ezerbet, Grabe served in the inner elite circle of the Legion of the Basilisk...at least for now. She had yet to hear from the master. She feared he might be merciless in the fact the explosions had come sooner, much sooner than anticipated, then planned. A foul up in communications, in realizing the change in venue of the order of stage appearances. Grabe complained to her inner self why the Legion could not have had anyone who might have intercepted those last minute alterations. She sought to fend off any blame on herself. She had arrived in Rome only a short time before, but appeared refreshed and utterly composed considering the flack she expected. She permitted Ezerbet to pour the blood red Chianti into her glass, and to toast her successful arrival.
They ordered and waited until the food had come and the waiter was busy elsewhere before she dared to speak.
"The shipping orders are complete, though a bit rushed," she informed the Turk.
"A bit?" Usif was noticeably piqued. "The master cannot be happy that it did not go off as planned. We needed those signed papers to authenticate..."
"I understand we have alternate plans to compensate for the misfortune," Elena smiled sinisterly.
"Yes, but I wouldn't overestimate your luck, Elena. There can be no more mistakes. I'm sure you, of all people, realize that?" Usif was assertive but gentle with this fraulein.
She smiled again, steel in her eyes. "There's something else," she said conversationally, actually smiling at him as if they discussed romance. Nothing about her would suggest that she bore such important information, or that she belonged to an organization that fed on pure evil.
Ezerbet, suspicious of the approaching waiter or others hearing, cautioned. "That can wait. After we have dined. Ah, our meal is here."
The waiter set the plates and entrees on the table and asked if there was anything else they needed.
"No, prego, grazie." Usif said curtly signaling the waiter he was no longer needed.
They ate their meal in relative silence. These two people who blended in so well with all others.
Elena was in every outward aspect a normal woman. She bore the marks of her heritage with great pride. She had been born in the 50's, the only child of Hermann and Elizabet Grabe. She was German, pure Deutschland, the kind of Arian Adolph Hitler himself would have been proud of: blonde hair, eyes tending to a lovely shade of blue-gray, skin unlined, smooth as foam on a lager. Her parents, sympathizers toward the Nazi regime, had bitterly raised Elena to think only of the glorious past that the world had stripped from her. She had been reared in an atmosphere of hate and anger.
Her adult life had been one unsuccessful attempt after another to punish the world for what it had done to her country, her people, her parents and herself. For every German life lost in that long-ago glorious struggle, Elena sought to take a life from the present day. Only when she joined the Legion, pledged her soul to the master, had she been able to realize her ambitions. For a dozen years she had labored under the power of the Basilisk - twelve of the most fruitful, satisfying years of her life.
She felt confidant this day that soon all her expectations would come to pass. The master had promised. He had only to establish his kingdom and then the world would be shaped as he saw fit. She had seen his vision of the new world. It suited her for hate attracts like-minded people. Love has no place in their lives.
Nothing in Ezerbet's demeanor betrayed his true character either. He returned her cheerful smile and took pleasure in finishing the last of the wine, enjoying its effect.
"You are finished, no?" he inquired of her. When she nodded he summoned the waiter with a preemptory wave of his hand.
Within moments they were strolling leisurely down the street away from the cafe, away from the more crowded areas. They had no particular destination. They sought only to blend in, so as to continue their conversation beneath the general hub of activity of a city already suspicious, yet unaware that the enemy was in its midst.
Ezerbet waited until they were some blocks distant before speaking first. "You were discovered?"
Elena enjoyed a brief laugh, though it was more a sound of contempt. "No, of course not. I had no difficulties," she informed him tersely, making sure he understood just how powerfully the master worked within her. "The uniform of an International Red Cross nurse served me well. Naturally, I was one of the very first on the scene a few hours later. We drove back to the base for further instructions and then proceeded immediately back. I also saw the explosions from the ridge."
"Then you had best tell me what else has come up so we can judge what to do," he said curtly, annoyed by her arrogance.
"This," she said with a reverent pride, taking her handbag a piece of ordinary tissue and carefully unwrapping it to expose on the white surface a piece of metal. At first glance there appeared nothing unusual about it, with the possible exception that its ends were charred and bent. Ezerbet picked it up and turned it over, unaware that Elena enjoyed this moment of triumph. His face turned pale. Elena laughed.
"Where did you get this?" he snapped. He stared a moment longer, zeroing in on the logo etched upon the surface that had somehow remained intact throughout its ordeal. It was the symbol of the master, the Basilisk - - the forbidden symbol to any but those of the elite inner circle.
"It is most extraordinary, Usif, " she told him carefully, not wishing to let him see that she personally blamed others of the inner circle for this failure in security. "These identifications are never to be used unless specifically instructed by the master. No such instructions were given."
"No they weren't. Were there any others?"
"Not that I know of, Usif."
"The master was most emphatic that for this particular event there be no symbol left behind for someone to find. I fear someone has betrayed the master, Elena."
"Yes, I believe we must intensify our watch. The enemy is on our hoofs."
"It is time then to exterminate the pests, the quicker the better. Do you not agree, Elena?"
"Quite. Ja vol." She slowed her pace and stopped. "I suggest you explain what you wish me to do now. I obey orders, remember? And for now you are to give them," came her less-than-kind reminder.
"Ah yes, very well, you are to go to the apartment we have rented on the Via Crescenzio," he instructed. "Remain there. Late tonight, when the ashes of the pathetic victims arrive to be taken to the Vatican, arrangements have been made for a member of the Legion to be on hand to verify that they have been delivered."
"And who might that be?" Elena inquired.
"That is for the master to know only," Ezerbet abruptly ended her speculation. "In the meantime I'll have to inform the master of the matter you've brought to our attention." He phrased the statement very carefully, indicating that he was the preferred disciple, not her. He saw her flinch. "Have no fear, Elena. I will indeed tell him that you have served faithfully. Oh, and one more thing..."
"What is it?" A trepidation betrayed her voice.
"You've indentified the weapon to be used in our next strike?"
"Of course. I have confirmation," she patted her handbag. "Well concealed, my comrade, a microdot amidst my cosmetics. It will be perfectly safe."
"Excellent. Then, for now, rest. Soon we'll have to make ready for delivery of the 'cosmetics' once you have decrypted the instructions. You will keep me abreast. Our plans go forward. As we speak the Legion is closing in on the moles who seek to thwart us."
Evening gradually descended on Europe. The Seven Hills of Rome sparkled as the twilight blended with the lights of the city. From the air no one could see the treachery and intrigue that was underway in this eternal city. From the Heavens all was peaceful, at ground level the clock was ticking.
Dateline: Rome - November 2, 6:10 p.m.
The traffic was normally heavy as the cab transporting Pat from the airport to the hotel inched its way into the city. Italians are a friendly lot. Giorgio was the driver of his cab. Pat had introduced himself and immediately Giorgio embraced him as if he had been a long lost friend, "Ah, Patricio, bene. Multa bene."
As Giorgio headed northeast towards the city from Fiumicino Airport, the tall cypress trees reminded him of the same flora at Fasif's place. Pat thought about the last several hours. Not bad time, Pat mused. Leave Kuwait City at 4:00 and arrive in Rome at 5:45. In actuality it was an uneventful three-hour and 54 minute flight. Several somber clerics and a few nuns and nurses along. They had been at the Field of Death earlier as well and realized there was no way they could do anymore. He understood they were with Caritas in Rome. He wished Niki could have accompanied him. He'd known the Greek less than 24 hours and yet he had formed a bond with this mysterious priest and an even more mysterious doctor who had really confounded Pat with the volume of material he had imparted.
Slowly but surely Pat was piecing it all together. It still boggled his mind. It helped that Niki had filled him in on the gaps which Fasif had not gone into detail. Niki was Karel's godfather. No wonder Niki followed her development as a person of God and sought only her welfare. According to Niki, she does Fasif and Helene credit, as well as her father Malachi who she never knew.
As the cab turned onto the Viale Trastevere, Pat thought about what a dedicated man Niki was and how much he looked forward to meeting this Karel. He wondered if he'd ever see Niki or Fasif again, if he'd ever get to meet Karel's mother. As he mulled over what Karel might look like, a multi-car accident on Viale Trastevere and the shouting surrounded it interrupted his thoughts.
Giorgio rolled down his window, pointing his fist and emitting refrains that surely must be cussing as only Italians can do. One did not need to know the language, the gestures told the story. Just as quickly a carabinieri signaled for him to veer his car to the right.
Pat's driver muttered something, yelled "Prego!" and sharply made a left-hand turn up the hill.
Pat craned his neck to see the Roman police officer waving his fist frantically as the cab put distance between the officer of the law and this fleeing cab that wasn't going to be directed along a snake-like procession that could take hours. This Roman taxi billed its fare on distance, not time. Speed prompted the driver to make up for time. Away from the bottlenecked logjam the cab sped, cutting up Viale Glorioso where, after many twists and turns that left Gallagher gasping for breath, he turned onto Via Aurelia at the Garibaldi Piazza and headed north up the hill where it crested. Soon Pat could see the majestic dome of St. Peter's, the setting sun glimmering off the western side of the Basilica. Soon the cab descended to the bridge over the Tiber at the Piazza Rovere and headed up the one way thoroughfare on the eastern side of the river winding its way through traffic again.
Pat mused that if one could drive in Rome, one could drive anywhere. As much as he loved to drive, as much as he wanted to take the wheel rather than the maniac that was chauffeuring him to the Esperia, he knew that would be hijacking. He decided to sit back and enjoy the view. After all, the cabbie had gotten him this far in one piece. The lights on the Ponte San Angelo caught his eye with the majestic statues standing sentinel every 50 feet on each side of this magnificent bridge that led straight to a magnificent circular edifice.
"Scusi, is that the monument they call the Weddin' Cake? Pat asked with all the naivete of a tourist.
"No, Patricio, you want Vittoriano. This is Castel Sant'Angelo. Si?"
"Ah, si," replied Pat as he leaned forward to get a better look at the looming round castle. Little did he realize how his path would cross those two who were holed up on the third level still in a very weakened state. Little did he know just what was hidden and yet to be revealed.
"Many tourists?" Pat asked in seeking if it were open to the public.
The driver chuckled. "No, no more. Shut down. Why? Ah, who knows."
Georgio's hand gestures frightened Pat as the Roman taxi driver had both hands off the wheel and was turning his head back toward Pat. These Italians Pat thought, how do they make it through a day? Then again, with all that has happened in the last 36 hours, how does anyone get through the day? He instinctively reached into his pocket and squeezed the Rosary beads Fasif had given him. Somehow, someway, that gave him comfort. Somehow he knew God would be with him through it all.
Giorgio's laugh reminded him of Niki's easy-going, no pretense chuckling. As welcoming as that was, there was a burning sensation coursing through Pat' entire being. It wasn't the scotch and soda he'd had on the flight. No. Rather, it was the knowledge which seeped into his bloodstream with every beat of his heart that the depravity of the Basilisk had already reached out and marked him; tracked him from the moment he'd landed in Basra to the time at Fasif's to this point in time as the cab turned onto the street that would take him directly to the Esperia Hotel. He had been smelling the Basilisk's fetid breath and it was getting stronger.
* * * * * * *
Dateline: Tel Aviv, Israel - Home of Helene Shenneker - November 2, 7:30 p.m.
While Pat checked into the Esperia and settled in for a well-deserved rest, Helene Shenneker sat in the veranda of her modest home on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, a slight breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean through the portal of her small balcony that faced westward. Her fingers rested lightly on the opened pages of the Psalms of David.
Beside her a lighted candle burned steadily, its glow adding to the sincerity of her reading and the flame sheltered from the breeze by small bookcase. Helene's eyes were closed in prayer, and she did not stir so much as an eyelash for several long minutes.
The day's events had drummed mercilessly in her mind. The depleted Israeli coalition, the same one that survived the terrible fall of Jerusalem earlier in this fateful year, had been in an uproar throughout the day. They had protested loudly the innuendoes which were moving like a tsunami throughout the MidEast and beyond to all continents. Cardinal Macelli's announcement the morning before of the pope's proclamation had not sat well with Hebrew interests. Fueled by continued hatred by neighboring countries, assumptions were being made that rebellious Jews, indeed, former members of The Mossad, had planted the explosives. The world was in a vengeful mood. Terrorists the likes of the Al Qaeda and Taliban marshalled at one time by Osama bin Laden could not be blamed for this one and so the scapegoat mantle fell upon those descendants of Judea who were supposedly retaliating for the atrocities of World War II and the siege and destruction of the Holy City.
Never mind that there was no proof. Rumors and half-truths have a way of blotting out such facts. Helene had not been surprised. Her entire career in the Israeli government had taught her that her country would always be a prime target for any nation to pin a crime on. It was the nature of the country and the history of its people. What did surprise her was the incredulity on the faces and in the voices of her fellow cabinet members. Would they never learn?
Her heart and soul were weary this evening. She sensed a quietness about. Glancing out toward the evening sky where the stars and moon were muted by intermittent clouds, she felt as if the night moved about on feet slippered by darkness. It was as if the entire world held its breath in anticipation.
There appeared to be no one else about. The silence was complete. The room was immaculate, almost monastic in its furnishings. Yet, within this very room Helene had achieved much wisdom and virtue of patience through long hours of prayer and meditation. These were her real strengths, given her by God. She sought refuge in them this evening.
Her brief conversation with Fasif earlier in the day had awakened sleeping memories. Now they seemed even more vivid. She realized there was no turning back. No wishing what might have been, what could have been. She realized it was her choice, her will to accept or block. She would not stand in his way. A deep sigh escaped her fragile frame. Like Fasif, she knew only too well that the Legion was close. The time was at hand. As if knowing her death was imminent.
She did not know if it was still possible to halt the Legion of the Basilisk in its relentless march upon the world, but, like Fasif, she knew she must try. Death in trying to prevent it was preferable to living in a kingdom that swirled in a black mist of hatred.
Despite her prayers this day, she could not shake off the concern for Fasif's life. Anyone who stood in the way of this evil force would be marked for death. It was inevitable. Even more than Fasif, she worried over the safety of her only child. She knew she could not protect Karel. She knew, though she tried in several ways, that she could not dissuade her daughter from undertaking her role in this mission to halt the Antichrist. The forces of good were in Karel's blood and heart. Karel was the daughter of hers and Malachi's love and convictions, the daughter of their minds and souls. The night she was conceived, their honeymoon night on the Isle of Cyprus seemed such a distant memory now. Without Fasif she wouldn't have made it after Malachi's gruesome, mysterious death. Fasif was her rock. Like Joseph, he protected his sister by caring for her and giving the outside world the idea they were married to protect her identity. It was like a witness-protection program which The Mossad, with the cooperation of the Vatican, had set up. It worked well with the Holy See and aided greatly in keeping it very secret for the sake of all. Now Karel was a grown woman in her 20's who had to live out her own role in this. Confidentiality was one of her greatest traits. Helene had learned to accept whatever came along, learning long ago that her brother had been chosen by God to play a very important role in the world. Such an extraordinary man!
Khadid had indicated to her that the pope's body - or more accurately his pile of ashes - would be secretly returned to Rome later this night. This was uppermost in her mind. For it meant only one thing. The Legion of the Basilisk would seize this opportunity. The entire world was in mourning for the pope and scores of other religious and political leaders, and a creeping fear gripped Shenneker, a dread that Basilisk would seize the moment.
Her objective now was to know where that attack was planned and how these disciples of the serpent of sin intended to manifest their power and strike fear anew into the already shell-shocked planet called earth. What threatened them was not of this world.
She realized her own days, even hours, were numbered for the Legion was well aware of her role against them. While the world media had trumpeted various terrorist cells that had to be responsible for the holocaust on the Field of Abraham - a retaliation for the destruction of Jerusalem, Helene wanted, with every fiber, to shout from the rooftops that the 'terrorists' were not just a cell but a damnation from and for all time. The media had not a clue that the world was a victim to an elite squad of people who belonged totally to their master, who thought as the master wished them to think, who took their strength from the devil himself, and that in turn strengthened him further in the wake of so much hopelessness and despair of the natural and manmade destruction that had prevailed worldwide for decades.
Helene had sent Karel to Rome the morning of the massacre to meet with another man who could help piece together the location of the den. However that man had mysteriously disappeared, as had many others, for the forces of good were dwindling quickly. Now those who fought with every fiber to detect and root out the Legion were putting their trust in an American whom Fasif had known for only a few hours. He was going on that inner sense that had always sustained him so well. For he trusted in God, not his own prejudices and hunches. Though Helene was a bit skeptical, she knew Fasif had done a quick background check and knew people who could vouch for him. God, she hoped that would be enough.
Karel loved being in Rome. Prior to the attack on the Field of Abraham on November 1st she had been in the eternal city seeking information from various sources, but many of those sources had dried up or disappeared. At the time Karel felt she was losing her touch and confided such in a stream of tears in her mother's arms on the night of October 30th in this very room where Helene sat this night. As a loving mother, Shenneker had tried to console her daughter, tried to tell her that failure was part of the human struggle that could only be truly successful when in harmony with God.
The last time she talked with Karel was earlier this afternoon when she called on the secure line, a renewed enthusiasm in her voice as she told of her findings in the ancient city of Romulus and Remus. She had met with a man, a rather drunken one at that, one Sebastiano Tenazi, who had been more than willing to talk to her for the promise of wine.
Karel had told her mother that Sebastiano had related to her of his assignment to hide in the basement corridor below a produce shop in the Via Magdalena, to watch as four people dressed as the night gathered to hold a secret meeting. He confirmed to her the Basilisk salute and that he had caught a glimpse of one man whose eyes glowed like burning coals. All this, he had told Karel, he had later reported to another man, one he seemed greatly fearful of and yet drawn to, a man who periodically asked such favors of him in return for a bountiful supply of Chianti and heroin. Karel had believed the old man, though it was clear his mind was affected by the excessive use of alcohol and narcotics, not to mention his breath and the putrid odor emitted from a lack of proper hygiene. Such is the hopeless trap so many homeless fall into. Despite all of this, there was something about the way he spoke of these people, in particular the man whom he later met who gave him the barbiturates that sent shivers up Karel's spine. Helene knew Karel was convinced these were members of the inner circle of the Legion. They were in Rome, no doubt about that.
Helene closed the Book of Psalms and extinguished the candle. There in the moonlight she meditated in silent prayer, as if making her total peace with God.
A wisp of wind blew the candle out. It was maybe a minute before she noticed it as she reached for a match to re-light the wick. Her hand paused in the very action of striking the match. Had she imagined it? Surely she had not heard a hissing sound in the room? Never! There were no lethal serpents in this part of Israel, especially so close to the coast for the government had been most methodical in keeping wildlife away from the settlements.
She started to strike the match again. Just as she did she heard it again. A slithering, hissing movement that was all of one piece. She applied the match to the wick and watched the flame leap from the door which she had not fully closed.
Helene was not given to hysteria by any means. She had been through too much. However, tonight she felt a quickening of her heartbeat at this unprecedented sound. Her imagination, nothing more, she told herself firmly. After all, concentrating as she must on the Legion of the Basilisk can conjure up many scenarios that can play with the mind and psyche.
She held the candle aloft, lighting a portion of the room directly in front of her. Nothing there. She began to move forward, toward the front door when the sound repeated. It was much closer now. She whirled about, candle held high, and shed its light to her left.
Then she saw it!
Not a lizard she had ever seen before, accustomed as she was to seeing strange creatures in the remoter parts of the Israeli state. This was the same reptile Pat had learned of earlier this day; the same Basilisk Fasif had alerted Helene to so often in recent years. The same unearthly reptile which had taken her beloved Malachi from her - so dastardly that many of the operatives within her own agency at The Mossad had refused to believe this legend. It was no legend. What was this beast?
It hissed and grew larger even as she watched in stunned horror. The sight paralyzed her. The candle trembled in her hand, making the shadows waver and the hideous effect upon the reptile's puffing dilatable pouch was even more appalling. From its mouth its tongue darted, seeking her scent, her flesh.
She managed to back up an inch.
That was as far as she got. Another hiss, this more powerful, more satanic than any previous sound, as it rose on its hind legs, the crest along its spine standing upright, each one a spike of death. Beneath its belching throat the pouch enlarged more, glowing red in the candlelight.
Her gaze was hypnotically riveted upon this creature. The tongue still darted in and out with great rapidity. Yet that was not where her gaze was fixed. She looked with terror upon its own eyes. Eyes of deepest ebony that transformed in the flickering to eyes that took on the red glow of molten hatred.
All this took mere seconds, though to Helene it seemed endless minutes as she stood frozen to the spot, captured by an evilness which she had only guessed at, and never thought to behold.
The Basilisk came at her, far more omnipotent than she could have imagined - than anyone could have imagined. There was no preparation on earth for what she experienced. The lizard grew to the proportions of a grown man and caught her throat with its diabolical claws, ripping, tearing, and breathing upon her the stench of her own death. She tried to fight it off, but her efforts were as futile as the blood pouring from her numerous wounds and the blood spurting from her ruptured carotid artery, the candle dropping on the couch.
The monster of depravity lunged full on, knocking Helene to the floor. With her last ounce of breath she managed to scream one final exclamation, one last prayer into the fetid air before the end came.
"Fasif! May God protect you!" Her lungs expelled the words as the final agony took hold.
No sooner were her last words uttered than the Basilisk was on her, goring into her side and burrowing into an open cavity until her entire body imploded in a mass of tissue, bone and blood. Then the hissing filled the air once more. Yet it was quieter now. Satisfied and satiated.
The flames seared to the ceiling as the curtains spread the candleflame into a conflagration that soon engulfed the entire room. It created a thick Black Fire that boiled and rolled, thundering forth, creating its own velocity as the lizard moved swiftly through the thick smoke to the balcony and down the wall and out into the night, leaving behind only ashes.
Next: PART II: The Smoldering FOURTH CHAPTER, Episode Six: Escape from the Embers
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