WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE! c 1986, 2001, 2005

Part I
First Chapter
The Unleashing

Episode Six: The Cabal of the Camerlengo

       Like a nightmare of nuclear proportions the mushroom of misery spread across borders with the speed of fiber optics. Over ocean, hill and dale, the awareness reverberated across the earth with bewildered echoes of the cataclysmic event that had taken place less than an hour ago. One million people, known - many well-known - and unknown, engulfed in that saucer of horrors - the likes of which the world had never seen. Half of the globe was still in repose, unaware of the asphyxiation of spirit that had suffocated Europe, Asia and Oceania. The REM of their dreams would be rudely interrupted by grassroots network of the telephone, ringing incessantly across the western hemisphere. In a ray of illuminated dominoes across landscapes from sea to shining sea the bluish glare of television sets lit up each household as the bedraggled inhabitants, most garbed only in nightware, gaped incredulously at the reports on every network. Stark reality and unrest had interrupted their quiet, restful night.


Dateline: Vatican City, November 1, 9:15 a.m.

       The news of the Papal party's demise had flowed across the Eternal City like molten lava, leaving all in a state of shock, all in instant mourning, all praying like there was no tomorrow. For indeed, despite their faith, the finite had doubts. Hope can be so fleeting in the face of calamity. It would take heroic virtue to hold up under the circumstances in which the world and the Holy See found themselves on this heretofore glorious feast of the Omnes Sancti.

       All optimism had been placed in a comatose state as workers and clerics filed into St. Peter's Square as if drawn by the magnet of the haunting moment to the heart of Christianity. Would Christendom survive this horrible assault?

       While millions prayed that it would, the Legion continued its nefarious goal to see that it would not. Within the hushed and requiem-like atmosphere of the Vatican, two of its residents - both highly-placed officials - met in the shadows of the Apostolic Palace.

       The first was Antonio Cardinal Macelli, a short stocky stuffed apple in his cardinal robes who was in charge of the Vatican Department of Internal Affairs. He was, in many respects, the Chief of the Vatican Police as well as holding sway over the vaunted Swiss Guard. Though not directly in charge of the latter, he had more than a little influence and had easily installed many whose heart was not in the tradition of those halberd bearers who had gone before them. Through the many infiltrators Macelli had maneuvered into position, there was very little of which he was unaware. Often times he would know much more before it ever reached the Pope himself, if indeed it ever did.

       Over the course of two centuries many Vicars of Christ had been kept in the dark as the infiltration was escalated by an ever-increasing number who had betrayed the cross, the faith. They had sold their souls to Satan. The two who met this morning were just two of the ten horns of Apocalypse 12.

       The other prelate who joined him was Josef Marie Cardinal Vendhem, who held the title Master of Ceremonies - the Camerlengo. He stood six two on a lithe frame, sporting a short-cropped salt and pepper goatee that matched a course crewcut. His sunken eyes were a cobalt blue that sometimes looked as if they had fire beneath them. More often than not, however, they merely appeared cold and still. His voice was a rich baritone, the guttural tenor often heard booming instructions to Vatican staff when one of the elaborate ceremonies or events were being prepared. This Munich-born prince of the Church had ruffled his share of feathers. It bothered him not in the least.

       "The annihilation in Iraq is complete," a very agitated Macelli intoned, looking up at Vendhem who was still standing.

       "But our Pope did not speak, he did not sign. What went wrong?" A worried Vendhem shot back.

       "I don't know yet. First reports were hasty. Our contacts were also extinguished." Macelli was clueless.

       "Did not Grabe assure us?" The tall one quizzed.        "Si, but we can do nothing about that now," Macelli shrugged. "We must dispose of the main repast."

       Vendhem leaned against the desk. "It shall be done. You'll make further inquiries as to the menu, ja?"

       "We must make changes in the cuisine, Josef. The wine and cheese must be next."

       "Do we release the letter, then, Lord Macelli?"

       "Do you have the signature and seal?"

       "I will meet with our Padre Urazzi soon. " Vendhem assured him.

       "We can't appear too eager. We must feign humility and shock for yet a little while longer, Monsignor." Macelli's sagging jowls belied the thin voice that grated on many of the Vatican household. Nevertheless, he did his job well. Too well many of the staff thought. And that, Antonio determined, made even the mighty Vendhem dependent upon him in this matter. "Make sure, Josef, it is secure and authentic - with the seal. The ring?"

       "The cleaners will extract it, Antonio. Again, I ask you. When do we release the letter?"

       Macelli seemed impatient now, "Again, I repeat, we must exercise caution. The Legion will sort it out."

       Rising, the roly-poly one moved around his ornate desk where he came to within five inches of Vendhem's course chin. The round little man's bulging eyes met the German's beady ones at a 45 degree angle, "Do not indicate to anyone what we have spoken of. Not by word or deed. It's the only safeguard we have to make sure the remainder of the plan is completed."

       "You don't need to lecture me, Lord Macelli. You forget yourself. I..." Vendhem allowed his cerulean pupils to glow for a fraction of a second as he continued, "I am the chosen one, am I not? Has that not always been the plan?"

       "My Lord Josef, we do what we are told. Until the moment when our master decides we are all his servants." There was no meekness in Macelli's manner.

       Pride vied with pride as Vendhem straightened up, throwing his head back, and clicking his heels together "Yes, I will honor the master as he sees fit. He will be proud of what I shall accomplish." It was as if Hitler had returned for some unfinished business, that of usurping Eugenio Pacelli's rightful role in history as the true good Pope Pius XII.

       If one had been a fly on the wall in the fires of Gehenna over the past sixty years, most likely one could have seen, even felt the regrets that served as a never-ending reminder that had to have stuck in the Fuhrer's craw. Near the top of this wretched soul's list was quite possibly that he had not marched on the Holy See when he had the chance in 1943. That pesky pontiff - the man known in so many circles as the Last Traditional Pontiff - had foiled so many of Adolph's fail safe orders. So cleverly, so deftly he had preserved innumerable Jew from their appointed round, foiled the great Third Reich with so humble a demeanor. It would give the condemned despot little consolation that his kidnapper - the beast - had sought so hard to totally demean and vilify this holy guardian of the Faith and austere man of God through innuendo and lie over the past twenty-five years. While many, in the same confines which Pius justly ruled, had lost their cool and credibility, the irony was truly lost on these two curial infiltrators as they stood face to face beneath a framed oil painting of Pius XII himself. The brush stroke was masterful; the artist had captured the sternness and sanctity so well in that narrow face.

       The two cardinals had not noticed this. Little did they realize that the painting behind them and many other paintings and priceless statues of saints and popes throughout the Vatican had come to life in the great vault of Heaven and were conveying all they had heard to the high court. There were no secrets in Eternity. They had intercepted the enemy. The only hope for the world rested in the celestial clarion that rallied the forces of St. Michael for the battle ahead. The Apocalypse was here.


Dateline: Dallas, Texas, November 1, 2:20 a.m.

       Pat zipped his Miata into the nearly-empty parking garage owned by the Metroplex Mirror and scurried into the stall on the fifth level nearest to the side entrance to the offices. He yanked hard at the heavy steel door and found himself in a brightly lit passage. The familiar sights and sounds of the newspaper immediately greeted him; a deep sigh escaped. It was the gasp of a frightened prey who had suddenly, and only momentarily, found safety from the insanity of the past hour.

       From a distance he could see his editor Vic Van Wess just hanging up the phone at his desk. Pat's entrance was both obvious and welcome. Vic needed company and answers. "You saw it?" Vic asked gruffly.

       "Yeah, tell me it's a video game," Pat's voice searched for assurance as he plopped down on the chair facing Vic's desk, "Tell me I'm gonna wake up. Just a damn nightmare!"

       "I wish. God, I wish." Vic's voice trailed off.

       "And you? Did you see it, Vic?"

       "Christ. It was appalling. Like being there, know what I mean?"

       Pat nodded in agreement.

       "Why did I ever give up smoking? God, for a cigarette right now." Vic pined.

       "Got some contraband with me, Vic. The finest Pall Malls this side of Carolina."

       "Tempting, but you know the damn no smoking rules, Pat."

       "Yeah, and you think with what just happened the PC police are going to worry about a couple guys breaking the holy rule against smoking when half the world leaders and 90 percent of the religious leaders, includin' the Pope just went up in smoke?!?"

       "You're right, screw the rules." Vic bolted forward in his chair as Pat offered him a fresh Pall Mall.

       Pat motioned toward the corner, "Grab your chair and wheel it over there. No smoke detectors and sprinklers. No one'll be the wiser."

       "Who cares!?" Vic said as if he were a kid again giddily rolling his chair toward the corner of the office as Pat offered a lighter. Vic drew in deep and started to cough. "Damn, forgot it takes time to get used to these things again."

       "Wouldn't know, Vic, I've been addicted so long there's no quittin' for me."

       "Hey, we all gotta go sometime. Nobody's going to get out of this life alive." Vic rationalized. "He can take anyone, anytime. A million in the blink of an eye!"

       "Any line feeds yet? Reports from AP, UPI or Reuters?" The ink in Pat's veins was surfacing.

       "Just the same old droll, no new leads. Very little on the networks either. Only those boobs in the studios analyzing something like a clinical autopsy. All they've been showing is file footage and stock photos ad nausea. Everything else - dead as a damn doornail." Vic moaned noticeably. The dizziness from the first few drags of his first cigarette in seventeen years was subsiding. "Damn, poor Johannsen and Roybal," Vic groaned. "I've still got to notify their wives and kids. Damn, it's times like this I hate this job."

       "Whaddya need, Vic. I'm here."

       "Answers. Facts, figures. The whole enchilada down to the stinking skeleton and where the hell it leaves the world now."

       "In one helluva mess, Vic. And I emphasize hell."

       Vic looked up at the clock on the wall. 2:25 a.m. "Where the hell's Collier?"

       "That wimp? Whaddya want him for?" Pat shot back.

       "Blix is sending him to Iraq in half an hour."

       Pat sprung out of his chair, squashing the butt of his half-lit cigarette into the waxed tile beneath his size ten Adidases. "Why can't Blix but out?"

       "Same ol' same ol'. Blix's plane is idling at Love Field as we speak. He wants one of ours as UPI source for the Mirror." Vic hacked as he handed his cigarette to Pat. "Here finish it."

       "I'll finish it alright." Pat took Vic's cigarette, flicking off the ash. "I can guarantee Jordan Collier won't. That wimp can't write. He's nothin' but a 'yes' man for Blix."

       "Can't argue with you, Pat, but...Blix's orders. But, if he's not here pretty soon it won't matter. The Morning Beacon will beat us to it."

       "If Collier goes everybody will beat us to it!" Pat was now looking Vic in the eye. "Send me, Vic."

       Vic tried to back away, "I can't, son."

       Slamming his fist emphatically on the desk, Pat responded as expected. "Bullcrap! I can take this and shake it 'til its skeleton rattles and trace it step by step."

       "Heard that Pulitzer spiel before and it won't work, Gallagher."

       "Screw Blix. Screw Collier. I'm your man, Vic."

       "It's not that easy, Pat."

       "Your choice, Vic: Sell your soul to Blix or do the right thing?"

       "I hate when you put it like that."

       "You know I'm gooood." Pat's ego was surging now as he extinguished the second Pall Mall into the tile, then leaned over to pick up both butts so no one would be suspicious. Over the years as a crack reporter Pat had become an expert at covering his tracks.

       "So. I give you the green light and what? You come home in a damn shoe box?"

       "Shoe boxes are cheaper than coffins." Always quick with a quip, Pat had Vic reeling.

       "When Blix finds out, he'll be..."

       Pat didn't wait for Vic to finish. "Does he have to? Ignorance is bliss."

       Vic had pushed his chair back to his desk and plopped down behind it. "Blix is a lot of things, Pat, but he's not ignorant. He knows everything. That's what scares me."

       "Hey, it's easier to say 'sorry' than ask for permission. My passport's current and I'm perpetually packed."

       Vic was a beaten man. He looked up at the clock and at the door. "I don't see Collier anywhere in sight. Oh, what the hell! Blix's Lear jet is on tarmac 6 and ready. Just show Soto Ichariak this."

       He had pulled out of his desk drawer a palm pilot, a slim laptop and a Mirror Reflector Code card. This patented wonder could track all communications, serve as a credit card and interact with other codes to do practically everything but make coffee. Its main purpose was to zap information in microseconds to the main computer at the Mirror. They had been in use for just six months and the results had been revolutionary. Both Johannsen and Roybal had been using them up until the explosion. The images had been conveyed from the tiny video cam that molded into the slim carrying case with the laptop. They were the only images Vic had to run in the morning edition of the November 1st Metroplex Mirror. It was already on line at MetroplexMirror.com. Yet, Vic knew he needed more, even if it did take half a day to get someone there.

       Victor Van Wess knew either way he would incur the wrath of Blix. If he waited any longer there would be no representation for the Mirror. What was worse? By fate Collier had been a no show. Vic was not one to mull on something once he made a decision.

       "Here's your ticket and the Reflector card. You know all about it. Just sign here and punch in your pin number here. Don't go on a binge. Sure you're packed?"

       "In the car," the excitement showed in Pat's voice.

       "This card will give you encrypted access, Pat. Send all reports that way. Record on the available data drive on the second strip. We'll track the video when it's on."

       Pat tucked the sleek gray molded briefcase under his arm, "No problem! Technology's terrific today!"

       "And terrifying," Vic inserted. "Somehow I'll explain it to Blix after you're airborne. Don't like sending you, Pat...but, it's your funeral."

       "I wish you wouldn't put it quite like that." Pat had been brought into the reality of the moment. Vic had a way of doing that. He had to. Getting the news out on time on an international and local basis never depended on fantasy.

       "I'll let them know you're on your way, Pat. God, be careful, son."

       "I'm on my way. I'll e-mail Corrie and fill her in once I'm airborne." Before Ben could inform him that all e-mail would be channeled back to the Mirror because the card served as an override, Pat was out the door. Despite a bitter norther settling in too comfortably in the region, and the acoustics of the building, the roar of the two-seater sports coupe could be heard tearing out of the parking garage.

       Van Wess sat back pensively in his chair, stretching in pain as he swiveled his metal hip joint and lifted his scarred left knee laboriously to rest on top of the messy desk. Damn weather, made the old leg ache like Satan himself was trying to take the blasted thing off, he thought. God, life was such a picnic. Full of ants and...terrorism. It wasn't just the pain in his arthritic leg that gnawed on him. The feeling surged, casting a pall over his mind and heart on what he had just done. He had caved to Pat's coaxing and dispatched this reporter, whom he loved like a son, into the fetid furnace of hell.

___________________

       Europe, like the rest of the world was reeling from the holocaust of an hour ago. Many in the western hemisphere still slept soundly, unmindful of the most horrific single instant disaster since Hiroshima. The U.S. secretary of state along with several senators and a few members of the House had been the American representatives. An overbooked schedule of Cabinet meetings had kept the president and his vice president at home. Millions would thank God for that.

       Not so for practically every nation on the face of this earth. Lost in the fiery annihilation were the prime ministers of England, Canada, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, as well as the presidents who ruled France, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia and South Korea. Casualties included the German chancellor, the vice premier of Russia, the vice chairman of China, the governor general of Australia, the vice president of Italy, the ayatollah of Iran, the sultan of Brunei, the premier of Bermuda, and many lesser leaders. Countless military leaders and heads of states in Africa, South America, Asia and the MidEast, some who themselves had not blinked when they ordered the execution of so many of their own countrymen, were dispatched in the furnace of the finite on the Field of Abraham. Monarchs were wiped out in the blink of an eye - kings from Norway, Nepal, Thailand, Western Samoa, Lesotho, along with princes from Spain, Swaziland, and Liechtenstein, as well as the princess of Denmark and the grand duke of Luxembourg. Ministers, bishops, preachers, priests, monks, nuns, lay religious leaders, holy and unholy men and women met their fate on this first day of November. Thousands of members of the media would communicate no more over the mediums their public had come to depend on.

       Those global news gatherers who had survived this sickening inferno - all who had not ventured within ten miles of New Nasiriyah - were now counting the casualties by deduction, researching itineraries of every world leader, what representatives they had sent, who, when, where. It would be a massive obituary of humanity - a tome that might never quite be able to be fully recorded in the historical annals.


Dateline: Vatican City, November 1, 9:30 a.m.

       Many were gathering in Paul VI Hall, just off the south side of St. Peter's Basilica, isolated and hidden behind the timeless Bernini Colonnade. This sloping, massive arena had been built back in the late seventies and dedicated in the early eighties in order to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. It was where the Holy Father normally delivered his Wednesday general audiences, except during the summers when the square usually filled to the brim. Once the heat of September gave over to the chills of October, Paul VI Hall was the norm. On this first day of November a light rain fell on the eternal city. It was just enough to make the cobblestones slippery as priests, prelates, and many news personnel filed into the hall, folding up umbrellas.

       Sister Bridget Marie McCullough, a member of the Order of the Holy Family of Santa Cruz, and therefore a member of the Papal Household, had been summoned from prayer in the chapel by her superior Mother Agnes de Christi. Sister McCullough went by Sister Bridie, the affectionate name her fellow Vatican staffers knew her by. This young nun had a naiveté that allowed her to retain a sixth sense about much that went on about her. Much she would never have bothered with. This morning, however, the look on the mother superior's face had sent a wave of foreboding through the heart of Sister Bridie. It was confirmed a few seconds later when Reverend Mother Agnes informed Sister Bridie of what happened.

       Sister Bridie was one of the youngest of the Papal Household, appointed shortly after the death of John Paul II. She was a traditional nun through and through who served with dedication and absolute faith in a time of tremendous loss of faith on a worldwide scale. She would need every ounce of that faith as she obediently followed Mother Agnes from the chapel to the side corridor that would take them down another corridor to the passageway under the main steps of St. Peter's to a corridor inside Paul VI Hall.

       They proceeded through another passageway inside the hall where a Swiss Guard stood as yet another Guard opened the door into the main hall for the two nuns. Another escorted them to special assigned seats. From the somberness of the crowd's mood, Sister Bridie knew with certainty that whatever was about to be said would shake her secure world as nothing else had ever been able to sway it. She said a brief, spontaneous prayer in her heart for strength, then sat down, trying to keep herself perfectly composed though underneath her bluish gray habit she was trembling.

       Other religious - brothers, sisters and priests of various orders - who were assigned to the Vatican in a variety of posts, were already assembled, fidgeting nervously, murmuring among themselves, casting concerned glances about the room as others joined them. That look of consternation was another knife thrust through Sister Bridie's soul. Most knew what and when, but few knew how and, more importantly, why. Those who had not heard were quickly informed by the majority who did. Sister Bridie glanced at Mother Agnes who sat rigidly, her face as immobile as stone, and as set in as passive an expression as any sculptor could capture. Sister Bridie instinctively pressed a bead on the 15-decade white Rosary that every nun of her order wore, connected to her cincture and draped down the side of her habit.

       After several moments the side door to the great room opened and a contingent of cardinals and monsignors entered. As they somberly took their special seats on the side, photographers jockeyed into place for the ideal shots. Parting the sea of red were Cardinal Macelli and Monsignor Stephen Navarro, the recently appointed head of the Social Communications Council. It had been expected that he would be made a bishop before the year was out, and soon after an archbishop. It was the privilege of the office and because of his role he was the first to the podium.

       "You are here because of the tragic events this morning in Iraq. His Eminence Cardinal Macelli has a prepared statement he will read." Msgr. Navarro bowed as Macelli, dressed in his finest scarlet robes, approached the lectern. Navarro retreated to the side and a bit behind in order to be out of range of photo shots. He was not only a behind-the-scenes kind of official, but also appreciated the photographers' job and wanted to make it easier for them and the croppers in the editing room.

       From her position Sister Bridie noted at once the drawn look on Macelli. He looked a bit tired...but then he always did, she recalled. It was unusual for someone from interior affairs to address the press. However, considering those prelature offices that had been eliminated on the Field of Abraham, those conventions were hardly of importance now.

       Sister's hand slipped from beneath her protective blue-gray scapular and she made a swift but reverent Sign of the Cross as Macelli cleared his throat. All eyes in the room were riveted on this man whom she thought of as an eclipse, but she'd never figured out of what kind of penumbra this rotund prince of the Church was. She knew he generally irritated a majority of people, including herself, but he always pursued his duties as head of Internal Affairs with an obsessive devotion. He had acquired even more authority. He was the inner voice of the Vatican. He was a power to be reckoned with.

       "My brothers and sisters," Macelli began in practiced tones that resembled a seminary professor lecturing a new group of students. No one in the room moved, coughed, sneezed or blinked. "It is now official as most of you are aware. At 8:22 this morning, 10:22 in New Nasiriyah, our dear Holy Father was murdered - nay martyred - along with 81 cardinals, 113 bishops, and..." He studied the figures just handed to him by a familiar priest in cassock. Through her tears Sister Bridie could recognize him as Father Roberto Urazzi. The cardinal continued, "...from our last count 497 priests, 182 nuns, 44 lay brothers, and 368 seminarians. Ah, there were, ah...63 total from the Holy See. This includes various members of the traveling party, His Eminence the Secretary of State, 11 Swiss Guards, the traveling Master of Ceremonies, and..."

       One brash reporter could wait no longer. He yelled out in a high Italian pitch, "How did this happen?" Another followed, suitably brash, "We have a right to know." Then several other media members joined in seeking answers. Immediately all protocol was thrown to the wind.

       Macelli sought to regain control, "In the first instant you will feel, as is only natural, abhorrence. Yet, I remind you that we are representatives of the Vatican State, and as such we must conduct ourselves at all times above reproach. What has happened? Well, God let's happen what must. That we accept."

       Sister Bridie clenched her hands beneath her concealing scapular and chided to herself, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much. Get on with it, will ya? You've no need to be sermonizing us."

       As if hearing her plea, Macelli glimpsed down toward the ornate lectern only briefly and when he glanced back up, it was as if a veil concealed his eyes. "If you desire me to continue, I demand order." The feeding frenzy of journalistic sharks abated into shallower, still waters.

       "Please, ladies and gentlemen, I will endeavor to answer each question as best I can. I ask all to be patient. One at a time please." Pointing to a mustachioed man in the second row. "Yes, the gentleman there."

       "George Sizemore, Boston Globe. Can you estimate the number that are dead?"

       Macelli was assertive, "No definitive details at this time. To my understanding authorities and UN officials are just arriving in Baghdad and it will be even longer before they arrive on the scene. Aid is underway for any survivors if, pray God, there might be the miracle that some did escape those deadly explosions. The figures I just read to you are fairly accurate." He gestured to another reporter.

       "Donald Jeffries, London Times. Can you say for certain that His Holiness is dead?"

       "There's no doubt from what we all saw that we was among the first to perish. In the third row."

       "Tom Scarborough, Fox News. Has anyone come forward to claim responsibility yet?"

       "No, although reports are surfacing that it was the responsibility of radical Israeli factions in retaliation for the destruction of Jerusalem in March."

       Scarborough was not to be dismissed so easily, he dug deeper, "But wasn't the rabbi of Jerusalem also annihilated in the explosion?"

       "From what we've been able to determine, yes. But the Holy Father's Apostolic letter, which he released just yesterday, could be the reason."

       Sarto Ronconi was taken aback, "L'Osservatore Romano, Your Eminence? We were never informed of such a document."

       It was the opening Macelli was waiting for. "Copies will be distributed immediately following this news conference. My aid Fr. Urazzi will have copies available for all."

       He shot a commanding eye to Urazzi near the door and the priest flung it open and headed for the elevator. It would take him to the third level, a regular Kinko's under the stadium seats of the "Upper Room" conference hall. Here in this long, fairly narrow grotto Xeroxes would fire off copies of the 5 master copies, one in English, one in Italian, one in German, another in French and a final one in Spanish. 200 copies of each translation would be reproduced, collated and stapled in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, in the great hall below Macelli continued to field questions.

       "Goran Vycokovic, Zagreb Press. What about the Russian and Greek Orthodox Patriarchs? And the Grand Imam? And..."

       Macelli cut him off, "They're all dead. All of them. There is no possible way they could have escaped. We must accept that and move on." He pointed at a young woman with her dark hair pulled back. "Yes?" Another started to rise and the cardinal signaled gruffly. "No not you, her."

       "Giovanna Merecini, 30 Giornale. Your eminence, what preparations are underway for electing the next Pope?"

       "Well, as you know there is a nine-day waiting period," Macelli pontificated. "We have the funerals, the calling of the Conclave. Unfortunately, unlike the past, there will only be a third of the College now. We may make some modifications such as waiving the duration of time, considering the circumstances. I have it on good authority exceptions will be made and the burials of the deceased done quickly."

       Whose authority could that be? Sister Bridie pondered. The Pope couldn't have told him. The Papal Secretary of State was dead also, as were three-fourths of the Princes of the Church. What authority was he speaking of. Surely the Holy Ghost didn't infuse him with that air about him. She felt a sudden guilt of pride. Instinctively she sought to douse the vice with a quick but sincere "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," as she beat her breast in reparation for her thoughts.

_____________________

       s a humble, insignificant Irish nun berated herself for the smallest of faults, the seismic fault of hell widened ever further as the devil's own continued their pursuit of total domination. Elena Grabe had discovered the fatal flaw in her timing when the explosion shook the earth sixteen miles away. She turned to see the dark, black mass fill the sky and her curses could have been heard to An Nasiriyah were it not for the fact that all other vibrations were totally drowned out by the ungodly sounds of explosions and screams. A minute was all she wanted to watch as she ordered the driver to head off through a ravine. A convoy of Iraqi military trucks was heading straight towards them a quarter mile away. From the trail of dust behind the convoy it looked to be at least eight trucks. They were zoned in on the explosion. They would not stop for anyone until they reached their destination. What they would find would sicken every last soldier.

       Grabe's vice-like grip on this most masterful of plans had slipped out of her grasp. The fleeting thought of pulling the pistol from the holster on the right side of her driver and putting it to her temple was enough to signal the need for survival. Pride would not have it that way. She knew she could not cover up, but she would find out why and deal with the one - or those - who crossed her. No one ever crossed Elena Grabe and lived to tell it.

       The jeep screeched back onto the main road heading west after the convoy had passed. Five more miles and it pointed south, rumbling toward the Kuwait border.

__________________

       Meanwhile, Macelli was growing impatient with the repetitious questions as he waited out Urazzi. Finally Fr. Urazzi appeared at the doorway, a smile signaling he was ready. Right behind him was a cadre of assistants loaded down with stacks of the documents.

       "Should there be any further developments," Macelli pointed out in deflecting more inquiries, "we shall inform you immediately. I suggest you keep track through the Vatican website. For now my representatives have official press releases and the document in question available for you in Italian, French, English, German and Spanish. I trust that will suffice. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Good day."

       As Urazzi and his cohorts came forward to distribute the packets to anxious hands stretching out in greedy fashion, Macelli quietly slipped out of the room. While the reporters reacted as a pack of hungry hyenas, the vast majority of religious remaining were not in a festive mood.

       The great hall emptied slowly of the latter. Many of the priests, nuns, brothers and lay workers of various orders, ages and nations either sat there frozen to their chairs, or moved ever so slowly towards the exits as if this was all a bad dream. Each was inspecting their own surging emotions and chaotic thoughts. It was as if God had validated their hearts and souls, and offered the grace of acceptance for an act that was incomprehensible. Many wanted to cry out in the loudest, supplicating voice "Why?" There was an even stronger urge in some to stand up and shout to the entire world, "Will we let this crime go unanswered?"

       Mother Agnes de Christi finally rose stiffly to her feet and left the room, followed by Sister Bridie.

       "Mother," Sister Bridie began, concerned for the sake of her superior who seemed to have aged at least twenty years in the space of fifteen minutes.

       "Sister Bridie," the older nun tried to smile but achieved only a saccharine imitation. "Please, let's retire to the privacy of our rooms for now. I- - I'm sure that each of us in her own way will find the strength, the solace we need to colloquy with God. And there's very little else we can do now, except hope and pray that God will bring good from this vile evil."

       To the world it would have sounded like a ridiculous statement, actually devoid of feeling. Sister Bridie, however, accepted it with her heart and soul and it lit up a gentle smile that shone through with sincerity and grace. Her normal cheerful demeanor was returning, for she was still young enough to find a source of strength that in the older religious had been whittled down by years of struggle, disappointment and the advancing infirmities of the human condition.

       "Sure n' you be right, Mother," the younger nun agreed, refraining from touching her superior who seemed in need of a tight hug. She wanted to make an exception but their Order held to ancient traditions, one of which was the same as another of her countrymen - old Benjamin O'Fallon - who espoused, noli me tangere. That was of course the honored and chaste practice of those vowed to God to never lay hands on upon another unless absolutely necessary, and then with great discreetness. Sister Bridie thought this was one of those necessary times.

       "Ah, Sister Bridie," sighed Mother Agnes as the former carefully clasped her hands on her mother superior's fingers, "never lose your enthusiasm, your overpowering joy in the face of adversity. Mark my words, Sister. It will serve you well in the days and years to come, for you will be the one to see the advance of a new age...and whatever it is that awaits us therein. The events of this morning do not bode well I fear." There was a look bordering on envy in her time-worn eyes as the Mother Superior placed her other hand over this youthful Irish nun's hands and pressed them. "Go now, Deo Gratias."

       On such an ambiguous note the two nuns parted ways. Soon Sister Bridie was moving with all allowable haste down long corridors and up several staircases to her small cell in the wing laid out at a right angle to the Papal Apartments. Here, in monastic simplicity, in a whitewashed room - save for a simple bed, a modest desk, a prie-dieu, a small shrine, and a small closet wherein she had her life's wardrobe - three habits, two veils and underclothing - Sister Bridie knelt at the prie-dieu and looked toward her Savior, His arms outstretched. The two-foot high Celtic crucifix was of the finest walnut grain, the crown of thorns, even the nails and drips of blood in minute detail. Truly a masterpiece of the finest sculpting that served as a daily reminder to her how much He loved her. It had been given to her on the day she had made final vows several years ago. The cross had been a special gift from her parents, the last time she had received anything from them.

       At this moment a flood of emotions overcame her as she bowed her head and tears formed in those hazel eyes. Her father Sean passed on a year after her final profession and her dear mother Kathleen followed him into eternity three months later. She had been granted special permission to attend both funerals and, as the memories welled up, so did the tears this day. She cried not for her parents for they were in Heaven - she was sure of it; she cried not for herself, but for the Holy Father, the cardinals, bishops, priests, and all the other countless souls who, in the blink of an eye, had perished this morning.

       Sister Bridie retrieved a linen handkerchief from beneath her sleeve and dabbed at her tears, looking up again at Our Lord. Crossing herself, she continued to look in awe at the Crucified Christ. Soon she was lost in colloquy with Him, one of the special graces He had blessed her with since birth. She was alone now. Alone with the God of the universe, the reason she existed. Therein lay solace, at least for now. In the evening she would have to do something she had always loved to do. But now she did not look forward to the task, not after the Holy Father had been so brutally murdered in the explosion. It would be left to Sister Bridie to clean the Papal quarters. It would be so difficult knowing he would never return. Soon she was once again lost in contemplation with Our Lord.

___________________

       As she communed with a Higher Power, Monsignor Stephen Navarro was trying to communicate with Cardinal Macelli. It took a while but he finally managed to track the rotund one down near the rotunda. The cardinal practically ignored the American priest.

       Navarro's 44 years belied the youngish exterior that made him look like one in his early 30's, a fact that annoyed the aging Macelli. He stood a good head taller than the cardinal, and was lean with good looks. High cheekbones offset his fierce brown eyes. His hair was sable and thickly waved. He was in his prime, and from the United States on top of that, which was insult to injury as far as the Italian was concerned. It galled Macelli every time he had to confer with Stephen upon matters which needed to be addressed before any announcement or publication went forth from the Holy See. Why did Americans have to be in charge of communications these last several decades? First John Foley, now this whipper-snapper. What did this man know of political maneuverings? Navarro had been appointed secretary of the Pontifical Council for Universal Communications four years earlier. That was bad enough, but when he was named the new President of the same organization, well that was a blow to this manipulative man from Milan. It had been one of the few battles Macelli had lost with the late Pontiff. Hell, he'd fought against Navarro's nomination with such unbridled passion that the master had actually communicated a warning to him to let it be, else he betray his true leanings toward the cause of the Church.

       The Legion of the Basilisk was intent on keeping all fifth columnists concealed. Macelli's ravings had endangered others among the clandestine. Macelli had grudgingly acquiesced because the master ordered it. Yet he felt he could have won, could have persuaded the late pope to abandon his personal promise to Gregory Cardinal Zachmann from the Archdiocese of St. Louis to appoint Monsignor Stephen Navarro, O.M.I. to this powerful post.

       Macelli realized personal pride had to take a back seat to the Legion's plans but it still stuck in his craw. He had never looked at Navarro without a feeling of repugnance. Young upstart. Intruder. He was strong, this American climber. In mind, heart and soul. Macelli hated all three. He would have appointed Fr. Urazzi instead. Damn Navarro! What did this monsignor know of Macelli's own personal strife over the years? He knew his power had reached its peak, but through tenacious struggle he had held on to his power. Although he had come close to going mad with frustration, he was even closer now. This abrasive brat had better not challenge him now. Yet that is exactly what Stephen was doing.

       "Excuse me, Eminence, but this can't be right. I'm afraid there must be a mistake." In his hand he held a copy of the document. It had been handed to him on the stage while Macelli was taking the questions and he had begun reading it then. He had just finished it and he was not happy with what he had read.

       "Monsignor, you have the prepared statement given you. There's nothing more. That's what we release to the world."

       Stephen was incredulous. "With due respect, Eminence, I don't think you're considering the full impact of the world press in there. The Pope could not have said what you attribute to him."

       The wound zinged Macelli's ego, "What is written is written" he gritted.

       Stephen was not to be dismissed. "I don't think you're considering the fact that all the wire services and news outlets in the world will have full coverage blaring around the clock on this incident this morning. This will only make the situation more incendiary. There'll be wild speculation and panic. It goes against two millenniums of tradition. I beg you, your Eminence, we have a duty..."

       Macelli interrupted him abruptly. "Your duty is to me. You have your orders, Monsignor. For now, in obedience, I suggest you adhere to them. Do I make myself clear?"

       "Very well," Stephen countered. "But I go on record as voicing my dissent to this. I do not believe the Holy Father would ever have released such a statement, let alone write such a heresy."

       "Heresy, you call it." Macelli had to be careful. "I fear there is much you will learn as to the ways...and means of this hallowed place, bambino." His inflection on hallowed and bambino indicated his disgust only too well. "Regardless, I have noted your constant disagreements with me in the past. It does not surprise me of your resistance now. I dare say I would be careful where you step. I have friends in many places who might not be as permissive as I am with such obstinacy. Speaking of friends, one of my colleagues awaits. Buon giorno, Monsignore." The sarcasm dribbled off his closing volley as he ambled away toward his next rendezvous.

       Stephen knew he had to contact his mentor Cardinal Zachmann. He glanced at his watch. 11:50 a.m. Ten minutes before the Angelus. Not enough time to truly discuss this with him, Stephen realized. Besides it was only 4:50 a.m. in the gateway city. Gregory would still be sleeping another hour before rising for Mass. He would not be available until 9:30 a.m. at the earliest. That would be 4:30 Roman time. He made a mental note to set some time aside and utilize the secure line.

       Macelli waited behind a pillar until Stephen had headed off in another direction, then retraced his steps and headed down another corridor to an alcove off to the side where Vendhem was waiting. He had heard most of the conversation. Vendhem glided out with nary a sound, making Macelli wonder how the tall man managed to move so effortlessly.

       "You made the contact?" He asked brusquely in his upper German dialect.

       "Yes, Vendhem. As planned. Phase Two will begin shortly," replied the portly one.

       "You'll be at the meeting?"

       "Not this time, Josef. There's no need," he hurriedly added as Vendhem looked at him sternly. "I have my watchdogs to keep me informed. And I am needed here more than at a covert meeting across the Tiber. No?"

       Vendhem declined to confide the truth, which he and many others felt as well: the Vatican would suffer no loss with Macelli's absence. But he relished the thought nonetheless as he coldly declared, "You will of course, keep me fully informed."

       "Si. Naturally," Macelli suppressed a confrontation with his taller cohort.

       "The priest Navarro seemed less than happy with you just now," Vendhem continued to dig.

       Macelli sighed. For the time being this was no business of Vendhem's. He knew this beanpole of a prelate was playing games with him again. Vendhem thrived on strategy. He was an expert chess player. Damn him. It always gave him the feeling of power and he relished it. Well, the power belonged to the master, not to either of them...yet. It remained to be seen who would have the largest portion of the power.

       "Navarro is a fool, Vendhem. But I control him, as I control the rest of the Vatican through my office now."

       He was feeling haughtier with every word. "As I will continue to control it, especially through the important days ahead. I suggest, my dear Josef, that instead of these pointless conversations, we concentrate on the duties each of us must fulfill. It would bode ill for us if we were to fail now."

       "I will not fail." Vendhem always believed the best defense was to go on the offensive. "I have worked out all the plans for the funeral and the election. You are aware, I presume, that we will go against tradition this time, set a new precedent, and elect a new pontiff with haste?"

       The curved spine on Macelli's torso straightened just a bit more. "Why should I not be aware, Lord Vendhem? The master has also kept me informed of the overall plan. But I must decide the right time. We can have no suspicion fall upon us or any member of the Legion, especially now. We are so close. So, go back to your office and be still and let me get my work done. And do not worry about Navarro. He is a mere fly I swat as I please when he draws too close."

       "Are you so sure of yourself, Antonio?"

       "Si. Now I suggest we concentrate on the duties at hand. Ciao."

       With that Macelli moved off like a bouncing red ball, his scarlet robes swishing as he boinged down the corridor and out of sight. He had thought of attending the meeting, but only briefly considered it. No, Guillaume and the others were capable individuals. He had personally seen to their recruitment. Truth was he did not want to leave Vendhem alone in the Vatican. Trust was not something Macelli gave or took freely. He would deal with the gnarly German in his time, after he had served the master's purpose and his own. That problem would be eliminated after the new kingdom was firmly established.


Next: PART I: The Unleashing SECOND CHAPTER, Episode Six: The Cosmos, Cosmetics and Consciousness


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