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

Part I
Second Chapter
The Unleashing

Episode Seven: The Cosmos, Cosmetics, and Consciousness

       Two time zones ahead of Rome rescue workers were just beginning to sift through the ashes as the sun reached its highest peak on a hot afternoon in Iraq. Though the sun was blotted out totally by the black smoke that hovered, the heat only made the stench more unbearable. There was not one area of blacktop nor any semblance of the various colorfully painted symbols of the Jewish star, Hindu wheel, Christian cross, Islam crescent moon and other decorations that had sparkled so in the morning sun. Now all was gray, black and bitter. Earthmovers and bulldozers were lifting massive loads of bodies meshed with metal and dirt into rows of battered dump trucks, many on loan from Iran. Where their destination would be was anyone's guess at this particular moment. Their heavy loads heaved with humanity as the diesel-powered engines revved and chugged. Where would one begin in cleaning up such a massive mass of charred, burnt, decimated, sprayed and splayed flesh? How would one ever identify the remains of nearly one million people?

       Workers, with dogs trained to search out anything still breathing amid the rubble, went through the motions, gas masks and makeshift material covering their faces to shelter them from the fetor of the scene, from the pea soup haze of black smoke that enveloped a twenty-mile area. If anyone had planned on an autopsy of the bodies, they would have had to get a shovel to sift through the dirt. Few recognizable parts remained from any part of anatomies. That was how devastating the explosion had been.


Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 7:15 a.m.

       The impact of the explosion had been thorough but it had left a thud halfway around the world in the plans of Edwin Blix as he sat at his high-tech teak desk in his home office, decorated with the rarest of Oriental art. Drumming his fingers, he waited for the fifth ring.

       "Yah, ahh, hello?" A bleary-eyed Vic Van Wess mumbled as he craned his neck to be closer to the phone on his bed stand.

       "Why aren't you at the office?" Blix was in his bitter cold fashion.

       "Huh, who...? Oh, jeeze." Despite still being half asleep Vic recognized only too well who was on the other end. "24 hours a day ain't in my contract. I got home at 5:30 and it's only...ah, 7:15 now." He had to focus his eyes to see the clock on the opposite bedstand. "Thanks for letting me sleep."

       Neglecting any compassion in his voice, Blix inquired, "Has Collier filed a preliminary report from the air?"

       Vic wanted to cover for Pat, wanted to hedge his bet, but deceit was not part of Vic's repertoire. "Collier never showed up."

       Vic's wife Amy was now struggling into her robe, the phone call waking her from a deep sleep and intuitively knowing the predicament her tired husband was in. She knew the way Blix operated and she detested it. Vic would need reinforcements in the likes of a hot steaming cup of coffee. That's where she was heading as Vic held the phone away from his ear to shield the screaming Blix from his eardrum.

       "What the hell do you mean he didn't show? It's too late to send him now! Damn you, Vic!"

       "Not to worry," Vic tried to assuage this volatile figure on the other end. "Sent Gallagher instead."

       "What!?!" Screaming even louder. "Who the hell do you think you are to go over mah head?"

       Vic had long learned how to deal with Blix: Never cower. "We're in the news business, Blix. We can't play frickin' games with wussies that don't show! Gallagher's solid. I can vouch for..."

       "Gallagher's way in over his head," Blix interjected, calming down somewhat.

       "He can do it." Assurance was in Vic's voice.

       For now Blix was resigned that he'd have to accept the fact Collier baled out. "Ahh want to know his every move, ya hear?"

       "Don't worry. He's got the Reflector code. We're in touch."

       "And whoooo," in that superior obnoxious tone, Blix asked, "authorized his access to this security?"

       "I did" Vic snapped, now sitting on the side of the bed and fully awake.

       "Ahh suggest you get back to the office and keep me informed...of everything!" Blix slammed down the receiver.

       Vic stared at the wall, peering at nothing in particular for several minutes until Amy broke his stare. "I take it Blix is on the warpath again, dear."

       "Yeah, so what else is new?" Vic sighed.

       "Here's your coffee. Do you have to go back to the office so early?"

       "Yeah! Lot's happening, hon." How could he tell her about the fear which corroded his gut, a dread that caused an anguish far greater than any physical suffering could be? "My legs," he said as lightly as possible and finished stretching it out fully. "Cold weather always aggravates the steel hardware."

       "Dress warmly, dear." That was all she said as she began to busy herself at the small vanity in the antechamber leading to the bathroom. She made no reference to the holocaust of last night, or the constant calls by Blix which had made Vic so edgy, and which seemed to permeate their lives so totally. She'd made a lifelong habit of keeping her thoughts to herself, feeling that Vic heard enough varying viewpoints at the office.

       He turned slightly to keep her in view in the mirror, and thought anew how lovely she was. Oh sure, age had added a few inches to her waist, and a few pounds around her hips, and bits of gray streaked her chestnut hair. Still he liked very much what he saw. She was spry, full of life and fun, and the best thing that had ever happened to him. He was satiated with a sudden impulse to rush across the room and take her into his arms. He refrained as the arthritic pain seared down his leg. Tonight, he promised silently, watching her as she ducked out of his sight toward the closet. Despite the wall barrier, his eyes followed as if he could follow her every move with x-ray eyes. But they would not penetrate the mortar and wallpaper. Instead his gaze came to rest on the magnificent painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall, a present from Ben O'Fallon eight years ago to he and his wife on their 25th Wedding Anniversary.

       "The devil's got Blix. I know it. Damn him," Vic muttered a curse, then turned it to a plea-filled prayer. "God, be with Pat. He's going to need all the help You can muster."

* * * * * * *

Dateline: Over the far regions of the North Atlantic, November 1, 4:30 p.m.

       The Lear jet was leaving Iceland below in its wake as it soared toward the upper regions of the rocky fiords of Norway. The sun was coming into view after a blanket of darkness in the far northern realms of the globe. Pat Gallagher was unaware. His head rested against the luxurious padded side, just off the window, his thoughts far away in dreamland.

       Running three red lights he had made it to the tarmac at Love Field and within 2 minutes of his arrival, Blix's jet was taxiing down the runway and into the dark Texas sky. From there it headed north over the Great Lakes, then the lower regions of Hudson Bay and out over the Baffin Island and the massive acreage of Greenland's icy tundra below as he soared over the top of the world. It was amazing these new jets that could carry enough fuel to make it half way around the world in just over half a day without a pit stop. If only cars could get that kind of mileage he mused, as thoughts sped across his weary mind. Yes, he was already weary and yet he knew what lay ahead would make him even more exhausted because of the great unknown. Apprehension ate at his angst.

       Despite his need for sleep, it would not cooperate. For two hours he could not doze off, spending an uncomfortable time trying to soothe the emotions boiling within him. He had tried several times to contact Corrie but she had turned off her phone service. She had done so at Pat's own urging so they would have an uninterrupted evening. Those plans had turned to ashes with the sudden events that consumed the night. Pat had downed several stiff drinks inflight in an effort to drown the voice of sensibility that questioned his own uneasiness. Finally the alcohol had accomplished what his self-will could not. Sleep finally came, so precious and he hoarded it this first day of November as he lunged ahead in time.

       In place of disturbing memories came visions of Corrie. His cara mia. How beautiful she was as the surrealism of fantasy suffocated reality. Only once when the jet hit an air pocket and the jolt had caused him to stir did the pleasant dream seem to shift. He saw Corrie's face as it had appeared immediately after the awful explosion on TV. He could see the horror leap like candle flames in her brown eyes, the lines of terror transforming on her face into a nightmarish mask. Then her lips moved as if in slow motion, forming soundless words that instinctively, even in an altered state, he knew. He wanted to rush forward to place a firm hand across her mouth so he would not have to see the words forming. But he was powerless to move, helpless to stop the fear that once again welled up in his soul even in his dreams.

       "Be careful, Pat," she cried as her image transmorphed towards the image of a banshee being pulled away. "Evil... Death... " And as she drifted farther away, the words grew stronger, "Hell... Beware, Hellllllllll!"

       It shook him awake. Looking around for a few seconds, he took a deep sigh, readjusted his body to get more comfortable and was off in slumberland again. Yet Corrie's words continued to haunt even his unconscious state. Agitation surrounded his dormancy as Blix's jet darted ever closer to its appointed destiny.

* * * * * * *


       The norther that had entered the night before had now settled over the metroplex of Dallas-Fort Worth. The barren branches of the trees outside Corrie's apartment silhouetted against a cobalt blue sky, dabbled here and there with thin white clouds as if a tube of sweet icing had gone amok in a baker's hand.


Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 10:45 a.m.

       That was Corrie's view as she peered westward through her picture window out into the courtyard of the Los Colinas Lakes Manor, the complex where she lived. The sun was building in the east, hitting the units across the park-like setting and bouncing in ebullient sparklers off the masonry and onto the winding concrete walkways below. She pressed her hand, palm side down, against the windowpane and felt the frosty coldness of the air outside, so beguilingly masquerading behind the sunshine.

       She kept her hand there for a long moment before finally removing it and laying it against her face. The coolness felt good to her feverishness. She could not help feeling dismayed that overall she felt physically somewhere between leftover dishwater and a felled soufflé.

       A few minutes ago her first thought, as her eyes had flown open as if jerked into that unwelcome predicament by some unknown shock, had been for Pat. As she had adjusted to the morning reality the wave of reality engulfed her anew. After taking her phone off the no disturb mode, she had called his house. No answer, just the machine. She checked her e-mail. Nothing. She had even called his office. Just voice mail. Probably in meetings going over strategy and assignments.

       After her shower she would call him again at the office to see how he was holding up. She knew he'd probably still be there a few more hours compiling stories from the wire services, trying to sift news sources for every tidbit of information to the massacre in Iraq, acting much like a sieve to drain away the elaboration of facts. Mentally she wished him luck...and more. It would take talent and persistence for Pat to achieve his hope of getting to the very core of this terrible incident.

       No use lingering over the unknown, she told herself firmly, turning from the window and allowing the heavy drapes of delicate peach hue to fall back into place as she moved from the living room to the roomy bathroom to wash some of the night away and prepare herself for the rest of the day.

       "Never stop... Keep going...You can do it, Morelli" She encouraged her reflection in the mirror beneath the glare of the glass bulbs jutting out across the top of the vanity. They revealed to her all too plainly how the horror of the night before had left her worse for wear. She stared at the rows of creams, astringents, moisturizers and facial packs, to the even more abundant rows of make-up which served to give her the illusion of untold beauty by the time she'd artfully applied the transforming concoctions of ingredients she'd never heard of, couldn't pronounce, and hadn't the slightest idea of what purpose they were supposed to be applied. It was a stark contrast to Sister Bridie's monastic chamber in the Vatican.

       Preservation. That was what it was all about, Corrie thought ruefully. Every jar, tube and stick of color was meant to preserve youth, while having no power to halt time.

       Preservation. How long had the world been caught in this guise? She pondered. Was it peculiar only to the modern age? Corrie knew better. Since time immemorial mankind had sought to ward off old age and signs of mortal weakness, and there were few who did not fall prey to the lure of looking eternally beautiful.

       "How transparent," she whispered with a clarity of both mind and soul. And, somehow, how foolish! She realized she had been sucked into this same mindset. The overwhelming evidence lay before her, as a jury shouting "guilty."

       Eternal youth could be wiped out in a split second, just as all those lives had ended last night in that deplorable act of utter violence. It didn't matter the religious persuasion. That didn't diminish the effect. All was transitory. All was illusion. A magician's trick. Except it was not illusion; it was reality. A terrible, tragic reality.

       She twisted the shower on full blast, thankful once again for something so few take for granted - hot water. God cared naught for make-up, lipstick and perfume, she deduced as she stepped beneath the hot water. He did, however, care that man be clean. She was intent on that initiative.

       Were her thoughts becoming obsessive? She pondered. She knew she was tired. What little sleep she had gotten had been troubled. Ben had dropped her at the door of her apartment. Such a gentleman. He was like a father to her. Her own dad, long a widower, had died six years before. Ben had been a comfort at the funeral and finally coaxed her to visit him at The Crooked Spigot nearly a year later. That was the night he introduced her to Pat. Ben was cupid-personified sans bow and diapers. So crafty. He knew all along.

       It had taken Corrie a while to fall asleep. After a final glass of White Chablis, she finally succumbed to somnia. Still it had been a restless night. The state of her bed testified to the fact that her restive body had tossed and turned from one side to the other until sheets and blankets were so tangled that a contortionist could not have been able to decipher the how of it.

       The pipes clanked as she abruptly shut off the source of the water and stepped out, toweling off, steam enveloping the room and coating the mirror. That was fine with her. She had not put her make-up on yet. Oh, not that thought-trend again, she mused interiorily as she tried to concentrate on the fact Pat would surely phone her before much longer. He always did, especially when he knew he was going to be tied up on an assignment for a long time. The mental image surfaced in her mind's eye of Pat with his eye on his watch, waiting to be sure she was up and about. He'd call. And whenever she had heard his voice for the first time on each day he called, her entire body would tingle. Love did that. Her smile, as she finished brushing her teeth and wiping down part of the mirror, conveyed that very fact.

       Pat had such a reassuring, strong voice, so resonant, so filled with self-assurance and confidence, albeit a bit cocky at times. Yet, she could overlook that in knowing the real Pat. They had tried to discuss the "M" word more than a few times. It was something she herself had been putting off, but her biological clock was counting down and, after five years she knew he was the one. She even thought, she knew the minute Ben introduced them. She had concealed those emotions so well. Had Pat guessing for a good three months, but then she opened her heart and he moved slower. Almost lost him a few times to the wiles of others who had designs on his muscular body rather than his heart. Ben had been a blessing.

       He was such a strength to her, someone she could confide in. Over the years she and Ben had ganged up on Pat in an attempt to tame him, to keep him from wandering, to reassure him of those who truly cared for and about him.

       Idleness was the devil's workshop, Ben would constantly remind her. Pat didn't have an idle bone in his body and she berated herself for not keeping up with him at times. She was one of Dallas' up and coming authentic interior consultants. She owned a shop in the fashionable area of Highland Park, just north of the city. Her particular expertise was in prized paintings. Today, she had a particularly wealthy, but difficult client, she was scheduled to consult with at 2 p.m. Work waited for no one, oft unconscious of extenuating events.

       All through her morning ritual she kept expecting the call. With her hair wrapped in a turban, she took several sips of the oven-roasted Folgers that had been percolating while she was trying to wash the sorrows of last night off under a steaming nozzle. No success. She was clean, but the memories stayed with her. While she fixed her nails, she watched the TV. Fox News was in the midst of a recap. Two explosive experts were being interviewed. She hit the off switch and ambled towards the bath again to brush out her hair and apply the first layer of beautification.

       She deliberately left the radio off until she was through air-blowing her locks. That complete, she switched on the Bose Wave radio in her bedroom. The acoustical sounds easily penetrated the vanity area of the bath where she began the daily routine of prettying herself up. Her cell phone lay on the shelf next to the vanity so she would hear Pat's call.

       She applied the layers of make-up like a master artist, so skillfully that the end result had always been so smooth that it looked as if she wore nothing but skin. While applying eyeshadow, the melodic easy listening music had been unceremoniously interrupted by a news bulletin updating radio listeners of the latest reports of the early morning explosion in Iraq.

       Corrie stood riveted to the spot, mascara brush poised halfway to her eyelashes, as confirmation formed the core of the report. All had been killed. The Pope, the chief Rabbi, the Orthodox Patriarchs, Prime Ministers and Presidents, the list went on. The official death toll had not yet been calculated, but international officials were not optimistic. Military troops from many nations were involved. This included a hefty share of U.S. Army and Marines, Iraqi police, international police, criminal investigators, members of security organizations from the CIA to the Massaad, and medical personnel from all areas with the assistance of the International Red Cross were either on hand or enroute to assist.

       There was nothing new in this report, Corrie felt nauseated all over again by it. Would she ever get over it? She knew one thing was crystalline. Beneath this senseless holocaust of enormous proportions was an undercurrent of pure depravity as absolute as the hideous event unleashed on the unsuspecting people assembled to usher in peace on earth. There was something so malignant about the corrupt nucleus of the act that Corrie found herself trembling. She desperately needed to call Pat, to hear his reassuring voice.

       Finishing the final touches, she dressed, muted the Bose Wave and, unable to wait any longer, dialed Pat's office number.

       No luck. It would just click over again to the voice mail. She called the main switchboard again. Again she was sandbagged. She would get to the bottom of this.

       Sadly Pat's voice was not the first she heard after the fifth ring. It was Vic's. "Metroplex Mirror news room, Vic Van Wess here."

       "Victor, this is Corrie Morelli. I've been trying to reach Pat. Your people keep telling me he's not there, but I've checked his home and he's not there so..."

       "Pat's on assignment, Corrie." Vic gulped at the next inevitable question she would ask.

       "Does this have anything to do with the massacre last night, Vic?"

       "You ask a lot of questions, Corrie."

       "With no answers. It's frustrating," she stammered. "Pat always keeps in touch. It's not like him."

       "I'm afraid he's been sworn to secrecy, Corrie. We all have. I'm sorry, I really am, but we'll let you know as soon as..."

       Corrie, frustrated and near tears, was incensed at how Vic, of all people, was trying to dismiss her without any consolation of where Pat was. "Understand this, Vic, if you won't tell me I'll go to someone who will - Edwin Blix."

       Vic bolted upright in his chair, "Corrie!!! Don't get involved. For God's sake, for Pat's sake, leave it alone. I'll get back to you as soon as I can. I promise."

       "Something's not right, is it, Vic?"

       Vic was now rushing her, "Uhh. Gotta go, Corrie. Wire ticker is overflowing. I'll get back to you. Promise."

       He disconnected her and took a deep breath. "God, I'm sorry, Corrie. You're right. Something's not right. Damn!"

       Corrie gulped her coffee in a pique of anger mixed with helplessness. Intent on getting to her office to bide her time until the appointment in two and a half-hours, she grabbed her coat, purse, cell phone and headed out of the bedroom. She had not even bothered to make the bed. Its twisted covers surfaced as a visible sign of the wrench she felt in the pit of her stomach.

* * * * * * *


       Those of the Legion - they who ascribed to evil - had always been cunning, ruthless and merciless. However, if they had an Achilles heel, it might have been overconfidence. Elena Grabe had great regrets for this lack of foresight as she sulked in a compound on the border of Iraq and Kuwait, awaiting her next instructions. Though putting on a brave face to the world, she feared the repercussions that would come from the master and his henchmen for the earlier explosion that, though it was total in destructive scope, was indeed premature - way too early for the Legion's purposes. How could she compensate for her failure, how could she eradicate the mounting problem of not getting the all-encompassing fully signed document? She realized plan A had to be abandoned. Would she be able to survive the wrath of the master?

       Two time zones away in Rome there was another faux pas that had to be rectified. It would be concluded by Guillaume Brunatti and Luciani Serrano, two of the master's main executioners. As they slipped into a laundry chamber inside the Vatican, ushered in by one of several turncoat Swiss Guards, these two savage Sicilians realized they had to complete the deed within the next few minutes. Failure to do so could spell detection and their plans and ambitions could unravel. They too had succumbed to overconfidence by not finishing the task when assigned. Time was the only ally of the captive this night for indeed Brunatti and Serrano assumed that, since their prey was captured and totally vanquished, they could take some time to relish the kill. Whether it was because they decided to await the ideal time to dispatch the victims or a masochistic tendency to permit their quarry to suffer and weaken, their oversight was the only glimmer of hope for the captive: time!


Dateline: Vatican City, 7:10 p.m. November 1

       The folds of burlap brushed his eyelashes, his parched lips and three-day-old stubble as he groped in the darkness, struggling with the wrap that encompassed him. Where was he? Why? How? Though those questions remained unanswered, he gave immediate thanks to God that he was still alive. Woozy, weak, but alive! Once he had come to full consciousness, Riage Benziger flailed wildly and successfully. After some maneuvering he was able to rise up and stand, leaning against a wall that seemed solid and then suddenly it gave way. He tumbled over a ledge and his shoulder hit hard on a rock-hewn surface. The impact of the thud had ripped an opening in the burlap shroud he was wrapped in. Pulling an aching arm to the side he ripped frantically at the shredded aperture. Within seconds he had shed his crude burial garment. Groping in the dark of this dank room, he reached into the pockets of his pantaloons and his fingers soon found the lighter he had hidden there for those sneak smokes during his breaks.

       Thank God, Benziger thought, he had not quit smoking altogether. Had he, it was likely he would not have included a lighter in his repertoire. Clicking the small wheel, the flame cast an eerie glow over a rock wall on all sides and the door he had fallen through. Holding the lighter at arm's length, he followed the flickering incandescence that led him back through the door to a small compartment. Feeling around he felt robes and other garments along the wall of this room. Moving a few steps more, his boot tripped over something, sending him crashing to the floor. The lighter extinguished in the fall. Fumbling for this source of sight in the darkness, Riage heard something or someone moan and froze.

       "Oh, ah, oooh."

       It was within inches of him and he immediately recognized the source. Rising to his knees he brailled for the lighter and discovered it a few feet away. "Deo Gratias," he exclaimed as he directed the flame toward the muffled moans. A body lay wrapped in the same type of burlap sack he had escaped. The moaning had stopped. His hands reached to feel a heart beat below the canvas skin. Leaning over the hemp-entombed person inside, Benziger focused his ear on trying to hear the rhythm of the heart.

       "Whew, there's still a pulse."

       His auditory senses also picked up another sound that immediately alarmed him. The sound of a door opening and then voices.

       "They're in the bedroom closet," barked one voice in brusque Italian.

       "We must hurry, Luciani, before the nun comes."

       Riage could hear the doorknob rattle just a few feet away. His heart stopped, the sweat oozing from his pours.

       "Damn. It's locked."

       "Of course it is, you fool, you forget the keys are on the wall, under the painting."

       Benziger had only seconds as he hoisted the heavy sack partly over his aching shoulder and nudged toward the opening in the wall.

       "Which one?"

       "This one, the green tag. Hurry up."

       "Si, grab the cart."

       The key found its groove and soon the rays of the outer room light flooded the room just as Benziger eased the other door shut, leaning against it in the rock-walled room. In fear and trepidation, Riage heaved a deep sigh, totally spent from both the adrenaline of the moment and the weight of dragging the body with him to temporary refuge in this dark abode.

       "Where the hell are they?" a startled Brunatti shrieked as he started to fling garments down in a heap desperately looking for the two bodies they had left there 72 hours ago after the black figure had eliminated all barriers to the Papal Apartment. Macelli had decided it was too risky to remove the bodies at that time for there were still key Swiss Guards who could not be compromised. He had instructed Brunatti and Serrano to dispose of them the next day. However complications had arisen in trying to slip in and they had to abort the task until later. That later had evolved into the next day and then the next until they stood this night in the closet of the pope frantically wondering what had happened to the burlap bags. Where were the body bags in which they had stuffed the pope and the Swiss Guard? They had placed them there temporarily until they could return and then dispose of them after smuggling the bodies out in the laundry cart they had steered into the outer room.        "For Christ's sake, I left them here myself. Who could have moved them?" flailed Brunatti.

       "I didn't and you didn't," Serrano was now in a near state of panic.

       "We should've killed them and disposed of the bodies much earlier," sneered Brunatti. "Macelli was too cautious. Damn."

       Serrano searched for clues, "Could Vendhem or Macelli have done so without informing us?"

       "They would have told us, they would not compromise our..."

       His voice trailed off as the front door opened and another person approached.

       "Shh, someone's coming." Serrano cautioned.

       Just then the figure of Sister Bridie, ready for work in her white apron covering her bluish-gray habit, glided into the bedroom. Almost immediately she spotted the laundry cart and her eyes found the two intruders as still as statues standing in the closet. "Sorry to be disturbin' you. I've come to make sure the chambers be clean. An' what might I be a asking are you gentlemen doing in the pope's wardrobe? Our beloved deceased pontiff's no less?"

       Brunatti and Serrano scurried out of the closet like children whose hands had been caught in the cookie jar as the hurriedly tried to feign innocence. Luciani was the first with a cover up alibi. "Removing all garments to be cleaned or stored, Sister."

       She peered over Brunatti's shoulders, toward the bare-walled closet and clothes strewn all over the floor. "I see, an' who be a sendin' you to be doin' it so late?"

       "Cardinal Josef Vendhem!" Brunatti blurted out more in annoyance at this interloper. They already had enough problems with the missing bodies, now this annoying nun.

       Now Sister Bridie was getting more suspicious, "I not be rememberin' you two among the regular papal staff."

       Serrano tried to assuage her inquisition; "The cardinal camerlengo called us in because of the tragedy."

       "That be why you be wearin' all black?" She queried with a dubious tone.

       "We're just showing our respects, Sister." Serrano's voice sounded sincere. "All are in mourning over the demise of His Holiness and the rest. No?"

       "Then be quick about it while I be tidying up this room."

       The beleaguered Swiss Guard Riage Benziger breathed easier at the epiphany of Sister Bridie, yet still dared not move a muscle until they had gone. He could not take that chance of detection. Who were they? How did they get in? Who was in the other sack? Those questions would be answered shortly as he kept his ear glued to the wall to monitor the activities on the other side. By now he realized the door he had fallen through was a secret portal to this room. He prayed the two men would not discover it. The thought also crept in: where did this portal lead?

       Questions also flooded Brunatti and Serrano's consciences. Where were the bodies of the pope and the Swiss Guard which Serrano had stuffed into the closet? Should they knock off this Vatican nun now? What good would that do? It would only raise more snoopers and these two Italians did not need that, especially with the meeting of the wine and cheese within an hour. Suppressing the urge to silence Sister Bridie, they scooped up all the robes and tossed it in the laundry cart they had wheeled into the outer room. They had wanted to fill both laundry carts, but the Irish nun made sure they left hers there. So what if the handcart was piled too high, there were two of them - one to push, the other to steady the leaning tower of papal apparel. Out it went with the two Italians with a suspicious Sister Bridie following their every move. Then she was left to her thoughts and duties.

       Benziger had thought of alerting her, but his instincts quickly gained control over such a gamble. Perhaps she was alone, and then again, could the two Italian voices still be there? He had no idea of knowing, only that the voices had grown dim. He took this chance to search this dank room further, trusting on his lighter again. How long would the lighter fluid last? Very little light left he deduced. As he inched his sore body along the rock chiseled wall he could see something jutting out just 20 feet away.

       Extending his flickering, fast-fleeting flame toward it, a eureka swelled up within him. It was a torch. Slowly the ancient, brittle straws caught the heat and a small fire gave sight to greater vision for Riage.

       He was in a long tunnel, a corridor. But where did it lead? He flipped the lighter off and, with not a little effort, extracted the torch handle from its encrusted holder. Waving it carefully in a panoramic movement he could see clearly the body at the end of the tunnel near the door; the same door he had fallen through earlier; the same door he had shut just before certain detection and ultimate execution. His eyes fell on the body still enshrouded in burlap on the cold, hard cobbled floor.

       The torch was deteriorating fast. He replaced the torch in its holder and began gathering the pieces of the burlap which he had shed minutes before. Frantically he shredded the course pieces into smaller cords of material, then grabbed a handful and twisted the screw at the bottom of his lighter, conservatively sprinkling the fluid over the pieces of burlap.

       Just as quickly he raced back to the torch just as the darkening corridor shrunk into blackness again. He felt for the torch and wrapped the burlap around the top end of the torch, pushing folds upward with folds beneath for longer burning. He knew the gamble of using up lighter fluid in his precious lighter, but the torch would take him further. Could he count on the lighter one last time? He flicked it a few times. Nothing. Then a silent prayer of pleading. A spark. That was enough, the few flames soon became a welcome pyre atop this torch. Waiting a few seconds to make sure the flame had caught and would not fizzle, he returned to the limp body bag. The burlap illuminated the room even brighter.

       He knew now where he was. He knew he had to move as quickly as possible while there was still torchlight. He quickly ripped open the primitive cloth coffin. Beneath was a cloth much purer, much finer: The cloth of white - a full white cassock. The man inside the cassock was lying face down. Benziger knew immediately as he gently turned the figure's head upward that it was indeed His Holiness Pope Clement XV. Yes, he was still alive. Again, Benziger ejaculated a grateful "Deo Gratias."

       There was a pulse, but the pope was unconscious. He had to be weak. Three days without food or water. Benziger himself was hurting and he was as strong as an ox. Swiss Guards had to be. Physical fitness was mandatory for this elite platoon of loyal protectors of the Pontiffs since 1505. Despite Riage Benziger's excellent physical shape, even after 72 hours the after effects of the nauseous gas had taken its toll on his body. How bad off then was the Holy Father? At his age how long before hypothermia would set in?

       He pulled the rest of the burlap casket away from the unconscious pontiff, collecting the rest of the crude hemp material. It would be most useful for this extra material might double the time of the torch's flame. Gently and with great effort he hoisted the pope over his shoulder, until the fulcrum of the body was steady enough for Benziger to balance him. The Swiss Guard's shoulder ached beyond description, but it was a small price to pay for the duty he had been privileged to carry out.

       As he moved ever so slowly carrying the dead weight of the Vicar of Christ, the hunched-over Benziger ignored the pulsing pain. Determined and dedicated, he could only think of his Lord and Savior carrying the heavy wood to Calvary. At least he had shoes, Riage realized, at least he was not being spit upon, whipped or climbing a steep incline. Thoughts of the Via Dolorosa - a route that led to certain death - was exactly what spurred this noble Swiss Guard onward, farther away from the jaws of hell and closer to the graces of God, no matter what struggles he would face ahead.



Next: PART I: The Unleashing SECOND CHAPTER, Episode Eight: Pride and Power: The Opiates of the Legion


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