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

Part II
Third Chapter
The Smoldering

Episode One: Assigned to the Ashes

      "He is chasing ashes - a thing that cannot
      save itself when the flame consumes it;"
         Isaiah 44: 20

       The bowels of hell had never been so empty. Many of its inhabitants now swarmed the earth as the scriptures had foretold. The beast had been unleashed. What had been planned had been executed. Now it was up to the world to sift through the incineration and figure out the how and the why.

       This was all too evident to Pat Gallagher as his jeep crawled to a stop behind a convoy at yet another checkpoint. It had been the fourth sentry post in weeding down entries into the area of the Field of Abraham. Had security been stronger, Pat was left to deduce that perhaps the disaster might have been prevented.

       His heart pounded painfully as he drew closer. Some thirty miles out the stench filling the air had been the first sign Pat was close. Closer than he wanted to be considering the circumstances. He had wrapped his handkerchief over his nose and mouth, but his eyes were left vulnerable to the ashen dust in the air. Only the dilapidated windshield, braced against the wind, prevented him from being blinded. Through the thick haze he had been able to make out on the horizon various banks of klieg lights casting a dust enshrouded glow over the black remains of the horrific conflagration the morning before.

       After an hour of idling in line he had rudely received clearance, a gas mask, gloves and a NATO-issued anti-contamination suit that was two sizes too big. Hell, he thought, just roll up the sleeves and cuffs and get going. No way he was going to wait around until a new batch was delivered to the post. There already were over 200 waiting for the right size and he figured that delay would cost him precious time. He wanted to beat the other American journalists to the punch if he could. He knew there were already plenty of press there, but few could get here from the states as fast as he had. One of the benefits of having a private jet at your disposal. A commercial flight would have taken him to Paris, then Baghdad. Those on that route would still be in flight towards the Iraqi capital.

       He had been fortunate to find the main road in the dark out of the Iraq airbase. He had chuckled anew when passing a bar eight miles or so north of the base where some kind of Persian music permeated from this stark oasis. Out front the Mercedes; inside the three soldiers most likely bragging on the deal they had made. Soon the dim lights of the bar were a distant spec in the rear view, just as he found the main road through Al Basrah and north to An Nasiriyah. He had not needed a roadmap. All he had to do was follow the fetor choking the night air. He had fought his way through one roadblock after another the closer he came to the site of the earlier funeral pyre.

       The military and police of this land were not too well disposed to foreigners coming in to view what they took as a personal affront that such a massacre could happen in their country. Pat wanted to knock some sense into them. He had wanted to scream that they had been perpetuating the same kind of violence upon their neighbors and the Kurds for centuries, so why should they get squeamish now? He held his tongue. He had presented his press pass, passport and other identification, feeling all the while he was wasting precious time. Didn't these guards and authorities realize that there was no reason to patrol now? The deed had been done.

       Finally he had inched past the last roadblock and found himself crawling down a road that was so pot-holed that he wasn't sure his internal organs would survive. As he rumbled slowly along, he had seen stretcher after stretcher, bodies and body parts on canvas litters being carried to where ambulances and trucks kept returning time and time again to transport the dead to makeshift morgues, body bags being piled up in a huge pit freshly carved into the earth to bury the dead. It had given Pat a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach as thoughts of the scrawny, emaciated bodies of the holocaust came flooding into his memory. Some progress the world had made he thought.

Dateline: New Nasiriyah, Field of Death, November 2, 1:15 a.m.

       "Why couldn't it get light?" Pat fumed unreasonably as he shuffled on foot along the crude pathways that bulldozers had cleared. What was he looking for? Where could he begin? He had walked the distance to the edge of the restricted area and found nothing. Despite the sporadic lights, the generators providing the power had clattered and sputtered, a bank near him finally giving out. In a way it was a welcome relief, trading light for hearing. Every sense throbbed with pain. The gas mask and suit had been a welcome necessity. Despite their encumbrance it had allowed him to maneuver closer to the edge of the bowl. That area was still off limits as helicopters hovered above shining their lights over mounds of black mass and earthmovers surged and heaved, clearing more pathways in the distance.

       Pat cursed the night. Peering through the haze and ashes he could see a few stars twinkling above, the same sky he had noticed on his arrival in this God-forsaken country. He wanted to rage further against a God who could let the stars shine so benignly on a scene that rivaled anything Dante could have described.

       He took several deep breaths from the oxygen in order to concentrate. He tried to find a focal point while he breathed, so he would not fall victim to the reek of death all around him, the ravages of the past explosions. Pat realized that perhaps it was better to view what he was seeing under the hand of blackness until he could better accustom himself to the ungodly sight and stench. Morning with its startling clarity would come all too soon, the graphic horror all to easily spread out on the ground for the world to see, as it surely would once communications were restored throughout the world with New Nasiriyah.

       A virtual army of rescue workers, medics, military personnel, police, civil experts in any number of categories, and newsmen combed the site like an invasion of ants. Pat followed the roped-off trail until he came to a clearing where there stood an 8-foot high porta-potty, or so he thought, until he heard an official of the Iraqi government demand he produce his credentials yet again.

       The source of the command came from a soldier, stuffed inside that molded plastic 4' x 4' wide cocoon with a 2' x 2' plexiglass shield. Through an amplifier the Iraqi sentry huffed, "Nasty business."

       "Yeah," Gallagher almost choked on the monosyllable as he held up his passport and press pass.

       "You reporters, always the ghouls, huh?" said the mocking official. "Poke and probe and give the public their dose of the latest guts and gore."

       "That's about all we do," Pat quipped, wanting to be rid of this insensitive goon, his beady eyes peering through the plastic window. Thoughts of Halloween pranks behind the cabins on Shreveport's Cross Lake conjured up the temptation to tip over this temporary structure, but Gallagher thought better of the latter, seeking instead to pump this military pimp for information. "Have there been any reports, press releases, even any acknowledgment from some fringe fanatical group?"

       "No. Silence," grinned the ghoulish official, whose own attitude seemed even more menacing to Pat than the smoldering fires sprinkled throughout the area once peopled by hundreds upon hundreds of thousands. "But we've got a team of crack experts on explosives and they will find out soon. Meantime, we pick up what is left, stick it in a sack and either identify it or bury it. Yet that is the way it must be. Nasty, yes?"

       "And so are you, pal" Gallagher murmured under his breath as he stared at this oaf inside. The military man just threw back his head, opened his lips revealing the large black orifice of his mouth, and laughed from the depths of his toes into the night, the sound incongruous with the cackle of flames still being extinguished.

       Pat couldn't get away fast enough. As he continued on, he could hear the frequent cries of others who had discovered the horrendous sight of seared flesh up close. On one side men 80-yards away he could decipher men lined up three feet apart in conveyor fashion passing bags up out of the bowl. He could not see the end of the line. The 'meat wagons' appeared endless.

       He drew nearer to an area where the rumble of the generator echoed and a bank of lights illuminated the area better. The generators had not seemed so loud this time. Perhaps he was getting used to it. Who knows? He thought. Regardless, this light would provide better pictures. He had better start recording so he could send something back to Vic. He hunched down and keyed up the briefcase camera and then flipped a switch. The handle of the briefcase popped up. There, molded into the casing, was a small wireless remote which triggered the camera and provided a wireless monitor he could attach to his watch. Fastening it into place, he activated his Reflector card, swiping it over a beam in the molding. Immediately it signaled a small green light. Go! it beckoned him as he resumed his walk, aiming the case toward various areas that could be seen through the haze of the artificial light.

Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 4:28 p.m.

       The images projected by the Reflector card shot in lazer-like fashion from satellite to the computer terminal in the Metroplex Mirror's mainframe situated on the third floor of the Dallas-headquartered publishing building on Inwood Road south of I-35 East and overlooking the drybed of the Trinity River. There the bytes and pixels were captured and could easily be downloaded in Vic's computer for him to scan and drop into the formatted pagelayout on the latest Quark Xpress program. Such were the marvels of high technology and the patented Mirror Reflector card.

       But for now, they would remain merely pixels and bytes. Because of the catastrophe and all-night vigil, Vic had ordered an early edition with the stock footage and wire-service photos of before the explosion, gambling on Pat having something to him by mid-evening so he'd have something for the morning delivery edition. If he left by 4:30 p.m. he could have dinner with Amy in their modest Mesquite home. He could relax before returning to the office at ten that evening. It was important to get away by 4:30 p.m. Vic knew if he waited a half-hour more he'd be delayed in commute for up to an hour and a half once Interstate 30 East turned into a virtual parking lot.

       Despite the fact he was totally wiped out by the all-night schedule which had sent his body clock reeling, Vic also knew he couldn't leave. Even though he had re-triggered his sciatic nerves, he couldn't leave yet. This in turn sent a stinging pain surging from the hip down through his legs. Still something cloyed at him to stay later this night. Was it the demons or his journalistic instincts? Vic hoped and prayed it was the latter as he chugged down yet another cup of coffee and wolfed down a vending machine pastry. He knew he would have to confront Corrie, as well as Blix again. But before those encounters he'd call Amy. And there was one other call he had to make, one that linked him to these events more than anyone would realize.

Dateline: New Nasiriyah, Field of Death, November 2, 2:10 a.m.

       The sights and stench of the Field of Death would have had to dissuade anyone from ever taking up the profession of coroner. Yet there were plenty of instantly-appointed 'coroners' sifting through the hopeless remains littered and buried beneath the human rubble that less than 24 hours ago teemed with living flesh. Now all was burnt to a cinder. The night air grew heavier as the early morning atmosphere clashed with the soot and schmaze that penetrated the psyche of all who had committed themselves to this unenviable task of sorting. Where did one begin?

       For Pat Gallagher that was a question he still could not answer as he continued into the other side of 2 a.m. on the day of All Souls, treading carefully over and through the remains of whatever was left on this fetid Field of Death. The powerful lens in his Reflector computer pack picked up things that the human eye could not discern.

       As Pat studied the images on his Dick Tracy-like watch, he failed to notice a man crouched over the shattered remains of what once had been a living human being. Pat lost his balance as his leg bumped against the man and both tumbled to the ground, coming very close to toppling into the rubble.

       It was difficult for the two men to get a good look at one another in the uncertain light. Hurriedly both fought to extract themselves from a tangle of their own arms and legs, and stood upright, each brushing the debris on his anti-contaminated suit off as if he'd fallen into a pit of crawling insects with a burning bite.

       "Of all the ---" began the man Gallagher had stumbled into.

       "Sorry," Pat sheepishly admitted, trying to apologize and feeling unclean suddenly, as if death had personally touched him.

       They looked at one another, and Gallagher found himself gazing into the countenance of one of the most penetrating pair of ebony eyes he had ever beheld. Even beneath the oxygen mask their gaze was riveting and only after blinking several times did Pat focus on the entire man who stood well over six feet and who was powerfully built, though lithe.

       Suddenly, the other man smiled and the immediate transformation was one Pat took gratefully, for he had no intention of getting off on the wrong foot with anyone here if he could help it. He was already uptight with the pompous military guards. Who could this man be, a medic, a reporter, an investigation expert? Pat needed cooperation, inside information, a pipeline of news he could filter through and back to Vic at the Mirror.

       "So...we meet," said the as-yet stranger. "But not in a very good place, I think we are agreed on that. Not a place for losing one's self in one's thoughts. Right?"

       "Right," Pat finished dusting himself off. "I was a bit preoccupied, I guess. Name's Pat Gallagher. I represent UPI source for the Metroplex Mirror out of Dallas-Fort Worth." The perplexed reply from the stranger prompted Pat to identify further. "Texas."

       "Ah, United States. You have made good time, my friend," he said conversationally, still not giving any pertinent information about himself. "Except for the reporters that were already land-based in Europe or sent through Baghdad to cover the event, you are among the first reporters to arrive. You will, undoubtedly, not be the last."

       "I wouldn't think so. But, let's just say I like gettin' the upper hand in my investigative reportin'."

       "Hmm..." The man looked back to the ground where he had been carefully combing a patch of darkened dirt where there were visible remnants of cloth, the glint of metal, a piece of leather, perhaps from a shoe, but nothing else except ashes. He looked back up at Pat with a smile.

       "Forgive me. I am Niki Andriopoulos. I am, how do you say? A free-lancer from Athens. But I could not somehow resist the pull of this incident, despite the overwhelming tragedy it was. I saw it...not first hand, of course, but via satellite."

       The statement was flat, delivered without emotion. Nonetheless Gallagher nodded, murmuring, "I know. So did I."

       His stilted reply still prompted a response from the man from Athens. "It was, was it not, as if you were present? As if the ripping, tearing explosions were in the very room with you, and you could not dismiss them."

       "Something like that," Gallagher responded, eyeing this Greek for further clues to his inner feelings.

       "Ah, anyway, I am here... And it is precious little that I have accomplished grubbing my way along the ground. Yet..."

       He broke off abruptly as there was a scream from somewhere farther away in the darkness, and both men stood rigidly till the echoing sound faded into oblivion, and Pat found himself shaking.

       "You will gradually get used to it, my friend. It was monumental, what happened. I cannot comprehend even now. But the destruction, the panic, the fire and explosions which must have been projected with terrific force through the crowd in an arching pattern have left piles of flesh, as yet, not even touched."

       Good line, Pat reflected, but only said, "Yeah, ouch!"

       "You can imagine the task of trying to account for nearly one people or more, and all the officials and delegations. This country is poorly equipped to handle something like this, and stubborn about allowing help into their borders."

       "I know, the war sure didn't help any trust." Pat joined in.

       "But they will have no choice now, these prideful dignitaries." Pat sensed a political bent to Niki's tone as the Greek continued. "This incident belongs to the world, not their own corner of it, and there will be much hell to pay if the world does not get a hand in cleaning up and sorting out this tragic mess."

       "Don'tcha think, Mr. Andropolous, that the world has already seen hell, the real thing?"

       "Ah, my American friend, you may be right about that. But I must correct you on one thing. It is Andriopoulos - An dri OP oo lohse" His lips phonetically pronounced his last name.

       "Uh, sorry, man."

       "No problem. It is a very difficult name for westerners to pronounce. No?"

       "Yeah, but I shoulda got it right. Damn I'm just shook up about all this...and angry."

       "Indignation has nothing to do with the extent of what has happened here."

       "Yeah, but it can get to ya when you have to deal with these snot-nosed soldiers. The last checkpoint guard told me there was a group of global experts already on the scene huntin' for clues, but I haven't come across 'em yet. How 'bout you?"

       "Ah yes, the rather large obnoxious man," Niki acknowledged. "He is a classic. No? A real charmer, with the class of an asp and the brain of a fossil. Yes, there is such a group at work. They are in the bowl area."

       "Oh, the restricted area, huh?" Pat was wising up.

       "Yes. They have been hastily assembled from several countries. Explosive experts, small arms experts, anti-terrorist experts, forensic experts, medical examiners, intelligence, counter-intelligence..."

       "The whole gorilla," Pat added. "But where were they before this happened?!" Resentment to protocol could not be hidden.

       "Is that not sadly always the case?" Niki assuaged.

       "Red tape and hindsight. They go together, those egg-heads," Pat berated.

       Of course, a potpourri of, how you say - egg-head individuals, who will sift, sort, argue, wrangle and bandy politics about until they are content to release a story to the world that they can all agree upon."

       "Which," Pat noted, "will undoubtedly take some time."

       "And why not?" Niki countered, "the longer they put it off, the more suspense builds, the more secure become their jobs. It is the perfect example of what you Americans call, I believe, the Peter Principle."

       "You got a pretty good grasp of us, I see. Can't argue." Pat was warming to this man from Greece. "Whaddya gonna do? That's life."

       "Ah, that is where you are wrong, my friend. I for one do not intend to sit idly in some rotting hotel room waiting for these idiots to speak. I will find the cause, and from that find who is responsible...if, in the meantime, that is not achieved for me when the person or parties responsible come forward to claim credit for this hideous deed. A crime of this magnitude cannot be long without a by-line. No?"

       "No," agreed Gallagher. "And what, if I may ask, have you uncovered so far?"

       "You may ask, but I may choose not to tell you." Niki's tone hinted of extreme caution.

       "Fair enough," Pat shot back in self-defense. "Why should you share your font of wisdom with me? I can do my own diggin'."

       "Be careful, my friend," Andriopoulos said softly, his words edging closer to Pat as if to test his sincerity by shock value. "Be vigilant that you do not stumble upon an unexploded device, or fall ill at the sight of this ravaged place."

       "Don't worry," Pat brushed it off.

       Niki was not convinced. "I have seen men more practiced in the art of dying become so overwrought at sights not nearly as hideous as this that their own deaths were marked upon their faces and stamped upon their hearts. I would not wish that to happen to you."

       "You won't. I'm a survivor, if I didn't mention that fact before." Pat was in self-denial, though he was not as aware as Niki was. "I don't become 'overwrought'. That's not my job."

       "No. I am sure it is not." Niki decided to lighten up. "But it is the function of the human mind to block the horrible, to deny evil. I have seen it...only too often. It is meant only as a friendly warning, sincerely meant. Perhaps we will meet again."

       "Yeah, who knows," Pat offered, beginning to move away from this strange and articulate man who bore all the marks of what Gallagher imagined the ancient Greeks to have looked like. He didn't care for the underlying current of Andriopoulos' statements, yet something in them had punched a button in his psyche and he felt unnerved again. Dammit, Pat cursed. Now was no time for nerves. He had to be steel-plated.

       Pat walked on, partially ignoring the Greek's warning, passing in and out of light and shadow as he progressed from point to point, some illuminated by the hastily constructed generated-run spotlights, other places bathed in a suffocating ebony. The latter did not show up at all on his camera, which continued transmitting via satellite back to Vic's office in Dallas. The further into the abysmal mess he ventured, the further he fancied he was getting away from reality, from the world where Corrie existed, away from the last vestiges of hope.

       Pat could only reflect on how one could hold on to hope when one's feet tread upon scoriae and ashes...soot that might have once composed a human being who had laughed and cried and loved. It was, Pat surmised, like walking on your own grave before you were dead and buried.

       Gallagher hated it. He hated it with a passion, but still he moved on. There was no way left to go but onward, tiptoeing through the embers of anxiety.

Dateline: Dallas, November 1, 5:18 p.m.

       The afternoon traffic crept along the Airport Freeway, bottlenecked at the 114 exchange and backed up all the way to the I-35 East interchange as the November sun was fast setting on the Dallas skyline. In the Metroplex Mirror building overlooking this maze Victor Van Wess had been working feverishly all day balancing stories, proofing copies and bumping stories as more news surfaced.

       The one receiving most of the publicity was the pope who had been the most notable and respected of all the rest, just as John Paul II had been mourned by billions, so it was de ja vu all over again. Throughout the day Vic had marshaled extra staff members to compile detailed obituaries from the files on all the leaders that perished in the pyrotechnic cremation that shook the world. He had devoted the front page to the pope and the bishop of Fort Worth who had traveled to Iraq for the occasion with a high Baptist official from Dallas. He was holding a spot open on the right front page to pop in a photo he had anxiously been awaiting from Pat. As bad as his leg felt, as tired as Vic felt, he knew he had to wait until Pat's photos came in before fleeing back to his home in Mesquite and the warm embrace of his rock - his wife Aimee.

       Thanks to server problems, the net had been down for several hours but techs had just got it back on line and the photos were coming in now as Vic clicked them up on his computer, lining them up by frame to choose the best photo and caption Pat had sent to identify the image. With a few more clicks he focused on one that illustrated the piles of human flesh with an earthmover's shovel up, all silhouetted in the eerie glow of the spotlights. Despite the haze the photo was remarkably clear.

       "That a boy, Pat. Good shots." Vic muttered to himself as he cropped the photo and moved it to another file, then copied it and retracted a CD, all the while calling out. "Gwen. Please get this down to composing now. Thanks." He handed it to a short, somewhat stocky twenty-something woman sporting pig-tails whose shape belied her speed as the spunky torso took off down the aisle, realizing the urgency of Vic's request.

       Finally Vic could take a breather, get a fresh cup of coffee. Java had kept him going throughout the night and day. As he stretched his aching leg to lift himself out of his chair, the phone rang on his desk. This wasn't the newsroom phone. Staff handled those. This was cleared through to him. With trepidation he reached for the receiver. "Yeah, Vic here."

       "Gallagher's got one helluva mess on his hands." Blix began without preamble. Vic had a premonition it would be Blix. He wished, not for the first time, that this cadaverous man on the other end of the phone wouldn't talk while dangling a cigar between his mealy-mouthed teeth. It was obnoxious.

       "I've got confidence in him, Blix. You know that. We'll hear from him. Don't worry."

       "Worry? Not me. That's your problem. Ain't it, Vic?" Blix intimidated.

       Van Wess was exceedingly tired. His legs, both of them this time, were like two swords jabbing at his nervous system. His whole psyche was teetering on edginess.

       "Yeah, it's my job to worry," he snarled at Blix. "I sent him there. No matter that you agreed to it, that you put your jet at the paper's disposal, with your blessing bestowed. I sent Gallagher. I'm responsible for him."

       "And now he's missing, Vic." The words dripped off Blix's tongue like acid on velvet.

       "What do you mean missing?" Vic became concerned.

       "He ditched mah man at the airbase. Who knows where he is now?"

       Vic realized Pat was okay. The photos he had received confirmed that. He also knew Pat's stubborn independent nature would not stand for anyone accompanying him. Silently he gave a kudos to Pat for his fortitude and returned to his conversation with his damnable boss.

       "He'll show up. I know him. Your man would only slow him down."

       "You think so, Van Wess?"

       "I know so, Blix."

       "Why's that?" Blix was trying to bait Vic.

       "I think you know the risks." Vic waited for a reply.

       "Ah know the risks as well as you. This is a business of takin' risks."

       "Yeah, and I'm risking getting sick. Hey, look, I've been on this for 24 hours and very little, if any, sleep. I think I'm going to turn it over to my assistant and..."

       Blix was blunt, "If you can't take the pressure, Vic, maybe you'd better think about retirin'."

       "Knock off the bullcrap threats, Blix," Vic retorted. "This ain't the first rough case I've seen. I know the routine. Dig deep, get the facts. And to hell with the consequences."

       "Good. Then we both know the rules of the game. Ah suggest you stay right where you are and keep me informed. No one's indispensable, Vic. You can be replaced you know." Blix's words tore at Vic's tired psyche.

       Furious, Vic hung up, not bothering to acknowledge the command. Painfully he lumbered to the coffee machine to pour himself another cup. Whether the cup was as steaming as he was could be left to conjecture.

Dateline: Vatican City, November 2, 12:35 a.m.

       The evening had not been kind to Antonio Macelli. Monsignor Navarro was still pestering him, claiming he had the backing of Gregory Cardinal Zachmunn of the United States to challenge the release of the document Navarro had labeled 'heretical.' Damn him, thought Macelli. Yet Navarro was not the only problem he had encountered. The call from Brunatti had truly upset him. He could hear Serrano in the background whining and whimpering. That oaf. What did they mean the dry cleaning was missing? Had they not taken care of that two days ago? That had been Macelli's order. How dare they defy a direct order. No, he did not know if Vendhem had someone else remove the bodies, but he would get to the bottom. Oh, where the hell was that Arian beanpole?

       He drummed his fingers nervously on the ridge of the pew to the side of the main altar of St. Peter's. The only ones in this vast basilica were the nuns of the Holy Spirit, those sisters in light blue who foolishly kept vigil in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the back of this huge edifice. There the many candles lit up the ornately, traditional room of worship with the great tabernacle - the one those nuns devoted perpetual adoration to, believing that the Son of God was actually present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. What rubbish scoffed Macelli. The thought turned his stomach. The rays from the back chapel cast a glow onto the magnificent marble floor of the main apse, 100 yards away and just out of view of the pew where Macelli sat impatiently. Save for the infrequent lights in the great dome above and a few lights behind some of the statues that the night watch guards had not caught, Macelli was bathed in darkness.

       Finally he heard a rustle and looked up.

       "Vendhem, where have you been?" He sneered in hushed tones impatiently.

       "Still flustered I see, Antonio. I have been quite busy preparing things for the master." He was quite proud of his calmness and fastidiousness.

       "Did you remove the bodies?" Macelli snapped.

       "What bodies are you talking of?" Vendhem questioned.

       "You know damn well what bodies. The ones we had to leave in the papal closet three days ago."

       "Ah, those, they were removed by the waiters."

       "The waiters?" Macelli was incredulous.

       "Yes, Guillaume Brunatti and that large one Luciani Serrano. They disposed of them two nights ago, did they not?"

       Macelli's jaw sunk deeper into his double chins. "I was afraid of this, Josef. We have lost the bodies."

       Vendhem was now alarmed. "They did not remove..?"

       The rotund cardinal, his shoulders slumped over the edge of the pew, shook his head. "No, I'm afraid someone else is afoot."

       "It can't be!" stormed the now furious German. "No one has the keys to the papal apartment other than the nuns and surely they wouldn't..."

       "I don't think so either, Vendhem, because Guillaume said the keys were in the same place he left them. We, of course only have his and Luciani's word on it, but why would they lie?"

       "That does not make sense. The nuns much be watched. How many are there?" Vendhem demanded.

       "Three. Two Italians, one Irish. I could put a tail on all three, but I think we would be better to transfer them to another area of the Vatican for now," Macelli reasoned.

       "What do you propose then, Antonio?"

       "I'll cut orders for them to work in the Guard Apartments. We have plenty who can keep their eye on them there."

       "Good," nodded the tall German. "When next the master contacts me I will inquire further."

       "Perhaps that may not be a good idea, Josef."

       "Why do you think such a thing?" Vendhem was perplexed.

       "It's possible the master designated someone else to do the deed. He may be testing us. I suggest we watch our backs and continue with Phase Two as planned. Brunatti has informed me the After Hours meeting tonight went quite well." Macelli sought to reassure the dubious Bavarian.

       "Then we must proceed with Phase Two, Antonio. I will make sure the necessary corridors are cleared and you the caskets."

       "I'm still awaiting word from Elena on how to proceed on that." Macelli had regained his composure. "Because of the total destruction we will move everything up to expedite the process."

       "I will be ready as usual. I wait with anticipation for the moment. The document? Has there been acceptance over it I hope?"

       "Not as much as anticipated yet. It is early, Josef, the media is consumed with the details of the destruction and those mindless obituaries that honor the dead. What trivial nuances."

       "You have learned well from the master, Antonio. I suggest we proceed without hesitation, with all confidence that his total dominance is near."

       "Very well, Josef, we stand together."

       There on the hallowed ground where St. Peter willingly gave his life, where countless other martyrs were slain for the Faith and where many Popes were buried, the two men of the darkness repeated the oath of evil, pledging their fidelity to the master and the Legion of the Basilisk. That moment a hiss echoed through the dark halls of the magnificent basilica, possibly waking the saints whose statues stood sentry in this cavernous center of universal Catholicism.

       While the serpent slithered through the halls of the Holy See, the world was still in a coma-like unbelief at the events that had happened less than 24 hours earlier. By morning the pack of media wolves would descend on the littered remains of the Field of Abraham. If the Iraqi sentries were disgusted with the small trickling of early journalists, then they would be beside themselves when the international media hordes arrived around daybreak, especially the tabloid newsmongers who had little respect for anything alive, let alone the dead.

Dateline: The Field of Death, New Nasiriyah, November 2, 2:40 a.m.

       The search continued in the nothingness of the night as Pat ambled over and between blackened scoriae that he could not determine had been inanimate or, 18 hours earlier, very animate. Every step brought a sharper assessment of how much revulsion ripped at him like a tsunami. Mounting fury stoked a furnace whose coals were hate. Beyond lay an incendiary of untouched emotions.
       There were countless photographic essays here to feed the public. A gluttony of abuse and horror. He had filed four stories as he walked, dictating his words into the tiny microphone. Ah the wonders of technology Pat pondered. Here he was on this Field of Death on the other side of the globe seemingly alone, and yet those surfing the Mirror's website could see a Reflector Cam while he walked. His words were running on a slow moving ticker beneath the images, to be filed into respective articles across the fiber optic streams that would automatically be formatted for the webmaster and sent to the editor for final editing and print placement. He wondered if Corrie was tuned in to all this. Why had she not e-mailed him back? Damn, did she know where he was? Had she gotten it? He doubted it because his personal electronic communication had been blocked once the Reflector code had been activated. He had tried to override it on the plane, but no use. She would see the paper in the morning and realize. God he missed his cara mia.

       His very anger kept his feet moving; it fashioned the nucleus of his present strength. No matter what it took, no matter how long, he would see it through. Time evaporated in the unremitting presence of death. Pat's nerves were beginning to unravel - a definite sign of stress - that was evident when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

       "Still working your side of the street I see, my American friend." It was the Greek again.

       "You still here? Hell, there's nothing here. I'm afraid I got the leftovers." Pat mewled through eyes glazed with fatigue and misery.

       "There's not much leftover, my friend." Niki gestured over the field. "We work together - not against each other."

       "I work better solo anyway." Pat shrugged distrustingly.

       "Then you prefer to stay here throughout the night, my friend?"

       Pat's exhaustion was obvious. "It's...difficult to leave. I keep thinking- - " He broke off, feeling suddenly foolish.

       Niki picked up Pat's trend of thought. "- - That perhaps you will find that one clue which will piece this together, that will answer the wailing question: WHY? That, with luck, you may find a survivor. Ah, my friend, it is the hope of the human spirit which refuses to buckle in the face of overpowering odds. And," the Greek slid his dark eyes further toward the area where once stood the main center stage, "you wish to go down there."

       "Sure. Why not?" Gallagher asked testily. "Looks like nobody's gonna get closer than 50 yards away from the phalanx of Iraqi SWAT squads down there."

       "Ah, these officials. A nuisance," noted Niki. "But one to be endured. They must do all they can to save face before the world's opinion. No? Yet, what does it really matter? It is no different down there than it is up here. In the grand scheme those on the stage were no more important than those who died here where we stand. Each had a soul. Each is now meeting his Maker."

       "You must have that on good authority," Pat cynically snarled.

       Niki laughed. A soft sound etched with sadness. "My American friend, I always have everything on good authority. It is one of my best trademarks." He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture, "Look, the hour grows late. There is little either of us can accomplish when we are bone-weary. We scurry like rats, but find nothing. No? My friend, the dawn will come soon. Very soon. I, for one, need to be well-nourished before daylight illuminates what I have so far half-pictured in my mind."

       "Ya gotta point, Kimosabe," Pat admitted.

       "But of course." Niki opined. "We all know what happened here. We must be leery of when it could happen again, how, where and to whom."

       "Ya forgot the what and why"

       "Yes, the why. There are many reasons, my friend, all of which, I fear, bode evil for us and the entire world because of the what."

       Pat waited for him to continue, but he didn't. "Which is what?" Pat prompted.

       "You are a font of questions. No?" Niki seemed to playing games with his mind again.

       "Hey, I'm a reporter."

       "Reporters have to rest, too" Andriopoulos offered.

       "Tell ya what - I'll rest if you will?" Pat was offering his own olive branch in this stilted standoff.

       "Ah, the American competitive spirit. You need not fear me, Patrick Gallagher."

       "That's what Brutus said to Caesar," Pat countered.

       "Ah, but he was Roman, not Greek." Niki instigated,

       "Okay, but remember what they said about Greeks bearing gifts." Pat expanded.

       "Beware...I know," nodded Andriopoulos. "Also beware of knowing who to trust."

       "I don't trust easily." Pat's body stiffened.

       "Allow me to prove my intentions. I offer you the laurel of peace by extending shelter and an invitation to breakfast, my Texas friend."

       Incredulously Pat looked around. "Where???"

       "Ah, not here, that is for sure. I am staying in a private residence...the home of a friend of mine," Niki smiled mischievously.

       Pat started to object, except he was so fatigued he really wanted nothing more than a hot shower and the oblivion of sleep.

       Niki needed to convince him now. "You must come with me. It is imperative. There will be someone else joining us at the meal...someone you must meet."

       Gallagher was suddenly more alert. "Oh?"

       "Yes." Niki would say no more.

       "Where?" Pat inquired, weakening in his resolve to resist.

       "75 miles south, just across the border in Kuwait." Niki painted the image that would sell Pat on the idea. "An estate on a tributary of the Euphrates. It is an oasis."

       "Sounds temptin'. Hard to pass up a bed and free meal. Sure could use a hot shower," Pat rationalized.

       "Let us depart from here. I assure you that nothing will change if we gather our thoughts, renew our strength and fortify ourselves with some information."

       Was there an argument to that? If there was, Pat couldn't find it. He instinctively liked Niki, found himself intrigued by this Greek who free-lanced, committing himself to a case of such ugly proportions when he could be lounging on a sun-drenched yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean.

       "Okay," he agreed. Let's get the hell outta here!"

       "Use that word sparingly, my friend," Niki cautioned abruptly. "I cannot help but sense that the mythological 'Hell' that we have heard about since the dawn of religion is seeping up from beneath the ground...and this, my friend, is the forerunner."

       On that bitter note the two reporters began to pick their way back among the charred remains, past continuing clean-up crews, and roving police, military and inspection teams who paid no attention to the two newsmen exiting this eerie scene.

       Niki's Humvee was parked just 40 yards from Pat's jeep. It would be easy to follow. As the two vehicles rumbled out of the compound regions, Pat experienced a shiver which traversed his spine, as if an unseen skeletal hand toyed with his nerves. Only his subconscious understood the euphony.

       He tailed Niki's Humvee through the clutter of sentries and obstacles that made off-roading truly an adventure. Finally they were away from the maddening crowd and speeding south. He couldn't help but wonder where they were headed since his newly-found Greek friend preferred to keep things to himself, imparting only sparse information, and then only when necessary.

       He concentrated on keeping Niki in sight. Gallagher's jeep bumped along huffing and puffing to keep up with the more all-encompassing Humvee that seemed to glide over the desert terrain bathed by a full moon. Thirty miles out of New Nasiriyah the night air was brisk and clear as Pat glanced up to see the stars glistening above and started to breathe a little easier in anticipation of a hot shower and soft bed. Ah, sleep, perchance to dream.

"White Smoke, Black Fire!" is an original work, registered with the Writers' Guild and all rights are the exclusive rights of The DAILY CATHOLIC who owns the copyright. Because of the nature of the internet and the importance of sharing, we hereby give the reader permission to collect and disseminate by e-mail each episode as it is presented in each issue of The DAILY CATHOLIC, provided that one includes this 1986, 2001 copyright statement and source - www.DailyCatholic.org - and take nothing out of context, nor reproduce it for profit. This work, seventeen years in the making, is a work of fiction that replicates the reality of today in many ways. However names, characters, places and incidents are used fictionally and any resemblance to actual persons and events, except those recorded in history, are purely coincidental.

Next: PART II: The Smoldering THIRD CHAPTER, Episode Two: Fate, Fasif, and Faith

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