“We have to abort,” Colonel Daniel Ross, head of the Swiss Guard said as he walked into the office Pope John Paul III was using to prepare for his speech. They were the same offices he’d used when he was Bishop in this very church. The latest assessment of the security concerns did nothing to reduce the Commandant’s concerns. There were simply too many unknowns.
“No,” the Pope replied as he got to his feet. “We go live in two hours, and you want to cancel? What kind of message will that send?”
“As long as you’re alive, I don’t care. You know these recent attacks are designed to draw you out. Why did we have to do the speech here, in Poland?” Daniel knew the answer to this, of course, but he was frustrated enough to ask it again.
“This is where I grew up. These people have suffered for decades. They deserve to see me in person. It will strengthen their faith. Besides, I want to show them I am not afraid.”
“I wish you were, at least a little,” Daniel said softly. They’d had this conversation before, and he had to work at controlling his temper, especially today.
“No.” John Paul pounded his fist on the desk. “We cannot give in to fear.”
The Commandant knew the Pope well enough to know he would not be easily persuaded. Daniel let out a long sigh. “I didn’t want to do this, but you’ve left me no choice. If you insist on going through with this speech, then I will have to resign my post.”
“What? No. I can’t let you do that.” John Paul stared into Daniel’s eyes.
Daniel straightened himself up, preparing to disappoint the man who’d raised him from a young age; watched over him, helped him find direction in life when his parents were killed. Pope John Paul III had made him the man he was today, and now he couldn’t let that get in the way of doing his job. “I cannot guarantee your safety today. If I cannot do that, I cannot do my job.”
The Pope sat down hard. “Daniel, my boy, I can’t let you do that. You’ve done your job well. I know there is some risk today, but I believe the risk is worth taking.”
Daniel swallowed hard and said, “Yes, Your Holiness.” Without waiting for reply, he turned and left the room.
Two hours later, Pope John Paul III scanned the faces of those given the honor of sitting in the front rows as he began the short walk from his seat to the pulpit. He was pleased to see how many faces he recognized. Sadly, those faces showed the desperation everyone in the room felt. It was clear something more than faith was needed here to change this loss of hope. This speech, given to this Parish, may be the most important sermon he’d ever delivered, and possibly the most important sermon given by a Pope in the last hundred years.
Suicide bombings, brutal public attacks and honor killings by Muslim extremists, targeting both Christians and Muslims had increased all over the world. Warsaw suffered as many attacks as any other city in the world; but here, Old Town, was his home. This was the parish where he grew to love ‘the people’ more than he loved himself. As he thought back, he knew he would never have become pontiff if not for the love he developed here. That was why tonight’s speech was worth the risk.
He scanned the room briefly, looking for any sign of trouble, then caught himself. There were dozens of people doing that for him right now. He needed to concentrate on why he was here.
Those who worshipped at St. John’s Archcathedral were no strangers to attacks of this kind, even before he’d become a Bishop decades ago. This was different, worse. Every week around Poland, at least one parish endured an attack, if not more. Increased security wasn’t even close enough to stop them all. No one knew where, when, or what kind of attack was coming next. The heartache and fear was ever growing inside his people. Daniel had explained plenty of times how these attacks were designed to force him to come here to address the problem.
Pope John Paul III knew the risks, but these terrorists were killing people he’d personally known for decades. He had to do something to help, even at the risk of his own life.
He reached the pulpit, the teleprompter clicked on, and the opening of his speech appeared. The noise within the cathedral dropped to a respectful murmur, far quieter than most places he’d spoken. The little indicator light told him the camera feed had gone live. As usual, he took a three count before speaking.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters, I was compelled by the Holy Spirit to accept your invitation to visit you today. I know of the sacrifices forced upon you by those who believe in a god of vengeance. I am mindful that many of you wish to retaliate. However, I must urge you to . . . ” His statement was cut short as something physically struck him.
Then a loud bang echoed through the room.
Pain exploded from his chest. He breathed in, despite the difficulty of doing so.
Pope John Paul III saw people scatter as his vision clouded. Daniel, running toward him was all he could see. Another bang, and his world went dark.
He wondered how many people would read his speech on enduring hard trials, knowing he’d given his life in the attempt to deliver it, or if his own death would tax their faith too much.
His last breath left his body.
His last mortal thoughts were, ‘Daniel. How heavily will this weigh on you, my Brother, who I loved as a son? You must know you took every measure possible to prevent this. Please remember that none of us can fight the will of God.’
A bright light appeared, a hand reached out and he saw the marks. Looking up, his heart filled with joy as his eyes beheld the Son, welcoming him Home.
Muhammad Al-Mahdi walked the streets of Kasur well after midnight. This was the only time he could go outside. His tall frame, fair skin and features would stand out too much in the light of day.
No one greeted him, recognized him, or even looked in his direction. The two body guards who could hardly be seen didn’t count. They were already following him. Someday, he thought, everyone in this city will bow before me. But for now, they lived their lives as best they could, preparing for the day when he would reveal himself.
Sadly, today was not that day. Today he was meeting a new teacher. He knew little about this teacher, except he was very strict. Ten tutors had taught Al-Mahdi, training him in basic schooling, religion, strategy, and all the other subjects he would need to know when he could finally take his place in the world. He was thirty-two years old, and for the last two decades all he had done with his life was learn and train. So many years of preparation had finally paid off when his operatives assassinated the Pope.
Why he needed a new tutor now, he could not understand. But what The Council commands, he obeys. After all, they were paying the bills. Yet the question remained in his mind, what could this new tutor teach him that the others had not?
The three men entered the house without knocking, went directly to the dining room, and sat down. Al-Mahdi had been here before, but not for several years. After all, this was one of his parents’ homes. This new tutor must have a family connection to be meeting here. After a few minutes, his father, Abdullah, and mother, Aamina, joined them at the table, followed by a man Al-Mahdi didn’t recognize. This man was about the same height as Al-Mahdi, and with a few wrinkles on his face, was probably ten years or more his senior.
“As-salam alaikum,” Muhammad said.
“Wa alaikum assalaam,” the man replied in the traditional greeting. “I think you kno-w why I am here.” The man’s stutter was slight, but noticeable.
Al-Mahdi thought the man might be making fun of his own stutter, but there was no hint of that on his light colored face. “Yes. You are the n-new tutor with knowledge so precious we had to meet here in the city, r-rather than at the camp.”
The man let out a long sigh. “We are mee-ting here because I do not want to cause your friends to dou-bt their faith.”
Al-Mahdi’s eyes showed a slight twinkle of confidence. “My f-friends are very devout. Nothing could shake them from their r-resolve to follow Allah.”
“I do not mean their faith in Allah. I mean their faith in y-ou.” The tutor gave a wry smile.
“I am but a hum-ble servant of Allah, striving to do his w-will.”
“If only that were true.” The tutor frowned.
“Tell me then, what you might do to s-shake their faith so much.” Muhammad was finding less and less patience for this man.
“My name, until a few precious yea-rs ago, was Muhammad Al-Mahdi.”
Silence rang around the table. Muhammad tried to find the significance of the man’s claim, but could not see how it was relevant. “W-what do you mean ‘was’? W-what is your name now?”
“My current name is not important. What you need to kn-ow is that I gave up my name on my forty-first birthday, when it became clear the time was not ri-ght for the 12th Imam to reveal himself.”
“Of course the time isn’t right. I w-won’t turn forty until . . . ”A different meaning slammed into Al-Mahdi’s mind and he paused to take it all in.
Like himself, this man was tall, fair skinned, had a high bridge on his nose, spoke with a stutter, and carried himself with an air of importance. A horrible thought occurred to him for the first time in his life. He knew there were others who had laid claim upon the mantel of the returning Imam. There were over three-thousand men currently imprisoned for making such a claim without the strength or right to come forward in such a way. But until today, he’d never met one who fit the prophecies at least as well as himself.
Were there a select few who, like him, looked the part and were prepared, but not announced? What if he was not the first man to truly be prepared? Were there others in the past, or even in the present prepared the way he was to lead all of Islam into a Holy War?
Al-Mahdi eyed the man warily. “W-why are you here?”
“I am here because you need to kn-ow what I have learned in the last few years, Brother. I was trained as you have been. I was raised to believe I would one day unite all of Islam and end the sense-less battles over minor points of doctrine. I have come to teach you what precious few can understand. I am here to tell you why y-ou might fail.”
Bryan Benson set the letter down. He’d been rejected from the Army, the Navy, and now the CIA. He crumpled the paper and tossed it in the trash. One bad interview with a psychologist, and he was banned from working in or around the military.
“What letter was that?” Claire asked. Her six inch heels gave her a slight height advantage over Bryan, which he guessed was why she always wore them. Her dark hair clashed with Bryan’s dirty blond.
“Another rejection letter.”
“Already? From the CIA?”
“Did they give a reason?”
Bryan let out a long sigh. “Same reason as always. The psychiatric evaluation.”
“What? That was three years ago.”
“I know. Something isn’t right.”
“Do you think your father has anything to do with this?”
“Dad? He’s been supportive of me going into the military.”
“Yes, but you did have quite the fight a couple weeks before applying for the Army.”
Bryan remembered the fight well. His father was a Major General at the time, and his convoy had been attacked in Afghanistan. General Benson was able to get the upper hand on those who had tried to kill him. But instead of shooting the enemy right then and there, he was able to capture them. He’d been promoted as a result.
Six months later those same prisoners had escaped during transport. Bryan had accused his father of being a coward when he refused to shoot. As Bryan saw it, the terrorists all deserved to die. The fact they escaped to commit more terrorist acts only served to prove his point. General Benson, however, saw things differently. He’d called Bryan a hothead, a trigger-happy wanna be. As far as Bryan knew, the matter was ancient history.
“I doubt he would sabotage my military career by black balling me,” Bryan replied.
“Yes he would. He’s conceited enough, and you wounded his pride. It’s the only thing that explains these rejections,” Claire said.
“I don’t see how.”
Claire smiled at him with that look. The one which said this was so obvious, you should see it for yourself.
“Wait, you’re thinking he sent a letter to the Army, which was forwarded to the Navy when I applied there, and then to the CIA when I applied? You really think the CIA would go that far into my past, digging up records of a failed application?”
Claire laughed. “Intelligence is their middle name. Of course they did. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found your kindergarten report card to see if you were the kind of kid who ‘couldn’t keep his hands to himself.’”
“I knew I should never have shown that to you.” Bryan knew she was right, but didn’t want to admit it. If she was right, his hopes of joining the military, or any government agency were over. And if so, what was left for him? He was working nights as a security guard, but the pay was awful, and if anything happened and he actually got into a firefight, he would most likely also be fired the next day. If he was going to use all the skills he had, and the legitimate agencies wouldn’t have him, perhaps it was time to call Claire’s Uncle Nikki. The one who told Bryan at the wedding, ‘If you ever want to do something more uh, interesting, give me a call.’
Gideon Shumway stared at the half dozen letters in his hands. Responses from all the law schools he’d applied for; Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brigham Young University, Columbia, and New York University. He’d been holding onto several of them for almost a week, and the last of them, from BYU, arrived yesterday.
His friend James had arranged a party where he and others would open their letters and tell their friends which schools they’d gotten into and which one they chose.
He was tempted, once more, to open them all before he went to the party. Many of his friends received letters months ago, and had already sent in their replies. But Gideon had to wait for his Law School Admission Test scores from the December test, because he hadn’t done so well in September. Waiting to open his letters at the party would add a bit of fun and excitement. Everyone who said they were coming to the party had at least one letter to open. Some had several like Gideon. None of them had applied to Law School.
It wasn’t a large party, and Gideon almost thought he had the wrong apartment when there was no noise coming from inside. Most students were busy studying for their final exams, which were three weeks away. This get together was to be a break from all the studying.
A cake covered in Notre Dame gold and blue with a sad imitation of a leprechaun on it lay untouched on the table when Gideon arrived. Half a dozen Comparative Religion majors littered the living room of the three bedroom apartment. His friend Duane was among them, and they spent a few minutes catching up while waiting for others to arrive. Their friendship had formed over the surprising number of things they had in common. Three others showed up after Gideon, bearing various forms of sugar or liquid refreshments. The ten of them had studied together for the past two years, and in a way, this was an early farewell party.
“Okay,” James said. “We’re all here. Organize your letters according to your top picks. For each rejection letter, you have to take a drink. First person to get accepted gets to cut the cake.” He turned to Gideon. “As usual, Gideon and Duane will be drinking grape soda instead of wine.”
Gideon had already sorted his. Harvard lay on top.
“Now, who has more than five letters?”
Three people, including Gideon raised their hands.
“More than seven?”
Only Betsy still had a hand up.
“Alright,” James said. “Betsy, you start.”
“I’ve applied for medical school, and my first pick is, North Carolina.” She ripped open the envelope, and glanced over the letter. The disappointment on her face said it all.
“That’s okay,” James said. “Several more to go. Take a drink.”
Betsy took a long swig of wine. Her glass was nearly empty, and she refilled it.
“Gideon, you next.”
Gideon opened the letter from Harvard, then realized he’d forgotten the pre-amble. “I’ve applied for law school, and my first choice is Harvard.”
He pulled out the letter and scanned the content which read, ‘sorry to inform you, your application has been rejected.’ Gideon was only partially disappointed. He took a swig of the grape soda he brought. Without a scholarship, he had no idea how he was going to pay for Harvard anyway. The loans would have haunted him the rest of his life. The biggest surprise from the first round was George’s declaration of having applied for the Seminary at Notre Dame, but being turned down.
The first round went by, and no one had gotten into their top pick. Round two yielded the first winner as Betsy, getting into Indiana University Medical School. She got to cut the cake and take the first piece. The next slice of cake wasn’t taken until round four when Gideon discovered he’d gotten into BYU Law School. He was mainly thrilled for getting into any law school, but to go to the school where his father coached football? At least Gideon wouldn’t be on the team.
Football was what brought Gideon to Notre Dame, and at first, Comparative Religion was merely something to do while he was there. BYU had offered him a scholarship as well, but his father, Benjamin Shumway Sr. was on the coaching staff there. At the time, he wanted to get out from under his father’s shadow, and Notre Dame clearly gave him that freedom. When the NFL passed him by, he had to take a hard look at his life, and the direction it was going. It didn’t take him long to realize pro football had been his father’s goal. That was when he realized how much he was enjoying his classes, but couldn’t see any careers based on only a bachelor’s degree.
Benjamin Shumway Sr. desperately wanted one of his three boys to make it into the NFL. The oldest, Jon, had rejected football completely. Gideon had taken it all the way to college, but his stats weren’t impressive enough for the big time. That put everything on Ben Jr. He was good, no doubts there. He also was offered a scholarship to BYU, but chose instead to attend West Point.
When Gideon realized football was clearly a dead end, he searched for a career. his friend, Duane, mentioned how law schools and medical schools were always looking to admit a diversity of undergraduate degrees. Comparative Religion certainly wasn’t a common degree for their applicants, and it should give him an edge in applying for entrance and scholarships. Gideon quickly discovered he had an aptitude and a desire for the study of law.
He hadn’t spoken to his father for over a year now, since he’d quit the football team to give himself more time to study. Thankfully, he’d just proven he was good enough for law school. Based on the letters, only BYU thought he was good enough.
As they sat around eating cake while congratulating and consoling each other, James asked, “Any ideas on who the next Pope will be?”
Gideon laughed. “As if you didn’t know. There are only two cardinals who could possibly obtain a supermajority vote in the conclave.”
“Listen to you,” Betsy said, “sounding like you’re a Catholic.”
“Oh, come off it, Betsy,” James chided. “You’ve always been too severe on Gideon here for not being Catholic.”
“That’s only because he knows Catholicism better than she does,” Fred laughed.
“He does not!” Betsy frowned at him, and took another long drink.
“I heard they doubled the mourning period this time.” Fred became serious. “Almost three whole weeks before they can enter conclave.”
“Pope John Paul deserves that much respect,” James said. “Especially because he was assassinated.”
“How long do they wait before electing a new Prophet?” Fred asked Gideon.
“Prophets aren’t elected in my church. For us, the one who’s been an Apostle longest has always become the next Prophet. But he’s not officially voted in until the next General Conference, and that could be as long as six months.
“So, Gideon.” James jumped back into the conversation. “You’re going from a Catholic University to a Mormon College. Isn’t that weird?”
Gideon laughed and shook his head. “BYU isn’t a college, it’s a university. And I thought of all the people on campus, you lot would understand. We’ve all been studying multiple religions. I thought the knowledge we’re all supposed to be experts on would breed empathy.”
“Ha!” Betsy’s outburst showed she’d already had more than enough wine. “Empathy! I don’t feel empathy for the Muslims, or the Jews. Misguided religions, if you ask me. Neither of them accept Jesus as the Savior.”
“But both of them are waiting for a Messiah, of one sort or another,” Gideon said. “The Jews expect him to only come once, while the Muslims are waiting for the return, same as we are.”
“Except the 12th Imam is a myth,” James said. “No one could ever hope to fulfill all those prophecies. It’s impossible.”
“Are you sure? How many prophecies were written about the Savior in the Old Testament?” Duane asked.
“And how many more in the documents excluded by the council at Nicaea?” Gideon added.
“You know, Gideon,” Betsy slurred, “for a football player, you sure do study well. Top of our class, I’d expect.”
“Thanks, I think.” Gideon knew his stats. There were three others who might edge ahead of him during the finals. He really didn’t care at this point. His GPA was already good enough for BYU, and right now, that’s all that mattered to him.
Bryan Benson stood watch outside a private residence in upstate New York. It was 3 a.m. and all Bryan really knew about this particular job was someone important was inside the house. His job, along with the other five security guards, was to make sure no one disturbed the V.I.P. Bryan had been working for Uncle Nikki for almost a year now, getting mostly night shifts. He never complained though. The pay was much greater than it had been with his old job.
A noise came from the bushes to his left.
“Frank, please tell me that’s you in the bushes.” He spoke softly into his earpiece. “Frank, are you there?” No response. “All guards, check in.” Bryan walked toward the disturbance. Someone was there, but Bryan couldn’t tell who.
“Haskins checking in. All clear.”
“Jenkins checking in. All clear.”
Three guards were missing. Bryan fired into the shadow. “Come out, whoever you are.” He pulled out his flashlight and held it over his head as he was trained to do.
Someone sprang from the shadows far closer than Bryan had suspected. There was no time to aim before the gun was knocked out of Bryan’s hand. He brought the flashlight down hard on the intruder’s head. It was a Maglite 6-cell D flashlight. The intruder crumpled at Bryan’s feet. That’s when he saw the knife the intruder had been holding. It was covered in blood.
Quickly Bryan patted himself, checking for injuries. The blood wasn’t his. “Code purple,” Bryan said into his earpiece. “Repeat, code purple.” The code told the others there was a wounded guard somewhere. Bryan called the local police, per regulation. The first responder was there five minutes later. The first ambulance showed up two minutes after that.
Within fifteen minutes, there were three police cruisers on the scene, helping them search for the missing guards. By the time half an hour had passed, two more ambulances had arrived. The first ambulance hauled away the wounded intruder, under police escort. Two of the guards were dead and the third critically injured. The paramedics spent three minutes patching him up before they hauled him on a stretcher into the second ambulance.