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“Let the cardinals go,” the camerlegno said. “Isn’t threatening to destroy the City of God enough?”
“Forget your four cardinals. They are lost to you. Be assured their deaths will be remembered though… by millions. Every martyr’s dream. I will make them media luminaries. One by one. By midnight the Illuminati will have everyone’s attention. Why change the world if the world is not watching? Public killings have an intoxicating horror about them, don’t they? You proved that long ago… the inquisition, the torture of the Knights Templar, the Crusades.” He paused. “And of course, la purga.”
The camerlegno was silent.
“Do you not recall la purga?” the caller asked. “Of course not, you are a child. Priests are poor historians, anyway. Perhaps because their history shames them?”
“La purga,” Langdon heard himself say. “Sixteen sixty-eight. The church branded four Illuminati scientists with the symbol of the cross. To purge their sins.”
“Who is speaking?” the voice demanded, sounding more intrigued than concerned. “Who else is there?”
Langdon felt shaky. “My name is not important,” he said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. Speaking to a living Illuminatus was disorienting for him… like speaking to George Washington. “I am an academic who has studied the history of your brotherhood.”
“Superb,” the voice replied. “I am pleased there are still those alive who remember the crimes against us.”
“Most of us think you are dead.”
“A misconception the brotherhood has worked hard to promote. What else do you know of la purga?”
Langdon hesitated. What else do I know? That this whole situation is insanity, that’s what I know! “After the brandings, the scientists were murdered, and their bodies were dropped in public locations around Rome as a warning to other scientists not to join the Illuminati.”
“Yes. So we shall do the same. Quid pro quo. Consider it symbolic retribution for our slain brothers. Your four cardinals will die, one every hour starting at eight. By midnight the whole world will be enthralled.”
Langdon moved toward the phone. “You actually intend to brand and kill these four men?”
“History repeats itself, does it not? Of course, we will be more elegant and bold than the church was. They killed privately, dropping bodies when no one was looking. It seems so cowardly.”
“What are you saying?” Langdon asked. “That you are going to brand and kill these men in public?”
“Very good. Although it depends what you consider public. I realize not many people go to church anymore.”
Langdon did a double take. “You’re going to kill them in churches?”
“A gesture of kindness. Enabling God to command their souls to heaven more expeditiously. It seems only right. Of course the press will enjoy it too, I imagine.”
“You’re bluffing,” Olivetti said, the cool back in his voice. “You cannot kill a man in a church and expect to get away with it.”
“Bluffing? We move among your Swiss Guard like ghosts, remove four of your cardinals from within your walls, plant a deadly explosive at the heart of your most sacred shrine, and you think this is a bluff? As the killings occur and the victims are found, the media will swarm. By midnight the world will know the Illuminati cause.”
“And if we stake guards in every church?” Olivetti said.
The caller laughed. “I fear the prolific nature of your religion will make that a trying task. Have you not counted lately? There are over four hundred Catholic churches in Rome. Cathedrals, chapels, tabernacles, abbeys, monasteries, convents, parochial schools…”
Olivetti’s face remained hard.
“In ninety minutes it begins,” the caller said with a note of finality. “One an hour. A mathematical progression of death. Now I must go.”
“Wait!” Langdon demanded. “Tell me about the brands you intend to use on these men.”
The killer sounded amused. “I suspect you know what the brands will be already. Or perhaps you are a skeptic? You will see them soon enough. Proof the ancient legends are true.”
Langdon felt light-headed. He knew exactly what the man was claiming. Langdon pictured the brand on Leonardo Vetra’s chest. Illuminati folklore spoke of five brands in all. Four brands are left, Langdon thought, and four missing cardinals.
“I am sworn,” the camerlegno said, “to bring a new Pope tonight. Sworn by God.”
“Camerlegno,” the caller said, “the world does not need a new Pope. After midnight he will have nothing to rule over but a pile of rubble. The Catholic Church is finished. Your run on earth is done.”
The camerlegno looked sincerely sad. “You are misguided. A church is more than mortar and stone. You cannot simply erase two thousand years of faith… any faith. You cannot crush faith simply by removing its earthly manifestations. The Catholic Church will continue with or without Vatican City.”
“A noble lie. But a lie all the same. We both know the truth. Tell me, why is Vatican City a walled citadel?”
“Men of God live in a dangerous world,” the camerlegno said.
“How young are you? The Vatican is a fortress because the Catholic Church holds half of its equity inside its walls—rare paintings, sculpture, devalued jewels, priceless books… then there is the gold bullion and the real estate deeds inside the Vatican Bank vaults. Inside estimates put the raw value of Vatican City at 48.5 billion dollars. Quite a nest egg you’re sitting on. Tomorrow it will be ash. Liquidated assets as it were. You will be bankrupt. Not even men of cloth can work for nothing.”
The accuracy of the statement seemed to be reflected in Olivetti’s and the camerlegno’s shell-shocked looks. Langdon wasn’t sure what was more amazing, that the Catholic Church had that kind of money, or that the Illuminati somehow knew about it.
The camerlegno sighed heavily. “Faith, not money, is the backbone of this church.”
“More lies,” the caller said. “Last year you spent 183 million dollars trying to support your struggling dioceses worldwide. Church attendance is at an all-time low—down forty-six percent in the last decade. Donations are half what they were only seven years ago. Fewer and fewer men are entering the seminary. Although you will not admit it, your church is dying. Consider this a chance to go out with a bang.”
Olivetti stepped forward. He seemed less combative now, as if he now sensed the reality facing him. He looked like a man searching for an out. Any out. “And what if some of that bullion went to fund your cause?”
“Do not insult us both.”
“We have money.”
“As do we. More than you can fathom.”
Langdon flashed on the alleged Illuminati fortunes, the ancient wealth of the Bavarian stone masons, the Rothschilds, the Bilderbergers, the legendary Illuminati Diamond.
“I preferiti,” the camerlegno said, changing the subject. His voice was pleading. “Spare them. They are old. They—”
“They are virgin sacrifices.” The caller laughed. “Tell me, do you think they are really virgins? Will the little lambs squeal when they die? Sacrifici vergini nell’ altare di scienza.”
The camerlegno was silent for a long time. “They are men of faith,” he finally said. “They do not fear death.”
The caller sneered. “Leonardo Vetra was a man of faith, and yet I saw fear in his eyes last night. A fear I removed.”
Vittoria, who had been silent, was suddenly airborne, her body taut with hatred. “Asino! He was my father!”
A cackle echoed from the speaker. “Your father? What is this? Vetra has a daughter? You should know your father whimpered like a child at the end. Pitiful really. A pathetic man.”
Vittoria reeled as if knocked backward by the words. Langdon reached for her, but she regained her balance and fixed her dark eyes on the phone. “I swear on my life, before this night is over, I will find you.” Her voice sharpened like a laser. “And when I do…”
The caller laughed coarsely. “A woman of spirit. I am aroused. Perhaps before this night is over, I will find you. And when I do…”
The words hung like a blade. Then he was gone.
Cardinal Mortati was sweating now in his black robe. Not only was the Sistine Chapel starting to feel like a sauna, but conclave was scheduled to begin in twenty minutes, and there was still no word on the four missing cardinals. In their absence, the initial whispers of confusion among the other cardinals had turned to outspoken anxiety.
Mortati could not imagine where the truant men could be. With the camerlegno perhaps? He knew the camerlegno had held the traditional private tea for the four preferiti earlier that afternoon, but that had been hours ago. Were they ill? Something they ate? Mortati doubted it. Even on the verge of death the preferiti would be here. It was once in a lifetime, usually never, that a cardinal had the chance to be elected Supreme Pontiff, and by Vatican Law the cardinal had to be inside the Sistine Chapel when the vote took place. Otherwise, he was ineligible.
Although there were four preferiti, few cardinals had any doubt who the next Pope would be. The past fifteen days had seen a blizzard of faxes and phone calls discussing potential candidates. As was the custom, four names had been chosen as preferiti, each of them fulfilling the unspoken requisites for becoming Pope:
Multilingual in Italian, Spanish, and English.
No skeletons in his closet.
Between sixty-five and eighty years old.
As usual, one of the preferiti had risen above the others as the man the college proposed to elect. Tonight that man was Cardinal Aldo Baggia from Milan. Baggia’s untainted record of service, combined with unparalleled language skills and the ability to communicate the essence of spirituality, had made him the clear favorite.
So where the devil is he? Mortati wondered.
Mortati was particularly unnerved by the missing cardinals because the task of supervising this conclave had fallen to him. A week ago, the College of Cardinals had unanimously chosen Mortati for the office known as The Great Elector–the conclave’s internal master of ceremonies. Even though the camerlegno was the church’s ranking official, the camerlegno was only a priest and had little familiarity with the complex election process, so one cardinal was selected to oversee the ceremony from within the Sistine Chapel.
Cardinals often joked that being appointed The Great Elector was the cruelest honor in Christendom. The appointment made one ineligible as a candidate during the election, and it also required one spend many days prior to conclave poring over the pages of the Universi Dominici Gregis reviewing the subtleties of conclave’s arcane rituals to ensure the election was properly administered.
Mortati held no grudge, though. He knew he was the logical choice. Not only was he the senior cardinal, but he had also been a confidant of the late Pope, a fact that elevated his esteem. Although Mortati was technically still within the legal age window for election, he was getting a bit old to be a serious candidate. At seventy-nine years old he had crossed the unspoken threshold beyond which the college no longer trusted one’s health to withstand the rigorous schedule of the papacy. A Pope usually worked fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, and died of exhaustion in an average of 6.3 years. The inside joke was that accepting the papacy was a cardinal’s “fastest route to heaven.”
Mortati, many believed, could have been Pope in his younger days had he not been so broad-minded. When it came to pursuing the papacy, there was a Holy Trinity—Conservative. Conservative. Conservative.
Mortati had always found it pleasantly ironic that the late Pope, God rest his soul, had revealed himself as surprisingly liberal once he had taken office. Perhaps sensing the modern world progressing away from the church, the Pope had made overtures, softening the church’s position on the sciences, even donating money to selective scientific causes. Sadly, it had been political suicide. Conservative Catholics declared the Pope “senile,” while scientific purists accused him of trying to spread the church’s influence where it did not belong.
“So where are they?”
One of the cardinals was tapping him nervously on the shoulder. “You know where they are, don’t you?”
Mortati tried not to show too much concern. “Perhaps still with the camerlegno.”
“At this hour? That would be highly unorthodox!” The cardinal frowned mistrustingly. “Perhaps the camerlegno lost track of time?”
Mortati sincerely doubted it, but he said nothing. He was well aware that most cardinals did not much care for the camerlegno, feeling he was too young to serve the Pope so closely. Mortati suspected much of the cardinals’ dislike was jealousy, and Mortati actually admired the young man, secretly applauding the late Pope’s selection for chamberlain. Mortati saw only conviction when he looked in the camerlegno’s eyes, and unlike many of the cardinals, the camerlegno put church and faith before petty politics. He was truly a man of God.
Throughout his tenure, the camerlegno’s steadfast devotion had become legendary. Many attributed it to the miraculous event in his childhood… an event that would have left a permanent impression on any man’s heart. The miracle and wonder of it, Mortati thought, often wishing his own childhood had presented an event that fostered that kind of doubtless faith.
Unfortunately for the church, Mortati knew, the camerlegno would never become Pope in his elder years. Attaining the papacy required a certain amount of political ambition, something the young camerlegno apparently lacked; he had refused his Pope’s offers for higher clerical stations many times, saying he preferred to serve the church as a simple man.
“What next?” The cardinal tapped Mortati, waiting.
Mortati looked up. “I’m sorry?”
“They’re late! What shall we do?”
“What can we do?” Mortati replied. “We wait. And have faith.”
Looking entirely unsatisfied with Mortati’s response, the cardinal shrunk back into the shadows.
Mortati stood a moment, dabbing his temples and trying to clear his mind. Indeed, what shall we do? He gazed past the altar up to Michelangelo’s renowned fresco, “The Last Judgment.” The painting did nothing to soothe his anxiety. It was a horrifying, fifty-foot-tall depiction of Jesus Christ separating mankind into the righteous and sinners, casting the sinners into hell. There was flayed flesh, burning bodies, and even one of Michelangelo’s rivals sitting in hell wearing ass’s ears. Guy de Maupassant had once written that the painting looked like something painted for a carnival wrestling booth by an ignorant coal heaver.
Cardinal Mortati had to agree.
Langdon stood motionless at the Pope’s bulletproof window and gazed down at the bustle of media trailers in St. Peter’s Square. The eerie phone conversation had left him feeling turgid… distended somehow. Not himself.
The Illuminati, like a serpent from the forgotten depths of history, had risen and wrapped themselves around an ancient foe. No demands. No negotiation. Just retribution. Demonically simple. Squeezing. A revenge 400 years in the making. It seemed that after centuries of persecution, science had bitten back.
The camerlegno stood at his desk, staring blankly at the phone. Olivetti was the first to break the silence. “Carlo,” he said, using the camerlegno’s first name and sounding more like a weary friend than an officer. “For twenty-six years, I have sworn my life to the protection of this office. It seems tonight I am dishonored.”
The camerlegno shook his head. “You and I serve God in different capacities, but service always brings honor.”
“These events… I can’t imagine how… this situation…” Olivetti looked overwhelmed.
“You realize we have only one possible course of action. I have a responsibility for the safety of the College of Cardinals.”
“I fear that responsibility was mine, signore.”
“Then your men will oversee the immediate evacuation.”
“Other options can be exercised later—a search for this device, a manhunt for the missing cardinals and their captors. But first the cardinals must be taken to safety. The sanctity of human life weighs above all. Those men are the foundation of this church.”
“You suggest we cancel conclave right now?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“What about your charge to bring a new Pope?”
The young chamberlain sighed and turned to the window, his eyes drifting out onto the sprawl of Rome below. “His Holiness once told me that a Pope is a man torn between two worlds… the real world and the divine. He warned that any church that ignored reality would not survive to enjoy the divine.” His voice sounded suddenly wise for its years. “The real world is upon us tonight. We would be vain to ignore it. Pride and precedent cannot overshadow reason.”