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“Robert,” Vittoria blurted, her voice cracking. “Look!”
Langdon wheeled, reality returning as his eyes dropped to where she was pointing. “Bloody hell!” he shouted, jumping backward.
Sneering up at them from the floor was the image of a skeleton—an intricately detailed, marble mosaic depicting “death in flight.” The skeleton was carrying a tablet portraying the same pyramid and stars they had seen outside. It was not the image, however, that had turned Langdon’s blood cold. It was the fact that the mosaic was mounted on a circular stone—a cupermento–that had been lifted out of the floor like a manhole cover and was now sitting off to one side of a dark opening in the floor.
“Demon’s hole,” Langdon gasped. He had been so taken with the ceiling he had not even seen it. Tentatively he moved toward the pit. The stench coming up was overwhelming.
Vittoria put a hand over her mouth. “Che puzzo.”
“Effluvium,” Langdon said. “Vapors from decaying bone.” He breathed through his sleeve as he leaned out over the hole, peering down. Blackness. “I can’t see a thing.”
“You think anybody’s down there?”
“No way to know.”
Vittoria motioned to the far side of the hole where a rotting, wooden ladder descended into the depths.
Langdon shook his head. “Like hell.”
“Maybe there’s a flashlight outside in those tools.” She sounded eager for an excuse to escape the smell. “I’ll look.”
“Careful!” Langdon warned. “We don’t know for sure that the Hassassin—”
But Vittoria was already gone.
One strong-willed woman, Langdon thought.
As he turned back to the pit, he felt light-headed from the fumes. Holding his breath, he dropped his head below the rim and peered deep into the darkness. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he began to see faint shapes below. The pit appeared to open into a small chamber. Demon’s hole. He wondered how many generations of Chigis had been unceremoniously dumped in. Langdon closed his eyes and waited, forcing his pupils to dilate so he could see better in the dark. When he opened his eyes again, a pale muted figure hovered below in the darkness. Langdon shivered but fought the instinct to pull out. Am I seeing things? Is that a body? The figure faded. Langdon closed his eyes again and waited, longer this time, so his eyes would pick up the faintest light.
Dizziness started to set in, and his thoughts wandered in the blackness. Just a few more seconds. He wasn’t sure if it was breathing the fumes or holding his head at a low inclination, but Langdon was definitely starting to feel squeamish. When he finally opened his eyes again, the image before him was totally inexplicable.
He was now staring at a crypt bathed in an eerie bluish light. A faint hissing sound reverberated in his ears. Light flickered on the steep walls of the shaft. Suddenly, a long shadow materialized over him. Startled, Langdon scrambled up.
“Look out!” someone exclaimed behind him.
Before Langdon could turn, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck. He spun to see Vittoria twisting a lit blowtorch away from him, the hissing flame throwing blue light around the chapel.
Langdon grabbed his neck. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I was giving you some light,” she said. “You backed right into me.”
Langdon glared at the portable blowtorch in her hand.
“Best I could do,” she said. “No flashlights.”
Langdon rubbed his neck. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
Vittoria handed him the torch, wincing again at the stench of the crypt. “You think those fumes are combustible?”
“Let’s hope not.”
He took the torch and moved slowly toward the hole. Cautiously, he advanced to the rim and pointed the flame down into the hole, lighting the side wall. As he directed the light, his eyes traced the outline of the wall downward. The crypt was circular and about twenty feet across. Thirty feet down, the glow found the floor. The ground was dark and mottled. Earthy. Then Langdon saw the body.
His instinct was to recoil. “He’s here,” Langdon said, forcing himself not to turn away. The figure was a pallid outline against the earthen floor. “I think he’s been stripped naked.” Langdon flashed on the nude corpse of Leonardo Vetra.
“Is it one of the cardinals?”
Langdon had no idea, but he couldn’t imagine who the hell else it would be. He stared down at the pale blob. Unmoving. Lifeless. And yet… Langdon hesitated. There was something very strange about the way the figure was positioned. He seemed to be…
Langdon called out. “Hello?”
“You think he’s alive?”
There was no response from below.
“He’s not moving,” Langdon said. “But he looks…” No, impossible.
“He looks what?” Vittoria was peering over the edge now too.
Langdon squinted into the darkness. “He looks like he’s standing up.”
Vittoria held her breath and lowered her face over the edge for a better look. After a moment, she pulled back. “You’re right. He’s standing up! Maybe he’s alive and needs help!” She called into the hole. “Hello?! Mi puó sentire?”
There was no echo off the mossy interior. Only silence.
Vittoria headed for the rickety ladder. “I’m going down.”
Langdon caught her arm. “No. It’s dangerous. I’ll go.”
This time Vittoria didn’t argue.
Chinita Macri was mad. She sat in the passenger’s seat of the BBC van as it idled at a corner on Via Tomacelli. Gunther Glick was checking his map of Rome, apparently lost. As she had feared, his mystery caller had phoned back, this time with information.
“Piazza del Popolo,” Glick insisted. “That’s what we’re looking for. There’s a church there. And inside is proof.”
“Proof.” Chinita stopped polishing the lens in her hand and turned to him. “Proof that a cardinal has been murdered?”
“That’s what he said.”
“You believe everything you hear?” Chinita wished, as she often did, that she was the one in charge. Videographers, however, were at the whim of the crazy reporters for whom they shot footage. If Gunther Glick wanted to follow a feeble phone tip, Macri was his dog on a leash.
She looked at him, sitting there in the driver’s seat, his jaw set intently. The man’s parents, she decided, must have been frustrated comedians to have given him a name like Gunther Glick. No wonder the guy felt like he had something to prove. Nonetheless, despite his unfortunate appellative and annoying eagerness to make a mark, Glick was sweet… charming in a pasty, Briddish, unstrung sort of way. Like Hugh Grant on lithium.
“Shouldn’t we be back at St. Peter’s?” Macri said as patiently as possible. “We can check this mystery church out later. Conclave started an hour ago. What if the cardinals come to a decision while we’re gone?”
Glick did not seem to hear. “I think we go to the right, here.” He tilted the map and studied it again. “Yes, if I take a right… and then an immediate left.” He began to pull out onto the narrow street before them.
“Look out!” Macri yelled. She was a video technician, and her eyes were sharp. Fortunately, Glick was pretty fast too. He slammed on the brakes and avoided entering the intersection just as a line of four Alpha Romeos appeared out of nowhere and tore by in a blur. Once past, the cars skidded, decelerating, and cut sharply left one block ahead, taking the exact route Glick had intended to take.
“Maniacs!” Macri shouted.
Glick looked shaken. “Did you see that?”
“Yeah, I saw that! They almost killed us!”
“No, I mean the cars,” Glick said, his voice suddenly excited. “They were all the same.”
“So they were maniacs with no imagination.”
“The cars were also full.”
“Four identical cars, all with four passengers?”
“You ever heard of carpooling?”
“In Italy?” Glick checked the intersection. “They haven’t even heard of unleaded gas.” He hit the accelerator and peeled out after the cars.
Macri was thrown back in her seat. “What the hell are you doing?”
Glick accelerated down the street and hung a left after the Alpha Romeos. “Something tells me you and I are not the only ones going to church right now.”
The descent was slow.
Langdon dropped rung by rung down the creaking ladder… deeper and deeper beneath the floor of the Chigi Chapel. Into the Demon’s hole, he thought. He was facing the side wall, his back to the chamber, and he wondered how many more dark, cramped spaces one day could provide. The ladder groaned with every step, and the pungent smell of rotting flesh and dampness was almost asphyxiating. Langdon wondered where the hell Olivetti was.
Vittoria’s outline was still visible above, holding the blowtorch inside the hole, lighting Langdon’s way. As he lowered himself deeper into the darkness, the bluish glow from above got fainter. The only thing that got stronger was the stench.
Twelve rungs down, it happened. Langdon’s foot hit a spot that was slippery with decay, and he faltered. Lunging forward, he caught the ladder with his forearms to avoid plummeting to the bottom. Cursing the bruises now throbbing on his arms, he dragged his body back onto the ladder and began his descent again.
Three rungs deeper, he almost fell again, but this time it was not a rung that caused the mishap. It was a bolt of fear. He had descended past a hollowed niche in the wall before him and suddenly found himself face to face with a collection of skulls. As he caught his breath and looked around him, he realized the wall at this level was honeycombed with shelflike openings—burial niches—all filled with skeletons. In the phosphorescent light, it made for an eerie collage of empty sockets and decaying rib cages flickering around him.
Skeletons by firelight, he grimaced wryly, realizing he had quite coincidentally endured a similar evening just last month. An evening of bones and flames. The New York Museum of Archeology’s candlelight benefit dinner—salmon flambé in the shadow of a brontosaurus skeleton. He had attended at the invitation of Rebecca Strauss—one-time fashion model now art critic from the Times, a whirlwind of black velvet, cigarettes, and not-so-subtly enhanced breasts. She’d called him twice since. Langdon had not returned her calls. Most ungentlemanly, he chided, wondering how long Rebecca Strauss would last in a stink-pit like this.
Langdon was relieved to feel the final rung give way to the spongy earth at the bottom. The ground beneath his shoes felt damp. Assuring himself the walls were not going to close in on him, he turned into the crypt. It was circular, about twenty feet across. Breathing through his sleeve again, Langdon turned his eyes to the body. In the gloom, the image was hazy. A white, fleshy outline. Facing the other direction. Motionless. Silent.
Advancing through the murkiness of the crypt, Langdon tried to make sense of what he was looking at. The man had his back to Langdon, and Langdon could not see his face, but he did indeed seem to be standing.
“Hello?” Langdon choked through his sleeve. Nothing. As he drew nearer, he realized the man was very short. Too short…
“What’s happening?” Vittoria called from above, shifting the light.
Langdon did not answer. He was now close enough to see it all. With a tremor of repulsion, he understood. The chamber seemed to contract around him. Emerging like a demon from the earthen floor was an old man… or at least half of him. He was buried up to his waist in the earth. Standing upright with half of him below ground. Stripped naked. His hands tied behind his back with a red cardinal’s sash. He was propped limply upward, spine arched backward like some sort of hideous punching bag. The man’s head lay backward, eyes toward the heavens as if pleading for help from God himself.
“Is he dead?” Vittoria called.
Langdon moved toward the body. I hope so, for his sake. As he drew to within a few feet, he looked down at the upturned eyes. They bulged outward, blue and bloodshot. Langdon leaned down to listen for breath but immediately recoiled. “For Christ’s sake!”
Langdon almost gagged. “He’s dead all right. I just saw the cause of death.” The sight was gruesome. The man’s mouth had been jammed open and packed solid with dirt. “Somebody stuffed a fistful of dirt down his throat. He suffocated.”
“Dirt?” Vittoria said. “As in… earth?”
Langdon did a double take. Earth. He had almost forgotten. The brands. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. The killer had threatened to brand each victim with one of the ancient elements of science. The first element was Earth. From Santi’s earthly tomb. Dizzy from the fumes, Langdon circled to the front of the body. As he did, the symbologist within him loudly reasserted the artistic challenge of creating the mythical ambigram. Earth? How? And yet, an instant later, it was before him. Centuries of Illuminati legend whirled in his mind. The marking on the cardinal’s chest was charred and oozing. The flesh was seared black. La lingua pura…
Langdon stared at the brand as the room began to spin.
“Earth,” he whispered, tilting his head to see the symbol upside down. “Earth.”
Then, in a wave of horror, he had one final cognition. There are three more.
Despite the soft glow of candlelight in the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati was on edge. Conclave had officially begun. And it had begun in a most inauspicious fashion.
Half an hour ago, at the appointed hour, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca had entered the chapel. He walked to the front altar and gave opening prayer. Then, he unfolded his hands and spoke to them in a tone as direct as anything Mortati had ever heard from the altar of the Sistine.
“You are well aware,” the camerlegno said, “that our four preferiti are not present in conclave at this moment. I ask, in the name of his late Holiness, that you proceed as you must… with faith and purpose. May you have only God before your eyes.” Then he turned to go.
“But,” one cardinal blurted out, “where are they?”
The camerlegno paused. “That I cannot honestly say.”
“When will they return?”
“That I cannot honestly say.”
“Are they okay?”
“That I cannot honestly say.”
“Will they return?”
There was a long pause.
“Have faith,” the camerlegno said. Then he walked out of the room.
The doors to the Sistine Chapel had been sealed, as was the custom, with two heavy chains on the outside. Four Swiss Guards stood watch in the hallway beyond. Mortati knew the only way the doors could be opened now, prior to electing a Pope, was if someone inside fell deathly ill, or if the preferiti arrived. Mortati prayed it would be the latter, although from the knot in his stomach he was not so sure.
Proceed as we must, Mortati decided, taking his lead from the resolve in the camerlegno’s voice. So he had called for a vote. What else could he do?
It had taken thirty minutes to complete the preparatory rituals leading up to this first vote. Mortati had waited patiently at the main altar as each cardinal, in order of seniority, had approached and performed the specific balloting procedure.
Now, at last, the final cardinal had arrived at the altar and was kneeling before him.
“I call as my witness,” the cardinal declared, exactly as those before him, “Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”
The cardinal stood up. He held his ballot high over his head for everyone to see. Then he lowered the ballot to the altar, where a plate sat atop a large chalice. He placed the ballot on the plate. Next he picked up the plate and used it to drop the ballot into the chalice. Use of the plate was to ensure no one secretly dropped multiple ballots.
After he had submitted his ballot, he replaced the plate over the chalice, bowed to the cross, and returned to his seat.
The final ballot had been cast.
Now it was time for Mortati to go to work.
Leaving the plate on top of the chalice, Mortati shook the ballots to mix them. Then he removed the plate and extracted a ballot at random. He unfolded it. The ballot was exactly two inches wide. He read aloud for everyone to hear.
“Eligo in summum pontificem…” he declared, reading the text that was embossed at the top of every ballot. I elect as Supreme Pontiff… Then he announced the nominee’s name that had been written beneath it. After he read the name, he raised a threaded needle and pierced the ballot through the word Eligo, carefully sliding the ballot onto the thread. Then he made note of the vote in a logbook.