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The tape Macri had shot earlier of the naked body dumped in the trunk was playing at this very moment on the VCR transmitter back in the van. Glick knew the images were sailing over his head right now en route to London. He wondered what editorial would say.
He wished he and Macri had reached the body sooner, before the army of plainclothed soldiers had intervened. The same army, he knew, had now fanned out and surrounded this piazza. Something big was about to happen.
The media is the right arm of anarchy, the killer had said. Glick wondered if he had missed his chance for a big scoop. He looked out at the other media vans in the distance and watched Macri tailing the mysterious couple across the piazza. Something told Glick he was still in the game…
Langdon saw what he was looking for a good ten yards before they reached it. Through the scattered tourists, the white marble ellipse of Bernini’s West Ponente stood out against the gray granite cubes that made up the rest of the piazza. Vittoria apparently saw it too. Her hand tensed.
“Relax,” Langdon whispered. “Do your piranha thing.”
Vittoria loosened her grip.
As they drew nearer, everything seemed forbiddingly normal. Tourists wandered, nuns chatted along the perimeter of the piazza, a girl fed pigeons at the base of the obelisk.
Langdon refrained from checking his watch. He knew it was almost time.
The elliptical stone arrived beneath their feet, and Langdon and Vittoria slowed to a stop—not overeagerly—just two tourists pausing dutifully at a point of mild interest.
“West Ponente,” Vittoria said, reading the inscription on the stone.
Langdon gazed down at the marble relief and felt suddenly naive. Not in his art books, not in his numerous trips to Rome, not ever had West Ponente’s significance jumped out at him.
Not until now.
The relief was elliptical, about three feet long, and carved with a rudimentary face—a depiction of the West Wind as an angel-like countenance. Gusting from the angel’s mouth, Bernini had drawn a powerful breath of air blowing outward away from the Vatican… the breath of God. This was Bernini’s tribute to the second element… Air… an ethereal zephyr blown from angel’s lips. As Langdon stared, he realized the significance of the relief went deeper still. Bernini had carved the air in five distinct gusts… five! What was more, flanking the medallion were two shining stars. Langdon thought of Galileo. Two stars, five gusts, ellipses, symmetry… He felt hollow. His head hurt.
Vittoria began walking again almost immediately, leading Langdon away from the relief. “I think someone’s following us,” she said.
Langdon looked up. “Where?”
Vittoria moved a good thirty yards before speaking. She pointed up at the Vatican as if showing Langdon something on the dome. “The same person has been behind us all the way across the square.” Casually, Vittoria glanced over her shoulder. “Still on us. Keep moving.”
“You think it’s the Hassassin?”
Vittoria shook her head. “Not unless the Illuminati hires women with BBC cameras.”
When the bells of St. Peter’s began their deafening clamor, both Langdon and Vittoria jumped. It was time. They had circled away from West Ponente in an attempt to lose the reporter but were now moving back toward the relief.
Despite the clanging bells, the area seemed perfectly calm. Tourists wandered. A homeless drunk dozed awkwardly at the base of the obelisk. A little girl fed pigeons. Langdon wondered if the reporter had scared the killer off. Doubtful, he decided, recalling the killer’s promise. I will make your cardinals media luminaries.
As the echo of the ninth bell faded away, a peaceful silence descended across the square.
Then… the little girl began to scream.
Langdon was the first to reach the screaming girl.
The terrified youngster stood frozen, pointing at the base of the obelisk where a shabby, decrepit drunk sat slumped on the stairs. The man was a miserable sight… apparently one of Rome’s homeless. His gray hair hung in greasy strands in front of his face, and his entire body was wrapped in some sort of dirty cloth. The girl kept screaming as she scampered off into the crowd.
Langdon felt an upsurge of dread as he dashed toward the invalid. There was a dark, widening stain spreading across the man’s rags. Fresh, flowing blood.
Then, it was as if everything happened at once.
The old man seemed to crumple in the middle, tottering forward. Langdon lunged, but he was too late. The man pitched forward, toppled off the stairs, and hit the pavement facedown. Motionless.
Langdon dropped to his knees. Vittoria arrived beside him. A crowd was gathering.
Vittoria put her fingers on the man’s throat from behind. “There’s a pulse,” she declared. “Roll him.”
Langdon was already in motion. Grasping the man’s shoulders, he rolled the body. As he did, the loose rags seemed to slough away like dead flesh. The man flopped limp onto his back. Dead center of his naked chest was a wide area of charred flesh.
Vittoria gasped and pulled back.
Langdon felt paralyzed, pinned somewhere between nausea and awe. The symbol had a terrifying simplicity to it.
“Air,” Vittoria choked. “It’s… him.”
Swiss Guards appeared from out of nowhere, shouting orders, racing after an unseen assassin.
Nearby, a tourist explained that only minutes ago, a dark-skinned man had been kind enough to help this poor, wheezing, homeless man across the square… even sitting a moment on the stairs with the invalid before disappearing back into the crowd.
Vittoria ripped the rest of the rags off the man’s abdomen. He had two deep puncture wounds, one on either side of the brand, just below his rib cage. She cocked the man’s head back and began to administer mouth to mouth. Langdon was not prepared for what happened next. As Vittoria blew, the wounds on either side of the man’s midsection hissed and sprayed blood into the air like blowholes on a whale. The salty liquid hit Langdon in the face.
Vittoria stopped short, looking horrified. “His lungs…” she stammered. “They’re… punctured.”
Langdon wiped his eyes as he looked down at the two perforations. The holes gurgled. The cardinal’s lungs were destroyed. He was gone.
Vittoria covered the body as the Swiss Guards moved in.
Langdon stood, disoriented. As he did, he saw her. The woman who had been following them earlier was crouched nearby. Her BBC video camera was shouldered, aimed, and running. She and Langdon locked eyes, and he knew she’d gotten it all. Then, like a cat, she bolted.
Chinita Macri was on the run. She had the story of her life.
Her video camera felt like an anchor as she lumbered across St. Peter’s Square, pushing through the gathering crowd. Everyone seemed to be moving in the opposite direction than her… toward the commotion. Macri was trying to get as far away as possible. The man in the tweed jacket had seen her, and now she sensed others were after her, men she could not see, closing in from all sides.
Macri was still aghast from the images she had just recorded. She wondered if the dead man was really who she feared he was. Glick’s mysterious phone contact suddenly seemed a little less crazy.
As she hurried in the direction of the BBC van, a young man with a decidedly militaristic air emerged from the crowd before her. Their eyes met, and they both stopped. Like lightning, he raised a walkie-talkie and spoke into it. Then he moved toward her. Macri wheeled and doubled back into the crowd, her heart pounding.
As she stumbled through the mass of arms and legs, she removed the spent video cassette from her camera. Cellulose gold, she thought, tucking the tape under her belt flush to her backside and letting her coat tails cover it. For once she was glad she carried some extra weight. Glick, where the hell are you!
Another soldier appeared to her left, closing in. Macri knew she had little time. She banked into the crowd again. Yanking a blank cartridge from her case, she slapped it into the camera. Then she prayed.
She was thirty yards from the BBC van when the two men materialized directly in front of her, arms folded. She was going nowhere.
“Film,” one snapped. “Now.”
Macri recoiled, wrapping her arms protectively around her camera. “No chance.”
One of the men pulled aside his jacket, revealing a sidearm.
“So shoot me,” Macri said, amazed by the boldness of her voice.
“Film,” the first one repeated.
Where the devil is Glick? Macri stamped her foot and yelled as loudly as possible, “I am a professional videographer with the BBC! By Article 12 of the Free Press Act, this film is property of the British Broadcast Corporation!”
The men did not flinch. The one with the gun took a step toward her. “I am a lieutenant with the Swiss Guard, and by the Holy Doctrine governing the property on which you are now standing, you are subject to search and seizure.”
A crowd had started to gather now around them.
Macri yelled, “I will not under any circumstances give you the film in this camera without speaking to my editor in London. I suggest you—”
The guards ended it. One yanked the camera out of her hands. The other forcibly grabbed her by the arm and twisted her in the direction of the Vatican. “Grazie,” he said, leading her through a jostling crowd.
Macri prayed they would not search her and find the tape. If she could somehow protect the film long enough to—
Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. Someone in the crowd was groping under her coat. Macri felt the video yanked away from her. She wheeled, but swallowed her words. Behind her, a breathless Gunther Glick gave her a wink and dissolved back into the crowd.
Robert Langdon staggered into the private bathroom adjoining the Office of the Pope. He dabbed the blood from his face and lips. The blood was not his own. It was that of Cardinal Lamassé, who had just died horribly in the crowded square outside the Vatican. Virgin sacrifices on the altars of science. So far, the Hassassin had made good on his threat.
Langdon felt powerless as he gazed into the mirror. His eyes were drawn, and stubble had begun to darken his cheeks. The room around him was immaculate and lavish—black marble with gold fixtures, cotton towels, and scented hand soaps.
Langdon tried to rid his mind of the bloody brand he had just seen. Air. The image stuck. He had witnessed three ambigrams since waking up this morning… and he knew there were two more coming.
Outside the door, it sounded as if Olivetti, the camerlegno, and Captain Rocher were debating what to do next. Apparently, the antimatter search had turned up nothing so far. Either the guards had missed the canister, or the intruder had gotten deeper inside the Vatican than Commander Olivetti had been willing to entertain.
Langdon dried his hands and face. Then he turned and looked for a urinal. No urinal. Just a bowl. He lifted the lid.
As he stood there, tension ebbing from his body, a giddy wave of exhaustion shuddered through his core. The emotions knotting his chest were so many, so incongruous. He was fatigued, running on no food or sleep, walking the Path of Illumination, traumatized by two brutal murders. Langdon felt a deepening horror over the possible outcome of this drama.
Think, he told himself. His mind was blank.
As he flushed, an unexpected realization hit him. This is the Pope’s toilet, he thought. I just took a leak in the Pope’s toilet. He had to chuckle. The Holy Throne.
In London, a BBC technician ejected a video cassette from a satellite receiver unit and dashed across the control room floor. She burst into the office of the editor-in-chief, slammed the video into his VCR, and pressed play.
As the tape rolled, she told him about the conversation she had just had with Gunther Glick in Vatican City. In addition, BBC photo archives had just given her a positive ID on the victim in St. Peter’s Square.
When the editor-in-chief emerged from his office, he was ringing a cowbell. Everything in editorial stopped.
“Live in five!” the man boomed. “On-air talent to prep! Media coordinators, I want your contacts on line! We’ve got a story we’re selling! And we’ve got film!”
The market coordinators grabbed their Rolodexes.
“Film specs!” one of them yelled.
“Thirty-second trim,” the chief replied.
The coordinators looked encouraged. “Usage and licensing price?”
“A million U.S. per.”
Heads shot up. “What!”
“You heard me! I want top of the food chain. CNN, MSNBC, then the big three! Offer a dial-in preview. Give them five minutes to piggyback before BBC runs it.”
“What the hell happened?” someone demanded. “The prime minister get skinned alive?”
The chief shook his head. “Better.”
At that exact instant, somewhere in Rome, the Hassassin enjoyed a fleeting moment of repose in a comfortable chair. He admired the legendary chamber around him. I am sitting in the Church of Illumination, he thought. The Illuminati lair. He could not believe it was still here after all of these centuries.
Dutifully, he dialed the BBC reporter to whom he had spoken earlier. It was time. The world had yet to hear the most shocking news of all.
Vittoria Vetra sipped a glass of water and nibbled absently at some tea scones just set out by one of the Swiss Guards. She knew she should eat, but she had no appetite. The Office of the Pope was bustling now, echoing with tense conversations. Captain Rocher, Commander Olivetti, and half a dozen guards assessed the damage and debated the next move.
Robert Langdon stood nearby staring out at St. Peter’s Square. He looked dejected. Vittoria walked over. “Ideas?”
He shook his head.
His mood seemed to brighten at the sight of food. “Hell yes. Thanks.” He ate voraciously.
The conversation behind them went quiet suddenly when two Swiss Guards escorted Camerlegno Ventresca through the door. If the chamberlain had looked drained before, Vittoria thought, now he looked empty.
“What happened?” the camerlegno said to Olivetti. From the look on the camerlegno’s face, he appeared to have already been told the worst of it.
Olivetti’s official update sounded like a battlefield casualty report. He gave the facts with flat efficacy. “Cardinal Ebner was found dead in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo just after eight o’clock. He had been suffocated and branded with the ambigrammatic word ‘Earth.’ Cardinal Lamassé was murdered in St. Peter’s Square ten minutes ago. He died of perforations to the chest. He was branded with the word ‘Air,’ also ambigrammatic. The killer escaped in both instances.”
The camerlegno crossed the room and sat heavily behind the Pope’s desk. He bowed his head.
“Cardinals Guidera and Baggia, however, are still alive.”
The camerlegno’s head shot up, his expression pained. “This is our consolation? Two cardinals have been murdered, commander. And the other two will obviously not be alive much longer unless you find them.”
“We will find them,” Olivetti assured. “I am encouraged.”
“Encouraged? We’ve had nothing but failure.”
“Untrue. We’ve lost two battles, signore, but we’re winning the war. The Illuminati had intended to turn this evening into a media circus. So far we have thwarted their plan. Both cardinals’ bodies have been recovered without incident. In addition,” Olivetti continued, “Captain Rocher tells me he is making excellent headway on the antimatter search.”
Captain Rocher stepped forward in his red beret. Vittoria thought he looked more human somehow than the other guards—stern but not so rigid. Rocher’s voice was emotional and crystalline, like a violin. “I am hopeful we will have the canister for you within an hour, signore.”
“Captain,” the camerlegno said, “excuse me if I seem less than hopeful, but I was under the impression that a search of Vatican City would take far more time than we have.”
“A full search, yes. However, after assessing the situation, I am confident the antimatter canister is located in one of our white zones—those Vatican sectors accessible to public tours—the museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, for example. We have already killed power in those zones and are conducting our scan.”
“You intend to search only a small percentage of Vatican City?”