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HOTEL BERNINI

  “Five of ten,” Vittoria said, cat eyes darting around the square. No sooner had she spoken the words than she grabbed Langdon’s arm and pulled him back into the shadows. She motioned into the center of the square.

  Langdon followed her gaze. When he saw it, he stiffened.

  Crossing in front of them, beneath a street lamp, two dark figures appeared. Both were cloaked, their heads covered with dark mantles, the traditional black covering of Catholic widows. Langdon would have guessed they were women, but he couldn’t be sure in the dark. One looked elderly and moved as if in pain, hunched over. The other, larger and stronger, was helping.

  “Give me the gun,” Vittoria said.

  “You can’t just—”

  Fluid as a cat, Vittoria was in and out of his pocket once again. The gun glinted in her hand. Then, in absolute silence, as if her feet never touched the cobblestone, she was circling left in the shadows, arching across the square to approach the couple from the rear. Langdon stood transfixed as Vittoria disappeared. Then, swearing to himself, he hurried after her.

  The couple was moving slowly, and it was only a matter of half a minute before Langdon and Vittoria were positioned behind them, closing in from the rear. Vittoria concealed the gun beneath casually crossed arms in front of her, out of sight but accessible in a flash. She seemed to float faster and faster as the gap lessened, and Langdon battled to keep up. When his shoes scuffed a stone and sent it skittering, Vittoria shot him a sideways glare. But the couple did not seem to hear. They were talking.

  At thirty feet, Langdon could start to hear voices. No words. Just faint murmurings. Beside him, Vittoria moved faster with every step. Her arms loosened before her, the gun starting to peek out. Twenty feet. The voices were clearer—one much louder than the other. Angry. Ranting. Langdon sensed it was the voice of an old woman. Gruff. Androgynous. He strained to hear what she was saying, but another voice cut the night.

  “Mi scusi!” Vittoria’s friendly tone lit the square like a torch.

  Langdon tensed as the cloaked couple stopped short and began to turn. Vittoria kept striding toward them, even faster now, on a collision course. They would have no time to react. Langdon realized his own feet had stopped moving. From behind, he saw Vittoria’s arms loosening, her hand coming free, the gun swinging forward. Then, over her shoulder, he saw a face, lit now in the street lamp. The panic surged to his legs, and he lunged forward. “Vittoria, no!”

  Vittoria, however, seemed to exist a split second ahead of him. In a motion as swift as it was casual, Vittoria’s arms were raised again, the gun disappearing as she clutched herself like a woman on a chilly night. Langdon stumbled to her side, almost colliding with the cloaked couple before them.

  “Buona sera,” Vittoria blurted, her voice startled with retreat.

  Langdon exhaled in relief. Two elderly women stood before them scowling out from beneath their mantles. One was so old she could barely stand. The other was helping her. Both clutched rosaries. They seemed confused by the sudden interruption.

  Vittoria smiled, although she looked shaken. “Dov’è la chiesa Santa Maria della Vittoria? Where is the Church of—”

  The two women motioned in unison to a bulky silhouette of a building on an inclined street from the direction they had come. “È là.”

  “Grazie,” Langdon said, putting his hands on Vittoria’s shoulders and gently pulling her back. He couldn’t believe they’d almost attacked a pair of old ladies.

  “Non si puó entrare,” one woman warned. “È chiusa temprano.”

  “Closed early?” Vittoria looked surprised. “Perchè?”

  Both women explained at once. They sounded irate. Langdon understood only parts of the grumbling Italian. Apparently, the women had been inside the church fifteen minutes ago praying for the Vatican in its time of need, when some man had appeared and told them the church was closing early.

  “Hanno conosciuto l’uomo?” Vittoria demanded, sounding tense. “Did you know the man?”

  The women shook their heads. The man was a straniero crudo, they explained, and he had forcibly made everyone inside leave, even the young priest and janitor, who said they were calling the police. But the intruder had only laughed, telling them to be sure the police brought cameras.

  Cameras? Langdon wondered.

  The women clucked angrily and called the man a bar-аrabo. Then, grumbling, they continued on their way.

  “Bar-аrabo?” Langdon asked Vittoria. “A barbarian?”

  Vittoria looked suddenly taut. “Not quite. Bar-аrabo is derogatory wordplay. It means Аrabo… Arab.”

  Langdon felt a shiver and turned toward the outline of the church. As he did, his eyes glimpsed something in the church’s stained-glass windows. The image shot dread through his body.

  Unaware, Vittoria removed her cell phone and pressed the auto dial. “I’m warning Olivetti.”

  Speechless, Langdon reached out and touched her arm. With a tremulous hand, he pointed to the church.

  Vittoria let out a gasp.

  Inside the building, glowing like evil eyes through the stained-glass windows… shone the growing flash of flames.

  91

  Langdon and Vittoria dashed to the main entrance of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria and found the wooden door locked. Vittoria fired three shots from Olivetti’s semi-automatic into the ancient bolt, and it shattered.

  The church had no anteroom, so the entirety of the sanctuary spread out in one gasping sweep as Langdon and Vittoria threw open the main door. The scene before them was so unexpected, so bizarre, that Langdon had to close his eyes and reopen them before his mind could take it all in.

  The church was lavish baroque… gilded walls and altars. Dead center of the sanctuary, beneath the main cupola, wooden pews had been stacked high and were now ablaze in some sort of epic funeral pyre. A bonfire shooting high into the dome. As Langdon’s eyes followed the inferno upward, the true horror of the scene descended like a bird of prey.

  High overhead, from the left and right sides of the ceiling, hung two incensor cables—lines used for swinging frankincense vessels above the congregation. These lines, however, carried no incensors now. Nor were they swinging. They had been used for something else…

  Suspended from the cables was a human being. A naked man. Each wrist had been connected to an opposing cable, and he had been hoisted almost to the point of being torn apart. His arms were outstretched in a spread-eagle as if he were nailed to some sort of invisible crucifix hovering within the house of God.

  Langdon felt paralyzed as he stared upward. A moment later, he witnessed the final abomination. The old man was alive, and he raised his head. A pair of terrified eyes gazed down in a silent plea for help. On the man’s chest was a scorched emblem. He had been branded. Langdon could not see it clearly, but he had little doubt what the marking said. As the flames climbed higher, lapping at the man’s feet, the victim let out a cry of pain, his body trembling.

  As if ignited by some unseen force, Langdon felt his body suddenly in motion, dashing down the main aisle toward the conflagration. His lungs filled with smoke as he closed in. Ten feet from the inferno, at a full sprint, Langdon hit a wall of heat. The skin on his face singed, and he fell back, shielding his eyes and landing hard on the marble floor. Staggering upright, he pressed forward again, hands raised in protection.

  Instantly he knew. The fire was far too hot.

  Moving back again, he scanned the chapel walls. A heavy tapestry, he thought. If I can somehow smother the… But he knew a tapestry was not to be found. This is a baroque chapel, Robert, not some damn German castle! Think! He forced his eyes back to the suspended man.

  High above, smoke and flames swirled in the cupola. The incensor cables stretched outward from the man’s wrists, rising to the ceiling where they passed through pulleys, and descended again to metal cleats on either side of the church. Langdon looked over at one of the cleats. It was high on the wall, but he knew if he could get to it and loosen one of the lines, the tension would slacken and the man would swing wide of the fire.

  A sudden surge of flames crackled higher, and Langdon heard a piercing scream from above. The skin on the man’s feet was starting to blister. The cardinal was being roasted alive. Langdon fixed his sights on the cleat and ran for it.

  In the rear of the church, Vittoria clutched the back of a pew, trying to gather her senses. The image overhead was horrid. She forced her eyes away. Do something! She wondered where Olivetti was. Had he seen the Hassassin? Had he caught him? Where were they now? Vittoria moved forward to help Langdon, but as she did, a sound stopped her.

  The crackling of the flames was getting louder by the instant, but a second sound also cut the air. A metallic vibration. Nearby. The repetitive pulse seemed to emanate from the end of the pews to her left. It was a stark rattle, like the ringing of a phone, but stony and hard. She clutched the gun firmly and moved down the row of pews. The sound grew louder. On. Off. A recurrent vibration.

  As she approached the end of the aisle, she sensed the sound was coming from the floor just around the corner at the end of the pews. As she moved forward, gun outstretched in her right hand, she realized she was also holding something in her left hand—her cell phone. In her panic she had forgotten that outside she had used it to dial the commander… setting off his phone’s silent vibration feature as a warning. Vittoria raised her phone to her ear. It was still ringing. The commander had never answered. Suddenly, with rising fear, Vittoria sensed she knew what was making the sound. She stepped forward, trembling.

  The entire church seemed to sink beneath her feet as her eyes met the lifeless form on the floor. No stream of liquid flowed from the body. No signs of violence tattooed the flesh. There was only the fearful geometry of the commander’s head… torqued backward, twisted 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Vittoria fought the images of her own father’s mangled body.

  The phone on the commander’s belt lay against the floor, vibrating over and over against the cold marble. Vittoria hung up her own phone, and the ringing stopped. In the silence, Vittoria heard a new sound. A breathing in the dark directly behind her.

  She started to spin, gun raised, but she knew she was too late. A laser beam of heat screamed from the top of her skull to the soles of her feet as the killer’s elbow crashed down on the back of her neck.

  “Now you are mine,” a voice said.

  Then, everything went black.

  Across the sanctuary, on the left lateral wall, Langdon balanced atop a pew and scraped upward on the wall trying to reach the cleat. The cable was still six feet above his head. Cleats like these were common in churches and were placed high to prevent tampering. Langdon knew priests used wooden ladders called piuòli to access the cleats. The killer had obviously used the church’s ladder to hoist his victim. So where the hell is the ladder now! Langdon looked down, searching the floor around him. He had a faint recollection of seeing a ladder in here somewhere. But where? A moment later his heart sank. He realized where he had seen it. He turned toward the raging fire. Sure enough, the ladder was high atop the blaze, engulfed in flames.

  Filled now with desperation, Langdon scanned the entire church from his raised platform, looking for anything at all that could help him reach the cleat. As his eyes probed the church, he had a sudden realization.

  Where the hell is Vittoria? She had disappeared. Did she go for help? Langdon screamed out her name, but there was no response. And where is Olivetti?

  There was a howl of pain from above, and Langdon sensed he was already too late. As his eyes went skyward again and saw the slowly roasting victim, Langdon had thoughts for only one thing. Water. Lots of it. Put out the fire. At least lower the flames.” I need water, damn it!” he yelled out loud.

  “That’s next,” a voice growled from the back of the church.

  Langdon wheeled, almost falling off the pews.

  Striding up the side aisle directly toward him came a dark monster of a man. Even in the glow of the fire, his eyes burned black. Langdon recognized the gun in his hand as the one from his own jacket pocket… the one Vittoria had been carrying when they came in.

  The sudden wave of panic that rose in Langdon was a frenzy of disjunct fears. His initial instinct was for Vittoria. What had this animal done to her? Was she hurt? Or worse? In the same instant, Langdon realized the man overhead was screaming louder. The cardinal would die. Helping him now was impossible. Then, as the Hassassin leveled the gun at Langdon’s chest, Langdon’s panic turned inward, his senses on overload. He reacted on instinct as the shot went off. Launching off the bench, Langdon sailed arms first over the sea of church pews.

  When he hit the pews, he hit harder than he had imagined, immediately rolling to the floor. The marble cushioned his fall with all the grace of cold steel. Footsteps closed to his right. Langdon turned his body toward the front of the church and began scrambling for his life beneath the pews.

  High above the chapel floor, Cardinal Guidera endured his last torturous moments of consciousness. As he looked down the length of his naked body, he saw the skin on his legs begin to blister and peel away. I am in hell, he decided. God, why hast thou forsaken me? He knew this must be hell because he was looking at the brand on his chest upside down… and yet, as if by the devil’s magic, the word made perfect sense.

  92

  Three ballotings. No Pope.

  Inside the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati had begun praying for a miracle. Send us the candidates! The delay had gone long enough. A single missing candidate, Mortati could understand. But all four? It left no options. Under these conditions, achieving a two-thirds majority would take an act of God Himself.

  When the bolts on the outer door began to grind open, Mortati and the entire College of Cardinals wheeled in unison toward the entrance. Mortati knew this unsealing could mean only one thing. By law, the chapel door could only be unsealed for two reasons—to remove the very ill, or to admit late cardinals.

  The preferiti are coming!

  Mortati’s heart soared. Conclave had been saved.

  But when the door opened, the gasp that echoed through the chapel was not one of joy. Mortati stared in incredulous shock as the man walked in. For the first time in Vatican history, a camerlegno had just crossed the sacred threshold of conclave after sealing the doors.

  What is he thinking!

  The camerlegno strode to the altar and turned to address the thunderstruck audience. “Signori,” he said, “I have waited as long as I can. There is something you have a right to know.”

  93

  Langdon had no idea where he was going. Reflex was his only compass, driving him away from danger. His elbows and knees burned as he clambered beneath the pews. Still he clawed on. Somewhere a voice was telling him to move left. If you can get to the main aisle, you can dash for the exit. He knew it was impossible. There’s a wall of flames blocking the main aisle! His mind hunting for options, Langdon scrambled blindly on. The footsteps closed faster now to his right.

  When it happened, Langdon was unprepared. He had guessed he had another ten feet of pews until he reached the front of the church. He had guessed wrong. Without warning, the cover above him ran out. He froze for an instant, half exposed at the front of the church. Rising in the recess to his left, gargantuan from this vantage point, was the very thing that had brought him here. He had entirely forgotten. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa rose up like some sort of pornographic still life… the saint on her back, arched in pleasure, mouth open in a moan, and over her, an angel pointing his spear of fire.

  A bullet exploded in the pew over Langdon’s head. He felt his body rise like a sprinter out of a gate. Fueled only by adrenaline, and barely conscious of his actions, he was suddenly running, hunched, head down, pounding across the front of the church to his right. As the bullets erupted behind him, Langdon dove yet again, sliding out of control across the marble floor before crashing in a heap against the railing of a niche on the right-hand wall.

  It was then that he saw her. A crumpled heap near the back of the church. Vittoria! Her bare legs were twisted beneath her, but Langdon sensed somehow that she was breathing. He had no time to help her.

  Immediately, the killer rounded the pews on the far left of the church and bore relentlessly down. Langdon knew in a heartbeat it was over. The killer raised the weapon, and Langdon did the only thing he could do. He rolled his body over the banister into the niche. As he hit the floor on the other side, the marble columns of the balustrade exploded in a storm of bullets.

  Langdon felt like a cornered animal as he scrambled deeper into the semicircular niche. Rising before him, the niche’s sole contents seemed ironically apropos—a single sarcophagus. Mine perhaps, Langdon thought. Even the casket itself seemed fitting. It was a scаtola–a small, unadorned, marble box. Burial on a budget. The casket was raised off the floor on two marble blocks, and Langdon eyed the opening beneath it, wondering if he could slide through.

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