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Geld. Money calls.

  Antimatter technology already had some takers.

  Inside the Vatican, Gunther Glick was walking on air as he followed the camerlegno from the Sistine Chapel. Glick and Macri had just made the live transmission of the decade. And what a transmission it had been. The camerlegno had been spellbinding.

  Now out in the hallway, the camerlegno turned to Glick and Macri. “I have asked the Swiss Guard to assemble photos for you—photos of the branded cardinals as well as one of His late Holiness. I must warn you, these are not pleasant pictures. Ghastly burns. Blackened tongues. But I would like you to broadcast them to the world.”

  Glick decided it must be perpetual Christmas inside Vatican City. He wants me to broadcast an exclusive photo of the dead Pope? “Are you sure?” Glick asked, trying to keep the excitement from his voice.

  The camerlegno nodded. “The Swiss Guard will also provide you a live video feed of the antimatter canister as it counts down.”

  Glick stared. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas!

  “The Illuminati are about to find out,” the camerlegno declared, “that they have grossly overplayed their hand.”

  96

  Like a recurring theme in some demonic symphony, the suffocating darkness had returned.

  No light. No air. No exit.

  Langdon lay trapped beneath the overturned sarcophagus and felt his mind careening dangerously close to the brink. Trying to drive his thoughts in any direction other than the crushing space around him, Langdon urged his mind toward some logical process… mathematics, music, anything. But there was no room for calming thoughts. I can’t move! I can’t breathe!

  The pinched sleeve of his jacket had thankfully come free when the casket fell, leaving Langdon now with two mobile arms. Even so, as he pressed upward on the ceiling of his tiny cell, he found it immovable. Oddly, he wished his sleeve were still caught. At least it might create a crack for some air.

  As Langdon pushed against the roof above, his sleeve fell back to reveal the faint glow of an old friend. Mickey. The greenish cartoon face seemed mocking now.

  Langdon probed the blackness for any other sign of light, but the casket rim was flush against the floor. Goddamn Italian perfectionists, he cursed, now imperiled by the same artistic excellence he taught his students to revere… impeccable edges, faultless parallels, and of course, use only of the most seamless and resilient Carrara marble.

  Precision can be suffocating.

  “Lift the damn thing,” he said aloud, pressing harder through the tangle of bones. The box shifted slightly. Setting his jaw, he heaved again. The box felt like a boulder, but this time it raised a quarter of an inch. A fleeting glimmer of light surrounded him, and then the casket thudded back down. Langdon lay panting in the dark. He tried to use his legs to lift as he had before, but now that the sarcophagus had fallen flat, there was no room even to straighten his knees.

  As the claustrophobic panic closed in, Langdon was overcome by images of the sarcophagus shrinking around him. Squeezed by delirium, he fought the illusion with every logical shred of intellect he had.

  “Sarcophagus,” he stated aloud, with as much academic sterility as he could muster. But even erudition seemed to be his enemy today. Sarcophagus is from the Greek “sarx” meaning “flesh,” and “phagein” meaning “to eat.” I’m trapped in a box literally designed to “eat flesh.”

  Images of flesh eaten from bone only served as a grim reminder that Langdon lay covered in human remains. The notion brought nausea and chills. But it also brought an idea.

  Fumbling blindly around the coffin, Langdon found a shard of bone. A rib maybe? He didn’t care. All he wanted was a wedge. If he could lift the box, even a crack, and slide the bone fragment beneath the rim, then maybe enough air could…

  Reaching across his body and wedging the tapered end of the bone into the crack between the floor and the coffin, Langdon reached up with his other hand and heaved skyward. The box did not move. Not even slightly. He tried again. For a moment, it seemed to tremble slightly, but that was all.

  With the fetid stench and lack of oxygen choking the strength from his body, Langdon realized he only had time for one more effort. He also knew he would need both arms.

  Regrouping, he placed the tapered edge of the bone against the crack, and shifting his body, he wedged the bone against his shoulder, pinning it in place. Careful not to dislodge it, he raised both hands above him. As the stifling confine began to smother him, he felt a welling of intensified panic. It was the second time today he had been trapped with no air. Hollering aloud, Langdon thrust upward in one explosive motion. The casket jostled off the floor for an instant. But long enough. The bone shard he had braced against his shoulder slipped outward into the widening crack. When the casket fell again, the bone shattered. But this time Langdon could see the casket was propped up. A tiny slit of light showed beneath the rim.

  Exhausted, Langdon collapsed. Hoping the strangling sensation in his throat would pass, he waited. But it only worsened as the seconds passed. Whatever air was coming through the slit seemed imperceptible. Langdon wondered if it would be enough to keep him alive. And if so, for how long? If he passed out, who would know he was even in there?

  With arms like lead, Langdon raised his watch again: 10:12 P.M. Fighting trembling fingers, he fumbled with the watch and made his final play. He twisted one of the tiny dials and pressed a button.

  As consciousness faded, and the walls squeezed closer, Langdon felt the old fears sweep over him. He tried to imagine, as he had so many times, that he was in an open field. The image he conjured, however, was no help. The nightmare that had haunted him since his youth came crashing back…

  The flowers here are like paintings, the child thought, laughing as he ran across the meadow. He wished his parents had come along. But his parents were busy pitching camp.

  “Don’t explore too far,” his mother had said.

  He had pretended not to hear as he bounded off into the woods.

  Now, traversing this glorious field, the boy came across a pile of fieldstones. He figured it must be the foundation of an old homestead. He would not go near it. He knew better. Besides, his eyes had been drawn to something else—a brilliant lady’s slipper—the rarest and most beautiful flower in New Hampshire. He had only ever seen them in books.

  Excited, the boy moved toward the flower. He knelt down. The ground beneath him felt mulchy and hollow. He realized his flower had found an extra-fertile spot. It was growing from a patch of rotting wood.

  Thrilled by the thought of taking home his prize, the boy reached out… fingers extending toward the stem.

  He never reached it.

  With a sickening crack, the earth gave way.

  In the three seconds of dizzying terror as he fell, the boy knew he would die. Plummeting downward, he braced for the bone-crushing collision. When it came, there was no pain. Only softness.

  And cold.

  He hit the deep liquid face first, plunging into a narrow blackness. Spinning disoriented somersaults, he groped the sheer walls thatenclosed him on all sides. Somehow, as if by instinct, he sputtered to the surface.

  Light.

  Faint. Above him. Miles above him, it seemed.

  His arms clawed at the water, searching the walls of the hollow for something to grab onto. Only smooth stone. He had fallen through an abandoned well covering. He screamed for help, but his cries reverberated in the tight shaft. He called out again and again. Above him, the tattered hole grew dim.

  Night fell.

  Time seemed to contort in the darkness. Numbness set in as he treaded water in the depths of the chasm, calling, crying out. He was tormented by visions of the walls collapsing in, burying him alive. His arms ached with fatigue. A few times he thought he heard voices. He shouted out, but his own voice was muted… like a dream.

  As the night wore on, the shaft deepened. The walls inched quietly inward. The boy pressed out against the enclosure, pushing it away. Exhausted, he wanted to give up. And yet he felt the water buoy him, cooling his burning fears until he was numb.

  When the rescue team arrived, they found the boy barely conscious. He had been treading water for five hours. Two days later, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story called “The Little Swimmer That Could.”

  97

  The Hassassin smiled as he pulled his van into the mammoth stone structure overlooking the Tiber River. He carried his prize up and up… spiraling higher in the stone tunnel, grateful his load was slender.

  He arrived at the door.

  The Church of Illumination, he gloated. The ancient Illuminati meeting room. Who would have imagined it to be here?

  Inside, he lay her on a plush divan. Then he expertly bound her arms behind her back and tied her feet. He knew that what he longed for would have to wait until his final task was finished. Water.

  Still, he thought, he had a moment for indulgence. Kneeling beside her, he ran his hand along her thigh. It was smooth. Higher. His dark fingers snaked beneath the cuff of her shorts. Higher.

  He stopped. Patience, he told himself, feeling aroused. There is work to be done.

  He walked for a moment out onto the chamber’s high stone balcony. The evening breeze slowly cooled his ardor. Far below the Tiber raged. He raised his eyes to the dome of St. Peter’s, three quarters of a mile away, naked under the glare of hundreds of press lights.

  “Your final hour,” he said aloud, picturing the thousands of Muslims slaughtered during the Crusades. “At midnight you will meet your God.”

  Behind him, the woman stirred. The Hassassin turned. He considered letting her wake up. Seeing terror in a woman’s eyes was his ultimate aphrodisiac.

  He opted for prudence. It would be better if she remained unconscious while he was gone. Although she was tied and would never escape, the Hassassin did not want to return and find her exhausted from struggling. I want your strength preserved… for me.

  Lifting her head slightly, he placed his palm beneath her neck and found the hollow directly beneath her skull. The crown/meridian pressure point was one he had used countless times. With crushing force, he drove his thumb into the soft cartilage and felt it depress. The woman slumped instantly. Twenty minutes, he thought. She would be a tantalizing end to a perfect day. After she had served him and died doing it, he would stand on the balcony and watch the midnight Vatican fireworks.

  Leaving his prize unconscious on the couch, the Hassassin went downstairs into a torchlit dungeon. The final task. He walked to the table and revered the sacred, metal forms that had been left there for him.

  Water. It was his last.

  Removing a torch from the wall as he had done three times already, he began heating the end. When the end of the object was white hot, he carried it to the cell.

  Inside, a single man stood in silence. Old and alone.

  “Cardinal Baggia,” the killer hissed. “Have you prayed yet?”

  The Italian’s eyes were fearless. “Only for your soul.”

  98

  The six pompieri firemen who responded to the fire at the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria extinguished the bonfire with blasts of Halon gas. Water was cheaper, but the steam it created would have ruined the frescoes in the chapel, and the Vatican paid Roman pompieri a healthy stipend for swift and prudent service in all Vatican-owned buildings.

  Pompieri, by the nature of their work, witnessed tragedy almost daily, but the execution in this church was something none of them would ever forget. Part crucifixion, part hanging, part burning at the stake, the scene was something dredged from a Gothic nightmare.

  Unfortunately, the press, as usual, had arrived before the fire department. They’d shot plenty of video before the pompieri cleared the church. When the firemen finally cut the victim down and lay him on the floor, there was no doubt who the man was.

  “Cardinale Guidera,” one whispered. “Di Barcellona.”

  The victim was nude. The lower half of his body was crimson-black, blood oozing through gaping cracks in his thighs. His shinbones were exposed. One fireman vomited. Another went outside to breathe.

  The true horror, though, was the symbol seared on the cardinal’s chest. The squad chief circled the corpse in awestruck dread. Lavoro del diavolo, he said to himself. Satan himself did this. He crossed himself for the first time since childhood.

  “Un’ altro corpo!” someone yelled. One of the firemen had found another body.

  The second victim was a man the chief recognized immediately. The austere commander of the Swiss Guard was a man for whom few public law enforcement officials had any affection. The chief called the Vatican, but all the circuits were busy. He knew it didn’t matter. The Swiss Guard would hear about this on television in a matter of minutes.

  As the chief surveyed the damage, trying to recreate what possibly could have gone on here, he saw a niche riddled with bullet holes. A coffin had been rolled off its supports and fallen upside down in an apparent struggle. It was a mess. That’s for the police and Holy See to deal with, the chief thought, turning away.

  As he turned, though, he stopped. Coming from the coffin he heard a sound. It was not a sound any fireman ever liked to hear.

  “Bomba!” he cried out. “Tutti fuori!”

  When the bomb squad rolled the coffin over, they discovered the source of the electronic beeping. They stared, confused.

  “Mèdico!” one finally screamed. “Mèdico!”

  99

  “Any word from Olivetti?” the camerlegno asked, looking drained as Rocher escorted him back from the Sistine Chapel to the Pope’s office.

  “No, signore. I am fearing the worst.”

  When they reached the Pope’s office, the camerlegno’s voice was heavy. “Captain, there is nothing more I can do here tonight. I fear I have done too much already. I am going into this office to pray. I do not wish to be disturbed. The rest is in God’s hands.”

  “Yes, signore.”

  “The hour is late, Captain. Find that canister.”

  “Our search continues.” Rocher hesitated. “The weapon proves to be too well hidden.”

  The camerlegno winced, as if he could not think of it. “Yes. At exactly 11:15 P.M., if the church is still in peril, I want you to evacuate the cardinals. I am putting their safety in your hands. I ask only one thing. Let these men proceed from this place with dignity. Let them exit into St. Peter’s Square and stand side by side with the rest of the world. I do not want the last image of this church to be frightened old men sneaking out a back door.”

  “Very good, signore. And you? Shall I come for you at 11:15 as well?”

  “There will be no need.”

  “Signore?”

  “I will leave when the spirit moves me.”

  Rocher wondered if the camerlegno intended to go down with the ship.

  The camerlegno opened the door to the Pope’s office and entered. “Actually…” he said, turning. “There is one thing.”

  “Signore?”

  “There seems to be a chill in this office tonight. I am trembling.”

  “The electric heat is out. Let me lay you a fire.”

  The camerlegno smiled tiredly. “Thank you. Thank you, very much.”

  Rocher exited the Pope’s office where he had left the camerlegno praying by firelight in front of a small statue of the Blessed Mother Mary. It was an eerie sight. A black shadow kneeling in the flickering glow. As Rocher headed down the hall, a guard appeared, running toward him. Even by candlelight Rocher recognized Lieutenant Chartrand. Young, green, and eager.

  “Captain,” Chartrand called, holding out a cellular phone. “I think the camerlegno’s address may have worked. We’ve got a caller here who says he has information that can help us. He phoned on one of the Vatican’s private extensions. I have no idea how he got the number.”

  Rocher stopped. “What?”

  “He will only speak to the ranking officer.”

  “Any word from Olivetti?”

  “No, sir.”

  He took the receiver. “This is Captain Rocher. I am ranking officer here.”

  “Rocher,” the voice said. “I will explain to you who I am. Then I will tell you what you are going to do next.”

  When the caller stopped talking and hung up, Rocher stood stunned. He now knew from whom he was taking orders.

  Back at CERN, Sylvie Baudeloque was frantically trying to keep track of all the licensing inquiries coming in on Kohler’s voice mail. When the private line on the director’s desk began to ring, Sylvie jumped. Nobody had that number. She answered.

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