1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55

“But you’ll never get through the crowd!”

  Langdon’s voice was confident. “There’s a way. Trust me.”

  Vittoria sensed once again that the historian knew something she did not. “I’m coming.”

  “No. Why risk both—”

  “I have to find a way to get those people out of there! They’re in incredible dange—”

  Just then, the balcony they were standing on began to shake. A deafening rumble shook the whole castle. Then a white light from the direction of St. Peter’s blinded them. Vittoria had only one thought. Oh my God! The antimatter annihilated early!

  But instead of an explosion, a huge cheer went up from the crowd. Vittoria squinted into the light. It was a barrage of media lights from the square, now trained, it seemed, on them! Everyone was turned their way, hollering and pointing. The rumble grew louder. The air in the square seemed suddenly joyous.

  Langdon looked baffled. “What the devil—”

  The sky overhead roared.

  Emerging from behind the tower, without warning, came the papal helicopter. It thundered fifty feet above them, on a beeline for Vatican City. As it passed overhead, radiant in the media lights, the castle trembled. The lights followed the helicopter as it passed by, and Langdon and Vittoria were suddenly again in the dark.

  Vittoria had the uneasy feeling they were too late as they watched the mammoth machine slow to a stop over St. Peter’s Square. Kicking up a cloud of dust, the chopper dropped onto the open portion of the square between the crowd and the basilica, touching down at the bottom of the basilica’s staircase.

  “Talk about an entrance,” Vittoria said. Against the white marble, she could see a tiny speck of a person emerge from the Vatican and move toward the chopper. She would never have recognized the figure except for the bright red beret on his head. “Red carpet greeting. That’s Rocher.”

  Langdon pounded his fist on the banister. “Somebody’s got to warn them!” He turned to go.

  Vittoria caught his arm. “Wait!” She had just seen something else, something her eyes refused to believe. Fingers trembling, she pointed toward the chopper. Even from this distance, there was no mistaking. Descending the gangplank was another figure… a figure who moved so uniquely that it could only be one man. Although the figure was seated, he accelerated across the open square with effortless control and startling speed.

  A king on an electric throne.

  It was Maximilian Kohler.

  111

  Kohler was sickened by the opulence of the Hallway of the Belvedere. The gold leaf in the ceiling alone probably could have funded a year’s worth of cancer research. Rocher led Kohler up a handicapped ramp on a circuitous route into the Apostolic Palace.

  “No elevator?” Kohler demanded.

  “No power.” Rocher motioned to the candles burning around them in the darkened building. “Part of our search tactic.”

  “Tactics which no doubt failed.”

  Rocher nodded.

  Kohler broke into another coughing fit and knew it might be one of his last. It was not an entirely unwelcome thought.

  When they reached the top floor and started down the hallway toward the Pope’s office, four Swiss Guards ran toward them, looking troubled. “Captain, what are you doing up here? I thought this man had information that—”

  “He will only speak to the camerlegno.”

  The guards recoiled, looking suspicious.

  “Tell the camerlegno,” Rocher said forcefully, “that the director of CERN, Maximilian Kohler, is here to see him. Immediately.”

  “Yes, sir!” One of the guards ran off in the direction of the camerlegno’s office. The others stood their ground. They studied Rocher, looking uneasy. “Just one moment, captain. We will announce your guest.”

  Kohler, however, did not stop. He turned sharply and maneuvered his chair around the sentinels.

  The guards spun and broke into a jog beside him. “Fermati! Sir! Stop!”

  Kohler felt repugnance for them. Not even the most elite security force in the world was immune to the pity everyone felt for cripples. Had Kohler been a healthy man, the guards would have tackled him. Cripples are powerless, Kohler thought. Or so the world believes.

  Kohler knew he had very little time to accomplish what he had come for. He also knew he might die here tonight. He was surprised how little he cared. Death was a price he was ready to pay. He had endured too much in his life to have his work destroyed by someone like Camerlegno Ventresca.

  “Signore!” the guards shouted, running ahead and forming a line across the hallway. “You must stop!” One of them pulled a sidearm and aimed it at Kohler.

  Kohler stopped.

  Rocher stepped in, looking contrite. “Mr. Kohler, please. It will only be a moment. No one enters the Office of the Pope unannounced.”

  Kohler could see in Rocher’s eyes that he had no choice but to wait. Fine, Kohler thought. We wait.

  The guards, cruelly it seemed, had stopped Kohler next to a full-length gilded mirror. The sight of his own twisted form repulsed Kohler. The ancient rage brimmed yet again to the surface. It empowered him. He was among the enemy now. These were the people who had robbed him of his dignity. These were the people. Because of them he had never felt the touch of a woman… had never stood tall to accept an award. What truth do these people possess? What proof, damn it! A book of ancient fables? Promises of miracles to come? Science creates miracles every day!

  Kohler stared a moment into his own stony eyes. Tonight I may die at the hands of religion, he thought. But it will not be the first time.

  For a moment, he was eleven years old again, lying in his bed in his parents’ Frankfurt mansion. The sheets beneath him were Europe’s finest linen, but they were soaked with sweat. Young Max felt like he was on fire, the pain wracking his body unimaginable. Kneeling beside his bed, where they had been for two days, were his mother and father. They were praying.

  In the shadows stood three of Frankfurt’s best doctors.

  “I urge you to reconsider!” one of the doctors said. “Look at the boy! His fever is increasing. He is in terrible pain. And danger!”

  But Max knew his mother’s reply before she even said it. “Gott wird ihn beschuetzen.”

  Yes, Max thought. God will protect me. The conviction in his mother’s voice gave him strength. God will protect me.

  An hour later, Max felt like his whole body was being crushed beneath a car. He could not even breathe to cry.

  “Your son is in great suffering,” another doctor said. “Let me at least ease his pain. I have in my bag a simple injection of—”

  “Ruhe, bitte!” Max’s father silenced the doctor without ever opening his eyes. He simply kept praying.

  “Father, please!” Max wanted to scream. “Let them stop the pain!” But his words were lost in a spasm of coughing.

  An hour later, the pain had worsened.

  “Your son could become paralyzed,” one of the doctors scolded. “Or even die! We have medicines that will help!”

  Frau and Herr Kohler would not allow it. They did not believe in medicine. Who were they to interfere with God’s master plan? They prayed harder. After all, God had blessed them with this boy, why would God take the child away? His mother whispered to Max to be strong. She explained that God was testing him… like the Bible story of Abraham… a test of his faith.

  Max tried to have faith, but the pain was excruciating.

  “I cannot watch this!” one of the doctors finally said, running from the room.

  By dawn, Max was barely conscious. Every muscle in his body spasmed in agony. Where is Jesus? he wondered. Doesn’t he love me? Max felt the life slipping from his body.

  His mother had fallen asleep at the bedside, her hands still clasped over him. Max’s father stood across the room at the window staring out at the dawn. He seemed to be in a trance. Max could hear the low mumble of his ceaseless prayers for mercy.

  It was then that Max sensed the figure hovering over him. An angel? Max could barely see. His eyes were swollen shut. The figure whispered in his ear, but it was not the voice of an angel. Max recognized it as one of the doctors… the one who had sat in the corner for two days, never leaving, begging Max’s parents to let him administer some new drug from England.

  “I will never forgive myself,” the doctor whispered, “if I do not do this.” Then the doctor gently took Max’s frail arm. “I wish I had done it sooner.”

  Max felt a tiny prick in his arm—barely discernible through the pain.

  Then the doctor quietly packed his things. Before he left, he put a hand on Max’s forehead. “This will save your life. I have great faith in the power of medicine.”

  Within minutes, Max felt as if some sort of magic spirit were flowing through his veins. The warmth spread through his body numbing his pain. Finally, for the first time in days, Max slept.

  When the fever broke, his mother and father proclaimed a miracle of God. But when it became evident that their son was crippled, they became despondent. They wheeled their son into the church and begged the priest for counseling.

  “It was only by the grace of God,” the priest told them, “that this boy survived.”

  Max listened, saying nothing.

  “But our son cannot walk!” Frau Kohler was weeping.

  The priest nodded sadly. “Yes. It seems God has punished him for not having enough faith.”

  “Mr. Kohler?” It was the Swiss Guard who had run ahead. “The camerlegno says he will grant you audience.”

  Kohler grunted, accelerating again down the hall.

  “He is surprised by your visit,” the guard said.

  “I’m sure.” Kohler rolled on. “I would like to see him alone.”

  “Impossible,” the guard said. “No one—”

  “Lieutenant,” Rocher barked. “The meeting will be as Mr. Kohler wishes.”

  The guard stared in obvious disbelief.

  Outside the door to the Pope’s office, Rocher allowed his guards to take standard precautions before letting Kohler in. Their handheld metal detector was rendered worthless by the myriad of electronic devices on Kohler’s wheelchair. The guards frisked him but were obviously too ashamed of his disability to do it properly. They never found the revolver affixed beneath his chair. Nor did they relieve him of the other object… the one that Kohler knew would bring unforgettable closure to this evening’s chain of events.

  When Kohler entered the Pope’s office, Camerlegno Ventresca was alone, kneeling in prayer beside a dying fire. He did not open his eyes.

  “Mr. Kohler,” the camerlegno said. “Have you come to make me a martyr?”

  112

  All the while, the narrow tunnel called Il Passetto stretched out before Langdon and Vittoria as they dashed toward Vatican City. The torch in Langdon’s hand threw only enough light to see a few yards ahead. The walls were close on either side, and the ceiling low. The air smelled dank. Langdon raced on into the darkness with Vittoria close at his heels.

  The tunnel inclined steeply as it left the Castle St. Angelo, proceeding upward into the underside of a stone bastion that looked like a Roman aqueduct. There, the tunnel leveled out and began its secret course toward Vatican City.

  As Langdon ran, his thoughts turned over and over in a kaleidoscope of confounding images—Kohler, Janus, the Hassassin, Rocher… a sixth brand? I’m sure you’ve heard about the sixth brand, the killer had said. The most brilliant of all. Langdon was quite certain he had not. Even in conspiracy theory lore, Langdon could think of no references to any sixth brand. Real or imagined. There were rumors of a gold bullion and a flawless Illuminati Diamond but never any mention of a sixth brand.

  “Kohler can’t be Janus!” Vittoria declared as they ran down the interior of the dike. “It’s impossible!”

  Impossible was one word Langdon had stopped using tonight. “I don’t know,” Langdon yelled as they ran. “Kohler has a serious grudge, and he also has some serious influence.”

  “This crisis has made CERN look like monsters! Max would never do anything to damage CERN’s reputation!”

  On one count, Langdon knew CERN had taken a public beating tonight, all because of the Illuminati’s insistence on making this a public spectacle. And yet, he wondered how much CERN had really been damaged. Criticism from the church was nothing new for CERN. In fact, the more Langdon thought about it, the more he wondered if this crisis might actually benefit CERN. If publicity were the game, then antimatter was the jackpot winner tonight. The entire planet was talking about it.

  “You know what promoter P. T. Barnum said,” Langdon called over his shoulder. “‘I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right!’ I bet people are already secretly lining up to license antimatter technology. And after they see its true power at midnight tonight…”

  “Illogical,” Vittoria said. “Publicizing scientific breakthroughs is not about showing destructive power! This is terrible for antimatter, trust me!”

  Langdon’s torch was fading now. “Then maybe it’s all much simpler than that. Maybe Kohler gambled that the Vatican would keep the antimatter a secret—refusing to empower the Illuminati by confirming the weapon’s existence. Kohler expected the Vatican to be their usual tight-lipped selves about the threat, but the camerlegno changed the rules.”

  Vittoria was silent as they dashed down the tunnel.

  Suddenly the scenario was making more sense to Langdon. “Yes! Kohler never counted on the camerlegno’s reaction. The camerlegno broke the Vatican tradition of secrecy and went public about the crisis. He was dead honest. He put the antimatter on TV, for God’s sake. It was a brilliant response, and Kohler never expected it. And the irony of the whole thing is that the Illuminati attack backfired. It inadvertently produced a new church leader in the camerlegno. And now Kohler is coming to kill him!”

  “Max is a bastard,” Vittoria declared, “but he is not a murderer. And he would never have been involved in my father’s assassination.”

  In Langdon’s mind, it was Kohler’s voice that answered. Leonardo was considered dangerous by many purists at CERN. Fusing science and God is the ultimate scientific blasphemy. “Maybe Kohler found out about the antimatter project weeks ago and didn’t like the religious implications.”

  “So he killed my father over it? Ridiculous! Besides, Max Kohler would never have known the project existed.”

  “While you were gone, maybe your father broke down and consulted Kohler, asking for guidance. You yourself said your father was concerned about the moral implications of creating such a deadly substance.”

  “Asking moral guidance from Maximilian Kohler?” Vittoria snorted. “I don’t think so!”

  The tunnel banked slightly westward. The faster they ran, the dimmer Langdon’s torch became. He began to fear what the place would look like if the light went out. Black.

  “Besides,” Vittoria argued, “why would Kohler have bothered to call you in this morning and ask for help if he is behind the whole thing?”

  Langdon had already considered it. “By calling me, Kohler covered his bases. He made sure no one would accuse him of nonaction in the face of crisis. He probably never expected us to get this far.”

  The thought of being used by Kohler incensed Langdon. Langdon’s involvement had given the Illuminati a level of credibility. His credentials and publications had been quoted all night by the media, and as ridiculous as it was, the presence of a Harvard professor in Vatican City had somehow raised the whole emergency beyond the scope of paranoid delusion and convinced skeptics around the world that the Illuminati brotherhood was not only a historical fact, but a force to be reckoned with.

  “That BBC reporter,” Langdon said, “thinks CERN is the new Illuminati lair.”

  “What!” Vittoria stumbled behind him. She pulled herself up and ran on. “He said that!?”

  “On air. He likened CERN to the Masonic lodges—an innocent organization unknowingly harboring the Illuminati brotherhood within.”

  “My God, this is going to destroy CERN.”

  Langdon was not so sure. Either way, the theory suddenly seemed less far-fetched. CERN was the ultimate scientific haven. It was home to scientists from over a dozen countries. They seemed to have endless private funding. And Maximilian Kohler was their director.

  Kohler is Janus.

  “If Kohler’s not involved,” Langdon challenged, “then what is he doing here?”

  “Probably trying to stop this madness. Show support. Maybe he really is acting as the Samaritan! He could have found out who knew about the antimatter project and has come to share information.”

  “The killer said he was coming to brand the camerlegno.”

  “Listen to yourself! It would be a suicide mission. Max would never get out alive.”

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55