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Langdon considered it. Maybe that was the point.
The outline of a steel gate loomed ahead, blocking their progress down the tunnel. Langdon’s heart almost stopped. When they approached, however, they found the ancient lock hanging open. The gate swung freely.
Langdon breathed a sigh of relief, realizing as he had suspected, that the ancient tunnel was in use. Recently. As in today. He now had little doubt that four terrified cardinals had been secreted through here earlier.
They ran on. Langdon could now hear the sounds of chaos to his left. It was St. Peter’s Square. They were getting close.
They hit another gate, this one heavier. It too was unlocked. The sound of St. Peter’s Square faded behind them now, and Langdon sensed they had passed through the outer wall of Vatican City. He wondered where inside the Vatican this ancient passage would conclude. In the gardens? In the basilica? In the papal residence?
Then, without warning, the tunnel ended.
The cumbrous door blocking their way was a thick wall of riveted iron. Even by the last flickers of his torch, Langdon could see that the portal was perfectly smooth—no handles, no knobs, no keyholes, no hinges. No entry.
He felt a surge of panic. In architect-speak, this rare kind of door was called a senza chiave–a one-way portal, used for security, and only operable from one side—the other side. Langdon’s hope dimmed to black… along with the torch in his hand.
He looked at his watch. Mickey glowed.
With a scream of frustration, Langdon swung the torch and started pounding on the door.
Something was wrong.
Lieutenant Chartrand stood outside the Pope’s office and sensed in the uneasy stance of the soldier standing with him that they shared the same anxiety. The private meeting they were shielding, Rocher had said, could save the Vatican from destruction. So Chartrand wondered why his protective instincts were tingling. And why was Rocher acting so strangely?
Something definitely was awry.
Captain Rocher stood to Chartrand’s right, staring dead ahead, his sharp gaze uncharacteristically distant. Chartrand barely recognized the captain. Rocher had not been himself in the last hour. His decisions made no sense.
Someone should be present inside this meeting! Chartrand thought. He had heard Maximilian Kohler bolt the door after he entered. Why had Rocher permitted this?
But there was so much more bothering Chartrand. The cardinals. The cardinals were still locked in the Sistine Chapel. This was absolute insanity. The camerlegno had wanted them evacuated fifteen minutes ago! Rocher had overruled the decision and not informed the camerlegno. Chartrand had expressed concern, and Rocher had almost taken off his head. Chain of command was never questioned in the Swiss Guard, and Rocher was now top dog.
Half an hour, Rocher thought, discreetly checking his Swiss chronometer in the dim light of the candelabra lighting the hall. Please hurry.
Chartrand wished he could hear what was happening on the other side of the doors. Still, he knew there was no one he would rather have handling this crisis than the camerlegno. The man had been tested beyond reason tonight, and he had not flinched. He had confronted the problem head-on… truthful, candid, shining like an example to all. Chartrand felt proud right now to be a Catholic. The Illuminati had made a mistake when they challenged Camerlegno Ventresca.
At that moment, however, Chartrand’s thoughts were jolted by an unexpected sound. A banging. It was coming from down the hall. The pounding was distant and muffled, but incessant. Rocher looked up. The captain turned to Chartrand and motioned down the hall. Chartrand understood. He turned on his flashlight and took off to investigate.
The banging was more desperate now. Chartrand ran thirty yards down the corridor to an intersection. The noise seemed to be coming from around the corner, beyond the Sala Clementina. Chartrand felt perplexed. There was only one room back there—the Pope’s private library. His Holiness’s private library had been locked since the Pope’s death. Nobody could possibly be in there!
Chartrand hurried down the second corridor, turned another corner, and rushed to the library door. The wooden portico was diminutive, but it stood in the dark like a dour sentinel. The banging was coming from somewhere inside. Chartrand hesitated. He had never been inside the private library. Few had. No one was allowed in without an escort by the Pope himself.
Tentatively, Chartrand reached for the doorknob and turned. As he had imagined, the door was locked. He put his ear to the door. The banging was louder. Then he heard something else. Voices! Someone calling out!
He could not make out the words, but he could hear the panic in their shouts. Was someone trapped in the library? Had the Swiss Guard not properly evacuated the building? Chartrand hesitated, wondering if he should go back and consult Rocher. The hell with that. Chartrand had been trained to make decisions, and he would make one now. He pulled out his side arm and fired a single shot into the door latch. The wood exploded, and the door swung open.
Beyond the threshold Chartrand saw nothing but blackness. He shone his flashlight. The room was rectangular—oriental carpets, high oak shelves packed with books, a stitched leather couch, and a marble fireplace. Chartrand had heard stories of this place—three thousand ancient volumes side by side with hundreds of current magazines and periodicals, anything His Holiness requested. The coffee table was covered with journals of science and politics.
The banging was clearer now. Chartrand shone his light across the room toward the sound. On the far wall, beyond the sitting area, was a huge door made of iron. It looked impenetrable as a vault. It had four mammoth locks. The tiny etched letters dead center of the door took Chartrand’s breath away.
Chartrand stared. The Pope’s secret escape route! Chartrand had certainly heard of Il Passetto, and he had even heard rumors that it had once had an entrance here in the library, but the tunnel had not been used in ages! Who could be banging on the other side?
Chartrand took his flashlight and rapped on the door. There was a muffled exultation from the other side. The banging stopped, and the voices yelled louder. Chartrand could barely make out their words through the barricade.
“… Kohler… lie… camerlegno…”
“Who is that?” Chartrand yelled.
“… ert Langdon… Vittoria Ve…”
Chartrand understood enough to be confused. I thought you were dead!
“… the door,” the voices yelled. “Open…!”
Chartrand looked at the iron barrier and knew he would need dynamite to get through there. “Impossible!” he yelled. “Too thick!”
“… meeting… stop… erlegno… danger…”
Despite his training on the hazards of panic, Chartrand felt a sudden rush of fear at the last few words. Had he understood correctly? Heart pounding, he turned to run back to the office. As he turned, though, he stalled. His gaze had fallen to something on the door… something more shocking even than the message coming from beyond it. Emerging from the keyholes of each of the door’s massive locks were keys. Chartrand stared. The keys were here? He blinked in disbelief. The keys to this door were supposed to be in a vault someplace! This passage was never used—not for centuries!
Chartrand dropped his flashlight on the floor. He grabbed the first key and turned. The mechanism was rusted and stiff, but it still worked. Someone had opened it recently. Chartrand worked the next lock. And the next. When the last bolt slid aside, Chartrand pulled. The slab of iron creaked open. He grabbed his light and shone it into the passage.
Robert Langdon and Vittoria Vetra looked like apparitions as they staggered into the library. Both were ragged and tired, but they were very much alive.
“What is this!” Chartrand demanded. “What’s going on! Where did you come from?”
“Where’s Max Kohler?” Langdon demanded.
Chartrand pointed. “In a private meeting with the camer—”
Langdon and Vittoria pushed past him and ran down the darkened hall. Chartrand turned, instinctively raising his gun at their backs. He quickly lowered it and ran after them. Rocher apparently heard them coming, because as they arrived outside the Pope’s office, Rocher had spread his legs in a protective stance and was leveling his gun at them. “Alt!”
“The camerlegno is in danger!” Langdon yelled, raising his arms in surrender as he slid to a stop. “Open the door! Max Kohler is going to kill the camerlegno!”
Rocher looked angry.
“Open the door!” Vittoria said. “Hurry!”
But it was too late.
From inside the Pope’s office came a bloodcurdling scream. It was the camerlegno.
The confrontation lasted only seconds.
Camerlegno Ventresca was still screaming when Chartrand stepped past Rocher and blew open the door of the Pope’s office. The guards dashed in. Langdon and Vittoria ran in behind them.
The scene before them was staggering.
The chamber was lit only by candlelight and a dying fire. Kohler was near the fireplace, standing awkwardly in front of his wheelchair. He brandished a pistol, aimed at the camerlegno, who lay on the floor at his feet, writhing in agony. The camerlegno’s cassock was torn open, and his bare chest was seared black. Langdon could not make out the symbol from across the room, but a large, square brand lay on the floor near Kohler. The metal still glowed red.
Two of the Swiss Guards acted without hesitation. They opened fire. The bullets smashed into Kohler’s chest, driving him backward. Kohler collapsed into his wheelchair, his chest gurgling blood. His gun went skittering across the floor.
Langdon stood stunned in the doorway.
Vittoria seemed paralyzed. “Max…” she whispered.
The camerlegno, still twisting on the floor, rolled toward Rocher, and with the trancelike terror of the early witch hunts, pointed his index finger at Rocher and yelled a single word. “ILLUMINATUS!”
“You bastard,” Rocher said, running at him. “You sanctimonious bas—”
This time it was Chartrand who reacted on instinct, putting three bullets in Rocher’s back. The captain fell face first on the tile floor and slid lifeless through his own blood. Chartrand and the guards dashed immediately to the camerlegno, who lay clutching himself, convulsing in pain.
Both guards let out exclamations of horror when they saw the symbol seared on the camerlegno’s chest. The second guard saw the brand upside down and immediately staggered backward with fear in his eyes. Chartrand, looking equally overwhelmed by the symbol, pulled the camerlegno’s torn cassock up over the burn, shielding it from view.
Langdon felt delirious as he moved across the room. Through a mist of insanity and violence, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. A crippled scientist, in a final act of symbolic dominance, had flown into Vatican City and branded the church’s highest official. Some things are worth dying for, the Hassassin had said. Langdon wondered how a handicapped man could possibly have overpowered the camerlegno. Then again, Kohler had a gun. It doesn’t matter how he did it! Kohler accomplished his mission!
Langdon moved toward the gruesome scene. The camerlegno was being attended, and Langdon felt himself drawn toward the smoking brand on the floor near Kohler’s wheelchair. The sixth brand? The closer Langdon got, the more confused he became. The brand seemed to be a perfect square, quite large, and had obviously come from the sacred center compartment of the chest in the Illuminati Lair. A sixth and final brand, the Hassassin had said. The most brilliant of all.
Langdon knelt beside Kohler and reached for the object. The metal still radiated heat. Grasping the wooden handle, Langdon picked it up. He was not sure what he expected to see, but it most certainly was not this.
Langdon stared a long, confused moment. Nothing was making sense. Why had the guards cried out in horror when they saw this? It was a square of meaningless squiggles. The most brilliant of all? It was symmetrical, Langdon could tell as he rotated it in his hand, but it was gibberish.
When he felt a hand on his shoulder, Langdon looked up, expecting Vittoria. The hand, however, was covered with blood. It belonged to Maximilian Kohler, who was reaching out from his wheelchair.
Langdon dropped the brand and staggered to his feet. Kohler’s still alive!
Slumped in his wheelchair, the dying director was still breathing, albeit barely, sucking in sputtering gasps. Kohler’s eyes met Langdon’s, and it was the same stony gaze that had greeted Langdon at CERN earlier that day. The eyes looked even harder in death, the loathing and enmity rising to the surface.
The scientist’s body quivered, and Langdon sensed he was trying to move. Everyone else in the room was focused on the camerlegno, and Langdon wanted to call out, but he could not react. He was transfixed by the intensity radiating from Kohler in these final seconds of his life. The director, with tremulous effort, lifted his arm and pulled a small device off the arm of his wheelchair. It was the size of a matchbox. He held it out, quivering. For an instant, Langdon feared Kohler had a weapon. But it was something else.
“G-give…” Kohler’s final words were a gurgling whisper. “G-give this… to the m-media.” Kohler collapsed motionless, and the device fell in his lap.
Shocked, Langdon stared at the device. It was electronic. The words SONY RUVI were printed across the front. Langdon recognized it as one of those new ultraminiature, palm-held camcorders. The balls on this guy! he thought. Kohler had apparently recorded some sort of final suicide message he wanted the media to broadcast… no doubt some sermon about the importance of science and the evils of religion. Langdon decided he had done enough for this man’s cause tonight. Before Chartrand saw Kohler’s camcorder, Langdon slipped it into his deepest jacket pocket. Kohler’s final message can rot in hell!
It was the voice of the camerlegno that broke the silence. He was trying to sit up. “The cardinals,” he gasped to Chartrand.
“Still in the Sistine Chapel!” Chartrand exclaimed. “Captain Rocher ordered—”
“Evacuate… now. Everyone.”
Chartrand sent one of the other guards running off to let the cardinals out.
The camerlegno grimaced in pain. “Helicopter… out front… get me to a hospital.”
In St. Peter’s Square, the Swiss Guard pilot sat in the cockpit of the parked Vatican helicopter and rubbed his temples. The chaos in the square around him was so loud that it drowned out the sound of his idling rotors. This was no solemn candlelight vigil. He was amazed a riot had not broken out yet.
With less than twenty-five minutes left until midnight, the people were still packed together, some praying, some weeping for the church, others screaming obscenities and proclaiming that this was what the church deserved, still others chanting apocalyptic Bible verses.
The pilot’s head pounded as the media lights glinted off his windshield. He squinted out at the clamorous masses. Banners waved over the crowd.
Antimatter is the Antichrist!
Where is your God now?
The pilot groaned, his headache worsening. He half considered grabbing the windshield’s vinyl covering and putting it up so he wouldn’t have to watch, but he knew he would be airborne in a matter of minutes. Lieutenant Chartrand had just radioed with terrible news. The camerlegno had been attacked by Maximilian Kohler and seriously injured. Chartrand, the American, and the woman were carrying the camerlegno out now so he could be evacuated to a hospital.
The pilot felt personally responsible for the attack. He reprimanded himself for not acting on his gut. Earlier, when he had picked up Kohler at the airport, he had sensed something in the scientist’s dead eyes. He couldn’t place it, but he didn’t like it. Not that it mattered. Rocher was running the show, and Rocher insisted this was the guy. Rocher had apparently been wrong.
A new clamor arose from the crowd, and the pilot looked over to see a line of cardinals processing solemnly out of the Vatican onto St. Peter’s Square. The cardinals’ relief to be leaving ground zero seemed to be quickly overcome by looks of bewilderment at the spectacle now going on outside the church.
The crowd noise intensified yet again. The pilot’s head pounded. He needed an aspirin. Maybe three. He didn’t like to fly on medication, but a few aspirin would certainly be less debilitating than this raging headache. He reached for the first-aid kit, kept with assorted maps and manuals in a cargo box bolted between the two front seats. When he tried to open the box, though, he found it locked. He looked around for the key and then finally gave up. Tonight was clearly not his lucky night. He went back to massaging his temples.