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“Where are my clothes?” Langdon asked. He was wearing a paper robe.
One of the nurses motioned to a dripping wad of shredded khaki and tweed on the counter. “They were soaked. We had to cut them off you.”
Langdon looked at his shredded Harris tweed and frowned.
“You had some Kleenex in your pocket,” the nurse said.
It was then that Langdon saw the ravaged shreds of parchment clinging all over the lining of his jacket. The folio from Galileo’s Diagramma. The last copy on earth had just dissolved. He was too numb to know how to react. He just stared.
“We saved your personal items.” She held up a plastic bin. “Wallet, camcorder, and pen. I dried the camcorder off the best I could.”
“I don’t own a camcorder.”
The nurse frowned and held out the bin. Langdon looked at the contents. Along with his wallet and pen was a tiny Sony RUVI camcorder. He recalled it now. Kohler had handed it to him and asked him to give it to the media.
“We found it in your pocket. I think you’ll need a new one, though.” The nurse flipped open the two-inch screen on the back. “Your viewer is cracked.” Then she brightened. “The sound still works, though. Barely.” She held the device up to her ear. “Keeps playing something over and over.” She listened a moment and then scowled, handing it to Langdon. “Two guys arguing, I think.”
Puzzled, Langdon took the camcorder and held it to his ear. The voices were pinched and metallic, but they were discernible. One close. One far away. Langdon recognized them both.
Sitting there in his paper gown, Langdon listened in amazement to the conversation. Although he couldn’t see what was happening, when he heard the shocking finale, he was thankful he had been spared the visual.
As the conversation began playing again from the beginning, Langdon lowered the camcorder from his ear and sat in appalled mystification. The antimatter… the helicopter… Langdon’s mind now kicked into gear.
But that means…
He wanted to vomit again. With a rising fury of disorientation and rage, Langdon got off the table and stood on shaky legs.
“Mr. Langdon!” the doctor said, trying to stop him.
“I need some clothes,” Langdon demanded, feeling the draft on his rear from the backless gown.
“But, you need to rest.”
“I’m checking out. Now. I need some clothes.”
“But, sir, you—”
Everyone exchanged bewildered looks. “We have no clothes,” the doctor said. “Perhaps tomorrow a friend could bring you some.”
Langdon drew a slow patient breath and locked eyes with the doctor. “Dr. Jacobus, I am walking out your door right now. I need clothes. I am going to Vatican City. One does not go to Vatican City with one’s ass hanging out. Do I make myself clear?”
Dr. Jacobus swallowed hard. “Get this man something to wear.”
When Langdon limped out of Hospital Tiberina, he felt like an overgrown Cub Scout. He was wearing a blue paramedic’s jumpsuit that zipped up the front and was adorned with cloth badges that apparently depicted his numerous qualifications.
The woman accompanying him was heavyset and wore a similar suit. The doctor had assured Langdon she would get him to the Vatican in record time.
“Molto traffico,” Langdon said, reminding her that the area around the Vatican was packed with cars and people.
The woman looked unconcerned. She pointed proudly to one of her patches. “Sono conducente di ambulanza.”
“Ambulanza?” That explained it. Langdon felt like he could use an ambulance ride.
The woman led him around the side of the building. On an outcropping over the water was a cement deck where her vehicle sat waiting. When Langdon saw the vehicle he stopped in his tracks. It was an aging medevac chopper. The hull read Aero-Ambulanza.
He hung his head.
The woman smiled. “Fly Vatican City. Very fast.”
The College of Cardinals bristled with ebullience and electricity as they streamed back into the Sistine Chapel. In contrast, Mortati felt in himself a rising confusion he thought might lift him off the floor and carry him away. He believed in the ancient miracles of the Scriptures, and yet what he had just witnessed in person was something he could not possibly comprehend. After a lifetime of devotion, seventy-nine years, Mortati knew these events should ignite in him a pious exuberance… a fervent and living faith. And yet all he felt was a growing spectral unease. Something did not feel right.
“Signore Mortati!” a Swiss Guard yelled, running down the hall. “We have gone to the roof as you asked. The camerlegno is… flesh! He is a true man! He is not a spirit! He is exactly as we knew him!”
“Did he speak to you?”
“He kneels in silent prayer! We are afraid to touch him!”
Mortati was at a loss. “Tell him… his cardinals await.”
“Signore, because he is a man…” the guard hesitated.
“What is it?”
“His chest… he is burned. Should we bind his wounds? He must be in pain.”
Mortati considered it. Nothing in his lifetime of service to the church had prepared him for this situation. “He is a man, so serve him as a man. Bathe him. Bind his wounds. Dress him in fresh robes. We await his arrival in the Sistine Chapel.”
The guard ran off.
Mortati headed for the chapel. The rest of the cardinals were inside now. As he walked down the hall, he saw Vittoria Vetra slumped alone on a bench at the foot of the Royal Staircase. He could see the pain and loneliness of her loss and wanted to go to her, but he knew it would have to wait. He had work to do… although he had no idea what that work could possibly be.
Mortati entered the chapel. There was a riotous excitement. He closed the door. God help me.
Hospital Tiberina’s twin-rotor Aero-Ambulanza circled in behind Vatican City, and Langdon clenched his teeth, swearing to God this was the very last helicopter ride of his life.
After convincing the pilot that the rules governing Vatican airspace were the least of the Vatican’s concerns right now, he guided her in, unseen, over the rear wall, and landed them on the Vatican’s helipad.
“Grazie,” he said, lowering himself painfully onto the ground. She blew him a kiss and quickly took off, disappearing back over the wall and into the night.
Langdon exhaled, trying to clear his head, hoping to make sense of what he was about to do. With the camcorder in hand, he boarded the same golf cart he had ridden earlier that day. It had not been charged, and the battery-meter registered close to empty. Langdon drove without headlights to conserve power.
He also preferred no one see him coming.
At the back of the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Mortati stood in a daze as he watched the pandemonium before him.
“It was a miracle!” one of the cardinals shouted. “The work of God!”
“Yes!” others exclaimed. “God has made His will manifest!”
“The camerlegno will be our Pope!” another shouted. “He is not a cardinal, but God has sent a miraculous sign!”
“Yes!” someone agreed. “The laws of conclave are man’s laws. God’s will is before us! I call for a balloting immediately!”
“A balloting?” Mortati demanded, moving toward them. “I believe that is my job.”
Mortati could sense the cardinals studying him. They seemed distant, at a loss, offended by his sobriety. Mortati longed to feel his heart swept up in the miraculous exultation he saw in the faces around him. But he was not. He felt an inexplicable pain in his soul… an aching sadness he could not explain. He had vowed to guide these proceedings with purity of soul, and this hesitancy was something he could not deny.
“My friends,” Mortati said, stepping to the altar. His voice did not seem his own. “I suspect I will struggle for the rest of my days with the meaning of what I have witnessed tonight. And yet, what you are suggesting regarding the camerlegno… it cannot possibly be God’s will.”
The room fell silent.
“How… can you say that?” one of the cardinals finally demanded. “The camerlegno saved the church. God spoke to the camerlegno directly! The man survived death itself! What sign do we need!”
“The camerlegno is coming to us now,” Mortati said. “Let us wait. Let us hear him before we have a balloting. There may be an explanation.”
“As your Great Elector, I have vowed to uphold the laws of conclave. You are no doubt aware that by Holy Law the camerlegno is ineligible for election to the papacy. He is not a cardinal. He is a priest… a chamberlain. There is also the question of his inadequate age.” Mortati felt the stares hardening. “By even allowing a balloting, I would be requesting that you endorse a man who Vatican Law proclaims ineligible. I would be asking each of you to break a sacred oath.”
“But what happened here tonight,” someone stammered, “it certainly transcends our laws!”
“Does it?” Mortati boomed, not even knowing now where his words were coming from. “Is it God’s will that we discard the rules of the church? Is it God’s will that we abandon reason and give ourselves over to frenzy?”
“But did you not see what we saw?” another challenged angrily. “How can you presume to question that kind of power!”
Mortati’s voice bellowed now with a resonance he had never known. “I am not questioning God’s power! It is God who gave us reason and circumspection! It is God we serve by exercising prudence!”
In the hallway outside the Sistine Chapel, Vittoria Vetra sat benumbed on a bench at the foot of the Royal Staircase. When she saw the figure coming through the rear door, she wondered if she were seeing another spirit. He was bandaged, limping, and wearing some kind of medical suit.
She stood… unable to believe the vision. “Ro… bert?”
He never answered. He strode directly to her and wrapped her in his arms. When he pressed his lips to hers, it was an impulsive, longing kiss filled with thankfulness.
Vittoria felt the tears coming. “Oh, God… oh, thank God…”
He kissed her again, more passionately, and she pressed against him, losing herself in his embrace. Their bodies locked, as if they had known each other for years. She forgot the fear and pain. She closed her eyes, weightless in the moment.
“It is God’s will!” someone was yelling, his voice echoing in the Sistine Chapel. “Who but the chosen one could have survived that diabolical explosion?”
“Me,” a voice reverberated from the back of the chapel.
Mortati and the others turned in wonder at the bedraggled form coming up the center aisle. “Mr…. Langdon?”
Without a word, Langdon walked slowly to the front of the chapel. Vittoria Vetra entered too. Then two guards hurried in, pushing a cart with a large television on it. Langdon waited while they plugged it in, facing the cardinals. Then Langdon motioned for the guards to leave. They did, closing the door behind them.
Now it was only Langdon, Vittoria, and the cardinals. Langdon plugged the Sony RUVI’s output into the television. Then he pressed Play.
The television blared to life.
The scene that materialized before the cardinals revealed the Pope’s office. The video had been awkwardly filmed, as if by hidden camera. Off center on the screen the camerlegno stood in the dimness, in front of a fire. Although he appeared to be talking directly to the camera, it quickly became evident that he was speaking to someone else—whoever was making this video. Langdon told them the video was filmed by Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN. Only an hour ago Kohler had secretly recorded his meeting with the camerlegno by using a tiny camcorder covertly mounted under the arm of his wheelchair.
Mortati and the cardinals watched in bewilderment. Although the conversation was already in progress, Langdon did not bother to rewind. Apparently, whatever Langdon wanted the cardinals to see was coming up…
“Leonardo Vetra kept diaries?” the camerlegno was saying. “I suppose that is good news for CERN. If the diaries contain his processes for creating antimatter—”
“They don’t,” Kohler said. “You will be relieved to know those processes died with Leonardo. However, his diaries spoke of something else. You.”
The camerlegno looked troubled. “I don’t understand.”
“They described a meeting Leonardo had last month. With you.”
The camerlegno hesitated, then looked toward the door. “Rocher should not have granted you access without consulting me. How did you get in here?”
“Rocher knows the truth. I called earlier and told him what you have done.”
“What I have done? Whatever story you told him, Rocher is a Swiss Guard and far too faithful to this church to believe a bitter scientist over his camerlegno.”
“Actually, he is too faithful not to believe. He is so faithful that despite the evidence that one of his loyal guards had betrayed the church, he refused to accept it. All day long he has been searching for another explanation.”
“So you gave him one.”
“The truth. Shocking as it was.”
“If Rocher believed you, he would have arrested me.”
“No. I wouldn’t let him. I offered him my silence in exchange for this meeting.”
The camerlegno let out an odd laugh. “You plan to blackmail the church with a story that no one will possibly believe?”
“I have no need of blackmail. I simply want to hear the truth from your lips. Leonardo Vetra was a friend.”
The camerlegno said nothing. He simply stared down at Kohler.
“Try this,” Kohler snapped. “About a month ago, Leonardo Vetra contacted you requesting an urgent audience with the Pope—an audience you granted because the Pope was an admirer of Leonardo’s work and because Leonardo said it was an emergency.”
The camerlegno turned to the fire. He said nothing.
“Leonardo came to the Vatican in great secrecy. He was betraying his daughter’s confidence by coming here, a fact that troubled him deeply, but he felt he had no choice. His research had left him deeply conflicted and in need of spiritual guidance from the church. In a private meeting, he told you and the Pope that he had made a scientific discovery with profound religious implications. He had proved Genesis was physically possible, and that intense sources of energy—what Vetra called God–could duplicate the moment of Creation.”
“The Pope was stunned,” Kohler continued. “He wanted Leonardo to go public. His Holiness thought this discovery might begin to bridge the gap between science and religion—one of the Pope’s life dreams. Then Leonardo explained to you the downside—the reason he required the church’s guidance. It seemed his Creation experiment, exactly as your Bible predicts, produced everything in pairs. Opposites. Light and dark. Vetra found himself, in addition to creating matter, creating antimatter. Shall I go on?”
The camerlegno was silent. He bent down and stoked the coals.
“After Leonardo Vetra came here,” Kohler said, “you came to CERN to see his work. Leonardo’s diaries said you made a personal trip to his lab.”
The camerlegno looked up.
Kohler went on. “The Pope could not travel without attracting media attention, so he sent you. Leonardo gave you a secret tour of his lab. He showed you an antimatter annihilation—the Big Bang—the power of Creation. He also showed you a large specimen he kept locked away as proof that his new process could produce antimatter on a large scale. You were in awe. You returned to Vatican City to report to the Pope what you had witnessed.”
The camerlegno sighed. “And what is it that troubles you? That I would respect Leonardo’s confidentiality by pretending before the world tonight that I knew nothing of antimatter?”
“No! It troubles me that Leonardo Vetra practically proved the existence of your God, and you had him murdered!”
The camerlegno turned now, his face revealing nothing.
The only sound was the crackle of the fire.
Suddenly, the camera jiggled, and Kohler’s arm appeared in the frame. He leaned forward, seeming to struggle with something affixed beneath his wheelchair. When he sat back down, he held a pistol out before him. The camera angle was a chilling one… looking from behind… down the length of the outstretched gun… directly at the camerlegno.
Kohler said, “Confess your sins, Father. Now.”
The camerlegno looked startled. “You will never get out of here alive.”
“Death would be a welcome relief from the misery your faith has put me through since I was a boy.” Kohler held the gun with both hands now. “I am giving you a choice. Confess your sins… or die right now.”