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And another. “The pain this could cause…”

  Vittoria was surrounded. She looked at them all, stunned. “But these deeds here today, tonight… certainly the world should know the truth.”

  “My heart agrees,” the wizened cardinal said, still holding her arm, “and yet it is a path from which there is no return. We must consider the shattered hopes. The cynicism. How could the people ever trust again?”

  Suddenly, more cardinals seemed to be blocking her way. There was a wall of black robes before her. “Listen to the people in the square,” one said. “What will this do to their hearts? We must exercise prudence.”

  “We need time to think and pray,” another said. “We must act with foresight. The repercussions of this…”

  “He killed my father!” Vittoria said. “He killed his own father!”

  “I’m certain he will pay for his sins,” the cardinal holding her arm said sadly.

  Vittoria was certain too, and she intended to ensure he paid. She tried to push toward the door again, but the cardinals huddled closer, their faces frightened.

  “What are you going to do?” she exclaimed. “Kill me?”

  The old men blanched, and Vittoria immediately regretted her words. She could see these men were gentle souls. They had seen enough violence tonight. They meant no threat. They were simply trapped. Scared. Trying to get their bearings.

  “I want…” the wizened cardinal said, “… to do what is right.”

  “Then you will let her out,” a deep voice declared behind her. The words were calm but absolute. Robert Langdon arrived at her side, and she felt his hand take hers. “Ms. Vetra and I are leaving this chapel. Right now.”

  Faltering, hesitant, the cardinals began to step aside.

  “Wait!” It was Mortati. He moved toward them now, down the center aisle, leaving the camerlegno alone and defeated on the altar. Mortati looked older all of a sudden, wearied beyond his years. His motion was burdened with shame. He arrived, putting a hand on Langdon’s shoulder and one on Vittoria’s as well. Vittoria felt sincerity in his touch. The man’s eyes were more tearful now.

  “Of course you are free to go,” Mortati said. “Of course.” The man paused, his grief almost tangible. “I ask only this…” He stared down at his feet a long moment then back up at Vittoria and Langdon. “Let me do it. I will go into the square right now and find a way. I will tell them. I don’t know how… but I will find a way. The church’s confession should come from within. Our failures should be our own to expose.”

  Mortati turned sadly back toward the altar. “Carlo, you have brought this church to a disastrous juncture.” He paused, looking around. The altar was bare.

  There was a rustle of cloth down the side aisle, and the door clicked shut.

  The camerlegno was gone.

  134

  Camerlegno Ventresca’s white robe billowed as he moved down the hallway away from the Sistine Chapel. The Swiss Guards had seemed perplexed when he emerged all alone from the chapel and told them he needed a moment of solitude. But they had obeyed, letting him go.

  Now as he rounded the corner and left their sight, the camerlegno felt a maelstrom of emotions like nothing he thought possible in human experience. He had poisoned the man he called “Holy Father,” the man who addressed him as “my son.” The camerlegno had always believed the words “father” and “son” were religious tradition, but now he knew the diabolical truth—the words had been literal.

  Like that fateful night weeks ago, the camerlegno now felt himself reeling madly through the darkness.

  It was raining the morning the Vatican staff banged on the camerlegno’s door, awakening him from a fitful sleep. The Pope, they said, was not answering his door or his phone. The clergy were frightened. The camerlegno was the only one who could enter the Pope’s chambers unannounced.

  The camerlegno entered alone to find the Pope, as he was the night before, twisted and dead in his bed. His Holiness’s face looked like that of Satan. His tongue black like death. The Devil himself had been sleeping in the Pope’s bed.

  The camerlegno felt no remorse. God had spoken.

  Nobody would see the treachery… not yet. That would come later.

  He announced the terrible news—His Holiness was dead of a stroke. Then the camerlegno prepared for conclave.

  Mother Maria’s voice was whispering in his ear. “Never break a promise to God.”

  “I hear you, Mother,” he replied. “It is a faithless world. They need to be brought back to the path of righteousness. Horror and Hope. It is the only way.”

  “Yes,” she said. “If not you… then who? Who will lead the church out of darkness?”

  Certainly not one of the preferiti. They were old… walking death… liberals who would follow the Pope, endorsing science in his memory, seeking modern followers by abandoning the ancient ways. Old men desperately behind the times, pathetically pretending they were not. They would fail, of course. The church’s strength was its tradition, not its transience. The whole world was transitory. The church did not need to change, it simply needed to remind the world it was relevant! Evil lives! God will overcome!

  The church needed a leader. Old men do not inspire! Jesus inspired! Young, vibrant, powerful… Miraculous.

  “Enjoy your tea,” the camerlegno told the four preferiti, leaving them in the Pope’s private library before conclave. “Your guide will be here soon.”

  The preferiti thanked him, all abuzz that they had been offered a chance to enter the famed Passetto. Most uncommon! The camerlegno, before leaving them, had unlocked the door to the Passetto, and exactly on schedule, the door had opened, and a foreign-looking priest with a torch had ushered the excited preferiti in.

  The men had never come out.

  They will be the Horror. I will be the Hope.

  No… I am the horror.

  The camerlegno staggered now through the darkness of St. Peter’s Basilica. Somehow, through the insanity and guilt, through the images of his father, through the pain and revelation, even through the pull of the morphine… he had found a brilliant clarity. A sense of destiny. I know my purpose, he thought, awed by the lucidity of it.

  From the beginning, nothing tonight had gone exactly as he had planned. Unforeseen obstacles had presented themselves, but the camerlegno had adapted, making bold adjustments. Still, he had never imagined tonight would end this way, and yet now he saw the preordained majesty of it.

  It could end no other way.

  Oh, what terror he had felt in the Sistine Chapel, wondering if God had forsaken him! Oh, what deeds He had ordained! He had fallen to his knees, awash with doubt, his ears straining for the voice of God but hearing only silence. He had begged for a sign. Guidance. Direction. Was this God’s will? The church destroyed by scandal and abomination? No! God was the one who had willed the camerlegno to act! Hadn’t He?

  Then he had seen it. Sitting on the altar. A sign. Divine communication—something ordinary seen in an extraordinary light. The crucifix. Humble, wooden. Jesus on the cross. In that moment, it had all come clear… the camerlegno was not alone. He would never be alone.

  This was His will… His meaning.

  God had always asked great sacrifice of those he loved most. Why had the camerlegno been so slow to understand? Was he too fearful? Too humble? It made no difference. God had found a way. The camerlegno even understood now why Robert Langdon had been saved. It was to bring the truth. To compel this ending.

  This was the sole path to the church’s salvation!

  The camerlegno felt like he was floating as he descended into the Niche of the Palliums. The surge of morphine seemed relentless now, but he knew God was guiding him.

  In the distance, he could hear the cardinals clamoring in confusion as they poured from the chapel, yelling commands to the Swiss Guard.

  But they would never find him. Not in time.

  The camerlegno felt himself drawn… faster… descending the stairs into the sunken area where the ninety-nine oil lamps shone brightly. God was returning him to Holy Ground. The camerlegno moved toward the grate covering the hole that led down to the Necropolis. The Necropolis is where this night would end. In the sacred darkness below. He lifted an oil lamp, preparing to descend.

  But as he moved across the Niche, the camerlegno paused. Something about this felt wrong. How did this serve God? A solitary and silent end? Jesus had suffered before the eyes of the entire world. Surely this could not be God’s will! The camerlegno listened for the voice of his God, but heard only the blurring buzz of drugs.

  “Carlo.” It was his mother. “God has plans for you.”

  Bewildered, the camerlegno kept moving.

  Then, without warning, God arrived.

  The camerlegno stopped short, staring. The light of the ninety-nine oil lanterns had thrown the camerlegno’s shadow on the marble wall beside him. Giant and fearful. A hazy form surrounded by golden light. With flames flickering all around him, the camerlegno looked like an angel ascending to heaven. He stood a moment, raising his arms to his sides, watching his own image. Then he turned, looking back up the stairs.

  God’s meaning was clear.

  Three minutes had passed in the chaotic hallways outside the Sistine Chapel, and still nobody could locate the camerlegno. It was as if the man had been swallowed up by the night. Mortati was about to demand a full-scale search of Vatican City when a roar of jubilation erupted outside in St. Peter’s Square. The spontaneous celebration of the crowd was tumultuous. The cardinals all exchanged startled looks.

  Mortati closed his eyes. “God help us.”

  For the second time that evening, the College of Cardinals flooded onto St. Peter’s Square. Langdon and Vittoria were swept up in the jostling crowd of cardinals, and they too emerged into the night air. The media lights and cameras were all pivoted toward the basilica. And there, having just stepped onto the sacred Papal Balcony located in the exact center of the towering façade, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca stood with his arms raised to the heavens. Even far away, he looked like purity incarnate. A figurine. Dressed in white. Flooded with light.

  The energy in the square seemed to grow like a cresting wave, and all at once the Swiss Guard barriers gave way. The masses streamed toward the basilica in a euphoric torrent of humanity. The onslaught rushed forward—people crying, singing, media cameras flashing. Pandemonium. As the people flooded in around the front of the basilica, the chaos intensified, until it seemed nothing could stop it.

  And then something did.

  High above, the camerlegno made the smallest of gestures. He folded his hands before him. Then he bowed his head in silent prayer. One by one, then dozens by dozens, then hundreds by hundreds, the people bowed their heads along with him.

  The square fell silent… as if a spell had been cast.

  In his mind, swirling and distant now, the camerlegno’s prayers were a torrent of hopes and sorrows… forgive me, Father… Mother… full of grace… you are the church… may you understand this sacrifice of your only begotten son.

  Oh, my Jesus… save us from the fires of hell… take all souls to heaven, especially, those most in need of thy mercy…

  The camerlegno did not open his eyes to see the throngs below him, the television cameras, the whole world watching. He could feel it in his soul. Even in his anguish, the unity of the moment was intoxicating. It was as if a connective web had shot out in all directions around the globe. In front of televisions, at home, and in cars, the world prayed as one. Like synapses of a giant heart all firing in tandem, the people reached for God, in dozens of languages, in hundreds of countries. The words they whispered were newborn and yet as familiar to them as their own voices… ancient truths… imprinted on the soul.

  The consonance felt eternal.

  As the silence lifted, the joyous strains of singing began to rise again.

  He knew the moment had come.

  Most Holy Trinity, I offer Thee the most precious Body, Blood, Soul… in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges, and indifferences…

  The camerlegno already felt the physical pain setting in. It was spreading across his skin like a plague, making him want to claw at his flesh like he had weeks ago when God had first come to him. Do not forget what pain Jesus endured. He could taste the fumes now in his throat. Not even the morphine could dull the bite.

  My work here is done.

  The Horror was his. The Hope was theirs.

  In the Niche of the Palliums, the camerlegno had followed God’s will and anointed his body. His hair. His face. His linen robe. His flesh. He was soaking now with the sacred, vitreous oils from the lamps. They smelled sweet like his mother, but they burned. His would be a merciful ascension. Miraculous and swift. And he would leave behind not scandal… but a new strength and wonder.

  He slipped his hand into the pocket of his robe and fingered the small, golden lighter he had brought with him from the Pallium incendiario.

  He whispered a verse from Judgments. And when the flame went up toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame.

  He positioned his thumb.

  They were singing in St. Peter’s Square…

  The vision the world witnessed no one would ever forget.

  High above on the balcony, like a soul tearing free of its corporeal restrains, a luminous pyre of flame erupted from the camerlegno’s center. The fire shot upward, engulfing his entire body instantly. He did not scream. He raised his arms over his head and looked toward heaven. The conflagration roared around him, entirely shrouding his body in a column of light. It raged for what seemed like an eternity, the whole world bearing witness. The light flared brighter and brighter. Then, gradually, the flames dissipated. The camerlegno was gone. Whether he had collapsed behind the balustrade or evaporated into thin air was impossible to tell. All that was left was a cloud of smoke spiraling skyward over Vatican City.

  135

  Dawn came late to Rome.

  An early rainstorm had washed the crowds from St. Peter’s Square. The media stayed on, huddling under umbrellas and in vans, commentating on the evening’s events. Across the world, churches overflowed. It was a time of reflection and discussion… in all religions. Questions abounded, and yet the answers seemed only to bring deeper questions. Thus far, the Vatican had remained silent, issuing no statement whatsoever.

  Deep in the Vatican Grottoes, Cardinal Mortati knelt alone before the open sarcophagus. He reached in and closed the old man’s blackened mouth. His Holiness looked peaceful now. In quiet repose for eternity.

  At Mortati’s feet was a golden urn, heavy with ashes. Mortati had gathered the ashes himself and brought them here. “A chance for forgiveness,” he said to His Holiness, laying the urn inside the sarcophagus at the Pope’s side. “No love is greater than that of a father for His son.” Mortati tucked the urn out of sight beneath the papal robes. He knew this sacred grotto was reserved exclusively for the relics of Popes, but somehow Mortati sensed this was appropriate.

  “Signore?” someone said, entering the grottoes. It was Lieutenant Chartrand. He was accompanied by three Swiss Guards. “They are ready for you in conclave.”

  Mortati nodded. “In a moment.” He gazed one last time into the sarcophagus before him, and then stood up. He turned to the guards. “It is time for His Holiness to have the peace he has earned.”

  The guards came forward and with enormous effort slid the lid of the Pope’s sarcophagus back into place. It thundered shut with finality.

  Mortati was alone as he crossed the Borgia Courtyard toward the Sistine Chapel. A damp breeze tossed his robe. A fellow cardinal emerged from the Apostolic Palace and strode beside him.

  “May I have the honor of escorting you to conclave, signore?”

  “The honor is mine.”

  “Signore,” the cardinal said, looking troubled. “The college owes you an apology for last night. We were blinded by—”

  “Please,” Mortati replied. “Our minds sometimes see what our hearts wish were true.”

  The cardinal was silent a long time. Finally he spoke. “Have you been told? You are no longer our Great Elector.”

  Mortati smiled. “Yes. I thank God for small blessings.”

  “The college insisted you be eligible.”

  “It seems charity is not dead in the church.”

  “You are a wise man. You would lead us well.”

  “I am an old man. I would lead you briefly.”

  They both laughed.

  As they reached the end of the Borgia Courtyard, the cardinal hesitated. He turned to Mortati with a troubled mystification, as if the precarious awe of the night before had slipped back into his heart.

  “Were you aware,” the cardinal whispered, “that we found no remains on the balcony?”

  Mortati smiled. “Perhaps the rain washed them away.”

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