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The man looked to the stormy heavens. “Yes, perhaps…”
The midmorning sky still hung heavy with clouds as the Sistine Chapel’s chimney gave up its first faint puffs of white smoke. The pearly wisps curled upward toward the firmament and slowly dissipated.
Far below, in St. Peter’s Square, reporter Gunther Glick watched in reflective silence. The final chapter…
Chinita Macri approached him from behind and hoisted her camera onto her shoulder. “It’s time,” she said.
Glick nodded dolefully. He turned toward her, smoothed his hair, and took a deep breath. My last transmission, he thought. A small crowd had gathered around them to watch.
“Live in sixty seconds,” Macri announced.
Glick glanced over his shoulder at the roof of the Sistine Chapel behind him. “Can you get the smoke?”
Macri patiently nodded. “I know how to frame a shot, Gunther.”
Glick felt dumb. Of course she did. Macri’s performance behind the camera last night had probably won her the Pulitzer. His performance, on the other hand… he didn’t want to think about it. He was sure the BBC would let him go; no doubt they would have legal troubles from numerous powerful entities… CERN and George Bush among them.
“You look good,” Chinita patronized, looking out from behind her camera now with a hint of concern. “I wonder if I might offer you…” She hesitated, holding her tongue.
Macri sighed. “I was only going to say that there’s no need to go out with a bang.”
“I know,” he said. “You want a straight wrap.”
“The straightest in history. I’m trusting you.”
Glick smiled. A straight wrap? Is she crazy? A story like last night’s deserved so much more. A twist. A final bombshell. An unforeseen revelation of shocking truth.
Fortunately, Glick had just the ticket waiting in the wings…
* * *
“You’re on in… five… four… three…”
As Chinita Macri looked through her camera, she sensed a sly glint in Glick’s eye. I was insane to let him do this, she thought. What was I thinking?
But the moment for second thoughts had passed. They were on.
“Live from Vatican City,” Glick announced on cue, “this is Gunther Glick reporting.” He gave the camera a solemn stare as the white smoke rose behind him from the Sistine Chapel. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is now official. Cardinal Saverio Mortati, a seventy-nine-year-old progressive, has just been elected the next Pope of Vatican City. Although an unlikely candidate, Mortati was chosen by an unprecedented unanimous vote by the College of Cardinals.”
As Macri watched him, she began to breathe easier. Glick seemed surprisingly professional today. Even austere. For the first time in his life, Glick actually looked and sounded somewhat like a newsman.
“And as we reported earlier,” Glick added, his voice intensifying perfectly, “the Vatican has yet to offer any statement whatsoever regarding the miraculous events of last night.”
Good. Chinita’s nervousness waned some more. So far, so good.
Glick’s expression grew sorrowful now. “And though last night was a night of wonder, it was also a night of tragedy. Four cardinals perished in yesterday’s conflict, along with Commander Olivetti and Captain Rocher of the Swiss Guard, both in the line of duty. Other casualties include Leonardo Vetra, the renowned CERN physicist and pioneer of antimatter technology, as well as Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN, who apparently came to Vatican City in an effort to help but reportedly passed away in the process. No official report has been issued yet on Mr. Kohler’s death, but conjecture is that he died due to complications brought on by a long-time illness.”
Macri nodded. The report was going perfectly. Just as they discussed.
“And in the wake of the explosion in the sky over the Vatican last night, CERN’s antimatter technology has become the hot topic among scientists, sparking excitement and controversy. A statement read by Mr. Kohler’s assistant in Geneva, Sylvie Baudeloque, announced this morning that CERN’s board of directors, although enthusiastic about antimatter’s potential, are suspending all research and licensing until further inquiries into its safety can be examined.”
Excellent, Macri thought. Home stretch.
“Notably absent from our screens tonight,” Glick reported, “is the face of Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor who came to Vatican City yesterday to lend his expertise during this Illuminati crisis. Although originally thought to have perished in the antimatter blast, we now have reports that Langdon was spotted in St. Peter’s Square after the explosion. How he got there is still speculation, although a spokesman from Hospital Tiberina claims that Mr. Langdon fell out of the sky into the Tiber River shortly after midnight, was treated, and released.” Glick arched his eyebrows at the camera. “And if that is true… it was indeed a night of miracles.”
Perfect ending! Macri felt herself smiling broadly. Flawless wrap! Now sign off!
But Glick did not sign off. Instead, he paused a moment and then stepped toward the camera. He had a mysterious smile. “But before we sign off…”
“… I would like to invite a guest to join me.”
Chinita’s hands froze on the camera. A guest? What the hell is he doing? What guest! Sign off! But she knew it was too late. Glick had committed.
“The man I am about to introduce,” Glick said, “is an American… a renowned scholar.”
Chinita hesitated. She held her breath as Glick turned to the small crowd around them and motioned for his guest to step forward. Macri said a silent prayer. Please tell me he somehow located Robert Langdon… and not some Illuminati-conspiracy nutcase.
But as Glick’s guest stepped out, Macri’s heart sank. It was not Robert Langdon at all. It was a bald man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He had a cane and thick glasses. Macri felt terror. Nutcase!
“May I introduce,” Glick announced, “the renowned Vatican scholar from De Paul University in Chicago. Dr. Joseph Vanek.”
Macri now hesitated as the man joined Glick on camera. This was no conspiracy buff; Macri had actually heard of this guy.
“Dr. Vanek,” Glick said. “You have some rather startling information to share with us regarding last night’s conclave.”
“I do indeed,” Vanek said. “After a night of such surprises, it is hard to imagine there are any surprises left… and yet…” He paused.
Glick smiled. “And yet, there is a strange twist to all this.”
Vanek nodded. “Yes. As perplexing as this will sound, I believe the College of Cardinals unknowingly elected two Popes this weekend.”
Macri almost dropped the camera.
Glick gave a shrewd smile. “Two Popes, you say?”
The scholar nodded. “Yes. I should first say that I have spent my life studying the laws of papal election. Conclave judicature is extremely complex, and much of it is now forgotten or ignored as obsolete. Even the Great Elector is probably not aware of what I am about to reveal. Nonetheless… according to the ancient forgotten laws put forth in the Romano Pontifici Eligendo, Numero 63… balloting is not the only method by which a Pope can be elected. There is another, more divine method. It is called ‘Acclamation by Adoration.’” He paused. “And it happened last night.”
Glick gave his guest a riveted look. “Please, go on.”
“As you may recall,” the scholar continued, “last night, when Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca was standing on the roof of the basilica, all of the cardinals below began calling out his name in unison.”
“Yes, I recall.”
“With that image in mind, allow me to read verbatim from the ancient electoral laws.” The man pulled some papers from his pocket, cleared his throat, and began to read. “‘Election by Adoration occurs when… all the cardinals, as if by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, freely and spontaneously, unanimously and aloud, proclaim one individual’s name.’”
Glick smiled. “So you’re saying that last night, when the cardinals chanted Carlo Ventresca’s name together, they actually elected him Pope?”
“They did indeed. Furthermore, the law states that Election by Adoration supercedes the cardinal eligibility requirement and permits any clergyman—ordained priest, bishop, or cardinal—to be elected. So, as you can see, the camerlegno was perfectly qualified for papal election by this procedure.” Dr. Vanek looked directly into the camera now. “The facts are these… Carlo Ventresca was elected Pope last night. He reigned for just under seventeen minutes. And had he not ascended miraculously into a pillar of fire, he would now be buried in the Vatican Grottoes along with the other Popes.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Glick turned to Macri with a mischievous wink. “Most illuminating…”
High atop the steps of the Roman Coliseum, Vittoria laughed and called down to him. “Robert, hurry up! I knew I should have married a younger man!” Her smile was magic.
He struggled to keep up, but his legs felt like stone. “Wait,” he begged. “Please…”
There was a pounding in his head.
Robert Langdon awoke with a start.
He lay still for a long time in the foreign softness of the bed, unable to figure out where he was. The pillows were goose down, oversized and wonderful. The air smelled of potpourri. Across the room, two glass doors stood open to a lavish balcony, where a light breeze played beneath a glistening cloud-swept moon. Langdon tried to remember how he had gotten here… and where here was.
Surreal wisps of memory sifted back into his consciousness…
A pyre of mystical fire… an angel materializing from out of the crowd… her soft hand taking his and leading him into the night… guiding his exhausted, battered body through the streets… leading him here… to this suite… propping him half-sleeping in a scalding hot shower… leading him to this bed… and watching over him as he fell asleep like the dead.
In the dimness now, Langdon could see a second bed. The sheets were tousled, but the bed was empty. From one of the adjoining rooms, he could hear the faint, steady stream of a shower.
As he gazed at Vittoria’s bed, he saw a boldly embroidered seal on her pillowcase. It read: HOTEL BERNINI. Langdon had to smile. Vittoria had chosen well. Old World luxury overlooking Bernini’s Triton Fountain… there was no more fitting hotel in all of Rome.
As Langdon lay there, he heard a pounding and realized what had awoken him. Someone was knocking at the door. It grew louder.
Confused, Langdon got up. Nobody knows we’re here, he thought, feeling a trace of uneasiness. Donning a luxuriant Hotel Bernini robe, he walked out of the bedroom into the suite’s foyer. He stood a moment at the heavy oak door, and then pulled it open.
A powerful man adorned in lavish purple and yellow regalia stared down at him. “I am Lieutenant Chartrand,” the man said. “Vatican Swiss Guard.”
Langdon knew full well who he was. “How… how did you find us?”
“I saw you leave the square last night. I followed you. I’m relieved you’re still here.”
Langdon felt a sudden anxiety, wondering if the cardinals had sent Chartrand to escort Langdon and Vittoria back to Vatican City. After all, the two of them were the only two people beyond the College of Cardinals who knew the truth. They were a liability.
“His Holiness asked me to give this to you,” Chartrand said, handing over an envelope sealed with the Vatican signet. Langdon opened the envelope and read the handwritten note.
Mr. Langdon and Ms. Vetra,
Although it is my profound desire to request your discretion in the matters of the past 24 hours, I cannot possibly presume to ask more of you than you have already given. I therefore humbly retreat hoping only that you let your hearts guide you in this matter. The world seems a better place today… maybe the questions are more powerful than the answers.
My door is always open,
His Holiness, Saverio Mortati
Langdon read the message twice. The College of Cardinals had obviously chosen a noble and munificent leader.
Before Langdon could say anything, Chartrand produced a small package. “A token of thanks from His Holiness.”
Langdon took the package. It was heavy, wrapped in brown paper.
“By his decree,” Chartrand said, “this artifact is on indefinite loan to you from the sacred Papal Vault. His Holiness asks only that in your last will and testament you ensure it finds its way home.”
Langdon opened the package and was struck speechless. It was the brand. The Illuminati Diamond.
Chartrand smiled. “May peace be with you.” He turned to go.
“Thank… you,” Langdon managed, his hands trembling around the precious gift.
The guard hesitated in the hall. “Mr. Langdon, may I ask you something?”
“My fellow guards and I are curious. Those last few minutes… what happened up there in the helicopter?”
Langdon felt a rush of anxiety. He knew this moment was coming—the moment of truth. He and Vittoria had talked about it last night as they stole away from St. Peter’s Square. And they had made their decision. Even before the Pope’s note.
Vittoria’s father had dreamed his antimatter discovery would bring about a spiritual awakening. Last night’s events were no doubt not what he had intended, but the undeniable fact remained… at this moment, around the world, people were considering God in ways they never had before. How long the magic would last, Langdon and Vittoria had no idea, but they knew they could never shatter the wonderment with scandal and doubt. The Lord works in strange ways, Langdon told himself, wondering wryly if maybe… just maybe… yesterday had been God’s will after all.
“Mr. Langdon?” Chartrand repeated. “I was asking about the helicopter?”
Langdon gave a sad smile. “Yes, I know…” He felt the words flow not from his mind but from his heart. “Perhaps it was the shock of the fall… but my memory… it seems… it’s all a blur…”
Chartrand slumped. “You remember nothing?”
Langdon sighed. “I fear it will remain a mystery forever.”
When Robert Langdon returned to the bedroom, the vision awaiting him stopped him in his tracks. Vittoria stood on the balcony, her back to the railing, her eyes gazing deeply at him. She looked like a heavenly apparition… a radiant silhouette with the moon behind her. She could have been a Roman goddess, enshrouded in her white terrycloth robe, the drawstring cinched tight, accentuating her slender curves. Behind her, a pale mist hung like a halo over Bernini’s Triton Fountain.
Langdon felt wildly drawn to her… more than to any woman in his life. Quietly, he lay the Illuminati Diamond and the Pope’s letter on his bedside table. There would be time to explain all of that later. He went to her on the balcony.
Vittoria looked happy to see him. “You’re awake,” she said, in a coy whisper. “Finally.”
Langdon smiled. “Long day.”
She ran a hand through her luxuriant hair, the neck of her robe falling open slightly. “And now… I suppose you want your reward.”
The comment took Langdon off guard. “I’m… sorry?”
“We’re adults, Robert. You can admit it. You feel a longing. I see it in your eyes. A deep, carnal hunger.” She smiled. “I feel it too. And that craving is about to be satisfied.”
“It is?” He felt emboldened and took a step toward her.
“Completely.” She held up a room-service menu. “I ordered everything they’ve got.”
The feast was sumptuous. They dined together by moonlight… sitting on their balcony… savoring frisée, truffles, and risotto. They sipped Dolcetto wine and talked late into the night.
Langdon did not need to be a symbologist to read the signs Vittoria was sending him. During dessert of boysenberry cream with savoiardi and steaming Romcaffé, Vittoria pressed her bare legs against his beneath the table and fixed him with a sultry stare. She seemed to be willing him to set down his fork and carry her off in his arms.
But Langdon did nothing. He remained the perfect gentleman. Two can play at this game, he thought, hiding a roguish smile.
When all the food was eaten, Langdon retired to the edge of his bed where he sat alone, turning the Illuminati Diamond over and over in his hands, making repeated comments about the miracle of its symmetry. Vittoria stared at him, her confusion growing to an obvious frustration.
“You find that ambigram terribly interesting, don’t you?” she demanded.
Langdon nodded. “Mesmerizing.”
“Would you say it’s the most interesting thing in this room?”
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