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Sienna turned to Langdon, her expression grim. “Roadblock. Military police.”
Sirens wailed in the distance behind them, and Sienna spun in her seat, staring back up the Viale Machiavelli, her face now masked with fear.
We’re trapped in the middle, Langdon thought, scanning the area for any exit at all—an intersecting road, a park, a driveway—but all he saw were private residences on their left and a high stone wall to their right.
The sirens grew louder.
“Up there,” Langdon urged, pointing thirty yards ahead to a deserted construction site where a portable cement mixer offered at least a little bit of cover.
Sienna gunned the bike up onto the sidewalk and raced into the work area. They parked behind the cement mixer, quickly realizing that it offered barely enough concealment for the Trike alone.
“Follow me,” Sienna said, rushing toward a small portable toolshed nestled in the bushes against the stone wall.
That’s not a toolshed, Langdon realized, his nose crinkling as they got closer. That’s a Porta-Potty.
As Langdon and Sienna arrived outside the construction workers’ chemical toilet, they could hear police cars approaching from behind them. Sienna yanked the door handle, but it didn’t budge. A heavy chain and padlock secured it. Langdon grabbed Sienna’s arm and pulled her around behind the structure, forcing her into the narrow space between the toilet and the stone wall. The two of them barely fit, and the air smelled putrid and heavy.
Langdon slid in behind her just as a jet-black Subaru Forester came into view with the word CARABINIERI emblazoned on its side. The vehicle rolled slowly past their location.
The Italian military police, Langdon thought, incredulous. He wondered if these officers also had orders to shoot on sight.
“Someone is dead serious about finding us,” Sienna whispered. “And somehow they did.”
“GPS?” Langdon wondered aloud. “Maybe the projector has a tracking device in it?”
Sienna shook her head. “Believe me, if that thing were traceable, the police would be right on top of us.”
Langdon shifted his tall frame, trying to get comfortable in the cramped surroundings. He found himself face-to-face with a collage of elegantly styled graffiti scrawled on the back of the Porta-Potty.
Leave it to the Italians.
Most American Porta-Potties were covered with sophomoric cartoons that vaguely resembled huge breasts or penises. The graffiti on this one, however, looked more like an art student’s sketchbook—a human eye, a well-rendered hand, a man in profile, and a fantastical dragon.
“Destruction of property doesn’t look like this everywhere in Italy,” Sienna said, apparently reading his mind. “The Florence Art Institute is on the other side of this stone wall.”
As if to confirm Sienna’s statement, a group of students appeared in the distance, ambling toward them with art portfolios under their arms. They were chatting, lighting cigarettes, and puzzling over the roadblock in front of them at the Porta Romana.
Langdon and Sienna crouched lower to stay out of sight of the students, and as they did so, Langdon was struck, most unexpectedly, by a curious thought.
The half-buried sinners with their legs in the air.
Perhaps it was on account of the smell of human waste, or possibly the recumbent bicyclist with bare legs flailing in front of him, but whatever the stimulus, Langdon had flashed on the putrid world of the Malebolge and the naked legs protruding upside down from the earth.
He turned suddenly to his companion. “Sienna, in our version of La Mappa, the upside-down legs were in the tenth ditch, right? The lowest level of the Malebolge?”
Sienna gave him an odd look, as if this were hardly the time. “Yes, at the bottom.”
For a split second Langdon was back in Vienna giving his lecture. He was standing onstage, only moments from his grand finale, having just shown the audience Doré’s engraving of Geryon—the winged monster with a poisonous stinging tail that lived just above the Malebolge.
“Before we meet Satan,” Langdon declared, his deep voice resonating over the loudspeakers, “we must pass through the ten ditches of the Malebolge, in which are punished the fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate evil.”
Langdon advanced slides to show a detail of the Malebolge and then took the audience down through the ditches one by one. “From top to bottom we have: the seducers whipped by demons … the flatterers adrift in human excrement … the clerical profiteers half buried upside down with their legs in the air … the sorcerers with their heads twisted backward … the corrupt politicians in boiling pitch … the hypocrites wearing heavy leaden cloaks … the thieves bitten by snakes … the fraudulent counselors consumed by fire … the sowers of discord hacked apart by demons … and finally, the liars, who are diseased beyond recognition.” Langdon turned back to the audience. “Dante most likely reserved this final ditch for the liars because a series of lies told about him led to his exile from his beloved Florence.”
“Robert?” The voice was Sienna’s.
Langdon snapped back to the present.
Sienna was staring at him quizzically. “What is it?”
“Our version of La Mappa,” he said excitedly. “The art has been changed!” He fished the projector out of his jacket pocket and shook it as best as he could in the close quarters. The agitator ball rattled loudly, but all the sirens drowned it out. “Whoever created this image reconfigured the order of the levels in the Malebolge!”
When the device began to glow, Langdon pointed it at the flat surface before them. La Mappa dell’Inferno appeared, glowing brightly in the dim light.
Botticelli on a chemical toilet, Langdon thought, ashamed. This had to be the least elegant place a Botticelli had ever been displayed. Langdon ran his eyes down through the ten ditches and began nodding excitedly.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “This is wrong! The last ditch of the Malebolge is supposed to be full of diseased people, not people upside down. The tenth level is for the liars, not the clerical profiteers!”
Sienna looked intrigued. “But … why would someone change that?”
“Catrovacer,” Langdon whispered, eyeing the little letters that had been added to each level. “I don’t think that’s what this really says.”
Despite the injury that had erased Langdon’s recollections of the last two days, he could now feel his memory working perfectly. He closed his eyes and held the two versions of La Mappa in his mind’s eye to analyze their differences. The changes to the Malebolge were fewer than Langdon had imagined … and yet he felt like a veil had suddenly been lifted.
Suddenly it was crystal clear.
Seek and ye shall find!
“What is it?” Sienna demanded.
Langdon’s mouth felt dry. “I know why I’m here in Florence.”
“Yes, and I know where I’m supposed to go.”
Sienna grabbed his arm. “Where?!”
Langdon felt as if his feet had just touched solid ground for the first time since he’d awoken in the hospital. “These ten letters,” he whispered. “They actually point to a precise location in the old city. That’s where the answers are.”
“Where in the old city?!” Sienna demanded. “What did you figure out?”
The sounds of laughing voices echoed on the other side of the Porta-Potty. Another group of art students was passing by, joking and chatting in various languages. Langdon peered cautiously around the cubicle, watching them go. Then he scanned for police. “We’ve got to keep moving. I’ll explain on the way.”
“On the way?!” Sienna shook her head. “We’ll never get through the Porta Romana!”
“Stay here for thirty seconds,” he told her, “and then follow my lead.”
With that, Langdon slipped away, leaving his newfound friend bewildered and alone.
“Scusi!” Robert Langdon chased after the group of students. “Scusate!”
They all turned, and Langdon made a show of glancing around like a lost tourist.
“Dov’è l’Istituto statale d’arte?” Langdon asked in broken Italian.
A tattooed kid puffed coolly on a cigarette and snidely replied, “Non parliamo italiano.” His accent was French.
One of the girls admonished her tattooed friend and politely pointed down the long wall toward the Porta Romana. “Più avanti, sempre dritto.”
Straight ahead, Langdon translated. “Grazie.”
On cue, Sienna emerged unseen from behind the Porta-Potty and walked over. The willowy thirty-two-year-old approached the group and Langdon placed a welcoming hand on her shoulder. “This is my sister, Sienna. She’s an art teacher.”
The tattooed kid muttered, “T-I-L-F,” and his male friends laughed.
Langdon ignored them. “We’re in Florence researching possible spots for a teaching year abroad. Can we walk in with you?”
“Ma certo,” the Italian girl said with a smile.
As the group migrated toward the police at the Porta Romana, Sienna fell into conversation with the students while Langdon merged to the middle of the group, slouching low, trying to stay out of sight.
Seek and ye shall find, Langdon thought, his pulse racing with excitement as he pictured the ten ditches of the Malebolge.
Catrovacer. These ten letters, Langdon had realized, stood at the core of one of the art world’s most enigmatic mysteries, a centuries-old puzzle that had never been solved. In 1563, these ten letters had been used to spell a message high on a wall inside Florence’s famed Palazzo Vecchio, painted some forty feet off the ground, barely visible without binoculars. It had remained hidden there in plain sight for centuries until the 1970s, when it was spotted by a now-famous art diagnostician, who had spent decades trying to uncover its meaning. Despite numerous theories, the significance of the message remains an enigma to this day.
For Langdon, the code felt like familiar ground—a safe harbor from this strange and churning sea. After all, art history and ancient secrets were far more Langdon’s realm than were biohazard tubes and gunfire.
Up ahead, additional police cars had begun streaming into the Porta Romana.
“Jesus,” the tattooed kid said. “Whoever they’re looking for must have done something terrible.”
The group arrived at the Art Institute’s main gate on the right, where a crowd of students had gathered to watch the action at the Porta Romana. The school’s minimum-wage security guard was halfheartedly glancing at student IDs as kids streamed in, but he was clearly more interested in what was happening with the police.
A loud screech of brakes echoed across the plaza as an all-too-familiar black van skidded into the Porta Romana.
Langdon didn’t need a second look.
Without a word, he and Sienna seized the moment, slipping through the gate with their new friends.
The entry road to the Istituto Statale d’Arte was startlingly beautiful, almost regal in appearance. Massive oak trees arched gently in from either side, creating a canopy that framed the distant building—a huge, faded yellow structure with a triple portico and an expansive oval lawn.
This building, Langdon knew, had been commissioned, like so many in this city, by the same illustrious dynasty that had dominated Florentine politics during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
The name alone had become a symbol of Florence. During its three-century reign, the royal house of Medici amassed unfathomable wealth and influence, producing four popes, two queens of France, and the largest financial institution in all of Europe. To this day, modern banks use the accounting method invented by the Medici—the dual-entry system of credits and debits.
The Medici’s greatest legacy, however, was not in finance or politics, but rather in art. Perhaps the most lavish patrons the art world has ever known, the Medici provided a generous stream of commissions that fueled the Renaissance. The list of luminaries receiving Medici patronage ranged from da Vinci to Galileo to Botticelli—the latter’s most famous painting, Birth of Venus, the result of a commission from Lorenzo de’ Medici, who requested a sexually provocative painting to hang over his cousin’s marital bed as a wedding gift.
Lorenzo de’ Medici—known in his day as Lorenzo the Magnificent on account of his benevolence—was an accomplished artist and poet in his own right and was said to have a superb eye. In 1489 Lorenzo took a liking to the work of a young Florentine sculptor and invited the boy to move into the Medici palace, where he could practice his craft surrounded by fine art, great poetry, and high culture. Under Medici tutelage, the adolescent boy flourished and eventually went on to carve two of the most celebrated sculptures in all of history—the Pietà and the David. Today we know him as Michelangelo—a creative giant who is sometimes called the Medici’s greatest gift to humankind.
Considering the Medici’s passion for art, Langdon imagined the family would be pleased to know that the building before him—originally built as the Medici’s primary horse stables—had been transformed into the vibrant Art Institute. This tranquil site that now inspired young artists had been specifically chosen for the Medici’s stables because of its proximity to one of the most beautiful riding areas in all of Florence.
The Boboli Gardens.
Langdon glanced to his left, where a forest of treetops could be seen over a high wall. The massive expanse of the Boboli Gardens was now a popular tourist attraction. Langdon had little doubt that if he and Sienna could gain entrance to the gardens, they could make their way across it, bypassing the Porta Romana undetected. After all, the gardens were vast and had no shortage of hiding places—forests, labyrinths, grottoes, nymphaea. More important, traversing the Boboli Gardens would eventually lead them to the Palazzo Pitti, the stone citadel that once housed the main seat of the Medici grand duchy, and whose 140 rooms remained one of Florence’s most frequented tourist attractions.
If we can reach the Palazzo Pitti, Langdon thought, the bridge to the old city is a stone’s throw away.
Langdon motioned as calmly as possible to the high wall that enclosed the gardens. “How do we get into the gardens?” he asked. “I’d love to show my sister before we tour the institute.”
The tattooed kid shook his head. “You can’t get into the gardens from here. The entrance is way over at Pitti Palace. You’d have to drive through Porta Romana and go around.”
“Bullshit,” Sienna blurted.
Everyone turned and stared at her, including Langdon.
“Come on,” she said, smirking coyly at the students as she stroked her blond ponytail. “You’re telling me you guys don’t sneak into the gardens to smoke weed and fool around?”
The kids all exchanged looks and then burst out laughing.
The guy with the tattoos now looked utterly smitten. “Ma’am, you should totally teach here.” He walked Sienna to the side of the building and pointed around the corner to a rear parking lot. “See that shed on the left? There’s an old platform behind it. Climb up on the roof, and you can jump down on the other side of the wall.”
Sienna was already on the move. She glanced back at Langdon with a patronizing smile. “Come on, brother Bob. Unless you’re too old to jump a fence?”
The silver-haired woman in the van leaned her head against the bulletproof window and closed her eyes. She felt like the world was spinning beneath her. The drugs they’d given her made her feel ill.
I need medical attention, she thought.
Even so, the armed guard beside her had strict orders: her needs were to be ignored until their task had been successfully completed. From the sounds of chaos around her, it was clear that would be no time soon.
The dizziness was increasing now, and she was having trouble breathing. As she fought off a new wave of nausea, she wondered how life had managed to deliver her to this surreal crossroads. The answer was too complex to decipher in her current delirious state, but she had no doubt where it had all begun.
Two years ago.
She had flown to Manhattan from Geneva, where she was serving as the director of the World Health Organization, a highly coveted and prestigious post that she had held for nearly a decade. A specialist in communicable disease and the epidemiology of epidemics, she had been invited to the UN to deliver a lecture assessing the threat of pandemic disease in third-world countries. Her talk had been upbeat and reassuring, outlining several new early-detection systems and treatment plans devised by the World Health Organization and others. She had received a standing ovation.
Following the lecture, while she was in the hall talking to some lingering academics, a UN employee with a high-level diplomatic badge strode over and interrupted the conversation.
“Dr. Sinskey, we have just been contacted by the Council on Foreign Relations. There is someone there who would like to speak to you. A car is waiting outside.”
Puzzled and a bit unnerved, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey excused herself and collected her overnight bag. As her limo raced up First Avenue, she began to feel strangely nervous.
The Council on Foreign Relations?
Elizabeth Sinskey, like most, had heard the rumors.
Founded in the 1920s as a private think tank, the CFR had among its past membership nearly every secretary of state, more than a half-dozen presidents, a majority of CIA chiefs, senators, judges, as well as dynastic legends with names like Morgan, Rothschild, and Rockefeller. The membership’s unparalleled collection of brainpower, political influence, and wealth had earned the Council on Foreign Relations the reputation of being “the most influential private club on earth.”
As director of the World Health Organization, Elizabeth was no stranger to rubbing shoulders with the big boys. Her long tenure at WHO, combined with her outspoken nature, had earned her a nod recently from a major newsmagazine that listed her among its twenty most influential people in the world. The Face of World Health, they had written beneath her photo, which Elizabeth found ironic considering she had been such a sick child.
Suffering from severe asthma by age six, she had been treated with a high dose of a promising new drug—the first of the world’s glucocorticoids, or steroid hormones—which had cured her asthma symptoms in miraculous fashion. Sadly, the drug’s unanticipated side effects had not emerged until years later when Sinskey passed through puberty … and yet never developed a menstrual cycle. She would never forget the dark moment in the doctor’s office, at nineteen, when she learned that the damage to her reproductive system was permanent.
Elizabeth Sinskey could never have children.
Time will heal the emptiness, her doctor assured, but the sadness and anger only grew inside her. Cruelly, the drugs that had robbed her of her ability to conceive a child had failed to rob her of her animal instincts to do so. For decades, she had battled her cravings to fulfill this impossible desire. Even now, at sixty-one years old, she still felt a pang of hollowness every time she saw a mother and infant.
“It’s just ahead, Dr. Sinskey,” the limo driver announced.
Elizabeth ran a quick brush through her long silver ringlets and checked her face in the mirror. Before she knew it, the car had stopped, and the driver was helping her out onto the sidewalk in an affluent section of Manhattan.
“I’ll wait here for you,” the driver said. “We can go straight to the airport when you’re ready.”
The New York headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations was an unobtrusive neoclassical building on the corner of Park and Sixty-eighth that had once been the home of a Standard Oil tycoon. Its exterior blended seamlessly with the elegant landscape surrounding it, offering no hint of its unique purpose.
“Dr. Sinskey,” a portly female receptionist greeted her. “This way, please. He’s expecting you.”
Okay, but who is he? She followed the receptionist down a luxurious corridor to a closed door, on which the woman gave a quick knock before opening it and motioning for Elizabeth to enter.
She went in, and the door closed behind her.
The small, dark conference room was illuminated only by the glow of a video screen. In front of the screen, a very tall and lanky silhouette faced her. Though she couldn’t make out his face, she sensed power here.
“Dr. Sinskey,” the man’s sharp voice declared. “Thank you for joining me.” The man’s tautly precise accent suggested Elizabeth’s homeland of Switzerland, or perhaps Germany.
“Please sit,” he said, motioning to a chair near the front of the room.
No introductions? Elizabeth sat. The bizarre image being projected on the video screen did nothing to calm her nerves. What in the world?
“I was at your presentation this morning,” declared the silhouette. “I came a long distance to hear you speak. An impressive performance.”