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with Langdon still on the run, Vayentha now had the opportunity to continue with her original directive.

If Brüder fails to catch Langdon, she thought, her pulse quickening. And if I succeed …

Vayentha knew it was a long shot, but if Langdon managed to elude Brüder entirely, and if Vayentha could still step in and finish the job, she would single-handedly have saved the day for the Consortium, and the provost would have no choice but to be lenient.

I’ll keep my job, she thought. Probably even be promoted.

In a flash, Vayentha realized that her entire future now revolved around a single critical undertaking. I must locate Langdon … before Brüder does.

It would not be easy. Brüder had at his disposal endless manpower as well as a vast array of advanced surveillance technologies. Vayentha was working alone. She did, however, possess one piece of information that Brüder, the provost, and the police did not have.

I have a very good idea where Langdon will go.

Revving the throttle on her BMW, she spun it 180 degrees around and headed back the way she came. Ponte alle Grazie, she thought, picturing the bridge to the north. There existed more than one route into the old city.

CHAPTER 25

Not an apology, Langdon mused. An artist’s name.

“Vasari,” Sienna stammered, taking a full step backward on the path. “The artist who hid the words cerca trova in his mural.”

Langdon couldn’t help but smile. Vasari. Vasari. In addition to shedding a ray of light on his strange predicament, this revelation also meant Langdon was no longer wondering what terrible thing he might have done … for which he had been profusely saying he was very sorry.

“Robert, you clearly had seen this Botticelli image on the projector before you were injured, and you knew it contained a code that pointed to Vasari’s mural. That’s why you woke up and kept repeating Vasari’s name!”

Langdon tried to calculate what all of this meant. Giorgio Vasari—a sixteenth-century artist, architect, and writer—was a man Langdon often referred to as “the world’s first art historian.” Despite the hundreds of paintings Vasari created, and the dozens of buildings he designed, his most enduring legacy was his seminal book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a collection of biographies of Italian artists, which to this day remains requisite reading for students of art history.

The words cerca trova had placed Vasari back in the mainstream consciousness about thirty years ago when his “secret message” was discovered high on his sprawling mural in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of the Five Hundred. The tiny letters appeared on a green battle flag, barely visible among the chaos of the war scene. While consensus had yet to be reached as to why Vasari added this strange message to his mural, the leading theory was that it was a clue to future generations of the existence of a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco hidden in a three-centimeter gap behind that wall.

Sienna was glancing nervously up through the trees. “There’s still one thing I don’t understand. If you weren’t saying ‘very sorry, very sorry’ … then why are people trying to kill you?”

Langdon had been wondering the same thing.

The distant buzz of the surveillance drone was getting louder again, and Langdon knew the time had come for a decision. He failed to see how Vasari’s Battaglia di Marciano could possibly relate to Dante’s Inferno, or the gunshot wound he had suffered the night before, and yet he finally saw a tangible path before him.

Cerca trova.

Seek and find.

Again Langdon saw the silver-haired woman calling out to him from across the river. Time is running out! If there were answers, Langdon sensed, they would be at the Palazzo Vecchio.

He now flashed on an old adage from early Grecian free divers who hunted lobsters in the coral caves of the Aegean Islands. When swimming into a dark tunnel, there arrives a point of no return when you no longer have enough breath to double back. Your only choice is to swim forward into the unknown … and pray for an exit.

Langdon wondered if they had reached that point.

He eyed the maze of garden pathways before them. If he and Sienna could reach the Pitti Palace and exit the gardens, then the old city was just a short walk across the most famous footbridge in the world—the Ponte Vecchio. It was always crowded and would provide good cover. From there, the Palazzo Vecchio was only a few blocks away.

The drone hummed closer now, and Langdon felt momentarily overwhelmed by exhaustion. The realization that he had not been saying “very sorry” left him feeling conflicted about running from the police.

“Eventually, they’re going to catch me, Sienna,” Langdon said. “It might be better for me to stop running.”

Sienna looked at him with alarm. “Robert, every time you stop, someone starts shooting at you! You need to figure out what you’re involved in. You need to look at that Vasari mural and hope it jars your memory. Maybe it will help you learn where this projector came from and why you’re carrying it.”

Langdon pictured the spike-haired woman coldly killing Dr. Marconi … the soldiers firing on them … the Italian military police gathering in the Porta Romana … and now a surveillance drone tracking them through the Boboli Gardens. He fell silent, rubbing his tired eyes as he considered his options.

“Robert?” Sienna’s voice rose. “There’s one other thing … something that didn’t seem important, but now seems like it might be.”

Langdon raised his eyes, reacting to the gravity in her tone.

“I intended to tell you at the apartment,” she said, “but …”

“What is it?”

Sienna pursed her lips, looking uncomfortable. “When you arrived at the hospital, you were delirious and trying to communicate.”

“Yes,” Langdon said, “mumbling ‘Vasari, Vasari.’ ”

“Yes, but before that … before we got out the recorder, in the first moments after you arrived, you said one other thing I remember. You only said it once, but I’m positive I understood.”

“What did I say?”

Sienna glanced up toward the drone and then back at Langdon. “You said, ‘I hold the key to finding it … if I fail, then all is death.’ ”

Langdon could only stare.

Sienna continued. “I thought you were referring to the object in your jacket pocket, but now I’m not so sure.”

If I fail, then all is death? The words hit Langdon hard. The haunting images of death flickered before him … Dante’s inferno, the biohazard symbol, the plague doctor. Yet again, the face of the beautiful silver-haired woman pleaded with him across the bloodred river. Seek and find! Time is running out!

Sienna’s voice pulled him back. “Whatever this projector ultimately points to … or whatever you’re trying to find, it must be something extremely dangerous. The fact that people are trying to kill us …” Her voice cracked slightly, and she took a moment to regroup. “Think about it. They just shot at you in broad daylight … shot at me—an innocent bystander. Nobody seems to be looking to negotiate. Your own government turned on you … you called them for help, and they sent someone to kill you.”

Langdon stared vacantly at the ground. Whether the U.S. Consulate had shared Langdon’s location with the assassin, or whether the consulate itself had sent the assassin, was irrelevant. The upshot was the same. My own government is not on my side.

Langdon looked into Sienna’s brown eyes and saw bravery there. What have I gotten her involved in? “I wish I knew what we were looking for. That would help put all of this into perspective.”

Sienna nodded. “Whatever it is, I think we need to find it. At least it would give us leverage.”

Her logic was hard to refute. Still Langdon felt something nagging at him. If I fail, then all is death. All morning he’d been running up against macabre symbols of biohazards, plagues, and Dante’s hell. Admittedly, he had no clear proof of what he was looking for, but he would be naive not to consider at least the possibility that this situation involved a deadly disease or large-scale biological threat. But if this were true, why would his own government be trying to eliminate him?

Do they think I’m somehow involved in a potential attack?

It made no sense at all. There was something else going on here.

Langdon thought again of the silver-haired woman. “There’s also the woman from my visions. I feel I need to find her.”

“Then trust your feelings,” Sienna said. “In your condition, the best compass you have is your subconscious mind. It’s basic psychology—if your gut is telling you to trust that woman, then I think you should do exactly what she keeps telling you to do.”

“Seek and find,” they said in unison.

Langdon exhaled, knowing his path was clear.

All I can do is keep swimming down this tunnel.

With hardening resolve, he turned and began taking in his surroundings, trying to get his bearings. Which way out of the gardens?

They were standing beneath the trees at the edge of a wide-open plaza where several paths intersected. In the distance to their left, Langdon spied an elliptical-shaped lagoon with a small island adorned with lemon trees and statuary. The Isolotto, he thought, recognizing the famous sculpture of Perseus on a half-submerged horse bounding through the water.

“The Pitti Palace is that way,” Langdon said, pointing east, away from the Isolotto, toward the garden’s main thoroughfare—the Viottolone, which ran east–west along the entire length of the grounds. The Viottolone was as wide as a two-lane road and lined by a row of slender, four-hundred-year-old cypress trees.

“There’s no cover,” Sienna said, eyeing the uncamouflaged avenue and motioning up at the circling drone.

“You’re right,” Langdon said with a lopsided grin. “Which is why we’re taking the tunnel beside it.”

He pointed again, this time to a dense hedgerow adjacent to the mouth of the Viottolone. The wall of dense greenery had a small arched opening cut into it. Beyond the opening, a slender footpath stretched out into the distance—a tunnel running parallel with the Viottolone. It was enclosed on either side by a phalanx of pruned holm oaks, which had been carefully trained since the 1600s to arch inward over the path, intertwining overhead and providing an awning of foliage. The pathway’s name, La Cerchiata—literally “circular” or “hooped”—derived from its canopy of curved trees resembling barrel stays or cerchi.

Sienna hurried over to the opening and peered into the shaded channel. Immediately she turned back to him with a smile. “Better.”

Wasting no time, she slipped through the opening and hurried off among the trees.

Langdon had always considered La Cerchiata one of Florence’s most peaceful spots. Today, however, as he watched Sienna disappear down the darkened allée, he thought again of the Grecian free divers swimming into corral tunnels and praying they’d reach an exit.

Langdon quickly said his own little prayer and hurried after her.

A half mile behind them, outside the Art Institute, Agent Brüder strode through a bustle of police and students, his icy gaze parting the crowds before him. He made his way to the makeshift command post that his surveillance specialist had set up on the hood of his black van.

“From the aerial drone,” the specialist said, handing Brüder a tablet screen. “Taken a few minutes ago.”

Brüder examined the video stills, pausing on a blurry enlargement of two faces—a dark-haired man and a blond ponytailed woman—both huddled in the shadows and peering skyward through a canopy of trees.

Robert Langdon.

Sienna Brooks.

Zero doubt.

Brüder turned his attention to the map of the Boboli Gardens, which was spread out on the hood. They made a poor choice, he thought, eyeing the garden layout. While it was sprawling and intricate, with plenty of hiding places, the gardens also appeared to be surrounded on all sides by high walls. The Boboli Gardens were the closest thing to a natural killbox that Brüder had ever seen in the field.

They’ll never get out.

“Local authorities are sealing all exits,” the agent said. “And commencing a sweep.”

“Keep me informed,” Brüder said.

Slowly, he raised his eyes to the van’s thick polycarbonate window, beyond which he could see the silver-haired woman seated in the back of the vehicle.

The drugs they had given her had definitely dulled her senses—more than Brüder had imagined. Nonetheless, he could tell by the fearful look in her eyes that she still had a firm grasp on precisely what was going on.

She does not look happy, Brüder thought. Then again, why would she?

CHAPTER 26

A spire of water shot twenty feet in the air.

Langdon watched it fall gently back to earth and knew they were getting close. They had reached the end of La Cerchiata’s leafy tunnel and dashed across an open lawn into a grove of cork trees. Now they were looking out at the Boboli’s most famous spouting fountain—Stoldo Lorenzi’s bronze of Neptune clutching his three-pronged trident. Irreverently known by locals as “The Fountain of the Fork,” this water feature was considered the central point of the gardens.

Sienna stopped at the edge of the grove and peered upward through the trees. “I don’t see the drone.”

Langdon no longer heard it either, and yet the fountain was quite loud.

“Must have needed to refuel,” Sienna said. “This is our chance. Which way?”

Langdon led her to the left, and they began descending a steep incline. As they emerged from the trees, the Pitti Palace came into view.

“Nice little house,” Sienna whispered.

“Typical Medici understatement,” he replied wryly.

Still almost a quarter mile away, the Pitti Palace’s stone facade dominated the landscape, stretching out to their left and right. Its exterior of bulging, rusticated stonework lent the building an air of unyielding authority that was further accentuated by a powerful repetition of shuttered windows and arch-topped apertures. Traditionally, formal palaces were situated on high ground so that anyone in the gardens had to look uphill at the building. The Pitti Palace, however, was situated in a low valley near the Arno River, meaning that people in the Boboli Gardens looked downhill at the palace.

This effect was only more dramatic. One architect had described the palace as appearing to have been built by nature herself … as if the massive stones in a landslide had tumbled down the long escarpment and landed in an elegant, barricade-like pile at the bottom. Despite its less defensible position in the low ground, the solid stone structure of the Pitti Palace was so imposing that Napoleon had once used it as a power base while in Florence.

“Look,” Sienna said, pointing to the nearest doors of the palace. “Good news.”

Langdon had seen it, too. On this strange morning, the most welcome sight was not the palace itself, but the tourists streaming out of the building into the lower gardens. The palace was open, which meant that Langdon and Sienna would have no trouble slipping inside and passing through the building to escape the gardens. Once outside the palace, Langdon knew they would see the Arno River to their right, and beyond that, the spires of the old city.

He and Sienna kept moving, half jogging now down the steep embankment. As they descended, they traversed the Boboli Amphitheater—the site of the very first opera performance in history—which lay nestled like a horseshoe on the side of a hill. Beyond that, they passed the obelisk of Ramses II and the unfortunate piece of “art” that was positioned at its base. The guidebooks referred to the piece as “a colossal stone basin from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla,” but Langdon always saw it for what it truly was—the world’s largest bathtub. They really need to put that thing somewhere else.

They finally reached the rear of the palace and slowed to a calm walk, mixing inconspicuously with the first tourists of the day. Moving against the tide, they descended a narrow tunnel into the cortile, an inner courtyard where visitors were seated enjoying a morning espresso in the palace’s makeshift café. The smell of fresh-ground coffee filled the air, and Langdon felt a sudden longing to sit down and enjoy a civilized breakfast. Today’s not the day, he thought as they pressed on, entering the wide stone passageway that led toward the palace’s main doors.

As they neared the doorway, Langdon and Sienna collided with a growing bottleneck of stalled tourists who seemed to be assembling in the portico to observe something outside. Langdon peered through the crowd to the area in front of the palace.

The Pitti’s grand entrance was as blunt and unwelcoming as he recalled it. Rather than a manicured lawn and landscaping, the front yard was a vast expanse of pavement that stretched across an entire hillside, flowing down to the Via dei Guicciardini like a massive paved ski slope.

At the bottom of the hill, Langdon now saw the reason for the crowd of onlookers.

Down in Piazza dei Pitti, a half-dozen police cars had streamed in from all directions. A small army of officers were advancing up the hill, unholstering their weapons and fanning out to secure the front of the palace.

CHAPTER 27

As the police entered the Pitti Palace, Sienna and Langdon were already on the move, retracing their steps through the interior of the palace and away from the arriving police. They hurried through the cortile and past the café, where a buzz was spreading, tourists rubbernecking in an attempt to locate the source of the commotion.

Sienna was amazed the authorities had found them so quickly. The drone must have disappeared because it had already spotted us.

She and Langdon found the same narrow tunnel through which they had descended from the gardens and without hesitation plunged back into the passageway and bounded up the stairs. The end of the staircase banked left along a high retaining wall. As they dashed along the wall, it grew shorter beside them, until finally they could see over it into the vast expanse of the Boboli Gardens.

Langdon instantly grabbed Sienna’s arm and yanked her backward, ducking out of sight behind the retaining wall. Sienna had seen it, too.

Three hundred yards away, on the slope above the amphitheater, a phalanx of police descended, searching groves, interviewing tourists, coordinating with one another on handheld radios.

We’re trapped!

Sienna had never imagined, when she and Robert Langdon first met, that it would lead to this. This is more than I bargained for. When Sienna had left the hospital with Langdon, she thought they were fleeing a woman with spiked hair and a gun. Now they were running from an entire military team and the Italian authorities. Their chances of escape, she was now realizing, were almost zero.

“Is there any other way out?” Sienna demanded, short of breath.

“I don’t think so,” Langdon said. “This garden is a walled city, just like …” He paused suddenly, turning and looking east. “Just like … the Vatican.” A strange glint of hope flickered across his face.

Sienna had no idea what the Vatican had to do with their current predicament, but Langdon suddenly began nodding, gazing east along the back of the palace.

“It’s a long shot,” he said, hustling her along with him now. “But there might be a different way to get out of here.”

Two figures materialized suddenly before them, having rounded the corner of the retaining wall, nearly bumping into Sienna and Langdon. Both figures were wearing black, and for one frightening instant, Sienna thought they were the soldiers she had encountered at the apartment building. As they passed, though, she saw they were only tourists—Italian, she guessed, from all the stylish black leather.

Having an idea, Sienna caught one of the tourists’ arms and smiled up at him as warmly as possible. “Può dirci dov’è la Galleria del costume?” she asked in rapid Italian, requesting directions to the palace’s famed costume gallery. “Io e mio fratello siamo in ritardo per una visita privata.” My brother and I are late for a private tour.

“Certo!” The man grinned at them both, looking eager to help. “Proseguite dritto per il sentiero!” He turned and pointed west, along the retaining wall, directly away from whatever Langdon had been looking at.

“Molte grazie!” Sienna chirped with another smile as the two men headed off.

Langdon gave Sienna an impressed nod, apparently understanding her motives. If the police began questioning tourists, they might hear that Langdon and Sienna were headed for the costume gallery, which, according to the map on the wall before them, was at the far western end of the palace … as far as possible from the direction in which they were now headed.

“We need to get to that path over there,” Langdon said, motioning across an open plaza toward a walkway that ran down another hill, away from the palace. The peastone walkway was sheltered on the uphill side by massive hedges, providing plenty of cover from the authorities now descending the hill, only a hundred yards away.

Sienna calculated that their chances of getting across the open area to the sheltered path were very slim. Tourists were gathering there, watching the police with curiosity. The faint thrum of the drone became audible again, approaching in

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