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“Who?” Marta frowned, still staring at the screen. “Well, you probably read about him in the news recently—the Swiss billionaire Bertrand Zobrist?”
For Langdon the name seemed only vaguely familiar, but Sienna grabbed Langdon’s arm and squeezed it hard, looking as if she’d seen a ghost.
“Oh, yes …” Sienna said haltingly, her face ashen. “Bertrand Zobrist. Famous biochemist. Made a fortune in biological patents at a young age.” She paused, swallowing hard. She leaned over and whispered to Langdon. “Zobrist basically invented the field of germ-line manipulation.”
Langdon had no idea what germ-line manipulation was, but it had an ominous ring, especially in light of the recent spate of images involving plagues and death. He wondered if Sienna knew so much about Zobrist because she was well read in the field of medicine … or perhaps because they had both been child prodigies. Do savants follow each other’s work?
“I first heard of Zobrist a few years ago,” Sienna explained, “when he made some highly provocative declarations in the media about population growth.” She paused, her face gloomy. “Zobrist is a proponent of the Population Apocalypse Equation.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Essentially it’s a mathematical recognition that the earth’s population is rising, people are living longer, and our natural resources are waning. The equation predicts that the current trend can have no outcome other than the apocalyptic collapse of society. Zobrist has publicly predicted that the human race will not survive another century … unless we have some kind of mass extinction event.” Sienna sighed heavily and locked eyes with Langdon. “In fact, Zobrist was once quoted as saying that ‘the best thing that ever happened to Europe was the Black Death.’ ”
Langdon stared at her in shock. The hair on his neck bristled as, once again, the image of the plague mask flashed through his mind. He had been trying all morning to resist the notion that his current dilemma related to a deadly plague … but that notion was getting more and more difficult to refute.
For Bertrand Zobrist to describe the Black Death as the best thing ever to happen to Europe was certainly appalling, and yet Langdon knew that many historians had chronicled the long-term socioeconomic benefits of the mass extinction that had occurred in Europe in the 1300s. Prior to the plague, overpopulation, famine, and economic hardship had defined the Dark Ages. The sudden arrival of the Black Death, while horrific, had effectively “thinned the human herd,” creating an abundance of food and opportunity, which, according to many historians, had been a primary catalyst for bringing about the Renaissance.
As Langdon pictured the biohazard symbol on the tube that had contained the modified map of Dante’s inferno, a chilling thought struck him: the eerie little projector had been created by someone … and Bertrand Zobrist—a biochemist and Dante fanatic—now seemed to be a logical candidate.
The father of genetic germ-line manipulation. Langdon sensed pieces of the puzzle now falling into place. Regrettably, the picture coming into focus felt increasingly frightening.
“Fast-forward through this part,” Marta ordered the guard, sounding eager to get past the real-time playback of Langdon and Ignazio Busoni studying the mask so she could find out who had broken into the museum and stolen it.
The guard hit the fast-forward button, and the time stamp accelerated.
Three minutes … six minutes … eight minutes.
On-screen, Marta could be seen standing behind the men, shifting her weight with increasing frequency and repeatedly checking her watch.
“I’m sorry we talked so long,” Langdon said. “You look uncomfortable.”
“My own fault,” Marta replied. “You both insisted that I should go home and the guards could let you out, but I felt that would be rude.”
Suddenly, on-screen, Marta disappeared. The guard slowed the video to normal speed.
“It’s okay,” Marta said. “I remember going to the restroom.”
The guard nodded and reached again for the fast-forward button, but before he pressed it, Marta grabbed his arm. “Aspetti!”
She cocked her head and stared at the monitor in confusion.
Langdon had seen it, too. What in the world?!
On-screen, Langdon had just reached into the pocket of his tweed coat and produced a pair of surgical gloves, which he was now pulling onto his hands.
Simultaneously, il Duomino positioned himself behind Langdon, peering down the hallway where Marta had moments earlier trudged off to use the restroom. After a moment the obese man nodded to Langdon in a way that seemed to mean that the coast was clear.
What the hell are we doing?!
Langdon watched himself on the video as his gloved hand reached out and found the edge of the cabinet door … and then, ever so gently, pulled back until the antique hinge shifted and the door swung slowly open … exposing the Dante death mask.
Marta Alvarez let out a horrified gasp and brought her hands to her face.
Sharing Marta’s horror, Langdon watched himself in utter disbelief as he reached into the case, gently gripped the Dante death mask with both hands, and lifted it out.
“Dio mi salvi!” Marta exploded, heaving herself to her feet and spinning around to face Langdon. “Cos’ha fatto? Perché?”
Before Langdon could respond, one of the guards whipped out a black Beretta and aimed it directly at Langdon’s chest.
Robert Langdon stared down the barrel of the guard’s handgun and felt the tiny room closing in around him. Marta Alvarez was on her feet now, glaring up at him with an incredulous look of betrayal on her face. On the security monitor behind her, Langdon was now holding the mask up to the light and studying it.
“I took it out only for a moment,” Langdon insisted, praying that this was true. “Ignazio assured me you wouldn’t mind!”
Marta did not reply. She looked stupefied, clearly trying to imagine why Langdon had lied to her … and indeed how in the world Langdon could have calmly stood by and let the tape play when he knew what it would reveal.
I had no idea I opened the case!
“Robert,” Sienna whispered. “Look! You found something!” Sienna remained riveted on the playback, focusing on getting answers despite their predicament.
On-screen, Langdon was now holding the mask up and angling it toward the light, his attention apparently drawn to something of interest on the back of the artifact.
From this camera angle, for a split second, the raised mask partially blocked Langdon’s face in such a way that Dante’s dead eyes were aligned with Langdon’s. He remembered the pronouncement—the truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death—and felt a chill.
Langdon had no idea what he might have been examining on the back of the mask, but at that moment in the video, as he shared his discovery with Ignazio, the obese man recoiled, immediately fumbling for his spectacles and looking again … and again. He began shaking his head vigorously and pacing the andito in an agitated state.
Suddenly both men glanced up, clearly having heard something in the hallway—most likely Marta returning from the restroom. Hurriedly, Langdon pulled from his pocket a large Ziploc bag, into which he sealed the death mask before gently handing it to Ignazio, who placed it, with seeming reluctance, inside his briefcase. Langdon quickly closed the antique glass door on the now-empty display case, and the two men strode briskly up the hall to encounter Marta before she could discover their theft.
Both guards now had their guns trained on Langdon.
Marta wobbled on her feet, grasping the table for support. “I don’t understand!” she sputtered. “You and Ignazio Busoni stole the Dante death mask?!”
“No!” Langdon insisted, bluffing as best as he could. “We had permission from the owner to take the mask out of the building for the night.”
“Permission from the owner?” she questioned. “From Bertrand Zobrist!?”
“Yes! Mr. Zobrist agreed to let us examine some markings on the back! We met with him yesterday afternoon!”
Marta’s eyes shot daggers. “Professor, I am quite certain you did not meet with Bertrand Zobrist yesterday afternoon.”
“We most certainly did—”
Sienna placed a restraining hand on Langdon’s arm. “Robert …” She gave a grim sigh. “Six days ago, Bertrand Zobrist threw himself off the top of the Badia tower only a few blocks away from here.”
Vayentha had abandoned her motorcycle just north of the Palazzo Vecchio and was approaching on foot along the perimeter of the Piazza della Signoria. As she wound her way through the Loggia dei Lanzi’s outdoor statuary, she could not help but notice that all the figures seemed to be enacting a variation on a single theme: violent displays of male dominance over women.
The Rape of the Sabines.
The Rape of Polyxena.
Perseus Holding the Severed Head of Medusa.
Lovely, Vayentha thought, pulling her cap low over her eyes and edging her way through the morning crowd toward the entrance of the palace, which was just admitting the first tourists of the day. From all appearances, it was business as usual here at the Palazzo Vecchio.
No police, Vayentha thought. At least not yet.
She zipped her jacket high around her neck, making certain that her weapon was concealed, and headed through the entrance. Following signs for Il Museo di Palazzo, she passed through two ornate atriums and then up a massive staircase toward the second floor.
As she climbed, she replayed the police dispatch in her head.
Il Museo di Palazzo Vecchio … Dante Alighieri.
Langdon has to be here.
The signs for the museum led Vayentha into a massive, spectacularly adorned gallery—the Hall of the Five Hundred—where a scattering of tourists mingled, admiring the colossal murals on the walls. Vayentha had no interest in observing the art here and quickly located another museum sign in the far right-hand corner of the room, pointing up a staircase.
As she made her way across the hall, she noticed a group of university kids all gathered around a single sculpture, laughing and taking pictures.
The plaque read: Hercules and Diomedes.
Vayentha eyed the statues and groaned.
The sculpture depicted the two heroes of Greek mythology—both stark naked—locked in a wrestling match. Hercules was holding Diomedes upside down, preparing to throw him, while Diomedes was tightly gripping Hercules’ penis, as if to say, “Are you sure you want to throw me?”
Vayentha winced. Talk about having someone by the balls.
She removed her eyes from the peculiar statue and quickly climbed the stairs toward the museum.
She arrived on a high balcony that overlooked the hall. A dozen or so tourists were waiting outside the museum entrance.
“Delayed opening,” one cheerful tourist offered, peeking out from behind his camcorder.
“Any idea why?” she asked.
“Nope, but what a great view while we wait!” The man swung his arm out over the expanse of the Hall of the Five Hundred below.
Vayentha walked to the edge and peered at the expansive room beneath them. Downstairs, a lone police officer was just arriving, drawing very little attention as he moved, without any sense of urgency, across the room toward the staircase.
He’s coming up to take a statement, Vayentha imagined. The man’s lugubrious trudge up the stairs indicated this was a routine response call—nothing like the chaotic search for Langdon at the Porta Romana.
If Langdon is here, why aren’t they swarming the building?
Either Vayentha had assumed incorrectly that Langdon was here, or the local police and Brüder had not yet put two and two together.
As the officer reached the top of the stairs and ambled toward the museum entrance, Vayentha casually turned away and pretended to gaze out a window. Considering her disavowal and the long reach of the provost, she was not taking any chances of being recognized.
“Aspetta!” a voice shouted somewhere.
Vayentha’s heart skipped a beat as the officer stopped directly behind her. The voice, she realized, was coming from his walkie-talkie.
“Attendi i rinforzi!” the voice repeated.
Wait for support? Vayentha sensed that something had just changed.
Just then, outside the window, Vayentha noticed a black object growing larger in the distant sky. It was flying toward the Palazzo Vecchio from the direction of the Boboli Gardens.
The drone, Vayentha realized. Brüder knows. And he’s headed this way.
Consortium facilitator Laurence Knowlton was still kicking himself for phoning the provost. He knew better than to suggest that the provost preview the client’s video before it was uploaded to the media tomorrow.
The content was irrelevant.
Protocol is king.
Knowlton still recalled the mantra taught to young facilitators when they started handling tasks for the organization. Don’t ask. Just task.
Reluctantly, he placed the little red memory stick in the queue for tomorrow morning, wondering what the media would make of the bizarre message. Would they even play it?
Of course they will. It’s from Bertrand Zobrist.
Not only was Zobrist a staggeringly successful figure in the biomedical world, but he was already in the news as a result of his suicide last week. This nine-minute video would play like a message from the grave, and its ominously macabre quality would make it nearly impossible for people to turn it off.
This video will go viral within minutes of its release.
Marta Alvarez was seething as she stepped out of the cramped video room, having left Langdon and his rude little sister at gunpoint with the guards. She marched over to a window and peered down at the Piazza della Signoria, relieved to see a police car parked out front.
It’s about time.
Marta still could not fathom why a man as respected in his profession as Robert Langdon would so blatantly deceive her, take advantage of the professional courtesy she had offered, and steal a priceless artifact.
And Ignazio Busoni assisted him!? Unthinkable!
Intent on giving Ignazio a piece of her mind, Marta pulled out her cell phone and dialed il Duomino’s office, which was several blocks away at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The line rang only once.
“Ufficio di Ignazio Busoni,” a familiar woman’s voice answered.
Marta was friendly with Ignazio’s secretary but was in no mood for small talk. “Eugenia, sono Marta. Devo parlare con Ignazio.”
There was an odd pause on the line and then suddenly the secretary burst into hysterical sobbing.
“Cosa succede?” Marta demanded. What’s wrong!?
Eugenia tearfully told Marta that she had just arrived at the office to learn that Ignazio had suffered a massive heart attack last night in an alleyway near the Duomo. It was around midnight when he had called for an ambulance, but the medics hadn’t arrived in time. Busoni was dead.
Marta’s legs nearly buckled beneath her. This morning she’d heard on the news that an unnamed city official had died the previous night, but she never imagined it was Ignazio.
“Eugenia, ascoltami,” Marta urged, trying to remain calm as she quickly explained what she had just witnessed on the palazzo video cameras—the Dante death mask stolen by Ignazio and Robert Langdon, who was now being held at gunpoint.
Marta had no idea what response she expected Eugenia to make, but it most certainly was not what she heard.
“Roberto Langdon!?” Eugenia demanded. “Sei con Langdon ora?!” You’re with Langdon now?!
Eugenia seemed to be missing the point. Yes, but the mask—
“Devo parlare con lui!” Eugenia all but shouted. I need to speak to him!
Inside the security room, Langdon’s head continued to throb as the guards aimed their weapons directly at him. Abruptly, the door opened, and Marta Alvarez appeared.
Through the open door Langdon heard the distant whine of the drone somewhere outside, its ominous buzz accompanied by the wail of approaching sirens. They found out where we are.
“È arrivata la polizia,” Marta told the guards, sending one of them out to usher the authorities into the museum. The other remained behind, gun barrel still aimed at Langdon.
To Langdon’s surprise, Marta held out a cell phone to him. “Someone wants to speak to you,” she said, sounding mystified. “You’ll need to take it out here to have a connection.”
The group migrated from the stuffy control room into the gallery space just outside, where sunlight poured through large windows offering a spectacular view of Piazza della Signoria below. Although he was still at gunpoint, Langdon felt relieved to be out of the enclosed space.
Marta motioned him over near the window and handed him the phone.
Langdon took it, uncertain, and raised it to his ear. “Yes? This is Robert Langdon.”
“Signore,” the woman said in tentative, accented English. “I am Eugenia Antonucci, the secretary of Ignazio Busoni. You and I, we meet yesterday night when you arrive his office.”
Langdon recalled nothing. “Yes?”
“I’m very sorry to say you this, but Ignazio, he die of heart attack yesterday night.”
Langdon’s grip tightened on the phone. Ignazio Busoni is dead?!
The woman was weeping now, her voice full of sadness. “Ignazio call me before he die. He leave me a message and tell me to be sure you hear it. I will play it for you.”
Langdon heard some rustling, and moments later, a faint breathless recording of the voice of Ignazio Busoni reached his ears.
“Eugenia,” the man panted, clearly in pain. “Please be sure Robert Langdon hears this message. I’m in trouble. I don’t think I’ll make it back to the office.” Ignazio groaned and there was a long silence. When he began speaking again, his voice was weaker. “Robert, I hope you escaped. They’re still after me … and I’m … I’m not well. I’m trying to reach a doctor, but …” There was another long pause, as if il Duomino were mustering his last bit of energy, and then … “Robert, listen carefully. What you seek is safely hidden. The gates are open to you, but you must hurry. Paradise Twenty-five.” He paused a long moment and then whispered, “Godspeed.”
Then the message ended.
Langdon’s heart raced, and he knew he had just witnessed the final words of a dying man. That these words had been directed at him did nothing to relieve his anxiety. Paradise 25? The gates are open to me? Langdon considered it. What gates does he mean?! The only thing that made any sense at all was that Ignazio had said that the mask was safely hidden.
Eugenia came back on the line. “Professor, do you understand this?”
“Some of it, yes.”
“Is there something I can do?”
Langdon considered this question a long moment. “Make sure nobody else hears this message.”
“Even the police? A detective arrives soon to take my statement.”
Langdon stiffened. He looked at the guard who was aiming a gun at him. Quickly, Langdon turned toward the window and lowered his voice, hurriedly whispering, “Eugenia … this will sound strange, but for Ignazio’s sake, I need you to delete that message and do not mention to the police that you spoke to me. Is that clear? The situation is very complicated and—”
Langdon felt a gun barrel press into his side and turned to see the armed guard, inches away, holding out his free hand and demanding Marta’s phone.
On the line, there was a long pause, and Eugenia finally said, “Mr. Langdon, my boss trusted you … so I will, too.”