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Langdon pictured the articles he had seen about the young Sienna, the child prodigy with the 208 IQ and off-the-chart intellectual function. Langdon wondered if, in talking about Zobrist, she was also, on some level, talking about herself; he also wondered how long she would choose to keep her secret.
Up ahead, Langdon spotted the landmark he had been looking for. After crossing the Via dei Leoni, Langdon led her to the intersection of an exceptionally narrow street—more of an alleyway. The sign overhead read VIA DANTE ALIGHIERI.
“It sounds like you know a lot about the human brain,” Langdon said. “Was that your area of concentration in medical school?”
“No, but when I was a kid, I read a lot. I became interested in brain science because I had some … medical issues.”
Langdon shot her a curious look, hoping she would continue.
“My brain …” Sienna said quietly. “It grew differently from most kids’, and it caused some … problems. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was wrong with me, and in the process I learned a lot about neuroscience.” She caught Langdon’s eye. “And yes, my baldness is related to my medical condition.”
Langdon averted his eyes, embarrassed he’d asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’ve learned to live with it.”
As they moved into the cold air of the shadowed alleyway, Langdon considered everything he had just learned about Zobrist and his alarming philosophical positions.
A recurring question nagged at him. “These soldiers,” Langdon began. “The ones trying to kill us. Who are they? It makes no sense. If Zobrist has put a potential plague out there, wouldn’t everyone be on the same side, working to stop its release?”
“Not necessarily. Zobrist may be a pariah in the medical community, but he probably has a legion of devout fans of his ideology—people who agree that a culling is a necessary evil to save the planet. For all we know, these soldiers are trying to ensure that Zobrist’s vision is realized.”
Zobrist’s own private army of disciples? Langdon considered the possibility. Admittedly, history was full of zealots and cults who killed themselves because of all kinds of crazy notions—a belief that their leader is the Messiah, a belief that a spaceship is waiting for them behind the moon, a belief that Judgment Day is imminent. The speculation about population control was at least grounded in science, and yet something about these soldiers still didn’t feel right to Langdon.
“I just can’t believe that a bunch of trained soldiers would knowingly agree to kill innocent masses … all the while fearing they might get sick and die themselves.”
Sienna shot him a puzzled look. “Robert, what do you think soldiers do when they go to war? They kill innocent people and risk their own death. Anything is possible when people believe in a cause.”
“A cause? Releasing a plague?”
Sienna glanced at him, her brown eyes probing. “Robert, the cause is not releasing a plague … it’s saving the world.” She paused. “One of the passages in Bertrand Zobrist’s essay that got a lot of people talking was a very pointed hypothetical question. I want you to answer it.”
“What’s the question?”
“Zobrist asked the following: If you could throw a switch and randomly kill half the population on earth, would you do it?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay. But what if you were told that if you didn’t throw that switch right now, the human race would be extinct in the next hundred years?” She paused. “Would you throw it then? Even if it meant you might murder friends, family, and possibly even yourself?”
“Sienna, I can’t possibly—”
“It’s a hypothetical question,” she said. “Would you kill half the population today in order to save our species from extinction?”
Langdon felt deeply disturbed by the macabre subject they were discussing, and so he was grateful to see a familiar red banner hanging on the side of a stone building just ahead.
“Look,” he announced, pointing. “We’re here.”
Sienna shook her head. “Like I said. Denial.”
The Casa di Dante is located on the Via Santa Margherita and is easily identified by the large banner suspended from the stone facade partway up the alleyway: MUSEO CASA DI DANTE.
Sienna eyed the banner with uncertainty. “We’re going to Dante’s house?”
“Not exactly,” Langdon said. “Dante lived around the corner. This is more of a Dante … museum.” Langdon had ventured inside the place once, curious about the art collection, which turned out to be no more than reproductions of famous Dante-related works from around the world, and yet it was interesting to see them all gathered together under one roof.
Sienna looked suddenly hopeful. “And you think they have an ancient copy of The Divine Comedy on display?”
Langdon chuckled. “No, but I know they have a gift shop that sells huge posters with the entire text of Dante’s Divine Comedy printed in microscopic type.”
She gave him a slightly appalled glance.
“I know. But it’s better than nothing. The only problem is that my eyes are going, so you’ll have to read the fine print.”
“È chiusa,” an old man called out, seeing them approach the door. “È il giorno di riposo.”
Closed for the Sabbath? Langdon felt suddenly disoriented again. He looked at Sienna. “Isn’t today … Monday?”
She nodded. “Florentines prefer a Monday Sabbath.”
Langdon groaned, suddenly recalling the city’s unusual weekly calendar. Because tourist dollars flowed most heavily on weekends, many Florentine merchants chose to move the Christian “day of rest” from Sunday to Monday to prevent the Sabbath from cutting too deeply into their bottom line.
Unfortunately, Langdon realized, this probably also ruled out his other option: the Paperback Exchange—one of Langdon’s favorite Florentine bookshops—which would definitely have had copies of The Divine Comedy on hand.
“Any other ideas?” Sienna said.
Langdon thought a long moment and finally nodded. “There’s a site just around the corner where Dante enthusiasts gather. I bet someone there has a copy we can borrow.”
“It’s probably closed, too,” Sienna warned. “Almost every place in town moves the Sabbath away from Sunday.”
“This place wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing,” Langdon replied with a smile. “It’s a church.”
Fifty yards behind them, lurking among the crowd, the man with the skin rash and gold earring leaned on a wall, savoring this chance to catch his breath. His breathing was not getting any better, and the rash on his face was nearly impossible to ignore, especially the sensitive skin just above his eyes. He took off his Plume Paris glasses and gently rubbed his sleeve across his eye sockets, trying not to break the skin. When he replaced his glasses, he could see his quarry moving on. Forcing himself to follow, he continued after them, breathing as gently as possible.
Several blocks behind Langdon and Sienna, inside the Hall of the Five Hundred, Agent Brüder stood over the broken body of the all-too-familiar spike-haired woman who was now lying sprawled out on the floor. He knelt down and retrieved her handgun, carefully removing the clip for safety before handing it off to one of his men.
The pregnant museum administrator, Marta Alvarez, stood off to one side. She had just relayed to Brüder a brief but startling account of what had transpired with Robert Langdon since the previous night … including a single piece of information that Brüder was still trying to process.
Langdon claims to have amnesia.
Brüder pulled out his phone and dialed. The line at the other end rang three times before his boss answered, sounding distant and unsteady.
“Yes, Agent Brüder? Go ahead.”
Brüder spoke slowly to ensure that his every word was understood. “We are still trying to locate Langdon and the girl, but there’s been another development.” Brüder paused. “And if it’s true … it changes everything.”
The provost paced his office, fighting the temptation to pour himself another Scotch, forcing himself to face this growing crisis head-on.
Never in his career had he betrayed a client or failed to keep an agreement, and he most certainly had no intention of starting now. At the same time he suspected that he might have gotten himself tangled up in a scenario whose purpose diverged from what he had originally imagined.
One year ago, the famous geneticist Bertrand Zobrist had come aboard The Mendacium and requested a safe haven in which to work. At that time the provost imagined that Zobrist was planning to develop a secret medical procedure whose patenting would increase Zobrist’s vast fortune. It would not be the first time the Consortium had been hired by paranoid scientists and engineers who preferred working in extreme isolation to prevent their valuable ideas from being stolen.
With that in mind, the provost accepted the client and was not surprised when he learned that the people at the World Health Organization had begun searching for him. Nor did he give it a second thought when the director of the WHO herself—Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey—seemed to make it her personal mission to locate their client.
The Consortium has always faced powerful adversaries.
As agreed, the Consortium carried out their agreement with Zobrist, no questions asked, thwarting Sinskey’s efforts to find him for the entire length of the scientist’s contract.
Almost the entire length.
Less than a week before the contract was to expire, Sinskey had somehow located Zobrist in Florence and moved in, harassing and chasing him until he committed suicide. For the first time in his career, the provost had failed to provide the protection he had agreed to, and it haunted him … along with the bizarre circumstances of Zobrist’s death.
He committed suicide … rather than being captured?
What the hell was Zobrist protecting?
In the aftermath of his death, Sinskey had confiscated an item from Zobrist’s safe-deposit box, and now the Consortium was locked in a head-to-head battle with Sinskey in Florence—a high-stakes treasure hunt to find …
To find what?
The provost felt himself glance instinctively toward the bookshelf and the heavy tome given to him two weeks ago by the wild-eyed Zobrist.
The Divine Comedy.
The provost retrieved the book and carried it back to his desk, where he dropped it with a heavy thud. With unsteady fingers, he opened the cover to the first page and again read the inscription.
My dear friend, thank you for helping me find the path.
The world thanks you, too.
First off, the provost thought, you and I were never friends.
He read the inscription three more times. Then he turned his eyes to the bright red circle his client had scrawled on his calendar, highlighting tomorrow’s date.
The world thanks you?
He turned and gazed out at the horizon a long moment.
In the silence, he thought about the video and heard the voice of facilitator Knowlton from his earlier phone call. I thought you might want to preview it before upload … the content is quite disturbing.
The call still puzzled the provost. Knowlton was one of his best facilitators, and making such a request was entirely out of character. He knew better than to suggest an override of the compartmentalization protocol.
After replacing The Divine Comedy on the shelf, the provost walked to the Scotch bottle and poured himself half a glass.
He had a very difficult decision to make.
Known as the Church of Dante, the sanctuary of Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi is more of a chapel than a church. The tiny, one-room house of worship is a popular destination for devotees of Dante who revere it as the sacred ground on which transpired two pivotal moments in the great poet’s life.
According to lore, it was here at this church, at the age of nine, that Dante first laid eyes on Beatrice Portinari—the woman with whom he fell in love at first sight, and for whom his heart ached his entire life. To Dante’s great anguish, Beatrice married another man, and then died at the youthful age of twenty-four.
It was also in this church, some years later, that Dante married Gemma Donati—a woman who, even by the account of the great writer and poet Boccaccio, was a poor choice of wife for Dante. Despite having children, the couple showed little signs of affection for each other, and after Dante’s exile, neither spouse seemed eager to see the other ever again.
The love of Dante’s life had always been and would always remain the departed Beatrice Portinari, whom Dante had scarcely known, and yet whose memory was so overpowering for him that her ghost became the muse that inspired his greatest works.
Dante’s celebrated volume of poetry La Vita Nuova overflows with flattering verses about “the blessed Beatrice.” More worshipful still, The Divine Comedy casts Beatrice as none other than the savior who guides Dante through paradise. In both works, Dante longs for his unattainable lady.
Nowadays, the Church of Dante has become a shrine for the brokenhearted who suffer from unrequited love. The tomb of young Beatrice herself is inside the church, and her simple sepulchre has become a pilgrimage destination for both Dante fans and heartsick lovers alike.
This morning, as Langdon and Sienna wound their way through old Florence toward the church, the streets continued to narrow until they became little more than glorified pedestrian walkways. An occasional local car appeared, inching through the maze and forcing pedestrians to flatten themselves against the buildings as it passed.
“The church is just around the corner,” Langdon told Sienna, hopeful that one of the tourists inside would be able to help them. He knew their chances of finding a good Samaritan were better now that Sienna had taken back her wig in exchange for Langdon’s jacket, and both had reverted to their normal selves, transforming from rocker and skinhead … to college professor and clean-cut young woman.
Langdon was relieved once again to feel like himself.
As they strode into an even tighter alleyway—the Via del Presto—Langdon scanned the various doorways. The entrance of the church was always tricky to locate because the building itself was very small, unadorned, and wedged tightly between two other buildings. One could easily walk past it without even noticing. Oddly, it was often easier to locate this church using not one’s eyes … but one’s ears.
One of the peculiarities of La Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi was that it hosted frequent concerts, and when no concert was scheduled, the church piped in recordings of those concerts so visitors could enjoy the music at any time.
As anticipated, as they advanced down the alleyway, Langdon began to hear the thin strains of recorded music, which grew steadily louder, until he and Sienna were standing before the inconspicuous entrance. The only indication that this was indeed the correct location was a tiny sign—the antithesis of the bright red banner at the Museo Casa di Dante—that humbly announced that this was the church of Dante and Beatrice.
When Langdon and Sienna stepped off the street into the dark confines of the church, the air grew cooler and the music grew louder. The interior was stark and simple … smaller than Langdon recalled. There was only a handful of tourists, mingling, writing in journals, sitting quietly in the pews enjoying the music, or examining the curious collection of artwork.
With the exception of the Madonna-themed altarpiece by Neri di Bicci, almost all of the original art in this chapel had been replaced with contemporary pieces representing the two celebrities—Dante and Beatrice—the reasons most visitors sought out this tiny chapel. Most of the paintings depicted Dante’s longing gaze during his famous first encounter with Beatrice, during which the poet, by his own account, instantly fell in love. The paintings were of widely varying quality, and most, to Langdon’s taste, seemed kitschy and out of place. In one such rendering, Dante’s iconic red cap with earflaps looked like something Dante had stolen from Santa Claus. Nonetheless, the recurring theme of the poet’s yearning gaze at his muse, Beatrice, left no doubt that this was a church of painful love—unfulfilled, unrequited, and unattained.
Langdon turned instinctively to his left and gazed upon the modest tomb of Beatrice Portinari. This was the primary reason people visited this church, although not so much to see the tomb itself as to see the famous object that sat beside it.
A wicker basket.
This morning, as always, the simple wicker basket sat beside Beatrice’s tomb. And this morning, as always, it was overflowing with folded slips of paper—each a handwritten letter from a visitor, written to Beatrice herself.
Beatrice Portinari had become something of a patron saint of star-crossed lovers, and according to long-standing tradition, handwritten prayers to Beatrice could be deposited in the basket in the hope that she would intervene on the writer’s behalf—perhaps inspiring someone to love them more, or helping them find their true love, or even giving them the strength to forget a love who had passed away.
Langdon, many years ago, while in the throes of researching a book on art history, had paused in this church to leave a note in the basket, entreating Dante’s muse not to grant him true love, but to shed on him some of the inspiration that had enabled Dante to write his massive tome.
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story …
The opening line of Homer’s Odyssey had seemed a worthy supplication, and Langdon secretly believed his message had indeed sparked Beatrice’s divine inspiration, for upon his return home, he had written the book with unusual ease.
“Scusate!” Sienna’s voice boomed suddenly. “Potete ascoltarmi tutti?” Everyone?
Langdon spun to see Sienna loudly addressing the scattering of tourists, all of whom now glanced over at her, looking somewhat alarmed.
Sienna smiled sweetly at everyone and asked in Italian if anyone happened to have a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. After some strange looks and shakes of the head, she tried the question in English, without any more success.
An older woman who was sweeping the altar hissed sharply at Sienna and held up a finger to her lips for silence.
Sienna turned back to Langdon and frowned, as if to say, “Now what?”
Sienna’s calling-all-cars solicitation was not quite what Langdon had had in mind, but he had to admit he’d anticipated a better response than she’d received. On previous visits, Langdon had seen no shortage of tourists reading The Divine Comedy in this hallowed space, apparently enjoying a total immersion in the Dante experience.
Not so today.
Langdon set his sights on an elderly couple seated near the front of the church. The old man’s bald head was dipped forward, chin to chest; clearly he was stealing a nap. The woman beside him seemed very much awake, with a pair of white earbud cables dangling from beneath her gray hair.
A glimmer of promise, Langdon thought, making his way up the aisle until he was even with the couple. As Langdon had hoped, the woman’s telltale white earbuds snaked down to an iPhone in her lap. Sensing she was being watched, she looked up and pulled the earbuds from her ears.
Langdon had no idea what language the woman spoke, but the global proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and iPods had resulted in a vocabulary as universally understood as the male/female symbols that graced rest-rooms around the world.
“iPhone?” Langdon asked, admiring her device.
The old woman brightened at once, nodding proudly. “Such a clever little toy,” she whispered in a British accent. “My son got it for me. I’m listening to my e-mail. Can you believe it—listening to my e-mail? This little treasure actually reads it for me. With my old eyes, it’s such a help.”
“I have one, too,” Langdon said with a smile as he sat down beside her, careful not to wake up her sleeping husband. “But somehow I lost it last night.”
“Oh, tragedy! Did you try the ‘find your iPhone’ feature? My son says—”
“Stupid me, I never activated that feature.” Langdon gave her a sheepish look and ventured hesitantly, “If it’s not too much of an intrusion, would you mind terribly if I borrowed yours for just a moment? I need to look up something online. It would be a big help to me.”
“Of course!” She pulled out the earbuds and thrust the device into his hands. “No problem at all! Poor dear.”
Langdon thanked her and took the phone. While she prattled on beside him about how terrible she would feel if she lost her iPhone, Langdon pulled up Google’s search window and pressed the microphone button. When the phone beeped once, Langdon articulated his search string.
“Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto Twenty-five.”
The woman looked amazed, apparently having yet to learn about this feature. As the search results began to materialize on the tiny screen, Langdon stole a quick glance back at Sienna, who was thumbing through some printed material near