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“What’s wrong with your face?” Sienna demanded.
He opened his eyes. “I’m sorry?”
“Your skin? It looks like you contracted something. Are you ill?”
The man looked taken aback, and while Sienna’s question was certainly blunt to the point of rudeness, Langdon had wondered the same thing. Considering the number of plague references he’d encountered today, the sight of red, blistering skin was unsettling.
“I’m fine,” the man said. “It was the damned hotel soap. I’m deathly allergic to soy, and most of these perfumed Italian soaps are soy-based. Stupid me for not checking.”
Sienna heaved a sigh of relief, her shoulders relaxing now. “Thank God you didn’t eat it. Contact dermatitis beats anaphylactic shock.”
They shared an awkward laugh.
“Tell me,” Sienna ventured, “does the name Bertrand Zobrist mean anything to you?”
The man froze, looking as if he’d just come face-to-face with the three-headed devil.
“We believe we just found a message from him,” Sienna said. “It points to someplace in Venice. Does that make any sense to you?”
The man’s eyes were wild now. “Jesus, yes! Absolutely! Where is it pointing!?”
Sienna drew a breath, clearly prepared to tell this man everything about the spiraling poem she and Langdon had just discovered on the mask, but Langdon instinctively placed a quieting hand on hers. The man certainly appeared to be an ally, but after today’s events, Langdon’s gut told him to trust no one. Moreover, the man’s tie rang a bell, and he sensed he might very well be the same man he had seen praying in the small Dante church earlier. Was he following us?
“How did you find us in here?” Langdon demanded.
The man still looked puzzled that Langdon was not recalling things. “Robert, you called me last night to say you had set up a meeting with a museum director named Ignazio Busoni. Then you disappeared. You never called in. When I heard Ignazio Busoni had been found dead, I got worried. I’ve been over here looking for you all morning. I saw the police activity outside the Palazzo Vecchio, and while waiting to find out what happened, by chance I saw you crawling out of a tiny door with …” He glanced over at Sienna, apparently drawing a blank.
“Sienna,” she prompted. “Brooks.”
“I’m sorry … with Dr. Brooks. I followed you hoping to learn what the hell you were doing.”
“I saw you in the Cerchi church, praying, didn’t I?”
“Yes! I was trying to figure out what you were doing, but it made no sense! You seemed to leave the church like a man on a mission, and so I followed you. When I saw you sneak into the baptistry, I decided it was time to confront you. I paid off the docent for a couple minutes alone in here.”
“Gutsy move,” Langdon noted, “if you thought I had turned on you.”
The man shook his head. “Something told me you would never do that. Professor Robert Langdon? I knew there had to be some other explanation. But amnesia? Incredible. I never would have guessed.”
The man with the rash began scratching nervously again. “Listen, I was given only five minutes. We need to get out of here, now. If I found you, then the people trying to kill you might find you, too. There is a lot going on that you don’t understand. We need to get to Venice. Immediately. The trick will be getting out of Florence unseen. The people who have Dr. Sinskey … the ones chasing you … they have eyes everywhere.” He motioned toward the door.
Langdon held his ground, finally feeling like he was about to get some answers. “Who are the soldiers in black suits? Why are they trying to kill me?”
“Long story,” the man said. “I’ll explain on the way.”
Langdon frowned, not entirely liking this answer. He motioned to Sienna and ushered her off to one side, talking to her in hushed tones. “Do you trust him? What do you think?”
Sienna looked at Langdon like he was crazy for asking. “What do I think? I think he’s with the World Health Organization! I think he’s our best bet for getting answers!”
“And the rash?”
Sienna shrugged. “It’s exactly what he says—severe contact dermatitis.”
“And if it’s not what he says?” Langdon whispered. “If it’s … something else?”
“Something else?” She gave him an incredulous look. “Robert, it’s not the plague, if that’s what you’re asking. He’s a doctor, for heaven’s sake. If he had a deadly disease and knew he was contagious, he wouldn’t be reckless enough to be out infecting the world.”
“What if he didn’t realize he had the plague?”
Sienna pursed her lips, thinking a moment. “Then I’m afraid you and I are already screwed … along with everyone in the general area.”
“You know, your bedside manner could use some work.”
“Just being honest.” Sienna handed Langdon the Ziploc bag containing the death mask. “You can carry our little friend.”
As the two returned to Dr. Ferris, they could see that he was just ending a quiet phone call.
“I just called my driver,” the man said. “He’ll meet us out in front by the—” Dr. Ferris stopped short, staring down at Langdon’s hand and seeing, for the first time, the dead face of Dante Alighieri.
“Christ!” Ferris said, recoiling. “What the hell is that?!”
“Long story,” Langdon replied. “I’ll explain on the way.”
New York editor Jonas Faukman awoke to the sound of his home-office line ringing. He rolled over and checked the clock: 4:28 A.M.
In the world of book publishing, late-night emergencies were as rare as overnight success. Unnerved, Faukman slipped out of bed and hurried down the hall into his office.
“Hello?” The voice on the line was a familiar deep baritone. “Jonas, thank heaven you’re home. It’s Robert. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Of course you woke me! It’s four o’clock in the morning!”
“Sorry, I’m overseas.”
They don’t teach time zones at Harvard?
“I’m in some trouble, Jonas, and I need a favor.” Langdon’s voice sounded tense. “It involves your corporate NetJets card.”
“NetJets?” Faukman gave an incredulous laugh. “Robert, we’re in book publishing. We don’t have access to private jets.”
“We both know you’re lying, my friend.”
Faukman sighed. “Okay, let me rephrase that. We don’t have access to private jets for authors of tomes about religious history. If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk.”
“Jonas, whatever the flight costs, I’ll pay you back. You have my word. Have I ever broken a promise to you?”
Other than missing your last deadline by three years? Nevertheless Faukman sensed the urgency in Langdon’s tone. “Tell me what’s going on. I’ll try to help.”
“I don’t have time to explain, but I really need you to do this for me. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Faukman had worked with Langdon long enough to be familiar with his wry sense of humor, but he heard no trace of joking in Langdon’s anxious tone at that moment. The man is dead serious. Faukman exhaled, and made up his mind. My finance manager is going to crucify me. Thirty seconds later, Faukman had written down the details of Langdon’s specific flight request.
“Is everything okay?” Langdon asked, apparently sensing his editor’s hesitation and surprise over the details of the flight request.
“Yeah, I just thought you were in the States,” Faukman said. “I’m surprised to learn you’re in Italy.”
“You and me both,” Langdon said. “Thanks again, Jonas. I’m heading for the airport now.”
NetJets’ U.S. operations center is located in Columbus, Ohio, with a flight support team on call around the clock.
Owner services representative Deb Kier had just received a call from a corporate fractional owner in New York. “One moment, sir,” she said, adjusting her headset and typing at her terminal. “Technically that would be a NetJets Europe flight, but I can help you with it.” She quickly patched into the NetJets Europe system, centered in Paço de Arcos, Portugal, and checked the current positioning of their jets in and around Italy.
“Okay, sir,” she said, “it looks like we have a Citation Excel positioned in Monaco, which we could have routed to Florence in just under an hour. Would that be adequate for Mr. Langdon?”
“Let’s hope so,” the man from the publishing company replied, sounding exhausted and a bit annoyed. “We do appreciate it.”
“Entirely our pleasure,” Deb said. “And Mr. Langdon would like to fly to Geneva?”
Deb kept typing. “All set,” she finally said. “Mr. Langdon is confirmed out of Tassignano FBO in Lucca, which is about fifty miles west of Florence. He will be departing at eleven-twenty A.M. local time. Mr. Langdon needs to be at the FBO ten minutes before wheels up. You’ve requested no ground transportation, no catering, and you’ve given me his passport information, so we’re all set. Will there be anything else?”
“A new job?” he said with a laugh. “Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.”
“Our pleasure. Have a nice night.” Deb ended the call and turned back to her screen to complete the reservation. She entered Robert Langdon’s passport information and was about to continue when her screen began flashing a red alert box. Deb read the message, her eyes widening.
This must be a mistake.
She tried entering Langdon’s passport again. The blinking warning came up again. This same alert would have shown up on any airline computer in the world had Langdon tried to book a flight.
Deb Kier stared a long moment in disbelief. She knew NetJets took customer privacy very seriously, and yet this alert trumped all of their corporate privacy regulations.
Deb Kier immediately called the authorities.
Agent Brüder snapped his mobile phone shut and began herding his men back into the vans.
“Langdon’s on the move,” he announced. “He’s taking a private jet to Geneva. Wheels up in just under an hour out of Lucca FBO, fifty miles west. If we move, we can get there before he takes off.”
At that same moment a hired Fiat sedan was racing northward along the Via dei Panzani, leaving the Piazza del Duomo behind and making its way toward Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station.
In the backseat, Langdon and Sienna huddled low while Dr. Ferris sat in front with the driver. The reservation with NetJets had been Sienna’s idea. With luck, it would provide enough misdirection to allow the three of them to pass safely through the Florence train station, which undoubtedly would otherwise have been packed with police. Fortunately, Venice was only two hours away by train, and domestic train travel required no passport.
Langdon looked to Sienna, who seemed to be studying Dr. Ferris with concern. The man was in obvious pain, his breathing labored, as if it hurt every time he inhaled.
I hope she’s right about his ailment, Langdon thought, eyeing the man’s rash and picturing all the germs floating around in the cramped little car. Even his fingertips looked like they were puffy and red. Langdon pushed the concern from his mind and looked out the window.
As they approached the train station, they passed the Grand Hotel Baglioni, which often hosted events for an art conference Langdon attended every year. Seeing it, Langdon realized he was about to do something he had never before done in his life.
I’m leaving Florence without visiting the David.
With quiet apologies to Michelangelo, Langdon turned his eyes to the train station ahead … and his thoughts to Venice.
Langdon’s going to Geneva?
Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey felt increasingly ill as she rocked groggily in the backseat of the van, which was now racing out of Florence, heading west toward a private airfield outside of the city.
Geneva makes no sense, Sinskey told herself.
The only relevant connection to Geneva was that it was the site of the WHO’s world headquarters. Is Langdon looking for me there? It seemed nonsensical considering that Langdon knew Sinskey was here in Florence.
Another thought now struck her.
My God … is Zobrist targeting Geneva?
Zobrist was a man who was attuned to symbolism, and creating a “ground zero” at the World Health Organization’s headquarters admittedly had some elegance to it, considering his yearlong battle with Sinskey. Then again, if Zobrist was looking for a receptive flash point for a plague, Geneva was a poor choice. Relative to other metropolises, the city was geographically isolated and was rather cold this time of year. Most plagues took root in overcrowded, warmer environments. Geneva was more than a thousand feet above sea level, and hardly a suitable place to start a pandemic. No matter how much Zobrist despises me.
So the question remained—why was Langdon going there? The American professor’s bizarre travel destination was yet another entry in the growing list of his inexplicable behaviors that began last night, and despite her best efforts, Sinskey was having a very hard time coming up with any rational explanation for them.
Whose side is he on?
Admittedly, Sinskey had known Langdon only a few days, but she was usually a good judge of character, and she refused to believe that a man like Robert Langdon could be seduced with money. And yet, he broke contact with us last night. Now he seemed to be running around like some kind of rogue operative. Was he somehow persuaded to think that Zobrist’s actions make some kind of twisted sense?
The thought gave her a chill.
No, she assured herself. I know his reputation too well; he’s better than that.
Sinskey had first met Robert Langdon four nights before in the gutted hull of a retasked C-130 transport plane, which served as the World Health Organization’s mobile coordination center.
It had been just past seven when the plane landed at Hanscom Field, less than fifteen miles from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sinskey was not sure what to expect from the celebrated academic whom she had contacted by phone, but she was pleasantly surprised when he strode confidently up the gangplank into the rear of the plane and greeted her with a carefree smile.
“Dr. Sinskey, I presume?” Langdon firmly shook her hand.
“Professor, it’s an honor to meet you.”
“The honor’s mine. Thanks for all you do.”
Langdon was a tall man, with urbane good looks and a deep voice. His clothing at the moment, Sinskey had to assume, was his classroom attire—a tweed jacket, khaki slacks, and loafers—which made sense considering the man had essentially been scooped off his campus with no warning. He also looked younger and far more fit than she’d imagined, which only served to remind Elizabeth of her own age. I could almost be his mother.
She gave him a tired smile. “Thank you for coming, Professor.”
Langdon motioned to the humorless associate whom Sinskey had sent to collect him. “Your friend here didn’t give me much chance to reconsider.”
“Good. That’s what I pay him for.”
“Nice amulet,” Langdon said, eyeing her necklace. “Lapis lazuli?”
Sinskey nodded and glanced down at her blue stone amulet, fashioned into the iconic symbol of a snake wrapped around a vertical rod. “The modern symbol for medicine. As I’m sure you know, it’s called a caduceus.”
Langdon glanced up suddenly, as if there was something he wanted to say.
She waited. Yes?
Apparently thinking better of his impulse, he gave a polite smile and changed the subject. “So why am I here?”
Elizabeth motioned to a makeshift conference area around a stainless-steel table. “Please, sit. I have something I need you to look at.”
Langdon ambled toward the table, and Elizabeth noted that while the professor seemed intrigued by the prospect of a secret meeting, he did not appear at all unsettled by it. Here is a man comfortable in his own skin. She wondered if he would appear as relaxed once he found out why he had been brought here.
Elizabeth got Langdon settled and then, with no preamble, she presented the object she and her team had confiscated from a Florence safe-deposit box less than twelve hours earlier.
Langdon studied the small carved cylinder for a long moment before giving her a quick synopsis of what she already knew. The object was an ancient cylinder seal that could be used for printmaking. It bore a particularly gruesome image of a three-headed Satan along with a single word: saligia.
“Saligia,” Langdon said, “is a Latin mnemonic for—”
“The Seven Deadly Sins,” Elizabeth said. “Yes, we looked it up.”
“Okay …” Langdon sounded puzzled. “Is there some reason you wanted me to look at this?”
“Actually, yes.” Sinskey took the cylinder back and began shaking it violently, the agitator ball rattling back and forth.
Langdon looked puzzled by her action, but before he could ask what she was doing, the end of the cylinder began to glow, and she pointed it at a smooth patch of insulation on the wall of the gutted plane.
Langdon let out a low whistle and moved toward the projected image.
“Botticelli’s Map of Hell,” Langdon announced. “Based on Dante’s Inferno. Although I’m guessing you probably already know that.”
Elizabeth nodded. She and her team had used the Internet to identify the painting, which Sinskey had been surprised to learn was a Botticelli, a painter best known for his bright, idealized masterpieces Birth of Venus and Springtime. Sinskey loved both of those works despite the fact that they portrayed fertility and the creation of life, which only served to remind her of her own tragic inability to conceive—the lone significant regret in her otherwise very productive life.
“I was hoping,” Sinskey said, “that you could tell me about the symbolism hidden in this painting.”
Langdon looked irritated for the first time all night. “Is that why you called me in? I thought you said it was an emergency.”
Langdon heaved a patient sigh. “Dr. Sinskey, generally speaking, if you want to know about a specific painting, you should contact the museum that contains the original. In this case, that would be the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica. The Vatican has a number of superb iconographers who—”
“The Vatican hates me.”
Langdon gave her a startled look. “You, too? I thought I was the only one.”
She smiled sadly. “The WHO feels strongly that the widespread availability of contraception is one of the keys to global health—both to combat sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and also for general population control.”
“And the Vatican feels differently.”
“Quite. They have spent enormous amounts of energy and money indoctrinating third-world countries into a belief in the evils of contraception.”
“Ah, yes,” Langdon said with a knowing smile. “Who better than a bunch of celibate male octogenarians to tell the world how to have sex?”
Sinskey was liking the professor more and more every second.
She shook the cylinder to recharge it and then projected the image on the wall again. “Professor, take a closer look.”
Langdon walked toward the image, studying it, still moving closer. Suddenly he stopped short. “That’s strange. It’s been altered.”
That didn’t take him long. “Yes, it has, and I want you to tell me what the alterations mean.”
Langdon fell silent, scanning the entire image, pausing to take in the ten letters that spelled catrovacer … and then the plague mask … and also the strange quote around the border about “the eyes of death.”
“Who did this?” Langdon demanded. “Where did it come from?”