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Dr. Brooks glanced at Dr. Marconi, who immediately shook his head and tapped his watch. She turned back to Langdon.
“This is the ICU,” she explained. “Nobody is allowed in until nine A.M. at the earliest. In a moment Dr. Marconi will go out and see who the visitor is and what he or she wants.”
“What about what I want?” Langdon demanded.
Dr. Brooks smiled patiently and lowered her voice, leaning closer. “Mr. Langdon, there are some things you don’t know about last night … about what happened to you. And before you speak to anyone, I think it’s only fair that you have all the facts. Unfortunately, I don’t think you’re strong enough yet to—”
“What facts!?” Langdon demanded, struggling to prop himself higher. The IV in his arm pinched, and his body felt like it weighed several hundred pounds. “All I know is I’m in a Florence hospital and I arrived repeating the words ‘very sorry …’ ”
A frightening thought now occurred to him.
“Was I responsible for a car accident?” Langdon asked. “Did I hurt someone?!”
“No, no,” she said. “I don’t believe so.”
“Then what?” Langdon insisted, eyeing both doctors furiously. “I have a right to know what’s going on!”
There was a long silence, and Dr. Marconi finally gave his attractive young colleague a reluctant nod. Dr. Brooks exhaled and moved closer to his bedside. “Okay, let me tell you what I know … and you’ll listen calmly, agreed?”
Langdon nodded, the head movement sending a jolt of pain radiating through his skull. He ignored it, eager for answers.
“The first thing is this … Your head wound was not caused by an accident.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Not really. Your wound, in fact, was caused by a bullet.”
Langdon’s heart monitor pinged faster. “I beg your pardon!?”
Dr. Brooks spoke steadily but quickly. “A bullet grazed the top of your skull and most likely gave you a concussion. You’re very lucky to be alive. An inch lower, and …” She shook her head.
Langdon stared at her in disbelief. Someone shot me?
Angry voices erupted in the hall as an argument broke out. It sounded as if whoever had arrived to visit Langdon did not want to wait. Almost immediately, Langdon heard a heavy door at the far end of the hallway burst open. He watched until he saw a figure approaching down the corridor.
The woman was dressed entirely in black leather. She was toned and strong with dark, spiked hair. She moved effortlessly, as if her feet weren’t touching the ground, and she was headed directly for Langdon’s room.
Without hesitation, Dr. Marconi stepped into the open doorway to block the visitor’s passage. “Ferma!” the man commanded, holding out his palm like a policeman.
The stranger, without breaking stride, produced a silenced handgun. She aimed directly at Dr. Marconi’s chest and fired.
There was a staccato hiss.
Langdon watched in horror as Dr. Marconi staggered backward into the room, falling to the floor, clutching his chest, his white lab coat drenched in blood.
Five miles off the coast of Italy, the 237-foot luxury yacht The Mendacium motored through the predawn mist that rose from the gently rolling swells of the Adriatic. The ship’s stealth-profile hull was painted gunmetal gray, giving it the distinctly unwelcoming aura of a military vessel.
With a price tag of over 300 million U.S. dollars, the craft boasted all the usual amenities—spa, pool, cinema, personal submarine, and helicopter pad. The ship’s creature comforts, however, were of little interest to its owner, who had taken delivery of the yacht five years ago and immediately gutted most of these spaces to install a lead-lined, military-grade, electronic command center.
Fed by three dedicated satellite links and a redundant array of terrestrial relay stations, the control room on The Mendacium had a staff of nearly two dozen—technicians, analysts, operation coordinators—who lived on board and remained in constant contact with the organization’s various land-based operation centers.
The ship’s onboard security included a small unit of military-trained soldiers, two missile-detection systems, and an arsenal of the latest weapons available. Other support staff—cooks, cleaning, and service—pushed the total number on board to more than forty. The Mendacium was, in effect, the portable office building from which the owner ran his empire.
Known to his employees only as “the provost,” he was a tiny, stunted man with tanned skin and deep-set eyes. His unimposing physique and direct manner seemed well suited to one who had made a vast fortune providing a private menu of covert services along the shadowy fringes of society.
He had been called many things—a soulless mercenary, a facilitator of sin, the devil’s enabler—but he was none of these. The provost simply provided his clients with the opportunity to pursue their ambitions and desires without consequence; that mankind was sinful in nature was not his problem.
Despite his detractors and their ethical objections, the provost’s moral compass was a fixed star. He had built his reputation—and the Consortium itself—on two golden rules.
Never make a promise you cannot keep.
And never lie to a client.
In his professional career, the provost had never broken a promise or reneged on a deal. His word was bankable—an absolute guarantee—and while there were certainly contracts he regretted having made, backing out of them was never an option.
This morning, as he stepped onto the private balcony of his yacht’s stateroom, the provost looked across the churning sea and tried to fend off the disquiet that had settled in his gut.
The decisions of our past are the architects of our present.
The decisions of the provost’s past had put him in a position to negotiate almost any minefield and always come out on top. Today, however, as he gazed out the window at the distant lights of the Italian mainland, he felt uncharacteristically on edge.
One year ago, on this very yacht, he had made a decision whose ramifications now threatened to unravel everything he had built. I agreed to provide services to the wrong man. There had been no way the provost could have known at the time, and yet now the miscalculation had brought a tempest of unforeseen challenges, forcing him to send some of his best agents into the field with orders to do “whatever it took” to keep his listing ship from capsizing.
At the moment the provost was waiting to hear from one field agent in particular.
Vayentha, he thought, picturing the sinewy, spike-haired specialist. Vayentha, who had served him perfectly until this mission, had made a mistake last night that had dire consequences. The last six hours had been a scramble, a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.
Vayentha claimed her error was the result of simple bad luck—the untimely coo of a dove.
The provost, however, did not believe in luck. Everything he did was orchestrated to eradicate randomness and remove chance. Control was the provost’s expertise—foreseeing every possibility, anticipating every response, and molding reality toward the desired outcome. He had an immaculate track record of success and secrecy, and with it came a staggering clientele—billionaires, politicians, sheikhs, and even entire governments.
To the east, the first faint light of morning had begun to consume the lowest stars on the horizon. On the deck the provost stood and patiently awaited word from Vayentha that her mission had gone exactly as planned.
For an instant, Langdon felt as if time had stopped.
Dr. Marconi lay motionless on the floor, blood gushing from his chest. Fighting the sedatives in his system, Langdon raised his eyes to the spike-haired assassin, who was still striding down the hall, covering the last few yards toward his open door. As she neared the threshold, she looked toward Langdon and instantly swung her weapon in his direction … aiming at his head.
I’m going to die, Langdon realized. Here and now.
The bang was deafening in the small hospital room.
Langdon recoiled, certain he had been shot, but the noise had not been the attacker’s gun. Rather, the bang had been the slam of the room’s heavy metal door as Dr. Brooks threw herself against it and turned the lock.
Eyes wild with fear, Dr. Brooks immediately spun and crouched beside her blood-soaked colleague, searching for a pulse. Dr. Marconi coughed up a mouthful of blood, which dribbled down his cheek across his thick beard. Then he fell limp.
“Enrico, no! Ti prego!” she screamed.
Outside, a barrage of bullets exploded against the metal exterior of the door. Shouts of alarm filled the hall.
Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.
Langdon was now fully awake.
Crouched beside Marconi’s body, Dr. Brooks kept searching for a pulse as tears welled in her eyes. Then, as if a switch had been flipped inside her, she stood and turned to Langdon. Her expression transformed before his eyes, her young features hardening with all the detached composure of a seasoned ER doctor dealing with a crisis.
“Follow me,” she commanded.
Dr. Brooks grabbed Langdon’s arm and pulled him across the room. The sounds of gunfire and chaos continued in the hallway as Langdon lurched forward on unstable legs. His mind felt alert but his heavily drugged body was slow to respond. Move! The tile floor felt cold beneath his feet, and his thin hospital johnny was scarcely long enough to cover his six-foot frame. He could feel blood dripping down his forearm and pooling in his palm.
Bullets continued to slam against the heavy doorknob, and Dr. Brooks pushed Langdon roughly into a small bathroom. She was about to follow when she paused, turned around, and ran back toward the counter and grabbed his bloody Harris Tweed.
Forget my damned jacket!
She returned clutching his jacket and quickly locked the bathroom door. Just then, the door in the outer room crashed open.
The young doctor took control. She strode through the tiny bathroom to a second door, yanked it open, and led Langdon into an adjoining recovery room. Gunfire echoed behind them as Dr. Brooks stuck her head out into the hallway and quickly grabbed Langdon’s arm, pulling him across the corridor into a stairwell. The sudden motion made Langdon dizzy; he sensed that he could pass out at any moment.
The next fifteen seconds were a blur … descending stairs … stumbling … falling. The pounding in Langdon’s head was almost unbearable. His vision seemed even more blurry now, and his muscles were sluggish, each movement feeling like a delayed reaction.
And then the air grew cold.
As Dr. Brooks hustled him along a dark alley away from the building, Langdon stepped on something sharp and fell, hitting the pavement hard. She struggled to get him back to his feet, cursing out loud the fact that he had been sedated.
As they neared the end of the alley, Langdon stumbled again. This time she left him on the ground, rushing into the street and yelling to someone in the distance. Langdon could make out the faint green light of a taxi parked in front of the hospital. The car didn’t move, its driver undoubtedly asleep. Dr. Brooks screamed and waved her arms wildly. Finally the taxi’s headlights came on and it moved lazily toward them.
Behind Langdon in the alley, a door burst open, followed by the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. He turned and saw the dark figure bounding toward him. Langdon tried to get back to his feet, but the doctor was already grabbing him, forcing him into the backseat of an idling Fiat taxi. He landed half on the seat and half on the floor as Dr. Brooks dove on top of him, yanking the door shut.
The sleepy-eyed driver turned and stared at the bizarre duo that had just tumbled into his cab—a young, ponytailed woman in scrubs and a man in a half-torn johnny with a bleeding arm. He clearly was about ready to tell them to get the hell out of his car, when the side mirror exploded. The woman in black leather sprinted out of the alley, gun extended. Her pistol hissed again just as Dr. Brooks grabbed Langdon’s head, pulling it down. The rear window exploded, showering them with glass.
The driver needed no further encouragement. He slammed his foot down on the gas, and the taxi peeled out.
Langdon teetered on the brink of consciousness. Someone is trying to kill me?
Once they had rounded a corner, Dr. Brooks sat up and grabbed Langdon’s bloody arm. The catheter was protruding awkwardly from a hole in his flesh.
“Look out the window,” she commanded.
Langdon obeyed. Outside, ghostly tombstones rushed by in the darkness. It seemed somehow fitting that they were passing a cemetery. Langdon felt the doctor’s fingers probing gently for the catheter and then, without warning, she wrenched it out.
A searing bolt of pain traveled directly to Langdon’s head. He felt his eyes rolling back, and then everything went black.
The shrill ring of his phone drew the provost’s gaze from the calming mist of the Adriatic, and he quickly stepped back into his stateroom office.
It’s about time, he thought, eager for news.
The computer screen on his desk had flickered to life, informing him that the incoming call was from a Swedish Sectra Tiger XS personal voice-encrypting phone, which had been redirected through four untraceable routers before being connected to his ship.
He donned his headset. “This is the provost,” he answered, his words slow and meticulous. “Go ahead.”
“It’s Vayentha,” the voice replied.
The provost sensed an unusual nervousness in her tone. Field agents rarely spoke to the provost directly, and even more rarely did they remain in his employ after a debacle like the one last night. Nonetheless, the provost had required an agent on-site to help remedy the crisis, and Vayentha had been the best person for the job.
“I have an update,” Vayentha said.
The provost was silent, his cue for her to continue.
When she spoke, her tone was emotionless, clearly an attempt at professionalism. “Langdon has escaped,” she said. “He has the object.”
The provost sat down at his desk and remained silent for a very long time. “Understood,” he finally said. “I imagine he will reach out to the authorities as soon as he possibly can.”
Two decks beneath the provost, in the ship’s secure control center, senior facilitator Laurence Knowlton sat in his private cubicle and noticed that the provost’s encrypted call had ended. He hoped the news was good. The provost’s tension had been palpable for the past two days, and every operative on board sensed there was some kind of high-stakes operation going on.
The stakes are inconceivably high, and Vayentha had better get it right this time.
Knowlton was accustomed to quarterbacking carefully constructed game plans, but this particular scenario had disintegrated into chaos, and the provost had taken over personally.
We’ve moved into uncharted territory.
Although a half-dozen other missions were currently in process around the world, all of them were being serviced by the Consortium’s various field offices, freeing the provost and his staff aboard The Mendacium to focus exclusively on this one.
Their client had jumped to his death several days ago in Florence, but the Consortium still had numerous outstanding services on his docket—specific tasks the man had entrusted to this organization regardless of the circumstances—and the Consortium, as always, intended to follow through without question.
I have my orders, Knowlton thought, fully intending to comply. He exited his soundproofed glass cubicle, walking past a half-dozen other chambers—some transparent, some opaque—in which duty officers were handling other aspects of this same mission.
Knowlton crossed through the thin, processed air of the main control room, nodding to the tech crew, and entered a small walk-in vault containing a dozen strongboxes. He opened one of the boxes and retrieved its contents—in this case, a bright red memory stick. According to the task card attached, the memory stick contained a large video file, which the client had directed them to upload to key media outlets at a specific time tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow’s anonymous upload would be simple enough, but in keeping protocol for all digital files, the flowchart had flagged this file for review today—twenty-four hours prior to delivery—to ensure the Consortium had adequate time to perform any necessary decryption, compiling, or other preparation that might be required before uploading it at the precise hour.
Nothing left to chance.
Knowlton returned to his transparent cubicle and closed the heavy glass door, blocking out the outside world.
He flipped a switch on the wall, and his cubicle instantly turned opaque. For privacy, all of the glass-walled offices aboard The Mendacium were built with “suspended particle device” glass. The transparency of SPD glass was easily controlled by the application or removal of an electric current, which either aligned or randomized millions of tiny rodlike particles suspended within the panel.
Compartmentalization was a cornerstone of the Consortium’s success.
Know only your own mission. Share nothing.
Now, ensconced in his private space, Knowlton inserted the memory stick into his computer and clicked the file to begin his assessment.
Immediately his screen faded to black … and his speakers began playing the soft sound of lapping water. An image slowly appeared on-screen … amorphous and shadowy. Emerging from the darkness, a scene began to take shape … the interior of a cave … or a giant chamber of some sort. The floor of the cavern was water, like an underground lake. Strangely, the water appeared to be illuminated … as if from within.
Knowlton had never seen anything like it. The entire cavern shone with an eerie reddish hue, its pale walls awash with tendril-like reflections of rippling water. What … is this place?
As the lapping continued, the camera began to tilt downward and descend vertically, directly toward the water until the camera pierced the illuminated surface. The sounds of rippling disappeared, replaced by an eerie hush beneath the water. Submerged now, the camera kept descending, moving down through several feet of water until it stopped, focusing on the cavern’s silt-covered floor.
Bolted to the floor was a rectangular plaque of shimmering titanium.
The plaque bore an inscription.
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
Engraved at the bottom of the plaque was a name and a date.
The name was that of their client.
The date … tomorrow.
Langdon felt firm hands lifting him now … urging him from his delirium, helping him out of the taxi. The pavement felt cold beneath his bare feet.
Half supported by the slender frame of Dr. Brooks, Langdon staggered down a deserted walkway between two apartment buildings. The dawn air rustled, billowing his hospital gown, and Langdon felt cold air in places he knew he shouldn’t.
The sedative he’d been given in the hospital had left his mind as blurred as his vision. Langdon felt like he was underwater, attempting to claw his way through a viscous, dimly lit world. Sienna Brooks dragged him onward, supporting him with surprising strength.
“Stairs,” she said, and Langdon realized they had reached a side entrance of the building.
Langdon gripped the railing and trudged dizzily upward, one step at a time. His body felt ponderous. Dr. Brooks physically pushed him now. When they reached the landing, she typed some numbers into a rusted old keypad and the door buzzed open.
The air inside was not much warmer, but the tile floors felt like soft carpet on the soles of his feet compared to the rough pavement outside. Dr. Brooks led Langdon to a tiny elevator and yanked open a folding door, herding Langdon into a cubicle that was about the size of a phone booth. The air inside smelled of MS cigarettes—a bittersweet fragrance as ubiquitous in Italy as the aroma of fresh espresso. Ever so slightly, the smell helped clear Langdon’s mind. Dr. Brooks