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Or would she?

Would you kill half the population today, Sienna had asked him, in order to save our species from extinction?

Langdon felt a chill.

“Once Zobrist was dead,” Sinskey explained, “I used my influence to force the bank to open Zobrist’s safe-deposit box, which ironically turned out to contain a letter to me … along with a strange little device.”

“The projector,” Langdon ventured.

“Exactly. His letter said he wanted me to be the first to visit ground zero, which nobody would ever find without following his Map of Hell.”

Langdon pictured the modified Botticelli painting that shone out of the tiny projector.

The provost added, “Zobrist had contracted me to deliver to Dr. Sinskey the contents of the safe-deposit box, but not until after tomorrow morning. When Dr. Sinskey came into possession of it early, we panicked and took action, trying to recover it in accordance with our client’s wishes.”

Sinskey looked at Langdon. “I didn’t have much hope of understanding the map in time, so I recruited you to help me. Are you remembering any of this, now?”

Langdon shook his head.

“We flew you quietly to Florence, where you had made an appointment with someone you thought could help.”

Ignazio Busoni.

“You met with him last night,” Sinskey said, “and then you disappeared. We thought something had happened to you.”

“And in fact,” the provost said, “something did happen to you. In an effort to recover the projector, we had an agent of mine named Vayentha tail you from the airport. She lost you somewhere around the Piazza della Signoria.” He scowled. “Losing you was a critical error. And Vayentha had the nerve to blame it on a bird.”

“I’m sorry?”

“A cooing dove. By Vayentha’s account, she was in perfect position, watching you from a darkened alcove, when a group of tourists passed. She said a dove suddenly cooed loudly from a window box over her head, causing the tourists to stop and block Vayentha in. By the time she could slip back into the alley, you were gone.” He shook his head in disgust. “Anyway, she lost you for several hours. Finally, she picked up your trail again—and by this time you had been joined by another man.”

Ignazio, Langdon thought. He and I must have been exiting the Palazzo Vecchio with the mask.

“She successfully tailed you both in the direction of the Piazza della Signoria, but the two of you apparently saw her and decided to flee, going in separate directions.”

That makes sense, Langdon thought. Ignazio fled with the mask and hid it in the baptistry before he had a heart attack.

“Then Vayentha made a terrible mistake,” the provost said.

“She shot me in the head?”

“No, she revealed herself too early. She pulled you in for interrogation before you actually knew anything. We needed to know if you had deciphered the map or told Dr. Sinskey what she needed to know. You refused to say a word. You said you would die first.”

I was looking for a deadly plague! I probably thought you were mercenaries looking to obtain a biological weapon!

The ship’s massive engines suddenly shifted into reverse, slowing the vessel as it neared the loading dock for the airport. In the distance, Langdon could see the nondescript hull of a C-130 transport plane fueling. The fuselage bore the inscription WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION.

At that moment Brüder arrived, his expression grim. “I’ve just learned that the only qualified response team within five hours of the site is us, which means we’re on our own.”

Sinskey slumped. “Coordination with local authorities?”

Brüder looked wary. “Not yet. That’s my recommendation. We don’t have an exact location at the moment, so there’s nothing they could do. Moreover, a containment operation is well beyond the scope of their expertise, and we run the real risk of their doing more damage than good.”

“Primum non nocere,” Sinskey whispered with a nod, repeating the fundamental precept of medical ethics: First, do no harm.

“Lastly,” Brüder said, “we still have no word on Sienna Brooks.” He eyed the provost. “Do you know if Sienna has contacts in Venice who might assist her?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he replied. “Zobrist had disciples everywhere, and if I know Sienna, she’ll be using all available resources to carry out her directive.”

“You can’t let her get out of Venice,” Sinskey said. “We have no idea what condition that Solublon bag is currently in. If anyone discovers it, all that would be needed at this point is a slight touch to burst the plastic and release the contagion into the water.”

There was a moment of silence as the gravity of the situation settled in.

“I’m afraid I’ve got more bad news,” Langdon said. “The gilded mouseion of holy wisdom.” He paused. “Sienna knows where it is. She knows where we’re going.”

“What?!” Sinskey’s voice rose in alarm. “I thought you said you didn’t have a chance to tell Sienna what you’d figured out! You said all you told her is that you were in the wrong country!”

“That’s true,” Langdon said, “but she knew we were looking for the tomb of Enrico Dandolo. A quick Web search can tell her where that is. And once she finds Dandolo’s tomb … the dissolving canister can’t be far away. The poem said to follow the sounds of trickling water to the sunken palace.”

“Damn it!” Brüder erupted, and stormed off.

“She’ll never beat us there,” the provost said. “We have a head start.”

Sinskey sighed heavily. “I wouldn’t be so sure. Our transport is slow, and it appears Sienna Brooks is extremely resourceful.”

As The Mendacium docked, Langdon found himself staring uneasily at the cumbersome C-130 on the runway. It barely looked airworthy and had no windows. I’ve been on this thing already? Langdon didn’t remember a thing.

Whether it was because of the movement of the docking boat, or growing reservations about the claustrophobic aircraft, Langdon didn’t know, but he was suddenly hit by an upsurge of nausea.

He turned to Sinskey. “I’m not sure I feel well enough to fly.”

“You’re fine,” she said. “You’ve been through the wringer today, and of course, you’ve got the toxins in your body.”

“Toxins?” Langdon took a wavering step backward. “What are you talking about?”

Sinskey glanced away, clearly having said more than she intended.

“Professor, I’m sorry. Unfortunately, I’ve just learned that your medical condition is a bit more complicated than a simple head wound.”

Langdon felt a spike of fear as he pictured the black flesh on Ferris’s chest when the man collapsed in the basilica.

“What’s wrong with me?” Langdon demanded.

Sinskey hesitated, as if uncertain how to proceed. “Let’s get you onto the plane first.”

CHAPTER 81

Located just east of the spectacular Frari church, the Atelier Pietro Longhi has always been one of Venice’s premier providers of historical costumes, wigs, and accessories. Its client list includes film companies and theatrical troupes, as well as influential members of the public who rely on the staff’s expertise to dress them for Carnevale’s most extravagant balls.

The clerk was just about to lock up for the evening when the door jingled loudly. He glanced up to see an attractive woman with a blond ponytail come bursting in. She was breathless, as if she’d been running for miles. She hurried to the counter, her brown eyes wild and desperate.

“I want to speak to Giorgio Venci,” she had said, panting.

Don’t we all, the clerk thought. But nobody gets to see the wizard.

Giorgio Venci—the atelier’s chief designer—worked his magic from behind the curtain, speaking to clients very rarely and never without an appointment. As a man of great wealth and influence, Giorgio was allowed certain eccentricities, including his passion for solitude. He dined privately, flew privately, and constantly complained about the rising number of tourists in Venice. He was not one who liked company.

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said with a practiced smile. “I’m afraid Signor Venci is not here. Perhaps I can help you?”

“Giorgio’s here,” she declared. “His flat is upstairs. I saw his light on. I’m a friend. It’s an emergency.”

There was a burning intensity about the woman. A friend? she claims. “Might I tell Giorgio your name?”

The woman took a scrap of paper off the counter and jotted down a series of letters and numbers.

“Just give him this,” she said, handing the clerk the paper. “And please hurry. I don’t have much time.”

The clerk hesitantly carried the paper upstairs and laid it on the long altering table, where Giorgio was hunched intently at his sewing machine.

“Signore,” he whispered. “Someone is here to see you. She says it’s an emergency.”

Without breaking off from his work or looking up, the man reached out with one hand and took the paper, reading the text.

His sewing machine rattled to a stop.

“Send her up immediately,” Giorgio commanded as he tore the paper into tiny shreds.

CHAPTER 82

The massive C-130 transport plane was still ascending as it banked southeast, thundering out across the Adriatic. On board, Robert Langdon was feeling simultaneously cramped and adrift—oppressed by the absence of windows in the aircraft and bewildered by all of the unanswered questions swirling around in his brain.

Your medical condition, Sinskey had told him, is a bit more complicated than a simple head wound.

Langdon’s pulse quickened at the thought of what she might tell him, and yet at the moment she was busy discussing containment strategies with the SRS team. Brüder was on the phone nearby, speaking with government agencies about Sienna Brooks, following up on everyone’s attempts to locate her.

Sienna …

Langdon was still trying to make sense of the claim that she was intricately involved in all of this. As the plane leveled out from its ascent, the small man who called himself the provost walked across the cabin and sat down opposite Langdon. He steepled his fingers beneath his chin and pursed his lips. “Dr. Sinskey asked me to fill you in … make an attempt to bring clarity to your situation.”

Langdon wondered what this man could possibly say to make any of this confusion even remotely clear.

“As I began to say earlier,” the provost said, “much of this started after my agent Vayentha pulled you in prematurely. We had no idea how much progress you had made on Dr. Sinskey’s behalf, or how much you had shared with her. But we were afraid if she learned the location of the project our client had hired us to protect, she was going to confiscate or destroy it. We had to find it before she did, and so we needed you to work on our behalf … rather than on Sinskey’s.” The provost paused, tapping his fingertips together. “Unfortunately, we had already shown our cards … and you most certainly did not trust us.”

“So you shot me in the head?” Langdon replied angrily.

“We came up with a plan to make you trust us.”

Langdon felt lost. “How do you make someone trust you … after you’ve kidnapped and interrogated him?”

The man shifted uncomfortably now. “Professor, are you familiar with the family of chemicals known as benzodiazepines?”

Langdon shook his head.

“They are a breed of pharmaceutical that are used for, among other things, the treatment of post-traumatic stress. As you may know, when someone endures a horrific event like a car accident or a sexual assault, the long-term memories can be permanently debilitating. Through the use of benzodiazepines, neuroscientists are now able to treat post-traumatic stress, as it were, before it happens.”

Langdon listened in silence, unable to imagine where this conversation might be going.

“When new memories are formed,” the provost continued, “those events are stored in your short-term memory for about forty-eight hours before they migrate to your long-term memory. Using new blends of benzodiazepines, one can easily refresh the short-term memory … essentially deleting its content before those recent memories migrate, so to speak, into long-term memories. A victim of assault, for example, if administered a benzodiazepine within a few hours after the attack, can have those memories expunged forever, and the trauma never becomes part of her psyche. The only downside is that she loses all recollection of several days of her life.”

Langdon stared at the tiny man in disbelief. “You gave me amnesia!”

The provost let out an apologetic sigh. “I’m afraid so. Chemically induced. Very safe. But yes, a deletion of your short-term memory.” He paused. “While you were out, you mumbled something about a plague, which we assumed was on account of your viewing the projector images. We never imagined that Zobrist had created a real plague.” He paused. “You also kept mumbling a phrase that sounded to us like ‘Very sorry. Very sorry.’ ”

Vasari. It must have been all he had figured out about the projector at that point. Cerca trova. “But … I thought my amnesia was caused by my head wound. Somebody shot me.”

The provost shook his head. “Nobody shot you, Professor. There was no head wound.”

“What?!” Langdon’s fingers groped instinctively for the stitches and the swollen injury on the back of his head. “Then what the hell is this!” He raised his hair to reveal the shaved area.

“Part of the illusion. We made a small incision in your scalp and then immediately closed it up with stitches. You had to believe you had been attacked.”

This isn’t a bullet wound?!

“When you woke up,” the provost said, “we wanted you to believe that people were trying to kill you … that you were in peril.”

“People were trying to kill me!” Langdon shouted, his outburst drawing gazes from elsewhere in the plane. “I saw the hospital’s doctor—Dr. Marconi—gunned down in cold blood!”

“That’s what you saw,” the provost said evenly, “but that’s not what happened. Vayentha worked for me. She had a superb skill set for this kind of work.”

“Killing people?” Langdon demanded.

“No,” the provost said calmly. “Pretending to kill people.”

Langdon stared at the man for a long moment, picturing the gray-bearded doctor with the bushy eyebrows who had collapsed on the floor, blood gushing from his chest.

“Vayentha’s gun was loaded with blanks,” the provost said. “It triggered a radio-controlled squib that detonated a blood pack on Dr. Marconi’s chest. He is fine, by the way.”

Langdon closed his eyes, dumbstruck by what he was hearing. “And the … hospital room?”

“A quickly improvised set,” the provost said. “Professor, I know this is all very difficult to absorb. We were working quickly, and you were groggy, so it didn’t need to be perfect. When you woke up, you saw what we wanted you to see—hospital props, a few actors, and a choreographed attack scene.”

Langdon was reeling.

“This is what my company does,” the provost said. “We’re very good at creating illusions.”

“What about Sienna?” Langdon asked, rubbing his eyes.

“I needed to make a judgment call, and I chose to work with her. My priority was to protect my client’s project from Dr. Sinskey, and Sienna and I shared that desire. To gain your trust, Sienna saved you from the assassin and helped you escape into a rear alleyway. The waiting taxi was also ours, with another radio-controlled squib on the rear windshield to create the final effect as you fled. The taxi took you to an apartment that we had hastily put together.”

Sienna’s meager apartment, Langdon thought, now understanding why it looked like it had been furnished from a yard sale. And it also explained the convenient coincidence of Sienna’s “neighbor” having clothing that fit him perfectly.

The entire thing had been staged.

Even the desperate phone call from Sienna’s friend at the hospital had been phony. Sienna, eez Danikova!

“When you phoned the U.S. Consulate,” the provost said, “you phoned a number that Sienna looked up for you. It was a number that rang on The Mendacium.”

“I never reached the consulate …”

“No, you didn’t.”

Stay where you are, the fake consulate employee had urged him. I’ll send someone for you right away. Then, when Vayentha showed up, Sienna had conveniently spotted her across the street and connected the dots. Robert, your own government is trying to kill you! You can’t involve any authorities! Your only hope is to figure out what that projector means.

The provost and his mysterious organization—whatever the hell it was—had effectively retasked Langdon to stop working for Sinskey and start working for them. Their illusion was complete.

Sienna played me perfectly, he thought, feeling more sad than angry. He had grown fond of her in the short time they’d been together. Most troubling to Langdon was the distressing question of how a soul as bright and warm as Sienna’s could give itself over entirely to Zobrist’s maniacal solution for overpopulation.

I can tell you without a doubt, Sienna had said to him earlier, that without some kind of drastic change, the end of our species is coming … The mathematics is indisputable.

“And the articles about Sienna?” Langdon asked, recalling the Shakespeare playbill and the pieces about her staggeringly high IQ.

“Authentic,” the provost replied. “The best illusions involve as much of the real world as possible. We didn’t have much time to set up, and so Sienna’s computer and real-world personal files were almost all we had to work with. You were never really intended to see any of that unless you began doubting her authenticity.”

“Nor use her computer,” Langdon said.

“Yes, that was where we lost control. Sienna never expected Sinskey’s SRS team to find the apartment, so when the soldiers moved in, Sienna panicked and had to improvise. She fled on the moped with you, trying to keep the illusion alive. As the entire mission unraveled, I had no choice but to disavow Vayentha, although she broke protocol and pursued you.”

“She almost killed me,” Langdon said, recounting for the provost the showdown in the attic of the Palazzo Vecchio, when Vayentha raised her handgun and aimed point-blank at Langdon’s chest. This will only hurt for an instant … but it’s my only choice. Sienna had then darted out and pushed her over the railing, where Vayentha plunged to her death.

The provost sighed audibly, considering what Langdon had just said. “I doubt Vayentha was trying to kill you … her gun fires only blanks. Her only hope of redemption at that point was to take control of you. She probably thought if she shot you with a blank, she could make you understand she was not an assassin after all and that you were caught up in an illusion.”

The provost paused, thinking a bit, and then continued. “Whether Sienna actually meant to kill Vayentha or was only trying to interfere with the shot, I won’t venture to guess. I’m beginning to realize that I don’t know Sienna Brooks as well as I thought.”

Me neither, Langdon agreed, although as he recalled the look of shock and remorse on the young woman’s face, he sensed that what she had done to the spike-haired operative was very likely a mistake.

Langdon felt unmoored … and utterly alone. He turned toward the window, longing to gaze out at the world below, but all he could see was the wall of the fuselage.

I’ve got to get out of here.

“Are you okay?” the provost asked, eyeing Langdon with concern.

“No,” Langdon replied. “Not even close.”

He’ll survive, the provost thought. He’s merely trying to process his new reality.

The American professor looked as if he had just been snatched up off the ground by a tornado, spun around, and dumped in a foreign land, leaving him shell-shocked and disoriented.

Individuals targeted by the Consortium seldom realized the truth behind the staged events they had witnessed, and if they did, the provost certainly was never present to view the aftermath. Today, in addition to the guilt he felt at

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