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everyone?” Langdon demanded. “The WHO team? The Turkish authorities? Is everyone already over at Hagia Sophia?”
Sinskey gave him an uneasy glance. “Actually,” she explained, “we have decided against alerting local authorities. We already have the ECDC’s finest SRS team with us, and it seems preferable to keep this a quiet operation for the moment, rather than creating a possible widespread panic.”
Nearby, Langdon could see Brüder and his team zipping up large black duffel bags that contained all kinds of hazmat gear—biosuits, respirators, and electronic detection equipment.
Brüder heaved his bag over his shoulder and came over. “We’re a go. We’ll enter the building, find Dandolo’s tomb, listen for water as the poem suggests, and then my team and I will reassess and decide whether to call in other authorities for support.”
Langdon already saw problems with the plan. “Hagia Sophia closes at sunset, so without local authorities, we can’t even get in.”
“We’re fine,” Sinskey said. “I have a contact in the Swiss embassy who contacted the Hagia Sophia Museum curator and asked for a private VIP tour as soon as we arrive. The curator agreed.”
Langdon almost laughed out loud. “A VIP tour for the director of the World Health Organization? And an army of soldiers carrying hazmat duffels? You don’t think that might raise a few eyebrows?”
“The SRS team and gear will stay in the car while Brüder, you, and I assess the situation,” Sinskey said. “Also, for the record, I’m not the VIP. You are.”
“I beg your pardon?!”
“We told the museum that a famous American professor had flown in with a research team to write an article on the symbols of Hagia Sofia, but their plane was delayed five hours and he missed his window to see the building. Since he and his team were leaving tomorrow morning, we were hoping—”
“Okay,” Langdon said. “I get the gist.”
“The museum is sending an employee to meet us there personally. As it turns out, he’s a big fan of your writings on Islamic art.” Sinskey gave him a tired smile, clearly trying to look optimistic. “We’ve been assured that you’ll have access to every corner of the building.”
“And more important,” Brüder declared, “we’ll have the entire place to ourselves.”
Robert Langdon gazed blankly out the window of the van as it sped along the waterfront highway connecting Atatürk Airport to the center of Istanbul. The Swiss officials had somehow facilitated a modified customs process, and Langdon, Sinskey, and the others in the group had been en route in a matter of minutes.
Sinskey had ordered the provost and Ferris to remain aboard the C-130 with several WHO staff members and to continue trying to track the whereabouts of Sienna Brooks.
While nobody truly believed Sienna could reach Istanbul in time, there were fears she might phone one of Zobrist’s disciples in Turkey and ask for assistance in realizing Zobrist’s delusional plan before Sinskey’s team could interfere.
Would Sienna really commit mass murder? Langdon was still struggling to accept all that had happened today. It pained him to do so, but he was forced to accept the truth. You never knew her, Robert. She played you.
A light rain had begun to fall over the city, and Langdon felt suddenly weary as he listened to the repetitive swish of the windshield wipers. To his right, out on the Sea of Marmara, he could see the running lights of luxury yachts and massive tankers powering to and from the city port up ahead. All along the waterfront, illuminated minarets rose slender and elegant above their domed mosques, silent reminders that while Istanbul was a modern, secular city, its core was grounded in religion.
Langdon had always found this ten-mile strip of highway one of the prettiest drives in Europe. A perfect example of Istanbul’s clash of old and new, the road followed part of Constantine’s wall, which had been built more than sixteen centuries before the birth of the man for whom this avenue was now named—John F. Kennedy. The U.S. president had been a great admirer of Kemal Atatürk’s vision for a Turkish republic springing from the ashes of a fallen empire.
Providing unparalleled views of the sea, Kennedy Avenue wound through spectacular groves and historic parks, past the harbor in Yenikapi, and eventually threaded its way between the city limits and the Strait of Bosporus, where it continued northward all the way around the Golden Horn. There, high above the city, rose the Ottoman stronghold of Topkapi Palace. With its strategic view of the Bosporus waterway, the palace was a favorite among tourists, who visited to admire both the vistas and the staggering collection of Ottoman treasure that included the cloak and sword said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.
We won’t be going that far, Langdon knew, picturing their destination, Hagia Sophia, which rose out of the city center not far ahead.
As they pulled off Kennedy Avenue and began snaking into the densely populated city, Langdon stared out at the crowds of people on the streets and sidewalks and felt haunted by the day’s conversations.
Zobrist’s twisted aspirations.
Even though Langdon had understood all along exactly where this SRS mission was headed, he had not fully processed it until this moment. We are going to ground zero. He pictured the slowly dissolving bag of yellow-brown fluid and wondered how he had let himself get into this position.
The strange poem that Langdon and Sienna had unveiled on the back of Dante’s death mask had eventually guided him here, to Istanbul. Langdon had directed the SRS team to Hagia Sophia, and knew there would be more to do once they arrived.
Kneel within the gilded mouseion of holy wisdom ,
and place thine ear to the ground ,
listening for the sounds of trickling water .
Follow deep into the sunken palace …
for here, in the darkness, the chthonic monster waits ,
submerged in the bloodred waters …
of the lagoon that reflects no stars .
Langdon again felt troubled to know that the final canto of Dante’s Inferno ended in a nearly identical scene: After a long descent through the underworld, Dante and Virgil reach the lowest point of hell. Here, with no way out, they hear the sounds of trickling water running through stones beneath them, and they follow the rivulet through cracks and crevices … ultimately finding safety.
Dante wrote: “A place is there below … which not by sight is known, but by the sound of a rivulet, which descends along the hollow of a rock … and by that hidden way, my guide and I did enter, to return to the fair world.”
Dante’s scene had clearly been the inspiration for Zobrist’s poem, although in this case, it seemed Zobrist had flipped everything upside down. Langdon and the others would indeed be following the sounds of trickling water, but unlike Dante, they would not be heading away from the inferno … but directly into it.
As the van maneuvered through tighter streets and more densely populated neighborhoods, Langdon began to grasp the perverse logic that had led Zobrist to choose downtown Istanbul as the epicenter of a pandemic.
East meets West.
The crossroads of the world.
Istanbul had, at numerous times in history, succumbed to deadly plagues that killed off enormous portions of its population. In fact, during the final phase of the Black Death, this very city had been called the “plague hub” of the empire, and the disease was said to have killed more than ten thousand residents a day. Several famous Ottoman paintings depicted townspeople desperately digging plague pits to bury mounds of corpses in the nearby fields of Taksim.
Langdon hoped Karl Marx was wrong when he said, “History repeats itself.”
All along the rainy streets, unsuspecting souls were bustling about their evening’s business. A pretty Turkish woman called her children in to dinner; two old men shared a drink at an outdoor café; a well-dressed couple walked hand in hand beneath an umbrella; and a tuxedoed man leaped off a bus and ran down the street, sheltering his violin case beneath his jacket, apparently late for a concert.
Langdon found himself studying the faces around him, trying to imagine the intricacies of each person’s life.
The masses are made up of individuals.
He closed his eyes, turning from the window and trying to abandon the morbid turn his thoughts had taken. But the damage was done. In the darkness of his mind, an unwanted image materialized—the desolate landscape of Bruegel’s Triumph of Death—a hideous panorama of pestilence, misery, and torture laying ruin to a seaside city.
The van turned to the right onto Torun Avenue, and for a moment Langdon thought they had arrived at their destination. On his left, rising out of the mist, a great mosque appeared.
But it was not Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque, he quickly realized, spotting the building’s six fluted, pencil-shaped minarets, which had multiple şerefe balconies and climbed skyward to end in piercing spires. Langdon had once read that the exotic, fairy-tale quality of the Blue Mosque’s balconied minarets had inspired the design for Cinderella’s iconic castle at Disney World. The Blue Mosque drew its name from the dazzling sea of blue tiles that adorned its interior walls.
We’re close, Langdon thought as the van sped onward, turning onto Kabasakal Avenue and running along the expansive plaza of Sultanahmet Park, which was situated halfway between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and famous for its views of both.
Langdon squinted through the rain-swept windshield, searching the horizon for the outline of Hagia Sofia, but the rain and headlights made visibility difficult. Worse still, traffic along the avenue seemed to have stopped.
Up ahead, Langdon saw nothing but a line of glowing brake lights.
“An event of some sort,” the driver announced. “A concert, I think. It may be faster on foot.”
“How far?” Sinskey demanded.
“Just through the park here. Three minutes. Very safe.”
Sinskey nodded to Brüder and then turned to the SRS team. “Stay in the van. Get as close as you can to the building. Agent Brüder will be in touch very soon.”
With that, Sinskey, Brüder, and Langdon jumped out of the van into the street and headed across the park.
The broad-leaved trees in Sultanahmet Park offered a bit of cover from the worsening weather as the group hurried along its canopied paths. The walkways were dotted with signage directing visitors to the park’s many attractions—an Egyptian obelisk from Luxor, the Serpent Column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Milion Column that once served as the “point zero” from which all distances were measured in the Byzantine Empire.
Finally, they emerged from the trees at the foot of a circular reflecting pool that marked the center of the park. Langdon stepped into the opening and raised his eyes to the east.
Not so much a building … as a mountain.
Glistening in the rain, the colossal silhouette of Hagia Sophia appeared to be a city unto itself. Its central dome—impossibly broad and ribbed in silver gray—seemed to rest upon a conglomeration of other domed buildings that had been piled up around it. Four towering minarets—each with a single balcony and a silver-gray spire—rose from the corners of the building, so far from the central dome that one could barely determine that they were part of a single structure.
Sinskey and Brüder, who until this point had been maintaining a steady focused jog, both pulled up suddenly, their eyes craning upward … upward … as their minds struggled to absorb the full height and breadth of the structure looming before them.
“Dear God.” Brüder let out a soft groan of disbelief. “We’re going to be searching … that?”
I’m being held captive, the provost sensed as he paced the interior of the parked C-130 transport plane. He had agreed to go to Istanbul to help Sinskey avert this crisis before it went completely out of control.
Not lost on the provost was the fact that cooperating with Sinskey might help mitigate any punitive backlash he might suffer for his inadvertent involvement in this crisis. But now Sinskey has me in custody.
As soon as the plane had parked inside the government hangar at Atatürk Airport, Sinskey and her team had deplaned, and the head of the WHO ordered the provost and his few Consortium staff members to stay aboard.
The provost had attempted to step outside for a breath of air but had been blocked by the stone-faced pilots, who reminded him that Dr. Sinskey had requested that everyone remain aboard.
Not good, the provost thought, taking a seat as the uncertainty of his future truly began to settle in.
The provost had long been accustomed to being the puppet master, the ultimate force that pulled the strings, and yet suddenly all of his power had been snatched from him.
Zobrist, Sienna, Sinskey.
They had all defied him … manipulated him even.
Now, trapped in the strange windowless holding cell of the WHO’s transport jet, he began to wonder if his luck had run out … if his current situation might be a kind of karmic retribution for a lifetime of dishonesty.
I lie for a living.
I am a purveyor of disinformation.
While the provost was not the only one selling lies in this world, he had established himself as the biggest fish in the pond. The smaller fish were a different breed altogether, and the provost disliked even to be associated with them.
Available online, businesses with names like the Alibi Company and Alibi Network made fortunes all over the world by providing unfaithful spouses with a way to cheat and not get caught. Promising to briefly “stop time” so their clients could slip away from husband, wife, or kids, these organizations were masters at creating illusions—fake business conventions, fake doctor’s appointments, even fake weddings—all of which included phony invitations, brochures, plane tickets, hotel confirmation forms, and even special contact numbers that rang at Alibi Company switchboards, where trained professionals pretended to be whatever receptionist or contact the illusion required.
The provost, however, had never wasted his time with such petty artifice. He dealt solely with large-scale deception, plying his trade for those who could afford to pay millions of dollars in order to receive the best service.
The occasional ultrawealthy VIP.
To achieve their goals, these clients would have at their disposal all of the Consortium’s assets, personnel, experience, and creativity. Above all, though, they were given deniability—the assurance that whatever illusion was fabricated in support of their deception could never be traced to them.
Whether trying to prop up a stock market, justify a war, win an election, or lure a terrorist out of hiding, the world’s power brokers relied on massive disinformation schemes to help shape public perception.
It had always been this way.
In the sixties, the Russians built an entire fake spy network that dead-dropped bad intel that the British intercepted for years. In 1947, the U.S. Air Force manufactured an elaborate UFO hoax to divert attention from a classified plane crash in Roswell, New Mexico. And more recently, the world had been led to believe that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq.
For nearly three decades, the provost had helped powerful people protect, retain, and increase their power. Although he was exceptionally careful about the jobs he accepted, the provost had always feared that one day he would take the wrong job.
And now that day has arrived.
Every epic collapse, the provost believed, could be traced back to a single moment—a chance meeting, a bad decision, an indiscreet glance.
In this case, he realized, that instant had come almost a dozen years before, when he agreed to hire a young med school student who was looking for some extra money. The woman’s keen intellect, dazzling language skills, and knack for improvisation made her an instantaneous standout at the Consortium.
Sienna Brooks was a natural.
Sienna had immediately understood his operation, and the provost sensed that the young woman was no stranger to keeping secrets herself. Sienna worked for him for almost two years, earned a generous paycheck that helped her pay her med school tuition, and then, without warning, she announced that she was done. She wanted to save the world, and as she had told him, she couldn’t do it there.
The provost never imagined Sienna Brooks would resurface nearly a decade later, bringing with her a gift of sorts—an ultrawealthy prospective client.
The provost bristled at the memory.
This is Sienna’s fault.
She was party to Zobrist’s plan all along.
Nearby, at the C-130’s makeshift conference table, the conversation was becoming heated, with WHO officials talking on phones and arguing.
“Sienna Brooks?!” one demanded, shouting into the phone. “Are you sure?” The official listened a moment, frowning. “Okay, get me the details. I’ll hold.”
He covered the receiver and turned to his colleagues. “It sounds like Sienna Brooks departed Italy shortly after we did.”
Everyone at the table stiffened.
“How?” one female employee demanded. “We covered the airport, bridges, train station …”
“Nicelli airfield,” he replied. “On the Lido.”
“Not possible,” the woman countered, shaking her head. “Nicelli is tiny. There are no flights out. It handles only local helicopter tours and—”
“Somehow Sienna Brooks had access to a private jet that was hangared at Nicelli. They’re still looking into it.” He raised the receiver to his mouth again. “Yes, I’m here. What do you have?” As he listened to the update, his shoulders slumped lower and lower until finally he took a seat. “I understand. Thank you.” He ended the call.
His colleagues all stared at him expectantly.
“Sienna’s jet was headed for Turkey,” the man said, rubbing his eyes.
“Then call European Air Transport Command!” someone declared. “Have them turn the jet around!”
“I can’t,” the man said. “It landed twelve minutes ago at Hezarfen private airfield, only fifteen miles from here. Sienna Brooks is gone.”
Rain was now pelting the ancient dome of Hagia Sophia.
For nearly a thousand years, it had been the largest church in the world, and even now it was hard to imagine anything larger. Seeing it again, Langdon was reminded that the Emperor Justinian, upon the completion of Hagia Sophia, had stepped back and proudly proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”
Sinskey and Brüder were marching with intensifying purpose toward the monumental building, which only seemed to swell in size as they approached.
The walkways here were lined with the ancient cannonballs used by the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror—a decorative reminder that the history of this building had been filled with violence as it was conquered and then retasked to serve the spiritual needs of assorted victorious powers.
As they neared the southern facade, Langdon glanced to his right at the three domed, silolike appendages jutting off the building. These were the Mausoleums of the Sultans, one of whom—Murad III—was said to have fathered over a hundred children.
The ring of a cell phone cut the night air, and Brüder fished his out, checking the caller ID, and answered tersely: “Anything?”
As he listened to the report, he shook his head in disbelief. “How is that possible?” He listened further and sighed. “Okay, keep me posted. We’re about to go inside.” He hung up.
“What is it?” Sinskey demanded.
“Keep your eyes open,” Brüder said, glancing around the area. “We may have company.” He returned his gaze to Sinskey. “It sounds like Sienna Brooks is in Istanbul.”
Langdon stared at the man, incredulous to hear both that Sienna had found a way to get to Turkey, and also that, having successfully escaped from Venice, she would risk capture and possible death to ensure that Bertrand Zobrist’s plan succeeded.
Sinskey looked equally alarmed and drew a breath as if preparing to interrogate Brüder further, but she apparently thought better of it, turning instead to Langdon. “Which way?”
Langdon pointed to their left around the southwest corner of the building. “The Fountain of Ablutions is over here,” he said.