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present, and imagination all mixed together.
Langdon felt dizzy.
Somewhere in the apartment, a phone was ringing. It was a piercing, old-fashioned ring, coming from the kitchen.
“Sienna?!” Langdon called out, standing up.
No response. She had not yet returned. After only two rings, an answering machine picked up.
“Ciao, sono io,” Sienna’s voice happily declared on her outgoing message. “Lasciatemi un messaggio e vi richiamerò.”
There was a beep, and a panicked woman began leaving a message in a thick Eastern European accent. Her voice echoed down the hall.
“Sienna, eez Danikova! Where you?! Eez terrible! Your friend Dr. Marconi, he dead! Hospital going craaazy! Police come here! People telling them you running out trying to save patient?! Why!? You don’t know him! Now police want to talk to you! They take employee file! I know information wrong—bad address, no numbers, fake working visa—so they no find you today, but soon they find! I try to warn you. So sorry, Sienna.”
The call ended.
Langdon felt a fresh wave of remorse engulfing him. From the sounds of the message, Dr. Marconi had been permitting Sienna to work at the hospital. Now Langdon’s presence had cost Marconi his life, and Sienna’s instinct to save a stranger had dire implications for her future.
Just then a door closed loudly at the far end of the apartment.
A moment later, the answering machine blared. “Sienna, eez Danikova! Where you?!”
Langdon winced, knowing what Sienna was about to hear. As the message played, Langdon quickly put away the playbill, neatening the desk. Then he slipped back across the hall into the bathroom, feeling uncomfortable about his glimpse into Sienna’s past.
Ten seconds later, there was a soft knock on the bathroom door.
“I’ll leave your clothes on the doorknob,” Sienna said, her voice ragged with emotion.
“Thank you so much,” Langdon replied.
“When you’re done, please come out to the kitchen,” she added. “There’s something important I need to show you before we call anyone.”
Sienna walked tiredly down the hall to the apartment’s modest bedroom. Retrieving a pair of blue jeans and a sweater from the dresser, she carried them into her bathroom.
Locking her eyes with her own reflection in the mirror, she reached up, grabbed a clutch of her thick blond ponytail, and pulled down hard, sliding the wig from her bald scalp.
A hairless thirty-two-year-old woman stared back at her from the mirror.
Sienna had endured no shortage of challenges in her life, and although she had trained herself to rely on intellect to overcome hardship, her current predicament had shaken her on a deeply emotional level.
She set the wig aside and washed her face and hands. After drying off, she changed her clothes and put the wig back on, straightening it carefully. Self-pity was an impulse Sienna seldom tolerated, but now, as the tears welled up from deep within, she knew she had no choice but to let them come.
And so she did.
She cried for the life she could not control.
She cried for the mentor who had died before her eyes.
She cried for the profound loneliness that filled her heart.
But, above all, she cried for the future … which suddenly felt so uncertain.
Belowdecks on the luxury vessel The Mendacium, facilitator Laurence Knowlton sat in his sealed glass cubicle and stared in disbelief at his computer monitor, having just previewed the video their client had left behind.
I’m supposed to upload this to the media tomorrow morning?
In his ten years with the Consortium, Knowlton had performed all kinds of strange tasks that he knew fell somewhere between dishonest and illegal. Working within a moral gray area was commonplace at the Consortium—an organization whose lone ethical high ground was that they would do whatever it took to keep a promise to a client.
We follow through. No questions asked. No matter what.
The prospect of uploading this video, however, had left Knowlton unsettled. In the past, no matter what bizarre tasks he had performed, he always understood the rationale … grasped the motives … comprehended the desired outcome.
And yet this video was baffling.
Something about it felt different.
Sitting back down at his computer, Knowlton restarted the video file, hoping a second viewing might shed more light. He turned up the volume and settled in for the nine-minute show.
As before, the video began with the soft lapping of water in the eerie water-filled cavern where everything was bathed in a numinous red light. Again the camera plunged down through the surface of the illuminated water to view the silt-covered floor of the cavern. And again, Knowlton read the text on the submerged plaque:
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
That the polished plaque was signed by the Consortium’s client was disquieting. That the date was tomorrow … left Knowlton increasingly concerned. It was what followed, however, that had truly set Knowlton on edge.
The camera now panned to the left to reveal a startling object hovering underwater just beside the plaque.
Here, tethered to the floor by a short filament, was an undulating sphere of thin plastic. Delicate and wobbling like an oversize soap bubble, the transparent shape floated like an underwater balloon … inflated not with helium, but with some kind of gelatinous, yellow-brown liquid. The amorphous bag was distended and appeared to be about a foot in diameter, and within its transparent walls, the murky cloud of liquid seemed to swirl slowly, like the eye of a silently growing storm.
Jesus, Knowlton thought, feeling clammy. The suspended bag looked even more ominous the second time around.
Slowly, the image faded to black.
A new image appeared—the cavern’s damp wall, dancing with the rippling reflections of the illuminated lagoon. On the wall, a shadow appeared … the shadow of a man … standing in the cavern.
But the man’s head was misshapen … badly.
Instead of a nose, the man had a long beak … as if he were half bird.
When he spoke, his voice was muffled … and he spoke with an eerie eloquence … a measured cadence … as if he were the narrator in some kind of classical chorus.
Knowlton sat motionless, barely breathing, as the beaked shadow spoke.
I am the Shade.
If you are watching this, then it means my soul is finally at rest.
Driven underground, I must speak to the world from deep within the earth, exiled to this gloomy cavern where the bloodred waters collect in the lagoon that reflects no stars.
But this is my paradise … the perfect womb for my fragile child.
Soon you will know what I have left behind.
And yet, even here, I sense the footfalls of the ignorant souls who pursue me … willing to stop at nothing to thwart my actions.
Forgive them, you might say, for they know not what they do. But there comes a moment in history when ignorance is no longer a forgivable offense … a moment when only wisdom has the power to absolve.
With purity of conscience, I have bequeathed to you all the gift of Hope, of salvation, of tomorrow.
And yet still there are those who hunt me like a dog, fueled by the self-righteous belief that I am a madman. There is the silver-haired beauty who dares call me monster! Like the blind clerics who lobbied for the death of Copernicus, she scorns me as a demon, terrified that I have glimpsed the Truth.
But I am not a prophet.
I am your salvation.
I am the Shade.
“Have a seat,” Sienna said. “I have some questions for you.”
As Langdon entered the kitchen, he felt much steadier on his feet. He was wearing the neighbor’s Brioni suit, which fit remarkably well. Even the loafers were comfortable, and Langdon made a mental note to switch to Italian footwear when he got home.
If I get home, he thought.
Sienna was transformed—a natural beauty—having changed into formfitting jeans and a cream-colored sweater, both of which complemented her lithe figure. Her hair was still pulled back in a ponytail, and without the authoritative air of medical scrubs, she seemed more vulnerable somehow. Langdon noticed her eyes were red, as if she had been crying, and an overwhelming guilt again gripped him.
“Sienna, I’m so sorry. I heard the phone message. I don’t know what to say.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “But we need to focus on you at the moment. Please sit down.”
Her tone was firmer now, conjuring memories of the articles Langdon had just read about her intellect and precocious childhood.
“I need you to think,” Sienna said, motioning for him to sit. “Can you remember how we got to this apartment?”
Langdon wasn’t sure how it was relevant. “In a taxi,” he said, sitting down at the table. “Someone was shooting at us.”
“Shooting at you, Professor. Let’s be clear on that.”
“And do you remember any gunshots while you were in the cab?”
Odd question. “Yes, two of them. One hit the side mirror, and the other broke the rear window.”
“Good, now close your eyes.”
Langdon realized she was testing his memory. He closed his eyes.
“What am I wearing?”
Langdon could see her perfectly. “Black flats, blue jeans, and a cream V-neck sweater. Your hair is blond, shoulder length, pulled back. Your eyes are brown.”
Langdon opened his eyes and studied her, pleased to see his eidetic memory was functioning normally.
“Good. Your visual cognitive imprinting is excellent, which confirms your amnesia is fully retrograde, and you have no permanent damage to the memory-making process. Have you recalled anything new from the last few days?”
“No, unfortunately. I did have another wave of visions while you were gone, though.”
Langdon told her about the recurrence of his hallucination of the veiled woman, the throngs of dead people, and the writhing, half-buried legs marked with the letter R. Then he told her about the strange, beaked mask hovering in the sky.
“ ‘I am death’?” Sienna asked, looking troubled.
“That’s what it said, yes.”
“Okay … I guess that beats ‘I am Vishnu, destroyer of worlds.’ ”
The young woman had just quoted Robert Oppenheimer at the moment he tested the first atomic bomb.
“And this beak-nosed … green-eyed mask?” Sienna said, looking puzzled. “Do you have any idea why your mind might have conjured that image?”
“No idea at all, but that style of mask was quite common in the Middle Ages.” Langdon paused. “It’s called a plague mask.”
Sienna looked strangely unnerved. “A plague mask?”
Langdon quickly explained that in his world of symbols, the unique shape of the long-beaked mask was nearly synonymous with the Black Death—the deadly plague that swept through Europe in the 1300s, killing off a third of the population in some regions. Most believed the “black” in Black Death was a reference to the darkening of the victims’ flesh through gangrene and subepidermal hemorrhages, but in fact the word black was a reference to the profound emotional dread that the pandemic spread through the population.
“That long-beaked mask,” Langdon said, “was worn by medieval plague doctors to keep the pestilence far from their nostrils while treating the infected. Nowadays, you only see them worn as costumes during Venice Carnevale—an eerie reminder of a grim period in Italy’s history.”
“And you’re certain you saw one of these masks in your visions?” Sienna asked, her voice now tremulous. “A mask of a medieval plague doctor?”
Langdon nodded. A beaked mask is hard to mistake.
Sienna was knitting her brow in a way that gave Langdon the sense she was trying to figure out how best to give him some bad news. “And the woman kept telling you to ‘seek and find’?”
“Yes. Just as before. But the problem is, I have no idea what I’m supposed to seek.”
Sienna let out a long slow breath, her expression grave. “I think I may know. And what’s more … I think you may have already found it.”
Langdon stared. “What are you talking about?!”
“Robert, last night when you arrived at the hospital, you were carrying something unusual in your jacket pocket. Do you recall what it was?”
Langdon shook his head.
“You were carrying an object … a rather startling object. I found it by chance when we were cleaning you up.” She motioned to Langdon’s bloody Harris Tweed, which was laid out flat on the table. “It’s still in the pocket, if you’d like to have a look.”
Uncertain, Langdon eyed his jacket. At least that explains why she went back for my jacket. He grabbed his bloodstained coat and searched all the pockets, one by one. Nothing. He did it again. Finally, he turned to her with a shrug. “There’s nothing here.”
“How about the secret pocket?”
“What? My jacket doesn’t have a secret pocket.”
“No?” She looked puzzled. “Then is this jacket … someone else’s?”
Langdon’s brain felt muddled again. “No, this is my jacket.”
Damned certain, he thought. In fact, it used to be my favorite Camberley.
He folded back the lining and showed Sienna the label bearing his favorite symbol in the fashion world—Harris Tweed’s iconic orb adorned with thirteen buttonlike jewels and topped by a Maltese cross.
Leave it to the Scots to invoke the Christian warriors on a piece of twill.
“Look at this,” Langdon said, pointing out the hand-embroidered initials—R.L.—that had been added to the label. He always sprang for Harris Tweed’s hand-tailored models, and for that reason, he always paid extra to have them sew his initials into the label. On a college campus where hundreds of tweed jackets were constantly doffed and donned in dining halls and classrooms, Langdon had no intention of getting the short end of an inadvertent trade.
“I believe you,” she said, taking the jacket from him. “Now you look.”
Sienna opened the jacket farther to reveal the lining near the nape of the back. Here, discreetly hidden in the lining, was a large, neatly fashioned pocket.
What the hell?!
Langdon was certain he had never seen this before.
The pocket consisted of a hidden seam, perfectly tailored.
“That wasn’t there before!” Langdon insisted.
“Then I’m imagining you’ve never seen … this?” Sienna reached into the pocket and extracted a sleek metal object, which she set gently in Langdon’s hands.
Langdon stared down at the object in utter bewilderment.
“Do you know what this is?” Sienna asked.
“No …” he stammered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well, unfortunately, I do know what this is. And I’m fairly certain it’s the reason someone is trying to kill you.”
Now pacing his private cubicle aboard The Mendacium, facilitator Knowlton felt an increasing disquiet as he considered the video he was supposed to share with the world tomorrow morning.
I am the Shade?
Rumors had circulated that this particular client had suffered a psychotic break over the last few months, but this video seemed to confirm those rumors beyond any doubt.
Knowlton knew he had two choices. He could either prepare the video for delivery tomorrow as promised, or he could take it upstairs to the provost for a second opinion.
I already know his opinion, Knowlton thought, having never witnessed the provost take any action other than the one promised a client. He’ll tell me to upload this video to the world, no questions asked … and he’ll be furious at me for asking.
Knowlton returned his attention to the video, which he rewound to a particularly unsettling spot. He started the playback, and the eerily illuminated cavern reappeared accompanied by the sounds of lapping water. The humanoid shadow loomed on the dripping wall—a tall man with a long, birdlike beak.
In a muffled voice, the deformed shadow spoke:
These are the new Dark Ages.
Centuries ago, Europe was in the depths of its own misery—the population huddled, starving, mired in sin and hopelessness. They were as a congested forest, suffocated by deadwood, awaiting God’s lightning strike—the spark that would finally ignite the fire that would rage across the land and clear the deadwood, once again bringing sunshine to the healthy roots.
Culling is God’s Natural Order.
Ask yourself, What followed the Black Death?
We all know the answer.
It has always been this way. Death is followed by birth.
To reach Paradise, man must pass through Inferno.
This, the master taught us.
And yet the silver-haired ignorant dares call me monster? Does she still not grasp the mathematics of the future? The horrors it will bring?
I am the Shade.
I am your salvation.
And so I stand, deep within this cavern, gazing out across the lagoon that reflects no stars. Here in this sunken palace, Inferno smolders beneath the waters.
Soon it will burst into flames.
And when it does, nothing on earth will be able to stop it.
The object in Langdon’s hand felt surprisingly heavy for its size.
Slender and smooth, the polished metal cylinder was about six inches long and rounded at both ends, like a miniature torpedo.