1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46

against his chest as he ran. His mind flashed on the strange letters adorning the eighth ring of hell: CATROVACER. He pictured the plague mask and the strange signature: The truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death.

Langdon strained to connect these disparate elements, but at the moment nothing was making sense. When he finally came to a stop on the staircase landing, Sienna was there, listening intently. Langdon could hear footsteps pounding up the stairs from below.

“Is there another exit?” Langdon whispered.

“Follow me,” she said tersely.

Sienna had kept Langdon alive once already today, and so, with little choice but to trust the woman, Langdon took a deep breath and bounded down the stairs after her.

They descended one floor, and the sounds of approaching boots grew very close now, echoing only a floor or two below them.

Why is she running directly into them?

Before Langdon could protest, Sienna grabbed his hand and yanked him out of the stairwell along a deserted hallway of apartments—a long corridor of locked doors.

There’s nowhere to hide!

Sienna flipped a light switch and a few bulbs went out, but the dim hallway did little to hide them. Sienna and Langdon were clearly visible here. The thundering footsteps were nearly upon them now, and Langdon knew their assailants would appear on the staircase at any moment, with a direct view down this hall.

“I need your jacket,” Sienna whispered as she yanked Langdon’s suit jacket off him. She then forced Langdon to crouch on his haunches behind her in a recessed doorframe. “Don’t move.”

What is she doing? She’s in plain sight!

The soldiers appeared on the staircase, rushing upward but stopping short when they saw Sienna in the darkened hallway.

“Per l’amore di Dio!” Sienna shouted at them, her tone scathing. “Cos’è questa confusione?”

The two men squinted, clearly uncertain what they were looking at.

Sienna kept yelling at them. “Tanto chiasso a quest’ora!” So much noise at this hour!

Langdon now saw that Sienna had draped his black jacket over her head and shoulders like an old woman’s shawl. She had hunched over, positioning herself to obstruct their view of Langdon crouched in the shadows, and now, utterly transformed, she hobbled one step toward them and screamed like a senile old woman.

One of the soldiers held up his hand, motioning for her to return to her apartment. “Signora! Rientri subito in casa!”

Sienna took another rickety step, shaking her fist angrily. “Avete svegliato mio marito, che è malato!”

Langdon listened in bewilderment. They woke up your ailing husband?

The other soldier now raised his machine gun and aimed directly at her. “Ferma o sparo!”

Sienna stopped short, cursing them mercilessly as she hobbled backward, away from them.

The men hurried on, disappearing up the stairs.

Not quite Shakespearean acting, Langdon thought, but impressive. Apparently a background in drama could be a versatile weapon.

Sienna removed the jacket from her head and tossed it back to Langdon. “Okay, follow me.”

This time Langdon followed without hesitation.

They descended to the landing above the lobby, where two more soldiers were just entering the elevator to go upstairs. On the street outside, another soldier stood watch beside the van, his black uniform stretched taut across his muscular body. In silence, Sienna and Langdon hurried downstairs toward the basement.

The underground carport was dark and smelled of urine. Sienna jogged over to a corner packed with scooters and motorcycles. She stopped at a silver Trike—a three-wheeled moped contraption that looked like the ungainly offspring of an Italian Vespa and an adult tricycle. She ran her slender hand beneath the Trike’s front fender and removed a small magnetized case. Inside was a key, which she inserted, and revved the engine.

Seconds later, Langdon was seated behind her on the bike. Precariously perched on the small seat, Langdon groped at his sides, looking for handgrips or something to steady himself.

“Not the moment for modesty,” Sienna said, grabbing his hands and wrapping them around her slender waist. “You’ll want to hold on.”

Langdon did exactly that as Sienna gunned the Trike up the exit ramp. The vehicle had more power than he would have imagined, and they nearly left the ground as they launched out of the garage, emerging into the early-morning light about fifty yards from the main entrance. The brawny soldier in front of the building turned at once to see Langdon and Sienna tearing away, their Trike letting out a high-pitched whine as she opened the throttle.

Perched on the back, Langdon peered back over his shoulder toward the soldier, who now raised his weapon and took careful aim. Langdon braced himself. A single shot rang out, ricocheting off the Trike’s back fender, barely missing the base of Langdon’s spine.

Jesus!

Sienna made a hard left at an intersection, and Langdon felt himself sliding, fighting to keep his balance.

“Lean toward me!” she shouted.

Langdon leaned forward, centering himself again as Sienna raced the Trike down a larger thoroughfare. They had driven a full block before Langdon began breathing again.

Who the hell were those men?!

Sienna’s focus remained locked on the road ahead as she raced down the avenue, weaving in and out of the light morning traffic. Several pedestrians did double takes as they passed, apparently puzzled to see a six-foot man in a Brioni suit riding behind a slender woman.

Langdon and Sienna had traveled three blocks and were approaching a major intersection when horns blared up ahead. A sleek black van rounded the corner on two wheels, fishtailing into the intersection, and then accelerating up the road directly toward them. The van was identical to the soldiers’ van back at the apartment building.

Sienna immediately swerved hard to her right and slammed on the brakes. Langdon’s chest pressed hard into her back as she skidded to a stop out of sight behind a parked delivery truck. She nestled the Trike up to the rear bumper of the truck and killed the engine.

Did they see us!?

She and Langdon huddled low and waited … breathless.

The van roared past without hesitation, apparently never having seen them. As the vehicle sped by, however, Langdon caught a fleeting glimpse of someone inside.

In the backseat, an attractive older woman was wedged between two soldiers like a captive. Her eyes sagged and her head bobbed as if she were delirious or maybe drugged. She wore an amulet and had long silver hair that fell in ringlets.

For a moment Langdon’s throat clenched, and he thought he’d seen a ghost.

It was the woman from his visions.

CHAPTER 17

The provost stormed out of the control room and marched along the long starboard deck of The Mendacium, trying to gather his thoughts. What had just transpired at the Florence apartment building was unthinkable.

He circled the entire ship twice before stalking into his office and taking out a bottle of fifty-year-old Highland Park single malt. Without pouring a glass, he set down the bottle and turned his back on it—a personal reminder that he was still very much in control.

His eyes moved instinctively to a heavy, weathered tome on his bookshelf—a gift from a client … the client whom he now wished he’d never met.

A year ago … how could I have known?

The provost did not normally interview prospective clients personally, but this one had come to him through a trusted source, and so he had made an exception.

It had been a dead calm day at sea when the client arrived aboard The Mendacium via his own private helicopter. The visitor, a notable figure in his field, was forty-six, clean-cut, and exceptionally tall, with piercing green eyes.

“As you know,” the man had begun, “your services were recommended to me by a mutual friend.” The visitor stretched out his long legs and made himself at home in the provost’s lushly appointed office. “So, let me tell you what I need.”

“Actually, no,” the provost interrupted, showing the man who was in charge. “My protocol requires that you tell me nothing. I will explain the services I provide, and you will decide which, if any, are of interest to you.”

The visitor looked taken aback but acquiesced and listened intently. In the end, what the lanky newcomer desired had turned out to be very standard fare for the Consortium—essentially a chance to become “invisible” for a while so he could pursue an endeavor far from prying eyes.

Child’s play.

The Consortium would accomplish this by providing him a fake identity and a secure location, entirely off the grid, where he could do his work in total secrecy—whatever his work might be. The Consortium never inquired for what purpose a client required a service, preferring to know as little as possible about those for whom they worked.

For a full year, at a staggering profit, the provost had provided safe haven to the green-eyed man, who had turned out to be an ideal client. The provost had no contact with him, and all of his bills were paid on time.

Then, two weeks ago, everything changed.

Unexpectedly, the client had made contact, demanding a personal meeting with the provost. Considering the sum of money the client had paid, the provost obliged.

The disheveled man who arrived on the yacht was barely recognizable as the steady, clean-cut person with whom the provost had done business the year before. He had a wild look in his once-sharp green eyes. He looked almost … ill.

What happened to him? What has he been doing?

The provost had ushered the jittery man into his office.

“The silver-haired devil,” his client stammered. “She’s getting closer every day.”

The provost glanced down at his client’s file, eyeing the photo of the attractive silver-haired woman. “Yes,” the provost said, “your silver-haired devil. We are well aware of your enemies. And as powerful as she may be, for a full year we’ve kept her from you, and we will continue to do so.”

The green-eyed man anxiously twisted strands of greasy hair around his fingertips. “Don’t let her beauty fool you, she is a dangerous foe.”

True, the provost thought, still displeased that his client had drawn the attention of someone so influential. The silver-haired woman had tremendous access and resources—not the kind of adversary the provost appreciated having to deflect.

“If she or her demons locate me …” the client began.

“They won’t,” the provost had assured him. “Have we not thus far hidden you and provided you everything you’ve requested?”

“Yes,” the man said. “And yet, I will sleep easier if …” He paused, regrouping. “I need to know that if anything happens to me, you will carry out my final wishes.”

“Those wishes being?”

The man reached into a bag and pulled out a small, sealed envelope. “The contents of this envelope provide access to a safe-deposit box in Florence. Inside the box, you will find a small object. If anything happens to me, I need you to deliver the object for me. It is a gift of sorts.”

“Very well.” The provost lifted his pen to make notes. “And to whom shall I deliver it?”

“To the silver-haired devil.”

The provost glanced up. “A gift for your tormentor?”

“More of a thorn in her side.” His eyes flashed wildly. “A clever little barb fashioned from a bone. She will discover it is a map … her own personal Virgil … an escort to the center of her own private hell.”

The provost studied him for a long moment. “As you wish. Consider it done.”

“The timing will be critical,” the man urged. “The gift should not be delivered too soon. You must keep it hidden until …” He paused, suddenly lost in thought.

“Until when?” the provost prodded.

The man stood abruptly and walked over behind the provost’s desk, grabbing a red marker and frantically circling a date on the provost’s personal desk calendar. “Until this day.”

The provost set his jaw and exhaled, swallowing his displeasure at the man’s brazenness. “Understood,” the provost said. “I will do nothing until the circled day, at which time the object in the safe-deposit box, whatever it may be, will be delivered to the silver-haired woman. You have my word.” He counted the days on his calendar until the awkwardly circled date. “I will carry out your wishes in precisely fourteen days from now.”

“And not one day before!” the client admonished feverishly.

“I understand,” the provost assured. “Not a day before.”

The provost took the envelope, slid it into the man’s file, and made the necessary notations to ensure that his client’s wishes were followed precisely. While his client had not described the exact nature of the object in the safe-deposit box, the provost preferred it this way. Detachment was a cornerstone of the Consortium’s philosophy. Provide the service. Ask no questions. Pass no judgment.

The client’s shoulders softened and he exhaled heavily. “Thank you.”

“Anything else?” the provost had asked, eager to rid himself of his transformed client.

“Yes, actually, there is.” He reached into his pocket and produced a small, crimson memory stick. “This is a video file.” He laid the memory stick in front of the provost. “I would like it uploaded to the world media.”

The provost studied the man curiously. The Consortium often mass-distributed information for clients, and yet something about this man’s request felt disconcerting. “On the same date?” the provost asked, motioning at the scrawled circle on his calendar.

“Same exact date,” the client replied. “Not one moment before.”

“Understood.” The provost tagged the red memory stick with the proper information. “So that’s it, then?” He stood up, attempting to end the meeting.

His client remained seated. “No. There is one final thing.”

The provost sat back down.

The client’s green eyes were looking almost feral now. “Shortly after you deliver this video, I will become a very famous man.”

You are already a famous man, the provost had thought, considering his client’s impressive accomplishments.

“And you will deserve some of the credit,” the man said. “The service you have provided has enabled me to create my masterpiece … an opus that is going to change the world. You should be proud of your role.”

“Whatever your masterpiece is,” the provost said with growing impatience, “I’m pleased you have had the privacy required to create it.”

“As a show of thanks, I’ve brought you a parting gift.” The unkempt man reached into his bag. “A book.”

The provost wondered if perhaps this book was the secret opus the client had been working on for all this time. “And did you write this book?”

“No.” The man heaved a massive tome up onto the table. “Quite to the contrary … this book was written for me.”

Puzzled, the provost eyed the edition his client had produced. He thinks this was written for him? The volume was a literary classic … written in the fourteenth century.

“Read it,” the client urged with an eerie smile. “It will help you understand all I have done.”

With that, the unkempt visitor had stood up, said good-bye, and abruptly departed. The provost watched through his office window as the man’s helicopter lifted off the deck and headed back toward the coast of Italy.

Then the provost returned his attention to the large book before him. With uncertain fingers, he lifted the leather cover and thumbed to the beginning. The opening stanza of the work was written in large calligraphy, taking up the entire first page.

INFERNO

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

for the straightforward pathway had been lost.

On the opposing page, his client had signed the book with a handwritten message:

My dear friend, thank you for helping me find the path.

The world thanks you, too.

The provost had no idea what this meant, but he’d read enough. He closed the book and placed it on his bookshelf. Thankfully, his professional relationship with this strange individual would be over soon. Fourteen more days, the provost thought, turning his gaze to the wildly scrawled red circle on his personal calendar.

In the days that followed, the provost felt uncharacteristically on edge about this client. The man seemed to have come unhinged. Nonetheless, despite the provost’s intuition, the time passed without incident.

Then, just before the circled date, there occurred a rapid series of calamitous events in Florence. The provost tried to handle the crisis, but it quickly accelerated out of control. The crisis climaxed with his client’s breathless ascent up the Badia tower.

He jumped off … to his death.

Despite his horror at losing a client, especially in this manner, the provost remained a man of his word. He quickly began preparing to make good on his final promise to the deceased—the delivery to the silver-haired woman of the contents of a safe-deposit box in Florence—the timing of which, he had been admonished, was critical.

Not before the date circled in your calendar.

The provost gave the envelope containing the safe-deposit-box codes to Vayentha, who had traveled to Florence to recover the object inside—this “clever little barb.” When Vayentha called in, however, her news was both startling and deeply alarming. The contents of the safe-deposit box had already been removed, and Vayentha had barely escaped being detained. Somehow, the silver-haired woman had learned of the account and had used her influence to gain access to the safe-deposit box and also to place an arrest warrant on anyone else who showed up looking to open it.

That was three days ago.

The client had clearly intended the purloined object to be his final insult to the silver-haired woman—a taunting voice from the grave.

And yet now it speaks too soon.

The Consortium had been in a desperate scramble ever since—using all its resources to protect its client’s final wishes, as well as itself. In the process, the Consortium had crossed a series of lines from which the provost knew it would be hard to return. Now, with everything unraveling in Florence, the provost stared down at his desk and wondered what the future held.

On his calendar, the client’s wildly scrawled circle stared up at him—a crazed ring of red ink around an apparently special day.

Tomorrow.

Reluctantly, the provost eyed the bottle of Scotch on the table before him. Then, for the first time in fourteen years, he poured a glass and drained it in a single gulp.

Belowdecks, facilitator Laurence Knowlton pulled the little red memory stick from his computer and set it on the desk in front of him. The video was one of the strangest things he had ever seen.

And it was precisely nine minutes long … to the second.

Feeling uncharacteristically alarmed, he stood and paced his tiny cubicle, wondering again whether he should share the bizarre video with the provost.

Just do your job, Knowlton told himself. No questions. No judgment.

Forcing the video from his mind, he marked his planner with a confirmed task. Tomorrow, as requested by the client, he would upload the video file to the media.

CHAPTER 18

Viale Niccolò Machiavelli has been called the most graceful of all Florentine avenues. With wide S-curves that serpentine through lushly wooded landscapes of hedges and deciduous trees, the drive is a favorite among cyclists and Ferrari

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46