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AGENT FONSECA AND his partner Diaz dashed through the darkened dome, illuminating the way with their cell-phone flashlights and plunging into the tunnel through which Langdon and Ambra had just disappeared.
Halfway up the tunnel, Fonseca found Ambra’s phone lying on the carpeted floor. The sight of it stunned him.
Ambra jettisoned her phone?
The Guardia Real, with Ambra’s permission, used a very simple tracking application to keep tabs on her location at all times. There could be only one explanation for her leaving her phone behind: she wanted to escape their protection.
The notion made Fonseca extremely nervous, although not nearly as nervous as the prospect of having to inform his boss that the future queen consort of Spain was now missing. The Guardia commander was obsessive and ruthless when it came to protecting the prince’s interests. Tonight, the commander had personally tasked Fonseca with the simplest of directives: “Keep Ambra Vidal safe and out of trouble at all times.”
I can’t keep her safe if I don’t know where she is!
The two agents hurried on to the end of the tunnel and arrived at the darkened anteroom, which now looked like a convention of ghosts–a host of pale shell-shocked faces illuminated by their cell-phone screens as they communicated to the outside world, relaying what they had just witnessed.
“Turn on the lights!” several people were shouting.
Fonseca’s phone rang, and he answered.
“Agent Fonseca, this is museum security,” said a young woman in terse Spanish. “We know you’ve lost lights up there. It appears to be a computer malfunction. We’ll have power back momentarily.”
“Are the internal security feeds still up?” Fonseca demanded, knowing the cameras were all equipped with night vision.
“They are, yes.”
Fonseca scanned the darkened room. “Ambra Vidal just entered the anteroom outside the main theater. Can you see where she went?”
“One moment, please.”
Fonseca waited, heart pounding with frustration. He had just received word that Uber was experiencing difficulties tracking the shooter’s getaway car.
Could anything else go wrong tonight?
Fatefully, tonight was his first time on Ambra Vidal’s detail. Normally, as a senior officer, Fonseca was assigned only to Prince Julian himself, and yet, this morning, his boss had taken him aside and informed him: “Tonight, Ms. Vidal will be hosting an event against the wishes of Prince Julian. You will accompany her and make sure she is safe.”
Fonseca never imagined that the event Ambra was hosting would turn out to be an all-out assault on religion, culminating in a public assassination. He was still trying to digest Ambra’s angry refusal to take Prince Julian’s concerned call.
It all seemed inconceivable, and yet her bizarre behavior was only escalating. By all appearances, Ambra Vidal was attempting to ditch her security detail so she could run off with an American professor.
If Prince Julian hears about this …
“Agent Fonseca?” The security woman’s voice returned. “We can see that Ms. Vidal and a male companion exited the anteroom. They moved down the catwalk and have just entered the gallery housing Louise Bourgeois’s Cells exhibit. Out the door, turn right, second gallery on your right.”
“Thank you! Keep tracking them!”
Fonseca and Diaz ran through the anteroom and exited onto the catwalk. Far below, they could see throngs of guests moving quickly across the lobby toward the exits.
To the right, exactly as security had promised, Fonseca saw the opening into a large gallery. The exhibit sign read: CELLS.
The gallery was expansive and housed a collection of strange cage-like enclosures, each containing its own amorphous white sculpture.
“Ms. Vidal!” Fonseca shouted. “Mr. Langdon!”
Receiving no answer, the two agents began searching.
Several rooms behind the Guardia agents, just outside the domed auditorium, Langdon and Ambra were climbing carefully through a maze of scaffolding, making their way silently toward the dimly lit “Exit” sign in the distance.
Their actions of the last minute had been a blur–with Langdon and Winston collaborating on a quick deception.
On Langdon’s cue, Winston had killed the lights and plunged the dome into darkness. Langdon had made a mental snapshot of the distance between their position and the tunnel exit, his estimate nearly perfect. At the mouth of the tunnel, Ambra had hurled her phone into the darkened passageway. Then, rather than entering the passage, they turned around, remaining inside the dome, and doubled back along the inner wall, running their hands along the fabric until they found the torn opening through which the Guardia agent had exited in order to pursue Edmond’s killer. After climbing through the opening in the fabric wall, the two made their way to the outer wall of the room and moved toward a lit sign that marked an emergency exit stairwell.
Langdon recalled with amazement how quickly Winston had arrived at the decision to help them. “If Edmond’s announcement can be triggered by a password,” Winston had said, “then we must find it and use it at once. My original directive was to assist Edmond in every way possible to make his announcement tonight a success. Obviously, I have failed him in this, and anything I can do to help rectify that failure I will do.”
Langdon was about to thank him, but Winston raced on without taking a breath. The words streamed from Winston at an inhumanly fast pace, like an audiobook playing at accelerated speed.
“If I myself were able to access Edmond’s presentation,” Winston said, “I would do so immediately, but as you heard, it is stored in a secure server off-site. It appears that all we require to release his discovery to the world is his customized phone and password. I have already searched all published texts for a forty-seven-letter line of poetry, and unfortunately the possibilities number in the hundreds of thousands, if not more, depending on how one breaks the stanzas. Furthermore, because Edmond’s interfaces generally lock out users after a few failed password attempts, a brute-force attack will be impossible. This leaves us only one option: we must find his password in another manner. I am in agreement with Ms. Vidal that you must gain access immediately to Edmond’s home in Barcelona. It seems logical that if he had a favorite line of poetry, he would possess a book containing that poem, and perhaps even have highlighted his favorite line in some manner. Therefore, I calculate a very high probability that Edmond would want you to go to Barcelona, find his password, and use it to release his announcement as planned. In addition, I have now determined that the last-minute phone call that requested Admiral Avila be added to the guest list did indeed originate in the Royal Palace in Madrid, as Ms. Vidal stated. For this reason, I have decided that we cannot trust the Guardia Real agents, and I will devise a way to divert them and thereby facilitate your escape.”
Incredibly, it appeared that Winston had found a way to do just that.
Langdon and Ambra had now reached the emergency exit, where Langdon quietly opened the door, ushered Ambra through, and closed the door behind them.
“Good,” Winston’s voice said, materializing again in Langdon’s head. “You’re in the stairwell.”
“And the Guardia agents?” Langdon asked.
“Far away,” Winston replied. “I am currently on the phone with them, posing as a museum security officer and misdirecting them to a gallery at the far end of the building.”
Incredible, Langdon thought, giving Ambra a reassuring nod. “All good.”
“Descend the stairs to ground level,” Winston said, “and exit the museum. Also, please be advised, once you exit the building, your museum headset will no longer have a connection to me.”
Damn. The thought had not occurred to Langdon. “Winston,” he said hurriedly, “are you aware that Edmond shared his discovery with a number of religious leaders last week?”
“That seems unlikely,” Winston replied, “although his introduction tonight certainly implied that his work has profound religious implications, so perhaps he wanted to discuss his findings with leaders in that field?”
“I think so, yes. One of them, however, was Bishop Valdespino from Madrid.”
“Interesting. I see numerous references online stating that he is a very close adviser to the king of Spain.”
“Yes, and one more thing,” Langdon said. “Were you aware that Edmond received a threatening voice mail from Valdespino after their meeting?”
“I was not. It must have come on a private line.”
“Edmond played it for me. Valdespino urged him to cancel his presentation and also warned that the clerics with whom Edmond had consulted were considering a preemptive announcement to undermine him somehow before he could go public.” Langdon slowed on the stairs, permitting Ambra to press ahead. He lowered his voice. “Did you find any connection between Valdespino and Admiral Avila?”
Winston paused a few seconds. “I found no direct connection, but that does not mean one does not exist. It just means it’s not documented.”
They approached the ground floor.
“Professor, if I may …,” Winston said. “Considering the events of this evening, logic would suggest that powerful forces are intent on burying Edmond’s discovery. Bearing in mind that his presentation named you as the person whose insight helped inspire his breakthrough, Edmond’s enemies might consider you a dangerous loose end.”
Langdon had never considered the possibility and felt a sudden flash of danger as he reached the ground floor. Ambra was already there, heaving open the metal door.
“When you exit,” Winston said, “you will find yourselves in an alley. Move to your left around the building and proceed down to the river. From there I will facilitate your transportation to the location we discussed.”
BIO-EC346, Langdon thought, having urged Winston to take them there. The place where Edmond and I were supposed to meet after the event. Langdon had finally deciphered the code, realizing that BIO-EC346 was not some secret science club at all. It was something far more mundane. Nonetheless, he hoped it would be the key to their escape from Bilbao.
If we can make it there undetected …, he thought, knowing there would soon be roadblocks everywhere. We need to move quickly.
As Langdon and Ambra stepped over the threshold into the cool night air, Langdon was startled to see what looked like rosary beads scattered across the ground. He didn’t have time to wonder why. Winston was still talking.
“Once you reach the river,” his voice commanded, “go to the walkway beneath La Salve Bridge and wait until–”
Langdon’s headset blared suddenly with deafening static.
“Winston?” Langdon shouted. “Wait until–what?!”
But Winston was gone, and the metal door had just slammed shut behind them.
MILES TO THE south, on the outskirts of Bilbao, an Uber sedan raced south along Highway AP-68 en route toward Madrid. In the backseat, Admiral Avila had removed his white jacket and naval cap, enjoying a sense of freedom as he sat back and reflected on his simple escape.
Precisely as the Regent promised.
Almost immediately after entering the Uber vehicle, Avila had drawn his pistol and pressed it against the head of the trembling driver. At Avila’s command, the driver had tossed his smartphone out the window, effectively severing his vehicle’s only connection with the company’s headquarters.
Then Avila had gone through the man’s wallet, memorizing his home address and the names of his wife and two children. Do as I say, Avila had told him, or your family will die. The man’s knuckles had turned white on the steering wheel, and Avila knew he had a devoted driver for the night.
I am invisible now, Avila thought as police cars raced by in the opposite direction, sirens wailing.
As the car sped south, Avila settled in for the long ride, savoring the afterglow of his adrenaline-fueled high. I have served the cause well, he thought. He glanced at the tattoo on his palm, realizing that the protection it provided had been an unnecessary precaution. At least for now.
Feeling confident that his terrified Uber driver would obey orders, Avila lowered his pistol. As the car rushed toward Madrid, he gazed once again at the two stickers on the car’s windshield.
What are the chances? he thought.
The first sticker was to be expected–the Uber logo. The second sticker, however, could only have been a sign from above.
The papal cross. The symbol was everywhere these days–Catholics around Europe showing solidarity with the new pope, praising his sweeping liberalization and modernization of the Church.
Ironically, Avila’s realization that his driver was a devotee of the liberal pope had made pulling a gun on the man an almost pleasurable experience. Avila was appalled at how the lazy masses adored this new pontiff, who was permitting the followers of Christ to pick and choose from a buffet table of God’s laws, deciding which rules were palatable to them and which were not. Almost overnight, inside the Vatican, questions of birth control, gay marriage, female priests, and other liberal causes were all on the table for discussion. Two thousand years of tradition seemed to be evaporating in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately, there are still those who fight for the old ways.
Avila heard strains of the Oriamendi hymn playing in his mind.
And I am honored to serve them.
SPAIN’S OLDEST AND most elite security force–the Guardia Real–has a fierce tradition that dates back to medieval times. Guardia agents consider it their sworn duty before God to ensure the safety of the royal family, to protect royal property, and to defend royal honor.
Commander Diego Garza–overseer of the Guardia’s nearly two thousand troops–was a stunted and weedy sixty-year-old with a swarthy complexion, tiny eyes, and thinning black hair worn slicked back over a mottled scalp. His rodent-like features and diminutive stature made Garza nearly invisible in a crowd, which helped camouflage his enormous influence within the palace walls.
Garza had learned long ago that true power stemmed not from physical strength but from political leverage. His command of the Guardia Real troops certainly gave him clout, but it was his prescient political savvy that had established Garza as the palace’s go-to man on a wide array of matters, both personal and professional.
A reliable curator of secrets, Garza had never once betrayed a confidence. His reputation for steadfast discretion, along with an uncanny ability to solve delicate problems, had made him indispensable to the king. Now, however, Garza and others in the palace faced an uncertain future as Spain’s aging sovereign lived out his final days at the Palacio de la Zarzuela.
For more than four decades, the king had ruled a turbulent country as it established a parliamentary monarchy following thirty-six years of bloody dictatorship under the ultraconservative general Francisco Franco. Since Franco’s death in 1975, the king had tried to work hand in hand with the government to cement Spain’s democratic process, inching the country ever so slowly back to the left.
For the youth, the changes were too slow.
For the aging traditionalists, the changes were blasphemous.
Many members of Spain’s establishment still fiercely defended Franco’s conservative doctrine, especially his view of Catholicism as a “state religion” and moral backbone of the nation. A rapidly growing number of Spain’s youth, however, stood in stark opposition to this view–brazenly denouncing the hypocrisy of organized religion and lobbying for greater separation of church and state.
Now, with a middle-aged prince poised to ascend to the throne, nobody was certain in which direction the new king would lean. For decades, Prince Julian had done an admirable job of performing his bland ceremonial duties, deferring to his father on matters of politics and never once tipping his hand as to his personal beliefs. While most pundits suspected he would be far more liberal than his father, there was really no way to know for sure.
Tonight, however, that veil would be lifted.
In light of the shocking events in Bilbao, and the king’s inability to speak publicly due to his health, the prince would have no choice but to weigh in on the evening’s troubling events.
Several high-ranking government officials, including the country’s president, had already condemned the murder, shrewdly deferring further comment until the Royal Palace had made a statement–thereby depositing the entire mess in Prince Julian’s lap. Garza was not surprised; the involvement of the future queen, Ambra Vidal, made this a political grenade that nobody felt like touching.
Prince Julian will be tested tonight, Garza thought, hurrying up the grand staircase toward the palace’s royal apartments. He is going to need guidance, and with his father incapacitated, that guidance must come from me.
Garza strode the length of the residencia hallway and finally reached the prince’s door. He took a deep breath and knocked.
Odd, he thought, getting no answer. I know he’s in there. According to Agent Fonseca in Bilbao, Prince Julian had just called from the apartment and was trying to reach Ambra Vidal to make sure she was safe, which, thank heavens, she was.
Garza knocked again, feeling rising concern when he again got no answer.
Hastily, he unlocked the door. “Don Julian?” he called as he stepped inside.
The apartment was dark except for the flickering light of the television in the living room. “Hello?”
Garza hurried in and found Prince Julian standing alone in the darkness, a motionless silhouette facing the bay window. He was still impeccably dressed in the tailored suit he had worn to his meetings this evening, having not yet so much as loosened his necktie.
Watching in silence, Garza felt unsettled by his prince’s trancelike state. This crisis appears to have left him stunned.
Garza cleared his throat, making his presence known.
When the prince finally spoke, he did so without turning from the window. “When I called Ambra,” he said, “she refused to speak to me.” Julian’s tone sounded more perplexed than hurt.
Garza was unsure how to reply. Given the night’s events, it seemed incomprehensible that Julian’s thoughts were on his relationship with Ambra–an engagement that had been strained right from its poorly conceived beginnings.
“I imagine Ms. Vidal is still in shock,” Garza offered quietly. “Agent Fonseca will deliver her to you later this evening. You can speak then. And let me just add how relieved I am, knowing that she is safe.”