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Garza covered the phone and smiled at the prince. “All is well. I’ll just step into the other room to sort out the details so that you gentlemen can have some privacy.”

Garza was reluctant to leave the prince alone with Valdespino, but this was not a call he could take in front of either of them, so he walked to one of the guest bedrooms, stepped inside, and closed the door.

“?Que diablos ha pasado?” he seethed into the phone. What the hell happened?

Fonseca relayed a story that sounded like utter fantasy.

“The lights went out?” Garza demanded. “A computer posed as a security officer and gave you bad intel? How am I supposed to respond to that?”

“I realize it is hard to imagine, sir, but that is precisely what happened. What we are struggling to understand is why the computer had a sudden change of heart.”

“Change of heart?! It’s a goddamned computer!”

“What I mean is that the computer had previously been helpful–identifying the shooter by name, attempting to thwart the assassination, and also discovering that the getaway vehicle was an Uber car. Then, very suddenly, it seemed to be working against us. All we can figure is that Robert Langdon must have said something to it, because after its conversation with him, everything changed.”

Now I’m battling a computer? Garza decided he was getting too old for this modern world. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, Agent Fonseca, how embarrassing this would be for the prince both personally and politically if it were known that his fiancee had fled with the American, and that the prince’s Guardia Real had been tricked by a computer.”

“We are acutely aware of that.”

“Do you have any idea what would inspire the two of them to run away? It seems entirely unwarranted and reckless.”

“Professor Langdon was quite resistant when I told him he would be joining us in Madrid this evening. He made it clear he did not want to come.”

And so he fled a murder scene? Garza sensed something else was going on, but he could not imagine what. “Listen to me carefully. It is absolutely critical that you locate Ambra Vidal and bring her back to the palace before any of this information leaks out.”

“I understand, sir, but Diaz and I are the only two agents on the scene. We can’t possibly search all of Bilbao alone. We’ll need to alert the local authorities, gain access to traffic cams, air support, every possible–”

“Absolutely not!” Garza replied. “We can’t afford the embarrassment. Do your job. Find them on your own, and return Ms. Vidal to our custody as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

Garza hung up, incredulous.

As he stepped out of the bedroom, a pale young woman hurried up the hallway toward him. She was wearing her usual techie Coke-bottle glasses and beige pantsuit, and was anxiously clutching a computer tablet.

God save me, Garza thought. Not now.

Monica Martin was the palace’s newest and youngest-ever “public relations coordinator”–a post that included the duties of media liaison, PR strategist, and communications director–which Martin seemed to carry out in a permanent state of high alert.

At only twenty-six years of age, Martin held a communications degree from Madrid’s Complutense University, had done two years of postgrad work at one of the top computer schools in the world–Tsinghua University in Beijing–and then had landed a high-powered PR job at Grupo Planeta followed by a top “communications” post at Spanish television network Antena 3.

Last year, in a desperate attempt to connect via digital media with the young people of Spain, and to keep up with the mushrooming influence of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and online media, the palace had fired a seasoned PR professional with decades of print and media experience and replaced him with this tech-savvy millennial.

Martin owes everything to Prince Julian, Garza knew.

The young woman’s appointment to the palace staff had been one of Prince Julian’s few contributions to palace operations–a rare instance when he flexed his muscle with his father. Martin was considered one of the best in the business, but Garza found her paranoia and nervous energy utterly exhausting.

“Conspiracy theories ,” Martin announced to him, waving her tablet as she arrived. “They’re exploding all over.”

Garza stared at his PR coordinator in disbelief. Do I look like I care? He had more important things to worry about tonight than the conspiratorial rumor mill. “Would you mind telling me what you are doing strolling through the royal residence!”

“The control room just pinged your GPS.” She pointed to the phone on Garza’s belt.

Garza closed his eyes and exhaled, swallowing his irritation. In addition to a new PR coordinator, the palace had recently implemented a new “division of electronic security,” which supported Garza’s team with GPS services, digital surveillance, profiling, and preemptive data mining. Every day, Garza’s staff was more diverse and youthful.

Our control room looks like a college campus computer center.

Apparently, the newly implemented technology used to track Guardia agents was also tracking Garza himself. It felt unnerving to think that a bunch of kids in the basement knew his whereabouts at every instant.

“I came to you personally,” Martin said, holding out her tablet, “because I knew you’d want to see this.”

Garza snatched the device from her and eyed the screen, seeing a stock photo and bio of the silver-bearded Spaniard who had been identified as the Bilbao shooter–royal navy admiral Luis Avila.

“There’s a lot of damaging chatter,” said Martin, “and much is being made of Avila’s being a former employee of the royal family.”

“Avila worked for the navy!” Garza spluttered.

“Yes, but technically, the king is the commander of the armed forces–”

“Stop right there,” Garza ordered, shoving the tablet back at her. “Suggesting the king is somehow complicit in a terrorist act is an absurd stretch made by conspiracy nuts, and is wholly irrelevant to our situation tonight. Let’s just count our blessings and get back to work. After all, this lunatic could have killed the queen consort but chose instead to kill an American atheist. All in all, not a bad outcome!”

The young woman didn’t flinch. “There’s something else, sir, which relates to the royal family. I didn’t want you to be blindsided.”

As Martin spoke, her fingers flew across the tablet, navigating to another site. “This is a photo that has been online for a few days, but nobody noticed it. Now, with everything about Edmond Kirsch going viral, this photo is starting to appear in the news.” She handed Garza the tablet.

Garza eyed a headline: “Is This the Last Photo Taken of Futurist Edmond Kirsch?”

A blurry photograph showed Kirsch dressed in a dark suit, standing on a rocky bluff beside a perilous cliff.

“The photo was taken three days ago,” Martin said, “while Kirsch was visiting the Abbey of Montserrat. A worker on-site recognized Kirsch and snapped a photo. After Kirsch’s murder tonight, the worker re-posted the photo as one of the last ever taken of the man.”

“And this relates to us, how?” Garza asked pointedly.

“Scroll down to the next photo.”

Garza scrolled down. On seeing the second image, he had to reach out and steady himself on the wall. “This … this can’t be true.”

In this wider-frame version of the same shot, Edmond Kirsch could be seen standing beside a tall man wearing a traditional Catholic purple cassock. The man was Bishop Valdespino.

“It’s true, sir,” Martin said. “Valdespino met with Kirsch a few days ago.”

“But …” Garza hesitated, momentarily speechless. “But why wouldn’t the bishop have mentioned this? Especially considering all that has happened tonight!”

Martin gave a suspicious nod. “That’s why I chose to speak to you first.”

Valdespino met with Kirsch! Garza could not quite wrap his mind around it. And the bishop declined to mention it? The news was alarming, and Garza felt eager to warn the prince.

“Unfortunately,” the young woman said, “there’s a lot more.” She began manipulating her tablet again.

“Commander?” Valdespino’s voice called suddenly from the living room. “What is the news on Ms. Vidal’s transport?”

Monica Martin’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “Is that the bishop?” she whispered. “Valdespino is here in the residence?”

“Yes. Counseling the prince.”

“Commander!” Valdespino called again. “Are you there?”

“Believe me,” Martin whispered, her tone panicked, “there is more information that you must have right away–before you say another word to the bishop or the prince. Trust me when I tell you that tonight’s crisis impacts us far more deeply than you can imagine.”

Garza studied his PR coordinator a moment and made his decision. “Downstairs in the library. I’ll meet you there in sixty seconds.”

Martin nodded and slipped away.

Alone now, Garza took a deep breath and forced his features to relax, hoping to erase all traces of his growing anger and confusion. Calmly, he strolled back into the living room.

“All is well with Ms. Vidal,” Garza announced with a smile as he entered. “She’ll be here later. I’m headed down to the security office to confirm her transportation personally.” Garza gave Julian a confident nod and then turned to Bishop Valdespino. “I’ll be back shortly. Don’t go away.”

With that, he turned and strode out.

As Garza exited the apartment, Bishop Valdespino stared after him, frowning.

“Is something wrong?” the prince asked, eyeing the bishop closely.

“Yes,” Valdespino replied, turning back to Julian. “I’ve been taking confessions for fifty years. I know a lie when I hear one.”

CHAPTER 34

ConspiracyNet.com BREAKING NEWS

ONLINE COMMUNITY ERUPTS WITH QUESTIONS

In the wake of Edmond Kirsch’s assassination, the futurist’s massive online following has erupted in a firestorm of speculation over two urgent issues.

WHAT WAS KIRSCH’S DISCOVERY?

WHO KILLED HIM, AND WHY?

Regarding Kirsch’s discovery, theories have already flooded the Internet and span a wide range of topics–from Darwin, to extraterrestrials, to Creationism, and beyond.

No motive has yet been confirmed for this killing, but theories include religious zealotry, corporate espionage, and jealousy.

ConspiracyNet has been promised exclusive information about the killer, and we will share it with you the moment it arrives.

CHAPTER 35

AMBRA VIDAL STOOD alone in the cabin of the water taxi, clutching Robert Langdon’s jacket around her. Minutes ago, when Langdon asked why she had agreed to marry a man she barely knew, Ambra had replied truthfully.

I was given no choice.

Her engagement to Julian was a misfortune she could not bear to relive tonight, not with everything else that had happened.

I was trapped.

I’m still trapped.

Now, as Ambra looked at her own reflection in the dirty window, she felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness engulf her. Ambra Vidal was not one to indulge in self-pity, but at the moment her heart felt brittle and adrift. I’m engaged to a man who is involved somehow in a brutal murder.

The prince had sealed Edmond’s fate with a single phone call only an hour before the event. Ambra had been frantically preparing for the arrival of the guests when a young staff member had rushed in, excitedly waving a slip of paper.

“!Senora Vidal! !Mensaje para usted!”

The girl was giddy and explained in breathless Spanish that an important call had just come in to the museum’s front desk.

“Our caller ID,” she squeaked, “said Royal Palace of Madrid, and so of course I answered! And it was someone calling from the office of Prince Julian!”

“They called the front desk?” Ambra asked. “They have my cell number.”

“The prince’s assistant said he tried your mobile,” the staffer explained, “but they couldn’t get through.”

Ambra checked her phone. Odd. No missed call. Then she realized that some technicians had just been testing the museum’s cellular jamming system, and Julian’s assistant must have called while her phone was disabled.

“It seems the prince got a call today from a very important friend in Bilbao who wants to attend tonight’s event.” The girl handed Ambra the slip of paper. “He hoped you would be able to add one name to tonight’s guest list?”

Ambra eyed the message.

Almirante Luis Avila (ret.)

Armada Espanola

A retired officer from the Spanish navy?

“They left a number and said you can call back directly if you want to discuss it, but that Julian was about to go into a meeting, so you probably won’t reach him. But the caller insisted that the prince does hope this request is not an imposition.”

An imposition? Ambra smoldered. Considering what you’ve already put me through?

“I’ll take care of it,” Ambra said. “Thank you.”

The young staffer danced away as if she’d just relayed the word of God Himself. Ambra glared at the prince’s request, irritated that he would think it appropriate to exert his influence with her in this way, especially after lobbying so hard against her participation in tonight’s event.

Once again, you leave me no choice, she thought.

If she ignored this request, the result would be an uncomfortable confrontation with a prominent naval officer at the front door. Tonight’s event was meticulously choreographed and would attract unparalleled media coverage. The last thing I need is an embarrassing tussle with one of Julian’s high-powered friends.

Admiral Avila had not been vetted or placed on the “cleared” list, but Ambra suspected that demanding a security check was both unnecessary and potentially insulting. After all, the man was a distinguished naval officer with enough power to pick up the phone, call the Royal Palace, and ask the future king for a favor.

And so, facing a tight schedule, Ambra made the only decision she could make. She wrote Admiral Avila’s name on the guest list at the front door, and also added it to the docenting database so a headset could be initialized for this new guest.

Then she went back to work.

And now Edmond is dead, Ambra reflected, returning to the present moment in the darkness of the water taxi. As she tried to rid her mind of the painful memories, a strange thought occurred to her.

I never spoke directly to Julian … the entire message was relayed through third parties.

The notion brought with it a small ray of hope.

Is it possible that Robert is right? And that maybe Julian is innocent?

She considered it a moment longer and then hurried outside.

She found the American professor standing alone on the bow, hands on the railing as he stared out into the night. Ambra joined him there, startled to see that the boat had left the main branch of the Nervion River and was now skimming northward along a small tributary that seemed less of a river than a perilous channel with high muddy banks. The shallow water and tight quarters made Ambra nervous, but their boat captain seemed unfazed, racing along the narrow gorge at top speed, his headlight blazing the way.

She quickly told Langdon about the call from Prince Julian’s office. “All I really know is that the museum’s front desk got a call that originated in the Royal Palace of Madrid. Technically, that call could have been from anyone there claiming to be Julian’s assistant.”

Langdon nodded. “That may be why the person chose to relay the request to you rather than talk to you directly. Any idea who might be involved?” Considering Edmond’s history with Valdespino, Langdon was inclined to look toward the bishop himself.

“It could be anybody,” Ambra said. “It’s a delicate time in the palace right now. With Julian taking center stage, a lot of the old advisers are scrambling to find favor and gain Julian’s ear. The country is changing, and I think a lot of the old guard are desperate to retain power.”

“Well, whoever is involved,” Langdon said, “let’s hope they don’t figure out we’re trying to locate Edmond’s password and release his discovery.”

As he spoke the words, Langdon felt the stark simplicity of their challenge.

He also sensed its blunt peril.

Edmond was murdered to keep this information from being released.

For an instant, Langdon wondered if his safest option might be simply to fly directly home from the airport and let someone else handle all this.

Safe, yes, he thought, but an option … no.

Langdon felt a profound sense of duty toward his old student, along with moral outrage that a scientific breakthrough could be so brutally censored. He also felt a deep intellectual curiosity to learn exactly what Edmond had discovered.

And finally, Langdon knew, there is Ambra Vidal.

The woman was clearly in crisis, and when she had looked into his eyes and pleaded for help, Langdon had sensed in her a deep well of personal conviction and self-reliance … yet he had also seen heavy clouds of fear and regret. There are secrets there, he sensed, dark and confining. She is reaching out for help.

Ambra raised her eyes suddenly, as if sensing Langdon’s thoughts. “You look cold,” she said. “You need your jacket back.”

He smiled softly. “I’m fine.”

“Are you thinking you should leave Spain as soon as we get to the airport?”

Langdon laughed. “Actually, that did cross my mind.”

“Please don’t.” She reached out to the railing and placed her soft hand on top of his. “I’m not sure what we’re facing tonight. You were close to Edmond, and he told me more than once how much he valued your friendship and trusted your opinion. I’m scared, Robert, and I really don’t think I can face this alone.”

Ambra’s flashes of unguarded candor were startling to Langdon, and yet also utterly captivating. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “You and I owe it to Edmond and, frankly, to the scientific community, to find that password and make his work public.”

Ambra smiled softly. “Thank you.”

Langdon glanced behind the boat. “I imagine your Guardia agents have realized by now that we’ve left the museum.”

“No doubt. But Winston was quite impressive, wasn’t he?”

“Mind-boggling,” Langdon replied, only now starting to grasp the quantum leap Edmond had made in the development of AI. Whatever Edmond’s “proprietary breakthrough technologies” had been, clearly he had been poised to usher in a brave new world of human-computer interaction.

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