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Tonight, Winston had proven himself a faithful servant to his creator as well as an invaluable ally to Langdon and Ambra. In a matter of minutes, Winston had identified a threat on the guest list, attempted to thwart Edmond’s assassination, identified the getaway car, and facilitated Langdon and Ambra’s escape from the museum.
“Let’s hope Winston phoned ahead to alert Edmond’s pilots,” Langdon said.
“I’m sure he did,” Ambra said. “But you’re right. I should call Winston to double-check.”
“Hold on,” Langdon said, surprised. “You can call Winston? When we left the museum and went out of range, I thought …”
Ambra laughed and shook her head. “Robert, Winston is not physically located inside the Guggenheim; he is located in a secret computer facility somewhere and accessed remotely. Do you really think Edmond would build a resource like Winston and not be able to communicate with him at all times, anywhere in the world? Edmond talked to Winston all the time–at home, traveling, out for walks–the two of them could connect at any moment with a simple phone call. I’ve seen Edmond chat for hours with Winston. Edmond used him like a personal assistant–to call for dinner reservations, to coordinate with his pilots, to do anything that needed doing, really. In fact, when we were mounting the museum show, I talked to Winston quite often myself by phone.”
Ambra reached inside the pocket of Langdon’s tails jacket and pulled out Edmond’s turquoise-covered phone, flicking it on. Langdon had powered it down in the museum to save its battery.
“You should turn on your phone too,” she said, “so we both have access to Winston.”
“You’re not worried about being tracked if we turn these on?”
Ambra shook her head. “The authorities haven’t had time to get the necessary court order, so I think it’s worth the risk–especially if Winston can update us on the Guardia’s progress and the situation at the airport.”
Uneasy, Langdon turned on his phone and watched it come to life. As the home screen materialized, he squinted into the light and felt a twinge of vulnerability, as if he had just become instantly locatable to every satellite in space.
You’ve seen too many spy movies, he told himself.
All at once, Langdon’s phone began pinging and vibrating as a backlog of messages from this evening began pouring in. To his astonishment, Langdon had received more than two hundred texts and e-mails since turning off his phone.
As he scanned the in-box, he saw the messages were all from friends and colleagues. The earlier e-mails had congratulatory header lines–Great lecture! I can’t believe you’re there!–but then, very suddenly, the tone of the headers turned anxious and deeply concerned, including a message from his book editor, Jonas Faukman: MY GOD–ROBERT, ARE YOU OKAY??!! Langdon had never seen his scholarly editor employ all caps or double punctuation.
Until now, Langdon had been feeling wonderfully invisible in the darkness of Bilbao’s waterways, as if the museum were a fading dream.
It’s all over the world, he realized. News of Kirsch’s mysterious discovery and brutal murder … along with my name and face.
“Winston has been trying to reach us,” Ambra said, staring into the glow of Kirsch’s cell phone. “Edmond has received fifty-three missed calls in the last half hour, all from the same number, all exactly thirty seconds apart.” She chuckled. “Tireless persistence is among Winston’s many virtues.”
Just then, Edmond’s phone began ringing.
Langdon smiled at Ambra. “I wonder who it is.”
She held out the phone to him. “Answer it.”
Langdon took the phone and pressed the speaker button. “Hello?”
“Professor Langdon,” chimed Winston’s voice with its familiar British accent. “I’m glad we’re back in contact. I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“Yes, we can see that,” Langdon replied, impressed that the computer sounded so utterly calm and unruffled after fifty-three consecutive failed calls.
“There have been some developments,” Winston said. “There is a possibility that the airport authorities will be alerted to your names before you arrive. Once again, I will suggest you follow my directions very carefully.”
“We’re in your hands, Winston,” Langdon said. “Tell us what to do.”
“First thing, Professor,” Winston said, “if you have not yet jettisoned your cell phone, you need to do so immediately.”
“Really?” Langdon gripped his phone more tightly. “Don’t the authorities need a court order before anyone–”
“On an American cop show perhaps, but you are dealing with Spain’s Guardia Real and the Royal Palace. They will do what is necessary.”
Langdon eyed his phone, feeling strangely reluctant to part with it. My whole life is in there.
“What about Edmond’s phone?” Ambra asked, sounding alarmed.
“Untraceable,” Winston replied. “Edmond was always concerned about hacking and corporate espionage. He personally wrote an IMEI/IMSI veiling program that varies his phone’s C2 values to outsmart any GSM interceptors.”
Of course he did, Langdon thought. For the genius who created Winston, outsmarting a local phone company would be a cakewalk.
Langdon frowned at his own apparently inferior phone. Just then Ambra reached over and gently pried it from his hands. Without a word, she held it over the railing and let go. Langdon watched the phone plummet down and splash into the dark waters of the Nervion River. As it disappeared beneath the surface, he felt a pang of loss, staring back after it as the boat raced on.
“Robert,” Ambra whispered, “just remember the wise words of Disney’s Princess Elsa.”
Langdon turned. “I’m sorry?”
Ambra smiled softly. “Let it go.”
“SU MISION TODAVIA no ha terminado,” declared the voice on Avila’s phone. Your mission is not yet complete.
Avila sat up at attention in the backseat of the Uber as he listened to his employer’s news.
“We’ve had an unexpected complication,” his contact said in rapid Spanish. “We need you to redirect to Barcelona. Right away.”
Barcelona? Avila had been told he would be traveling to Madrid for further service.
“We have reason to believe,” the voice continued, “that two associates of Mr. Kirsch are traveling to Barcelona tonight in hopes of finding a way to trigger Mr. Kirsch’s presentation remotely.”
Avila stiffened. “Is that possible?”
“We’re not sure yet, but if they succeed, obviously it will undo all of your hard work. I need a man on the ground in Barcelona right away. Discreetly. Get there as fast as you can, and call me.”
With that, the connection was terminated.
The bad news felt strangely welcome to Avila. I am still needed. Barcelona was farther than Madrid but still only a few hours at top speed on a superhighway in the middle of the night. Without wasting a moment, Avila raised his gun and pressed it against the Uber driver’s head. The man’s hands tensed visibly on the wheel.
“Llevame a Barcelona,” Avila commanded.
The driver took the next exit, toward Vitoria-Gasteiz, eventually accelerating onto the A-1 highway, heading east. The only other vehicles on the road at this hour were thundering tractor trailers, all racing to complete their runs to Pamplona, to Huesca, to Lleida, and finally to one of the largest port cities on the Mediterranean Sea–Barcelona.
Avila could scarcely believe the strange sequence of events that had brought him to this moment. From the depths of my deepest despair, I have risen to the moment of my most glorious service.
For a dark instant, Avila was back in that bottomless pit, crawling across the smoke-filled altar at the Cathedral of Seville, searching the bloodstained rubble for his wife and child, only to realize they were gone forever.
For weeks after the attack, Avila did not leave his home. He lay trembling on his couch, consumed by an endless waking nightmare of fiery demons that dragged him into a dark abyss, shrouding him in blackness, rage, and suffocating guilt.
“The abyss is purgatory,” a nun whispered beside him, one of the hundreds of grief counselors trained by the Church to assist survivors. “Your soul is trapped in a dark limbo. Absolution is the only escape. You must find a way to forgive the people who did this, or your rage will consume you whole.” She made the sign of the cross. “Forgiveness is your only salvation.”
Forgiveness? Avila tried to speak, but demons clenched his throat. At the moment, revenge felt like the only salvation. But revenge against whom? Responsibility for the bombing had never been claimed.
“I realize acts of religious terrorism seem unforgivable,” the nun continued. “And yet, it may be helpful to remember that our own faith waged a centuries-long Inquisition in the name of our God. We killed innocent women and children in the name of our beliefs. For this, we have had to ask forgiveness from the world, and from ourselves. And through time, we have healed.”
Then she read to him from the Bible: “‘Do not resist an evil person. Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.'”
That night, alone and in pain, Avila stared into the mirror. The man looking back at him was a stranger. The nun’s words had done nothing to ease his pain.
Forgiveness? Turn my other cheek!
I have witnessed evil for which there is no absolution!
In a growing rage, Avila drove his fist into the mirror, shattering the glass, and collapsing in sobs of anguish on his bathroom floor.
As a career naval officer, Avila had always been a man in control–a champion of discipline, honor, and the chain of command–but that man was gone. Within weeks, Avila had fallen into a haze, anesthetizing himself with a potent blend of alcohol and prescription drugs. Soon his yearning for the numbing effects of chemicals occupied every waking hour, diminishing him to a hostile recluse.
Within months, the Spanish navy had quietly forced him to retire. A once powerful battleship now stuck in dry dock, Avila knew he would never sail again. The navy to which he had given his life had left him with only a modest stipend on which he could barely live.
I’m fifty-eight years old, he realized. And I have nothing.
He spent his days sitting alone in his living room, watching TV, drinking vodka, and waiting for any ray of light to appear. La hora mas oscura es justo antes del amanecer, he would tell himself over and over. But the old navy aphorism proved false over and over. The darkest hour is not just before the dawn, he sensed. The dawn is never coming.
On his fifty-ninth birthday, a rainy Thursday morning, staring at an empty bottle of vodka and an eviction warning, Avila mustered the courage to go to his closet, take down his navy service pistol, load it, and put the barrel to his temple.
“Perdoname,” he whispered, and closed his eyes. Then he squeezed the trigger. The explosion was far quieter than he imagined. More of a click than a gunshot.
Cruelly, the gun had failed to fire. Years in a dusty closet without being cleaned had apparently taken a toll on the admiral’s cheap ceremonial pistol. It seemed even this simple act of cowardice was beyond Avila’s abilities.
Enraged, he hurled the gun at the wall. This time, an explosion rocked the room. Avila felt a searing heat rip through his calf, and his drunken fog lifted in a flash of blinding pain. He fell to the floor screaming and clutching his bleeding leg.
Panicked neighbors pounded on his door, sirens wailed, and Avila soon found himself at Seville’s Hospital Provincial de San Lazaro attempting to explain how he had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the leg.
The next morning, as he lay in the recovery room, broken and humiliated, Admiral Luis Avila received a visitor.
“You’re a lousy shot,” the young man said in Spanish. “No wonder they forced you to retire.”
Before Avila could reply, the man threw open the window shades and let the sunlight pour in. Avila shielded his eyes, now able to see that the kid was muscle-bound and had a buzz cut. He wore a T-shirt with the face of Jesus on it.
“My name’s Marco,” he said, his accent Andaluz. “I’m your trainer for rehab. I asked to be assigned to you because you and I have something in common.”
“Military?” Avila said, noting his brash demeanor.
“Nope.” The kid locked eyes with Avila. “I was there that Sunday morning. In the cathedral. The terrorist attack.”
Avila stared in disbelief. “You were there?”
The kid reached down and pulled up one leg of his sweats, revealing a prosthetic limb. “I realize you’ve been through hell, but I was playing semipro futbol, so don’t expect too much sympathy from me. I’m more of a God-helps-those-who-help-themselves kind of guy.”
Before Avila knew what had happened, Marco heaved him into a wheelchair, rolled him down the hall to a small gym, and propped him up between a pair of parallel bars.
“This will hurt,” the kid said, “but try to get to the other end. Just do it once. Then you can have breakfast.”
The pain was excruciating, but Avila was not about to complain to someone with only one leg, so using his arms to bear most of his weight, he shuffled all the way to the end of the bars.
“Nice,” Marco said. “Now do it again.”
“But you said–”
“Yeah, I lied. Do it again.”
Avila eyed the kid, stunned. The admiral had not taken an order in years, and strangely, he found something refreshing about it. It made him feel young–the way he had felt as a raw recruit years ago. Avila turned around and began shuffling back the other way.
“So tell me,” Marco said. “Do you still go to mass at the Seville cathedral?”
Avila shook his head. “Rage.”
Marco laughed. “Yeah, let me guess. The nuns told you to forgive the attackers?”
Avila stopped short on the bars. “Exactly!”
“Me too. I tried. Impossible. The nuns gave us terrible advice.” He laughed.
Avila eyed the young man’s Jesus shirt. “But it looks like you’re still …”
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely still a Christian. More devout than ever. I was fortunate to find my mission–helping victims of God’s enemies.”
“A noble cause,” Avila said enviously, feeling his own life was purposeless without his family or the navy.
“A great man helped bring me back to God,” Marco continued. “That man, by the way, was the pope. I’ve met him personally many times.”
“I’m sorry … the pope?”
“As in … the leader of the Catholic Church?”
“Yes. If you like, I could probably arrange an audience for you.”
Avila stared at the kid as if he’d lost his mind. “You can get me an audience with the pope?”
Marco looked hurt. “I realize you’re a big naval officer and can’t imagine that a crippled physical trainer from Seville has access to the vicar of Christ, but I’m telling you the truth. I can arrange a meeting with him if you like. He could probably help you find your way back, just the way he helped me.”
Avila leaned on the parallel bars, uncertain how to reply. He idolized the then pope–a staunch conservative leader who preached strict traditionalism and orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the man was under fire from all sides of the modernizing globe, and there were rumblings that he would soon choose to retire in the face of growing liberal pressure. “I’d be honored to meet him, of course, but–”
“Good,” Marco interjected. “I’ll try to set it up for tomorrow.”
Avila never imagined that the following day he would find himself sitting deep within a secure sanctuary, face-to-face with a powerful leader who would teach him the most empowering religious lesson of his life.
The roads to salvation are many.
Forgiveness is not the only path.
LOCATED ON THE ground floor of the Madrid palace, the royal library is a spectacularly ornate suite of chambers containing thousands of priceless tomes, including Queen Isabella’s illuminated Book of Hours, the personal Bibles of several kings, and an iron-bound codex from the era of Alfonso XI.
Garza entered in a rush, not wanting to leave the prince alone upstairs in the clutches of Valdespino for too long. He was still trying to make sense of the news that Valdespino had met with Kirsch only days ago and had decided to keep the meeting a secret. Even in light of Kirsch’s presentation and murder tonight?
Garza moved across the vast darkness of the library toward PR coordinator Monica Martin, who was waiting in the shadows holding her glowing tablet.
“I realize you’re busy, sir,” Martin said, “but we have a highly time-sensitive situation. I came upstairs to find you because our security center received a disturbing e-mail from ConspiracyNet.com.”
“ConspiracyNet is a popular conspiracy-theory site. The journalism is shoddy, and it’s written at a child’s level, but they have millions of followers. If you ask me, they hawk fake news, but the site is quite well respected among conspiracy theorists.”
In Garza’s mind, the terms “well respected” and “conspiracy theory” seemed mutually exclusive.
“They’ve been scooping the Kirsch situation all night,” Martin continued. “I don’t know where they’re getting their information, but the site has become a hub for news bloggers and conspiracy theorists. Even the networks are turning to them for breaking news.”
“Come to the point,” Garza pressed.
“ConspiracyNet has new information that relates to the palace,” Martin said, pushing her glasses up on her face. “They’re going public with it in ten minutes and wanted to give us a chance to comment beforehand.”
Garza stared at the young woman in disbelief. “The Royal Palace doesn’t comment on sensationalist gossip!”
“At least look at it, sir.” Martin held out her tablet.
Garza snatched the screen and found himself looking at a second photo of navy admiral Luis Avila. The photo was uncentered, as if taken by accident, and showed Avila in full dress whites striding in front of a painting. It looked as if it had been taken by a museumgoer who was attempting to photograph a piece of artwork and had inadvertently captured Avila as he blindly stepped into the shot.
“I know what Avila looks like,” Garza snapped, eager to get back to the prince and Valdespino. “Why are you showing this to me?”
“Swipe to the next photo.”
Garza swiped. The next screen showed an enlargement of the photo–this one focused on the admiral’s right hand as it swung out in front of him. Garza immediately saw a marking on Avila’s palm. It appeared to be a tattoo.