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Garza stared at the image for a long moment. The symbol was one he knew well, as did many Spaniards, especially the older generations.
The symbol of Franco.
Emblazoned in many places in Spain during the middle of the twentieth century, the symbol was synonymous with the ultraconservative dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, whose brutal regime advocated nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, antiliberalism, and National Catholicism.
This ancient symbol, Garza knew, consisted of six letters, which, when put together, spelled a single word in Latin–a word that perfectly defined Franco’s self-image.
Ruthless, violent, and uncompromising, Francisco Franco had risen to power with the military support of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. He killed thousands of his opponents before seizing total control of the country in 1939 and proclaiming himself El Caudillo–the Spanish equivalent of the Fuhrer. During the Civil War and well into the first years of dictatorship, those who dared oppose him disappeared into concentration camps, where an estimated three hundred thousand were executed.
Depicting himself as the defender of “Catholic Spain” and the enemy of godless communism, Franco had embraced a starkly male-centric mentality, officially excluding women from many positions of power in society, giving them barely any rights to professorships, judgeships, bank accounts, or even the right to flee an abusive husband. He annulled all marriages that had not been performed according to Catholic doctrine, and, among other restrictions, he outlawed divorce, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.
Fortunately, everything had now changed.
Even so, Garza was stunned by how quickly the nation had forgotten one of the darkest periods in its history.
Spain’s pacto de olvido–a nationwide political agreement to “forget” everything that had happened under Franco’s vicious rule–meant that schoolchildren in Spain had been taught very little about the dictator. A poll in Spain had revealed that teenagers were far more likely to recognize the actor James Franco than they were dictator Francisco Franco.
The older generations, however, would never forget. This VICTOR symbol–like the Nazi swastika–could still conjure fear in the hearts of those old enough to remember those brutal years. To this day, wary souls warned that the highest reaches of Spanish government and the Catholic Church still harbored a secret faction of Francoist supporters–a hidden fraternity of traditionalists sworn to return Spain to its far-right convictions of the past century.
Garza had to admit that there were plenty of old-timers who looked at the chaos and spiritual apathy of contemporary Spain and felt that the country could be saved only by a stronger state religion, a more authoritarian government, and the imposition of clearer moral guidelines.
Look at our youth! they would shout. They are all adrift!
In recent months, with the Spanish throne soon to be occupied by the younger Prince Julian, there was a rising fear among traditionalists that the Royal Palace itself would soon become another voice for progressive change in the country. Fueling their concern was the prince’s recent engagement to Ambra Vidal–who was not only Basque but outspokenly agnostic–and who, as Spain’s queen, would no doubt have the prince’s ear on matters of church and state.
Dangerous days, Garza knew. A contentious cusp between past and future.
In addition to a deepening religious rift, Spain faced a political crossroads as well. Would the country retain its monarch? Or would the royal crown be forever abolished as it had been in Austria, Hungary, and so many other European countries? Only time would tell. In the streets, older traditionalists waved Spanish flags, while young progressives proudly wore their antimonarchic colors of purple, yellow, and red–the colors of the old Republican banner.
Julian will be inheriting a powder keg.
“When I first saw the Franco tattoo,” Martin said, drawing Garza’s attention back to the tablet, “I thought it might have been digitally added to the photo as a ploy–you know, to stir the pot. Conspiracy sites all compete for traffic, and a Francoist connection will get a massive response, especially considering the anti-Christian nature of Kirsch’s presentation tonight.”
Garza knew she was right. Conspiracy theorists will go crazy over this.
Martin motioned to the tablet. “Read the commentary they intend to run.”
With a feeling of dread, Garza glanced at the lengthy text that accompanied the photo.
EDMOND KIRSCH UPDATE
Despite initial suspicions that Edmond Kirsch’s murder was the work of religious zealots, the discovery of this ultraconservative Francoist symbol suggests the assassination may have political motivations as well. Suspicions that conservative players in the highest reaches of Spanish government, perhaps even within the Royal Palace itself, are now battling for control in the power vacuum left by the king’s absence and imminent death …
“Disgraceful,” Garza snapped, having read enough. “All this speculation from a tattoo? It means nothing. With the exception of Ambra Vidal’s presence at the shooting, this situation has absolutely nothing to do with the politics of the Royal Palace. No comment.”
“Sir,” Martin pressed. “If you would please read the rest of the commentary, you’ll see that they are trying to link Bishop Valdespino directly to Admiral Avila. They’re suggesting that the bishop may be a secret Francoist who has been whispering in the king’s ear for years, keeping him from making sweeping changes to the country.” She paused. “This allegation is gaining a lot of traction online.”
Once again, Garza found himself at a total loss for words. He no longer recognized the world in which he lived.
Fake news now carries as much weight as real news.
Garza eyed Martin and did his best to speak calmly. “Monica, this is all a fiction created by blog-writing fantasists for their own amusement. I can assure you that Valdespino is not a Francoist. He has served the king faithfully for decades, and there is no way he is involved with a Francoist assassin. The palace has no comment on any of it. Am I clear?” Garza turned toward the door, eager to get back to the prince and Valdespino.
“Sir, wait!” Martin reached out and grabbed his arm.
Garza halted, staring down in shock at his young employee’s hand.
Martin immediately pulled back. “I’m sorry, sir, but ConspiracyNet also sent us a recording of a telephone conversation that just took place in Budapest.” She blinked nervously behind her thick glasses. “You’re not going to like this either.”
MY BOSS WAS assassinated.
Captain Josh Siegel could feel his hands trembling on the stick as he taxied Edmond Kirsch’s Gulfstream G550 toward the main runway at Bilbao Airport.
I’m in no condition to fly, he thought, knowing his copilot was as rattled as he was.
Siegel had piloted private jets for Edmond Kirsch for many years, and Edmond’s horrifying murder tonight had come as a devastating shock. An hour ago, Siegel and his copilot had been sitting in the airport lounge watching the live feed from the Guggenheim Museum.
“Typical Edmond drama,” Siegel had joked, impressed by his boss’s ability to draw a huge crowd. As he watched Kirsch’s program, he found himself, along with the other viewers in the lounge, leaning forward, his curiosity spiking, until, in a flash, the evening went horribly wrong.
In the aftermath, Siegel and his copilot sat in a daze, watching the television coverage and wondering what they should do next.
Siegel’s phone rang ten minutes later; the caller was Edmond’s personal assistant, Winston. Siegel had never met him, and although the Brit seemed a bit of an odd duck, Siegel had become quite accustomed to coordinating flights with him.
“If you have not seen the television,” Winston said, “you should turn it on.”
“We saw it,” Siegel said. “We’re both devastated.”
“We need you to return the plane to Barcelona,” Winston said, his tone eerily businesslike considering what had just transpired. “Prepare yourselves for takeoff, and I’ll be back in touch shortly. Please do not take off until we speak.”
Siegel had no idea if Winston’s instructions would have aligned with Edmond’s wishes, but at the moment, he was thankful for any kind of guidance.
On orders from Winston, Siegel and his copilot had filed their flight manifest to Barcelona with zero passengers–a “deadhead” flight, as it was regrettably known in the business–and then had pushed back out of the hangar and begun their preflight checklist.
Thirty minutes passed before Winston called back. “Are you prepped for takeoff?”
“Good. I assume you’ll be using the usual eastbound runway?”
“That’s right.” Siegel at times found Winston painfully thorough and unnervingly well informed.
“Please contact the tower and request clearance to take off. Taxi out to the far end of the airfield, but do not pull onto the runway.”
“I should stop on the access road?”
“Yes, just for a minute. Please alert me when you get there.”
Siegel and his copilot looked at each other in surprise. Winston’s request made no sense at all.
The tower might have something to say about that.
Nonetheless, Siegel had guided the jet along various ramps and roads toward the runway head at the western edge of the airport. He was now taxiing along the final hundred meters of the access road, where the pavement turned ninety degrees to the right and merged into the eastbound runway head.
“Winston?” Siegel said, gazing out at the high chain-link security fence that surrounded the perimeter of the airport property. “We’ve reached the end of the access ramp.”
“Please hold there,” Winston said. “I’ll be back in touch.”
I can’t hold here! Siegel thought, wondering what the hell Winston was doing. Fortunately, the Gulfstream’s rearview camera showed no planes behind his, so at least Siegel was not blocking traffic. The only lights were those of the control tower–a faint glow at the other end of the runway, nearly two miles away.
Sixty seconds passed.
“This is air traffic control,” a voice crackled in his headset. “EC346, you are cleared for takeoff on runway number one. I repeat, you are cleared.”
Siegel wanted nothing more than to take off, but he was still waiting for word from Edmond’s assistant. “Thank you, control,” he said. “We need to hold here just another minute. We’ve got a warning light that we’re checking.”
“Roger that. Please advise when ready.”
“HERE?” THE WATER taxi’s captain looked confused. “You want stop here? Airport is more far. I take you there.”
“Thanks, we’ll get out here,” Langdon said, following Winston’s advice.
The captain shrugged and brought the boat to a stop beside a small bridge marked PUERTO BIDEA. The riverbank here was covered with high grass and looked more or less accessible. Ambra was already clambering out of the boat and making her way up the incline.
“How much do we owe you?” Langdon asked the captain.
“No pay,” the man said. “Your British man, he pay me before. Credit card. Triple money.”
Winston paid already. Langdon was still not quite used to working with Kirsch’s computerized assistant. It’s like having Siri on steroids.
Winston’s abilities, Langdon realized, should come as no surprise considering daily accounts of artificial intelligence performing all kinds of complex tasks, including writing novels–one such book nearly winning a Japanese literary prize.
Langdon thanked the captain and jumped out of the boat onto the bank. Before heading up the hill, he turned back to the bewildered driver, raised his index finger to his lips, and said, “Discrecion, por favor.”
“Si, si,” the captain assured him, covering his eyes. “!No he visto nada!”
With that, Langdon hurried up the slope, crossed a train track, and joined Ambra on the edge of a sleepy village road lined with quaint shops.
“According to the map,” Winston’s voice chimed on Edmond’s speakerphone, “you should be at the intersection of Puerto Bidea and the Rio Asua waterway. You should see a small roundabout in the town center?”
“I see it,” Ambra replied.
“Good. Just off the roundabout, you will find a small road called Beike Bidea. Follow it away from the village center.”
Two minutes later, Langdon and Ambra had left the village and were hurrying along a deserted country road where stone farmhouses sat on acres of grassy pastureland. As they moved deeper into countryside, Langdon sensed that something was wrong. To their right, in the distance, above the crest of a small hill, the sky was aglow with a hazy dome of light pollution.
“If those are the terminal lights,” Langdon said, “we are very far away.”
“The terminal is three kilometers from your position,” Winston said.
Ambra and Langdon exchanged startled looks. Winston had told them the walk would take only eight minutes.
“According to Google’s satellite images,” Winston went on, “there should be a large field to your right. Does it look traversable?”
Langdon glanced over at the hayfield to their right, which sloped gently upward in the direction of the terminal lights.
“We can certainly climb it,” Langdon said, “but three kilometers will take–”
“Just climb the hill, Professor, and follow my directions precisely.” Winston’s tone was polite and as emotionless as ever, and yet Langdon realized he had just been admonished.
“Nice job,” Ambra whispered, looking amused as she started up the hill. “That’s the closest thing to irritation I’ve ever heard from Winston.”
“EC346, this is air traffic control,” blared the voice in Siegel’s headset. “You must either clear the ramp and take off or return to the hangar for repairs. What is your status?”
“Still working on it,” Siegel lied, glancing at his rearview camera. No planes–only the faint lights of the distant tower. “I just need another minute.”
“Roger that. Keep us apprised.”
The copilot tapped Siegel on the shoulder and pointed out through the windshield.
Siegel followed his partner’s gaze but saw only the high fence in front of the plane. Suddenly, on the other side of the mesh of the barrier, he saw a ghostly vision. What in the world?
In the darkened field beyond the fence, two spectral silhouettes were materializing out of the blackness, coming over the crest of a hill and moving directly toward the jet. As the figures drew closer, Siegel saw the distinctive diagonal black sash on a white dress that he had seen earlier on television.
Is that Ambra Vidal?
Ambra had flown on occasion with Kirsch, and Siegel always felt his heart flutter a bit when the striking Spanish beauty was aboard. He could not begin to fathom what in the world she was doing in a pasture outside Bilbao Airport.
The tall man accompanying Ambra was also wearing formal black-and-white attire, and Siegel recalled that he too had been part of the evening’s program.
The American professor Robert Langdon.
Winston’s voice returned suddenly. “Mr. Siegel, you should now see two individuals on the other side of the fence, and you will no doubt recognize both of them.” Siegel found the Brit’s manner spookily composed. “Please know that there are circumstances tonight that I cannot fully explain, but I am going to ask you to comply with my wishes on behalf of Mr. Kirsch. All you need to know right now is the following.” Winston paused for the briefest of moments. “The same people who murdered Edmond Kirsch are now trying to kill Ambra Vidal and Robert Langdon. To keep them safe, we require your assistance.”
“But … of course,” Siegel stammered, trying to process the information.
“Ms. Vidal and Professor Langdon need to board your aircraft right now.”
“Out here?!” Siegel demanded.
“I am aware of the technicality posed by a revised passenger manifest, but–”
“Are you aware of the technicality posed by a ten-foot-high security fence surrounding the airport?!”
“I am indeed,” Winston said very calmly. “And, Mr. Siegel, while I realize that you and I have worked together only a few months, I need you to trust me. What I am about to suggest to you is precisely what Edmond would want you to do in this situation.”
Siegel listened in disbelief as Winston outlined his plan.
“What you’re suggesting is impossible!” Siegel argued.
“On the contrary,” Winston said, “it is quite feasible. The thrust of each engine is over fifteen thousand pounds, and your nose cone is designed to endure seven-hundred-mile–”
“I’m not worried about the physics of it,” Siegel snapped. “I’m worried about the legality–and about having my pilot’s license revoked!”
“I can appreciate that, Mr. Siegel,” Winston responded evenly. “But the future queen consort of Spain is in grave danger right now. Your actions here will help save her life. Believe me, when the truth comes out, you will not be receiving a reprimand, you will be receiving a royal medal from the king.”
Standing in deep grass, Langdon and Ambra gazed up at the high security fence illuminated in the jet’s headlights.
At Winston’s urging, they stepped back from the fence just as the jet engines revved and the plane began rolling forward. Rather than following the curve of the access ramp, however, the jet continued straight toward them, crossing the painted safety lines and rolling out onto the asphalt skirt. It slowed to a crawl, inching closer and closer to the fence.
Langdon could now see that the jet’s nose cone was aligned perfectly with one of the fence’s heavy steel support posts. As the massive nose cone connected with the vertical post, the jet engines revved ever so slightly.
Langdon expected more of a fight, but apparently two Rolls-Royce engines and a forty-ton jet were more than this fence post could take. With a metallic groan, the post tipped toward them, pulling with it a huge mound of asphalt attached to its base like the root ball of a toppled tree.
Langdon ran over and grabbed the fallen fence, pulling it down low enough that he and Ambra could make their way across it. By the time they staggered onto the tarmac, the jet’s gangway stairs had been deployed and a uniformed pilot was waving them aboard.
Ambra eyed Langdon with a tight smile. “Still doubting Winston?”
Langdon no longer had any words.
As they hurried up the staircase and into the plush interior cabin, Langdon heard the second pilot in the cockpit talking to the tower.