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“Yes, control, I read you,” the pilot was saying, “but your ground radar must be miscalibrated. We did not leave the access ramp. I repeat, we are still squarely on the access ramp. Our warning light is now off, and we’re ready for takeoff.”
The copilot slammed the door as the pilot engaged the Gulfstream’s reverse thrust, inching the plane backward, away from the sagging fence. Then the jet began its wide turn back onto the runway.
In the seat opposite Ambra, Robert Langdon closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled. The engines roared outside, and he felt the pressure of acceleration as the jet thundered down the runway.
Seconds later, the plane was shooting skyward and banking hard to the southeast, plunging through the night toward Barcelona.
RABBI YEHUDA KOVES rushed from his study, crossed the garden, and slipped out the front door of his home, descending the steps to the sidewalk.
I am no longer safe at home, the rabbi told himself, his heart pounding relentlessly. I must get to the synagogue.
The Dohany Street Synagogue was not only Koves’s lifelong sanctuary, it was a veritable fortress. The shrine’s barricades, barbed fences, and twenty-four-hour guards served as a sharp reminder of Budapest’s long history of anti-Semitism. Tonight, Koves felt grateful to hold the keys to such a citadel.
The synagogue was fifteen minutes away from his house–a peaceful stroll Koves took every day–and yet tonight, as he started out along Kossuth Lajos Street, he felt only fear. Lowering his head, Koves warily scanned the shadows before him as he began his journey.
Almost immediately he saw something that put him on edge.
A dark figure sat hunched on a bench across the street–a powerfully built man wearing blue jeans and a baseball cap–poking casually at his smartphone, his bearded face illuminated by the glow of the device.
He is not from this neighborhood, Koves knew, increasing his pace.
The man in the baseball cap glanced up, watched the rabbi a moment, and then returned to his phone. Koves pressed on. After one block, he glanced nervously behind him. To his dismay, the man in the baseball cap was no longer on the bench. He had crossed the street and was walking along the sidewalk behind Koves.
He’s following me! The old rabbi’s feet moved faster, and his breath grew short. He wondered if leaving his home had been a terrible mistake.
Valdespino urged me to stay inside! Whom have I decided to trust?
Koves had planned to wait for Valdespino’s men to come and escort him to Madrid, but the phone call had changed everything. The dark seeds of doubt were sprouting quickly.
The woman on the phone had warned him: The bishop is sending men not to transport you, but rather to remove you–just like he removed Syed al-Fadl. Then she had presented evidence so persuasive that Koves had panicked and fled.
Now, as he hurried along the sidewalk, Koves feared he might not reach the safety of his synagogue after all. The man in the baseball cap was still behind him, tailing Koves at about fifty meters.
A deafening screech tore through the night air, and Koves jumped. The sound, he realized with relief, was a city bus braking at a bus stop just down the block. Koves felt as if it had been sent by God Himself as he rushed toward the vehicle and scrambled aboard. The bus was packed with raucous college students, and two of them politely made room for Koves in front.
“Koszonom,” the rabbi wheezed, breathless. Thank you.
Before the bus could pull away, however, the man in the jeans and baseball cap sprinted up behind the bus and narrowly managed to climb aboard.
Koves went rigid, but the man walked past him without a glance and took a seat in the back. In the reflection of the windshield, the rabbi could see that the man had returned to his smartphone, apparently engrossed in some sort of video game.
Don’t be paranoid, Yehuda, he chided himself. He has no interest in you.
When the bus arrived at the Dohany Street stop, Koves gazed longingly at the spires of the synagogue only a few blocks away, and yet he could not bring himself to leave the safety of the crowded bus.
If I get out, and the man follows me …
Koves remained in his seat, deciding he was probably safer in a crowd. I can just ride the bus for a while and catch my breath, he thought, although he now wished he had used the toilet before fleeing his home so abruptly.
It was only moments later, as the bus pulled away from Dohany Street, that Rabbi Koves realized the terrible flaw in his plan.
It’s Saturday night, and the passengers are all kids.
Koves now realized that everyone on this bus would almost certainly get off in the exact same place–one stop away, in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish quarter.
After World War II, this neighborhood had been left in ruins, but the decaying structures were now the hub of one of Europe’s most vibrant bar scenes–the famous “ruin bars”–trendy nightclubs housed in dilapidated buildings. On weekends, throngs of students and tourists gathered here to party in the bombed-out skeletons of graffiti-covered warehouses and old mansions, now retooled with the latest sound systems, colorful lighting, and eclectic art.
Sure enough, when the bus screeched to its next stop, all of the students piled out together. The man in the cap remained seated in the back, still engrossed in his phone. Instinct told Koves to get out as fast as he could, and so he clambered to his feet, hurried down the aisle, and descended into the crowd of students on the street.
The bus revved up to pull away, but then suddenly halted, its door hissing open to release one final passenger–the man in the baseball cap. Koves felt his pulse skyrocket once again, and yet the man did not glance even once at Koves. Instead, he turned his back to the crowd and walked briskly in the other direction, placing a phone call as he went.
Stop imagining things, Koves told himself, trying to breathe calmly.
The bus departed and the pack of students immediately began moving down the street toward the bars. For safety, Rabbi Koves would stay with them as long as possible, eventually making a sharp left and walking back toward the synagogue.
It’s only a few blocks, he told himself, ignoring the heaviness of his legs and the increasing pressure in his bladder.
The ruin bars were packed, their boisterous clientele spilling out into the streets. All around Koves, the sounds of electronic music throbbed, and the tang of beer permeated the air, mixing with the sweet fumes of Sopianae cigarettes and Kurtoskalacs chimney cakes.
As he neared the corner, Koves still had the eerie sense he was being watched. He slowed down and stole one more glance behind him. Thankfully, the man in the jeans and baseball cap was nowhere to be seen.
In a darkened entryway, the crouched silhouette remained motionless for ten long seconds before carefully peering out of the shadows toward the corner.
Nice try, old man, he thought, knowing he had ducked out of sight just in time.
The man double-checked the syringe in his pocket. Then he stepped from the shadows, adjusted his baseball cap, and hurried after his mark.
GUARDIA COMMANDER DIEGO Garza sprinted back up toward the residential apartments, still clutching Monica Martin’s computer tablet.
The tablet contained a recording of a phone call–a conversation between a Hungarian rabbi named Yehuda Koves and some kind of online whistle-blower–and the shocking contents of the recording had left Commander Garza precious few options.
Whether or not Valdespino was actually behind the murderous conspiracy alleged by this whistle-blower, Garza knew that when the recording went public, Valdespino’s reputation would be forever destroyed.
I must warn the prince and insulate him from the fallout.
Valdespino must be removed from the palace before this story breaks.
In politics, perception was everything–and the information mongers, justly or not, were about to throw Valdespino under the bus. Clearly, the crown prince could not be seen anywhere near the bishop tonight.
PR coordinator Monica Martin had strongly advised Garza to have the prince make a statement immediately, or risk looking complicit.
She’s right, Garza knew. We have to get Julian on television. Now.
Garza reached the top of the stairs and moved breathlessly along the corridor toward Julian’s apartment, glancing down at the tablet in his hand.
In addition to the image of the Francoist tattoo and the recording of the rabbi’s phone call, the impending ConspiracyNet data-dump was apparently going to include a third and final revelation–something that Martin warned would be the most inflammatory of all.
A data constellation, she had called it–describing what amounted to a collection of seemingly random and disparate data points or factoids that conspiracy theorists were encouraged to analyze and connect in meaningful ways to create possible “constellations.”
They’re no better than Zodiac nuts! he fumed. Fabricating animal shapes out of the random arrangements of stars!
Unfortunately, the ConspiracyNet data points that were displayed on the tablet in Garza’s hand appeared to have been especially formulated to coalesce into a single constellation, and from the palace’s viewpoint, it was not a pretty one.
ConspiracyNet.com The Kirsch Assassination
What We Know So Far
* Edmond Kirsch shared his scientific discovery with three religious leaders–Bishop Antonio Valdespino, Allamah Syed al-Fadl, and Rabbi Yehuda Koves.
* Kirsch and al-Fadl are both dead, and Rabbi Yehuda Koves is no longer answering his home phone and appears to have gone missing.
* Bishop Valdespino is alive and well, and was last seen walking across the plaza toward the Royal Palace.
* Kirsch’s assassin–identified as navy admiral Luis Avila–has body markings that tie him to a faction of ultraconservative Francoists. (Is Bishop Valdespino–a known conservative–a Francoist as well?) * And finally, according to sources inside the Guggenheim, the event’s guest list was locked, and yet assassin Luis Avila was added at the last minute per the request of someone inside the Royal Palace. (The individual on-site who fulfilled that request was future queen consort Ambra Vidal.) ConspiracyNet would like to acknowledge the substantial ongoing contributions of civilian watchdog email@example.com on this story.
Garza had already decided the e-mail address had to be a fake. Iglesia.org was a prominent evangelical Catholic website in Spain, an online community of priests, laypeople, and students who were devoted to the teachings of Jesus. The informant seemed to have spoofed the domain so that the allegations would appear to come from iglesia.org.
Clever, Garza thought, knowing that Bishop Valdespino was deeply admired by the devout Catholics behind the site. Garza wondered if this online “contributor” was the same informant who had called the rabbi.
As he reached the apartment door, Garza wondered how he would break the news to the prince. The day had started quite normally, and suddenly it seemed as if the palace was engaged in a war with ghosts. A faceless informant named Monte? An array of data points? Making matters even worse, Garza still had no news on the status of Ambra Vidal and Robert Langdon.
God help us if the press learns of Ambra’s defiant actions tonight.
The commander entered without knocking. “Prince Julian?” he called, hurrying toward the living room. “I need to speak to you alone for a moment.”
Garza reached the living room and stopped short.
The room was empty.
“Don Julian?” he called, wheeling back toward the kitchen. “Bishop Valdespino?”
Garza searched the entire apartment, but the prince and Valdespino were gone.
He immediately called the prince’s cell phone and was startled to hear a telephone ringing. The sound was faint but audible, somewhere in the apartment. Garza called the prince again, and listened for the muffled ringing, this time tracking the sound to a small painting on the wall, which he knew concealed the apartment’s wall safe.
Julian locked his phone in the safe?
It was beyond belief to Garza that the prince would abandon his phone on a night when communication was so critical.
And where did they go?
Garza now tried Valdespino’s cell number, hoping the bishop would answer. To his utter astonishment, a second muffled ringtone sounded inside the vault.
Valdespino abandoned his phone as well?
With rising panic, a wild-eyed Garza dashed out of the apartment. For the next several minutes, he ran down hallways shouting, searching both upstairs and downstairs.
They can’t have evaporated into thin air!
When Garza finally stopped running, he found himself standing breathless at the base of Sabatini’s elegant grand staircase. He lowered his head in defeat. The tablet in his hands was asleep now, but in the blackened screen, he could see the reflection of the ceiling fresco directly overhead.
The irony felt cruel. The fresco was Giaquinto’s grand masterpiece–Religion Protected by Spain.
AS THE GULFSTREAM G550 jet climbed to cruising altitude, Robert Langdon stared blankly out the oval window and tried to gather his thoughts. The past two hours had been a whirlwind of emotions–from the thrill of watching Edmond’s presentation begin to unfold to the gut-wrenching horror of seeing his grisly murder. And the mystery of Edmond’s presentation seemed only to deepen the more Langdon considered it.
What secret had Edmond unveiled?
Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Edmond’s words in the spiral sculpture earlier tonight replayed in Langdon’s mind: Robert, the discovery I’ve made … it very clearly answers both of these questions.
Edmond had claimed to have solved two of life’s greatest mysteries, and yet, Langdon wondered, how could Edmond’s news have been so dangerously disruptive that someone would have murdered him to keep it silent?
All Langdon knew for sure was that Edmond was referring to human origin and human destiny.
What shocking origin did Edmond uncover?
What mysterious destiny?
Edmond had appeared optimistic and upbeat about the future, so it seemed unlikely that his prediction was something apocalyptic. Then what could Edmond possibly have predicted that would concern the clerics so deeply?
“Robert?” Ambra materialized next to him with a hot cup of coffee. “You said black?”
“Perfect, yes, thank you.” Langdon gratefully accepted the mug, hoping some caffeine might help unknot his tangled thoughts.
Ambra took a seat opposite him and poured herself a glass of red wine from an elegantly embossed bottle. “Edmond carries a stash of Chateau Montrose aboard. Seems a pity to waste it.”
Langdon had tasted Montrose only once, in an ancient secret wine cellar beneath Trinity College Dublin, while he was there researching the illuminated manuscript known as The Book of Kells.
Ambra cradled her wine goblet in two hands, and as she brought it to her lips, she gazed up at Langdon over the rim. Once again, he found himself strangely disarmed by the woman’s natural elegance.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “You mentioned earlier that Edmond was in Boston and asked you about various Creation stories?”
“Yes, about a year ago. He was interested in the different ways that major religions answered the question ‘Where do we come from?'”
“So, maybe that’s a good place for us to start?” she said. “Maybe we can unravel what he was working on?”
“I’m all for starting at the beginning,” Langdon replied, “but I’m not sure what there is to unravel. There are only two schools of thought on where we came from–the religious notion that God created humans fully formed, and the Darwinian model in which we crawled out of the primordial ooze and eventually evolved into humans.”
“So what if Edmond discovered a third possibility?” Ambra asked, her brown eyes flashing. “What if that’s part of his discovery? What if he has proven that the human species came neither from Adam and Eve nor from Darwinian evolution?”
Langdon had to admit that such a discovery–an alternative story of human origin–would be earth-shattering, but he simply could not imagine what it might be. “Darwin’s theory of evolution is extremely well established,” he said, “because it is based on scientifically observable fact, and clearly illustrates how organisms evolve and adapt to their environments over time. The theory of evolution is universally accepted by the sharpest minds in science.”
“Is it?” Ambra said. “I’ve seen books that argue Darwin was entirely wrong.”
“What she says is true,” Winston chimed in from the phone, which was recharging on the table between them. “More than fifty titles were published over the past two decades alone.”
Langdon had forgotten Winston was still with them.
“Some of these books were bestsellers,” Winston added. “What Darwin Got Wrong … Defeating Darwinism … Darwin’s Black Box … Darwin on Trial … The Dark Side of Charles Dar–”
“Yes,” Langdon interrupted, fully aware of the substantial collection of books claiming to disprove Darwin. “I actually read two of them a while back.”
“And?” Ambra pressed.
Langdon smiled politely. “Well, I can’t speak for all of them, but the two I read argued from a fundamentally Christian viewpoint. One went so far as to suggest that the earth’s fossil record was placed there by God ‘in order to test our faith.'”
Ambra frowned. “Okay, so they didn’t sway your thinking.”
“No, but they made me curious, and so I asked a Harvard biology professor for his opinion of the books.” Langdon smiled. “The professor, by the way, happened to be the late Stephen J. Gould.”
“Why do I know that name?” Ambra asked.
“Stephen J. Gould,” Winston said at once. “Renowned evolutionary biologist and paleontologist. His theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ explained some of the gaps in the fossil record and helped support Darwin’s model of evolution.”
“Gould just chuckled,” Langdon said, “and told me that most of the anti-Darwin books were published by the likes of the Institute for Creation Research–an organization that, according to its own informational materials, views the Bible as an infallible literal account of historical and scientific fact.”
“Meaning,” Winston said, “they believe that Burning Bushes can speak, that Noah fit every living species onto a single boat, and that people turn into pillars of salt. Not the firmest of footings for a scientific research company.”