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“Certainly. Robert Langdon.”
The man’s eyes shot back up. “Ah, I am so sorry! I did not recognize you, sir!”
I barely recognize myself, Langdon thought, advancing stiffly in his white bow tie, black tails, and white waistcoat. I look like a Whiffenpoof. Langdon’s classic tails were almost thirty years old, preserved from his days as a member of the Ivy Club at Princeton, but thanks to his faithful daily regimen of swimming laps, the outfit still fit him fairly well. In Langdon’s haste to pack, he had grabbed the wrong hanging bag from his closet, leaving his usual tuxedo behind.
“The invitation said black and white,” Langdon said. “I trust tails are appropriate?”
“Tails are a classic! You look dashing!” The man scurried over and carefully pressed a name tag to the lapel of Langdon’s jacket.
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” the mustached man said. “No doubt you’ve visited us before?”
Langdon gazed through the spider’s legs at the glistening building before them. “Actually, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve never been.”
“No!” The man feigned falling over. “You’re not a fan of modern art?”
Langdon had always enjoyed the challenge of modern art–primarily the exploration of why particular works were hailed as masterpieces: Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans; Mark Rothko’s simple rectangles of color. Even so, Langdon was far more comfortable discussing the religious symbolism of Hieronymus Bosch or the brushwork of Francisco de Goya.
“I’m more of a classicist,” Langdon replied. “I do better with da Vinci than with de Kooning.”
“But da Vinci and de Kooning are so similar!”
Langdon smiled patiently. “Then I clearly have a bit to learn about de Kooning.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place!” The man swung his arm toward the massive building. “In this museum, you will find one of the finest collections of modern art on earth! I do hope you enjoy.”
“I intend to,” Langdon replied. “I only wish I knew why I’m here.”
“You and everyone else!” The man laughed merrily, shaking his head. “Your host has been very secretive about the purpose of tonight’s event. Not even the museum staff knows what’s happening. The mystery is half the fun of it–rumors are running wild! There are several hundred guests inside–many famous faces–and nobody has any idea what’s on the agenda tonight!”
Now Langdon grinned. Very few hosts on earth would have the bravado to send out last-minute invitations that essentially read: Saturday night. Be there. Trust me. And even fewer would be able to persuade hundreds of VIPs to drop everything and fly to northern Spain to attend the event.
Langdon walked out from beneath the spider and continued along the pathway, glancing up at an enormous red banner that billowed overhead.
AN EVENING WITH
Edmond has certainly never lacked confidence, Langdon thought, amused.
Some twenty years ago, young Eddie Kirsch had been one of Langdon’s first students at Harvard University–a mop-haired computer geek whose interest in codes had led him to Langdon’s freshman seminar: Codes, Ciphers, and the Language of Symbols. The sophistication of Kirsch’s intellect had impressed Langdon deeply, and although Kirsch eventually abandoned the dusty world of semiotics for the shining promise of computers, he and Langdon had developed a student-teacher bond that had kept them in contact over the past two decades since Kirsch’s graduation.
Now the student has surpassed his teacher, Langdon thought. By several light-years.
Today, Edmond Kirsch was a world-renowned maverick–a billionaire computer scientist, futurist, inventor, and entrepreneur. The forty-year-old had fathered an astounding array of advanced technologies that represented major leaps forward in fields as diverse as robotics, brain science, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. And his accurate predictions about future scientific breakthroughs had created a mystical aura around the man.
Langdon suspected that Edmond’s eerie knack for prognostication stemmed from his astoundingly broad knowledge of the world around him. For as long as Langdon could remember, Edmond had been an insatiable bibliophile–reading everything in sight. The man’s passion for books, and his capacity for absorbing their contents, surpassed anything Langdon had ever witnessed.
For the past few years, Kirsch had lived primarily in Spain, attributing his choice to an ongoing love affair with the country’s old-world charm, avant-garde architecture, eccentric gin bars, and perfect weather.
Once a year, when Kirsch returned to Cambridge to speak at the MIT Media Lab, Langdon would join him for a meal at one of the trendy new Boston hot spots that Langdon had never heard of. Their conversations were never about technology; all Kirsch ever wanted to discuss with Langdon was the arts.
“You’re my culture connection, Robert,” Kirsch often joked. “My own private bachelor of arts!”
The playful jab at Langdon’s marital status was particularly ironic coming from a fellow bachelor who denounced monogamy as “an affront to evolution” and had been photographed with a wide range of supermodels over the years.
Considering Kirsch’s reputation as an innovator in computer science, one could easily have imagined him being a buttoned-up techno-nerd. But he had instead fashioned himself into a modern pop icon who moved in celebrity circles, dressed in the latest styles, listened to arcane underground music, and collected a wide array of priceless Impressionist and modern art. Kirsch often e-mailed Langdon to get his advice on new pieces of art he was considering for his collection.
And then he would do the exact opposite, Langdon mused.
About a year ago, Kirsch had surprised Langdon by asking him not about art, but about God–an odd topic for a self-proclaimed atheist. Over a plate of short-rib crudo at Boston’s Tiger Mama, Kirsch had picked Langdon’s brain on the core beliefs of various world religions, in particular their different stories of the Creation.
Langdon gave him a solid overview of current beliefs, from the Genesis story shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all the way through the Hindu story of Brahma, the Babylonian tale of Marduk, and others.
“I’m curious,” Langdon asked as they left the restaurant. “Why is a futurist so interested in the past? Does this mean our famous atheist has finally found God?”
Edmond let out a hearty laugh. “Wishful thinking! I’m just sizing up my competition, Robert.”
Langdon smiled. Typical. “Well, science and religion are not competitors, they’re two different languages trying to tell the same story. There’s room in this world for both.”
After that meeting, Edmond had dropped out of contact for almost a year. And then, out of the blue, three days ago, Langdon had received a FedEx envelope with a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, and a handwritten note from Edmond urging him to attend tonight’s event. It read: Robert, it would mean the world to me if you of all people could attend. Your insights during our last conversation helped make this night possible.
Langdon was baffled. Nothing about that conversation seemed remotely relevant to an event that would be hosted by a futurist.
The FedEx envelope also included a black-and-white image of two people standing face-to-face. Kirsch had written a short poem to Langdon.
When you see me face-to-face,
I’ll reveal the empty space.
Langdon smiled when he saw the image–a clever allusion to an episode in which Langdon had been involved several years earlier. The silhouette of a chalice, or Grail cup, revealed itself in the empty space between the two faces.
Now Langdon stood outside this museum, eager to learn what his former student was about to announce. A light breeze ruffled his jacket tails as he moved along the cement walkway on the bank of the meandering Nervion River, which had once been the lifeblood of a thriving industrial city. The air smelled vaguely of copper.
As Langdon rounded a bend in the pathway, he finally permitted himself to look at the massive, glimmering museum. The structure was impossible to take in at a glance. Instead, his gaze traced back and forth along the entire length of the bizarre, elongated forms.
This building doesn’t just break the rules, Langdon thought. It ignores them completely. A perfect spot for Edmond.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, looked like something out of an alien hallucination–a swirling collage of warped metallic forms that appeared to have been propped up against one another in an almost random way. Stretching into the distance, the chaotic mass of shapes was draped in more than thirty thousand titanium tiles that glinted like fish scales and gave the structure a simultaneously organic and extraterrestrial feel, as if some futuristic leviathan had crawled out of the water to sun herself on the riverbank.
When the building was first unveiled in 1997, The New Yorker hailed its architect, Frank Gehry, as having designed “a fantastic dream ship of undulating form in a cloak of titanium,” while other critics around the world gushed, “The greatest building of our time!” “Mercurial brilliance!” “An astonishing architectural feat!”
Since the museum’s debut, dozens of other “deconstructivist” buildings had been erected–the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, BMW World in Munich, and even the new library at Langdon’s own alma mater. Each featured radically unconventional design and construction, and yet Langdon doubted any of them could compete with the Bilbao Guggenheim for its sheer shock value.
As Langdon approached, the tiled facade seemed to morph with each step, offering a fresh personality from every angle. The museum’s most dramatic illusion now became visible. Incredibly, from this perspective, the colossal structure appeared to be quite literally floating on water, adrift on a vast “infinity” lagoon that lapped against the museum’s outer walls.
Langdon paused a moment to marvel at the effect and then set out to cross the lagoon via the minimalist footbridge that arched over the glassy expanse of water. He was only halfway across when a loud hissing noise startled him. It was emanating from beneath his feet. He stopped short just as a swirling cloud of mist began billowing out from beneath the walkway. The thick veil of fog rose around him and then tumbled outward across the lagoon, rolling toward the museum and engulfing the base of the entire structure.
The Fog Sculpture, Langdon thought.
He had read about this work by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. The “sculpture” was revolutionary in that it was constructed out of the medium of visible air, a wall of fog that materialized and dissipated over time; and because the breezes and atmospheric conditions were never identical one day to the next, the sculpture was different every time it appeared.
The bridge stopped hissing, and Langdon watched the wall of fog settle silently across the lagoon, swirling and creeping as if it had a mind of its own. The effect was both ethereal and disorienting. The entire museum now appeared to be hovering over the water, resting weightlessly on a cloud–a ghost ship lost at sea.
Just as Langdon was about to set out again, the tranquil surface of the water was shattered by a series of small eruptions. Suddenly five flaming pillars of fire shot skyward out of the lagoon, thundering steadily like rocket engines that pierced the mist-laden air and threw brilliant bursts of light across the museum’s titanium tiles.
Langdon’s own architectural taste tended more to the classical stylings of museums like the Louvre or the Prado, and yet as he watched the fog and flame hover above the lagoon, he could think of no place more suitable than this ultramodern museum to host an event thrown by a man who loved art and innovation, and who glimpsed the future so clearly.
Now, walking through the mist, Langdon pressed on to the museum’s entrance–an ominous black hole in the reptilian structure. As he neared the threshold, Langdon had the uneasy sense that he was entering the mouth of a dragon.
NAVY ADMIRAL LUIS Avila was seated on a bar stool inside a deserted pub in an unfamiliar town. He was drained from his journey, having just flown into this city after a job that had taken him many thousands of miles in twelve hours. He took a sip of his second tonic water and stared at the colorful array of bottles behind the bar.
Any man can stay sober in a desert, he mused, but only the loyal can sit in an oasis and refuse to part his lips.
Avila had not parted his lips for the devil in almost a year. As he eyed his reflection in the mirrored bar, he permitted himself a rare moment of contentment with the image looking back at him.
Avila was one of those fortunate Mediterranean men for whom aging seemed to be more an asset than a liability. Over the years, his stiff black stubble had softened to a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard, his fiery dark eyes had relaxed to a serene confidence, and his taut olive skin was now sun-drenched and creased, giving him the aura of a man permanently squinting out to sea.
Even at sixty-three years old, his body was lean and toned, an impressive physique further enhanced by his tailored uniform. At the moment, Avila was clothed in his full-dress navy whites–a regal-looking livery consisting of a double-breasted white jacket, broad black shoulder boards, an imposing array of service medals, a starched white standing-collar shirt, and silk-trimmed white slacks.
The Spanish Armada may not be the most potent navy on earth anymore, but we still know how to dress an officer.
The admiral had not donned this uniform in years–but this was a special night, and earlier, as he walked the streets of this unknown town, he had enjoyed the favorable looks of women as well as the wide berth afforded him by men.
Everyone respects those who live by a code.
“?Otra tonica?” the pretty barmaid asked. She was in her thirties, was full-figured, and had a playful smile.
Avila shook his head. “No, gracias.”
This pub was entirely empty, and Avila could feel the barmaid’s eyes admiring him. It felt good to be seen again. I have returned from the abyss.
The horrific event that all but destroyed Avila’s life five years ago would forever lurk in the recesses of his mind–a single deafening instant in which the earth had opened up and swallowed him whole.
Cathedral of Seville.
The Andalusian sun was streaming through stained glass, splashing kaleidoscopes of color in radiant bursts across the cathedral’s stone interior. The pipe organ thundered in joyous celebration as thousands of worshippers celebrated the miracle of resurrection.
Avila knelt at the Communion rail, his heart swelling with gratitude. After a lifetime of service to the sea, he had been blessed with the greatest of God’s gifts–a family. Smiling broadly, Avila turned and glanced back over his shoulder at his young wife, Maria, who was still seated in the pews, far too pregnant to make the long walk up the aisle. Beside her, their three-year-old son, Pepe, waved excitedly at his father. Avila winked at the boy, and Maria smiled warmly at her husband.
Thank you, God, Avila thought as he turned back to the railing to accept the chalice.
An instant later, a deafening explosion ripped through the pristine cathedral.
In a flash of light, his entire world erupted in fire.
The blast wave drove Avila violently forward into the Communion rail, his body crushed by the scalding surge of debris and human body parts. When Avila regained consciousness, he was unable to breathe in the thick smoke, and for a moment he had no idea where he was or what had happened.
Then, above the ringing in his ears, he heard the anguished screams. Avila clambered to his feet, realizing with horror where he was. He told himself this was all a terrible dream. He staggered back through the smoke-filled cathedral, clambering past moaning and mutilated victims, stumbling in desperation to the approximate area where his wife and son had been smiling only moments ago.
There was nothing there.
No pews. No people.
Only bloody debris on the charred stone floor.
The grisly memory was mercifully shattered by the chime of the jangling bar door. Avila seized his tonica and took a quick sip, shaking off the darkness as he had been forced to do so many times before.
The bar door swung wide, and Avila turned to see two burly men stumble in. They were singing an off-key Irish fight song and wearing green futbol jerseys that strained to cover their bellies. Apparently, this afternoon’s match had gone the way of Ireland’s visiting team.
I’ll take that as my cue, Avila thought, standing up. He asked for his bill, but the barmaid winked and waved him off. Avila thanked her and turned to go.
“Bloody hell!” one of the newcomers shouted, staring at Avila’s stately uniform. “It’s the king of Spain!”
Both men erupted with laughter, lurching toward him.
Avila attempted to step around them and leave, but the larger man roughly grabbed his arm and pulled him back to a bar stool. “Hold on, Your Highness! We came all the way to Spain; we’re gonna have a pint with the king!”
Avila eyed the man’s grubby hand on his freshly pressed sleeve. “Let go,” he said quietly. “I need to leave.”
“No … you need to stay for a beer, amigo.” The man tightened his grip as his friend started poking with a dirty finger at the medals on Avila’s chest. “Looks like you’re quite a hero, Pops.” The man tugged on one of Avila’s most prized emblems. “A medieval mace? So, you’re a knight in shining armor?!” He guffawed.
Tolerance, Avila reminded himself. He had met countless men like these–simpleminded, unhappy souls, who had never stood for anything, men who blindly abused the liberties and freedoms that others had fought to give them.
“Actually,” Avila replied gently, “the mace is the symbol of the Spanish navy’s Unidad de Operaciones Especiales.”
“Special ops?” The man feigned a fearful shudder. “That’s very impressive. And what about that symbol?” He pointed to Avila’s right hand.
Avila glanced down at his palm. In the center of the soft flesh was inscribed a black tattoo–a symbol that dated back to the fourteenth century.
This marking serves as my protection, Avila thought, eyeing the emblem. Although I will not need it.
“Never mind,” the hooligan said, finally letting go of Avila’s arm and turning his attention to the barmaid. “You’re a cute one,” he said. “Are you a hundred percent Spanish?”
“I am,” she answered graciously.
“You don’t have some Irish in you?”