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“True,” Langdon said, “and yet there are some nonreligious books that attempt to discredit Darwin from a historical standpoint–accusing him of stealing his theory from the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who first proposed that organisms transformed themselves in response to their environment.”

“That line of thought is irrelevant, Professor,” Winston said. “Whether or not Darwin was guilty of plagiarism has no bearing on the veracity of his evolutionary theory.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Ambra said. “And so, Robert, I assume if you asked Professor Gould, ‘Where do we come from?’ he would reply, without a doubt, that we evolved from apes.”

Langdon nodded. “I’m paraphrasing here, but Gould essentially assured me that there was no question whatsoever among real scientists that evolution is happening. Empirically, we can observe the process. The better questions, he believed, were: Why is evolution happening? And how did it all start?”

“Did he offer any answers?” Ambra said.

“None that I could understand, but he did illustrate his point with a thought experiment. It’s called the Infinite Hallway.” Langdon paused, taking another sip of coffee.

“Yes, a helpful illustration,” Winston chimed in before Langdon could speak. “It goes like this: imagine yourself walking down a long hallway–a corridor so long that it’s impossible to see where you came from or where you’re going.”

Langdon nodded, impressed by the breadth of Winston’s knowledge.

“Then, behind you in the distance,” Winston continued, “you hear the sound of a bouncing ball. Sure enough, when you turn, you see a ball bouncing toward you. It is bouncing closer and closer, until it finally bounces past you, and just keeps going, bouncing into the distance and out of sight.”

“Correct,” Langdon said. “The question is not: Is the ball bouncing? Because clearly, the ball is bouncing. We can observe it. The question is: Why is it bouncing? How did it start bouncing? Did someone kick it? Is it a special ball that simply enjoys bouncing? Are the laws of physics in this hallway such that the ball has no choice but to bounce forever?”

“Gould’s point being,” Winston concluded, “that just as with evolution, we cannot see far enough into the past to know how the process began.”

“Exactly,” Langdon said. “All we can do is observe that it is happening.”

“This was similar, of course,” Winston said, “to the challenge of understanding the Big Bang. Cosmologists have devised elegant formulas to describe the expanding universe for any given Time–‘T’–in the past or future. However, when they try to look back to the instant when the Big Bang occurred–where T equals zero–the mathematics all goes mad, describing what seems to be a mystical speck of infinite heat and infinite density.”

Langdon and Ambra looked at each other, impressed.

“Correct again,” Langdon said. “And because the human mind is not equipped to handle ‘infinity’ very well, most scientists now discuss the universe only in terms of moments after the Big Bang–where T is greater than zero–which ensures that the mathematical does not turn mystical.”

One of Langdon’s Harvard colleagues–a solemn physics professor–had become so fed up with philosophy majors attending his Origins of the Universe seminar that he finally posted a sign on his classroom door.

In my classroom, T > 0.

For all inquiries where T = 0,

please visit the Religion Department.

“How about Panspermia?” Winston asked. “The notion that life on earth was seeded from another planet by a meteor or cosmic dust? Panspermia is considered a scientifically valid possibility to explain the existence of life on earth.”

“Even if it’s true,” Langdon offered, “it doesn’t answer how life first began in the universe. We’re just kicking the can down the road, ignoring the origin of the bouncing ball and postponing the big question: Where does life come from?”

Winston fell silent.

Ambra sipped her wine, looking amused by their interplay.

As the Gulfstream G550 reached altitude and leveled off, Langdon found himself imagining what it would mean to the world if Edmond truly had found the answer to the age-old question: Where do we come from?

And yet, according to Edmond, that answer was only part of the secret.

Whatever the truth might be, Edmond had protected the details of his discovery with a formidable password–a single, forty-seven-letter line of poetry. If all went according to plan, Langdon and Ambra would soon uncover it inside Edmond’s home in Barcelona.

CHAPTER 43

NEARLY A DECADE after its inception, the “dark web” remains a mystery to the vast majority of online users. Inaccessible via traditional search engines, this sinister shadowland of the World Wide Web provides anonymous access to a mind-boggling menu of illegal goods and services.

From its humble beginning hosting Silk Road–the first online black market to sell illegal drugs–the dark web blossomed into a massive network of illicit sites dealing in weapons, child pornography, political secrets, and even professionals for hire, including prostitutes, hackers, spies, terrorists, and assassins.

Every week, the dark web hosted literally millions of transactions, and tonight, outside the ruin bars of Budapest, one of those transactions was about to be completed.

The man in the baseball cap and blue jeans moved stealthily along Kazinczy Street, staying in the shadows as he tracked his prey. Missions like this one had become his bread and butter over the past few years and were always negotiated through a handful of popular networks–Unfriendly Solution, Hitman Network, and BesaMafia.

Assassination for hire was a billion-dollar industry and growing daily, due primarily to the dark web’s guarantee of anonymous negotiations and untraceable payment via Bitcoin. Most hits involved insurance fraud, bad business partnerships, or turbulent marriages, but the rationale was never the concern of the person carrying out the job.

No questions, the killer mused. That is the unspoken rule that makes my business work.

Tonight’s job was one he had accepted several days ago. His anonymous employer had offered him 150,000 euros for staking out the home of an old rabbi and remaining “on call” in case action needed to be taken. Action, in this case, meant breaking into the man’s home and injecting him with potassium chloride, resulting in immediate death from an apparent heart attack.

Tonight, unexpectedly, the rabbi had left his home in the middle of the night and taken a city bus to a seedy neighborhood. The assassin had tailed him and then used the encrypted overlay program on his smart-phone to inform his employer of the development.

Target has exited home. Traveled to bar district.

Possibly meeting someone?

His employer’s response was almost immediate.

Execute.

Now, among the ruin bars and dark alleyways, what had begun as a stakeout had become a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Rabbi Yehuda Koves was sweating and out of breath as he made his way along Kazinczy Street. His lungs burned, and he felt as if his aging bladder were about to burst.

All I need is a toilet and some rest, he thought, pausing among a crowd congregating outside Bar Szimpla–one of Budapest’s largest and most famous ruin bars. The patrons here were such a diverse mix of ages and professions that nobody gave the old rabbi a second look.

I’ll stop just for a moment, he decided, moving toward the bar.

Once a spectacular stone mansion with elegant balconies and tall windows, the Bar Szimpla was now a dilapidated shell covered with graffiti. As Koves moved through the wide portico of this once grand city residence, he passed through a doorway inscribed with an encoded message: EGG-ESH-AY-GED-REH!

It took him a moment to realize that it was nothing but the phonetic spelling of the Hungarian word egeszsegedre–meaning “cheers!”

Entering, Koves stared in disbelief at the bar’s cavernous interior. The derelict mansion was built around a sprawling courtyard dotted with some of the strangest objects the rabbi had ever seen–a couch made from a bathtub, mannequins riding bicycles suspended in the air, and a gutted East German Trabant sedan, which now served as makeshift seating for patrons.

The courtyard was enclosed by high walls adorned with a patchwork of spray-painted graffiti, Soviet-era posters, classical sculptures, and hanging plants that spilled over interior balconies packed with patrons who all swayed to the thumping music. The air smelled of cigarettes and beer. Young couples kissed passionately in plain sight while others discreetly smoked from small pipes and drank shots of palinka, a popular fruit brandy bottled in Hungary.

Koves always found it ironic that humans, despite being God’s most sublime creation, were still just animals at the core, their behavior driven to a great extent by a quest for creature comforts. We comfort our physical bodies in hopes our souls will follow. Koves spent much of his time counseling those who overindulged in the animal temptations of the body–primarily food and sex–and with the rise of Internet addiction and cheap designer drugs, his job had grown more challenging every day.

The only creature comfort Koves needed at the moment was a restroom, and so he was dismayed to find a line ten people deep. Unable to wait, he gingerly climbed the stairs, where he was told he would find numerous other restrooms. On the second floor of the mansion, the rabbi moved through a labyrinth of adjoining sitting rooms and bedrooms, each with its own little bar or seating area. He asked one of the bartenders about a bathroom, and the man pointed to a hallway a good distance away, apparently accessible along a balcony walkway that overlooked the courtyard.

Koves quickly made his way to the balcony, placing a steadying hand on the railing as he moved along it. As he walked, he peered absently into the bustling courtyard below, where a sea of young people gyrated in rhythm to the deep pulse of the music.

Then Koves saw it.

He stopped short, his blood turning cold.

There, in the middle of the crowd, the man in the baseball cap and jeans was staring directly up at him. For one brief instant, the two men locked eyes. Then, with the speed of a panther, the man in the cap sprang into action, pushing his way past patrons and sprinting up the staircase.

The assassin bounded up the stairs, scrutinizing every face he passed. Bar Szimpla was quite familiar to him, and he quickly made his way to the balcony where his target had been standing.

The rabbi was gone.

I did not pass you, the killer thought, which means you moved deeper into the building.

Raising his gaze to a darkened corridor ahead, the assassin smiled, suspecting he knew precisely where his mark would try to hide.

The corridor was cramped and smelled of urine. At the far end was a warped wooden door.

The killer padded loudly down the corridor and banged on the door.

Silence.

He knocked again.

A deep voice inside grunted that the room was occupied.

“Bocsasson meg!” the killer apologized in a chirpy voice, and made a show of loudly moving away. Then he silently turned around and came back to the door, pressing his ear to the wood. Inside, he could hear the rabbi whispering desperately in Hungarian.

“Someone is trying to kill me! He was outside my house! Now he has trapped me inside Bar Szimpla in Budapest! Please! Send help!”

Apparently, his target had dialed 112–Budapest’s equivalent of 911. Response times were notoriously slow, but nonetheless, the killer had heard enough.

Glancing behind him to make sure he was alone, he leveled his muscular shoulder toward the door, leaned back, and synchronized his attack with the thunderous beat of the music.

The old butterfly latch exploded on the first try. The door flew open. The killer stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and faced his prey.

The man cowering in the corner looked as confused as he did terrified.

The killer took the rabbi’s phone, ended the call, and tossed the phone into the toilet.

“Wh-who sent you?!” the rabbi stammered.

“The beauty of my situation,” the man replied, “is that I have no way to know.”

The old man was wheezing now, sweating profusely. He suddenly began to gasp, his eyes bulging out as he reached up and seized his own chest with both hands.

Really? the killer thought, smiling. He’s having a heart attack?

On the bathroom floor, the old man writhed and choked, his eyes pleading for compassion as his face turned red and he clawed at his chest. Finally, he pitched face-first onto the grimy tile, where he lay trembling and shuddering as his bladder emptied itself into his pants, a trickle of urine now running across the floor.

Finally, the rabbi was still.

The killer crouched down and listened for breathing. Not a sound.

Then he stood up, smirking. “You made my job far easier than I anticipated.”

With that, the killer strode toward the door.

Rabbi Koves’s lungs strained for air.

He had just given the performance of a lifetime.

Teetering near unconsciousness, he lay motionless and listened as his attacker’s footsteps retreated across the bathroom floor. The door creaked open and then clicked closed.

Silence.

Koves forced himself to wait another couple of seconds to ensure that his attacker had walked down the hall out of earshot. Then, unable to wait another instant, Koves exhaled and began pulling in deep life-giving breaths. Even the stale air of the bathroom tasted heaven-sent.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, his vision hazy from lack of oxygen. As Koves raised his throbbing head, his vision began to clear. To his bewilderment, he saw a dark figure standing just inside the closed door.

The man in the baseball cap was smiling down at him.

Koves froze. He never left the room.

The killer took two long strides to the rabbi, and with a viselike grip, he grabbed the rabbi’s neck and shoved his face back into the tile floor.

“You could stop your breathing,” snarled the killer, “but you couldn’t stop your heart.” He laughed. “Not to worry, I can help you with that.”

An instant later, a searing point of heat tore into the side of Koves’s neck. A molten fire seemed to flow down his throat and up over his skull. This time, when his heart seized, he knew it was for real.

After dedicating much of his life to the mysteries of Shamayim–the dwelling place of God and the righteous dead–Rabbi Yehuda Koves knew that all the answers were just a heartbeat away.

CHAPTER 44

ALONE IN THE spacious restroom of the G550 jet, Ambra Vidal stood at the sink and let warm water run gently over her hands as she stared into the mirror, barely recognizing herself in the reflection.

What have I done?

She took another sip of wine, longing for her old life of only a few months ago–anonymous, single, engrossed in her museum work–but all of that was gone now. It had evaporated the moment Julian proposed.

No, she chided herself. It evaporated the moment you said yes.

The horror of tonight’s assassination had settled in her gut, and now her logical mind was fearfully weighing the implications.

I invited Edmond’s assassin to the museum.

I was tricked by someone in the palace.

And now I know too much.

There was no proof that Prince Julian was behind the bloody killing, nor that he was even aware of the assassination plan. Even so, Ambra had seen enough of the palace’s inner workings to suspect that none of this could have happened without the prince’s knowledge, if not his blessing.

I told Julian too much.

In recent weeks, Ambra had felt the growing need to justify every second she spent away from her jealous fiance, and so she had privately shared with Julian much of what she knew about Edmond’s upcoming presentation. Ambra now feared her openness might have been reckless.

Ambra turned off the water and dried her hands, reaching for her wine goblet and draining the last few drops. In the mirror before her she saw a stranger–a once confident professional who was now filled with regret and shame.

The mistakes I’ve made in a few short months …

As her mind reeled back in time, she wondered what she could possibly have done differently. Four months ago, on a rainy night in Madrid, Ambra was attending a fund-raiser at the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art …

Most of the guests had migrated to room 206.06 to view the museum’s most famous work–El Guernica–a sprawling twenty-five-foot-long Picasso that evoked the horrific bombing of a small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. Ambra, however, found the painting too painful to view–a vivid reminder of the brutal oppression endured under Spain’s fascistic dictator General Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975.

Instead, she had chosen to slip alone into a quiet gallery to enjoy the work of one of her favorite Spanish artists, Maruja Mallo, a female Surrealist from Galicia whose success in the 1930s had helped shatter the glass ceiling for female artists in Spain.

Ambra was standing alone admiring La Verbena–a political satire filled with complex symbols–when a deep voice spoke behind her.

“Es casi tan guapa como tu,” the man declared. It’s almost as beautiful as you are.

Seriously? Ambra stared straight ahead and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. At events like these, the museum sometimes felt more like an awkward pickup bar than a cultural center.

“?Que crees que significa?” the voice behind her pressed. What do you think it means?

“I have no idea,” she lied, hoping that speaking English might make the man move on. “I just like it.”

“I like it too,” the man replied in almost accentless English. “Mallo was ahead of her time. Sadly, for the untrained eye, this painting’s superficial beauty can camouflage the deeper substance within.” He paused. “I imagine a woman like you must face that problem all the time.”

Ambra groaned. Do lines like this really work on women? Affixing a polite smile to her face, she spun around to dispatch the man. “Sir, that’s very kind of you to say, but–”

Ambra Vidal froze midsentence.

The man facing her was someone she had seen on television and in magazines for her entire life.

“Oh,” Ambra stammered. “You’re …”

“Presumptuous?” the handsome man ventured. “Clumsily bold? I’m sorry, I live a sheltered life, and I’m not very good at this sort of thing.” He smiled and extended a polite hand. “My name is Julian.”

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