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“I’m afraid Ms. Vidal’s location is unknown at the moment.”

“Forty minutes ago, Edmond Kirsch’s jet took off from Bilbao Airport–headed for Barcelona,” the voice asserted. “I believe Ms. Vidal was on that plane.”

“How would you know that?” Fonseca blurted, and then instantly regretted his impertinent tone.

“If you were doing your job,” the voice replied sharply, “you would know too. I want you and your partner to pursue her at once. A military transport is fueling at Bilbao Airport for you right now.”

“If Ms. Vidal is on that jet,” Fonseca said, “she is probably traveling with the American professor Robert Langdon.”

“Yes,” the caller said angrily. “I have no idea how this man persuaded Ms. Vidal to abandon her security and run off with him, but Mr. Langdon is clearly a liability. Your mission is to find Ms. Vidal and bring her back, by force if necessary.”

“And if Langdon interferes?”

There was a heavy silence. “Do your best to limit collateral damage,” the caller replied, “but this crisis is severe enough that Professor Langdon would be an acceptable casualty.”

CHAPTER 46

ConspiracyNet.com BREAKING NEWS

KIRSCH COVERAGE GOES MAINSTREAM!

Edmond Kirsch’s scientific announcement tonight began as an online presentation that attracted a staggering three million online viewers. In the wake of his assassination, however, the Kirsch story is now being covered on mainstream networks live around the world, with current viewership estimated at over eighty million.

CHAPTER 47

AS KIRSCH’S GULFSTREAM G550 began its descent into Barcelona, Robert Langdon drained his second mug of coffee and gazed down at the remains of the impromptu late-night snack that he and Ambra had just shared from Edmond’s galley–nuts, rice cakes, and assorted “vegan bars” that all tasted the same to him.

Across the table, Ambra had just finished her second glass of red wine and was looking much more relaxed.

“Thanks for listening,” she said, sounding sheepish. “Obviously, I haven’t been able to talk about Julian with anyone.”

Langdon gave her an understanding nod, having just heard the story of Julian’s awkward proposal to her on television. She didn’t have a choice, Langdon agreed, knowing full well that Ambra could not risk shaming the future king of Spain on national television.

“Obviously, if I’d known he was going to propose so quickly,” Ambra said, “I would have told him I can’t have children. But it all happened without warning.” She shook her head and looked sadly out the window. “I thought I liked him. I don’t know, maybe it was just the thrill of–”

“A tall, dark, handsome prince?” Langdon ventured with a lopsided grin.

Ambra laughed quietly and turned back to him. “He did have that going for him. I don’t know, he seemed like a good man. Sheltered maybe, but a romantic–not the kind of man who would ever be involved in killing Edmond.”

Langdon suspected she was right. The prince had little to gain from Edmond’s death, and there was no solid evidence to suggest that the prince was involved in any way–only a phone call from someone inside the palace asking to add Admiral Avila to the guest list. At this point, Bishop Valdespino seemed to be the most obvious suspect, having been privy to Edmond’s announcement early enough to formulate a plan to stop it, and also knowing better than anyone just how destructive it might be to the authority of the world’s religions.

“Obviously, I can’t marry Julian,” Ambra said quietly. “I keep thinking he’ll break off the engagement now that he knows I can’t have children. His bloodline has held the crown for most of the last four centuries. Something tells me that a museum administrator from Bilbao will not be the reason the lineage ends.”

The speaker overhead crackled, and the pilots announced that it was time to prepare for their landing in Barcelona.

Jarred from her ruminations about the prince, Ambra stood and began tidying up the cabin–rinsing their glasses in the galley and disposing of the uneaten food.

“Professor,” Winston chimed from Edmond’s phone on the table, “I thought you should be aware that there is new information now going viral online–strong evidence suggesting a secret link between Bishop Valdespino and the assassin Admiral Avila.”

Langdon was alarmed by the news.

“Unfortunately, there is more,” Winston added. “As you know, Kirsch’s secret meeting with Bishop Valdespino included two other religious leaders–a prominent rabbi and a well-loved imam. Last night, the imam was found dead in the desert near Dubai. And, in the last few minutes, there is troubling news coming out of Budapest: it seems the rabbi has been found dead of an apparent heart attack.”

Langdon was stunned.

“Bloggers,” Winston said, “are already questioning the coincidental timing of their deaths.”

Langdon nodded in mute disbelief. One way or the other, Bishop Antonio Valdespino was now the only living person on earth who knew what Kirsch had discovered.

When the Gulfstream G550 touched down onto the lone runway at Sabadell Airport in the foothills of Barcelona, Ambra was relieved to see no signs of waiting paparazzi or press.

According to Edmond, in order to avoid dealing with starstruck fans at Barcelona’s El-Prat Airport, he chose to keep his plane at this small jetport.

That was not the real reason, Ambra knew.

In reality, Edmond loved attention, and admitted to keeping his plane at Sabadell only to have an excuse to drive the winding roads to his home in his favorite sports car–a Tesla Model X P90D that Elon Musk had allegedly hand-delivered to him as a gift. Supposedly, Edmond had once challenged his jet pilots to a one-mile drag race on the runway–Gulfstream vs. Tesla–but his pilots had done the math and declined.

I’ll miss Edmond, Ambra thought ruefully. Yes, he was self-indulgent and brash, but his brilliant imagination deserved so much more from life than what happened to him tonight. I just hope we can honor him by unveiling his discovery.

When the plane arrived inside Edmond’s single-plane hangar and powered down, Ambra could see that everything here was quiet. Apparently, she and Professor Langdon were still flying under the radar.

As she led the way down the jet’s staircase, Ambra breathed deeply, trying to clear her head. The second glass of wine had taken hold, and she regretted drinking it. Stepping down onto the cement floor of the hangar, she faltered slightly and felt Langdon’s strong hand on her shoulder, steadying her.

“Thanks,” she whispered, smiling back at the professor, whose two cups of coffee had left him looking wide-awake and wired.

“We should get out of sight as quickly as possible,” Langdon said, eyeing the sleek black SUV parked in the corner. “I assume that’s the vehicle you told me about?”

She nodded. “Edmond’s secret love.”

“Odd license plate.”

Ambra eyed the car’s vanity plate and chuckled.

E-WAVE

“Well,” she explained, “Edmond told me that Google and NASA recently acquired a groundbreaking supercomputer called D-Wave–one of the world’s first ‘quantum’ computers. He tried to explain it to me, but it was pretty complicated–something about superpositions and quantum mechanics and creating an entirely new breed of machine. Anyhow, Edmond said he wanted to build something that would blow D-Wave out of the water. He planned to call his new computer E-Wave.”

“E for Edmond,” Langdon mused.

And E is one step beyond D, Ambra thought, recalling Edmond’s story about the famous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, according to urban legend, had been named HAL because each letter occurred alphabetically one letter ahead of IBM.

“And the car key?” Langdon asked. “You said you know where he hides it.”

“He doesn’t use a key.” Ambra held up Edmond’s phone. “He showed me this when we came here last month.” She touched the phone screen, launched the Tesla app, and selected the summon command.

Instantly, in the corner of the hangar, the SUV’s headlights blazed to life, and the Tesla–without the slightest sound–slid smoothly up beside them and stopped.

Langdon cocked his head, looking unnerved by the prospect of a car that drove itself.

“Don’t worry,” Ambra assured him. “I’ll let you drive to Edmond’s apartment.”

Langdon nodded his agreement and began circling around to the driver’s side. As he passed the front of the car, he paused, staring down at the license plate and laughing out loud.

Ambra knew exactly what had amused him–Edmond’s license-plate frame: AND THE GEEK SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.

“Only Edmond,” Langdon said as he climbed in behind the wheel. “Subtlety was never his forte.”

“He loved this car,” Ambra said, getting in next to Langdon. “Fully electric and faster than a Ferrari.”

Langdon shrugged, eyeing the high-tech dashboard. “I’m not really a car guy.”

Ambra smiled. “You will be.”

CHAPTER 48

AS AVILA’S UBER raced eastward through the darkness, the admiral wondered how many times during his years as a naval officer he had made port in Barcelona.

His previous life seemed a world away now, having ended in a fiery flash in Seville. Fate was a cruel and unpredictable mistress, and yet there seemed an eerie equilibrium about her now. The same fate that had torn out his soul in the Cathedral of Seville had now granted him a second life–a fresh start born within the sanctuary walls of a very different cathedral.

Ironically, the person who had taken him there was a simple physical therapist named Marco.

“A meeting with the pope?” Avila had asked his trainer months ago, when Marco first proposed the idea. “Tomorrow? In Rome?”

“Tomorrow in Spain,” Marco had replied. “The pope is here.”

Avila eyed him as if he were crazy. “The media have said nothing about His Holiness being in Spain.”

“A little trust, Admiral,” Marco replied with a laugh. “Unless you’ve got somewhere else to be tomorrow?”

Avila glanced down at his injured leg.

“We’ll leave at nine,” Marco prompted. “I promise our little trip will be far less painful than rehab.”

The next morning, Avila got dressed in a navy uniform that Marco had retrieved from Avila’s home, grabbed a pair of crutches, and hobbled out to Marco’s car–an old Fiat. Marco drove out of the hospital lot and headed south on Avenida de la Raza, eventually leaving the city and getting on Highway N-IV heading south.

“Where are we going?” Avila asked, suddenly uneasy.

“Relax,” Marco said, smiling. “Just trust me. It’ll only take half an hour.”

Avila knew there was nothing but parched pastureland on the N-IV for at least another 150 kilometers. He was beginning to think he had made a terrible mistake. Half an hour into the journey, they approached the eerie ghost town of El Torbiscal–a once prosperous farming village whose population had recently dwindled to zero. Where in the world is he taking me?! Marco drove on for several minutes, then exited the highway and turned north.

“Can you see it?” Marco asked, pointing into the distance across a fallow field.

Avila saw nothing. Either the young trainer was hallucinating or Avila’s eyes were getting old.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Marco declared.

Avila squinted into the sun, and finally saw a dark form rising out of the landscape. As they drew closer, his eyes widened in disbelief.

Is that … a cathedral?

The scale of the building looked like something he might expect to see in Madrid or Paris. Avila had lived in Seville his entire life but had never known of a cathedral out here in the middle of nowhere. The closer they drove, the more impressive the complex appeared, its massive cement walls providing a level of security that Avila had seen only in Vatican City.

Marco left the main highway and drove along a short access road toward the cathedral, approaching a towering iron gate that blocked their way. As they came to a stop, Marco pulled a laminated card from the glove box and placed it on the dashboard.

A security guard approached, eyed the card, and then peered into the vehicle, smiling broadly when he saw Marco. “Bienvenidos,” the guard said. “?Que tal, Marco?”

The two men shook hands, and Marco introduced Admiral Avila.

“Ha venido a conocer al papa,” Marco told the guard. He’s come to meet the pope.

The guard nodded, admiring the medals on Avila’s uniform, and waved them on. As the huge gate swung open, Avila felt like he was entering a medieval castle.

The soaring Gothic cathedral that appeared before them had eight towering spires, each with a triple-tiered bell tower. A trio of massive cupolas made up the body of the structure, the exterior of which was composed of dark brown and white stone, giving it an unusually modern feel.

Avila lowered his gaze to the access road, which forked into three parallel roadways, each lined with a phalanx of tall palm trees. To his surprise, the entire area was jammed with parked vehicles–hundreds of them–luxury sedans, dilapidated buses, mud-covered mopeds … everything imaginable.

Marco bypassed them all, driving straight to the church’s front courtyard, where a security guard saw them, checked his watch, and waved them into an empty parking spot that had clearly been reserved for them.

“We’re a little late,” Marco said. “We should hurry inside.”

Avila was about to reply, but the words were lodged in his throat.

He had just seen the sign in front of the church:

IGLESIA CATOLICA PALMARIANA

My God! Avila felt himself recoil. I’ve heard of this church!

He turned to Marco, trying to control his pounding heart. “This is your church, Marco?” Avila tried not to sound alarmed. “You’re a … Palmarian?”

Marco smiled. “You say the word like it’s some kind of disease. I’m just a devout Catholic who believes that Rome has gone astray.”

Avila raised his eyes again to the church. Marco’s strange claim about knowing the pope suddenly made sense. The pope is here in Spain.

A few years ago, the television network Canal Sur had aired a documentary titled La Iglesia Oscura, whose purpose was to unveil some of the secrets of the Palmarian Church. Avila had been stunned to learn of the strange church’s existence, not to mention its growing congregation and influence.

According to lore, the Palmarian Church had been founded after some local residents claimed to have witnessed a series of mystical visions in a field nearby. Allegedly, the Virgin Mary had appeared to them and warned that the Catholic Church was rife with the “heresy of modernism” and that the true faith needed to be protected.

The Virgin Mary had urged the Palmarians to establish an alternative church and denounce the current pope in Rome as a false pope. This conviction that the Vatican’s pope was not the valid pontiff was known as sedevacantism–a belief that St. Peter’s “seat” was literally “vacant.”

Furthermore, the Palmarians claimed to have evidence that the “true” pope was in fact their own founder–a man named Clemente Dominguez y Gomez, who took the name Pope Gregory XVII. Under Pope Gregory–the “antipope,” in the view of mainstream Catholics–the Palmarian Church grew steadily. In 2005, when Pope Gregory died while presiding over an Easter mass, his supporters hailed the timing of his death as a miraculous sign from above, confirming that this man was in fact connected directly to God.

Now, as Avila gazed up at the massive church, he couldn’t help but view the building as sinister.

Whoever the current antipope might be, I have no interest in meeting him.

In addition to criticism over their bold claims about the papacy, the Palmarian Church endured allegations of brainwashing, cultlike intimidation, and even responsibility for several mysterious deaths, including that of church member Bridget Crosbie, who, according to her family’s attorneys, had been “unable to escape” one of the Palmarian churches in Ireland.

Avila didn’t want to be rude to his new friend, but this was not at all what he had expected from today’s trip. “Marco,” he said with an apologetic sigh, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this.”

“I had a feeling you were going to say that,” Marco replied, seemingly unfazed. “And I admit, I had the same reaction when I first came here. I too had heard all the gossip and dark rumors, but I can assure you, it’s nothing more than a smear campaign led by the Vatican.”

Can you blame them? Avila wondered. Your church declared them illegitimate!

“Rome needed a reason to excommunicate us, so they made up lies. For years, the Vatican has been spreading disinformation about the Palmarians.”

Avila assessed the magnificent cathedral in the middle of nowhere. Something about it felt strange to him. “I’m confused,” he said. “If you have no ties to the Vatican, where does all your money come from?”

Marco smiled. “You would be amazed at the number of secret followers the Palmarians have within the Catholic clergy. There are many conservative Catholic parishes here in Spain that do not approve of the liberal changes emanating from Rome, and they are quietly funneling money to churches like ours, where traditional values are upheld.”

The answer was unexpected, but it rang true for Avila. He too had sensed a growing schism within the Catholic Church–a rift between those who believed the Church needed to modernize or die and those who believed the Church’s true purpose was to remain steadfast in the face of an evolving world.

“The current pope is a remarkable man,” Marco said. “I told him your story, and he said he would be honored to welcome a decorated military officer to our church, and meet with you personally after the service today. Like his predecessors, he had a military background before finding God, and he understands what you’re going through. I really think his viewpoint might help you find peace.”

Marco opened his door to get out of the car, but Avila could not move. He just sat in place, staring up at the massive structure, feeling guilty for harboring a blind prejudice against these people. To be fair, he knew nothing of the Palmarian Church except the rumors, and it was not as if the Vatican were without scandal. Moreover, Avila’s own church had not helped him at all after the attack. Forgive your enemies, the nun had told him. Turn the other cheek.

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