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“No.”

“Would you like some?” The man convulsed in hysterics and pounded the bar.

“Leave her alone,” Avila commanded.

The man wheeled, glaring at him.

The second thug poked Avila hard in the chest. “You trying to tell us what to do?”

Avila took a deep breath, feeling tired after this day’s long journey, and he motioned to the bar. “Gentlemen, please sit down. I’ll buy you a beer.”

I’m glad he’s staying, the barmaid thought. Although she could take care of herself, witnessing how calmly this officer was dealing with these two brutes had left her a little weak-kneed and hoping he might stay until closing time.

The officer had ordered two beers, and another tonic water for himself, reclaiming his seat at the bar. The two futbol hooligans sat on either side of him.

“Tonic water?” one taunted. “I thought we were drinking together.”

The officer gave the barmaid a tired smile and finished his tonic.

“I’m afraid I have an appointment,” the officer said, standing up. “But enjoy your beers.”

As he stood, both men, as if rehearsed, slammed rough hands on his shoulders and shoved him back onto the stool. A spark of anger flashed across the officer’s eyes and then disappeared.

“Grandpa, I don’t think you want to leave us alone with your girlfriend here.” The thug looked at her and did something disgusting with his tongue.

The officer sat quietly for a long moment, and then reached into his jacket.

Both guys grabbed him. “Hey! What are you doing?!”

Very slowly, the officer pulled out a cell phone and said something to the men in Spanish. They stared at him uncomprehendingly, and he switched back to English. “I’m sorry, I just need to call my wife and tell her I’ll be late. It looks like I’m going to be here awhile.”

“Now you’re talking, mate!” the larger of the two said, draining his beer and slamming the glass down on the bar. “Another!”

As the barmaid refilled the thugs’ glasses, she watched in the mirror as the officer touched a few keys on his phone and then held it to his ear. The call went through, and he spoke in rapid Spanish.

“Le llamo desde el bar Molly Malone,” the officer said, reading the bar’s name and address off the coaster before him. “Calle Particular de Estraunza, ocho.” He waited a moment and then continued. “Necesitamos ayuda inmediatamente. Hay dos hombres heridos.” Then he hung up.

?Dos hombres heridos? The barmaid’s pulse quickened. Two wounded men?

Before she could process his meaning, there was a blur of white, and the officer spun to his right, sending an elbow smashing upward into the larger thug’s nose with a sickening crunch. The man’s face erupted in red and he fell back. Before the second man could react, the officer spun again, this time to his left, his other elbow crashing hard into the man’s windpipe and sending him backward off the stool.

The barmaid stared in shock at the two men on the floor, one screaming in agony, the other gasping and clutching his throat.

The officer stood slowly. With an eerie calm, he removed his wallet and placed a hundred-euro note on the bar.

“My apologies,” he said to her in Spanish. “The police will be here shortly to help you.” Then he turned and left.

Outside, Admiral Avila inhaled the night air and made his way along Alameda de Mazarredo toward the river. Police sirens approached, and he slipped into the shadows to let the authorities pass. There was serious work to do, and Avila could not afford further complications tonight.

The Regent clearly outlined tonight’s mission.

For Avila, there was a simple serenity in taking orders from the Regent. No decisions. No culpability. Just action. After a career of giving commands, it was a relief to relinquish the helm and let others steer this ship.

In this war, I am a foot soldier.

Several days ago, the Regent had shared with him a secret so disturbing that Avila had seen no choice but to offer himself fully to the cause. The brutality of last night’s mission still haunted him, and yet he knew his actions would be forgiven.

Righteousness exists in many forms.

And more death will come before tonight is over.

As Avila emerged into an open plaza on the riverbank, he raised his eyes to the massive structure before him. It was an undulating mess of perverse forms covered in metal tile–as if two thousand years of architectural progress had been tossed out the window in favor of total chaos.

Some call this a museum. I call it a monstrosity.

Focusing his thoughts, Avila crossed the plaza, winding his way through a series of bizarre sculptures outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. As he neared the building, he watched dozens of guests mingling in their finest black and white.

The godless masses have congregated.

But tonight will not go as any of them imagine.

He straightened his admiral’s cap and smoothed his jacket, mentally fortifying himself for the task that lay ahead. Tonight was part of a far greater mission–a crusade of righteousness.

As Avila crossed the courtyard toward the museum’s entrance, he gently touched the rosary in his pocket.

CHAPTER 3

THE MUSEUM ATRIUM felt like a futuristic cathedral.

As Langdon stepped inside, his gaze shifted immediately skyward, climbing a set of colossal white pillars along a towering curtain of glass, ascending two hundred feet to a vaulted ceiling, where halogen spotlights blazed pure white light. Suspended in the air, a network of catwalks and balconies traversed the heavens, dotted with black-and-white-clad visitors who moved in and out of the upper galleries and stood at high windows, admiring the lagoon below. Nearby, a glass elevator slid silently back down the wall, returning to earth to collect more guests.

It was like no museum Langdon had ever seen. Even the acoustics felt foreign. Instead of the traditional reverent hush created by sound-dampening finishes, this place was alive with murmuring echoes of voices percolating off the stone and glass. For Langdon, the only familiar sensation was the sterile tang on the back of his tongue; museum air was the same worldwide–filtered meticulously of all particulates and oxidants and then moistened with ionized water to 45 percent humidity.

Langdon moved through a series of surprisingly tight security points, noticing more than a few armed guards, and finally found himself standing at another checkin table. A young woman was handing out headsets. “Audioguia?”

Langdon smiled. “No, thank you.”

As he neared the table, though, the woman stopped him, switching to perfect English. “I’m sorry, sir, but our host tonight, Mr. Edmond Kirsch, has asked that everyone wear a headset. It’s part of the evening’s experience.”

“Oh, of course, I’ll take one.”

Langdon reached for a headset, but she waved him off, checking his name tag against a long list of guests, finding his name, and then handing him a headset whose number was matched with his name. “The tours tonight are customized for each individual visitor.”

Really? Langdon looked around. There are hundreds of guests.

Langdon eyed the headset, which was nothing but a sleek loop of metal with tiny pads at each end. Perhaps seeing his puzzled look, the young woman came around to help him.

“These are quite new,” she said, helping him don the device. “The transducer pads don’t go inside your ears, but rather rest on your face.” She placed the loop behind his head and positioned the pads so that they gently clamped onto his face, just above the jawbone and below the temple.

“But how–”

“Bone conduction technology. The transducers drive sound directly into the bones of your jaw, allowing sound to reach your cochlea directly. I tried it earlier, and it’s really quite amazing–like having a voice inside your head. What’s more, it leaves your ears free to have outside conversations.”

“Very clever.”

“The technology was invented by Mr. Kirsch more than a decade ago. It’s now available in many brands of consumer headphones.”

I hope Ludwig van Beethoven gets his cut, Langdon thought, fairly certain that the original inventor of bone conduction technology was the eighteenth-century composer who, upon going deaf, discovered he could affix a metal rod to his piano and bite down on it while he played, enabling him to hear perfectly through vibrations in his jawbone.

“We hope you enjoy your tour experience,” the woman said. “You have about an hour to explore the museum before the presentation. Your audio guide will alert you when it is time to go upstairs to the auditorium.”

“Thank you. Do I need to press anything to–”

“No, the device is self-activating. Your guided tour will begin as soon as you start moving.”

“Ah yes, of course,” Langdon said with a smile. He headed out across the atrium, moving toward a scattering of other guests, all waiting for the elevators and wearing similar headsets pressed to their jawbones.

He was only halfway across the atrium when a male voice sounded in his head. “Good evening and welcome to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.”

Langdon knew it was his headset, but he still stopped short and looked behind him. The effect was startling–precisely as the young woman had described–like having someone inside your head.

“A most heartfelt welcome to you, Professor Langdon.” The voice was friendly and light, with a jaunty British accent. “My name is Winston, and I’m honored to be your guide this evening.”

Who did they get to record this–Hugh Grant?

“Tonight,” the cheery voice continued, “you may feel free to meander as you wish, anywhere you like, and I’ll endeavor to enlighten you as to what it is you’re viewing.”

Apparently, in addition to a chirpy narrator, personalized recordings, and bone conduction technology, each headset was equipped with GPS to discern precisely where in the museum the visitor was standing and therefore what commentary to generate.

“I do realize, sir,” the voice added, “that as a professor of art, you are one of our more savvy guests, and so perhaps you will have little need of my input. Worse yet, it is possible you will wholly disagree with my analysis of certain pieces!” The voice gave an awkward chuckle.

Seriously? Who wrote this script? The merry tone and personalized service were admittedly a charming touch, but Langdon could not imagine the amount of effort it must have taken to customize hundreds of headsets.

Thankfully, the voice fell silent now, as if it had exhausted its preprogrammed welcome dialogue.

Langdon glanced across the atrium at another enormous red banner suspended above the crowd.

EDMOND KIRSCH

TONIGHT WE MOVE FORWARD

What in the world is Edmond going to announce?

Langdon turned his eyes to the elevators, where a cluster of chatting guests included two famous founders of global Internet companies, a prominent Indian actor, and various other well-dressed VIPs whom Langdon sensed he probably should know but didn’t. Feeling both disinclined and ill-prepared to make small talk on the topics of social media and Bollywood, Langdon moved in the opposite direction, drifting toward a large piece of modern art that stood against the far wall.

The installation was nestled in a dark grotto and consisted of nine narrow conveyor belts that emerged from slits in the floor and raced upward, disappearing into slits in the ceiling. The piece resembled nine moving walkways running on a vertical plane. Each conveyor bore an illuminated message, which scrolled skyward.

I pray aloud … I smell you on my skin … I say your name.

As Langdon got closer, though, he realized that the moving bands were in fact stationary; the illusion of motion was created by a “skin” of tiny LED lights positioned on each vertical beam. The lights lit up in rapid succession to form words that materialized out of the floor, raced up the beam, and disappeared into the ceiling.

I’m crying hard … There was blood … No one told me.

Langdon moved in and around the vertical beams, taking it all in.

“This is a challenging piece,” the audio guide declared, returning suddenly. “It is called Installation for Bilbao and was created by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. It consists of nine LED signboards, each forty feet tall, transmitting quotes in Basque, Spanish, and English–all relating to the horrors of AIDS and the pain endured by those left behind.”

Langdon had to admit, the effect was mesmerizing and somehow heartbreaking.

“Perhaps you’ve seen Jenny Holzer’s work before?”

Langdon felt hypnotized by the text coursing skyward.

I bury my head … I bury your head … I bury you.

“Mr. Langdon?” the voice in his head chimed. “Can you hear me? Is your headset working?”

Langdon was jolted from his thoughts. “I’m sorry–what? Hello?”

“Yes, hello,” the voice replied. “I believe we’ve already said our greetings? I’m just checking to see if you can hear me?”

“I … I’m sorry,” Langdon stammered, spinning away from the exhibit and looking out across the atrium. “I thought you were a recording! I didn’t realize I had a real person on the line.” Langdon pictured a cubicle farm manned by an army of curators armed with headsets and museum catalogs.

“No problem, sir. I’ll be your personal guide for the evening. Your headset has a microphone in it as well. This program is intended as an interactive experience in which you and I can have a dialogue about art.”

Langdon could now see that other guests were also speaking into their headsets. Even those who had come as couples appeared to have separated a bit, exchanging bemused looks as they carried on private conversations with their personal docents.

“Every guest here has a private guide?”

“Yes, sir. Tonight we are individually touring three hundred and eighteen guests.”

“That’s incredible.”

“Well, as you know, Edmond Kirsch is an avid fan of art and technology. He designed this system specifically for museums, in hopes of replacing group tours, which he despises. This way, every visitor can enjoy a private tour, move at his own pace, ask the question he might be embarrassed to ask in a group situation. It is really much more intimate and immersive.”

“Not to sound old-fashioned, but why not just walk each of us around in person?”

“Logistics,” the man replied. “Adding personal docents to a museum event would literally double the number of people on the floor and necessarily cut in half the number of possible visitors. Moreover, the cacophony of all the docents lecturing simultaneously would be distracting. The idea here is to make discussion a seamless experience. One of the objectives of art, Mr. Kirsch always says, is to promote dialogue.”

“I entirely agree,” Langdon replied, “and that’s why people often visit museums with a date or a friend. These headsets might be considered a bit antisocial.”

“Well,” the Brit replied, “if you come with a date or friends, you can assign all the headsets to a single docent and enjoy a group discussion. The software is really quite advanced.”

“You seem to have an answer for everything.”

“That is, in fact, my job.” The guide gave an embarrassed laugh and abruptly shifted gears. “Now, Professor, if you move across the atrium toward the windows, you’ll see the museum’s largest painting.”

As Langdon began walking across the atrium, he passed an attractive thirtysomething couple wearing matching white baseball caps. Emblazoned on the front of both caps, rather than a corporate logo, was a surprising symbol.

It was an icon Langdon knew well, and yet he had never seen it on a cap. In recent years, this highly stylized letter A had become the universal symbol for one of the planet’s fastest-growing and increasingly vocal demographics–atheists–who had begun speaking out more forcefully every day against what they considered the dangers of religious belief.

Atheists now have their own baseball caps?

As he surveyed the congregation of tech-savvy geniuses mingling around him, Langdon reminded himself that many of these young analytical minds were probably very antireligious, just like Edmond. Tonight’s audience was not exactly the “home crowd” for a professor of religious symbology.

CHAPTER 4

ConspiracyNet.com

BREAKING NEWS

Update: ConspiracyNet’s “Top 10 Media Stories of the Day” can be viewed by clicking here. Also, we have a brand-new story just now breaking!

EDMOND KIRSCH SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT?

Tech titans have flooded Bilbao, Spain, this evening to attend a VIP event hosted by futurist Edmond Kirsch at the Guggenheim Museum. Security is extremely tight, and guests have not been told the purpose of the event, but ConspiracyNet has received a tip from an inside source suggesting that Edmond Kirsch will be speaking shortly and is planning to surprise his guests with a major scientific announcement. ConspiracyNet will continue to monitor this story and deliver news as we receive it.

CHAPTER 5

THE LARGEST SYNAGOGUE in Europe is located in Budapest on Dohany Street. Built in the Moorish style with massive twin spires, the shrine has seats for more than three thousand worshippers–with downstairs pews for the men and balcony benches for the women.

Outside in the garden, in a mass burial pit, are interred the bodies of hundreds of Hungarian Jews who died during the horrors of the Nazi occupation. The site is marked by a Tree of Life–a metal sculpture depicting a weeping willow whose leaves are each inscribed with the name of a victim. When a breeze blows, the metal leaves rattle against one another, clattering with an eerie echo above the hallowed ground.

For more than three decades, the spiritual leader of the Great Synagogue had been the eminent Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist–Rabbi Yehuda Koves–who, despite his advancing years and poor health, remained an active member of the Jewish community both in Hungary and around the world.

As the sun set across the Danube, Rabbi Koves exited the synagogue. He made his way past the boutiques and mysterious “ruin bars” of Dohany Street en route to his home on Marcius 15 Square, a stone’s throw from Elisabeth Bridge, which linked the ancient cities of Buda and Pest, which were formally united in 1873.

The Passover holidays were fast approaching–normally one of Koves’s most joyous times of the year–and yet, ever since his return last week from the Parliament of the World’s Religions, he had been feeling only a bottomless disquiet.

I wish I had never attended.

The extraordinary meeting with Bishop Valdespino, Allamah Syed al-Fadl, and futurist Edmond Kirsch had plagued Koves’s thoughts for three full days.

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