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Not surprisingly, Gaudi’s colossal Art Nouveau opus is both passionately adored and cynically scorned. Hailed by some as “sensual, spiritual, and organic,” it is derided by others as “vulgar, pretentious, and profane.” Author James Michener described it as “one of the strangest-looking serious buildings in the world,” and Architectural Review called it “Gaudi’s sacred monster.”
If its aesthetics are strange, its finances are even stranger. Funded entirely by private donations, Sagrada Familia receives no financial support whatsoever from the Vatican or the world Catholic leadership. Despite periods of near bankruptcy and work stoppages, the church exhibits an almost Darwinian will to survive, having tenaciously endured the death of its architect, a violent civil war, terrorist attacks by Catalan anarchists, and even the drilling of a subway tunnel nearby that threatened to destabilize the very ground on which it sits.
In the face of incredible adversity, Sagrada Familia still stands, and continues to grow.
Over the past decade, the church’s fortunes have improved considerably, its coffers supplemented by ticket sales to more than four million visitors a year who pay handsomely to tour the partially completed structure. Now, having announced a target completion date of 2026–the centenary of Gaudi’s death–Sagrada Familia seems to be infused with a fresh vigor, its spires climbing heavenward with a renewed urgency and hope.
Father Joaquim Bena–Sagrada Familia’s oldest priest and presiding clergyman–was a jovial eighty-year-old with round glasses on a round face that was always smiling atop his tiny robe-draped body. Bena’s dream was to live long enough to see the completion of this glorious shrine.
Tonight, however, inside his clerical office, Father Bena was not smiling. He had stayed late on church business, but had ended up riveted to his computer, entirely caught up in the disturbing drama unfolding in Bilbao.
Edmond Kirsch was assassinated.
Over the last three months, Bena had forged a delicate and unlikely friendship with Kirsch. The outspoken atheist had stunned Bena by approaching him personally with an offer to make a huge donation to the church. The amount was unprecedented and would have an enormous positive impact.
Kirsch’s offer makes no sense, Bena had thought, suspecting a catch. Is it a publicity stunt? Perhaps he wants influence over the construction?
In return for his donation, the renowned futurist had made only one request.
Bena had listened, uncertain. That’s all he wants?
“This is a personal matter for me,” Kirsch had said. “And I’m hoping you’ll be willing to honor my request.”
Bena was a trusting man, and yet in that moment he sensed he was dancing with the devil. Bena found himself searching Kirsch’s eyes for some ulterior motive. And then he saw it. Behind Kirsch’s carefree charm there burned a weary desperation, his sunken eyes and thin body reminding Bena of his days in seminary working as a hospice counselor.
Edmond Kirsch is ill.
Bena wondered if the man was dying, and if this donation might be a sudden attempt to make amends with the God whom he had always scorned.
The most self-righteous in life become the most fearful in death.
Bena thought about the earliest Christian evangelist–Saint John–who had dedicated his life to encouraging nonbelievers to experience the glory of Jesus Christ. It seemed that if a nonbeliever like Kirsch wanted to participate in the creation of a shrine to Jesus, then denying him that connection would be both unchristian and cruel.
In addition, there was the matter of Bena’s professional obligation to help raise funds for the church, and he could not imagine informing his colleagues that Kirsch’s giant gift had been rejected because of the man’s history of outspoken atheism.
In the end, Bena accepted Kirsch’s terms, and the men had shaken hands warmly.
That was three months ago.
Tonight, Bena had watched Kirsch’s presentation at the Guggenheim, first feeling troubled by its antireligious tone, then intrigued by Kirsch’s references to a mysterious discovery, and ultimately horrified to see Edmond Kirsch gunned down. In the aftermath, Bena had been unable to leave his computer, riveted by what was quickly becoming a dizzying kaleidoscope of competing conspiracy theories.
Feeling overwhelmed, Bena now sat quietly in the cavernous sanctuary, alone in Gaudi’s “forest” of pillars. The mystical woods, however, did little to calm his racing mind.
What did Kirsch discover? Who wanted him dead?
Father Bena closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts, but the questions kept recurring.
Where do we come from? Where are we going?
“We come from God!” Bena declared aloud. “And we go to God!”
As he spoke, he felt the words resonate in his chest with such force that the entire sanctuary seemed to vibrate. Suddenly a bright shaft of light pierced the stained-glass window above the Passion facade and streamed down into the basilica.
Awestruck, Father Bena stood up and staggered toward the window, the entire church now thundering as the beam of celestial light descended along the colored glass. When he burst out of the church’s main doors, Bena found himself assaulted by a deafening windstorm. Above him to the left, a massive helicopter was descending out of the sky, its searchlight strafing the front of the church.
Bena watched in disbelief as the aircraft touched down inside the perimeter of the construction fences on the northwestern corner of the compound and powered down.
As the wind and noise subsided, Father Bena stood in the main doorway of Sagrada Familia and watched as four figures descended from the craft and hurried toward him. The two in front were instantly recognizable from tonight’s broadcast–one was the future queen of Spain, and the other was Professor Robert Langdon. They were tailed by two strapping men in monogrammed blazers.
From the look of things, Langdon had not kidnapped Ambra Vidal after all. As the American professor approached, Ms. Vidal appeared to be by his side entirely by her own choice.
“Father!” the woman called with a friendly wave. “Please forgive our noisy intrusion into this sacred space. We need to speak to you right away. It’s very important.”
Bena opened his mouth to reply but could only nod mutely as the unlikely group arrived before him.
“Our apologies, Father,” said Robert Langdon with a disarming smile. “I know this must all seem very strange. Do you know who we are?”
“Of course,” he managed, “but I thought …”
“Bad information,” Ambra said. “Everything is fine, I assure you.”
Just then, two security guards stationed outside the perimeter fence raced in through the security turnstiles, understandably alarmed by the helicopter’s arrival. The guards spotted Bena and dashed toward him.
Instantly, the two men in monogrammed blazers spun and faced them, extending their palms in the universal symbol for “halt.”
The guards stopped dead in their tracks, startled, looking to Bena for guidance.
“!Tot esta be!” Bena shouted in Catalan. “Tornin al seu lloc.” All is well! Return to your post.
The guards squinted up at the unlikely assembly, looking uncertain.
“Son els meus convidats,” Bena declared, firmly now. They are my guests. “Confio en la seva discrecio.” I will rely on your discretion.
The bewildered guards retreated through the security turnstile to resume their patrol of the perimeter.
“Thank you,” Ambra said. “I appreciate that.”
“I am Father Joaquim Bena,” he said. “Please tell me what this is about.”
Robert Langdon stepped forward and shook Bena’s hand. “Father Bena, we are looking for a rare book owned by the scientist Edmond Kirsch.” Langdon produced an elegant note card and handed it to him. “This card claims the book is on loan to this church.”
Though somewhat dazed by the group’s dramatic arrival, Bena recognized the ivory card at once. An exact copy of this card accompanied the book that Kirsch had given him a few weeks ago.
The Complete Works of William Blake.
The stipulation of Edmond’s large donation to Sagrada Familia had been that Blake’s book be placed on display in the basilica crypt.
A strange request, but a small price to pay.
Kirsch’s one additional request–outlined on the back of the linen card–was that the book always remain propped open to page 163.
FIVE MILES TO the northwest of Sagrada Familia, Admiral Avila gazed through the windshield of the Uber at the broad expanse of city lights, which glittered against the blackness of the Balearic Sea beyond.
Barcelona at last, the old naval officer thought, pulling out his phone and calling the Regent, as promised.
The Regent answered on the first ring. “Admiral Avila. Where are you?”
“Minutes outside the city.”
“Your arrival is well timed. I have just received troubling news.”
“You have successfully severed the head of the snake. However, just as we feared, the long tail is still writhing dangerously.”
“How can I be of service?” Avila asked.
When the Regent shared his desires, Avila was surprised. He had not imagined that the night would entail any more loss of life, but he was not about to question the Regent. I am no more than a foot soldier, he reminded himself.
“This mission will be dangerous,” the Regent said. “If you are caught, show the authorities the symbol on your palm. You will be freed shortly. We have influence everywhere.”
“I don’t intend to be caught,” Avila said, glancing at his tattoo.
“Good,” the Regent said in an eerily lifeless tone. “If all goes according to plan, soon they will both be dead, and all of this will be over.”
The connection was broken.
In the sudden silence, Avila raised his eyes to the brightest point on the horizon–a hideous cluster of deformed spires ablaze with construction lights.
Sagrada Familia, he thought, repulsed by the whimsical silhouette. A shrine to all that is wrong with our faith.
Barcelona’s celebrated church, Avila believed, was a monument to weakness and moral collapse–a surrender to liberal Catholicism, brazenly twisting and distorting thousands of years of faith into a warped hybrid of nature worship, pseudoscience, and Gnostic heresy.
There are giant lizards crawling up a church of Christ!
The collapse of tradition in the world terrified Avila, but he felt buoyed by the appearance of a new group of world leaders who apparently shared his fears and were doing whatever it took to restore tradition. Avila’s own devotion to the Palmarian Church, and especially to Pope Innocent XIV, had given him a new reason to live, helping him see his own tragedy through an entirely new lens.
My wife and child were casualties of war, Avila thought, a war waged by the forces of evil against God, against tradition. Forgiveness is not the only road to salvation.
Five nights ago, Avila had been asleep in his modest apartment when he was awoken by the loud ping of an arriving text message on his cell phone. “It’s midnight,” he grumbled, hazily squinting at the screen to find out who had contacted him at this hour.
Avila rubbed his eyes and read the incoming message.
Compruebe su saldo bancario
Check my bank balance?
Avila frowned, now suspecting some kind of telemarketing scam. Annoyed, he got out of bed and walked to the kitchen to get a drink of water. As he stood at the sink, he glanced over at his laptop, knowing he would probably not get back to sleep until he took a look.
He logged onto his bank’s website, fully anticipating seeing his usual, pitifully small balance–the remains of his military pension. However, when his account information appeared, he leaped to his feet so suddenly that he knocked over a chair.
But that’s impossible!
He closed his eyes and then looked again. Then he refreshed the screen.
The number remained.
He fumbled with the mouse, scrolling to his account activity, and was stunned to see that an anonymous deposit of a hundred thousand euros had been wired into his account an hour earlier. The source was numbered and untraceable.
Who would do this?!
The sharp buzzing of his cell phone made Avila’s heart beat faster. He grabbed his phone and looked at his caller ID.
Avila stared at the phone and then seized it. “?Si?”
A soft voice spoke to him in pure Castilian Spanish. “Good evening, Admiral. I trust you have seen the gift we sent you?”
“I … have,” he stammered. “Who are you?”
“You may call me the Regent,” the voice replied. “I represent your brethren, the members of the church that you have faithfully attended for the past two years. Your skills and loyalty have not gone unnoticed, Admiral. We would now like to give you the opportunity to serve a higher purpose. His Holiness has proposed for you a series of missions … tasks sent to you by God.”
Avila was now fully awake, his palms sweating.
“The money we gave you is an advance on your first mission,” the voice continued. “If you choose to carry out the mission, consider it an opportunity to prove yourself worthy of taking a place within our highest ranks.” He paused. “There exists a powerful hierarchy in our church that is invisible to the world. We believe you would be an asset at the top of our organization.”
Although excited by the prospect of advancement, Avila felt wary. “What is the mission? And what if I choose not to carry it out?”
“You will not be judged in any way, and you may keep the money in return for your secrecy. Does that sound reasonable?”
“It sounds quite generous.”
“We like you. We want to help you. And out of fairness to you, I want to warn you that the pope’s mission is a difficult one.” He paused. “It may involve violence.”
Avila’s body went rigid. Violence?
“Admiral, the forces of evil are growing stronger every day. God is at war, and wars entail casualties.”
Avila flashed on the horror of the bomb that had killed his family. Shivering, he banished the dark memories. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can accept a violent mission–”
“The pope handpicked you, Admiral,” the Regent whispered. “The man you will target in this mission … is the man who murdered your family.”
LOCATED ON THE ground floor of Madrid’s Royal Palace, the armory is an elegantly vaulted chamber whose high crimson walls are adorned with magnificent tapestries depicting famous battles in Spain’s history. Encircling the room is a priceless collection of more than a hundred suits of handcrafted armor, including the battle garb and “tools” of many past kings. Seven life-size horse mannequins stand in the center of the room, posed in full battle gear.
This is where they decide to keep me prisoner? Garza wondered, looking out at the implements of war that surrounded him. Admittedly, the armory was one of the most secure rooms in the palace, but Garza suspected his captors had chosen this elegant holding cell in hopes of intimidating him. This is the very room in which I was hired.
Nearly two decades ago, Garza had been ushered into this imposing chamber, where he had been interviewed, cross-examined, and interrogated before finally being offered the job of head of the Royal Guard.
Now Garza’s own agents had arrested him. I’m being charged with plotting an assassination? And for framing the bishop? The logic behind the allegations was so twisted that Garza couldn’t begin to untangle it.
When it came to the Royal Guard, Garza was the highest-ranking official in the palace, meaning the order to arrest him could have come from only one man … Prince Julian himself.
Valdespino poisoned the prince’s mind against me, Garza realized. The bishop had always been a political survivor, and tonight he was apparently desperate enough to attempt this audacious media stunt–a bold ploy to clear his own reputation by smearing Garza’s. And now they’ve locked me in the armory so I can’t speak for myself.
If Julian and Valdespino had joined forces, Garza knew he was lost, entirely outmaneuvered. At this point, the only person on earth with power enough to help Garza was an old man who was living out his final days in a hospital bed in his private residence at Palacio de la Zarzuela.
The king of Spain.
Then again, Garza realized, the king will never help me if doing so means crossing Bishop Valdespino or his own son.
He could hear the crowds outside chanting louder now, and it sounded like things might take a violent turn. When Garza realized what they were chanting, he couldn’t believe his ears.
“Where does Spain come from?!” they shouted. “Where is Spain going?!”
The protesters, it appeared, had seized upon Kirsch’s two provocative questions as an opportunity to rant about the political future of Spain’s monarchy.
Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Condemning the oppression of the past, Spain’s younger generation was constantly calling for faster change–urging their country to “join the civilized world” as a full democracy and to abolish its monarchy. France, Germany, Russia, Austria, Poland, and more than fifty other countries had abandoned their crowns in the last century. Even in England there was a push for a referendum on ending the monarchy after the current queen died.
Tonight, unfortunately, Madrid’s Royal Palace was in a state of disarray, so it was not surprising to hear this age-old battle cry being raised again.
Just what Prince Julian needs, Garza thought, as he prepares for ascension to the throne.
The door at the far end of the armory suddenly clicked open and one of Garza’s Guardia agents peered in.
Garza shouted to him, “I want an attorney!”
“And I want a statement for the press,” the familiar voice of Monica Martin shouted back as the palace’s PR coordinator manuevered around the guard and marched into the room. “Commander Garza, why did you collude with the killers of Edmond Kirsch?”
Garza stared at her in disbelief. Has everyone gone mad?
“We know you framed Bishop Valdespino!” Martin declared, striding toward him. “And the palace wants to publish your confession right now!”
The commander had no reply.
Halfway across the room, Martin spun around abruptly, glaring back at the young guard in the doorway. “I said a private confession!”