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Having squeezed beneath the security gate, Robert Langdon now stood just inside the entrance to the Grand Gallery. He was staring into the mouth of a long, deep canyon. On either side of the gallery, stark walls rose thirty feet, evaporating into the darkness above. The reddish glow of the service lighting sifted upward, casting an unnatural smolder across a staggering collection of Da Vincis, Titians, and Caravaggios that hung suspended from ceiling cables. Still lifes, religious scenes, and landscapes accompanied portraits of nobility and politicians.

Although the Grand Gallery housed the Louvre’s most famous Italian art, many visitors felt the wing’s most stunning offering was actually its famous parquet floor. Laid out in a dazzling geometric design of diagonal oak slats, the floor produced an ephemeral optical illusion – a multi- dimensional network that gave visitors the sense they were floating through the gallery on a surface that changed with every step.

As Langdon’s gaze began to trace the inlay, his eyes stopped short on an unexpected object lying on the floor just a few yards to his left, surrounded by police tape. He spun toward Fache. «Is that… a Caravaggio on the floor?»

Fache nodded without even looking.

The painting, Langdon guessed, was worth upward of two million dollars, and yet it was lying on the floor like a discarded poster. «What the devil is it doing on the floor!»

Fache glowered, clearly unmoved. «This is a crime scene, Mr. Langdon. We have touched nothing. That canvas was pulled from the wall by the curator. It was how he activated the security system.»

Langdon looked back at the gate, trying to picture what had happened.

«The curator was attacked in his office, fled into the Grand Gallery, and activated the security gate by pulling that painting from the wall. The gate fell immediately, sealing off all access. This is the only door in or out of this gallery.» Langdon felt confused. «So the curator actually captured his attacker inside the Grand Gallery?» Fache shook his head. «The security gate separated Saunière from his attacker. The killer waslocked out there in the hallway and shot Saunière through this gate.» Fache pointed toward anorange tag hanging from one of the bars on the gate under which they had just passed. «The PT Steam found flashback residue from a gun. He fired through the bars. Saunière died in here alone.»

Langdon pictured the photograph of Saunière’s body. They said he did that to himself.Langdon looked out at the enormous corridor before them. «So where is his body?»

Fache straightened his cruciform tie clip and began to walk. «As you probably know, the Grand Gallery is quite long.»

The exact length, if Langdon recalled correctly, was around fifteen hundred feet, the length of three Washington Monuments laid end to end. Equally breathtaking was the corridor’s width, which easily could have accommodated a pair of side-by-side passenger trains. The center of the hallway was dotted by the occasional statue or colossal porcelain urn, which served as a tasteful divider and kept the flow of traffic moving down one wall and up the other.

Fache was silent now, striding briskly up the right side of the corridor with his gaze dead ahead. Langdon felt almost disrespectful to be racing past so many masterpieces without pausing for so much as a glance.

Not that I could see anything in this lighting, he thought.

The muted crimson lighting unfortunately conjured memories of Langdon’s last experience in noninvasive lighting in the Vatican Secret Archives. This was tonight’s second unsettling parallel with his near-death in Rome. He flashed on Vittoria again. She had been absent from his dreams for months. Langdon could not believe Rome had been only a year ago; it felt like decades. Another life.His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December – a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics… something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations. Langdon had never harbored delusions that a woman like Vittoria Vetra could have been happy living with him on a college campus, but their encounter in Rome had unlocked in him a longing he never imagined he could feel. His lifelong affinity for bachelorhood and the simple freedoms it allowed had been shaken somehow… replaced by an unexpected emptiness that seemed to have grown over the past year.

They continued walking briskly, yet Langdon still saw no corpse. «Jacques Saunière went this far?»

«Mr. Saunière suffered a bullet wound to his stomach. He died very slowly. Perhaps over fifteen or twenty minutes. He was obviously a man of great personal strength.»

Langdon turned, appalled. «Security took fifteen minutes to get here?»

«Of course not. Louvre security responded immediately to the alarm and found the Grand Gallery sealed. Through the gate, they could hear someone moving around at the far end of the corridor, but they could not see who it was. They shouted, but they got no answer. Assuming it could only be a criminal, they followed protocol and called in the Judicial Police. We took up positions within fifteen minutes. When we arrived, we raised the barricade enough to slip underneath, and I sent a dozen armed agents inside. They swept the length of the gallery to corner the intruder.» «And?» «They found no one inside. Except…» He pointed farther down the hall. «Him.»

Langdon lifted his gaze and followed Fache’s outstretched finger. At first he thought Fache was pointing to a large marble statue in the middle of the hallway. As they continued, though, Langdon began to see past the statue. Thirty yards down the hall, a single spotlight on a portable pole stand shone down on the floor, creating a stark island of white light in the dark crimson gallery. In the center of the light, like an insect under a microscope, the corpse of the curator lay naked on the parquet floor.

«You saw the photograph,» Fache said,» so this should be of no surprise.»

Langdon felt a deep chill as they approached the body. Before him was one of the strangest image she had ever seen.

The pallid corpse of Jacques Saunière lay on the parquet floor exactly as it appeared in the photograph. As Langdon stood over the body and squinted in the harsh light, he reminded himself to his amazement that Saunière had spent his  last minutes of life arranging his own body in this strange fashion.

Saunière looked remarkably fit for a man of his years… and all of his musculature was in plain view. He had stripped off every shred of clothing, placed it neatly on the floor, and laid down on his back in the center of the wide corridor, perfectly aligned with the long axis of the room. His arms and legs were sprawled outward in a wide spread eagle, like those of a child making a snow angel… or, perhaps more appropriately, like a man being drawn and quartered by some invisible force.

Just below Saunière’s breastbone, a bloody smear marked the spot where the bullet had pierced his flesh. The wound had bled surprisingly little, leaving only a small pool of blackened blood.

Saunière’s left index finger was also bloody, apparently having been dipped into the wound to create the most unsettling aspect of his own macabre deathbed; using his own blood as ink, and employing his own naked abdomen as a canvas, Saunière had drawn a simple symbol on his flesh – five straight lines that intersected to form a five-pointed star.

The pentacle.

The bloody star, centered on Saunière’s navel, gave his corpse a distinctly ghoulish aura. The photo Langdon had seen was chilling enough, but now, witnessing the scene in person, Langdon felt a deepening uneasiness.

He did this to himself.

«Mr. Langdon?» Fache’s dark eyes settled on him again.

«It’s a pentacle,» Langdon offered, his voice feeling hollow in the huge space. «One of the oldest symbols on earth. Used over four thousand years before Christ.»

«And what does it mean?»

Langdon always hesitated when he got this question. Telling someone what a symbol» meant» was like telling them how a song should make them feel – it was different for all people. A white Ku Klux Klan headpiece conjured images of hatred and racism in the United States, and yet the same costume carried a meaning of religious faith in Spain.

«Symbols carry different meanings in different settings,» Langdon said. «Primarily, the pentacle is a pagan religious symbol.»

Fache nodded. «Devil worship.» «No,» Langdon corrected, immediately realizing his choice of vocabulary should have been clearer. Nowadays, the term pagan had become almost synonymous with devil worship – a gross misconception. The word’s roots actually reached back to the Latin paganus, meaning country-dwellers. «Pagans» were literally unindoctrinated country-folk who clung to the old, rural religions of Nature worship. In fact, so strong was the Church’s fear of those who lived in the rural villes that the once innocuous word for» villager» – villain – came to mean a wicked soul.

«The pentacle,» Langdon clarified,» is a pre-Christian symbol that relates to Nature worship. The ancients envisioned their world in two halves – masculine and feminine. Their gods and goddesses worked to keep a balance of power. Yin and yang. When male and female were balanced, there was harmony in the world. When they were unbalanced, there was chaos.» Langdon motioned to Saunière’s stomach. «This pentacle is representative of the female half of all things – a concept religious historians call the ‘sacred feminine’ or the ‘divine goddess. ‘ Saunière, of all people, would know this.»

«Saunière drew a goddess symbol on his stomach?»

Langdon had to admit, it seemed odd. «In its most specific interpretation, the pentacle symbolizes Venus – the goddess of female sexual love and beauty.»

Fache eyed the naked man, and grunted.

«Early religion was based on the divine order of Nature. The goddess Venus and the planet Venus were one and the same. The goddess had a place in the nighttime sky and was known by many names – Venus, the Eastern Star, Ishtar, Astarte – all of them powerful female concepts with ties to Nature and Mother Earth.»

Fache looked more troubled now, as if he somehow preferred the idea of devil worship.

Langdon decided not to share the pentacle’s most astonishing property – the graphic origin of its ties to Venus. As a young astronomy student, Langdon had been stunned to learn the planet Venus traced a perfect pentacle across the ecliptic sky every four years. So astonished were the ancients to observe this phenomenon, that Venus and her pentacle became symbols of perfection, beauty, and the cyclic qualities of sexual love. As a tribute to the magic of Venus, the Greeks used her four-year cycle to organize their Olympiads. Nowadays, few people realized that the four-year schedule of modern Olympic Games still followed the cycles of Venus. Even fewer people knew that the five-pointed star had almost become the official Olympic seal but was modified at the last moment – its five points exchanged for five intersecting rings to better reflect the games’ spirit of inclusion and harmony.

«Mr. Langdon,» Fache said abruptly. «Obviously, the pentacle must also relate to the devil. Your American horror movies make that point clearly.»

Langdon frowned. Thank you, Hollywood.The five-pointed star was now a virtual cliché in Satanic serial killer movies, usually scrawled on the wall of some Satanist’s apartment along with other alleged demonic symbology. Langdon was always frustrated when he saw the symbol in this context; the pentacle’s true origins were actually quite godly.

«I assure you,» Langdon said,» despite what you see in the movies, the pentacle’s demonic interpretation is historically inaccurate. The original feminine meaning is correct, but the symbolism of the pentacle has been distorted over the millennia. In this case, through bloodshed.» «I’m not sure I follow.» Langdon glanced at Fache’s crucifix, uncertain how to phrase his next point. «The Church, sir. Symbols are very resilient, but the pentacle was altered by the early Roman Catholic Church. As part of the Vatican’s campaign to eradicate pagan religions and convert the masses to Christianity, the Church launched a smear campaign against the pagan gods and goddesses, recasting their divine symbols as evil.»

«Go on.»

«This is very common in times of turmoil,» Langdon continued. «A newly emerging power will take over the existing symbols and degrade them over time in an attempt to erase their meaning. In the battle between the pagan symbols and Christian symbols, the pagans lost; Poseidon’s trident became the devil’s pitchfork, the wise crone’s pointed hat became the symbol of a witch, and Venus’s pentacle became a sign of the devil.» Langdon paused. «Unfortunately, the United States military has also perverted the pentacle; it’s now our foremost symbol of war. We paint it on all our fighter jets and hang it on the shoulders of all our generals.» So much for the goddess of love and beauty.

«Interesting.» Fache nodded toward the spread-eagle corpse. «And the positioning of the body? What do you make of that?» Langdon shrugged. «The position simply reinforces the reference to the pentacle and sacred feminine.»

Fache’s expression clouded. «I beg your pardon?»

«Replication. Repeating a symbol is the simplest way to strengthen its meaning. Jacques Saunière positioned himself in the shape of a five-pointed star.» If one pentacle is good, two is better.

Fache’s eyes followed the five points of Saunière’s arms, legs, and head as he again ran a hand across his slick hair. «Interesting analysis.» He paused. «And the nudity?» He grumbled as he spoke the word, sounding repulsed by the sight of an aging male body. «Why did he remove his clothing?»

Damned good question , Langdon thought. He’d been wondering the same thing ever since he first saw the Polaroid. His best guess was that a naked human form was yet another endorsement of Venus – the goddess of human sexuality. Although modern culture had erased much of Venus’s association with the male/female physical union, a sharp etymological eye could still spot a vestige of Venus’s original meaning in the word» venereal.» Langdon decided not to go there.

«Mr. Fache, I obviously can’t tell you why Mr. Saunière drew that symbol on himself or placed himself in this way, but I can tell you that a man like Jacques Saunière would consider the pentacle a sign of the female deity. The correlation between this symbol and the sacred feminine is widely known by art historians and symbologists.»

«Fine. And the use of his own blood as ink?» «Obviously he had nothing else to write with.» Fache was silent a moment. «Actually, I believe he used blood such that the police would follow certain forensic procedures.»

«I’m sorry?»

«Look at his left hand.»

Langdon’s eyes traced the length of the curator’s pale arm to his left hand but saw nothing. Uncertain, he circled the corpse and crouched down, now noting with surprise that the curator was clutching a large, felt-tipped marker.

«Saunière was holding it when we found him,» Fache said, leaving Langdon and moving several yards to a portable table covered with investigation tools, cables, and assorted electronic gear. «As I told you,» he said, rummaging around the table,» we have touched nothing. Are you familiar with this kind of pen?»

Langdon knelt down farther to see the pen’s label. STYLO DE LUMIERE NOIRE. He glanced up in surprise.

The black-light pen or watermark stylus was a specialized felt-tipped marker originally designed by museums, restorers, and forgery police to place invisible marks on items. The stylus wrote in a noncorrosive, alcohol-based fluorescent ink that was visible only under black light. Nowadays, museum maintenance staffs carried these markers on their daily rounds to place invisible» tick marks» on the frames of paintings that needed restoration.

As Langdon stood up, Fache walked over to the spotlight and turned it off. The gallery plunged into sudden darkness.

Momentarily blinded, Langdon felt a rising uncertainty. Fache’s silhouette appeared, illuminated in bright purple. He approached carrying a portable light source, which shrouded him in a violet haze.

«As you may know,» Fache said, his eyes luminescing in the violet glow,» police use black-light illumination to search crime scenes for blood and other forensic evidence. So you can imagine our surprise…» Abruptly, he pointed the light down at the corpse.

Langdon looked down and jumped back in shock.

His heart pounded as he took in the bizarre sight now glowing before him on the parquet floor. Scrawled in luminescent handwriting, the curator’s final words glowed purple beside his corpse. As Langdon stared at the shimmering text, he felt the fog that had surrounded this entire night growing thicker.

Langdon read the message again and looked up at Fache. «What the hell does this mean!» Fache’s eyes shone white. «That, monsieur, is precisely the question you are here to answer.»

Not far away, inside Saunière’s office, Lieutenant Collet had returned to the Louvre and was huddled over an audio console set up on the curator’s enormous desk. With the exception of the eerie, robot-like doll of a medieval knight that seemed to be staring at him from the corner of Saunière’s desk, Collet was comfortable. He adjusted his AKG headphones and checked the input levels on the hard-disk recording system. All systems were go. The microphones were functioning flawlessly, and the audio feed was crystal clear.

Le moment de vérité, he mused.

Smiling, he closed his eyes and settled in to enjoy the rest of the conversation now being taped inside the Grand Gallery.

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