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CHAPTER 9

To ensure his conversation with Mr. Langdon would not be interrupted, Bezu Fache had turned off his cellular phone. Unfortunately, it was an expensive model equipped with a two-way radio feature, which, contrary to his orders, was now being used by one of his agents to page him.

« Capitaine? » The phone crackled like a walkie-talkie.

Fache felt his teeth clench in rage. He could imagine nothing important enough that Collet would interrupt this surveillance cachée – especially at this critical juncture.

He gave Langdon a calm look of apology. «One moment please.» He pulled the phone from his belt and pressed the radio transmission button. «Oui?»

«Capitaine, un agent du Département de Cryptographie est arrivé.»

Fache’s anger stalled momentarily. A cryptographer? Despite the lousy timing, this was probably good news. Fache, after finding Saunière’s cryptic text on the floor, had uploaded photographs of the entire crime scene to the Cryptography Department in hopes someone there could tell him what the hell Saunière was trying to say. If a code breaker had now arrived, it most likely meant someone had decrypted Saunière’s message.

«I’m busy at the moment,» Fache radioed back, leaving no doubt in his tone that a line had been crossed. «Ask the cryptographer to wait at the command post. I’ll speak to him when I’m done.»

« Her , »the voice corrected. «It’s Agent Neveu.»

Fache was becoming less amused with this call every passing moment. Sophie Neveu was one of DCPJ’s biggest mistakes. A young Parisian déchiffreuse who had studied cryptography in England at the Royal Holloway, Sophie Neveu had been foisted on Fache two years ago as part of the ministry’s attempt to incorporate more women into the police force. The ministry’s ongoing foray into political correctness, Fache argued, was weakening the department. Women not only lacked the physicality necessary for police work, but their mere presence posed a dangerous distraction to the men in the field. As Fache had feared, Sophie Neveu was proving far more distracting than most.

At thirty-two years old, she had a dogged determination that bordered on obstinate. Her eager espousal of Britain’s new cryptologic methodology continually exasperated the veteran French cryptographers above her. And by far the most troubling to Fache was the inescapable universal truth that in an office of middle-aged men, an attractive young woman always drew eyes away from the work at hand.

The man on the radio said,» Agent Neveu insisted on speaking to you immediately, Captain. I tried to stop her, but she’s on her way into the gallery.»

Fache recoiled in disbelief. «Unacceptable! I made it very clear – «

For a moment, Robert Langdon thought Bezu Fache was suffering a stroke. The captain was mid- sentence when his jaw stopped moving and his eyes bulged. His blistering gaze seemed fixated on something over Langdon’s shoulder. Before Langdon could turn to see what it was, he heard a woman’s voice chime out behind him.

«Excusez-moi, messieurs.»

Langdon turned to see a young woman approaching. She was moving down the corridor toward them with long, fluid strides… a haunting certainty to her gait. Dressed casually in a knee-length, cream-colored Irish sweater over black leggings, she was attractive and looked to be about thirty. Her thick burgundy hair fell unstyled to her shoulders, framing the warmth of her face. Unlike the waifish, cookie-cutter blondes that adorned Harvard dorm room walls, this woman was healthy with an unembellished beauty and genuineness that radiated a striking personal confidence.

To Langdon’s surprise, the woman walked directly up to him and extended a polite hand.» Monsieur Langdon, I am Agent Neveu from DCPJ’s Cryptology Department.» Her words curved richly around her muted Anglo-Franco accent. «It is a pleasure to meet you.»

Langdon took her soft palm in his and felt himself momentarily fixed in her strong gaze. Her eyes were olive-green – incisive and clear.

Fache drew a seething inhalation, clearly preparing to launch into a reprimand.

«Captain,» she said, turning quickly and beating him to the punch, «please excuse the interruption, but –»

«Ce n’est pas le moment!» Fache sputtered.

«I tried to phone you.» Sophie continued in English, as if out of courtesy to Langdon. «But your cell phone was turned off.»

«I turned it off for a reason,» Fache hissed. «I am speaking to Mr. Langdon.» «I’ve deciphered the numeric code,» she said flatly. Langdon felt a pulse of excitement. She broke the code?

Fache looked uncertain how to respond.

«Before I explain,» Sophie said,» I have an urgent message for Mr. Langdon.» Fache’s expression turned to one of deepening concern. «For Mr. Langdon?» She nodded, turning back to Langdon. «You need to contact the U. S. Embassy, Mr. Langdon. They have a message for you from the States.»

Langdon reacted with surprise, his excitement over the code giving way to a sudden ripple of concern. A message from the States? He tried to imagine who could be trying to reach him. Only a few of his colleagues knew he was in Paris.

Fache’s broad jaw had tightened with the news. «The U. S. Embassy?» he demanded, sounding suspicious. «How would they know to find Mr. Langdon here?»

Sophie shrugged. «Apparently they called Mr. Langdon’s hotel, and the concierge told them Mr. Langdon had been collected by a DCPJ agent.»

Fache looked troubled. «And the embassy contacted DCPJ Cryptography?»

«No, sir,» Sophie said, her voice firm. «When I called the DCPJ switchboard in an attempt to contact you, they had a message waiting for Mr. Langdon and asked me to pass it along if I got through to you.»

Fache’s brow furrowed in apparent confusion. He opened his mouth to speak, but Sophie had already turned back to Langdon.

«Mr. Langdon,» she declared, pulling a small slip of paper from her pocket,» this is the number for your embassy’s messaging service. They asked that you phone in as soon as possible.» She handed him the paper with an intent gaze. «While I explain the code to Captain Fache, you need to make this call.»

Langdon studied the slip. It had a Paris phone number and extension on it. «Thank you,» he said, feeling worried now. «Where do I find a phone?»

Sophie began to pull a cell phone from her sweater pocket, but Fache waved her off. He now looked like Mount Vesuvius about to erupt. Without taking his eyes off Sophie, he produced his own cell phone and held it out. «This line is secure, Mr. Langdon. You may use it.»

Langdon felt mystified by Fache’s anger with the young woman. Feeling uneasy, he accepted the captain’s phone. Fache immediately marched Sophie several steps away and began chastising her in hushed tones. Disliking the captain more and more, Langdon turned away from the odd confrontation and switched on the cell phone. Checking the slip of paper Sophie had given him, Langdon dialed the number.

The line began to ring.

One ring… two rings… three rings… Finally the call connected. Langdon expected to hear an embassy operator, but he found himself instead listening to an answering machine. Oddly, the voice on the tape was familiar. It was that of Sophie Neveu.

«Bonjour, vous êtes bien chez Sophie Neveu,» the woman’s voice said. «Je suis absenle pour le moment, mais…»

Confused, Langdon turned back toward Sophie. «I’m sorry, Ms. Neveu? I think you may have given me –»

«No, that’s the right number,» Sophie interjected quickly, as if anticipating Langdon’s confusion.» The embassy has an automated message system. You have to dial an access code to pick up your messages.»

Langdon stared. «But –»

«It’s the three-digit code on the paper I gave you.»

Langdon opened his mouth to explain the bizarre error, but Sophie flashed him a silencing glare that lasted only an instant. Her green eyes sent a crystal-clear message.

Don’t ask questions. Just do it.

Bewildered, Langdon punched in the extension on the slip of paper: 454.

Sophie’s outgoing message immediately cut off, and Langdon heard an electronic voice announce in French: «You have one new message.» Apparently, 454 was Sophie’s remote access code for picking up her messages while away from home.

I’m picking up this woman’s messages?

Langdon could hear the tape rewinding now. Finally, it stopped, and the machine engaged. Langdon listened as the message began to play. Again, the voice on the line was Sophie’s.

«Mr. Langdon,» the message began in a fearful whisper. «Do not react to this message. Just listen calmly. You are in danger right now. Follow my directions very closely.»

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