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That’s a first. Langdon wondered what a simple college professor could possibly do for the man who had everything. “Anything at all,” he replied, pleased for any opportunity to do something for someone who had given him so much, especially when Peter’s life of good fortune had also been marred by so much tragedy.
Solomon lowered his voice. “I was hoping you would consider looking after something for me.”
Langdon rolled his eyes. “Not Hercules, I hope.” Langdon had once agreed to take care of Solomon’s hundred-fifty-pound mastiff, Hercules, during Solomon’s travels. While at Langdon’s home, the dog apparently had become homesick for his favorite leather chew toy and had located a worthy substitute in Langdon’s study — an original vellum, hand-calligraphed, illuminated Bible from the 1600s. Somehow “bad dog” didn’t quite seem adequate.
“You know, I’m still searching for a replacement,” Solomon said, smiling sheepishly.
“Forget it. I’m glad Hercules got a taste of religion.”
Solomon chuckled but seemed distracted. “Robert, the reason I came to see you is I’d like you to keep an eye on something that is quite valuable to me. I inherited it a while back, but I’m no longer comfortable leaving it in my home or in my office.”
Langdon immediately felt uncomfortable. Anything “quite valuable” in Peter Solomon’s world had to be worth an absolute fortune. “How about a safe-deposit box?” Doesn’t your family have stock in half the banks in America?
“That would involve paperwork and bank employees; I’d prefer a trusted friend. And I know you can keep secrets.” Solomon reached in his pocket and pulled out a small package, handing it to Langdon.
Considering the dramatic preamble, Langdon had expected something more impressive. The package was a small cube-shaped box, about three inches square, wrapped in faded brown packing paper and tied with twine. From the package’s heavy weight and size, it felt like its contents must be rock or metal. This is it? Langdon turned the box in his hands, now noticing the twine had been carefully secured on one side with an embossed wax seal, like an ancient edict. The seal bore a double-headed phoenix with the number 33 emblazoned on its chest — the traditional symbol of the highest degree of Freemasonry.
“Really, Peter,” Langdon said, a lopsided grin creeping across his face. “You’re the Worshipful Master of a Masonic lodge, not the pope. Sealing packages with your ring?”
Solomon glanced down at his gold ring and gave a chuckle. “I didn’t seal this package, Robert. My great-grandfather did. Almost a century ago.”
Langdon’s head snapped up. “What?!”
Solomon held up his ring finger. “This Masonic ring was his. After that, it was my grandfather’s, then my father’s… and eventually mine.”
Langdon held up the package. “Your great-grandfather wrapped this a century ago and nobody has opened it?”
“But… why not?”
Solomon smiled. “Because it’s not time.”
Langdon stared. “Time for what?”
“Robert, I know this will sound odd, but the less you know, the better. Just put this package somewhere safe, and please tell no one I gave it to you.”
Langdon searched his mentor’s eyes for a glint of playfulness. Solomon had a propensity for dramatics, and Langdon wondered if he wasn’t being played a bit here. “Peter, are you sure this isn’t just a clever ploy to make me think I’ve been entrusted with some kind of ancient Masonic secret so I’ll be curious and decide to join?”
“The Masons do not recruit, Robert, you know that. Besides, you’ve already told me you’d prefer not to join.”
This was true. Langdon had great respect for Masonic philosophy and symbolism, and yet he had decided never to be initiated; the order’s vows of secrecy would prevent him from discussing Freemasonry with his students. It had been for this same reason that Socrates had refused to formally participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
As Langdon now regarded the mysterious little box and its Masonic seal, he could not help but ask the obvious question. “Why not entrust this to one of your Masonic brothers?”
“Let’s just say I have an instinct it would be safer stored outside the brotherhood. And please don’t let the size of this package fool you. If what my father told me is correct, then it contains something of substantial power.” He paused. “A talisman, of sorts.”
Did he say a talisman? By definition, a talisman was an object with magical powers. Traditionally, talismans were used for bringing luck, warding off evil spirits, or aiding in ancient rituals. “Peter, you do realize that talismans went out of vogue in the Middle Ages, right?”
Peter laid a patient hand on Langdon’s shoulder. “I know how this sounds, Robert. I’ve known you a long time, and your skepticism is one of your greatest strengths as an academic. It is also your greatest weakness. I know you well enough to know you’re not a man I can ask to believe… only to trust. So now I am asking you to trust me when I tell you this talisman is powerful. I was told it can imbue its possessor with the ability to bring order from chaos.”
Langdon could only stare. The idea of “order from chaos” was one of the great Masonic axioms. Ordo ab chao. Even so, the claim that a talisman could impart any power at all was absurd, much less the power to bring order from chaos.
“This talisman,” Solomon continued, “would be dangerous in the wrong hands, and unfortunately, I have reason to believe powerful people want to steal it from me.” His eyes were as serious as Langdon could ever recall. “I would like you to keep it safe for me for a while. Can you do that?”
That night, Langdon sat alone at his kitchen table with the package and tried to imagine what could possibly be inside. In the end, he simply chalked it up to Peter’s eccentricity and locked the package in his library’s wall safe, eventually forgetting all about it.
That was… until this morning.
The phone call from the man with the southern accent.
“Oh, Professor, I almost forgot!” the assistant had said after giving Langdon the specifics of his travel arrangements to D.C. “There is one more thing Mr. Solomon requested.”
“Yes?” Langdon replied, his mind already moving to the lecture he had just agreed to give.
“Mr. Solomon left a note here for you.” The man began reading awkwardly, as if trying to decipher Peter’s penmanship. “‘Please ask Robert… to bring… the small, sealed package I gave him many years ago.’ ” The man paused. “Does this make any sense to you?”
Langdon felt surprised as he recalled the small box that had been sitting in his wall safe all this time. “Actually, yes. I know what Peter means.”
“And you can bring it?”
“Of course. Tell Peter I’ll bring it.”
“Wonderful.” The assistant sounded relieved. “Enjoy your speech tonight. Safe travels.”
Before leaving home, Langdon had dutifully retrieved the wrapped package from the back of his safe and placed it in his shoulder bag.
Now he was standing in the U.S. Capitol, feeling certain of only one thing. Peter Solomon would be horrified to know how badly Langdon had failed him.
My God, Katherine was right. As usual.
Trish Dunne stared in amazement at the search-spider results that were materializing on the plasma wall before her. She had doubted the search would turn up any results at all, but in fact, she now had over a dozen hits. And they were still coming in.
One entry in particular looked quite promising.
Trish turned and shouted in the direction of the library. “Katherine? I think you’ll want to see this!”
It had been a couple of years since Trish had run a search spider like this, and tonight’s results astounded her. A few years ago, this search would have been a dead end. Now, however, it seemed that the quantity of searchable digital material in the world had exploded to the point where someone could find literally anything. Incredibly, one of the keywords was a word Trish had never even heard before… and the search even found that.
Katherine rushed through the control-room door. “What have you got?”
“A bunch of candidates.” Trish motioned to the plasma wall. “Every one of these documents contains all of your key phrases verbatim.”
Katherine tucked her hair behind her ear and scanned the list.
“Before you get too excited,” Trish added, “I can assure you that most of these documents are not what you’re looking for. They’re what we call black holes. Look at the file sizes. Absolutely enormous. They’re things like compressed archives of millions of e-mails, giant unabridged encyclopedia sets, global message boards that have been running for years, and so forth. By virtue of their size and diverse content, these files contain so many potential keywords that they suck in any search engine that comes anywhere near them.”
Katherine pointed to one of the entries near the top of the list. “How about that one?”
Trish smiled. Katherine was a step ahead, having found the sole file on the list that had a small file size. “Good eyes. Yeah, that’s really our only candidate so far. In fact, that file’s so small it can’t be more than a page or so.”
“Open it.” Katherine’s tone was intense.
Trish could not imagine a one-page document containing all the strange search strings Katherine had provided. Nonetheless, when she clicked and opened the document, the key phrases were there… crystal clear and easy to spot in the text.
Katherine strode over, eyes riveted to the plasma wall. “This document is… redacted?”
Trish nodded. “Welcome to the world of digitized text.”
Automatic redaction had become standard practice when offering digitized documents. Redaction was a process wherein a server allowed a user to search the entire text, but then revealed only a small portion of it — a teaser of sorts — only that text immediately flanking the requested keywords. By omitting the vast majority of the text, the server avoided copyright infringement and also sent the user an intriguing message: I have the information you’re searching for, but if you want the rest of it, you’ll have to buy it from me.
“As you can see,” Trish said, scrolling through the heavily abridged page, “the document contains all of your key phrases.”
Katherine stared up at the redaction in silence.
Trish gave her a minute and then scrolled back to the top of the page. Each of Katherine’s key phrases was underlined in capital letters and accompanied by a small sample of teaser text — the two words that appeared on either side of the requested phrase.
Trish could not imagine what this document was referring to. And what the heck is a “symbolon”?
Katherine stepped eagerly toward the screen. “Where did this document come from? Who wrote it?”
Trish was already working on it. “Give me a second. I’m trying to chase down the source.”
“I need to know who wrote this,” Katherine repeated, her voice intense. “I need to see the rest of it.”
“I’m trying,” Trish said, startled by the edge in Katherine’s tone.
Strangely, the file’s location was not displaying as a traditional Web address but rather as a numeric Internet Protocol address. “I can’t unmask the IP,” Trish said. “The domain name’s not coming up. Hold on.” She pulled up her terminal window. “I’ll run a traceroute.”
Trish typed the sequence of commands to ping all the “hops” between her control room’s machine and whatever machine was storing this document.
“Tracing now,” she said, executing the command.
Traceroutes were extremely fast, and a long list of network devices appeared almost instantly on the plasma wall. Trish scanned down… down… through the path of routers and switches that connected her machine to…
What the hell? Her trace had stopped before reaching the document’s server. Her ping, for some reason, had hit a network device that swallowed it rather than bouncing it back. “It looks like my traceroute got blocked,” Trish said. Is that even possible?
“Run it again.”
Trish launched another traceroute and got the same result. “Nope. Dead end. It’s like this document is on a server that is untraceable.” She looked at the last few hops before the dead end. “I can tell you, though, it’s located somewhere in the D.C. area.”
“Not surprising,” Trish said. “These spider programs spiral out geographically, meaning the first results are always local. Besides, one of your search strings was ‘Washington, D.C.’ ”
“How about a ‘who is’ search?” Katherine prompted. “Wouldn’t that tell you who owns the domain?”
A bit lowbrow, but not a bad idea. Trish navigated to the “who is” database and ran a search for the IP, hoping to match the cryptic numbers to an actual domain name. Her frustration was now tempered by rising curiosity. Who has this document? The “who is” results appeared quickly, showing no match, and Trish held up her hands in defeat. “It’s like this IP address doesn’t exist. I can’t get any information about it at all.”
“Obviously the IP exists. We’ve just searched a document that’s stored there!”
True. And yet whoever had this document apparently preferred not to share his or her identity. “I’m not sure what to tell you. Systems traces aren’t really my thing, and unless you want to call in someone with hacking skills, I’m at a loss.”
“Do you know someone?”
Trish turned and stared at her boss. “Katherine, I was kidding. It’s not exactly a great idea.”
“But it is done?” She checked her watch.
“Um, yeah… all the time. Technically it’s pretty easy.”
“Who do you know?”
“Hackers?” Trish laughed nervously. “Like half the guys at my old job.”
“Anyone you trust?”
Is she serious? Trish could see Katherine was dead serious. “Well, yeah,” she said hurriedly. “I know this one guy we could call. He was our systems security specialist — serious computer geek. He wanted to date me, which kind of sucked, but he’s a good guy, and I’d trust him. Also, he does freelance.”
“Can he be discreet?”
“He’s a hacker. Of course he can be discreet. That’s what he does. But I’m sure he’d want at least a thousand bucks to even look —”
“Call him. Offer him double for fast results.”
Trish was not sure what made her more uncomfortable — helping Katherine Solomon hire a hacker… or calling a guy who probably still found it impossible to believe a pudgy, redheaded metasystems analyst would rebuff his romantic advances. “You’re sure about this?”
“Use the phone in the library,” Katherine said. “It’s got a blocked number. And obviously don’t use my name.”
“Right.” Trish headed for the door but paused when she heard Katherine’s iPhone chirp. With luck, the incoming text message might be information that would grant Trish a reprieve from this distasteful task. She waited as Katherine fished the iPhone from her lab coat’s pocket and eyed the screen.
Katherine Solomon felt a wave of relief to see the name on her iPhone.
“It’s a text message from my brother,” she said, glancing over at Trish.
Trish looked hopeful. “So maybe we should ask him about all this… before we call a hacker?”
Katherine eyed the redacted document on the plasma wall and heard Dr. Abaddon’s voice. That which your brother believes is hidden in D.C.… it can be found. Katherine had no idea what to believe anymore, and this document represented information about the far-fetched ideas with which Peter had apparently become obsessed.
Katherine shook her head. “I want to know who wrote this and where it’s located. Make the call.”
Trish frowned and headed for the door.
Whether or not this document would be able to explain the mystery of what her brother had told Dr. Abaddon, there was at least one mystery that had been solved today. Her brother had finally learned how to use the text-messaging feature on the iPhone Katherine had given him.
“And alert the media,” Katherine called after Trish. “The great Peter Solomon just sent his first text message.”
In a strip-mall parking lot across the street from the SMSC, Mal’akh stood beside his limo, stretching his legs and waiting for the phone call he knew would be coming. The rain had stopped, and a winter moon had started to break through the clouds. It was the same moon that had shone down on Mal’akh through the oculus of the House of the Temple three months ago during his initiation.
The world looks different tonight.
As he waited, his stomach growled again. His two-day fast, although uncomfortable, was critical to his preparation. Such were the ancient ways. Soon all physical discomforts would be inconsequential.
As Mal’akh stood in the cold night air, he chuckled to see that fate had deposited him, rather ironically, directly in front of a tiny church. Here, nestled between Sterling Dental and a minimart, was a tiny sanctuary.
LORD’S HOUSE OF GLORY.
Mal’akh gazed at the window, which displayed part of the church’s doctrinal statement: WE BELIEVE THAT JESUS CHRIST WAS BEGOTTEN BY THE HOLY SPIRIT, AND BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY, AND IS BOTH TRUE MAN AND GOD.
Mal’akh smiled. Yes, Jesus is indeed both — man and God — but a virgin birth is not the prerequisite for divinity. That is not how it happens.
The ring of a cell phone cut the night air, quickening his pulse. The phone that was now ringing was Mal’akh’s own — a cheap disposable phone he had purchased yesterday. The caller ID indicated it was the call he had been anticipating.
A local call, Mal’akh mused, gazing out across Silver Hill Road toward the faint moonlit outline of a zigzag roofline over the treetops. Mal’akh flipped open his phone.
“This is Dr. Abaddon,” he said, tuning his voice deeper.
“It’s Katherine,” the woman’s voice said. “I finally heard from my brother.”
“Oh, I’m relieved. How is he?”
“He’s on his way to my lab right now,” Katherine said. “In fact, he suggested you join us.”
“I’m sorry?” Mal’akh feigned hesitation. “In your… lab?”
“He must trust you deeply. He never invites anyone back there.”
“I suppose maybe he thinks a visit might help our discussions, but I feel like it’s an intrusion.”
“If my brother says you’re welcome, then you’re welcome. Besides, he said he has a lot to tell us both, and I’d love to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”
“Very well, then. Where exactly is your lab?”
“At the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. Do you know where that is?”
“No,” Mal’akh said, staring across the parking lot at the complex. “I’m actually in my car right now, and I have a guidance system. What’s the address?”
“Forty-two-ten Silver Hill Road.”
“Okay, hold on. I’ll type it in.” Mal’akh waited for ten seconds and then said, “Ah, good news, it looks like I’m closer than I thought. The GPS says I’m only about ten minutes away.”
“Great. I’ll phone the security gate and tell them you’re coming through.”
“I’ll see you shortly.”
Mal’akh pocketed the disposable phone and looked out toward the SMSC. Was I rude to invite myself? Smiling, he now pulled out Peter Solomon’s iPhone and admired the text message he had sent Katherine several minutes earlier.
Got your messages. All’s fine. Busy
day. Forgot appointment with Dr.
Abaddon. Sorry not to mention him