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A single bell chimed on Mal’akh’s grandfather clock, and he looked up. Six thirty P.M. Leaving his tools, he wrapped the Kiryu silk robe around his naked, six-foot-three body and strode down the hall. The air inside this sprawling mansion was heavy with the pungent fragrance of his skin dyes and smoke from the beeswax candles he used to sterilize his needles. The towering young man moved down the corridor past priceless Italian antiques — a Piranesi etching, a Savonarola chair, a silver Bugarini oil lamp.
He glanced through a floor-to-ceiling window as he passed, admiring the classical skyline in the distance. The luminous dome of the U.S. Capitol glowed with solemn power against the dark winter sky.
This is where it is hidden, he thought. It is buried out there somewhere.
Few men knew it existed… and even fewer knew its awesome power or the ingenious way in which it had been hidden. To this day, it remained this country’s greatest untold secret. Those few who did know the truth kept it hidden behind a veil of symbols, legends, and allegory.
Now they have opened their doors to me, Mal’akh thought.
Three weeks ago, in a dark ritual witnessed by America’s most influential men, Mal’akh had ascended to the thirty-third degree, the highest echelon of the world’s oldest surviving brotherhood. Despite Mal’akh’s new rank, the brethren had told him nothing. Nor will they, he knew. That was not how it worked. There were circles within circles… brotherhoods within brotherhoods. Even if Mal’akh waited years, he might never earn their ultimate trust.
Fortunately, he did not need their trust to obtain their deepest secret.
My initiation served its purpose.
Now, energized by what lay ahead, he strode toward his bedroom. Throughout his entire home, audio speakers broadcast the eerie strains of a rare recording of a castrato singing the “Lux Aeterna” from the Verdi Requiem — a reminder of a previous life. Mal’akh touched a remote control to bring on the thundering “Dies Irae.” Then, against a backdrop of crashing timpani and parallel fifths, he bounded up the marble staircase, his robe billowing as he ascended on sinewy legs.
As he ran, his empty stomach growled in protest. For two days now, Mal’akh had fasted, consuming only water, preparing his body in accordance with the ancient ways. Your hunger will be satisfied by dawn, he reminded himself. Along with your pain.
Mal’akh entered his bedroom sanctuary with reverence, locking the door behind him. As he moved toward his dressing area, he paused, feeling himself drawn to the enormous gilded mirror. Unable to resist, he turned and faced his own reflection. Slowly, as if unwrapping a priceless gift, Mal’akh opened his robe to unveil his naked form. The vision awed him.
I am a masterpiece.
His massive body was shaved and smooth. He lowered his gaze first to his feet, which were tattooed with the scales and talons of a hawk. Above that, his muscular legs were tattooed as carved pillars — his left leg spiraled and his right vertically striated. Boaz and Jachin. His groin and abdomen formed a decorated archway, above which his powerful chest was emblazoned with the double-headed phoenix… each head in profile with its visible eye formed by one of Mal’akh’s nipples. His shoulders, neck, face, and shaved head were completely covered with an intricate tapestry of ancient symbols and sigils.
I am an artifact… an evolving icon.
One mortal man had seen Mal’akh naked, eighteen hours earlier. The man had shouted in fear. “Good God, you’re a demon!”
“If you perceive me as such,” Mal’akh had replied, understanding as had the ancients that angels and demons were identical — interchangeable archetypes — all a matter of polarity: the guardian angel who conquered your enemy in battle was perceived by your enemy as a demon destroyer.
Mal’akh tipped his face down now and got an oblique view of the top of his head. There, within the crownlike halo, shone a small circle of pale, untattooed flesh. This carefully guarded canvas was Mal’akh’s only remaining piece of virgin skin. The sacred space had waited patiently… and tonight, it would be filled. Although Mal’akh did not yet possess what he required to complete his masterpiece, he knew the moment was fast approaching.
Exhilarated by his reflection, he could already feel his power growing. He closed his robe and walked to the window, again gazing out at the mystical city before him. It is buried out there somewhere.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Mal’akh went to his dressing table and carefully applied a base of concealer makeup to his face, scalp, and neck until his tattoos had disappeared. Then he donned the special set of clothing and other items he had meticulously prepared for this evening. When he finished, he checked himself in the mirror. Satisfied, he ran a soft palm across his smooth scalp and smiled.
It is out there, he thought. And tonight, one man will help me find it.
As Mal’akh exited his home, he prepared himself for the event that would soon shake the U.S. Capitol Building. He had gone to enormous lengths to arrange all the pieces for tonight.
And now, at last, his final pawn had entered the game.
Robert Langdon was busy reviewing his note cards when the hum of the Town Car’s tires changed pitch on the road beneath him. Langdon glanced up, surprised to see where they were.
Memorial Bridge already?
He put down his notes and gazed out at the calm waters of the Potomac passing beneath him. A heavy mist hovered on the surface. Aptly named, Foggy Bottom had always seemed a peculiar site on which to build the nation’s capital. Of all the places in the New World, the forefathers had chosen a soggy riverside marsh on which to lay the cornerstone of their utopian society.
Langdon gazed left, across the Tidal Basin, toward the gracefully rounded silhouette of the Jefferson Memorial — America’s Pantheon, as many called it. Directly in front of the car, the Lincoln Memorial rose with rigid austerity, its orthogonal lines reminiscent of Athens’s ancient Parthenon. But it was farther away that Langdon saw the city’s centerpiece — the same spire he had seen from the air. Its architectural inspiration was far, far older than the Romans or the Greeks.
America’s Egyptian obelisk.
The monolithic spire of the Washington Monument loomed dead ahead, illuminated against the sky like the majestic mast of a ship. From Langdon’s oblique angle, the obelisk appeared ungrounded tonight… swaying against the dreary sky as if on an unsteady sea. Langdon felt similarly ungrounded. His visit to Washington had been utterly unexpected. I woke up this morning anticipating a quiet Sunday at home… and now I’m a few minutes away from the U.S. Capitol.
This morning at four forty-five, Langdon had plunged into dead-calm water, beginning his day as he always did, swimming fifty laps in the deserted Harvard Pool. His physique was not quite what it had been in his college days as a water-polo all-American, but he was still lean and toned, respectable for a man in his forties. The only difference now was the amount of effort it took Langdon to keep it that way.
When Langdon arrived home around six, he began his morning ritual of hand-grinding Sumatra coffee beans and savoring the exotic scent that filled his kitchen. This morning, however, he was surprised to see the blinking red light on his voice-mail display. Who calls at six A.M. on a Sunday? He pressed the button and listened to the message.
“Good morning, Professor Langdon, I’m terribly sorry for this early-morning call.” The polite voice was noticeably hesitant, with a hint of a southern accent. “My name is Anthony Jelbart, and I’m Peter Solomon’s executive assistant. Mr. Solomon told me you’re an early riser… he has been trying to reach you this morning on short notice. As soon as you receive this message, would you be so kind as to call Peter directly? You probably have his new private line, but if not, it’s 202-329-5746.”
Langdon felt a sudden concern for his old friend. Peter Solomon was impeccably well-bred and courteous, and certainly not the kind of man to call at daybreak on a Sunday unless something was very wrong.
Langdon left his coffee half made and hurried toward his study to return the call.
I hope he’s okay.
Peter Solomon had been a friend, mentor, and, although only twelve years Langdon’s senior, a father figure to him ever since their first meeting at Princeton University. As a sophomore, Langdon had been required to attend an evening guest lecture by the well-known young historian and philanthropist. Solomon had spoken with a contagious passion, presenting a dazzling vision of semiotics and archetypal history that had sparked in Langdon what would later become his lifelong passion for symbols. It was not Peter Solomon’s brilliance, however, but the humility in his gentle gray eyes that had given Langdon the courage to write him a thank-you letter. The young sophomore had never dreamed that Peter Solomon, one of America’s wealthiest and most intriguing young intellectuals, would ever write back. But Solomon did. And it had been the beginning of a truly gratifying friendship.
A prominent academic whose quiet manner belied his powerful heritage, Peter Solomon came from the ultrawealthy Solomon family, whose names appeared on buildings and universities all over the nation. Like the Rothschilds in Europe, the surname Solomon had always carried the mystique of American royalty and success. Peter had inherited the mantle at a young age after the death of his father, and now, at fifty-eight, he had held numerous positions of power in his life. He currently served as the head of the Smithsonian Institution. Langdon occasionally ribbed Peter that the lone tarnish on his sterling pedigree was his diploma from a second-rate university — Yale.
Now, as Langdon entered his study, he was surprised to see that he had received a fax from Peter as well.
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY
THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Good morning, Robert,
I need to speak with you at once.
Please call me this morning as soon as you can at 202-329-5746.
Langdon immediately dialed the number, sitting down at his hand-carved oak desk to wait as the call went through.
“Office of Peter Solomon,” the familiar voice of the assistant answered. “This is Anthony. May I help you?”
“Hello, this is Robert Langdon. You left me a message earlier —”
“Yes, Professor Langdon!” The young man sounded relieved. “Thank you for calling back so quickly. Mr. Solomon is eager to speak to you. Let me tell him you’re on the line. May I put you on hold?”
As Langdon waited for Solomon to get on the line, he gazed down at Peter’s name atop the Smithsonian letterhead and had to smile. Not many slackers in the Solomon clan. Peter’s ancestral tree burgeoned with the names of wealthy business magnates, influential politicians, and a number of distinguished scientists, some even fellows of London’s Royal Society. Solomon’s only living family member, his younger sister, Katherine, had apparently inherited the science gene, because she was now a leading figure in a new cutting-edge discipline called Noetic Science.
All Greek to me, Langdon thought, amused to recall Katherine’s unsuccessful attempt to explain Noetic Science to him at a party at her brother’s home last year. Langdon had listened carefully and then replied, “Sounds more like magic than science.”
Katherine winked playfully. “They’re closer than you think, Robert.”
Now Solomon’s assistant returned to the phone. “I’m sorry, Mr. Solomon is trying to get off a conference call. Things are a little chaotic here this morning.”
“That’s not a problem. I can easily call back.”
“Actually, he asked me to fill you in on his reason for contacting you, if you don’t mind?”
“Of course not.”
The assistant inhaled deeply. “As you probably know, Professor, every year here in Washington, the board of the Smithsonian hosts a private gala to thank our most generous supporters. Many of the country’s cultural elite attend.”
Langdon knew his own bank account had too few zeros to qualify him as culturally elite, but he wondered if maybe Solomon was going to invite him to attend nonetheless.
“This year, as is customary,” the assistant continued, “the dinner will be preceded by a keynote address. We’ve been lucky enough to secure the National Statuary Hall for that speech.”
The best room in all of D.C., Langdon thought, recalling a political lecture he had once attended in the dramatic semicircular hall. It was hard to forget five hundred folding chairs splayed in a perfect arc, surrounded by thirty-eight life-size statues, in a room that had once served as the nation’s original House of Representatives chamber.
“The problem is this,” the man said. “Our speaker has fallen ill and has just informed us she will be unable to give the address.” He paused awkwardly. “This means we are desperate for a replacement speaker. And Mr. Solomon is hoping you would consider filling in.”
Langdon did a double take. “Me?” This was not at all what he had expected. “I’m sure Peter could find a far better substitute.”
“You’re Mr. Solomon’s first choice, Professor, and you’re being much too modest. The institution’s guests would be thrilled to hear from you, and Mr. Solomon thought you could give the same lecture you gave on Bookspan TV a few years back? That way, you wouldn’t have to prepare a thing. He said your talk involved symbolism in the architecture of our nation’s capital — it sounds absolutely perfect for the venue.”
Langdon was not so sure. “If I recall, that lecture had more to do with the Masonic history of the building than —”
“Exactly! As you know, Mr. Solomon is a Mason, as are many of his professional friends who will be in attendance. I’m sure they would love to hear you speak on the topic.”
I admit it would be easy. Langdon had kept the lecture notes from every talk he’d ever given. “I suppose I could consider it. What date is the event?”
The assistant cleared his throat, sounding suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, actually, sir, it’s tonight.”
Langdon laughed out loud. “Tonight?!”
“That’s why it’s so hectic here this morning. The Smithsonian is in a deeply embarrassing predicament…” The assistant spoke more hurriedly now. “Mr. Solomon is ready to send a private jet to Boston for you. The flight is only an hour, and you would be back home before midnight. You’re familiar with the private air terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport?”
“I am,” Langdon admitted reluctantly. No wonder Peter always gets his way.
“Wonderful! Would you be willing to meet the jet there at say… five o’clock?”
“You haven’t left me much choice, have you?” Langdon chuckled.
“I just want to make Mr. Solomon happy, sir.”
Peter has that effect on people. Langdon considered it a long moment, seeing no way out. “All right. Tell him I can do it.”
“Outstanding!” the assistant exclaimed, sounding deeply relieved. He gave Langdon the jet’s tail number and various other information.
When Langdon finally hung up, he wondered if Peter Solomon had ever been told no.
Returning to his coffee preparation, Langdon scooped some additional beans into the grinder. A little extra caffeine this morning, he thought. It’s going to be a long day.
The U.S. Capitol Building stands regally at the eastern end of the National Mall, on a raised plateau that city designer Pierre L’Enfant described as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” The Capitol’s massive footprint measures more than 750 feet in length and 350 feet deep. Housing more than sixteen acres of floor space, it contains an astonishing 541 rooms. The neoclassical architecture is meticulously designed to echo the grandeur of ancient Rome, whose ideals were the inspiration for America’s founders in establishing the laws and culture of the new republic.
The new security checkpoint for tourists entering the Capitol Building is located deep within the recently completed subterranean visitor center, beneath a magnificent glass skylight that frames the Capitol Dome. Newly hired security guard Alfonso Nuñez carefully studied the male visitor now approaching his checkpoint. The man had a shaved head and had been lingering in the lobby, completing a phone call before entering the building. His right arm was in a sling, and he moved with a slight limp. He was wearing a tattered army-navy surplus coat, which, combined with his shaved head, made Nuñez guess military. Those who had served in the U.S. armed forces were among the most common visitors to Washington.
“Good evening, sir,” Nuñez said, following the security protocol of verbally engaging any male visitor who entered alone.
“Hello,” the visitor said, glancing around at the nearly deserted entry. “Quiet night.”
“NFC play-offs,” Nuñez replied. “Everyone’s watching the Redskins tonight.” Nuñez wished he were, too, but this was his first month on the job, and he’d drawn the short straw. “Metal objects in the dish, please.”
As the visitor fumbled to empty the pockets of his long coat with his one working hand, Nuñez watched him carefully. Human instinct made special allowances for the injured and handicapped, but it was an instinct Nuñez had been trained to override.
Nuñez waited while the visitor removed from his pockets the usual assortment of loose change, keys, and a couple of cell phones. “Sprain?”
Nuñez asked, eyeing the man’s injured hand, which appeared to be wrapped in a series of thick Ace bandages.
The bald man nodded. “Slipped on the ice. A week ago. Still hurts like hell.”
“Sorry to hear that. Walk through, please.”
The visitor limped through the detector, and the machine buzzed in protest.
The visitor frowned. “I was afraid of that. I’m wearing a ring under these bandages. My finger was too swollen to get it off, so the doctors wrapped right over it.”
“No problem,” Nuñez said. “I’ll use the wand.”
Nuñez ran the metal-detection wand over the visitor’s wrapped hand. As expected, the only metal he detected was a large lump on the man’s injured ring finger. Nuñez took his time rubbing the metal detector over every inch of the man’s sling and finger. He knew his supervisor was probably monitoring him on the closed circuit in the building’s security center, and Nuñez needed this job. Always better to be cautious. He carefully slid the wand up inside the man’s sling.
The visitor winced in pain.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “You can’t be too careful these days.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Nuñez liked this guy. Strangely, that counted for a lot around here. Human instinct was America’s first line of defense against terrorism. It was a proven fact that human intuition was a more accurate detector of danger than all the electronic gear in the world — the gift of fear, as one of their security reference books termed it.
In this case, Nuñez’s instincts sensed nothing that caused him any fear. The only oddity that he noticed, now that they were standing so close, was that this tough-looking guy appeared to have used some kind of self-tanner or concealer makeup on his face. Whatever. Everyone hates to be pale in the winter.
“You’re fine,” Nuñez said, completing his sweep and stowing the wand.
“Thanks.” The man started collecting his belongings from the tray.
As he did, Nuñez noticed that the two fingers protruding from his bandage each bore a tattoo; the tip of his index finger bore the image of a crown, and the tip of his thumb bore that of a star. Seems everyone has tattoos these days, Nuñez thought, although the pads of his fingertips seemed like painful spots to get them. “Those tats hurt?”
The man glanced down at his fingertips and chuckled. “Less than you might think.”
“Lucky,” Nuñez said. “Mine hurt a lot. I got a mermaid on my back when I was in boot camp.”
“A mermaid?” The bald man chuckled.
“Yeah,” he said, feeling sheepish. “The mistakes we make in our youth.”
“I hear you,” the bald man said. “I made a big mistake in my youth, too. Now I wake up with her every morning.”
They both laughed as the man headed off.
Child’s play, Mal’akh thought as he moved past Nuñez and up the escalator toward the Capitol Building. The entry had been easier than anticipated. Mal’akh’s slouching posture and padded belly had hidden his true physique, while the makeup on his face and hands had hidden the tattoos that covered his body. The true genius, however, was the sling, which disguised the potent object Mal’akh was transporting into the building.
A gift for the one man on earth who can help me obtain what I seek.