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seventy-five years. “I need you to call an ambulance.”

Katherine ran to the hall phone and called for help. When she got back to the conservatory, she found her mother lying motionless in a pool of blood. She ran to her, crouching down, cradling her mother’s body in her arms.

Katherine had no idea how much time had passed when she heard the distant gunshot in the woods. Finally, the conservatory door burst open, and her brother, Peter, rushed in, eyes wild, gun still in his hand. When he saw Katherine sobbing, holding their lifeless mother in her arms, his face contorted in anguish. The scream that echoed through the conservatory was a sound Katherine Solomon would never forget.

CHAPTER 52

Mal’akh could feel the tattooed muscles on his back rippling as he sprinted back around the building toward the open bay door of Pod 5.

I must gain access to her lab.

Katherine’s escape had been unanticipated… and problematic. Not only did she know where Mal’akh lived, she now knew his true identity… and that he was the one who had invaded their home a decade earlier.

Mal’akh had not forgotten that night either. He had come within inches of possessing the pyramid, but destiny had obstructed him. I was not yet ready. But he was ready now. More powerful. More influential. Having endured unthinkable hardship in preparation for his return, Mal’akh was poised tonight to fulfill his destiny at last. He felt certain that before the night was over, he would indeed be staring into the dying eyes of Katherine Solomon.

As Mal’akh reached the bay door, he reassured himself that Katherine had not truly escaped; she had only prolonged the inevitable. He slid through the opening and strode confidently across the darkness until his feet hit the carpet. Then he took a right turn and headed for the Cube. The banging on the door of Pod 5 had stopped, and Mal’akh suspected the guard was now trying to remove the dime Mal’akh had jammed into the key panel to render it useless.

When Mal’akh reached the door that led into the Cube, he located the outer keypad and inserted Trish’s key card. The panel lit up. He entered Trish’s PIN and went inside. The lights were all ablaze, and as he moved into the sterile space, he squinted in amazement at the dazzling array of equipment. Mal’akh was no stranger to the power of technology; he performed his own breed of science in the basement of his home, and last night some of that science had borne fruit.

The Truth.

Peter Solomon’s unique confinement — trapped alone in the in-between — had laid bare all of the man’s secrets. I can see his soul. Mal’akh had learned certain secrets he anticipated, and others he had not, including the news about Katherine’s lab and her shocking discoveries. Science is getting close, Mal’akh had realized. And I will not allow it to light the way for the unworthy.

Katherine’s work here had begun using modern science to answer ancient philosophical questions. Does anyone hear our prayers? Is there life after death? Do humans have souls? Incredibly, Katherine had answered all of these questions, and more. Scientifically. Conclusively. The methods she used were irrefutable. Even the most skeptical of people would be persuaded by the results of her experiments. If this information were published and made known, a fundamental shift would begin in the consciousness of man. They will start to find their way. Mal’akh’s last task tonight, before his transformation, was to ensure that this did not happen.

As he moved through the lab, Mal’akh located the data room that Peter had told him about. He peered through the heavy glass walls at the two holographic data-storage units. Exactly as he said they would be. Mal’akh found it hard to imagine that the contents of these little boxes could change the course of human development, and yet Truth had always been the most potent of all the catalysts.

Eyeing the holographic storage units, Mal’akh produced Trish’s key card and inserted it in the door’s security panel. To his surprise, the panel did not light up. Apparently, access to this room was not a trust extended to Trish Dunne. He now reached for the key card he had found in Katherine’s lab-coat pocket. When he inserted this one, the panel lit up.

Mal’akh had a problem. I never got Katherine’s PIN. He tried Trish’s PIN, but it didn’t work. Stroking his chin, he stepped back and examined the three-inch-thick Plexiglas door. Even with an ax, he knew he would be unable to break through and obtain the drives he needed to destroy.

Mal’akh had planned for this contingency, however.

Inside the power-supply room, exactly as Peter had described, Mal’akh located the rack holding several metal cylinders resembling large scuba tanks. The cylinders bore the letters LH, the number 2, and the universal symbol for combustible. One of the canisters was connected to the lab’s hydrogen fuel cell.

Mal’akh left one canister connected and carefully heaved one of the reserve cylinders down onto a dolly beside the rack. Then he rolled the cylinder out of the power-supply room, across the lab, to the Plexiglas door of the data-storage room. Although this location would certainly be plenty close enough, he had noticed one weakness in the heavy Plexiglas door — the small space between the bottom and the jamb.

At the threshold, he carefully laid the canister on its side and slid the flexible rubber tube beneath the door. It took him a moment to remove the safety seals and access the cylinder’s valve, but once he did, ever so gently, he uncocked the valve. Through the Plexiglas, he could see the clear, bubbling liquid begin draining out of the tube onto the floor inside the storage room. Mal’akh watched the puddle expand, oozing across the floor, steaming and bubbling as it grew. Hydrogen remained in liquid form only when it was cold, and as it warmed up, it would start to boil off. The resulting gas, conveniently, was even more flammable than the liquid.

Remember the Hindenburg.

Mal’akh hurried now into the lab and retrieved the Pyrex jug of Bunsen-burner fuel — a viscous, highly flammable, yet noncombustible oil. He carried it to the Plexiglas door, pleased to see the liquid hydrogen canister was still draining, the puddle of boiling liquid inside the data-storage room now covering the entire floor, encircling the pedestals that supported the holographic storage units. A whitish mist now rose from the boiling puddle as the liquid hydrogen began turning to gas… filling the small space.

Mal’akh raised the jug of Bunsen-burner fuel and squirted a healthy amount on the hydrogen canister, the tubing, and into the small opening beneath the door. Then, very carefully, he began backing out of the lab, leaving an unbroken stream of oil on the floor as he went.

The dispatch operator handling 911 calls for Washington, D.C., had been unusually busy tonight. Football, beer, and a full moon, she thought as yet another emergency call appeared on her screen, this one from a gas-station pay phone on the Suitland Parkway in Anacostia. A car accident probably.

“Nine-one-one,” she answered. “What is your emergency?”

“I was just attacked at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center,” a panicked woman’s voice said. “Please send the police! Forty-two-ten Silver Hill Road!”

“Okay, slow down,” the operator said. “You need to —”

“I need you to send officers also to a mansion in Kalorama Heights where I think my brother may be held captive!”

The operator sighed. Full moon.

CHAPTER 53

“As I tried to tell you,” Bellamy was saying to Langdon, “there is more to this pyramid than meets the eye.”

Apparently so. Langdon had to admit that the stone pyramid sitting in his unzipped daybag looked much more mysterious to him now. His decryption of the Masonic cipher had rendered a seemingly meaningless grid of letters.

Chaos.

For a long while, Langdon examined the grid, searching for any hint of meaning within the letters — hidden words, anagrams, clues of any sort — but he found nothing.

“The Masonic Pyramid,” Bellamy explained, “is said to guard its secrets behind many veils. Each time you pull back a curtain, you face another. You have unveiled these letters, and yet they tell you nothing until you peel back another layer. Of course, the way to do that is known only to the one who holds the capstone. The capstone, I suspect, has an inscription as well, which tells you how to decipher the pyramid.”

Langdon glanced at the cube-shaped package on the desk. From what Bellamy had said, Langdon now understood that the capstone and pyramid were a “segmented cipher” — a code broken into pieces. Modern cryptologists used segmented ciphers all the time, although the security scheme had been invented in ancient Greece. The Greeks, when they wanted to store secret information, inscribed it on a clay tablet and then shattered the tablet into pieces, storing each piece in a separate location. Only when all the pieces were gathered together could the secrets be read. This kind of inscribed clay tablet — called a symbolon — was in fact the origin of the modern word symbol.

“Robert,” Bellamy said, “this pyramid and capstone have been kept apart for generations, ensuring the secret’s safety.” His tone turned rueful. “Tonight, however, the pieces have come dangerously close. I’m sure I don’t have to say this… but it is our duty to ensure this pyramid is not assembled.”

Langdon found Bellamy’s sense of drama to be somewhat overwrought. Is he describing the capstone and pyramid… or a detonator and nuclear bomb? He still couldn’t quite accept Bellamy’s claims, but it hardly seemed to matter. “Even if this is the Masonic Pyramid, and even if this inscription does somehow reveal the location of ancient knowledge, how could that knowledge possibly impart the kind of power it is said to impart?”

“Peter always told me you were a hard man to convince — an academic who prefers proof to speculation.”

“You’re saying you do believe that?” Langdon demanded, feeling impatient now. “Respectfully… you are a modern, educated man. How could you believe such a thing?”

Bellamy gave a patient smile. “The craft of Freemasonry has given me a deep respect for that which transcends human understanding. I’ve learned never to close my mind to an idea simply because it seems miraculous.”

CHAPTER 54

Frantically, the SMSC perimeter patrolman dashed down the gravel pathway that ran along the outside of the building. He’d just received a call from an officer inside saying that the keypad to Pod 5 had been sabotaged, and that a security light indicated that Pod 5’s specimen bay door was now open.

What the hell is going on?!

As he arrived at the specimen bay, sure enough he found the door open a couple of feet. Bizarre, he thought. This can only be unlocked from the inside. He took the flashlight off his belt and shone it into the inky blackness of the pod. Nothing. Having no desire to step into the unknown, he moved only as far as the threshold and then stuck the flashlight through the opening, swinging it to the left, and then to the —

Powerful hands seized his wrist and yanked him into the blackness. The guard felt himself being spun around by an invisible force. He smelled ethanol. The flashlight flew out of his hand, and before he could even process what was happening, a rock-hard fist collided with his sternum. The guard crumpled to the cement floor… groaning in pain as a large black form stepped away from him.

The guard lay on his side, gasping and wheezing for breath. His flashlight lay nearby, its beam spilling across the floor and illuminating what appeared to be a metal can of some sort. The can’s label said it was fuel oil for a Bunsen burner.

A cigarette lighter sparked, and the orange flame illuminated a vision that hardly seemed human. Jesus Christ! The guard barely had time to process what he was seeing before the bare-chested creature knelt down and touched the flame to the floor.

Instantly, a strip of fire materialized, leaping away from them, racing into the void. Bewildered, the guard looked back, but the creature was already slipping out the open bay door into the night.

The guard managed to sit up, wincing in pain as his eyes followed the thin ribbon of fire. What the hell?! The flame looked too small to be truly dangerous, and yet now he saw something utterly terrifying. The fire was no longer illuminating only the darkened void. It had traveled all the way to the back wall, where it was now illuminating a massive cinder-block structure. The guard had never been permitted inside Pod 5, but he knew very well what this structure must be.

The Cube.

Katherine Solomon’s lab.

The flame raced in a straight line directly to the lab’s outer door. The guard clambered to his feet, knowing full well that the ribbon of oil probably continued beneath the lab door… and would soon start a fire inside. But as he turned to run for help, he felt an unexpected puff of air sucking past him.

For a brief instant, all of Pod 5 was bathed in light.

The guard never saw the hydrogen fireball erupting skyward, ripping the roof off Pod 5 and billowing hundreds of feet into the air. Nor did he see the sky raining fragments of titanium mesh, electronic equipment, and droplets of melted silicon from the lab’s holographic storage units.

Katherine Solomon was driving north when she saw the sudden flash of light in her rearview mirror. A deep rumble thundered through the night air, startling her.

Fireworks? she wondered. Do the Redskins have a halftime show?

She refocused on the road, her thoughts still on the 911 call she’d placed from the deserted gas station’s pay phone.

Katherine had successfully convinced the 911 dispatcher to send the police to the SMSC to investigate a tattooed intruder and, Katherine prayed, to find her assistant, Trish. In addition, she urged the dispatcher to check Dr. Abaddon’s address in Kalorama Heights, where she thought Peter was being held hostage.

Unfortunately, Katherine had been unable to obtain Robert Langdon’s unlisted cell-phone number. So now, seeing no other option, she was speeding toward the Library of Congress, where Langdon had told her he was headed.

The terrifying revelation of Dr. Abaddon’s true identity had changed everything. Katherine had no idea what to believe anymore. All she knew for certain was that the same man who had killed her mother and nephew all those years ago had now captured her brother and had come to kill her. Who is this madman? What does he want? The only answer she could come up with made no sense. A pyramid? Equally confusing was why this man had come to her lab tonight. If he wanted to hurt her, why hadn’t he done so in the privacy of his own home earlier today? Why go to the trouble of sending a text message and risk breaking into her lab?

Unexpectedly, the fireworks in her rearview mirror grew brighter, the initial flash followed by an unexpected sight — a blazing orange fireball that Katherine could see rising above the tree line. What in the world?! The fireball was accompanied by dark black smoke… and it was nowhere near the Redskins’ FedEx Field. Bewildered, she tried to determine what industry might be located on the other side of those trees… just southeast of the parkway.

Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her.

CHAPTER 55

Warren Bellamy stabbed urgently at the buttons on his cell phone, trying again to make contact with someone who could help them, whoever that might be.

Langdon watched Bellamy, but his mind was with Peter, trying to figure out how best to find him. Decipher the engraving, Peter’s captor had commanded, and it will tell you the hiding place of mankind’s greatest treasure… We will go together… and make our trade.

Bellamy hung up, frowning. Still no answer.

“Here’s what I don’t understand,” Langdon said. “Even if I could somehow accept that this hidden wisdom exists… and that this pyramid somehow points to its underground location… what am I looking for? A vault? A bunker?”

Bellamy sat quietly for a long moment. Then he gave a reluctant sigh and spoke guardedly. “Robert, according to what I’ve heard through the years, the pyramid leads to the entrance of a spiral staircase.”

“A staircase?”

“That’s right. A staircase that leads down into the earth… many hundreds of feet.”

Langdon could not believe what he was hearing. He leaned closer.

“I’ve heard it said that the ancient wisdom is buried at the bottom.”

Robert Langdon stood up and began pacing. A spiral staircase descending hundreds of feet into the earth… in Washington, D.C. “And nobody has ever seen this staircase?”

“Allegedly the entrance has been covered with an enormous stone.”

Langdon sighed. The idea of a tomb covered with an enormous stone was right out of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ tomb. This archetypal hybrid was the grandfather of them all. “Warren, do you believe this secret mystical staircase into the earth exists?”

“I’ve never seen it personally, but a few of the older Masons swear it exists. I was trying to call one of them just now.”

Langdon continued pacing, uncertain what to say next.

“Robert, you leave me a difficult task with respect to this pyramid.” Warren Bellamy’s gaze hardened in the soft glow of the reading lamp. “I know of no way to force a man to believe what he does not want to believe. And yet I hope you understand your duty to Peter Solomon.”

Yes, I have a duty to help him, Langdon thought.

“I don’t need you to believe in the power this pyramid can unveil. Nor do I need you to believe in the staircase it supposedly leads to. But I do need you to believe that you are morally obliged to protect this secret… whatever it may be.” Bellamy motioned to the little cube-shaped package. “Peter entrusted the capstone to you because he had faith you would obey his wishes and keep it secret. And now you must do exactly that, even if it means sacrificing Peter’s life.”

Langdon stopped short and wheeled around. “What?!”

Bellamy remained seated, his expression pained but resolute. “It’s what he would want. You need to forget Peter. He’s gone. Peter did his job, doing the best he could to protect the pyramid. Now it is our job to make sure his efforts were not in vain.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this!” Langdon exclaimed, temper flaring. “Even if this pyramid is everything you say it is, Peter is your Masonic brother. You’re sworn to protect him above all else, even your country!”

“No, Robert. A Mason must protect a fellow Mason above all things… except one — the great secret our brotherhood protects for all mankind. Whether or not I believe this lost wisdom has the potential that history suggests, I have taken a vow to keep it out of the hands of the unworthy. And I would not give it over to anyone… even in exchange for Peter Solomon’s life.”

“I know plenty of Masons,” Langdon said angrily, “including the most advanced, and I’m damned sure these men are not sworn to sacrifice their lives for the sake of a stone pyramid. And I’m also damned sure none of them believes in a secret staircase that descends to a treasure buried deep in the earth.”

“There are circles within circles, Robert. Not everyone knows everything.”

Langdon exhaled, trying to control his emotions. He, like everyone, had heard the rumors of elite circles within the Masons. Whether or not it was true seemed irrelevant in the face of this situation. “Warren, if this pyramid and capstone truly reveal the ultimate Masonic secret, then why would Peter involve me? I’m not even a brother… much less part of any inner circle.”

“I know, and I suspect that is precisely why Peter chose you to guard it. This pyramid has been targeted in the past, even by those who infiltrated our brotherhood with unworthy motives. Peter’s choice to store it outside the brotherhood was a clever one.”

“Were you aware I had the capstone?” Langdon asked.

“No. And if Peter told anyone at all, it would have been only one man.” Bellamy pulled out his cell phone and hit redial. “And so far, I’ve been unable to reach him.” He got a voice-mail greeting and hung up. “Well, Robert, it looks like you and I are on our own for the moment. And we have a decision to make.”

Langdon looked at his Mickey Mouse watch. 9:42 P.M. “You do realize that Peter’s captor is waiting for me to decipher this pyramid tonight and tell him what it says.”

Bellamy frowned. “Great men throughout history have made deep personal sacrifices to protect the Ancient Mysteries. You and I must do the same.” He stood up now. “We should keep moving. Sooner or later Sato will figure out where we are.”

“What about Katherine?!” Langdon demanded, not wanting to leave. “I can’t reach her, and she never called.”

“Obviously, something happened.”

“But we can’t just abandon her!”

“Forget Katherine!” Bellamy said, his voice commanding now. “Forget Peter! Forget everyone! Don’t you understand, Robert, that you’ve been entrusted with a duty that is bigger than all of us — you, Peter, Katherine, myself?” He locked eyes with Langdon. “We need to find a safe place to hide this pyramid and capstone far from —”

A loud metallic crash echoed in the direction of the great hall.

Bellamy wheeled, eyes filling with fear. “That was fast.”

Langdon turned toward the door. The sound apparently had come from the metal bucket that Bellamy had placed on the ladder blocking the tunnel doors. They’re coming for us.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the crash echoed again.

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