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Several hands went up.
“Good. So tell me, what are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?”
“ABC,” one woman offered. “Assure, Believe, Convert.”
“Correct,” Langdon said. “Religions assure salvation; religions believe in a precise theology; and religions convert nonbelievers.” He paused. “Masonry, however, is batting zero for three. Masons make no promises of salvation; they have no specific theology; and they do not seek to convert you. In fact, within Masonic lodges, discussions of religion are prohibited.”
“So… Masonry is anti religious?”
“On the contrary. One of the prerequisites for becoming a Mason is that you must believe in a higher power. The difference between Masonic spirituality and organized religion is that the Masons do not impose a specific definition or name on a higher power. Rather than definitive theological identities like God, Allah, Buddha, or Jesus, the Masons use more general terms like Supreme Being or Great Architect of the Universe. This enables Masons of different faiths to gather together.”
“Sounds a little far-out,” someone said.
“Or, perhaps, refreshingly open-minded?” Langdon offered. “In this age when different cultures are killing each other over whose definition of God is better, one could say the Masonic tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable.” Langdon paced the stage. “Moreover, Masonry is open to men of all races, colors, and creeds, and provides a spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way.”
“Doesn’t discriminate?” A member of the university’s Women’s Center stood up. “How many women are permitted to be Masons, Professor Langdon?”
Langdon showed his palms in surrender. “A fair point. Freemasonry had its roots, traditionally, in the stone masons’ guilds of Europe and was therefore a man’s organization. Several hundred years ago, some say as early as 1703, a women’s branch called Eastern Star was founded. They have more than a million members.”
“Nonetheless,” the woman said, “Masonry is a powerful organization from which women are excluded.”
Langdon was not sure how powerful the Masons really were anymore, and he was not going to go down that road; perceptions of the modern Masons ranged from their being a group of harmless old men who liked to play dress-up… all the way to an underground cabal of power brokers who ran the world. The truth, no doubt, was somewhere in the middle.
“Professor Langdon,” called a young man with curly hair in the back row, “if Masonry is not a secret society, not a corporation, and not a religion, then what is it?”
“Well, if you were to ask a Mason, he would offer the following definition: Masonry is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
“Sounds to me like a euphemism for ‘freaky cult.’ ”
“Freaky, you say?”
“Hell yes!” the kid said, standing up. “I heard what they do inside those secret buildings! Weird candlelight rituals with coffins, and nooses, and drinking wine out of skulls. Now that’s freaky!”
Langdon scanned the class. “Does that sound freaky to anyone else?”
“Yes!” they all chimed in.
Langdon feigned a sad sigh. “Too bad. If that’s too freaky for you, then I know you’ll never want to join my cult.”
Silence settled over the room. The student from the Women’s Center looked uneasy. “You’re in a cult?”
Langdon nodded and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh.”
The class looked horrified.
Langdon shrugged. “And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel beneath the crucifix, and take Holy Communion.”
The classroom remained silent.
Langdon winked. “Open your minds, my friends. We all fear what we do not understand.”
The tolling of a clock began echoing through the Capitol corridors.
Robert Langdon was now running. Talk about a dramatic entrance. Passing through the House Connecting Corridor, he spotted the entrance to the National Statuary Hall and headed straight for it.
As he neared the door, he slowed to a nonchalant stroll and took several deep breaths. Buttoning his jacket, he lifted his chin ever so slightly and turned the corner just as the final chime sounded.
As Professor Robert Langdon strode into the National Statuary Hall, he raised his eyes and smiled warmly. An instant later, his smile evaporated. He stopped dead in his tracks.
Something was very, very wrong.
Katherine Solomon hurried across the parking lot through the cold rain, wishing she had worn more than jeans and a cashmere sweater. As she neared the building’s main entrance, the roar of the giant air purifiers got louder. She barely heard them, her ears still ringing from the phone call she’d just received.
That which your brother believes is hidden in D.C.… it can be found.
Katherine found the notion almost impossible to believe. She and the caller still had much to discuss and had agreed to do so later that evening.
Reaching the main doors, she felt the same sense of excitement she always felt upon entering the gargantuan building. Nobody knows this place is here.
The sign on the door announced:
The Smithsonian Institution, despite having more than a dozen massive museums on the National Mall, had a collection so huge that only 2 percent of it could be on display at any one time. The other 98 percent of the collection had to be stored somewhere. And that somewhere… was here.
Not surprisingly, this building was home to an astonishingly diverse array of artifacts — giant Buddhas, handwritten codices, poisoned darts from New Guinea, jewel-encrusted knives, a kayak made of baleen. Equally mind-boggling were the building’s natural treasures — plesiosaur skeletons, a priceless meteorite collection, a giant squid, even a collection of elephant skulls brought back from an African safari by Teddy Roosevelt.
But none of this was why the Smithsonian secretary, Peter Solomon, had introduced his sister to the SMSC three years ago. He had brought her to this place not to behold scientific marvels, but rather to create them. And that was exactly what Katherine had been doing.
Deep within this building, in the darkness of the most remote recesses, was a small scientific laboratory unlike any other in the world. The recent breakthroughs Katherine had made here in the field of Noetic Science had ramifications across every discipline — from physics, to history, to philosophy, to religion. Soon everything will change, she thought.
As Katherine entered the lobby, the front desk guard quickly stashed his radio and yanked the earplugs from his ears. “Ms. Solomon!” He smiled broadly.
He blushed, looking guilty. “Pregame.”
She smiled. “I won’t tell.” She walked to the metal detector and emptied her pockets. When she slid the gold Cartier watch from her wrist, she felt the usual pang of sadness. The timepiece had been a gift from her mother for Katherine’s eighteenth birthday. Almost ten years had now passed since her mother had died violently… passing away in Katherine’s arms.
“So, Ms. Solomon?” the guard whispered jokingly. “Are you ever gonna tell anybody what you’re doing back there?”
She glanced up. “Someday, Kyle. Not tonight.”
“Come on,” he pressed. “A secret lab… in a secret museum? You must be doing something cool.”
Miles beyond cool, Katherine thought as she collected her things. The truth was that Katherine was doing science so advanced that it no longer even resembled science.
Robert Langdon stood frozen in the doorway of the National Statuary Hall and studied the startling scene before him. The room was precisely as he remembered it — a balanced semicircle built in the style of a Greek amphitheater. The graceful arched walls of sandstone and Italian plaster were punctuated by columns of variegated breccia, interspersed with the nation’s statuary collection — life-size statues of thirty-eight great Americans standing in a semicircle on a stark expanse of black-and-white marble tile.
It was exactly as Langdon had recalled from the lecture he had once attended here.
Except for one thing.
Tonight, the room was empty.
No chairs. No audience. No Peter Solomon. Just a handful of tourists milling around aimlessly, oblivious to Langdon’s grand entrance. Did Peter mean the Rotunda? He peered down the south corridor toward the Rotunda and could see tourists milling around in there, too.
The echoes of the clock chime had faded. Langdon was now officially late.
He hurried back into the hallway and found a docent. “Excuse me, the lecture for the Smithsonian event tonight? Where is that being held?”
The docent hesitated. “I’m not sure, sir. When does it start?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t know about any Smithsonian event this evening — not here, at least.”
Bewildered, Langdon hurried back toward the center of the room, scanning the entire space. Is Solomon playing some kind of joke? Langdon couldn’t imagine it. He pulled out his cell phone and the fax page from this morning and dialed Peter’s number.
His phone took a moment to locate a signal inside the enormous building. Finally, it began to ring.
The familiar southern accent answered. “Peter Solomon’s office, this is Anthony. May I help you?”
“Anthony!” Langdon said with relief. “I’m glad you’re still there. This is Robert Langdon. There seems to be some confusion about the lecture. I’m standing in the Statuary Hall, but there’s nobody here. Has the lecture been moved to a different room?”
“I don’t believe so, sir. Let me check.” His assistant paused a moment. “Did you confirm with Mr. Solomon directly?”
Langdon was confused. “No, I confirmed with you, Anthony. This morning!”
“Yes, I recall that.” There was a silence on the line. “That was a bit careless of you, don’t you think, Professor?”
Langdon was now fully alert. “I beg your pardon?”
“Consider this…” the man said. “You received a fax asking you to call a number, which you did. You spoke to a total stranger who said he was Peter Solomon’s assistant. Then you willingly boarded a private plane to Washington and climbed into a waiting car. Is that right?”
Langdon felt a chill race through his body. “Who the hell is this? Where is Peter?”
“I’m afraid Peter Solomon has no idea you’re in Washington today.” The man’s southern accent disappeared, and his voice morphed into a deeper, mellifluous whisper. “You are here, Mr. Langdon, because I want you here.”
Inside the Statuary Hall, Robert Langdon clutched his cell phone to his ear and paced in a tight circle. “Who the hell are you?”
The man’s reply was a silky calm whisper. “Do not be alarmed, Professor. You have been summoned here for a reason.”
“Summoned?” Langdon felt like a caged animal. “Try kidnapped!”
“Hardly.” The man’s voice was eerily serene. “If I wanted to harm you, you would be dead in your Town Car right now.” He let the words hang for a moment. “My intentions are purely noble, I assure you. I would simply like to offer you an invitation.”
No thanks. Ever since his experiences in Europe over the last several years, Langdon’s unwanted celebrity had made him a magnet for nut-cases, and this one had just crossed a very serious line. “Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but I’m hanging up —”
“Unwise,” said the man. “Your window of opportunity is very small if you want to save Peter Solomon’s soul.”
Langdon drew a sharp breath. “What did you say?”
“I’m sure you heard me.”
The way this man had uttered Peter’s name had stopped Langdon cold. “What do you know about Peter?”
“At this point, I know his deepest secrets. Mr. Solomon is my guest, and I can be a persuasive host.”
This can’t be happening. “You don’t have Peter.”
“I answered his private cell phone. That should give you pause.”
“I’m calling the police.”
“No need,” the man said. “The authorities will join you momentarily.”
What is this lunatic talking about? Langdon’s tone hardened. “If you have Peter, put him on the phone right now.”
“That’s impossible. Mr. Solomon is trapped in an unfortunate place.” The man paused. “He is in the Araf.”
“Where?” Langdon realized he was clutching his phone so tightly his fingers were going numb.
“The Araf? Hamistagan? That place to which Dante devoted the canticle immediately following his legendary Inferno?”
The man’s religious and literary references solidified Langdon’s suspicion that he was dealing with a madman. The second canticle. Langdon knew it well; nobody escaped Phillips Exeter Academy without reading Dante. “You’re saying you think Peter Solomon is… in purgatory?”
“A crude word you Christians use, but yes, Mr. Solomon is in the in-between.”
The man’s words hung in Langdon’s ear. “Are you saying Peter is… dead?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“Not exactly?!” Langdon yelled, his voice echoing sharply in the hall. A family of tourists looked over at him. He turned away and lowered his voice. “Death is usually an all-or-nothing thing!”
“You surprise me, Professor. I expected you to have a better understanding of the mysteries of life and death. There is a world in between — a world in which Peter Solomon is hovering at the moment. He can either return to your world, or he can move on to the next… depending on your actions right now.”
Langdon tried to process this. “What do you want from me?”
“It’s simple. You have been given access to something quite ancient. And tonight, you will share it with me.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No? You pretend not to understand the ancient secrets that have been entrusted to you?”
Langdon felt a sudden sinking sensation, now guessing what this was probably about. Ancient secrets. He had not uttered a word to anyone about his experiences in Paris several years earlier, but Grail fanatics had followed the media coverage closely, some connecting the dots and believing Langdon was now privy to secret information regarding the Holy Grail — perhaps even its location.
“Look,” Langdon said, “if this is about the Holy Grail, I can assure you I know nothing more than —”
“Don’t insult my intelligence, Mr. Langdon,” the man snapped. “I have no interest in anything so frivolous as the Holy Grail or mankind’s pathetic debate over whose version of history is correct. Circular arguments over the semantics of faith hold no interest for me. Those are questions answered only through death.”
The stark words left Langdon confused. “Then what the hell is this about?”
The man paused for several seconds. “As you may know, there exists within this city an ancient portal.”
An ancient portal?
“And tonight, Professor, you will unlock it for me. You should be honored I contacted you — this is the invitation of your lifetime. You alone have been chosen.”
And you have lost your mind. “I’m sorry, but you’ve chosen poorly,” Langdon said. “I don’t know anything about any ancient portal.”
“You don’t understand, Professor. It was not I who chose you… it was Peter Solomon.”
“What?” Langdon replied, his voice barely a whisper.
“Mr. Solomon told me how to find the portal, and he confessed to me that only one man on earth could unlock it. And he said that man is you.”
“If Peter said that, he was mistaken… or lying.”
“I think not. He was in a fragile state when he confessed that fact, and I am inclined to believe him.”
Langdon felt a stab of anger. “I’m warning you, if you hurt Peter in any —”
“It’s far too late for that,” the man said in an amused tone. “I’ve already taken what I need from Peter Solomon. But for his sake, I suggest you provide what I need from you. Time is of the essence… for both of you. I suggest you find the portal and unlock it. Peter will point the way.”
Peter? “I thought you said Peter was in ‘purgatory.’”
“As above, so below,” the man said.
Langdon felt a deepening chill. This strange response was an ancient Hermetic adage that proclaimed a belief in the physical connection between heaven and earth. As above, so below. Langdon eyed the vast room and wondered how everything had veered so suddenly out of control tonight. “Look, I don’t know how to find any ancient portal. I’m calling the police.”
“It really hasn’t dawned on you yet, has it? Why you were chosen?”
“No,” Langdon said.
“It will,” he replied, chuckling. “Any moment now.”
Then the line went dead.
Langdon stood rigid for several terrifying moments, trying to process what had just happened.
Suddenly, in the distance, he heard an unexpected sound.
It was coming from the Rotunda.
Someone was screaming.
Robert Langdon had entered the Capitol Rotunda many times in his life, but never at a full sprint. As he ran through the north entrance, he spotted a group of tourists clustered in the center of the room. A small boy was screaming, and his parents were trying to console him. Others were crowding around, and several security guards were doing their best to restore order.
“He pulled it out of his sling,” someone said frantically, “and just left it there!”
As Langdon drew nearer, he got his first glimpse of what was causing all the commotion. Admittedly, the object on the Capitol floor was odd, but its presence