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hardly warranted screaming.

The device on the floor was one Langdon had seen many times. The Harvard art department had dozens of these — life-size plastic models used by sculptors and painters to help them render the human body’s most complex feature, which, surprisingly, was not the human face but rather the human hand. Someone left a mannequin hand in the Rotunda?

Mannequin hands, or handequins as some called them, had articulated fingers enabling an artist to pose the hand in whatever position he wanted, which for sophomoric college students was often with the middle finger extended straight up in the air. This handequin, however, had been positioned with its index finger and thumb pointing up toward the ceiling.

As Langdon drew nearer, though, he realized this handequin was unusual. Its plastic surface was not smooth like most. Instead, the surface was mottled and slightly wrinkled, and appeared almost…

Like real skin.

Langdon stopped abruptly.

Now he saw the blood. My God!

The severed wrist appeared to have been skewered onto a spiked wooden base so that it would stand up. A wave of nausea rushed over him. Langdon inched closer, unable to breathe, seeing now that the tips of the index finger and thumb had been decorated with tiny tattoos.

The tattoos, however, were not what held Langdon’s attention. His gaze moved instantly to the familiar golden ring on the fourth finger.

No.

Langdon recoiled. His world began to spin as he realized he was looking at the severed right hand of Peter Solomon.

CHAPTER 11

Why isn’t Peter answering? Katherine Solomon wondered as she hung up her cell phone. Where is he?

For three years, Peter Solomon had always been the first to arrive for their weekly seven P.M. Sunday-night meetings. It was their private family ritual, a way to remain connected before the start of a new week, and for Peter to stay up-to-date on Katherine’s work at the lab.

He’s never late, she thought, and he always answers his phone. To make matters worse, Katherine was still not sure what she was going to say to him when he did finally arrive. How do I even begin to ask him about what I found out today?

Her footsteps clicked rhythmically down the cement corridor that ran like a spine through the SMSC. Known as “The Street,” the corridor connected the building’s five massive storage pods. Forty feet overhead, a circulatory system of orange ductwork throbbed with the heartbeat of the building — the pulsing sounds of thousands of cubic feet of filtered air being circulated.

Normally, during her nearly quarter-mile walk to her lab, Katherine felt calmed by the breathing sounds of the building. Tonight, however, the pulsing had her on edge. What she had learned about her brother today would have troubled anyone, and yet because Peter was the only family she had in the world, Katherine felt especially disturbed to think he might be keeping secrets from her.

As far as she knew, he had kept a secret from her only once… a wonderful secret that was hidden at the end of this very hallway. Three years ago, her brother had walked Katherine down this corridor, introducing her to the SMSC by proudly showing off some of the building’s more unusual items — the Mars meteorite ALH-84001, the handwritten pictographic diary of Sitting Bull, a collection of wax-sealed Ball jars containing original specimens collected by Charles Darwin.

At one point, they walked past a heavy door with a small window.

Katherine caught a glimpse of what lay beyond and gasped. “What in the world is that?!”

Her brother chuckled and kept walking. “Pod Three. It’s called Wet Pod. Pretty unusual sight, isn’t it?”

Terrifying is more like it. Katherine hurried after him. This building was like another planet.

“What I really want to show you is in Pod Five,” her brother said, guiding her down the seemingly endless corridor. “It’s our newest addition. It was built to house artifacts from the basement of the National Museum of Natural History. That collection is scheduled for relocation here in about five years, which means Pod Five is sitting empty at the moment.”

Katherine glanced over. “Empty? So why are we looking at it?”

Her brother’s gray eyes flashed a familiar mischief. “It occurred to me that because nobody is using the space, maybe you could use it.”

“Me?”

“Sure. I thought maybe you could use a dedicated lab space — a facility where you can actually perform some of the theoretical experiments you’ve been developing for all these years.”

Katherine stared at her brother in shock. “But, Peter, those experiments are theoretical! To actually perform them would be almost impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible, Katherine, and this building is perfect for you. The SMSC is not just a warehouse of treasures; it’s one of the world’s most advanced scientific research facilities. We’re constantly taking pieces from the collection and examining them with the best quantitative technologies money can buy. All the equipment you could possibly need would be here at your disposal.”

“Peter, the technologies required to run these experiments are —”

“Already in place.” He smiled broadly. “The lab is done.”

Katherine stopped short.

Her brother pointed down the long corridor. “We’re going to see it now.”

Katherine could barely speak. “You… you built me a lab?”

“It’s my job. The Smithsonian was established to advance scientific knowledge. As secretary, I must take that charge seriously. I believe the experiments you’ve proposed have the potential to push the boundaries of science into uncharted territory.” Peter stopped and looked her squarely in the eyes. “Whether or not you were my sister, I would feel obliged to support this research. Your ideas are brilliant. The world deserves to see where they lead.”

“Peter, I can’t possibly —”

“Okay, relax… it was my own money, and nobody’s using Pod Five right now. When you’re done with your experiments, you’ll move out. Besides, Pod Five has some unique properties that will be perfect for your work.”

Katherine could not imagine what a massive, empty pod might offer that would serve her research, but she sensed she was about to find out. They had just reached a steel door with boldly stenciled letters:

POD 5

Her brother inserted his key card into a slot and an electronic keypad lit up. He raised his finger to type his access code, but paused, arching his eyebrows in the same mischievous way he always had as a boy. “You sure you’re ready?”

She nodded. My brother, always the showman.

“Stand back.” Peter hit the keys.

The steel door hissed loudly open.

Beyond the threshold was only inky blackness… a yawning void. A hollow moan seemed to echo out of the depths. Katherine felt a cold blast of air emanating from within. It was like staring into the Grand Canyon at night.

“Picture an empty airline hangar waiting for a fleet of Airbuses,” her brother said, “and you get the basic idea.”

Katherine felt herself take a step backward.

“The pod itself is far too voluminous to be heated, but your lab is a thermally insulated cinder-block room, roughly a cube, located in the farthest corner of the pod for maximum separation.”

Katherine tried to picture it. A box inside a box. She strained to see into the darkness, but it was absolute. “How far back?”

“Pretty far… a football field would fit easily in here. I should warn you, though, the walk is a little unnerving. It’s exceptionally dark.”

Katherine peered tentatively around the corner. “No light switch?”

“Pod Five is not yet wired for electricity.”

“But… then how can a lab function?”

He winked. “Hydrogen fuel cell.”

Katherine’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Enough clean power to run a small town. Your lab enjoys full radio-frequency separation from the rest of the building. What’s more, all pod exteriors are sealed with photo-resistant membranes to protect the artifacts inside from solar radiation. Essentially, this pod is a sealed, energy-neutral environment.”

Katherine was starting to comprehend the appeal of Pod 5. Because much of her work centered on quantifying previously unknown energy fields, her experiments needed to be performed in a location isolated from any extraneous radiation or “white noise.” This included interference as subtle as “brain radiation” or “thought emissions” generated by people nearby. For this reason, a university campus or hospital lab wouldn’t work, but a deserted pod at the SMSC could not have been more perfect.

“Let’s go back and have a look.” Her brother was grinning as he stepped into the vast darkness. “Just follow me.”

Katherine stalled at the threshold. Over a hundred yards in total darkness? She wanted to suggest a flashlight, but her brother had already disappeared into the abyss.

“Peter?” she called.

“Leap of faith,” he called back, his voice already fading away. “You’ll find your way. Trust me.”

He’s kidding, right? Katherine’s heart was pounding as she stepped a few feet over the threshold, trying to peer into the darkness. I can’t see a thing! Suddenly the steel door hissed and slammed shut behind her, plunging her into total blackness. Not a speck of light anywhere. “Peter?!”

Silence.

You’ll find your way. Trust me.

Tentative, she inched forward blindly. Leap of faith? Katherine could not even see her hand directly in front of her face. She kept moving forward, but within a matter of seconds, she was entirely lost. Where am I going?

That was three years ago.

Now, as Katherine arrived at the same heavy metal door, she realized how far she had come since that first night. Her lab — nicknamed the Cube — had become her home, a sanctuary within the depths of Pod 5. Exactly as her brother had predicted, she had found her way through the darkness that night, and every day since — thanks to an ingeniously simple guidance system that her brother had let her discover for herself.

Far more important, her brother’s other prediction had come true as well: Katherine’s experiments had produced astonishing results, particularly in the last six months, breakthroughs that would alter entire paradigms of thinking. Katherine and her brother had agreed to keep her results absolutely secret until the implications were more fully understood. One day soon, however, Katherine knew she would publish some of the most transformative scientific revelations in human history.

A secret lab in a secret museum, she thought, inserting her key card into the Pod 5 door. The keypad lit up, and Katherine typed her PIN.

The steel door hissed open.

The familiar hollow moan was accompanied by the same blast of cold air. As always, Katherine felt her pulse rate start to climb.

Strangest commute on earth.

Steeling herself for the journey, Katherine Solomon glanced at her watch as she stepped into the void. Tonight, however, a troubled thought followed her inside. Where is Peter?

CHAPTER 12

Capitol police chief Trent Anderson had overseen security in the U.S. Capitol Complex for over a decade. A burly, square-chested man with a chiseled face and red hair, he kept his hair cropped in a buzz cut, giving him an air of military authority. He wore a visible sidearm as a warning to anyone foolish enough to question the extent of his authority.

Anderson spent the majority of his time coordinating his small army of police officers from a high-tech surveillance center in the basement of the Capitol. Here he oversaw a staff of technicians who watched visual monitors, computer readouts, and a telephone switchboard that kept him in contact with the many security personnel he commanded.

This evening had been unusually quiet, and Anderson was pleased. He had been hoping to catch a bit of the Redskins game on the flat-panel television in his office. The game had just kicked off when his intercom buzzed.

“Chief?”

Anderson groaned and kept his eyes on the television as he pressed the button. “Yeah.”

“We’ve got some kind of disturbance in the Rotunda. I’ve got officers arriving now, but I think you’ll want to have a look.”

“Right.” Anderson walked into the security nerve center — a compact, neomodern facility packed with computer monitors. “What have you got?”

The technician was cueing a digital video clip on his monitor. “Rotunda east balcony camera. Twenty seconds ago.” He played the clip.

Anderson watched over the technician’s shoulder.

The Rotunda was almost deserted today, dotted with just a few tourists. Anderson’s trained eye went immediately to the one person who was alone and moving faster than all the others. Shaved head. Green army-surplus jacket. Injured arm in a sling. Slight limp. Slouched posture. Talking on a cell phone.

The bald man’s footfalls echoed crisply on the audio feed until, suddenly, arriving at the exact center of the Rotunda, he stopped short, ended his phone call, and then knelt down as if to tie his shoe. But instead of tying a shoe, he pulled something out of his sling and set it on the floor. Then he stood up and limped briskly toward the east exit.

Anderson eyed the oddly shaped object the man had left behind. What in the world? It was about eight inches tall and standing vertically. Anderson crouched closer to the screen and squinted. That can’t be what it looks like!

As the bald man hurried off, disappearing through the east portico, a little boy nearby could be heard saying, “Mommy, that man dropped something.” The boy drifted toward the object but suddenly stopped short. After a long, motionless beat, he pointed and let out a deafening scream.

Instantly, the police chief spun and ran for the door, barking orders as he went. “Radio all points! Find the bald guy with the sling and detain him! NOW!”

Dashing out of the security center, he bounded up the treads of the well-worn staircase three at a time. The security feed had shown the bald man with the sling leave the Rotunda via the east portico. The shortest route out of the building would therefore take him through the east-west corridor, which was just ahead.

I can head him off.

As he reached the top of the stairs and rounded the corner, Anderson surveyed the quiet hallway before him. An elderly couple strolled at the far end, hand in hand. Nearby, a blond tourist wearing a blue blazer was reading a guidebook and studying the mosaic ceiling outside the House chamber.

“Excuse me, sir!” Anderson barked, running toward him. “Have you seen a bald man with a sling on his arm?”

The man looked up from his book with a confused expression.

“A bald man with a sling!” Anderson repeated more firmly. “Have you seen him?”

The tourist hesitated and glanced nervously toward the far eastern end of the hallway. “Uh… yes,” he said. “I think he just ran past me… to that staircase over there.” He pointed down the hall.

Anderson pulled out his radio and yelled into it. “All points! The suspect is headed for the southeast exit. Converge!” He stowed the radio and yanked his sidearm from its holster, running toward the exit.

Thirty seconds later, at a quiet exit on the east side of the Capitol, the powerfully built blond man in the blue blazer stepped into the damp night air. He smiled, savoring the coolness of the evening.

Transformation.

It had been so easy.

Only a minute ago he had limped quickly out of the Rotunda in an army-surplus coat. Stepping into a darkened alcove, he shed his coat, revealing the blue blazer he wore underneath. Before abandoning his surplus jacket, he pulled a blond wig from the pocket and fit it snugly on his head. Then he stood up straight, pulled a slim Washington guidebook from his blazer, and stepped calmly from the niche with an elegant gait.

Transformation. This is my gift.

As Mal’akh’s mortal legs carried him toward his waiting limousine, he arched his back, standing to his full six-foot-three height and throwing back his shoulders. He inhaled deeply, letting the air fill his lungs. He could feel the wings of the tattooed phoenix on his chest opening wide.

If they only knew my power, he thought, gazing out at the city. Tonight my transformation will be complete.

Mal’akh had played his cards artfully within the Capitol Building, showing obeisance to all the ancient etiquettes. The ancient invitation has been delivered. If Langdon had not yet grasped his role here tonight, soon he would.

CHAPTER 13

For Robert Langdon, the Capitol Rotunda — like St. Peter’s Basilica — always had a way of taking him by surprise. Intellectually, he knew the room was so large that the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it, but somehow the Rotunda always felt larger and more hallowed than he anticipated, as if there were spirits in the air. Tonight, however, there was only chaos.

Capitol police officers were sealing the Rotunda while attempting to herd distraught tourists away from the hand. The little boy was still crying. A bright light flashed — a tourist taking a photo of the hand — and several guards immediately detained the man, taking his camera and escorting him off. In the confusion, Langdon felt himself moving forward in a trance, slipping through the crowd, inching closer to the hand.

Peter Solomon’s severed right hand was standing upright, the flat plane of the detached wrist skewered down onto the spike of a small wooden stand. Three of the fingers were closed in a fist, while the thumb and index finger were fully extended, pointing up toward the soaring dome.

“Everyone back!” an officer called.

Langdon was close enough now that he could see dried blood, which had run down from the wrist and coagulated on the wooden base. Postmortem wounds don’t bleed… which means Peter is alive. Langdon didn’t know whether to be relieved or nauseated. Peter’s hand was removed while he was alive? Bile rose in his throat. He thought of all the times his dear friend had extended this same hand to shake Langdon’s or offer a warm embrace.

For several seconds, Langdon felt his mind go blank, like an untuned television set broadcasting only static. The first clear image that broke through was utterly unexpected.

A crown… and a star.

Langdon crouched down, eyeing the tips of Peter’s thumb and index finger.

Tattoos? Incredibly, the monster who had done this appeared to have tattooed tiny symbols on Peter’s fingertips.

On the thumb — a crown. On the index finger — a star.

This can’t be. The two symbols registered instantly in Langdon’s mind, amplifying this already horrific scene into something almost otherworldly. These symbols had appeared together many times in history, and always in the same place — on the fingertips of a hand. It was one of the ancient world’s most coveted and secretive icons.

The Hand of the Mysteries.

The icon was rarely seen anymore, but throughout history it had symbolized a powerful call to action. Langdon strained to comprehend the grotesque artifact now before him. Someone crafted the Hand of the Mysteries out of Peter’s hand? It was unthinkable. Traditionally, the icon was sculpted in stone or wood or rendered as a drawing. Langdon had never heard of the Hand of the Mysteries being fashioned from actual flesh. The concept was abhorrent.

“Sir?” a guard said behind Langdon. “Please step back.”

Langdon barely heard him. There are other tattoos. Although he could not see the fingertips of the three clenched fingers, Langdon knew these fingertips would bear their own unique markings. That was the tradition. Five symbols in total. Through the millennia, the symbols on the fingertips of the Hand of the Mysteries had never changed… nor had the hand’s iconic purpose.

The hand represents… an invitation.

Langdon felt a sudden chill as he recalled the words of the man who had

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