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Pope suffers stroke.

Dies in sleep.

"In addition," Olivetti said, "the Sistine Chapel is a fortress. Although we don’t advertise the fact, the structure is heavily reinforced and can repel any attack short of missiles. As preparation we searched every inch of the chapel this afternoon, scanning for bugs and other surveillance equipment. The chapel is clean, a safe haven, and I am confident the antimatter is not inside. There is no safer place those men can be right now. We can always discuss emergency evacuation later if it comes to that."

Langdon was impressed. Olivetti’s cold, smart logic reminded him of Kohler.

"Commander," Vittoria said, her voice tense, "there are other concerns. Nobody has ever created this much antimatter. The blast radius, I can only estimate. Some of surrounding Rome may be in danger. If the canister is in one of your central buildings or underground, the effect outside these walls may be minimal, but if the canister is near the perimeter… in this building for example…" She glanced warily out the window at the crowd in St. Peter’s Square.

"I am well aware of my responsibilities to the outside world," Olivetti replied, "and it makes this situation no more grave. The protection of this sanctuary has been my sole charge for over two decades. I have no intention of allowing this weapon to detonate."

Camerlegno Ventresca looked up. "You think you can find it?"

"Let me discuss our options with some of my surveillance specialists. There is a possibility, if we kill power to Vatican City, that we can eliminate the background RF and create a clean enough environment to get a reading on that canister’s magnetic field."

Vittoria looked surprised, and then impressed. "You want to black out Vatican City?"

"Possibly. I don’t yet know if it’s possible, but it is one option I want to explore."

"The cardinals would certainly wonder what happened," Vittoria remarked.

Olivetti shook his head. "Conclaves are held by candlelight. The cardinals would never know. After conclave is sealed, I could pull all except a few of my perimeter guards and begin a search. A hundred men could cover a lot of ground in five hours."

"Four hours," Vittoria corrected. "I need to fly the canister back to CERN. Detonation is unavoidable without recharging the batteries."

"There’s no way to recharge here?"

Vittoria shook her head. "The interface is complex. I’d have brought it if I could."

"Four hours then," Olivetti said, frowning. "Still time enough. Panic serves no one. Signore, you have ten minutes. Go to the chapel, seal conclave. Give my men some time to do their job. As we get closer to the critical hour, we will make the critical decisions."

Langdon wondered how close to "the critical hour" Olivetti would let things get.

The camerlegno looked troubled. "But the college will ask about the preferiti… especially about Baggia… where they are."



"Then you will have to think of something, signore. Tell them you served the four cardinals something at tea that disagreed with them."

The camerlegno looked riled. "Stand on the altar of the Sistine Chapel and lie to the College of Cardinals?"

"For their own safety. Una bugia veniale. A white lie. Your job will be to keep the peace." Olivetti headed for the door. "Now if you will excuse me, I need to get started."

"Comandante," the camerlegno urged, "we cannot simply turn our backs on missing cardinals."

Olivetti stopped in the doorway. "Baggia and the others are currently outside our sphere of influence. We must let them go… for the good of the whole. The military calls it triage."

"Don’t you mean abandonment?"

His voice hardened. "If there were any way, signore… any way in heaven to locate those four cardinals, I would lay down my life to do it. And yet…" He pointed across the room at the window where the early evening sun glinted off an endless sea of Roman rooftops. "Searching a city of five million is not within my power. I will not waste precious time to appease my conscience in a futile exercise. I’m sorry."

Vittoria spoke suddenly. "But if we caught the killer, couldn’t you make him talk?"

Olivetti frowned at her. "Soldiers cannot afford to be saints, Ms. Vetra. Believe me, I empathize with your personal incentive to catch this man."

"It’s not only personal," she said. "The killer knows where the antimatter is… and the missing cardinals. If we could somehow find him…"

"Play into their hands?" Olivetti said. "Believe me, removing all protection from Vatican City in order to stake out hundreds of churches is what the Illuminati hope we will do… wasting precious time and manpower when we should be searching… or worse yet, leaving the Vatican Bank totally unprotected. Not to mention the remaining cardinals."

The point hit home.

"How about the Roman Police?" the camerlegno asked. "We could alert citywide enforcement of the crisis. Enlist their help in finding the cardinals’ captor."

"Another mistake," Olivetti said. "You know how the Roman Carbonieri feel about us. We’d get a half‑hearted effort of a few men in exchange for their selling our crisis to the global media. Exactly what our enemies want. We’ll have to deal with the media soon enough as it is."

I will make your cardinals media luminaries, Langdon thought, recalling the killer’s words. The first cardinal’s body appears at eight o’clock. Then one every hour. The press will love it.

The camerlegno was talking again, a trace of anger in his voice. "Commander, we cannot in good conscience do nothing about the missing cardinals!"

Olivetti looked the camerlegno dead in the eye. "The prayer of St. Francis, signore. Do you recall it?"

The young priest spoke the single line with pain in his voice. "God, grant me strength to accept those things I cannot change."

"Trust me," Olivetti said. "This is one of those things." Then he was gone.

 

 

 

The central office of the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) is in London just west of Piccadilly Circus. The switchboard phone rang, and a junior content editor picked up.

"BBC," she said, stubbing out her Dunhill cigarette.

The voice on the line was raspy, with a Mid‑East accent. "I have a breaking story your network might be interested in."

The editor took out a pen and a standard Lead Sheet. "Regarding?"

"The papal election."

She frowned wearily. The BBC had run a preliminary story yesterday to mediocre response. The public, it seemed, had little interest in Vatican City. "What’s the angle?"

"Do you have a TV reporter in Rome covering the election?"

"I believe so."

"I need to speak to him directly."

"I’m sorry, but I cannot give you that number without some idea–"

"There is a threat to the conclave. That is all I can tell you."

The editor took notes. "Your name?"

"My name is immaterial."

The editor was not surprised. "And you have proof of this claim?"

"I do."

"I would be happy to take the information, but it is not our policy to give out our reporters’ numbers unless–"

"I understand. I will call another network. Thank you for your time. Good‑b–"

"Just a moment," she said. "Can you hold?"

The editor put the caller on hold and stretched her neck. The art of screening out potential crank calls was by no means a perfect science, but this caller had just passed the BBC’s two tacit tests for authenticity of a phone source. He had refused to give his name, and he was eager to get off the phone. Hacks and glory hounds usually whined and pleaded.

Fortunately for her, reporters lived in eternal fear of missing the big story, so they seldom chastised her for passing along the occasional delusional psychotic. Wasting five minutes of a reporter’s time was forgivable. Missing a headline was not.

Yawning, she looked at her computer and typed in the keywords "Vatican City." When she saw the name of the field reporter covering the papal election, she chuckled to herself. He was a new guy the BBC had just brought up from some trashy London tabloid to handle some of the BBC’s more mundane coverage. Editorial had obviously started him at the bottom rung.

He was probably bored out of his mind, waiting all night to record his live ten‑second video spot. He would most likely be grateful for a break in the monotony.

The BBC content editor copied down the reporter’s satellite extension in Vatican City. Then, lighting another cigarette, she gave the anonymous caller the reporter’s number.

 

 

 

"It won’t work," Vittoria said, pacing the Pope’s office. She looked up at the camerlegno. "Even if a Swiss Guard team can filter electronic interference, they will have to be practically on top of the canister before they detect any signal. And that’s if the canister is even accessible… unenclosed by other barriers. What if it’s buried in a metal box somewhere on your grounds? Or up in a metal ventilating duct. There’s no way they’ll trace it. And what if the Swiss Guards have been infiltrated? Who’s to say the search will be clean?"

The camerlegno looked drained. "What are you proposing, Ms. Vetra?"

Vittoria felt flustered. Isn’t it obvious? "I am proposing, sir, that you take other precautions immediately. We can hope against all hope that the commander’s search is successful. At the same time, look out the window. Do you see those people? Those buildings across the piazza? Those media vans? The tourists? They are quite possibly within range of the blast. You need to act now."

The camerlegno nodded vacantly.

Vittoria felt frustrated. Olivetti had convinced everyone there was plenty of time. But Vittoria knew if news of the Vatican predicament leaked out, the entire area could fill with onlookers in a matter of minutes. She had seen it once outside the Swiss Parliament building. During a hostage situation involving a bomb, thousands had congregated outside the building to witness the outcome. Despite police warnings that they were in danger, the crowd packed in closer and closer. Nothing captured human interest like human tragedy.

"Signore," Vittoria urged, "the man who killed my father is out there somewhere. Every cell in this body wants to run from here and hunt him down. But I am standing in your office… because I have a responsibility to you. To you and others. Lives are in danger, signore. Do you hear me?"

The camerlegno did not answer.

Vittoria could hear her own heart racing. Why couldn’t the Swiss Guard trace that damn caller? The Illuminati assassin is the key! He knows where the antimatter ishell, he knows where the cardinals are! Catch the killer, and everything is solved.

Vittoria sensed she was starting to come unhinged, an alien distress she recalled only faintly from childhood, the orphanage years, frustration with no tools to handle it. You have tools, she told herself, you always have tools. But it was no use. Her thoughts intruded, strangling her. She was a researcher and problem solver. But this was a problem with no solution. What data do you require? What do you want? She told herself to breathe deeply, but for the first time in her life, she could not. She was suffocating.

Langdon’s head ached, and he felt like he was skirting the edges of rationality. He watched Vittoria and the camerlegno, but his vision was blurred by hideous images: explosions, press swarming, cameras rolling, four branded humans.

ShaitanLuciferBringer of lightSatan

He shook the fiendish images from his mind. Calculated terrorism, he reminded himself, grasping at reality. Planned chaos. He thought back to a Radcliffe seminar he had once audited while researching praetorian symbolism. He had never seen terrorists the same way since.

"Terrorism," the professor had lectured, "has a singular goal. What is it?"

"Killing innocent people?" a student ventured.

"Incorrect. Death is only a byproduct of terrorism."

"A show of strength?"

"No. A weaker persuasion does not exist."

"To cause terror?"

"Concisely put. Quite simply, the goal of terrorism is to create terror and fear. Fear undermines faith in the establishment. It weakens the enemy from within… causing unrest in the masses. Write this down. Terrorism is not an expression of rage. Terrorism is a political weapon. Remove a government’s façade of infallibility, and you remove its people’s faith."

Loss of faith

Is that what this was all about? Langdon wondered how Christians of the world would react to cardinals being laid out like mutilated dogs. If the faith of a canonized priest did not protect him from the evils of Satan, what hope was there for the rest of us? Langdon’s head was pounding louder now… tiny voices playing tug of war.

Faith does not protect you. Medicine and airbagsthose are things that protect you. God does not protect you. Intelligence protects you. Enlightenment. Put your faith in something with tangible results. How long has it been since someone walked on water? Modern miracles belong to sciencecomputers, vaccines, space stationseven the divine miracle of creation. Matter from nothingin a lab. Who needs God? No! Science is God.

The killer’s voice resonated in Langdon’s mind. Midnightmathematical progression of deathsacrifici vergini nell’ altare di scienza."

Then suddenly, like a crowd dispersed by a single gunshot, the voices were gone.

Robert Langdon bolted to his feet. His chair fell backward and crashed on the marble floor.

Vittoria and the camerlegno jumped.

"I missed it," Langdon whispered, spellbound. "It was right in front of me…"

"Missed what?" Vittoria demanded.

Langdon turned to the priest. "Father, for three years I have petitioned this office for access to the Vatican Archives. I have been denied seven times."

"Mr. Langdon, I am sorry, but this hardly seems the moment to raise such complaints."

"I need access immediately. The four missing cardinals. I may be able to figure out where they’re going to be killed."

Vittoria stared, looking certain she had misunderstood.

The camerlegno looked troubled, as if he were the brunt of a cruel joke. "You expect me to believe this information is in our archives?"

"I can’t promise I can locate it in time, but if you let me in…"

"Mr. Langdon, I am due in the Sistine Chapel in four minutes. The archives are across Vatican City."

"You’re serious aren’t you?" Vittoria interrupted, staring deep into Langdon’s eyes, seeming to sense his earnestness.

"Hardly a joking time," Langdon said.

"Father," Vittoria said, turning to the camerlegno, "if there’s a chance… any at all of finding where these killings are going to happen, we could stake out the locations and–"

"But the archives?" the camerlegno insisted. "How could they possibly contain any clue?"

"Explaining it," Langdon said, "will take longer than you’ve got. But if I’m right, we can use the information to catch the Hassassin."

The camerlegno looked as though he wanted to believe but somehow could not. "Christianity’s most sacred codices are in that archive. Treasures I myself am not privileged enough to see."

"I am aware of that."

"Access is permitted only by written decree of the curator and the Board of Vatican Librarians."

"Or," Langdon declared, "by papal mandate. It says so in every rejection letter your curator ever sent me."

The camerlegno nodded.

"Not to be rude," Langdon urged, "but if I’m not mistaken a papal mandate comes from this office. As far as I can tell, tonight you hold the trust of his station. Considering the circumstances…"

The camerlegno pulled a pocket watch from his cassock and looked at it. "Mr. Langdon, I am prepared to give my life tonight, quite literally, to save this church."

Langdon sensed nothing but truth in the man’s eyes.

"This document," the camerlegno said, "do you truly believe it is here? And that it can help us locate these four churches?"

"I would not have made countless solicitations for access if I were not convinced. Italy is a bit far to come on a lark when you make a teacher’s salary. The document you have is an ancient–"

"Please," the camerlegno interrupted. "Forgive me. My mind cannot process any more details at the moment. Do you know where the secret archives are located?"

Langdon felt a rush of excitement. "Just behind the Santa Ana Gate."

"Impressive. Most scholars believe it is through the secret door behind St. Peter’s Throne."

"No. That would be the Archivio della Reverenda di Fabbrica di S. Pietro. A common misconception."

"A librarian docent accompanies every entrant at all times. Tonight, the docents are gone. What you are requesting is carte blanche access. Not even our cardinals enter alone."

"I will treat your treasures with the utmost respect and care. Your librarians will find not a trace that I was there."

Overhead the bells of St. Peter’s began to toll. The camerlegno checked his pocket watch. "I must go." He paused a taut moment and looked up at Langdon. "I will have a Swiss Guard meet you at the archives. I am giving you my trust, Mr. Langdon. Go now."

Langdon was speechless.

The young priest now seemed to possess an eerie poise. Reaching over, he squeezed Langdon’s shoulder with surprising strength. "I want you to find what you are looking for. And find it quickly."

 

 

 

 

The Secret Vatican Archives are located at the far end of the Borgia Courtyard directly up a hill from the Gate of Santa Ana. They contain over 20,000 volumes and are rumored to hold such treasures as Leonardo da Vinci’s missing diaries and even unpublished books of the Holy Bible.

Langdon strode powerfully up the deserted Via della Fondamenta toward the archives, his mind barely able to accept that he was about to be granted access. Vittoria was at his side, keeping pace effortlessly. Her almond‑scented hair tossed lightly in the breeze, and Langdon breathed it in. He felt his thoughts straying and reeled himself back.

Vittoria said, "You going to tell me what we’re looking for?"

"A little book written by a guy named Galileo."

She sounded surprised. "You don’t mess around. What’s in it?"

"It is supposed to contain something called il segno."

"The sign?"

"Sign, clue, signal… depends on your translation."

"Sign to what?"

Langdon picked up the pace. "A secret location. Galileo’s Illuminati needed to protect themselves from the Vatican, so they founded an ultrasecret Illuminati meeting place here in Rome. They called it The Church of Illumination."

"Pretty bold calling a satanic lair a church."

Langdon shook his head. "Galileo’s Illuminati were not the least bit satanic. They were scientists who revered enlightenment. Their meeting place was simply where they could safely congregate and discuss topics forbidden by the Vatican. Although we know the secret lair existed, to this day nobody has ever located it."

"Sounds like the Illuminati know how to keep a secret."

"Absolutely. In fact, they never revealed the location of their hideaway to anyone outside the brotherhood. This secrecy protected them, but it also posed a problem when it came to recruiting new members."

"They couldn’t grow if they couldn’t advertise," Vittoria said, her legs and mind keeping perfect pace.

"Exactly. Word of Galileo’s brotherhood started to spread in the 1630s, and scientists from around the world made secret pilgrimages to Rome hoping to join the Illuminati… eager for a chance to look through Galileo’s telescope and hear the master’s ideas. Unfortunately, though, because of the Illuminati’s secrecy, scientists arriving in Rome never knew where to go for the meetings or to whom they could safely speak. The Illuminati wanted new blood, but they could not afford to risk their secrecy by making their whereabouts known."

Vittoria frowned. "Sounds like a situazione senza soluzione."

"Exactly. A catch‑22, as we would say."

"So what did they do?"

"They were scientists. They examined the problem and found a solution. A brilliant one, actually. The Illuminati created a kind of ingenious map directing scientists to their sanctuary."

Vittoria looked suddenly skeptical and slowed. "A map? Sounds careless. If a copy fell into the wrong hands…"

"It couldn’t," Langdon said. "No copies existed anywhere. It was not the kind of map that fit on paper. It was enormous. A blazed trail of sorts across the city."

Vittoria slowed even further. "Arrows painted on sidewalks?"

"In a sense, yes, but much more subtle. The map consisted of a series of carefully concealed symbolic markers placed in public locations around the city. One marker led to the next… and the next… a trail… eventually leading to the Illuminati lair."

Vittoria eyed him askance. "Sounds like a treasure hunt."

Langdon chuckled. "In a manner of speaking, it is. The Illuminati called their string of markers ‘The Path of Illumination,’ and anyone who wanted to join the brotherhood had to follow it all the way to the end. A kind of test."

"But if the Vatican wanted to find the Illuminati," Vittoria argued, "couldn’t they simply follow the markers?"

"No. The path was hidden. A puzzle, constructed in such a way that only certain people would have the ability to track the markers and figure out where the Illuminati church was hidden. The Illuminati intended it as a kind of initiation, functioning not only as a security measure but also as a screening process to ensure that only the brightest scientists arrived at their door."

"I don’t buy it. In the 1600s the clergy were some of the most educated men in the world. If these markers were in public locations, certainly there existed members of the Vatican who could have figured it out."

"Sure," Langdon said, "if they had known about the markers. But they didn’t. And they never noticed them because the Illuminati designed them in such a way that clerics would never suspect what they were. They used a method known in symbology as dissimulation."

"Camouflage."

Langdon was impressed. "You know the term."

"Dissimulacione," she said. "Nature’s best defense. Try spotting a trumpet fish floating vertically in seagrass."

"Okay," Langdon said. "The Illuminati used the same concept. They created markers that faded into the backdrop of ancient Rome. They couldn’t use ambigrams or scientific symbology because it would be far too conspicuous, so they called on an Illuminati artist–the same anonymous prodigy who had created their ambigrammatic symbol ‘Illuminati’–and they commissioned him to carve four sculptures."

"Illuminati sculptures?"

"Yes, sculptures with two strict guidelines. First, the sculptures had to look like the rest of the artwork in Rome… artwork that the Vatican would never suspect belonged to the Illuminati."

"Religious art."

Langdon nodded, feeling a tinge of excitement, talking faster now. "And the second guideline was that the four sculptures had to have very specific themes. Each piece needed to be a subtle tribute to one of the four elements of science."

"Four elements?" Vittoria said. "There are over a hundred."

"Not in the 1600s," Langdon reminded her. "Early alchemists believed the entire universe was made up of only four substances: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water."

The early cross, Langdon knew, was the most common symbol of the four elements–four arms representing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Beyond that, though, there existed literally dozens of symbolic occurrences of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water throughout history–the Pythagorean cycles of life, the Chinese Hong‑Fan, the Jungian male and female rudiments, the quadrants of the Zodiac, even the Muslims revered the four ancient elements… although in Islam they were known as "squares, clouds, lightning, and waves." For Langdon, though, it was a more modern usage that always gave him chills–the Mason’s four mystic grades of Absolute Initiation: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

Vittoria seemed mystified. "So this Illuminati artist created four pieces of art that looked religious, but were actually tributes to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water?"

"Exactly," Langdon said, quickly turning up Via Sentinel toward the archives. "The pieces blended into the sea of religious artwork all over Rome. By donating the artwork anonymously to specific churches and then using their political influence, the brotherhood facilitated placement of these four pieces in carefully chosen churches in Rome. Each piece of course was a marker… subtly pointing to the next church… where the next marker awaited. It functioned as a trail of clues disguised as religious art. If an Illuminati candidate could find the first church and the marker for Earth, he could follow it to Air… and then to Fire… and then to Water… and finally to the Church of Illumination."

Vittoria was looking less and less clear. "And this has something to do with catching the Illuminati assassin?"

Langdon smiled as he played his ace. "Oh, yes. The Illuminati called these four churches by a very special name. The Altars of Science."

Vittoria frowned. "I’m sorry, that means noth–" She stopped short. "L’altare di scienza?" she exclaimed. "The Illuminati assassin. He warned that the cardinals would be virgin sacrifices on the altars of science!"

Langdon gave her a smile. "Four cardinals. Four churches. The four altars of science."

She looked stunned. "You’re saying the four churches where the cardinals will be sacrificed are the same four churches that mark the ancient Path of Illumination?"

"I believe so, yes."

"But why would the killer have given us that clue?"

"Why not?" Langdon replied. "Very few historians know about these sculptures. Even fewer believe they exist. And their locations have remained secret for four hundred years. No doubt the Illuminati trusted the secret for another five hours. Besides, the Illuminati don’t need their Path of Illumination anymore. Their secret lair is probably long gone anyway. They live in the modern world. They meet in bank boardrooms, eating clubs, private golf courses. Tonight they want to make their secrets public. This is their moment. Their grand unveiling."

Langdon feared the Illuminati unveiling would have a special symmetry to it that he had not yet mentioned. The four brands. The killer had sworn each cardinal would be branded with a different symbol. Proof the ancient legends are true, the killer had said. The legend of the four ambigrammatic brands was as old as the Illuminati itself: earth, air, fire, water–four words crafted in perfect symmetry. Just like the word Illuminati. Each cardinal was to be branded with one of the ancient elements of science. The rumor that the four brands were in English rather than Italian remained a point of debate among historians. English seemed a random deviation from their natural tongue… and the Illuminati did nothing randomly.

Langdon turned up the brick pathway before the archive building. Ghastly images thrashed in his mind. The overall Illuminati plot was starting to reveal its patient grandeur. The brotherhood had vowed to stay silent as long as it took, amassing enough influence and power that they could resurface without fear, make their stand, fight their cause in broad daylight. The Illuminati were no longer about hiding. They were about flaunting their power, confirming the conspiratorial myths as fact. Tonight was a global publicity stunt.

Vittoria said, "Here comes our escort." Langdon looked up to see a Swiss Guard hurrying across an adjacent lawn toward the front door.

When the guard saw them, he stopped in his tracks. He stared at them, as though he thought he was hallucinating. Without a word he turned away and pulled out his walkie‑talkie. Apparently incredulous at what he was being asked to do, the guard spoke urgently to the person on the other end. The angry bark coming back was indecipherable to Langdon, but its message was clear. The guard slumped, put away the walkie‑talkie, and turned to them with a look of discontent.

Not a word was spoken as the guard guided them into the building. They passed through four steel doors, two passkey entries, down a long stairwell, and into a foyer with two combination keypads. Passing through a high‑tech series of electronic gates, they arrived at the end of a long hallway outside a set of wide oak double doors. The guard stopped, looked them over again and, mumbling under his breath, walked to a metal box on the wall. He unlocked it, reached inside, and pressed a code. The doors before them buzzed, and the deadbolt fell open.

The guard turned, speaking to them for the first time. "The archives are beyond that door. I have been instructed to escort you this far and return for briefing on another matter."

"You’re leaving?" Vittoria demanded.

"Swiss Guards are not cleared for access to the Secret Archives. You are here only because my commander received a direct order from the camerlegno."

"But how do we get out?"

"Monodirectional security. You will have no difficulties." That being the entirety of the conversation, the guard spun on his heel and marched off down the hall.

Vittoria made some comment, but Langdon did not hear. His mind was fixed on the double doors before him, wondering what mysteries lay beyond.

 

 

 

Although he knew time was short, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca walked slowly. He needed the time alone to gather his thoughts before facing opening prayer. So much was happening. As he moved in dim solitude down the Northern Wing, the challenge of the past fifteen days weighed heavy in his bones.

He had followed his holy duties to the letter.

As was Vatican tradition, following the Pope’s death the camerlegno had personally confirmed expiration by placing his fingers on the Pope’s carotid artery, listening for breath, and then calling the Pope’s name three times. By law there was no autopsy. Then he had sealed the Pope’s bedroom, destroyed the papal fisherman’s ring, shattered the die used to make lead seals, and arranged for the funeral. That done, he began preparations for the conclave.

Conclave, he thought. The final hurdle. It was one of the oldest traditions in Christendom. Nowadays, because the outcome of conclave was usually known before it began, the process was criticized as obsolete–more of a burlesque than an election. The camerlegno knew, however, this was only a lack of understanding. Conclave was not an election. It was an ancient, mystic transference of power. The tradition was timeless… the secrecy, the folded slips of paper, the burning of the ballots, the mixing of ancient chemicals, the smoke signals.

As the camerlegno approached through the Loggias of Gregory XIII, he wondered if Cardinal Mortati was in a panic yet. Certainly Mortati had noticed the preferiti were missing. Without them, the voting would go on all night. Mortati’s appointment as the Great Elector, the camerlegno assured himself, was a good one. The man was a freethinker and could speak his mind. The conclave would need a leader tonight more than ever.

As the camerlegno arrived at the top of the Royal Staircase, he felt as though he were standing on the precipice of his life. Even from up here he could hear the rumble of activity in the Sistine Chapel below–the uneasy chatter of 165 cardinals.

One hundred sixty‑one cardinals, he corrected.

For an instant the camerlegno was falling, plummeting toward hell, people screaming, flames engulfing him, stones and blood raining from the sky.

And then silence.

When the child awoke, he was in heaven. Everything around him was white. The light was blinding and pure. Although some would say a ten year old could not possibly understand heaven, the young Carlo Ventresca understood heaven very well. He was in heaven right now. Where else would he be? Even in his short decade on earth Carlo had felt the majesty of God–the thundering pipe organs, the towering domes, the voices raised in song, the stained glass, shimmering bronze and gold. Carlo’s mother, Maria, brought him to Mass every day. The church was Carlo’s home.

"Why do we come to Mass every single day?" Carlo asked, not that he minded at all.

"Because I promised God I would," she replied. "And a promise to God is the most important promise of all. Never break a promise to God."

Carlo promised her he would never break a promise to God. He loved his mother more than anything in the world. She was his holy angel. Sometimes he called her Maria benedetta–the Blessed Mary–although she did not like that at all. He knelt with her as she prayed, smelling the sweet scent of her flesh and listening to the murmur of her voice as she counted the rosary. Hail Mary, Mother of Godpray for us sinnersnow and at the hour of our death.

"Where is my father?" Carlo asked, already knowing his father had died before he was born.

"God is your father, now," she would always reply. "You are a child of the church."

Carlo loved that.

"Whenever you feel frightened," she said, "remember that God is your father now. He will watch over you and protect you forever. God has big plans for you, Carlo." The boy knew she was right. He could already feel God in his blood.

Blood…

Blood raining from the sky!

Silence. Then heaven.

His heaven, Carlo learned as the blinding lights were turned off, was actually the Intensive Care Unit in Santa Clara Hospital outside of Palermo. Carlo had been the sole survivor of a terrorist bombing that had collapsed a chapel where he and his mother had been attending Mass while on vacation. Thirty‑seven people had died, including Carlo’s mother. The papers called Carlo’s survival The Miracle of St. Francis. Carlo had, for some unknown reason, only moments before the blast, left his mother’s side and ventured into a protected alcove to ponder a tapestry depicting the story of St. Francis.

God called me there, he decided. He wanted to save me.

Carlo was delirious with pain. He could still see his mother, kneeling at the pew, blowing him a kiss, and then with a concussive roar, her sweet‑smelling flesh was torn apart. He could still taste man’s evil. Blood showered down. His mother’s blood! The blessed Maria!

God will watch over you and protect you forever, his mother had told him.

But where was God now!

Then, like a worldly manifestation of his mother’s truth, a clergyman had come to the hospital. He was not any clergyman. He was a bishop. He prayed over Carlo. The Miracle of St. Francis. When Carlo recovered, the bishop arranged for him to live in a small monastery attached to the cathedral over which the bishop presided. Carlo lived and tutored with the monks. He even became an altar boy for his new protector. The bishop suggested Carlo enter public school, but Carlo refused. He could not have been more happy with his new home. He now truly lived in the house of God.

Every night Carlo prayed for his mother.

God saved me for a reason, he thought. What is the reason?

When Carlo turned sixteen, he was obliged by Italian law to serve two years of reserve military training. The bishop told Carlo that if he entered seminary he would be exempt from this duty. Carlo told the priest that he planned to enter seminary but that first he needed to understand evil.

The bishop did not understand.

Carlo told him that if he was going to spend his life in the church fighting evil, first he had to understand it. He could not think of any better place to understand evil than in the army. The army used guns and bombs. A bomb killed my Blessed mother!

The bishop tried to dissuade him, but Carlo’s mind was made up.

"Be careful, my son," the bishop had said. "And remember the church awaits you when you return."

Carlo’s two years of military service had been dreadful. Carlo’s youth had been one of silence and reflection. But in the army there was no quiet for reflection. Endless noise. Huge machines everywhere. Not a moment of peace. Although the soldiers went to Mass once a week at the barracks, Carlo did not sense God’s presence in any of his fellow soldiers. Their minds were too filled with chaos to see God.

Carlo hated his new life and wanted to go home. But he was determined to stick it out. He had yet to understand evil. He refused to fire a gun, so the military taught him how to fly a medical helicopter. Carlo hated the noise and the smell, but at least it let him fly up in the sky and be closer to his mother in heaven. When he was informed his pilot’s training included learning how to parachute, Carlo was terrified. Still, he had no choice.

God will protect me, he told himself.

Carlo’s first parachute jump was the most exhilarating physical experience of his life. It was like flying with God. Carlo could not get enough… the silence… the floating… seeing his mother’s face in the billowing white clouds as he soared to earth. God has plans for you, Carlo. When he returned from the military, Carlo entered the seminary.

That had been twenty‑three years ago.

Now, as Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca descended the Royal Staircase, he tried to comprehend the chain of events that had delivered him to this extraordinary crossroads.

Abandon all fear, he told himself, and give this night over to God.

He could see the great bronze door of the Sistine Chapel now, dutifully protected by four Swiss Guards. The guards unbolted the door and pulled it open. Inside, every head turned. The camerlegno gazed out at the black robes and red sashes before him. He understood what God’s plans for him were. The fate of the church had been placed in his hands.

The camerlegno crossed himself and stepped over the threshold.

 

 

 

BBC journalist Gunther Glick sat sweating in the BBC network van parked on the eastern edge of St. Peter’s Square and cursed his assignment editor. Although Glick’s first monthly review had come back filled with superlatives–resourceful, sharp, dependable–here he was in Vatican City on "Pope‑Watch." He reminded himself that reporting for the BBC carried a hell of a lot more credibility than fabricating fodder for the British Tattler, but still, this was not his idea of reporting.

Glick’s assignment was simple. Insultingly simple. He was to sit here waiting for a bunch of old farts to elect their next chief old fart, then he was to step outside and record a fifteen‑second "live" spot with the Vatican as a backdrop.

Brilliant.

Glick couldn’t believe the BBC still sent reporters into the field to cover this schlock. You don’t see the American networks here tonight. Hell no! That was because the big boys did it right. They watched CNN, synopsized it, and then filmed their "live" report in front of a blue screen, superimposing stock video for a realistic backdrop. MSNBC even used in‑studio wind and rain machines to give that on‑the‑scene authenticity. Viewers didn’t want truth anymore; they wanted entertainment.

Glick gazed out through the windshield and felt more and more depressed by the minute. The imperial mountain of Vatican City rose before him as a dismal reminder of what men could accomplish when they put their minds to it.

"What have I accomplished in my life?" he wondered aloud. "Nothing."

"So give up," a woman’s voice said from behind him.

Glick jumped. He had almost forgotten he was not alone. He turned to the back seat, where his camerawoman, Chinita Macri, sat silently polishing her glasses. She was always polishing her glasses. Chinita was black, although she preferred African American, a little heavy, and smart as hell. She wouldn’t let you forget it either. She was an odd bird, but Glick liked her. And Glick could sure as hell use the company.

"What’s the problem, Gunth?" Chinita asked.

"What are we doing here?"

She kept polishing. "Witnessing an exciting event."

"Old men locked in the dark is exciting?"

"You do know you’re going to hell, don’t you?"

"Already there."

"Talk to me." She sounded like his mother.

"I just feel like I want to leave my mark."

"You wrote for the British Tattler."

"Yeah, but nothing with any resonance."

"Oh, come on, I heard you did a groundbreaking article on the queen’s secret sex life with aliens."

"Thanks."

"Hey, things are looking up. Tonight you make your first fifteen seconds of TV history."

Glick groaned. He could hear the news anchor already. "Thanks Gunther, great report." Then the anchor would roll his eyes and move on to the weather. "I should have tried for an anchor spot."

Macri laughed. "With no experience? And that beard? Forget it."

Glick ran his hands through the reddish gob of hair on his chin. "I think it makes me look clever."

The van’s cell phone rang, mercifully interrupting yet another one of Glick’s failures. "Maybe that’s editorial," he said, suddenly hopeful. "You think they want a live update?"

"On this story?" Macri laughed. "You keep dreaming."

Glick answered the phone in his best anchorman voice. "Gunther Glick, BBC, Live in Vatican City."

The man on the line had a thick Arabic accent. "Listen carefully," he said. "I am about to change your life."

 

 

 

Langdon and Vittoria stood alone now outside the double doors that led to the inner sanctum of the Secret Archives. The decor in the colonnade was an incongruous mix of wall‑to‑wall carpets over marble floors and wireless security cameras gazing down from beside carved cherubs in the ceiling. Langdon dubbed it Sterile Renaissance. Beside the arched ingress hung a small bronze plaque.

 

ARCHIVIO VATICANO


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 875


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