INFERNO 03

FOR AN INSTANT, Langdon felt as if time had stopped.
Dr. Marconi lay motionless on the floor, blood gushing from his chest. Fighting the sedatives in his system, Langdon raised his eyes to the spikehaired assassin, who was still striding down the hall, covering the last few yards toward his open door. As she neared the threshold, she looked toward Langdon and instantly swung her weapon in his direction … aiming at his head.
I’m going to die, Langdon realized.
Here and now.
The bang was deafening in the small hospital room.
Langdon recoiled, certain he had been shot, but the noise had not been the attacker’s gun. Rather, the bang had been the slam of the room’s heavy metal door as Dr. Brooks threw herself against it and turned the lock.
Eyes wild with fear, Dr. Brooks immediately spun and crouched beside her blood-soaked colleague, searching for a pulse. Dr. Marconi coughed up a mouthful of blood, which dribbled down his cheek across his thick beard. Then he fell limp.
              “Enrico, no! Ti prego!”          she
screamed.
Outside, a barrage of bullets exploded against the metal exterior of the door. Shouts of alarm filled the hall.
Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.
Langdon was now fully awake.
Crouched beside Marconi’s body, Dr. Brooks kept searching for a pulse as tears welled in her eyes. Then, as if a switch had been flipped inside her, she stood and turned to Langdon. Her expression transformed before his eyes, her young features hardening with all the detached composure of a seasoned ER doctor dealing with a crisis.
“Follow me,” she commanded.
Dr. Brooks grabbed Langdon’s arm and pulled him across the room. The sounds of gunfire and chaos continued in the hallway as Langdon lurched forward on unstable legs. His mind felt alert but his heavily drugged body was slow to respond. Move! The tile floor felt cold beneath his feet, and his thin hospital johnny was scarcely long enough to cover his six-foot frame. He could feel blood dripping down his forearm and pooling in his palm.
Bullets continued to slam against the heavy doorknob, and Dr. Brooks pushed Langdon roughly into a small bathroom. She was about to follow when she paused, turned around, and ran back toward the counter and grabbed his bloody Harris Tweed.
Forget my damned jacket!
She returned clutching his jacket and quickly locked the bathroom door. Just then, the door in the outer room crashed open.
The young doctor took control. She strode through the tiny bathroom to a second door, yanked it open, and led Langdon into an adjoining recovery room. Gunfire echoed behind them as Dr. Brooks stuck her head out into the hallway and quickly grabbed Langdon’s arm, pulling him across the corridor into a stairwell. The sudden motion made Langdon dizzy; he sensed that he could pass out at any moment.
The next fifteen seconds were a blur … descending stairs … stumbling … falling. The pounding in Langdon’s head was almost unbearable. His vision seemed even more blurry now, and his muscles were sluggish, each movement feeling like a delayed reaction.
And then the air grew cold.
I’m outside.
As Dr. Brooks hustled him along a dark alley away from the building, Langdon stepped on something sharp and fell, hitting the pavement hard. She struggled to get him back to his feet, cursing out loud the fact that he had been sedated.
As they neared the end of the alley, Langdon stumbled again. This time she left him on the ground, rushing into the street and yelling to someone in the distance. Langdon could make out the faint green light of a taxi parked in front of the hospital. The car didn’t move, its driver undoubtedly asleep. Dr. Brooks screamed and waved her arms
wildly. Finally the taxi’s headlights came on and it moved lazily toward them.
Behind Langdon in the alley, a door burst open, followed by the s o u n d of rapidly approaching footsteps. He turned and saw the dark figure bounding toward him. Langdon tried to get back to his feet, but the doctor was already grabbing him, forcing him into the backseat of an idling Fiat taxi. He landed half on the seat and half on the floor as Dr.
Brooks dove on top of him, yanking the door shut.
The sleepy-eyed driver turned and stared at the bizarre duo that had just tumbled into his cab—a young, ponytailed woman in scrubs and a man in a half-torn johnny with a bleeding arm. He clearly was about ready to tell them to get the hell out of his car, when the side mirror exploded. The woman in black
leather sprinted out of the alley, gun extended. Her pistol hissed again just as Dr. Brooks grabbed Langdon’s head, pulling it down. The rear window exploded, showering them with glass.
The driver needed no further encouragement. He slammed his foot down on the gas, and the taxi peeled out.
Langdon teetered on the brink of consciousness. Someone is trying to
kill me?
Once they had rounded a corner, Dr. Brooks sat up and grabbed Langdon’s bloody arm. The catheter was protruding awkwardly from a hole in his flesh.
“Look out the window,” she commanded.
Langdon obeyed. Outside, ghostly tombstones rushed by in the darkness. It seemed somehow fitting that they were passing a cemetery. Langdon felt the doctor’s fingers probing gently for the catheter and then, without warning, she wrenched it out.
A searing bolt of pain traveled directly to Langdon’s head. He felt his eyes rolling back, and then everything went black.

THE SHRILL RING of his phone drew the provost’s gaze from the calming mist of the Adriatic, and he quickly stepped back into his stateroom office.
It’s about time, he thought, eager for news.
The computer screen on his desk had flickered to life, informing him that the incoming call was from a Swedish Sectra Tiger XS personal voice-encrypting phone, which had been redirected through four untraceable routers before being connected to his ship.
He donned his headset. “This is the provost,” he answered, his words slow and meticulous. “Go ahead.”
“It’s Vayentha,” the voice replied.
The provost sensed an unusual nervousness in her tone. Field agents rarely spoke to the provost directly, and even more rarely did they remain in his employ after a debacle like the one last night. Nonetheless, the provost had required an agent on-site to help remedy the crisis, and Vayentha had been the best person for the job.
“I have an update,” Vayentha said.
The provost was silent, his cue for her to continue.
When she spoke, her tone was emotionless, clearly an attempt at professionalism. “Langdon has
escaped,” she said. “He has the object.”
The provost sat down at his desk and remained silent for a very long time. “Understood,” he finally said. “I imagine he will reach out to the authorities as soon as he possibly can.”
Two decks beneath the provost, in the ship’s secure control center, senior facilitator Laurence Knowlton sat in his private cubicle and noticed that the provost’s encrypted call had ended. He hoped the news was
good. The provost’s tension had been palpable for the past two days, and every operative on board sensed there was some kind of high-stakes operation going on.
The stakes are inconceivably high, and Vayentha had better get it right this time.
Knowlton was accustomed to quarterbacking carefully constructed game plans, but this particular scenario had disintegrated into chaos, and the provost had taken over personally.
We’ve moved into uncharted territory.
Although    a      half-dozen other missions were currently in process around the world, all of them were being serviced by the Consortium’s various field offices, freeing the provost and his staff aboard The Mendacium to focus exclusively on this one.
Their client had jumped to his death several days ago in Florence, but the Consortium still had numerous outstanding services on his docket—specific tasks the man had entrusted to this organization regardless of the circumstances—and the Consortium, as always, intended to follow through without question.
I have my orders, Knowlton thought, fully intending to comply.
He exited his soundproofed glass cubicle, walking past a half-dozen other chambers—some transparent, some opaque—in which duty officers were handling other aspects of this same mission.
Knowlton crossed through the thin, processed air of the main control room, nodding to the tech crew, and entered a small walk-in vault containing a dozen strongboxes. He opened one of the boxes and
retrieved its contents—in this case, a bright red memory stick. According to the task card attached, the memory stick contained a large video file, which the client had directed them to upload to key media outlets at a specific time tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow’s anonymous upload would be simple enough, but in keeping protocol for all digital files, the flowchart had flagged this file for re v i e w today—twenty-four hours prior to delivery—to ensure the Consortium had adequate time to perform any necessary decryption, compiling, or other preparation that might be required before uploading it at the precise hour.
Nothing left to chance.
Knowlton returned to his transparent cubicle and closed the heavy glass door, blocking out the outside world.
He flipped a switch on the wall, and his cubicle instantly turned opaque. For privacy, all of the glasswalled offices aboard The Mendacium were built with “suspended particle device” glass. The transparency of SPD glass was easily controlled by the application or removal of an electric current, which either aligned or randomized millions of tiny rodlike particles suspended within the panel.
Compartmentalization was a cornerstone of the Consortium’s success.
Know only your own mission. Share nothing.
Now, ensconced in his private space, Knowlton inserted the memory stick into his computer and clicked   the    file    to     begin         his assessment.
Immediately his screen faded to black … and his speakers began playing the soft sound of lapping water. An image slowly appeared onscreen … amorphous and shadowy. Emerging from the darkness, a scene began to take shape … the interior of a cave … or a giant chamber of some sort. The floor of the cavern was water, like an underground lake. Strangely, the water appeared to be illuminated … as if from within.
Knowlton had never seen anything like it. The entire cavern shone with an eerie reddish hue, its pale walls awash with tendril-like reflections of
rippling water. What … is this place?
As the lapping continued, the camera began to tilt downward and descend vertically, directly toward the water until the camera pierced the illuminated surface. The sounds of rippling disappeared, replaced by an eerie hush beneath the water. Submerged now, the camera kept descending, moving down through several feet of water until it stopped, focusing on the cavern’s silt-covered floor.
Bolted to the floor was a rectangular plaque of shimmering titanium.
The plaque bore an inscription.
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
Engraved at the bottom of the plaque was a name and a date.
The name was that of their client.

The date … tomorrow.

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