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INFERNO 05

BELOWDECKS ON THE luxury vessel The
Mendacium, facilitator Laurence Knowlton sat in his sealed glass cubicle and stared in disbelief at his computer monitor, having just
previewed the video their client had left behind.
I’m supposed to upload this to the media tomorrow morning?
     In    his    ten     years     with     the
Consortium, Knowlton had performed all kinds of strange tasks that he knew fell somewhere between
dishonest and illegal. Working within a moral gray area was commonplace at the Consortium—an organization whose lone ethical high ground was that they would do whatever it took to keep a promise to a client.
We follow through. No questions asked. No matter what.
The prospect of uploading this video, however, had left Knowlton unsettled. In the past, no matter what bizarre tasks he had performed, he always understood the rationale … grasped the motives … comprehended the desired outcome.
And yet this video was baffling.
Something about it felt different.
Much different.
Sitting back down at his computer, Knowlton restarted the video file, hoping a second viewing might shed more light. He turned up the volume and settled in for the nine-minute show.
As before, the video began with the soft lapping of water in the eerie water-filled cavern where everything was bathed in a numinous red light. Again the camera plunged down through the surface of the illuminated water to view the siltcovered floor of the cavern. And again, Knowlton read the text on the submerged plaque:
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE,
THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
That the polished plaque was signed by the Consortium’s client was disquieting. That the date was tomorrow … left Knowlton increasingly concerned. It was what followed, however, that had truly set Knowlton on edge.
The camera now panned to the left to reveal a startling object hovering underwater just beside the plaque.
Here, tethered to the floor by a short filament, was an undulating sphere of thin plastic. Delicate and wobbling like an oversize soap bubble, the transparent shape floated like an underwater balloon … inflated not with helium, but with some kind of gelatinous, yellowbrown liquid. The amorphous bag was distended and appeared to be about a foot in diameter, and within its transparent walls, the murky cloud of liquid seemed to swirl slowly, like the eye of a silently growing storm.
Jesus, Knowlton thought, feeling clammy. The suspended bag looked even more ominous the second time around.
Slowly, the image faded to black.
     A     new     image      appeared—the
cavern’s damp wall, dancing with the rippling reflections of the illuminated lagoon. On the wall, a shadow appeared … the shadow of a man … standing in the cavern.
But the man’s head was misshapen
… badly.
Instead of a nose, the man had a long beak … as if he were half bird.
When he spoke, his voice was muffled … and he spoke with an eerie eloquence … a measured cadence … as if he were the narrator in some kind of classical chorus.
Knowlton sat motionless, barely breathing, as the beaked shadow spoke.
I am the Shade.
If you are watching this, then it means my soul is finally at rest.
Driven underground, I must speak to the world from deep within the earth, exiled to this gloomy cavern where the bloodred waters collect in the lagoon that reflects no stars.
But this is my paradise … the perfect womb for my fragile child.
Inferno.
Soon you will know what I have left behind.
And yet, even here, I sense the footfalls of the ignorant souls who pursue me … willing to stop at nothing to thwart my actions.
Forgive them, you might say, for they know not what they do. But there comes a moment in history when ignorance is no longer a forgivable offense … a moment when only wisdom has the power to absolve.
With purity of conscience, I have bequeathed to you all the gift of Hope, of salvation, of tomorrow.
And yet still there are those who hunt me like a dog, fueled by the self-righteous belief that I am a madman. There is the silver-haired beauty who dares call me monster! Like the blind clerics who lobbied for the death of Copernicus, she scorns me as a demon, terrified that I have glimpsed the Truth.
But I am not a prophet.
I am your salvation.
I am the Shade.

“HAVE A SEAT”, Sienna said. “I have some questions for you.”
As Langdon entered the kitchen, he felt much steadier on his feet. He was wearing the neighbor’s Brioni suit, which fit remarkably well. Even the loafers were comfortable, and Langdon made a mental note to switch to Italian footwear when he got home.
If I get home, he thought.
Sienna was transformed—a natural beauty—having changed into formfitting jeans and a cream-colored sweater,       both of     which
complemented her lithe figure. Her hair was still pulled back in a ponytail, and without the authoritative air of medical scrubs, she seemed more vulnerable somehow. Langdon noticed her eyes were red, as if she had been crying, and an overwhelming guilt again gripped him.
“Sienna, I’m so sorry. I heard the phone message. I don’t know what to say.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “But we need to focus on you at the moment.
Please sit down.”
Her tone was firmer now, conjuring memories of the articles Langdon had just read about her intellect and precocious childhood.
“I need you to think,” Sienna said, motioning for him to sit. “Can you remember how we got to this apartment?”
Langdon wasn’t sure how it was relevant. “In a taxi,” he said, sitting down at the table. “Someone was shooting at us.”
“Shooting at you, Professor. Let’s be clear on that.”
“Yes. Sorry.”
“And do you remember any
gunshots while you were in the cab?”
Odd question. “Yes, two of them. One hit the side mirror, and the other broke the rear window.”
“Good, now close your eyes.”
Langdon realized she was testing his memory. He closed his eyes.
“What am I wearing?”
Langdon could see her perfectly.
“Black flats, blue jeans, and a cream V-neck sweater. Your hair is blond, shoulder length, pulled back. Your eyes are brown.”
Langdon opened his eyes and studied her, pleased to see his eidetic memory was functioning normally.
“Good. Your visual cognitive imprinting is excellent, which confirms your amnesia is fully retrograde, and you have no permanent damage to the memorymaking process. Have you recalled anything new from the last few days?”
“No, unfortunately. I did have another wave of visions while you were gone, though.”
Langdon told her about the recurrence of his hallucination of the veiled woman, the throngs of dead people, and the writhing, half-buried legs marked with the letter R. Then he told her about the strange, beaked mask hovering in the sky.
“ ‘I am death’?” Sienna asked, looking troubled.
“That’s what it said, yes.”
“Okay … I guess that beats ‘I am Vishnu, destroyer of worlds.’ ”
The young woman had just quoted Robert Oppenheimer at the moment he tested the first atomic bomb.
“And this beak-nosed … greeneyed mask?” Sienna said, looking puzzled. “Do you have any idea why your mind might have conjured that image?”
“No idea at all, but that style of mask was quite common in the
Middle Ages.” Langdon paused. “It’s called a plague mask.”
Sienna looked strangely unnerved. “A plague mask?”
Langdon quickly explained that in his world of symbols, the unique shape of the long-beaked mask was nearly synonymous with the Black Death—the deadly plague that swept through Europe in the 1300s, killing off a third of the population in some regions. Most believed the “black” in Black Death was a reference to the darkening of the victims’ flesh through gangrene and subepidermal hemorrhages, but in fact the word black was a reference to the profound emotional dread that the pandemic spread through the population.
“That long-beaked mask,” Langdon said, “was worn by medieval plague doctors to keep the pestilence far from their nostrils while treating the infected. Nowadays, you only see them worn as costumes during Venice Carnevale—an eerie reminder of a grim period in Italy’s history.”
“And you’re certain you saw one of these masks in your visions?” Sienna asked, her voice now tremulous. “A mask of a medieval plague doctor?”
Langdon nodded. A beaked mask is hard to mistake.
Sienna was knitting her brow in a way that gave Langdon the sense she was trying to figure out how best to give him some bad news. “And the
woman kept telling you to ‘seek and find’?”
“Yes. Just as before. But the problem is, I have no idea what I’m supposed to seek.”
Sienna let out a long slow breath, her expression grave. “I think I may know. And what’s more … I think you may have already found it.”
Langdon stared. “What are you talking about?!”
“Robert, last night when you arrived at the hospital, you were carrying something unusual in your jacket pocket. Do you recall what it was?”
Langdon shook his head.
“You were carrying an object … a rather startling object. I found it by chance when we were cleaning you up.” She motioned to Langdon’s bloody Harris Tweed, which was laid out flat on the table. “It’s still in the pocket, if you’d like to have a look.” Uncertain, Langdon    eyed his
jacket. At least that explains why she
went back for my jacket. He grabbed his bloodstained coat and searched all the pockets, one by one. Nothing. He did it again. Finally, he turned to her with a shrug. “There’s nothing here.”
“How about the secret pocket?”
“What? My jacket doesn’t have a secret pocket.”
“No?” She looked puzzled. “Then is this jacket … someone else’s?”
     Langdon’s    brain     felt     muddled
again. “No, this is my jacket.”
“You’re certain?”
Damned certain, he thought. In fact, it used to be my favorite Camberley.
He folded back the lining and showed Sienna the label bearing his favorite symbol in the fashion world —Harris Tweed’s iconic orb adorned with thirteen buttonlike jewels and topped by a Maltese cross.
Leave it to the Scots to invoke the Christian warriors on a piece of twill.
“Look at this,” Langdon said, pointing out the hand-embroidered initials—R.L.—that had been added to the label. He always sprang for Harris Tweed’s hand-tailored models, and for that reason, he always paid extra to have them sew his initials into the label. On a college campus where hundreds of tweed jackets were constantly doffed and donned in dining halls and classrooms, Langdon had no intention of getting the short end of an inadvertent trade.
“I believe you,” she said, taking the jacket from him. “Now you look.”
Sienna opened the jacket farther to reveal the lining near the nape of the back. Here, discreetly hidden in the lining, was a large, neatly fashioned pocket.
What the hell?!
Langdon was certain he had never seen this before.
The pocket consisted of a hidden seam, perfectly tailored.
     “That     wasn’t     there      before!”
Langdon insisted.
“Then I’m imagining you’ve never seen … this?” Sienna reached into the pocket and extracted a sleek metal object, which she set gently in Langdon’s hands.
Langdon stared down at the object in utter bewilderment.
“Do you know what this is?” Sienna asked.
“No …” he stammered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well, unfortunately, I do know what this is. And I’m fairly certain it’s the reason someone is trying to kill you.”
Now pacing his private cubicle aboard The Mendacium, facilitator Knowlton felt an increasing disquiet as he considered the video he was supposed to share with the world tomorrow morning.
I am the Shade?
Rumors had circulated that this particular client had suffered a psychotic break over the last few months, but this video seemed to confirm those rumors beyond any doubt.
Knowlton knew he had two choices. He could either prepare the video for delivery tomorrow as promised, or he could take it upstairs to the provost for a second opinion.
I already know his opinion, Knowlton thought, having never witnessed the provost take any action other than the one promised a client. He’ll tell me to upload this video to the world, no questions asked … and he’ll be furious at me for asking.
Knowlton returned his attention to the video, which he rewound to a particularly unsettling spot. He started the playback, and the eerily illuminated cavern reappeared accompanied by the sounds of lapping water. The humanoid shadow loomed on the dripping wall—a tall man with a long, birdlike beak.
In a muffled voice, the deformed shadow spoke:
These are the new Dark Ages.
Centuries ago, Europe was in the depths of its own misery—the population huddled, starving, mired in sin and hopelessness. They were as a congested forest, suffocated by deadwood, awaiting God’s lightning strike—the spark that would finally ignite the fire that would rage across the land and clear the deadwood, once again bringing sunshine to the healthy roots.
Culling is God’s Natural Order.
Ask yourself, What followed the Black Death?
We all know the answer.
The Renaissance.
Rebirth.
It has always been this way. Death is followed by birth.
To reach Paradise, man must pass through Inferno.
This, the master taught us.
And yet the silver-haired ignorant dares call me monster? Does she still not grasp the mathematics of the future? The horrors it will bring?
I am the Shade.
I am your salvation.
And so I stand, deep within this cavern, gazing out across the lagoon that reflects no stars. Here in this sunken palace, Inferno smolders beneath the waters.
Soon it will burst into flames.
And when it does, nothing on earth will be able to stop it.

THE OBJECT IN Langdon’s hand felt surprisingly heavy for its size. Slender and smooth, the polished metal cylinder was about six inches long and rounded at both ends, like a miniature torpedo.
“Before you handle that too roughly,” Sienna offered, “you may want to look at the other side.” She
gave him a taut smile. “You say you’re a professor of symbols?”
Langdon refocused on the tube, turning it in his hands until a bright red symbol rolled into view, emblazoned on its side.
Instantly, his body tensed.
As a student of iconography, Langdon knew that precious few images had the power to instill instantaneous fear in the human mind … but the symbol before him definitely made the list. His reaction was visceral and immediate; he placed the tube on the table and slid back his chair.
Sienna nodded. “Yeah, that was my reaction, too.”
The marking on the tube was a simple trilateral icon.
This notorious symbol, Langdon had once read, was developed by Dow Chemical in the 1960s to replace an array of impotent warning graphics previously in use. Like all successful symbols, this one was simple, distinctive, and easy to reproduce. Cleverly conjuring associations with everything from crab pincers to ninja hurling knives, the modern “biohazard” symbol had become a global brand that conveyed
danger in every language.
“This little canister is a biotube,” Sienna said. “Used for transporting dangerous substances. We see these occasionally in the medical field. Inside is a foam sleeve into which you can insert a specimen tube for safe transport. In this case …” She pointed to the biohazard symbol. “I’m guessing a deadly chemical agent … or maybe a … virus?” She paused. “The first Ebola samples were brought back from Africa in a tube similar to this one.”
This was not at all what Langdon wanted to hear. “What the hell is it doing in my jacket! I’m an art history professor; why am I carrying this thing?!”
Violent images of writhing bodies flashed through his mind … and hovering over them, the plague mask.
Very sorry … Very sorry.
“Wherever this came from,” Sienna said, “this is a very high-end unit. Lead-lined titanium. Virtually impenetrable, even to radiation. I’m guessing government issue.” She pointed to a postage-stamp-size black pad flanking the biohazard symbol. “Thumbprint recognition. Security in case it’s lost or stolen. Tubes like this can be opened only by a specified individual.”
Although Langdon sensed his mind now working at normal speed, he still felt as if he were struggling to catch up. I’ve been carrying a biometrically
sealed canister.
“When I discovered this canister in your jacket, I wanted to show Dr.
Marconi privately, but I didn’t have an opportunity before you woke up. I considered trying your thumb on the pad while you were unconscious, but I had no idea what was in the tube,
and—”
“MY thumb?!” Langdon shook his head. “There’s no way this thing is programmed for me to open it. I don’t know anything about
biochemistry. I’d never have anything like this.”
“Are you sure?”
Langdon was damned sure. He reached out and placed his thumb on the finger pad. Nothing happened.
“See?! I told—”
The titanium tube clicked loudly, and Langdon yanked his hand back as if it had been burned. Holy shit. He stared at the canister as if it were about to unscrew itself and start emitting a deadly gas. After three seconds, it clicked again, apparently relocking itself.
Speechless, Langdon turned to Sienna.
The young doctor exhaled, looking unnerved. “Well, it seems pretty clear that the intended carrier is you.”
For Langdon, the entire scenario felt incongruous. “That’s impossible. First of all, how would I get this chunk of metal through airport security?”
“Maybe you flew in on a private jet? Or maybe it was given to you
when you arrived in Italy?”
“Sienna, I need to call the
consulate. Right away.”
“You don’t think we should open it first?”
Langdon had taken some illadvised actions in his life, but opening a hazardous materials container in this woman’s kitchen would not be one of them. “I’m handing this thing over to the authorities. Now.”
Sienna pursed her lips, mulling over options. “Okay, but as soon as you make that call, you’re on your own. I can’t be involved. You definitely can’t meet them here. My immigration situation in Italy is … complicated.”
Langdon looked Sienna in the eye. “All I know, Sienna, is that you saved my life. I’ll handle this situation however you want me to handle it.”
She gave a grateful nod and walked over to the window, gazing down at the street below. “Okay, this is how we should do it.”
Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.
Langdon waited as she turned on her cell phone’s caller-ID blocking and dialed. Her fingers were delicate and yet moved purposefully.
“Informazioni abbonati?” Sienna
said, speaking in a flawless Italian accent. “Per favore, può darmi il
numero del Consolato americano di
Firenze?”
She waited and then quickly wrote down a phone number.
“Grazie mille,” she said, and hung up.
Sienna slid the phone number over to Langdon along with her cell phone. “You’re on. Do you remember what to say?”
“My memory is fine,” he said with a smile as he dialed the number on the slip of paper. The line began to ring.
Here goes nothing.
He switched the call to speaker and set the phone on the table so Sienna could hear. A recorded message answered, offering general information about consulate services and hours of operation, which did not begin until 8:30 A.M.
Langdon checked the clock on the cell. It was only 6 A.M.
“If this is an emergency,” the automated recording said, “you may dial seven-seven to speak to the
night duty officer.”
Langdon immediately dialed the extension.
The line was ringing again.
“Consolato americano,” a tired voice answered. “Sono il funzionario
di turno.”
            “Lei parla inglese?”         Langdon
asked.
“Of course,” the man said in American English. He sounded vaguely annoyed to have been awoken. “How can I help you?”
“I’m an American visiting Florence and I was attacked. My name is
Robert Langdon.”
“Passport number, please.” The man yawned audibly.
“My passport is missing. I think it was stolen. I was shot in the head. I’ve been in the hospital. I need help.”
The attendant suddenly woke up. “Sir!? Did you say you were shot? What was your full name again, please?”
“Robert Langdon.”
There was a rustling on the line and then Langdon could hear the man’s fingers typing on a keyboard. The computer pinged. A pause. Then more fingers on the keyboard. Another ping. Then three highpitched pings.
A longer pause.
“Sir?” the man said. “Your name is
Robert Langdon?”
“Yes, that’s right. And I’m in trouble.”
“Okay, sir, your name has an
action flag on it, which is directing me to transfer you immediately to the consul general’s chief
administrator.” The man paused, as if he himself couldn’t believe it. “Just hold the line.”
“Wait! Can you tell me—”
The line was already ringing.
It rang four times and connected.
“This is Collins,” a hoarse voice answered.
Langdon took a deep breath and spoke as calmly and clearly as possible. “Mr. Collins, my name is Robert Langdon. I’m an American visiting Florence. I’ve been shot. I need help. I want to come to the U.S. Consulate immediately. Can you help me?”
Without hesitation, the deep voice replied, “Thank heavens you’re alive, Mr. Langdon. We’ve been looking for you.”




Dan Brown

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