INFERNO 26 - Welcome to My Woven Words

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INFERNO 26


LOCATED JUST EAST of the spectacular Frari church, the Atelier Pietro Longhi has always been one of Venice’s premier providers of historical costumes, wigs, and accessories. Its client list includes film companies and theatrical troupes, as well as influential members of the public who rely on the staff’s expertise to dress
them for Carnevale’s most extravagant balls.
The clerk was just about to lock up for the evening when the door jingled loudly. He glanced up to see an attractive woman with a blond ponytail come bursting in. She was breathless, as if she’d been running for miles. She hurried to the counter, her brown eyes wild and desperate.
“I want to speak to Giorgio Venci,” she had said, panting.
Don’t we all, the clerk thought. But nobody gets to see the wizard.
Giorgio Venci—the atelier’s chief designer—worked his magic from behind the curtain, speaking to clients very rarely and never without an appointment. As a man of great wealth and influence, Giorgio was allowed certain eccentricities, including his passion for solitude. He dined privately, flew privately, and constantly complained about the rising number of tourists in Venice. He was not one who liked company.
“I’m sorry,” the clerk said with a practiced smile. “I’m afraid Signor Venci is not here. Perhaps I can help you?”
“Giorgio’s here,” she declared. “His flat is upstairs. I saw his light on. I’m a friend. It’s an emergency.”
There was a burning intensity about the woman. A friend? she
claims. “Might I tell Giorgio your name?”
The woman took a scrap of paper off the counter and jotted down a series of letters and numbers.
“Just give him this,” she said, handing the clerk the paper. “And
please hurry. I don’t have much time.”
The clerk hesitantly carried the paper upstairs and laid it on the long altering table, where Giorgio was hunched intently at his sewing machine.
      “Signore,”         he          whispered.
“Someone is here to see you. She says it’s an emergency.”
Without breaking off from his work or looking up, the man reached out with one hand and took the paper, reading the text.
His sewing machine rattled to a stop.
“Send her up immediately,” Giorgio commanded as he tore the paper into tiny shreds.

THE MASSIVE C-130 transport plane was still ascending as it banked southeast, thundering out across the Adriatic. On board, Robert Langdon was feeling simultaneously cramped and adrift—oppressed by the absence of windows in the aircraft and bewildered by all of the unanswered questions swirling around in his brain.
Your medical condition, Sinskey had told him, is a bit more complicated than a simple head wound.
Langdon’s pulse quickened at the thought of what she might tell him, and yet at the moment she was busy discussing containment strategies with the SRS team. Brüder was on the phone nearby, speaking with government agencies about Sienna Brooks, following up on everyone’s attempts to locate her.
Sienna …
Langdon was still trying to make sense of the claim that she was intricately involved in all of this. As the plane leveled out from its ascent, the small man who called himself the provost walked across the cabin and sat down opposite Langdon. He steepled his fingers beneath his chin and pursed his lips. “Dr. Sinskey asked me to fill you in … make an attempt to bring clarity to your situation.”
Langdon wondered what this man could possibly say to make any of this confusion even remotely clear.
“As I began to say earlier,” the provost said, “much of this started after my agent Vayentha pulled you in prematurely. We had no idea how much progress you had made on Dr. Sinskey’s behalf, or how much you had shared with her. But we were afraid if she learned the location of the project our client had hired us to protect, she was going to confiscate or destroy it. We had to find it before she did, and so we needed you to work on our behalf … rather than on Sinskey’s.” The provost paused, tapping his fingertips together. “Unfortunately, we had already
shown our cards … and you most
certainly did not trust us.”
“So you shot me in the head?” Langdon replied angrily.
“We came up with a plan to make you trust us.”
Langdon felt lost. “How do you make someone trust you … after you’ve kidnapped and interrogated him?”
The man shifted uncomfortably now. “Professor, are you familiar with the family of chemicals known as benzodiazepines?”
Langdon shook his head.
     “They       are      a       breed        of
pharmaceutical that are used for, among other things, the treatment of post-traumatic stress. As you may know, when someone endures a horrific event like a car accident or a sexual assault, the long-term memories can be permanently debilitating. Through the use of benzodiazepines, neuroscientists are now able to treat post-traumatic stress, as it were, before it happens.”
Langdon listened in silence, unable to imagine where this conversation might be going.
“When new memories are formed,” the provost continued, “those events are stored in your short-term memory for about forty-eight hours before they migrate to your longterm memory. Using new blends of benzodiazepines, one can easily refresh the short-term memory … essentially deleting its content before those recent memories migrate, so to speak, into long-term memories. A victim of assault, for example, if administered a benzodiazepine within a few hours after the attack, can have those memories expunged forever, and the trauma never becomes part of her psyche. The only downside is that she loses all recollection of several days of her life.”
Langdon stared at the tiny man in disbelief. “You gave me amnesia!”
The provost let out an apologetic sigh. “I’m afraid so. Chemically induced. Very safe. But yes, a deletion of your short-term memory.” He paused. “While you were out, you mumbled something about a plague, which we assumed was on account of your viewing the projector images. We never imagined that Zobrist had created a real plague.” He paused. “You also kept mumbling a phrase that sounded to us like ‘Very sorry.
Very sorry.’ ”
Vasari. It must have been all he had figured out about the projector at that point. Cerca trova. “But … I thought my amnesia was caused by my head wound. Somebody shot me.”
The provost shook his head. “Nobody shot you, Professor. There was no head wound.”
“What?!” Langdon’s fingers groped instinctively for the stitches and the swollen injury on the back of his head. “Then what the hell is this!” He raised his hair to reveal the shaved area.
“Part of the illusion. We made a small incision in your scalp and then immediately closed it up with stitches. You had to believe you had been attacked.”
This isn’t a bullet wound?!
“When you woke up,” the provost said, “we wanted you to believe that people were trying to kill you … that you were in peril.”
“People were trying to kill me!” Langdon shouted, his outburst drawing gazes from elsewhere in the plane. “I saw the hospital’s doctor— Dr. Marconi—gunned down in cold blood!”
“That’s what you saw,” the provost said evenly, “but that’s not what happened. Vayentha worked for me. She had a superb skill set for this
kind of work.”
“Killing    people?”    Langdon demanded.
“No,” the provost said calmly.
“Pretending to kill people.”
Langdon stared at the man for a long moment, picturing the graybearded doctor with the bushy eyebrows who had collapsed on the floor, blood gushing from his chest.
“Vayentha’s gun was loaded with blanks,” the provost said. “It triggered a radio-controlled squib that detonated a blood pack on Dr. Marconi’s chest. He is fine, by the way.”
Langdon closed his eyes, dumbstruck by what he was hearing.
“And the … hospital room?”
“A quickly improvised set,” the provost said. “Professor, I know this is all very difficult to absorb. We were working quickly, and you were groggy, so it didn’t need to be perfect. When you woke up, you saw what we wanted you to see—hospital props, a few actors, and a
choreographed attack scene.” Langdon was reeling.
“This is what my company does,” the provost said. “We’re very good at
creating illusions.”
“What about Sienna?” Langdon asked, rubbing his eyes.
“I needed to make a judgment call, and I chose to work with her. My priority was to protect my client’s project from Dr. Sinskey, and Sienna and I shared that desire. To gain your trust, Sienna saved you from the assassin and helped you escape into a rear alleyway. The waiting taxi was also ours, with another radiocontrolled squib on the rear windshield to create the final effect as you fled. The taxi took you to an apartment that we had hastily put together.”
Sienna’s meager apartment, Langdon thought, now understanding why it looked like it had been furnished from a yard sale. And it also explained the convenient coincidence of Sienna’s “neighbor” having clothing that fit him perfectly. The entire thing had been staged.

Even the desperate phone call from Sienna’s friend at the hospital
had   been phony. Sienna, eez Danikova!
“When you phoned the U.S.
Consulate,” the provost said, “you phoned a number that Sienna looked up for you. It was a number that rang
on The Mendacium.”
“I never reached the consulate …”
“No, you didn’t.”
Stay where you are, the fake consulate employee had urged him.
I’ll send someone for you right away. Then, when Vayentha showed up, Sienna had conveniently spotted her across the street and connected the dots. Robert, your own government is trying to kill you! You can’t involve
any authorities! Your only hope is to figure out what that projector means.
The provost and his mysterious organization—whatever the hell it was—had effectively retasked
Langdon to stop working for Sinskey and start working for them. Their illusion was complete.
Sienna played me perfectly, he thought, feeling more sad than angry. He had grown fond of her in the short time they’d been together. Most troubling to Langdon was the distressing question of how a soul as bright and warm as Sienna’s could give itself over entirely to Zobrist’s maniacal solution for overpopulation.
I can tell you without a doubt, Sienna had said to him earlier, that without some kind of drastic change, the end of our species is coming … The mathematics is indisputable.
“And the articles about Sienna?”
Langdon asked, recalling the Shakespeare playbill and the pieces about her staggeringly high IQ.
“Authentic,” the provost replied. “The best illusions involve as much of the real world as possible. We didn’t have much time to set up, and so Sienna’s computer and real-world personal files were almost all we had to work with. You were never really intended to see any of that unless you began doubting her
authenticity.”
“Nor use her computer,” Langdon said.
“Yes, that was where we lost control. Sienna never expected Sinskey’s SRS team to find the apartment, so when the soldiers moved in, Sienna panicked and had to improvise. She fled on the moped with you, trying to keep the illusion alive. As the entire mission unraveled, I had no choice but to disavow Vayentha, although she broke protocol and pursued you.”
“She almost killed me,” Langdon said, recounting for the provost the showdown in the attic of the Palazzo Vecchio, when Vayentha raised her handgun and aimed point-blank at Langdon’s chest. This will only hurt for an instant … but it’s my only choice. Sienna had then darted out and pushed her over the railing, where Vayentha plunged to her death.
The provost sighed audibly, considering what Langdon had just said. “I doubt Vayentha was trying to kill you … her gun fires only blanks. Her only hope of redemption at that point was to take control of you. She probably thought if she shot you with a blank, she could make you understand she was not an assassin after all and that you were caught up in an illusion.”
The provost paused, thinking a bit, and then continued. “Whether Sienna actually meant to kill Vayentha or was only trying to interfere with the shot, I won’t venture to guess. I’m beginning to realize that I don’t know Sienna Brooks as well as I thought.”
Me neither, Langdon agreed, although as he recalled the look of shock and remorse on the young woman’s face, he sensed that what she had done to the spike-haired operative was very likely a mistake.
Langdon felt unmoored … and utterly alone. He turned toward the window, longing to gaze out at the world below, but all he could see was the wall of the fuselage.
I’ve got to get out of here.
“Are you okay?” the provost asked, eyeing Langdon with concern.
“No,” Langdon replied. “Not even close.”
He’ll survive, the provost thought. He’s merely trying to process his new reality.
The American professor looked as if he had just been snatched up off the ground by a tornado, spun around, and dumped in a foreign land, leaving him shell-shocked and disoriented.
      Individuals      targeted      by      the
Consortium seldom realized the truth behind the staged events they had witnessed, and if they did, the provost certainly was never present to view the aftermath. Today, in addition to the guilt he felt at seeing firsthand Langdon’s bewilderment, the man was burdened by an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the current crisis.
I accepted the wrong client.
Bertrand Zobrist.
I trusted the wrong person. Sienna Brooks.
Now the provost was flying toward the eye of the storm—the epicenter of what might well be a deadly plague that had the potential to wreak havoc across the entire world. If he emerged alive from all this, he suspected that his Consortium would never survive the fallout. There would be endless inquiries and accusations.
Is this how it all ends for me?

I NEED AIR, Robert Langdon thought. A vista … anything.
The windowless fuselage felt as if it were closing in around him. Of course, the strange tale of what had actually happened to him today was not helping at all. His brain throbbed with unanswered questions … most of them about Sienna.
Strangely, he missed her.
She was acting, he reminded himself. Using me.
Without a word, Langdon left the provost and walked toward the front of the plane. The cockpit door was open, and the natural light streaming through it pulled him like a beacon. Standing in the doorway, undetected by the pilots, Langdon let the sunlight warm his face. The wideopen space before him felt like manna from heaven. The clear blue sky looked so peaceful … so permanent.
Nothing is permanent, he reminded himself, still struggling to accept the potential catastrophe they were facing.
“Professor?” a quiet voice said behind him, and he turned.
Langdon took a startled step backward. Standing before him was Dr. Ferris. The last time Langdon had seen the man, he was writhing on the floor of St. Mark’s Basilica, unable to breathe. Now here he was in the aircraft leaning against the bulkhead, wearing a baseball cap, his face, covered in calamine lotion, a pasty pink. His chest and torso were heavily bandaged, and his breathing was shallow. If Ferris had the plague, nobody seemed too concerned that he was going to spread it.
“You’re … alive?” Langdon said, staring at the man.
Ferris gave a tired nod. “More or less.” The man’s demeanor had changed dramatically, seeming far more relaxed.
     “But      I     thought—”       Langdon
stopped. “Actually … I’m not sure what to think anymore.”
Ferris gave him an empathetic smile. “You’ve heard a lot of lies today. I thought I’d take a moment to apologize. As you may have guessed, I don’t work for the WHO, and I didn’t go to recruit you in
Cambridge.”
Langdon nodded, too tired to be surprised by anything at this point. “You work for the provost.”
“I do. He sent me in to offer emergency field support to you and Sienna … and help you escape the SRS team.”
“Then I guess you did your job perfectly,” Langdon said, recalling how Ferris had shown up at the baptistry, convinced Langdon he was a WHO employee, and then facilitated his and Sienna’s transportation out of Florence and away from Sinskey’s team.
“Obviously you’re not a doctor.”
The man shook his head. “No, but I played that part today. My job was to help Sienna keep the illusion going so you could figure out where the projector was pointing. The provost was intent on finding Zobrist’s creation so he could protect it from
Sinskey.”
“You had no idea it was a plague?”
Langdon said, still curious about Ferris’s strange rash and internal bleeding.
“Of course not! When you mentioned the plague, I figured it was just a story Sienna had told you to keep you motivated. So I played along. I got us all onto the train to Venice … and then, everything changed.”
“How so?”
“The provost saw Zobrist’s bizarre video.”
That could do it. “He realized
Zobrist was a madman.”
“Exactly. The provost suddenly comprehended what the Consortium had been involved in, and he was horrified. He immediately demanded to speak to the person who knew Zobrist best—FS-2080—to see if she knew what Zobrist had done.”
“FS-2080?”
“Sorry, Sienna Brooks. That was the code name she chose for this operation. It’s apparently a
Transhumanist thing. And the provost had no way to reach Sienna except through me.”
“The phone call on the train,” Langdon said. “Your ‘ailing mother.’ ”
“Well, I obviously couldn’t take the provost’s call in front of you, so I stepped out. He told me about the video, and I was terrified. He was hoping Sienna had been duped as well, but when I told him you and Sienna had been talking about plagues and seemed to have no intention of breaking off the mission, he knew Sienna and Zobrist were in this together. Sienna instantly became an adversary. He told me to keep him abreast of our position in Venice … and that he was sending in a team to detain her. Agent Brüder’s team almost had her at St. Mark’s Basilica … but she managed to escape.”
Langdon stared blankly at the
floor, still able to see Sienna’s pretty
brown eyes gazing down at him before she fled.
I’m so sorry, Robert. For everything.
“She’s tough,” the man said. “You probably didn’t see her attack me at the basilica.”
“Attack you?”
“Yes, when the soldiers entered, I was about to shout out and reveal Sienna’s location, but she must have sensed it coming. She drove the heel of her hand straight into the center of my chest.”
“What?!”
“I didn’t know what hit me. Some kind of martial-arts move, I guess. Because I was already badly bruised there, the pain was excruciating. It took me five minutes to get my wind back. Sienna dragged you out onto the balcony before any witnesses could reveal what had happened.”
Stunned, Langdon thought back to the elderly Italian woman who had shouted at Sienna—“L’hai colpito al
petto!”—and made a forceful motion of her fist on her own chest.
I can’t! Sienna had replied. CPR will kill him! Look at his chest!
As Langdon replayed the scene in his mind, he realized just how quickly Sienna Brooks thought on her feet. Sienna had cleverly mistranslated the old woman’s Italian. L’hai colpito al
petto was not a suggestion that Sienna apply chest compressions … it
was an     angry        accusation: You punched him in the chest!
With all the chaos of the moment, Langdon had not even noticed.
Ferris gave him a pained smile. “As you may have heard, Sienna Brooks is pretty sharp.”
Langdon nodded. I’ve heard.
“Sinskey’s men brought me back to The Mendacium and bandaged me up. The provost asked me to come along for intel support because I’m the only person other than you who spent time with Sienna today.”
Langdon nodded, distracted by the man’s rash. “Your face?” Langdon asked. “And the bruise on your chest?
It’s not …”
“The plague?” Ferris laughed and shook his head. “I’m not sure if you’ve been told yet, but I actually played the part of two doctors today.”
“I’m sorry?”
“When I showed up at the
baptistry, you said I looked vaguely familiar.”
“You did. Vaguely. Your eyes, I think. You told me that’s because you were the one who recruited me in Cambridge …” Langdon paused.
“Which I know now is untrue, so …”
“I looked familiar because we had already met. But not in Cambridge.” The man’s eyes probed Langdon’s for any hint of recognition. “I was actually the first person you saw when you woke up this morning in the hospital.”
Langdon pictured the grim little hospital room. He had been groggy and his eyesight was compromised, so he was pretty certain that the first person he saw when he awoke was a pale, older doctor with bushy eyebrows and a shaggy graying beard who spoke only Italian.
“No,” Langdon said. “Dr. Marconi was the first person I saw when—”
“Scusi, professore,” the man interrupted with a flawless Italian accent. “Ma non si ricorda di me?” He hunched over like an older man, smoothing back imaginary bushy eyebrows and stroking a nonexistent graying beard. “Sono il dottor Marconi.”
Langdon’s mouth fell open. “Dr.
Marconi was … you?”
“That’s why my eyes looked familiar. I had never worn a fake beard and eyebrows, and unfortunately had no idea until it was too late that I was severely allergic to the bonding cement—a latex spirit gum—which left my skin raw and burning. I’m sure you were horrified when you saw me … considering you were on alert for a possible plague.”
Langdon could only stare, recalling now how Dr. Marconi had scratched at his beard before Vayentha’s attack left him lying on the hospital floor, bleeding from the chest.
“To make matters worse,” the man said, motioning to the bandages around his chest, “my squib shifted while the operation was already under way. I couldn’t get it back into position in time, and when it detonated, it was at an angle. Broke a rib and left me badly bruised. I’ve been having trouble breathing all day.”
And here I thought you had the plague.
The man inhaled deeply and
winced. “In fact, I think it’s time for
me to sit down again.” As he departed, he motioned behind Langdon. “It looks like you have company anyway.”
Langdon turned to see Dr. Sinskey striding up the cabin, her long silver hair streaming behind her.
“Professor, there you are!”
The director of the WHO looked exhausted, and yet strangely, Langdon detected a fresh glint of hope in her eyes. She’s found
something.
“I’m sorry to have left you,”
Sinskey said, arriving beside Langdon. “We’ve been coordinating and doing some research.” She motioned to the open cockpit door. “I see you’re getting some sunlight?”
Langdon shrugged. “Your plane needs windows.”
She gave him a compassionate smile. “On the topic of light, I hope the provost was able to shed some
for you on recent events?”
“Yes, although nothing I’m pleased about.”
“Nor I,” she concurred, glancing around to make sure they were alone. “Trust me,” she whispered, “there will be serious ramifications for him and for his organization. I will see to it. At the moment, however, we all need to remain focused on locating that container before it dissolves and the contagion is released.”
Or before Sienna gets there and helps it dissolve.
“I need to talk to you about the building that houses Dandolo’s tomb.”
Langdon had been picturing the spectacular structure ever since he realized it was their destination. The mouseion of holy wisdom.
“I just learned something exciting,” Sinskey said. “We’ve been on the phone with a local historian,” she said. “He has no idea why we’re inquiring about Dandolo’s tomb, of course, but I asked him if he had any idea what was beneath the tomb, and guess what he said.” She smiled.
“Water.”
Langdon was surprised. “Really?”
“Yes, it sounds like the building’s lower levels are flooded. Over the centuries the water table beneath the building has risen, submerging at least two lower levels. He said there are definitely all kinds of air pockets and partially submerged spaces down there.”
My God. Langdon pictured Zobrist’s video and the strangely lit underground cavern on whose mossy walls he had seen the faint vertical shadows of pillars. “It’s a submerged room.”
“Exactly.”
“But then … how did Zobrist get down there?”
Sinskey’s eyes twinkled. “That’s the amazing part. You won’t believe what we just discovered.”
At that moment, less than a mile off the coast of Venice, on the slender island known as the Lido, a sleek Cessna Citation Mustang lifted off the tarmac of Nicelli Airport and streaked into the darkening twilight sky.
     The     jet’s     owner,       prominent
costume designer Giorgio Venci, was not on board, but he had ordered his pilots to take their attractive young passenger wherever she needed to go.


By Dan Brown

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