The Apostolic Palace is a conglomeration of buildings located near the Sistine Chapel in the northeast corner of Vatican City. With a commanding view of St. Peter's Square, the palace houses both the Papal Apartments and the Office of the Pope.
Vittoria and Langdon followed in silence as Commander Olivetti led them down a long rococo corridor, the muscles in his neck pulsing with rage. After climbing three sets of stairs, they entered a wide, dimly lit hallway.
Langdon could not believe the artwork on the walls - mint-condition busts, tapestries, friezes - works worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Two-thirds of the way down the hall they passed an alabaster fountain. Olivetti turned left into an alcove and strode to one of the largest doors Langdon had ever seen.
"Ufficio di Papa," the commander declared, giving Vittoria an acrimonious scowl. Vittoria didn't flinch. She reached over Olivetti and knocked loudly on the door.
Office of the Pope, Langdon thought, having difficulty fathoming that he was standing outside one of the most sacred rooms in all of world religion.
"Avanti!" someone called from within.
When the door opened, Langdon had to shield his eyes. The sunlight was blinding. Slowly, the image before him came into focus.
The Office of the Pope seemed more of a ballroom than an office. Red marble floors sprawled out in all directions to walls adorned with vivid frescoes. A colossal chandelier hung overhead, beyond which a bank of arched windows offered a stunning panorama of the sun-drenched St. Peter's Square.
My God, Langdon thought. This is a room with a view.
At the far end of the hall, at a carved desk, a man sat writing furiously. "Avanti," he called out again, setting down his pen and waving them over.
Olivetti led the way, his gait military. "Signore," he said apologetically. "No ho potuto - "
The man cut him off. He stood and studied his two visitors.
The camerlegno was nothing like the images of frail, beatific old men Langdon usually imagined roaming the Vatican. He wore no rosary beads or pendants. No heavy robes. He was dressed instead in a simple black cassock that seemed to amplify the solidity of his substantial frame. He looked to be in his late-thirties, indeed a child by Vatican standards. He had a surprisingly handsome face, a swirl of coarse brown hair, and almost radiant green eyes that shone as if they were somehow fueled by the mysteries of the universe. As the man drew nearer, though, Langdon saw in his eyes a profound exhaustion - like a soul who had been through the toughest fifteen days of his life.
"I am Carlo Ventresca," he said, his English perfect. "The late Pope's camerlegno." His voice was unpretentious and kind, with only the slightest hint of Italian inflection.
"Vittoria Vetra," she said, stepping forward and offering her hand. "Thank you for seeing us."
Olivetti twitched as the camerlegno shook Vittoria's hand.
"This is Robert Langdon," Vittoria said. "A religious historian from Harvard University."
"Padre," Langdon said, in his best Italian accent. He bowed his head as he extended his hand.
"No, no," the camerlegno insisted, lifting Langdon back up. "His Holiness's office does not make me holy. I am merely a priest - a chamberlain serving in a time of need."
Langdon stood upright.
"Please," the camerlegno said, "everyone sit." He arranged some chairs around his desk. Langdon and Vittoria sat. Olivetti apparently preferred to stand.
The camerlegno seated himself at the desk, folded his hands, sighed, and eyed his visitors.
"Signore," Olivetti said. "The woman's attire is my fault. I - "
"Her attire is not what concerns me," the camerlegno replied, sounding too exhausted to be bothered. "When the Vatican operator calls me a half hour before I begin conclave to tell me a woman is calling from your private office to warn me of some sort of major security threat of which I have not been informed, that concerns me."
Olivetti stood rigid, his back arched like a soldier under intense inspection.
Langdon felt hypnotized by the camerlegno's presence. Young and wearied as he was, the priest had the air of some mythical hero - radiating charisma and authority.
"Signore," Olivetti said, his tone apologetic but still unyielding. "You should not concern yourself with matters of security. You have other responsibilities."
"I am well aware of my other responsibilities. I am also aware that as direttore intermediario, I have a responsibility for the safety and well-being of everyone at this conclave. What is going on here?"
"I have the situation under control."
"Father," Langdon interrupted, taking out the crumpled fax and handing it to the camerlegno, "please."
Commander Olivetti stepped forward, trying to intervene. "Father, please do not trouble your thoughts with - "
The camerlegno took the fax, ignoring Olivetti for a long moment. He looked at the image of the murdered Leonardo Vetra and drew a startled breath. "What is this?"
"That is my father," Vittoria said, her voice wavering. "He was a priest and a man of science. He was murdered last night."
The camerlegno's face softened instantly. He looked up at her. "My dear child. I'm so sorry." He crossed himself and looked again at the fax, his eyes seeming to pool with waves of abhorrence. "Who would... and this burn on his..." The camerlegno paused, squinting closer at the image.
"It says Illuminati," Langdon said. "No doubt you are familiar with the name."
An odd look came across the camerlegno's face. "I have heard the name, yes, but..."
"The Illuminati murdered Leonardo Vetra so they could steal a new technology he was - "
"Signore," Olivetti interjected. "This is absurd. The Illuminati? This is clearly some sort of elaborate hoax."
The camerlegno seemed to ponder Olivetti's words. Then he turned and contemplated Langdon so fully that Langdon felt the air leave his lungs. "Mr. Langdon, I have spent my life in the Catholic Church. I am familiar with the Illuminati lore... and the legend of the brandings. And yet I must warn you, I am a man of the present tense. Christianity has enough real enemies without resurrecting ghosts."
"The symbol is authentic," Langdon said, a little too defensively he thought. He reached over and rotated the fax for the camerlegno.
The camerlegno fell silent when he saw the symmetry.
"Even modern computers," Langdon added, "have been unable to forge a symmetrical ambigram of this word."
The camerlegno folded his hands and said nothing for a long time. "The Illuminati are dead," he finally said. "Long ago. That is historical fact."
Langdon nodded. "Yesterday, I would have agreed with you."
"Before today's chain of events. I believe the Illuminati have resurfaced to make good on an ancient pact."
"Forgive me. My history is rusty. What ancient pact is this?"
Langdon took a deep breath. "The destruction of Vatican City."
"Destroy Vatican City?" The camerlegno looked less frightened than confused. "But that would be impossible."
Vittoria shook her head. "I'm afraid we have some more bad news."
"Is this true?" the camerlegno demanded, looking amazed as he turned from Vittoria to Olivetti.
"Signore," Olivetti assured, "I'll admit there is some sort of device here. It is visible on one of our security monitors, but as for Ms. Vetra's claims as to the power of this substance, I cannot possibly - "
"Wait a minute," the camerlegno said. "You can see this thing?"
"Yes, signore. On wireless camera #86."
"Then why haven't you recovered it?" The camerlegno's voice echoed anger now.
"Very difficult, signore." Olivetti stood straight as he explained the situation.
The camerlegno listened, and Vittoria sensed his growing concern. "Are you certain it is inside Vatican City?" the camerlegno asked. "Maybe someone took the camera out and is transmitting from somewhere else."
"Impossible," Olivetti said. "Our external walls are shielded electronically to protect our internal communications. This signal can only be coming from the inside or we would not be receiving it."
"And I assume," he said, "that you are now looking for this missing camera with all available resources?"
Olivetti shook his head. "No, signore. Locating that camera could take hundreds of man hours. We have a number of other security concerns at the moment, and with all due respect to Ms. Vetra, this droplet she talks about is very small. It could not possibly be as explosive as she claims."
Vittoria's patience evaporated. "That droplet is enough to level Vatican City! Did you even listen to a word I told you?"
"Ma'am," Olivetti said, his voice like steel, "my experience with explosives is extensive."
"Your experience is obsolete," she fired back, equally tough. "Despite my attire, which I realize you find troublesome, I am a senior level physicist at the world's most advanced subatomic research facility. I personally designed the antimatter trap that is keeping that sample from annihilating right now. And I am warning you that unless you find that canister in the next six hours, your guards will have nothing to protect for the next century but a big hole in the ground."
Olivetti wheeled to the camerlegno, his insect eyes flashing rage. "Signore, I cannot in good conscience allow this to go any further. Your time is being wasted by pranksters. The Illuminati? A droplet that will destroy us all?"
"Basta," the camerlegno declared. He spoke the word quietly and yet it seemed to echo across the chamber. Then there was silence. He continued in a whisper. "Dangerous or not, Illuminati or no Illuminati, whatever this thing is, it most certainly should not be inside Vatican City... no less on the eve of the conclave. I want it found and removed. Organize a search immediately."
Olivetti persisted. "Signore, even if we used all the guards to search the complex, it could take days to find this camera. Also, after speaking to Ms. Vetra, I had one of my guards consult our most advanced ballistics guide for any mention of this substance called antimatter. I found no mention of it anywhere. Nothing."
Pompous ass, Vittoria thought. A ballistics guide? Did you try an encyclopedia? Under A!
Olivetti was still talking. "Signore, if you are suggesting we make a naked-eye search of the entirety of Vatican City then I must object."
"Commander." The camerlegno's voice simmered with rage. "May I remind you that when you address me, you are addressing this office. I realize you do not take my position seriously - nonetheless, by law, I am in charge. If I am not mistaken, the cardinals are now safely within the Sistine Chapel, and your security concerns are at a minimum until the conclave breaks. I do not understand why you are hesitant to look for this device. If I did not know better it would appear that you are causing this conclave intentional danger."
Olivetti looked scornful. "How dare you! I have served your Pope for twelve years! And the Pope before that for fourteen years! Since 1438 the Swiss Guard have - "
The walkie-talkie on Olivetti's belt squawked loudly, cutting him off. "Comandante?"
Olivetti snatched it up and pressed the transmitter. "Sto ocupato! Cosa voi!"
"Scusi," the Swiss Guard on the radio said. "Communications here. I thought you would want to be informed that we have received a bomb threat."
Olivetti could not have looked less interested. "So handle it! Run the usual trace, and write it up."
"We did, sir, but the caller..." The guard paused. "I would not trouble you, commander, except that he mentioned the substance you just asked me to research. Antimatter."
Everyone in the room exchanged stunned looks.
"He mentioned what?" Olivetti stammered.
"Antimatter, sir. While we were trying to run a trace, I did some additional research on his claim. The information on antimatter is... well, frankly, it's quite troubling."
"I thought you said the ballistics guide showed no mention of it."
"I found it on-line."
Alleluia, Vittoria thought.
"The substance appears to be quite explosive," the guard said. "It's hard to imagine this information is accurate but it says here that pound for pound antimatter carries about a hundred times more payload than a nuclear warhead."
Olivetti slumped. It was like watching a mountain crumble. Vittoria's feeling of triumph was erased by the look of horror on the camerlegno's face.
"Did you trace the call?" Olivetti stammered.
"No luck. Cellular with heavy encryption. The SAT lines are interfused, so triangulation is out. The IF signature suggests he's somewhere in Rome, but there's really no way to trace him."
"Did he make demands?" Olivetti said, his voice quiet.
"No, sir. Just warned us that there is antimatter hidden inside the complex. He seemed surprised I didn't know. Asked me if I'd seen it yet. You'd asked me about antimatter, so I decided to advise you."
"You did the right thing," Olivetti said. "I'll be down in a minute. Alert me immediately if he calls back."
There was a moment of silence on the walkie-talkie. "The caller is still on the line, sir."
Olivetti looked like he'd just been electrocuted. "The line is open?"
"Yes, sir. We've been trying to trace him for ten minutes, getting nothing but splayed ferreting. He must know we can't touch him because he refuses to hang up until he speaks to the camerlegno."
"Patch him through," the camerlegno commanded. "Now!"
Olivetti wheeled. "Father, no. A trained Swiss Guard negotiator is much better suited to handle this."
Olivetti gave the order.
A moment later, the phone on Camerlegno Ventresca's desk began to ring. The camerlegno rammed his finger down on the speaker-phone button. "Who in the name of God do you think you are?"
The voice emanating from the camerlegno's speaker phone was metallic and cold, laced with arrogance. Everyone in the room listened.
Langdon tried to place the accent. Middle Eastern, perhaps?
"I am a messenger of an ancient brotherhood," the voice announced in an alien cadence. "A brotherhood you have wronged for centuries. I am a messenger of the Illuminati."
Langdon felt his muscles tighten, the last shreds of doubt withering away. For an instant he felt the familiar collision of thrill, privilege, and dead fear that he had experienced when he first saw the ambigram this morning.
"What do you want?" the camerlegno demanded.
"I represent men of science. Men who like yourselves are searching for the answers. Answers to man's destiny, his purpose, his creator."
"Whoever you are," the camerlegno said, "I - "
"Silenzio. You will do better to listen. For two millennia your church has dominated the quest for truth. You have crushed your opposition with lies and prophesies of doom. You have manipulated the truth to serve your needs, murdering those whose discoveries did not serve your politics. Are you surprised you are the target of enlightened men from around the globe?"
"Enlightened men do not resort to blackmail to further their causes."
"Blackmail?" The caller laughed. "This is not blackmail. We have no demands. The abolition of the Vatican is nonnegotiable. We have waited four hundred years for this day. At midnight, your city will be destroyed. There is nothing you can do."
Olivetti stormed toward the speaker phone. "Access to this city is impossible! You could not possibly have planted explosives in here!"
"You speak with the ignorant devotion of a Swiss Guard. Perhaps even an officer? Surely you are aware that for centuries the Illuminati have infiltrated elitist organizations across the globe. Do you really believe the Vatican is immune?"
Jesus, Langdon thought, they've got someone on the inside. It was no secret that infiltration was the Illuminati trademark of power. They had infiltrated the Masons, major banking networks, government bodies. In fact, Churchill had once told reporters that if English spies had infiltrated the Nazis to the degree the Illuminati had infiltrated English Parliament, the war would have been over in one month.
"A transparent bluff," Olivetti snapped. "Your influence cannot possibly extend so far."
"Why? Because your Swiss Guards are vigilant? Because they watch every corner of your private world? How about the Swiss Guards themselves? Are they not men? Do you truly believe they stake their lives on a fable about a man who walks on water? Ask yourself how else the canister could have entered your city. Or how four of your most precious assets could have disappeared this afternoon."
"Our assets?" Olivetti scowled. "What do you mean?"
"One, two, three, four. You haven't missed them by now?"
"What the hell are you talk - " Olivetti stopped short, his eyes rocketing wide as though he'd just been punched in the gut.
"Light dawns," the caller said. "Shall I read their names?"
"What's going on?" the camerlegno said, looking bewildered.
The caller laughed. "Your officer has not yet informed you? How sinful. No surprise. Such pride. I imagine the disgrace of telling you the truth... that four cardinals he had sworn to protect seem to have disappeared..."
Olivetti erupted. "Where did you get this information!"
"Camerlegno," the caller gloated, "ask your commander if all your cardinals are present in the Sistine Chapel."
The camerlegno turned to Olivetti, his green eyes demanding an explanation.
"Signore," Olivetti whispered in the camerlegno's ear, "it is true that four of our cardinals have not yet reported to the Sistine Chapel, but there is no need for alarm. Every one of them checked into the residence hall this morning, so we know they are safely inside Vatican City. You yourself had tea with them only hours ago. They are simply late for the fellowship preceding conclave. We are searching, but I'm sure they just lost track of time and are still out enjoying the grounds."
"Enjoying the grounds?" The calm departed from the camerlegno's voice. "They were due in the chapel over an hour ago!"
Langdon shot Vittoria a look of amazement. Missing cardinals? So that's what they were looking for downstairs?
"Our inventory," the caller said, "you will find quite convincing. There is Cardinal Lamasse from Paris, Cardinal Guidera from Barcelona, Cardinal Ebner from Frankfurt..."
Olivetti seemed to shrink smaller and smaller after each name was read.
The caller paused, as though taking special pleasure in the final name. "And from Italy... Cardinal Baggia."
The camerlegno loosened like a tall ship that had just run sheets first into a dead calm. His frock billowed, and he collapsed in his chair. "I preferiti," he whispered. "The four favorites... including Baggia... the most likely successor as Supreme Pontiff... how is it possible?"
Langdon had read enough about modern papal elections to understand the look of desperation on the camerlegno's face. Although technically any cardinal under eighty years old could become Pope, only a very few had the respect necessary to command a two-thirds majority in the ferociously partisan balloting procedure. They were known as the preferiti. And they were all gone.
Sweat dripped from the camerlegno's brow. "What do you intend with these men?"
"What do you think I intend? I am a descendant of the Hassassin."
Langdon felt a shiver. He knew the name well. The church had made some deadly enemies through the years - the Hassassin, the Knights Templar, armies that had been either hunted by the Vatican or betrayed by them.
"Let the cardinals go," the camerlegno said. "Isn't threatening to destroy the City of God enough?"
"Forget your four cardinals. They are lost to you. Be assured their deaths will be remembered though... by millions. Every martyr's dream. I will make them media luminaries. One by one. By midnight the Illuminati will have everyone's attention. Why change the world if the world is not watching? Public killings have an intoxicating horror about them, don't they? You proved that long ago... the inquisition, the torture of the Knights Templar, the Crusades." He paused. "And of course, la purga."
The camerlegno was silent.
"Do you not recall la purga?" the caller asked. "Of course not, you are a child. Priests are poor historians, anyway. Perhaps because their history shames them?"
"La purga," Langdon heard himself say. "Sixteen sixty-eight. The church branded four Illuminati scientists with the symbol of the cross. To purge their sins."
"Who is speaking?" the voice demanded, sounding more intrigued than concerned. "Who else is there?"
Langdon felt shaky. "My name is not important," he said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. Speaking to a living Illuminatus was disorienting for him... like speaking to George Washington. "I am an academic who has studied the history of your brotherhood."
"Superb," the voice replied. "I am pleased there are still those alive who remember the crimes against us."
"Most of us think you are dead."
"A misconception the brotherhood has worked hard to promote. What else do you know of la purga?"
Langdon hesitated. What else do I know? That this whole situation is insanity, that's what I know! "After the brandings, the scientists were murdered, and their bodies were dropped in public locations around Rome as a warning to other scientists not to join the Illuminati."
"Yes. So we shall do the same. Quid pro quo. Consider it symbolic retribution for our slain brothers. Your four cardinals will die, one every hour starting at eight. By midnight the whole world will be enthralled."
Langdon moved toward the phone. "You actually intend to brand and kill these four men?"
"History repeats itself, does it not? Of course, we will be more elegant and bold than the church was. They killed privately, dropping bodies when no one was looking. It seems so cowardly."
"What are you saying?" Langdon asked. "That you are going to brand and kill these men in public?"
"Very good. Although it depends what you consider public. I realize not many people go to church anymore."
Langdon did a double take. "You're going to kill them in churches?"
"A gesture of kindness. Enabling God to command their souls to heaven more expeditiously. It seems only right. Of course the press will enjoy it too, I imagine."
"You're bluffing," Olivetti said, the cool back in his voice. "You cannot kill a man in a church and expect to get away with it."
"Bluffing? We move among your Swiss Guard like ghosts, remove four of your cardinals from within your walls, plant a deadly explosive at the heart of your most sacred shrine, and you think this is a bluff? As the killings occur and the victims are found, the media will swarm. By midnight the world will know the Illuminati cause."
"And if we stake guards in every church?" Olivetti said.
The caller laughed. "I fear the prolific nature of your religion will make that a trying task. Have you not counted lately? There are over four hundred Catholic churches in Rome. Cathedrals, chapels, tabernacles, abbeys, monasteries, convents, parochial schools..."
Olivetti's face remained hard.
"In ninety minutes it begins," the caller said with a note of finality. "One an hour. A mathematical progression of death. Now I must go."
"Wait!" Langdon demanded. "Tell me about the brands you intend to use on these men."
The killer sounded amused. "I suspect you know what the brands will be already. Or perhaps you are a skeptic? You will see them soon enough. Proof the ancient legends are true."
Langdon felt light-headed. He knew exactly what the man was claiming. Langdon pictured the brand on Leonardo Vetra's chest. Illuminati folklore spoke of five brands in all. Four brands are left, Langdon thought, and four missing cardinals.
"I am sworn," the camerlegno said, "to bring a new Pope tonight. Sworn by God."
"Camerlegno," the caller said, "the world does not need a new Pope. After midnight he will have nothing to rule over but a pile of rubble. The Catholic Church is finished. Your run on earth is done."
The camerlegno looked sincerely sad. "You are misguided. A church is more than mortar and stone. You cannot simply erase two thousand years of faith... any faith. You cannot crush faith simply by removing its earthly manifestations. The Catholic Church will continue with or without Vatican City."
"A noble lie. But a lie all the same. We both know the truth. Tell me, why is Vatican City a walled citadel?"
"Men of God live in a dangerous world," the camerlegno said.
"How young are you? The Vatican is a fortress because the Catholic Church holds half of its equity inside its walls - rare paintings, sculpture, devalued jewels, priceless books... then there is the gold bullion and the real estate deeds inside the Vatican Bank vaults. Inside estimates put the raw value of Vatican City at 48.5 billion dollars. Quite a nest egg you're sitting on. Tomorrow it will be ash. Liquidated assets as it were. You will be bankrupt. Not even men of cloth can work for nothing."
The accuracy of the statement seemed to be reflected in Olivetti's and the camerlegno's shell-shocked looks. Langdon wasn't sure what was more amazing, that the Catholic Church had that kind of money, or that the Illuminati somehow knew about it.
The camerlegno sighed heavily. "Faith, not money, is the backbone of this church."
"More lies," the caller said. "Last year you spent 183 million dollars trying to support your struggling dioceses worldwide. Church attendance is at an all-time low - down forty-six percent in the last decade. Donations are half what they were only seven years ago. Fewer and fewer men are entering the seminary. Although you will not admit it, your church is dying. Consider this a chance to go out with a bang."
Olivetti stepped forward. He seemed less combative now, as if he now sensed the reality facing him. He looked like a man searching for an out. Any out. "And what if some of that bullion went to fund your cause?"
"Do not insult us both."
"We have money."
"As do we. More than you can fathom."
Langdon flashed on the alleged Illuminati fortunes, the ancient wealth of the Bavarian stone masons, the Rothschilds, the Bilderbergers, the legendary Illuminati Diamond.
"I preferiti," the camerlegno said, changing the subject. His voice was pleading. "Spare them. They are old. They - "
"They are virgin sacrifices." The caller laughed. "Tell me, do you think they are really virgins? Will the little lambs squeal when they die? Sacrifici vergini nell' altare di scienza."
The camerlegno was silent for a long time. "They are men of faith," he finally said. "They do not fear death."
The caller sneered. "Leonardo Vetra was a man of faith, and yet I saw fear in his eyes last night. A fear I removed."
Vittoria, who had been silent, was suddenly airborne, her body taut with hatred. "Asino! He was my father!"
A cackle echoed from the speaker. "Your father? What is this? Vetra has a daughter? You should know your father whimpered like a child at the end. Pitiful really. A pathetic man."
Vittoria reeled as if knocked backward by the words. Langdon reached for her, but she regained her balance and fixed her dark eyes on the phone. "I swear on my life, before this night is over, I will find you." Her voice sharpened like a laser. "And when I do..."
The caller laughed coarsely. "A woman of spirit. I am aroused. Perhaps before this night is over, I will find you. And when I do..."
The words hung like a blade. Then he was gone.