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They contain over 20,000 volumes and are rumored to hold such treasures as Leonardo da Vinci's missing diaries and even unpublished books of the Holy Bible.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."
"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."
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."
"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."
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 God... pray for us sinners... now 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 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.
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?"
"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."
"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."