Langdon and Vittoria's taxi completed the one-mile sprint up the wide Via della Scrofa in just over a minute. They skidded to a stop on the south side of the Piazza del Popolo just before eight. Not having any lire, Langdon overpaid the driver in U.S. dollars. He and Vittoria jumped out. The piazza was quiet except for the laughter of a handful of locals seated outside the popular Rosati Cafe - a hot spot of the Italian literati. The breeze smelled of espresso and pastry.
Langdon was still in shock over his mistake at the Pantheon. With a cursory glance at this square, however, his sixth sense was already tingling. The piazza seemed subtly filled with Illuminati significance. Not only was it laid out in a perfectly elliptical shape, but dead center stood a towering Egyptian obelisk - a square pillar of stone with a distinctively pyramidal tip. Spoils of Rome's imperial plundering, obelisks were scattered across Rome and referred to by symbologists as "Lofty Pyramids" - skyward extensions of the sacred pyramidal form.
As Langdon's eyes moved up the monolith, though, his sight was suddenly drawn to something else in the background. Something even more remarkable.
"We're in the right place," he said quietly, feeling a sudden exposed wariness. "Have a look at that." Langdon pointed to the imposing Porta del Popolo - the high stone archway at the far end of the piazza. The vaulted structure had been overlooking the piazza for centuries. Dead center of the archway's highest point was a symbolic engraving. "Look familiar?"
Vittoria looked up at the huge carving. "A shining star over a triangular pile of stones?"
Langdon shook his head. "A source of Illumination over a pyramid."
Vittoria turned, her eyes suddenly wide. "Like... the Great Seal of the United States?"
"Exactly. The Masonic symbol on the one-dollar bill."
Vittoria took a deep breath and scanned the piazza. "So where's this damn church?"
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo stood out like a misplaced battleship, askew at the base of a hill on the southeast corner of the piazza. The eleventh-century stone aerie was made even more clumsy by the tower of scaffolding covering the façade.
Langdon's thoughts were a blur as they raced toward the edifice. He stared up at the church in wonder. Could a murder really be about to take place inside? He wished Olivetti would hurry. The gun felt awkward in his pocket.
The church's front stairs were ventaglio - a welcoming, curved fan - ironic in this case because they were blocked with scaffolding, construction equipment, and a sign warning:
Langdon realized that a church closed for renovation meant total privacy for a killer. Not like the Pantheon. No fancy tricks needed here. Only to find a way in.
Vittoria slipped without hesitation between the sawhorses and headed up the staircase.
"Vittoria," Langdon cautioned. "If he's still in there..."
Vittoria did not seem to hear. She ascended the main portico to the church's sole wooden door. Langdon hurried up the stairs behind her. Before he could say a word she had grasped the handle and pulled. Langdon held his breath. The door did not budge.
"There must be another entrance," Vittoria said.
"Probably," Langdon said, exhaling, "but Olivetti will be here in a minute. It's too dangerous to go in. We should cover the church from out here until - "
Vittoria turned, her eyes blazing. "If there's another way in, there's another way out. If this guy disappears, we're fungito."
Langdon knew enough Italian to know she was right.
The alley on the right side of the church was pinched and dark, with high walls on both sides. It smelled of urine - a common aroma in a city where bars outnumbered public rest rooms twenty to one.
Langdon and Vittoria hurried into the fetid dimness. They had gone about fifteen yards down when Vittoria tugged Langdon's arm and pointed.
Langdon saw it too. Up ahead was an unassuming wooden door with heavy hinges. Langdon recognized it as the standard porta sacra - a private entrance for clergy. Most of these entrances had gone out of use years ago as encroaching buildings and limited real estate relegated side entrances to inconvenient alleyways.
Vittoria hurried to the door. She arrived and stared down at the doorknob, apparently perplexed. Langdon arrived behind her and eyed the peculiar donut-shaped hoop hanging where the doorknob should have been.
"An annulus," he whispered. Langdon reached out and quietly lifted the ring in his hand. He pulled the ring toward him. The fixture clicked. Vittoria shifted, looking suddenly uneasy. Quietly, Langdon twisted the ring clockwise. It spun loosely 360 degrees, not engaging. Langdon frowned and tried the other direction with the same result.
Vittoria looked down the remainder of the alley. "You think there's another entrance?"
Langdon doubted it. Most Renaissance cathedrals were designed as makeshift fortresses in the event a city was stormed. They had as few entrances as possible. "If there is another way in," he said, "it's probably recessed in the rear bastion - more of an escape route than an entrance."
Vittoria was already on the move.
Langdon followed deeper into the alley. The walls shot skyward on both sides of him. Somewhere a bell began ringing eight o'clock...
Robert Langdon did not hear Vittoria the first time she called to him. He had slowed at a stained-glass window covered with bars and was trying to peer inside the church.
"Robert!" Her voice was a loud whisper.
Langdon looked up. Vittoria was at the end of the alley. She was pointing around the back of the church and waving to him. Langdon jogged reluctantly toward her. At the base of the rear wall, a stone bulwark jutted out concealing a narrow grotto - a kind of compressed passageway cutting directly into the foundation of the church.
"An entrance?" Vittoria asked.
Langdon nodded. Actually an exit, but we won't get technical.
Vittoria knelt and peered into the tunnel. "Let's check the door. See if it's open."
Langdon opened his mouth to object, but Vittoria took his hand and pulled him into the opening.
"Wait," Langdon said.
She turned impatiently toward him.
Langdon sighed. "I'll go first."
Vittoria looked surprised. "More chivalry?"
"Age before beauty."
"Was that a compliment?"
Langdon smiled and moved past her into the dark. "Careful on the stairs."
He inched slowly into the darkness, keeping one hand on the wall. The stone felt sharp on his fingertips. For an instant Langdon recalled the ancient myth of Daedelus, how the boy kept one hand on the wall as he moved through the Minotaur's labyrinth, knowing he was guaranteed to find the end if he never broke contact with the wall. Langdon moved forward, not entirely certain he wanted to find the end.
The tunnel narrowed slightly, and Langdon slowed his pace. He sensed Vittoria close behind him. As the wall curved left, the tunnel opened into a semicircular alcove. Oddly, there was faint light here. In the dimness Langdon saw the outline of a heavy wooden door.
"Uh oh," he said.
"Was?" Vittoria arrived at his side.
Langdon pointed. Lit by a shaft of light coming from within, the door hung ajar... its hinges splintered by a wrecking bar still lodged in the wood.
They stood a moment in silence. Then, in the dark, Langdon felt Vittoria's hands on his chest, groping, sliding beneath his jacket.
"Relax, professor," she said. "I'm just getting the gun."
At that moment, inside the Vatican Museums, a task force of Swiss Guards spread out in all directions. The museum was dark, and the guards wore U.S. Marine issue infrared goggles. The goggles made everything appear an eerie shade of green. Every guard wore headphones connected to an antennalike detector that he waved rhythmically in front of him - the same devices they used twice a week to sweep for electronic bugs inside the Vatican. They moved methodically, checking behind statues, inside niches, closets, under furniture. The antennae would sound if they detected even the tiniest magnetic field.
Tonight, however, they were getting no readings at all.
The interior of Santa Maria del Popolo was a murky cave in the dimming light. It looked more like a half-finished subway station than a cathedral. The main sanctuary was an obstacle course of torn-up flooring, brick pallets, mounds of dirt, wheelbarrows, and even a rusty backhoe. Mammoth columns rose through the floor, supporting a vaulted roof. In the air, silt drifted lazily in the muted glow of the stained glass. Langdon stood with Vittoria beneath a sprawling Pinturicchio fresco and scanned the gutted shrine.
Nothing moved. Dead silence.
Vittoria held the gun out in front of her with both hands. Langdon checked his watch: 8:04 P.M. We're crazy to be in here, he thought. It's too dangerous. Still he knew if the killer were inside, the man could leave through any door he wanted, making a one-gun outside stakeout totally fruitless. Catching him inside was the only way... that was, if he was even still here. Langdon felt guilt-ridden over the blunder that had cost everyone their chance at the Pantheon. He was in no position to insist on precaution now; he was the one who had backed them into this corner.
Vittoria looked harrowed as she scanned the church. "So," she whispered. "Where is this Chigi Chapel?"
Langdon gazed through the dusky ghostliness toward the back of the cathedral and studied the outer walls. Contrary to common perception, Renaissance cathedrals invariably contained multiple chapels, huge cathedrals like Notre Dame having dozens. Chapels were less rooms than they were hollows - semicircular niches holding tombs around a church's perimeter wall.
Bad news, Langdon thought, seeing the four recesses on each side wall. There were eight chapels in all. Although eight was not a particularly overwhelming number, all eight openings were covered with huge sheets of clear polyurethane due to the construction, the translucent curtains apparently intended to keep dust off the tombs inside the alcoves.
"It could be any of those draped recesses," Langdon said. "No way to know which is the Chigi without looking inside every one. Could be a good reason to wait for Oliv - "
"Which is the secondary left apse?" she asked.
Langdon studied her, surprised by her command of architectural terminology. "Secondary left apse?"
Vittoria pointed at the wall behind him. A decorative tile was embedded in the stone. It was engraved with the same symbol they had seen outside - a pyramid beneath a shining star. The grime-covered plaque beside it read:
Coat of arms of Alexander Chigi whose tomb is located in the secondary left apse of this Cathedral
Langdon nodded. Chigi's coat of arms was a pyramid and star? He suddenly found himself wondering if the wealthy patron Chigi had been an Illuminatus. He nodded to Vittoria. "Nice work, Nancy Drew."
"Never mind. I - "
A piece of metal clattered to the floor only yards away. The clang echoed through the entire church. Langdon pulled Vittoria behind a pillar as she whipped the gun toward the sound and held it there. Silence. They waited. Again there was sound, this time a rustling. Langdon held his breath. I never should have let us come in here! The sound moved closer, an intermittent scuffling, like a man with a limp. Suddenly around the base of the pillar, an object came into view.
"Figlio di puttana!" Vittoria cursed under her breath, jumping back. Langdon fell back with her.
Beside the pillar, dragging a half-eaten sandwich in paper, was an enormous rat. The creature paused when it saw them, staring a long moment down the barrel of Vittoria's weapon, and then, apparently unmoved, continued dragging its prize off to the recesses of the church.
"Son of a..." Langdon gasped, his heart racing.
Vittoria lowered the gun, quickly regaining her composure. Langdon peered around the side of the column to see a workman's lunchbox splayed on the floor, apparently knocked off a sawhorse by the resourceful rodent.
Langdon scanned the basilica for movement and whispered, "If this guy's here, he sure as hell heard that. You sure you don't want to wait for Olivetti?"
"Secondary left apse," Vittoria repeated. "Where is it?"
Reluctantly Langdon turned and tried to get his bearings. Cathedral terminology was like stage directions - totally counterintuitive. He faced the main altar. Stage center. Then he pointed with his thumb backward over his shoulder.
They both turned and looked where he was pointing.
It seemed the Chigi Chapel was located in the third of four recessed alcoves to their right. The good news was that Langdon and Vittoria were on the correct side of the church. The bad news was that they were at the wrong end. They would have to traverse the length of the cathedral, passing three other chapels, each of them, like the Chigi Chapel, covered with translucent plastic shrouds.
"Wait," Langdon said. "I'll go first."
"I'm the one who screwed up at the Pantheon."
She turned. "But I'm the one with the gun."
In her eyes Langdon could see what she was really thinking... I'm the one who lost my father. I'm the one who helped build a weapon of mass destruction. This guy's kneecaps are mine...
Langdon sensed the futility and let her go. He moved beside her, cautiously, down the east side of the basilica. As they passed the first shrouded alcove, Langdon felt taut, like a contestant on some surreal game show. I'll take curtain number three, he thought.
The church was quiet, the thick stone walls blocking out all hints of the outside world. As they hurried past one chapel after the other, pale humanoid forms wavered like ghosts behind the rustling plastic. Carved marble, Langdon told himself, hoping he was right. It was 8:06 P.M. Had the killer been punctual and slipped out before Langdon and Vittoria had entered? Or was he still here? Langdon was unsure which scenario he preferred.
They passed the second apse, ominous in the slowly darkening cathedral. Night seemed to be falling quickly now, accentuated by the musty tint of the stained-glass windows. As they pressed on, the plastic curtain beside them billowed suddenly, as if caught in a draft. Langdon wondered if someone somewhere had opened a door.
Vittoria slowed as the third niche loomed before them. She held the gun before her, motioning with her head to the stele beside the apse. Carved in the granite block were two words:
Langdon nodded. Without a sound they moved to the corner of the opening, positioning themselves behind a wide pillar. Vittoria leveled the gun around a corner at the plastic. Then she signaled for Langdon to pull back the shroud.
A good time to start praying, he thought. Reluctantly, he reached over her shoulder. As carefully as possible, he began to pull the plastic aside. It moved an inch and then crinkled loudly. They both froze. Silence. After a moment, moving in slow motion, Vittoria leaned forward and peered through the narrow slit. Langdon looked over her shoulder.
For a moment, neither one of them breathed.
"Empty," Vittoria finally said, lowering the gun. "We're too late."
Langdon did not hear. He was in awe, transported for an instant to another world. In his life, he had never imagined a chapel that looked like this. Finished entirely in chestnut marble, the Chigi Chapel was breathtaking. Langdon's trained eye devoured it in gulps. It was as earthly a chapel as Langdon could fathom, almost as if Galileo and the Illuminati had designed it themselves.
Overhead, the domed cupola shone with a field of illuminated stars and the seven astronomical planets. Below that the twelve signs of the zodiac - pagan, earthly symbols rooted in astronomy. The zodiac was also tied directly to Earth, Air, Fire, Water... the quadrants representing power, intellect, ardor, emotion. Earth is for power, Langdon recalled.
Farther down the wall, Langdon saw tributes to the Earth's four temporal seasons - primavera, estate, autunno, inverno. But far more incredible than any of this were the two huge structures dominating the room. Langdon stared at them in silent wonder. It can't be, he thought. It just can't be! But it was. On either side of the chapel, in perfect symmetry, were two ten-foot-high marble pyramids.
"I don't see a cardinal," Vittoria whispered. "Or an assassin." She pulled aside the plastic and stepped in.
Langdon's eyes were transfixed on the pyramids. What are pyramids doing inside a Christian chapel? And incredibly, there was more. Dead center of each pyramid, embedded in their anterior façades, were gold medallions... medallions like few Langdon had ever seen... perfect ellipses. The burnished disks glimmered in the setting sun as it sifted through the cupola. Galileo's ellipses? Pyramids? A cupola of stars? The room had more Illuminati significance than any room Langdon could have fabricated in his mind.
"Robert," Vittoria blurted, her voice cracking. "Look!"
Langdon wheeled, reality returning as his eyes dropped to where she was pointing. "Bloody hell!" he shouted, jumping backward.
Sneering up at them from the floor was the image of a skeleton - an intricately detailed, marble mosaic depicting "death in flight." The skeleton was carrying a tablet portraying the same pyramid and stars they had seen outside. It was not the image, however, that had turned Langdon's blood cold. It was the fact that the mosaic was mounted on a circular stone - a cupermento - that had been lifted out of the floor like a manhole cover and was now sitting off to one side of a dark opening in the floor.
"Demon's hole," Langdon gasped. He had been so taken with the ceiling he had not even seen it. Tentatively he moved toward the pit. The stench coming up was overwhelming.
Vittoria put a hand over her mouth. "Che puzzo."
"Effluvium," Langdon said. "Vapors from decaying bone." He breathed through his sleeve as he leaned out over the hole, peering down. Blackness. "I can't see a thing."
"You think anybody's down there?"
"No way to know."
Vittoria motioned to the far side of the hole where a rotting, wooden ladder descended into the depths.
Langdon shook his head. "Like hell."
"Maybe there's a flashlight outside in those tools." She sounded eager for an excuse to escape the smell. "I'll look."
"Careful!" Langdon warned. "We don't know for sure that the Hassassin - "
But Vittoria was already gone.
One strong-willed woman, Langdon thought.
As he turned back to the pit, he felt light-headed from the fumes. Holding his breath, he dropped his head below the rim and peered deep into the darkness. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he began to see faint shapes below. The pit appeared to open into a small chamber. Demon's hole. He wondered how many generations of Chigis had been unceremoniously dumped in. Langdon closed his eyes and waited, forcing his pupils to dilate so he could see better in the dark. When he opened his eyes again, a pale muted figure hovered below in the darkness. Langdon shivered but fought the instinct to pull out. Am I seeing things? Is that a body? The figure faded. Langdon closed his eyes again and waited, longer this time, so his eyes would pick up the faintest light.
Dizziness started to set in, and his thoughts wandered in the blackness. Just a few more seconds. He wasn't sure if it was breathing the fumes or holding his head at a low inclination, but Langdon was definitely starting to feel squeamish. When he finally opened his eyes again, the image before him was totally inexplicable.
He was now staring at a crypt bathed in an eerie bluish light. A faint hissing sound reverberated in his ears. Light flickered on the steep walls of the shaft. Suddenly, a long shadow materialized over him. Startled, Langdon scrambled up.
"Look out!" someone exclaimed behind him.
Before Langdon could turn, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck. He spun to see Vittoria twisting a lit blowtorch away from him, the hissing flame throwing blue light around the chapel.
Langdon grabbed his neck. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I was giving you some light," she said. "You backed right into me."
Langdon glared at the portable blowtorch in her hand.
"Best I could do," she said. "No flashlights."
Langdon rubbed his neck. "I didn't hear you come in."
Vittoria handed him the torch, wincing again at the stench of the crypt. "You think those fumes are combustible?"
"Let's hope not."
He took the torch and moved slowly toward the hole. Cautiously, he advanced to the rim and pointed the flame down into the hole, lighting the side wall. As he directed the light, his eyes traced the outline of the wall downward. The crypt was circular and about twenty feet across. Thirty feet down, the glow found the floor. The ground was dark and mottled. Earthy. Then Langdon saw the body.
His instinct was to recoil. "He's here," Langdon said, forcing himself not to turn away. The figure was a pallid outline against the earthen floor. "I think he's been stripped naked." Langdon flashed on the nude corpse of Leonardo Vetra.
"Is it one of the cardinals?"
Langdon had no idea, but he couldn't imagine who the hell else it would be. He stared down at the pale blob. Unmoving. Lifeless. And yet... Langdon hesitated. There was something very strange about the way the figure was positioned. He seemed to be...
Langdon called out. "Hello?"
"You think he's alive?"
There was no response from below.
"He's not moving," Langdon said. "But he looks..." No, impossible.
"He looks what?" Vittoria was peering over the edge now too.
Langdon squinted into the darkness. "He looks like he's standing up."
Vittoria held her breath and lowered her face over the edge for a better look. After a moment, she pulled back. "You're right. He's standing up! Maybe he's alive and needs help!" She called into the hole. "Hello?! Mi puo sentire?"
There was no echo off the mossy interior. Only silence.
Vittoria headed for the rickety ladder. "I'm going down."
Langdon caught her arm. "No. It's dangerous. I'll go."
This time Vittoria didn't argue.