93

Langdon had no idea where he was going. Reflex was his only compass, driving him away from danger. His elbows and knees burned as he clambered beneath the pews. Still he clawed on. Somewhere a voice was telling him to move left. If you can get to the main aisle, you can dash for the exit. He knew it was impossible. There's a wall of flames blocking the main aisle! His mind hunting for options, Langdon scrambled blindly on. The footsteps closed faster now to his right.

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When it happened, Langdon was unprepared. He had guessed he had another ten feet of pews until he reached the front of the church. He had guessed wrong. Without warning, the cover above him ran out. He froze for an instant, half exposed at the front of the church. Rising in the recess to his left, gargantuan from this vantage point, was the very thing that had brought him here. He had entirely forgotten. Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa rose up like some sort of pornographic still life... the saint on her back, arched in pleasure, mouth open in a moan, and over her, an angel pointing his spear of fire.

A bullet exploded in the pew over Langdon's head. He felt his body rise like a sprinter out of a gate. Fueled only by adrenaline, and barely conscious of his actions, he was suddenly running, hunched, head down, pounding across the front of the church to his right. As the bullets erupted behind him, Langdon dove yet again, sliding out of control across the marble floor before crashing in a heap against the railing of a niche on the right-hand wall.

It was then that he saw her. A crumpled heap near the back of the church. Vittoria! Her bare legs were twisted beneath her, but Langdon sensed somehow that she was breathing. He had no time to help her.

Immediately, the killer rounded the pews on the far left of the church and bore relentlessly down. Langdon knew in a heartbeat it was over. The killer raised the weapon, and Langdon did the only thing he could do. He rolled his body over the banister into the niche. As he hit the floor on the other side, the marble columns of the balustrade exploded in a storm of bullets.

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Langdon felt like a cornered animal as he scrambled deeper into the semicircular niche. Rising before him, the niche's sole contents seemed ironically apropos - a single sarcophagus. Mine perhaps, Langdon thought. Even the casket itself seemed fitting. It was a sc��tola - a small, unadorned, marble box. Burial on a budget. The casket was raised off the floor on two marble blocks, and Langdon eyed the opening beneath it, wondering if he could slide through.

Footsteps echoed behind him.

With no other option in sight, Langdon pressed himself to the floor and slithered toward the casket. Grabbing the two marble supports, one with each hand, he pulled like a breaststroker, dragging his torso into the opening beneath the tomb. The gun went off.

Accompanying the roar of the gun, Langdon felt a sensation he had never felt in his life... a bullet sailing past his flesh. There was a hiss of wind, like the backlash of a whip, as the bullet just missed him and exploded in the marble with a puff of dust. Blood surging, Langdon heaved his body the rest of the way beneath the casket. Scrambling across the marble floor, he pulled himself out from beneath the casket and to the other side.

Dead end.

Langdon was now face to face with the rear wall of the niche. He had no doubt that this tiny space behind the tomb would become his grave. And soon, he realized, as he saw the barrel of the gun appear in the opening beneath the sarcophagus. The Hassassin held the weapon parallel with the floor, pointing directly at Langdon's midsection.

Impossible to miss.

Langdon felt a trace of self-preservation grip his unconscious mind. He twisted his body onto his stomach, parallel with the casket. Facedown, he planted his hands flat on the floor, the glass cut from the archives pinching open with a stab. Ignoring the pain, he pushed. Driving his body upward in an awkward push-up, Langdon arched his stomach off the floor just as the gun went off. He could feel the shock wave of the bullets as they sailed beneath him and pulverized the porous travertine behind. Closing his eyes and straining against exhaustion, Langdon prayed for the thunder to stop.

And then it did.

The roar of gunfire was replaced with the cold click of an empty chamber.

Langdon opened his eyes slowly, almost fearful his eyelids would make a sound. Fighting the trembling pain, he held his position, arched like a cat. He didn't even dare breathe. His eardrums numbed by gunfire, Langdon listened for any hint of the killer's departure. Silence. He thought of Vittoria and ached to help her.

The sound that followed was deafening. Barely human. A guttural bellow of exertion.

The sarcophagus over Langdon's head suddenly seemed to rise on its side. Langdon collapsed on the floor as hundreds of pounds teetered toward him. Gravity overcame friction, and the lid was the first to go, sliding off the tomb and crashing to the floor beside him. The casket came next, rolling off its supports and toppling upside down toward Langdon.

As the box rolled, Langdon knew he would either be entombed in the hollow beneath it or crushed by one of the edges. Pulling in his legs and head, Langdon compacted his body and yanked his arms to his sides. Then he closed his eyes and awaited the sickening crush.

When it came, the entire floor shook beneath him. The upper rim landed only millimeters from the top of his head, rattling his teeth in their sockets. His right arm, which Langdon had been certain would be crushed, miraculously still felt intact. He opened his eyes to see a shaft of light. The right rim of the casket had not fallen all the way to the floor and was still propped partially on its supports. Directly overhead, though, Langdon found himself staring quite literally into the face of death.

The original occupant of the tomb was suspended above him, having adhered, as decaying bodies often did, to the bottom of the casket. The skeleton hovered a moment, like a tentative lover, and then with a sticky crackling, it succumbed to gravity and peeled away. The carcass rushed down to embrace him, raining putrid bones and dust into Langdon's eyes and mouth.

Before Langdon could react, a blind arm was slithering through the opening beneath the casket, sifting through the carcass like a hungry python. It groped until it found Langdon's neck and clamped down. Langdon tried to fight back against the iron fist now crushing his larynx, but he found his left sleeve pinched beneath the edge of the coffin. He had only one arm free, and the fight was a losing battle.

Langdon's legs bent in the only open space he had, his feet searching for the casket floor above him. He found it. Coiling, he planted his feet. Then, as the hand around his neck squeezed tighter, Langdon closed his eyes and extended his legs like a ram. The casket shifted, ever so slightly, but enough.

With a raw grinding, the sarcophagus slid off the supports and landed on the floor. The casket rim crashed onto the killer's arm, and there was a muffled scream of pain. The hand released Langdon's neck, twisting and jerking away into the dark. When the killer finally pulled his arm free, the casket fell with a conclusive thud against the flat marble floor.

Complete darkness. Again.

And silence.

There was no frustrated pounding outside the overturned sarcophagus. No prying to get in. Nothing. As Langdon lay in the dark amidst a pile of bones, he fought the closing darkness and turned his thoughts to her.

Vittoria. Are you alive?

If Langdon had known the truth - the horror to which Vittoria would soon awake - he would have wished for her sake that she were dead.

94

Sitting in the Sistine Chapel among his stunned colleagues, Cardinal Mortati tried to comprehend the words he was hearing. Before him, lit only by the candlelight, the camerlegno had just told a tale of such hatred and treachery that Mortati found himself trembling. The camerlegno spoke of kidnapped cardinals, branded cardinals, murdered cardinals. He spoke of the ancient Illuminati - a name that dredged up forgotten fears - and of their resurgence and vow of revenge against the church. With pain in his voice, the camerlegno spoke of his late Pope... the victim of an Illuminati poisoning. And finally, his words almost a whisper, he spoke of a deadly new technology, antimatter, which in less than two hours threatened to destroy all of Vatican City.

When he was through, it was as if Satan himself had sucked the air from the room. Nobody could move. The camerlegno's words hung in the darkness.

The only sound Mortati could now hear was the anomalous hum of a television camera in back - an electronic presence no conclave in history had ever endured - but a presence demanded by the camerlegno. To the utter astonishment of the cardinals, the camerlegno had entered the Sistine Chapel with two BBC reporters - a man and a woman - and announced that they would be transmitting his solemn statement, live to the world.

Now, speaking directly to the camera, the camerlegno stepped forward. "To the Illuminati," he said, his voice deepening, "and to those of science, let me say this." He paused. "You have won the war."

The silence spread now to the deepest corners of the chapel. Mortati could hear the desperate thumping of his own heart.

"The wheels have been in motion for a long time," the camerlegno said. "Your victory has been inevitable. Never before has it been as obvious as it is at this moment. Science is the new God."

What is he saying? Mortati thought. Has he gone mad? The entire world is hearing this!

"Medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation... these are the miracles about which we now tell our children. These are the miracles we herald as proof that science will bring us the answers. The ancient stories of immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas are no longer relevant. God has become obsolete. Science has won the battle. We concede."

A rustle of confusion and bewilderment swept through the chapel.

"But science's victory," the camerlegno added, his voice intensifying, "has cost every one of us. And it has cost us deeply."

Silence.

"Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience, but it has left us in a world without wonder. Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies. The complexities of the universe have been shredded into mathematical equations. Even our self-worth as human beings has been destroyed. Science proclaims that Planet Earth and its inhabitants are a meaningless speck in the grand scheme. A cosmic accident." He paused. "Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us. Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. We are bombarded with violence, division, fracture, and betrayal. Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? Does science hold anything sacred? Science looks for answers by probing our unborn fetuses. Science even presumes to rearrange our own DNA. It shatters God's world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning... and all it finds is more questions."

Mortati watched in awe. The camerlegno was almost hypnotic now. He had a physical strength in his movements and voice that Mortati had never witnessed on a Vatican altar. The man's voice was wrought with conviction and sadness.

"The ancient war between science and religion is over," the camerlegno said. "You have won. But you have not won fairly. You have not won by providing answers. You have won by so radically reorienting our society that the truths we once saw as signposts now seem inapplicable. Religion cannot keep up. Scientific growth is exponential. It feeds on itself like a virus. Every new breakthrough opens doors for new breakthroughs. Mankind took thousands of years to progress from the wheel to the car. Yet only decades from the car into space. Now we measure scientific progress in weeks. We are spinning out of control. The rift between us grows deeper and deeper, and as religion is left behind, people find themselves in a spiritual void. We cry out for meaning. And believe me, we do cry out. We see UFOs, engage in channeling, spirit contact, out-of-body experiences, mindquests - all these eccentric ideas have a scientific veneer, but they are unashamedly irrational. They are the desperate cry of the modern soul, lonely and tormented, crippled by its own enlightenment and its inability to accept meaning in anything removed from technology."

Mortati could feel himself leaning forward in his seat. He and the other cardinals and people around the world were hanging on this priest's every utterance. The camerlegno spoke with no rhetoric or vitriol. No references to scripture or Jesus Christ. He spoke in modern terms, unadorned and pure. Somehow, as though the words were flowing from God himself, he spoke the modern language... delivering the ancient message. In that moment, Mortati saw one of the reasons the late Pope held this young man so dear. In a world of apathy, cynicism, and technological deification, men like the camerlegno, realists who could speak to our souls like this man just had, were the church's only hope.

The camerlegno was talking more forcefully now. "Science, you say, will save us. Science, I say, has destroyed us. Since the days of Galileo, the church has tried to slow the relentless march of science, sometimes with misguided means, but always with benevolent intention. Even so, the temptations are too great for man to resist. I warn you, look around yourselves. The promises of science have not been kept. Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos. We are a fractured and frantic species... moving down a path of destruction."

The camerlegno paused a long moment and then sharpened his eyes on the camera.

"Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral framework to tell you how to use that power? What kind of God gives a child fire but does not warn the child of its dangers? The language of science comes with no signposts about good and bad. Science textbooks tell us how to create a nuclear reaction, and yet they contain no chapter asking us if it is a good or a bad idea.

"To science, I say this. The church is tired. We are exhausted from trying to be your signposts. Our resources are drying up from our campaign to be the voice of balance as you plow blindly on in your quest for smaller chips and larger profits. We ask not why you will not govern yourselves, but how can you? Your world moves so fast that if you stop even for an instant to consider the implications of your actions, someone more efficient will whip past you in a blur. So you move on. You proliferate weapons of mass destruction, but it is the Pope who travels the world beseeching leaders to use restraint. You clone living creatures, but it is the church reminding us to consider the moral implications of our actions. You encourage people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers, but it is the church who opens its doors and reminds us to commune in person as we were meant to do. You even murder unborn babies in the name of research that will save lives. Again, it is the church who points out the fallacy of this reasoning.

"And all the while, you proclaim the church is ignorant. But who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power? This church is reaching out to you. Reaching out to everyone. And yet the more we reach, the more you push us away. Show me proof there is a God, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God!" The camerlegno had tears in his eyes now. "You ask what does God look like. I say, where did that question come from? The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God's hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?

"Whether or not you believe in God," the camerlegno said, his voice deepening with deliberation, "you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith... all faiths... are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable... With faith we are accountable to each other, to ourselves, and to a higher truth. Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed. If the outside world could see this church as I do... looking beyond the ritual of these walls... they would see a modern miracle... a brotherhood of imperfect, simple souls wanting only to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control."

The camerlegno motioned out over the College of Cardinals, and the BBC camerawoman instinctively followed, panning the crowd.

"Are we obsolete?" the camerlegno asked. "Are these men dino-saurs? Am I? Does the world really need a voice for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the unborn child? Do we really need souls like these who, though imperfect, spend their lives imploring each of us to read the signposts of morality and not lose our way?"

Mortati now realized that the camerlegno, whether consciously or not, was making a brilliant move. By showing the cardinals, he was personalizing the church. Vatican City was no longer a building, it was people - people like the camerlegno who had spent their lives in the service of goodness.

"Tonight we are perched on a precipice," the camerlegno said. "None of us can afford to be apathetic. Whether you see this evil as Satan, corruption, or immorality... the dark force is alive and growing every day. Do not ignore it." The camerlegno lowered his voice to a whisper, and the camera moved in. "The force, though mighty, is not invincible. Goodness can prevail. Listen to your hearts. Listen to God. Together we can step back from this abyss."

Now Mortati understood. This was the reason. Conclave had been violated, but this was the only way. It was a dramatic and desperate plea for help. The camerlegno was speaking to both his enemy and his friends now. He was entreating anyone, friend or foe, to see the light and stop this madness. Certainly someone listening would realize the insanity of this plot and come forward.

The camerlegno knelt at the altar. "Pray with me."

The College of Cardinals dropped to their knees to join him in prayer. Outside in St. Peter's Square and around the globe... a stunned world knelt with them.

95

The Hassassin lay his unconscious trophy in the rear of the van and took a moment to admire her sprawled body. She was not as beautiful as the women he bought, and yet she had an animal strength that excited him. Her body was radiant, dewy with perspiration. She smelled of musk.

As the Hassasin stood there savoring his prize, he ignored the throb in his arm. The bruise from the falling sarcophagus, although painful, was insignificant... well worth the compensation that lay before him. He took consolation in knowing the American who had done this to him was probably dead by now.

Gazing down at his incapacitated prisoner, the Hassassin visualized what lay ahead. He ran a palm up beneath her shirt. Her breasts felt perfect beneath her bra. Yes, he smiled. You are more than worthy. Fighting the urge to take her right there, he closed the door and drove off into the night.

There was no need to alert the press about this killing... the flames would do that for him.

At CERN, Sylvie sat stunned by the camerlegno's address. Never before had she felt so proud to be a Catholic and so ashamed to work at CERN. As she left the recreational wing, the mood in every single viewing room was dazed and somber. When she got back to Kohler's office, all seven phone lines were ringing. Media inquiries were never routed to Kohler's office, so the incoming calls could only be one thing.

Geld. Money calls.

Antimatter technology already had some takers.

Inside the Vatican, Gunther Glick was walking on air as he followed the camerlegno from the Sistine Chapel. Glick and Macri had just made the live transmission of the decade. And what a transmission it had been. The camerlegno had been spellbinding.

Now out in the hallway, the camerlegno turned to Glick and Macri. "I have asked the Swiss Guard to assemble photos for you - photos of the branded cardinals as well as one of His late Holiness. I must warn you, these are not pleasant pictures. Ghastly burns. Blackened tongues. But I would like you to broadcast them to the world."

Glick decided it must be perpetual Christmas inside Vatican City. He wants me to broadcast an exclusive photo of the dead Pope? "Are you sure?" Glick asked, trying to keep the excitement from his voice.

The camerlegno nodded. "The Swiss Guard will also provide you a live video feed of the antimatter canister as it counts down."

Glick stared. Christmas. Christmas. Christmas!

"The Illuminati are about to find out," the camerlegno declared, "that they have grossly overplayed their hand."

96

Like a recurring theme in some demonic symphony, the suffocating darkness had returned.

No light. No air. No exit.

Langdon lay trapped beneath the overturned sarcophagus and felt his mind careening dangerously close to the brink. Trying to drive his thoughts in any direction other than the crushing space around him, Langdon urged his mind toward some logical process... mathematics, music, anything. But there was no room for calming thoughts. I can't move! I can't breathe!

The pinched sleeve of his jacket had thankfully come free when the casket fell, leaving Langdon now with two mobile arms. Even so, as he pressed upward on the ceiling of his tiny cell, he found it immovable. Oddly, he wished his sleeve were still caught. At least it might create a crack for some air.

As Langdon pushed against the roof above, his sleeve fell back to reveal the faint glow of an old friend. Mickey. The greenish cartoon face seemed mocking now.

Langdon probed the blackness for any other sign of light, but the casket rim was flush against the floor. Goddamn Italian perfectionists, he cursed, now imperiled by the same artistic excellence he taught his students to revere... impeccable edges, faultless parallels, and of course, use only of the most seamless and resilient Carrara marble.

Precision can be suffocating.

"Lift the damn thing," he said aloud, pressing harder through the tangle of bones. The box shifted slightly. Setting his jaw, he heaved again. The box felt like a boulder, but this time it raised a quarter of an inch. A fleeting glimmer of light surrounded him, and then the casket thudded back down. Langdon lay panting in the dark. He tried to use his legs to lift as he had before, but now that the sarcophagus had fallen flat, there was no room even to straighten his knees.

As the claustrophobic panic closed in, Langdon was overcome by images of the sarcophagus shrinking around him. Squeezed by delirium, he fought the illusion with every logical shred of intellect he had.

"Sarcophagus," he stated aloud, with as much academic sterility as he could muster. But even erudition seemed to be his enemy today. Sarcophagus is from the Greek "sarx" meaning "flesh," and "phagein" meaning "to eat." I'm trapped in a box literally designed to "eat flesh."

Images of flesh eaten from bone only served as a grim reminder that Langdon lay covered in human remains. The notion brought nausea and chills. But it also brought an idea.

Fumbling blindly around the coffin, Langdon found a shard of bone. A rib maybe? He didn't care. All he wanted was a wedge. If he could lift the box, even a crack, and slide the bone fragment beneath the rim, then maybe enough air could...

Reaching across his body and wedging the tapered end of the bone into the crack between the floor and the coffin, Langdon reached up with his other hand and heaved skyward. The box did not move. Not even slightly. He tried again. For a moment, it seemed to tremble slightly, but that was all.

With the fetid stench and lack of oxygen choking the strength from his body, Langdon realized he only had time for one more effort. He also knew he would need both arms.

Regrouping, he placed the tapered edge of the bone against the crack, and shifting his body, he wedged the bone against his shoulder, pinning it in place. Careful not to dislodge it, he raised both hands above him. As the stifling confine began to smother him, he felt a welling of intensified panic. It was the second time today he had been trapped with no air. Hollering aloud, Langdon thrust upward in one explosive motion. The casket jostled off the floor for an instant. But long enough. The bone shard he had braced against his shoulder slipped outward into the widening crack. When the casket fell again, the bone shattered. But this time Langdon could see the casket was propped up. A tiny slit of light showed beneath the rim.

Exhausted, Langdon collapsed. Hoping the strangling sensation in his throat would pass, he waited. But it only worsened as the seconds passed. Whatever air was coming through the slit seemed imperceptible. Langdon wondered if it would be enough to keep him alive. And if so, for how long? If he passed out, who would know he was even in there?

With arms like lead, Langdon raised his watch again: 10:12 P.M. Fighting trembling fingers, he fumbled with the watch and made his final play. He twisted one of the tiny dials and pressed a button.

As consciousness faded, and the walls squeezed closer, Langdon felt the old fears sweep over him. He tried to imagine, as he had so many times, that he was in an open field. The image he conjured, however, was no help. The nightmare that had haunted him since his youth came crashing back...

The flowers here are like paintings, the child thought, laughing as he ran across the meadow. He wished his parents had come along. But his parents were busy pitching camp.

"Don't explore too far," his mother had said.

He had pretended not to hear as he bounded off into the woods.

Now, traversing this glorious field, the boy came across a pile of fieldstones. He figured it must be the foundation of an old homestead. He would not go near it. He knew better. Besides, his eyes had been drawn to something else - a brilliant lady's slipper - the rarest and most beautiful flower in New Hampshire. He had only ever seen them in books.

Excited, the boy moved toward the flower. He knelt down. The ground beneath him felt mulchy and hollow. He realized his flower had found an extra-fertile spot. It was growing from a patch of rotting wood.

Thrilled by the thought of taking home his prize, the boy reached out... fingers extending toward the stem.

He never reached it.

With a sickening crack, the earth gave way.

In the three seconds of dizzying terror as he fell, the boy knew he would die. Plummeting downward, he braced for the bone-crushing collision. When it came, there was no pain. Only softness.

And cold.

He hit the deep liquid face first, plunging into a narrow blackness. Spinning disoriented somersaults, he groped the sheer walls thatenclosed him on all sides. Somehow, as if by instinct, he sputtered to the surface.

Light.

Faint. Above him. Miles above him, it seemed.

His arms clawed at the water, searching the walls of the hollow for something to grab onto. Only smooth stone. He had fallen through an abandoned well covering. He screamed for help, but his cries reverberated in the tight shaft. He called out again and again. Above him, the tattered hole grew dim.

Night fell.

Time seemed to contort in the darkness. Numbness set in as he treaded water in the depths of the chasm, calling, crying out. He was tormented by visions of the walls collapsing in, burying him alive. His arms ached with fatigue. A few times he thought he heard voices. He shouted out, but his own voice was muted... like a dream.

As the night wore on, the shaft deepened. The walls inched quietly inward. The boy pressed out against the enclosure, pushing it away. Exhausted, he wanted to give up. And yet he felt the water buoy him, cooling his burning fears until he was numb.

When the rescue team arrived, they found the boy barely conscious. He had been treading water for five hours. Two days later, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story called "The Little Swimmer That Could."

97

The Hassassin smiled as he pulled his van into the mammoth stone structure overlooking the Tiber River. He carried his prize up and up... spiraling higher in the stone tunnel, grateful his load was slender.

He arrived at the door.

The Church of Illumination, he gloated. The ancient Illuminati meeting room. Who would have imagined it to be here?

Inside, he lay her on a plush divan. Then he expertly bound her arms behind her back and tied her feet. He knew that what he longed for would have to wait until his final task was finished. Water.

Still, he thought, he had a moment for indulgence. Kneeling beside her, he ran his hand along her thigh. It was smooth. Higher. His dark fingers snaked beneath the cuff of her shorts. Higher.

He stopped. Patience, he told himself, feeling aroused. There is work to be done.

He walked for a moment out onto the chamber's high stone balcony. The evening breeze slowly cooled his ardor. Far below the Tiber raged. He raised his eyes to the dome of St. Peter's, three quarters of a mile away, naked under the glare of hundreds of press lights.

"Your final hour," he said aloud, picturing the thousands of Muslims slaughtered during the Crusades. "At midnight you will meet your God."

Behind him, the woman stirred. The Hassassin turned. He considered letting her wake up. Seeing terror in a woman's eyes was his ultimate aphrodisiac.

He opted for prudence. It would be better if she remained unconscious while he was gone. Although she was tied and would never escape, the Hassassin did not want to return and find her exhausted from struggling. I want your strength preserved... for me.

Lifting her head slightly, he placed his palm beneath her neck and found the hollow directly beneath her skull. The crown/meridian pressure point was one he had used countless times. With crushing force, he drove his thumb into the soft cartilage and felt it depress. The woman slumped instantly. Twenty minutes, he thought. She would be a tantalizing end to a perfect day. After she had served him and died doing it, he would stand on the balcony and watch the midnight Vatican fireworks.

Leaving his prize unconscious on the couch, the Hassassin went downstairs into a torchlit dungeon. The final task. He walked to the table and revered the sacred, metal forms that had been left there for him.

Water. It was his last.

Removing a torch from the wall as he had done three times already, he began heating the end. When the end of the object was white hot, he carried it to the cell.

Inside, a single man stood in silence. Old and alone.

"Cardinal Baggia," the killer hissed. "Have you prayed yet?"

The Italian's eyes were fearless. "Only for your soul."

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