Professor Langdon?" Sato said. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Are you okay?"
Langdon hoisted his daybag higher onto his shoulder and laid his hand on top of it, as if somehow this might better hide the cube-shaped package he was carrying. He could feel his face had gone ashen. "I'm . . . just worried about Peter." Sato cocked her head, eyeing him askew.
Langdon felt a sudden wariness that Sato's involvement tonight might relate to this small package that Solomon had entrusted to him. Peter had warned Langdon: Powerful people want to steal this. It would be dangerous in the wrong hands. Langdon couldn't imagine why the CIA would want a little box containing a talisman . . . or even what the talisman could be. Ordo ab chao?
Sato stepped closer, her black eyes probing. "I sense you've had a revelation?"
Langdon felt himself sweating now. "No, not exactly."
"What's on your mind?"
"I just . . ." Langdon hesitated, having no idea what to say. He had no intention of revealing the existence of the package in his bag, and yet if Sato took him to the CIA, his bag most certainly would be searched on the way in. "Actually . . ." he fibbed, "I have another idea about the numbers on Peter's hand."
Sato's expression revealed nothing. "Yes?" She glanced over at Anderson now, who was just arriving from greeting the forensics team that had finally arrived.
Langdon swallowed hard and crouched down beside the hand, wondering what he could possibly come up with to tell them. You're a teacher, Robert--improvise! He took one last look at the seven tiny symbols, hoping for some sort of inspiration.
As Langdon's eidetic memory skimmed through his mental encyclopedia of symbols, he could find only one possible point to make. It was something that had occurred to him initially, but had seemed unlikely. At the moment, however, he had to buy time to think.
"Well," he began, "a symbologist's first clue that he's on the wrong track when deciphering symbols and codes is when he starts interpreting symbols using multiple symbolic languages. For example, when I told you this text was Roman and Arabic, that was a poor analysis because I used multiple symbolic systems. The same is true for Roman and runic."
Sato crossed her arms and arched her eyebrows as if to say, "Go on." "In general, communications are made in one language, not multiple languages, and so a symbologist's first job with any text is to find a single consistent symbolic system that applies to the entire text."
"And you see a single system now?"
"Well, yes . . . and no." Langdon's experience with the rotational symmetry of ambigrams had taught him that symbols sometimes had meanings from multiple angles. In this case, he realized there was indeed a way to view all seven symbols in a single language. "If we manipulated the hand slightly, the language will become consistent." Eerily, the manipulation Langdon was about to perform was one that seemed to have been suggested by Peter's captor already when he spoke the ancient Hermetic adage. As above, so below.
Langdon felt a chill as he reached out and grasped the wooden base on which Peter's hand was secured. Gently, he turned the base upside down so that Peter's extended fingers were now pointing straight down. The symbols on the palm instantly transformed themselves.
"From this angle," Langdon said, "X-I-I-I becomes a valid Roman numeral--thirteen. Moreover, the rest of the characters can be interpreted using the Roman alphabet--SBB." Langdon assumed the analysis would elicit blank shrugs, but Anderson's expression immediately changed.
"SBB?" the chief demanded.
Sato turned to Anderson. "If I'm not mistaken, that sounds like a familiar numbering system here in the Capitol Building."
Anderson looked pale. "It is."
Sato gave a grim smile and nodded to Anderson. "Chief, follow me, please. I'd like a word in private."
As Director Sato led Chief Anderson out of earshot, Langdon stood alone in bewilderment. What the hell is going on here? And what is SBB XIII?
Chief Anderson wondered how this night could possibly get any stranger. The hand says SBB13? He was amazed any outsider had even heard of SBB . . . much less SBB13. Peter Solomon's index finger, it seemed, was not directing them upward as it had appeared . . . but rather was pointing in quite the opposite direction. Director Sato led Anderson over to a quiet area near the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson. "Chief," she said, "I trust you know exactly where SBB Thirteen is located?"
"Do you know what's inside?"
"No, not without looking. I don't think it's been used in decades."
"Well, you're going to open it up."
Anderson did not appreciate being told what he would do in his own building. "Ma'am, that may be problematic. I'll have to check the assignment roster first. As you know, most of the lower levels are private offices or storage, and security protocol regarding private--"
"You will unlock SBB Thirteen for me," Sato said, "or I will call OS and send in a team with a battering ram."
Anderson stared at her a long moment and then pulled out his radio, raising it to his lips. "This is Anderson. I need someone to unlock the SBB. Have someone meet me there in five minutes."
The voice that replied sounded confused. "Chief, confirming you said SBB?"
"Correct. SBB. Send someone immediately. And I'll need a flashlight." He stowed his radio. Anderson's heart was pounding as Sato stepped closer, lowering her voice even further.
"Chief, time is short," she whispered, "and I want you to get us down to SBB Thirteen as quickly as possible."
"I also need something else from you."
In addition to breaking and entering? Anderson was in no position to protest, and yet it had not gone unnoticed by him that Sato had arrived within minutes of Peter's hand appearing in the Rotunda, and that she now was using the situation to demand access to private sections of the U.S. Capitol. She seemed so far ahead of the curve tonight that she was practically defining it.
Sato motioned across the room toward the professor. "The duffel bag on Langdon's shoulder."
Anderson glanced over. "What about it?"
"I assume your staff X-rayed that bag when Langdon entered the building?"
"Of course. All bags are scanned." "I want to see that X-ray. I want to know what's in his bag."
Anderson looked over at the bag Langdon had been carrying all evening. "But . . . wouldn't it be easier just to ask him?"
"What part of my request was unclear?"
Anderson pulled out his radio again and called in her request. Sato gave Anderson her BlackBerry address and requested that his team e-mail her a digital copy of the X-ray as soon as they had located it. Reluctantly Anderson complied.
Forensics was now collecting the severed hand for the Capitol Police, but Sato ordered them to deliver it directly to her team at Langley. Anderson was too tired to protest. He had just been run over by a tiny Japanese steamroller.
"And I want that ring," Sato called over to Forensics.
The chief technician seemed ready to question her but thought better of it. He removed the gold ring from Peter's hand, placed it in a clear specimen bag, and gave it to Sato. She slipped it into her jacket pocket, and then turned to Langdon.
"We're leaving, Professor. Bring your things."
"Where are we going?" Langdon replied.
"Just follow Mr. Anderson."
Yes, Anderson thought, and follow me closely. The SBB was a section of the Capitol that few ever visited. To reach it, they would pass through a sprawling labyrinth of tiny chambers and tight passages buried beneath the crypt. Abraham Lincoln's youngest son, Tad, had once gotten lost down there and almost perished. Anderson was starting to suspect that if Sato had her way, Robert Langdon might suffer a similar fate.
Systems security specialist Mark Zoubianis had always prided himself on his ability to multitask. At the moment, he was seated on his futon along with a TV remote, a cordless phone, a laptop, a PDA, and a large bowl of Pirate's Booty. With one eye on the muted Redskins game and one eye on his laptop, Zoubianis was speaking on his Bluetooth headset with a woman he had not heard from in over a year.
Leave it to Trish Dunne to call on the night of a play-off game.
Confirming her social ineptitude yet again, his former colleague had chosen the Redskins game as a perfect moment to chat him up and request a favor. After some brief small talk about the old days and how she missed his great jokes, Trish had gotten to her point: she was trying to unmask a hidden IP address, probably that of a secure server in the D.C. area. The server contained a small text document, and she wanted access to it . . . or at the very least, some information about whose document it was.
Right guy, wrong timing, he had told her. Trish then showered him with her finest geek flattery, most of which was true, and before Zoubianis knew it, he was typing a strange-looking IP address into his laptop.
Zoubianis took one look at the number and immediately felt uneasy. "Trish, this IP has a funky format. It's written in a protocol that isn't even publicly available yet. It's probably gov intel or military."
"Military?" Trish laughed. "Believe me, I just pulled a redacted document off this server, and it was not military." Zoubianis pulled up his terminal window and tried a traceroute. "You said your traceroute died?"
"Yeah. Twice. Same hop."
"Mine, too." He pulled up a diagnostic probe and launched it. "And what's so interesting about this IP?"
"I ran a delegator that tapped a search engine at this IP and pulled a redacted document. I need to see the rest of the document. I'm happy to pay them for it, but I can't figure out who owns the IP or how to access it."
Zoubianis frowned at his screen. "Are you sure about this? I'm running a diagnostic, and this firewall coding looks . . . pretty serious."
"That's why you get the big bucks."
Zoubianis considered it. They'd offered him a fortune for a job this easy. "One question, Trish. Why are you so hot on this?"
Trish paused. "I'm doing a favor for a friend."
"Must be a special friend."
"She is." Zoubianis chuckled and held his tongue. I knew it.
"Look," Trish said, sounding impatient. "Are you good enough to unmask this IP? Yes or no?"
"Yes, I'm good enough. And yes, I know you're playing me like a fiddle."
"How long will it take you?"
"Not long," he said, typing as he spoke. "I should be able to get into a machine on their network within ten minutes or so. Once I'm in and know what I'm looking at, I'll call you back."
"I appreciate it. So, are you doing well?"
Now she asks? "Trish, for God's sake, you called me on the night of a play-off game and now you want to chat? Do you want me to hack this IP or not?"
"Thanks, Mark. I appreciate it. I'll be waiting for your call."
"Fifteen minutes." Zoubianis hung up, grabbed his bowl of Pirate's Booty, and unmuted the game.
Where are they taking me?
As Langdon hurried with Anderson and Sato into the depths of the Capitol, he felt his heart rate increasing with each downward step. They had begun their journey through the west portico of the Rotunda, descending a marble staircase and then doubling back through a wide doorway into the famous chamber directly beneath the Rotunda floor.
The Capitol Crypt.
The air was heavier here, and Langdon was already feeling claustrophobic. The crypt's low ceiling and soft uplighting accentuated the robust girth of the forty Doric columns required to support the vast stone floor directly overhead. Relax, Robert.
"This way," Anderson said, moving quickly as he angled to the left across the wide circular space. Thankfully, this particular crypt contained no bodies. Instead it contained several statues, a model of the Capitol, and a low storage area for the wooden catafalque on which coffins were laid for state funerals. The entourage hurried through, without even a glance at the four-pointed marble compass in the center of the floor where the Eternal Flame had once burned.
Anderson seemed to be in a hurry, and Sato once again had her head buried in her BlackBerry. Cellular service, Langdon had heard, was boosted and broadcast to all corners of the Capitol Building to support the hundreds of government phone calls that took place here every day.
After diagonally crossing the crypt, the group entered a dimly lit foyer and began winding through a convoluted series of hallways and dead ends. The warren of passages contained numbered doorways, each of which bore an identification number. Langdon read the doors as they snaked their way around.
S154 . . . S153 . . . S152 . . .
He had no idea what lay behind these doors, but at least one thing now seemed clear--the meaning of the tattoo on Peter Solomon's palm.
SBB13 appeared to be a numbered doorway somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol Building.
"What are all these doorways?" Langdon asked, clutching his daybag tightly to his ribs and wondering what Solomon's tiny package could possibly have to do with a door marked SBB13.
"Offices and storage," Anderson said. "Private offices and storage," he added, glancing back at Sato.
Sato did not even glance up from her BlackBerry.
"They look tiny," Langdon said.
"Glorified closets, most of them, but they're still some of the most sought-after real estate in D.C. This is the heart of the original Capitol, and the old Senate chamber is two stories above us."
"And SBB Thirteen?" Langdon asked. "Whose office is that?"
"Nobody's. The SBB is a private storage area, and I must say, I'm puzzled how--"
"Chief Anderson," Sato interrupted without looking up from her BlackBerry. "Just take us there, please."
Anderson clenched his jaw and guided them on in silence through what was now feeling like a hybrid self-storage facility and epic labyrinth. On almost every wall, directional signs pointed back and forth, apparently attempting to locate specific office blocks in this network of hallways.
S142 to S152 . . .
ST1 to ST70 . . .
H1 to H166 & HT1 to HT67 . . .
Langdon doubted he could ever find his way out of here alone. This place is a maze. From all he could gather, office numbers began with either an S or an H depending on whether they were on the Senate side of the building or the House side. Areas designated ST and HT were apparently on a level that Anderson called Terrace Level.
Still no signs for SBB.
Finally they arrived at a heavy steel security door with a key-card entry box.
Langdon sensed they were getting closer.
Anderson reached for his key card but hesitated, looking uncomfortable with Sato's demands.
"Chief," Sato prompted. "We don't have all night."
Anderson reluctantly inserted his key card. The steel door released. He pushed it open, and they stepped through into the foyer beyond. The heavy door clicked shut behind them.
Langdon wasn't sure what he had hoped to see in this foyer, but the sight in front of him was definitely not it. He was staring at a descending stairway. "Down again?" he said, stopping short. "There's a level under the crypt?"
"Yes," Anderson said. "SB stands for `Senate Basement.' "
Langdon groaned. Terrific.
The headlights winding up the SMSC's wooded access road were the first the guard had seen in the last hour. Dutifully, he turned down the volume on his portable TV set and stashed his snacks beneath the counter. Lousy timing. The Redskins were completing their opening drive, and he didn't want to miss it.
As the car drew closer, the guard checked the name on the notepad in front of him.
Dr. Christopher Abaddon.
Katherine Solomon had just called to alert Security of this guest's imminent arrival. The guard had no idea who this doctor might be, but he was apparently very good at doctoring; he was arriving in a black stretch limousine. The long, sleek vehicle rolled to a stop beside the guardhouse, and the driver's tinted window lowered silently.
"Good evening," the chauffeur said, doffing his cap. He was a powerfully built man with a shaved head. He was listening to the football game on his radio. "I have Dr. Christopher Abaddon for Ms. Katherine Solomon?"
The guard nodded. "Identification, please."
The chauffeur looked surprised. "I'm sorry, didn't Ms. Solomon call ahead?"
The guard nodded, stealing a glance at the television. "I'm still required to scan and log visitor identification. Sorry, regulations. I'll need to see the doctor's ID."
"Not a problem." The chauffeur turned backward in his seat and spoke in hushed tones through the privacy screen. As he did, the guard stole another peek at the game. The Redskins were breaking from the huddle now, and he hoped to get this limo through before the next play.
The chauffeur turned forward again and held out the ID that he'd apparently just received through the privacy screen.
The guard took the card and quickly scanned it into his system. The D.C. driver's license showed one Christopher Abaddon from Kalorama Heights. The photo depicted a handsome blond gentleman wearing a blue blazer, a necktie, and a satin pocket square. Who the hell wears a pocket square to the DMV?
A muffled cheer went up from the television set, and the guard wheeled just in time to see a Redskins player dancing in the end zone, his finger pointed skyward. "I missed it," the guard grumbled, returning to the window.
"Okay," he said, returning the license to the chauffeur. "You're all set."
As the limo pulled through, the guard returned to his TV, hoping for a replay.
As Mal'akh drove his limo up the winding access road, he couldn't help but smile. Peter Solomon's secret museum had been simple to breach. Sweeter still, tonight was the second time in twenty-four hours that Mal'akh had broken into one of Solomon's private spaces. Last night, a similar visit had been made to Solomon's home.
Although Peter Solomon had a magnificent country estate in Potomac, he spent much of his time in the city at his penthouse apartment at the exclusive Dorchester Arms. His building, like most that catered to the super-rich, was a veritable fortress. High walls. Guard gates. Guest lists. Secured underground parking.
Mal'akh had driven this very limousine up to the building's guardhouse, doffed his chauffeur's cap from his shaved head, and proclaimed, "I have Dr. Christopher Abaddon. He is an invited guest of Mr. Peter Solomon." Mal'akh spoke the words as if he were announcing the Duke of York.
The guard checked a log and then Abaddon's ID. "Yes, I see Mr. Solomon is expecting Dr. Abaddon." He pressed a button and the gate opened. "Mr. Solomon is in the penthouse apartment. Have your guest use the last elevator on the right. It goes all the way up."
"Thank you." Mal'akh tipped his hat and drove through.
As he wound deep into the garage, he scanned for security cameras. Nothing. Apparently, those who lived here were neither the kind of people who broke into cars nor the kind of people who appreciated being watched.
Mal'akh parked in a dark corner near the elevators, lowered the divider between the driver's compartment and the passenger compartment, and slithered through the opening into the back of the limo. Once in back, he got rid of his chauffeur's cap and donned his blond wig. Straightening his jacket and tie, he checked the mirror to make sure he had not smeared his makeup. Mal'akh was not about to take any chances. Not tonight.
I have waited too long for this.
Seconds later, Mal'akh was stepping into the private elevator. The ride to the top was silent and smooth. When the door opened, he found himself in an elegant, private foyer. His host was already waiting.
"Dr. Abaddon, welcome."
Mal'akh looked into the man's famous gray eyes and felt his heart begin to race. "Mr. Solomon, I appreciate your seeing me."
"Please, call me Peter." The two men shook hands. As Mal'akh gripped the older man's palm, he saw the gold Masonic ring on Solomon's hand . . . the same hand that had once aimed a gun at Mal'akh. A voice whispered from Mal'akh's distant past. If you pull that trigger, I will haunt you forever.
"Please come in," Solomon said, ushering Mal'akh into an elegant living room whose expansive windows offered an astonishing view of the Washington skyline.
"Do I smell tea steeping?" Mal'akh asked as he entered.
Solomon looked impressed. "My parents always greeted guests with tea. I've carried on that tradition." He led Mal'akh into the living room, where a tea service was waiting in front of the fire. "Cream and sugar?"
"Black, thank you."
Again Solomon looked impressed. "A purist." He poured them both a cup of black tea. "You said you needed to discuss something with me that was sensitive in nature and could be discussed only in private."
"Thank you. I appreciate your time."
"You and I are Masonic brothers now. We have a bond. Tell me how I can help you."
"First, I would like to thank you for the honor of the thirty-third degree a few months ago. This is deeply meaningful to me."
"I'm glad, but please know that those decisions are not mine alone. They are by vote of the Supreme Council."
"Of course." Mal'akh suspected Peter Solomon had probably voted against him, but within the Masons, as with all things, money was power. Mal'akh, after achieving the thirty-second degree in his own lodge, had waited only a month before making a multimillion-dollar donation to charity in the name of the Masonic Grand Lodge. The unsolicited act of selflessness, as Mal'akh anticipated, was enough to earn him a quick invitation into the elite thirty-third degree. And yet I have learned no secrets.
Despite the age-old whispers--"All is revealed at the thirty-third degree"--Mal'akh had been told nothing new, nothing of relevance to his quest. But he had never expected to be told. The inner circle of Freemasonry contained smaller circles still . . . circles Mal'akh would not see for years, if ever. He didn't care. His initiation had served its purpose. Something unique had happened within that Temple Room, and it had given Mal'akh power over all of them. I no longer play by your rules.
"You do realize," Mal'akh said, sipping his tea, "that you and I met many years ago."
Solomon looked surprised. "Really? I don't recall."
"It was quite a long time ago." And Christopher Abaddon is not my real name.
"I'm so sorry. My mind must be getting old. Remind me how I know you?" Mal'akh smiled one last time at the man he hated more than any other man on earth. "It's unfortunate that you don't recall."
In one fluid motion, Mal'akh pulled a small device from his pocket and extended it outward, driving it hard into the man's chest. There was a flash of blue light, the sharp sizzle of the stun- gun discharge, and a gasp of pain as one million volts of electricity coursed through Peter Solomon's body. His eyes went wide, and he slumped motionless in his chair. Mal'akh stood up now, towering over the man, salivating like a lion about to consume his injured prey.
Solomon was gasping, straining to breathe.
Mal'akh saw fear in his victim's eyes and wondered how many people had ever seen the great Peter Solomon cower. Mal'akh savored the scene for several long seconds. He took a sip of tea, waiting for the man to catch his breath.
Solomon was twitching, attempting to speak. "Wh-why?" he finally managed.
"Why do you think?" Mal'akh demanded.
Solomon looked truly bewildered. "You want . . . money?"
Money? Mal'akh laughed and took another sip of tea. "I gave the Masons millions of dollars; I have no need of wealth." I come for wisdom, and he offers me wealth.
"Then what . . . do you want?"
"You possess a secret. You will share it with me tonight."
Solomon struggled to lift his chin so he could look Mal'akh in the eye. "I don't . . . understand."
"No more lies!" Mal'akh shouted, advancing to within inches of the paralyzed man. "I know what is hidden here in Washington."
Solomon's gray eyes were defiant. "I have no idea what you're talking about!"
Mal'akh took another sip of tea and set the cup on a coaster. "You spoke those same words to me ten years ago, on the night of your mother's death."
Solomon's eyes shot wide open. "You . . . ?"
"She didn't have to die. If you had given me what I demanded . . ."
The older man's face contorted in a mask of horrified recognition . . . and disbelief.
"I warned you," Mal'akh said, "if you pulled the trigger, I would haunt you forever." "But you're--"
Mal'akh lunged, driving the Taser hard into Solomon's chest again. There was another flash of blue light, and Solomon went completely limp.
Mal'akh put the Taser back in his pocket and calmly finished his tea. When he was done, he dabbed his lips with a monogrammed linen napkin and peered down at his victim. "Shall we go?"
Solomon's body was motionless, but his eyes were wide and engaged.
Mal'akh got down close and whispered in the man's ear. "I'm taking you to a place where only truth remains."
Without another word, Mal'akh wadded up the monogrammed napkin and stuffed it into Solomon's mouth. Then he hoisted the limp man onto his broad shoulders and headed for the private elevator. On his way out, he picked up Solomon's iPhone and keys from the hall table.
Tonight you will tell me all your secrets, Mal'akh thought. Including why you left me for dead all those years ago.