The Otis elevator climbing the south pillar of the Eiffel Tower was overflowing with tourists. Inside the cramped lift, an austere businessman in a pressed suit gazed down at the boy beside him. "You look pale, son. You should have stayed on the ground."
"I'm okay . . ." the boy answered, struggling to control his anxiety. "I'll get out on the next level." I can't breathe.
The man leaned closer. "I thought by now you would have gotten over this." He brushed the child's cheek affectionately.
The boy felt ashamed to disappoint his father, but he could barely hear through the ringing in his ears. I can't breathe. I've got to get out of this box!
The elevator operator was saying something reassuring about the lift's articulated pistons and puddled-iron construction. Far beneath them, the streets of Paris stretched out in all directions.
Almost there, the boy told himself, craning his neck and looking up at the unloading platform. Just hold on.
As the lift angled steeply toward the upper viewing deck, the shaft began to narrow, its massive struts contracting into a tight, vertical tunnel.
"Dad, I don't think--"
Suddenly a staccato crack echoed overhead. The carriage jerked, swaying awkwardly to one side. Frayed cables began whipping around the carriage, thrashing like snakes. The boy reached out for his father.
Their eyes locked for one terrifying second.
Then the bottom dropped out.
Robert Langdon jolted upright in his soft leather seat, startling out of the semiconscious daydream. He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.
"Mr. Langdon?" The intercom crackled overhead. "We're on final approach."
Langdon sat up straight and slid his lecture notes back into his leather daybag. He'd been halfway through reviewing Masonic symbology when his mind had drifted. The daydream about his late father, Langdon suspected, had been stirred by this morning's unexpected invitation from Langdon's longtime mentor, Peter Solomon.
The other man I never want to disappoint.
The fifty-eight-year-old philanthropist, historian, and scientist had taken Langdon under his wing nearly thirty years ago, in many ways filling the void left by Langdon's father's death. Despite the man's influential family dynasty and massive wealth, Langdon had found humility and warmth in Solomon's soft gray eyes.
Outside the window the sun had set, but Langdon could still make out the slender silhouette of the world's largest obelisk, rising on the horizon like the spire of an ancient gnomon. The 555- foot marble-faced obelisk marked this nation's heart. All around the spire, the meticulous geometry of streets and monuments radiated outward. Even from the air, Washington, D.C., exuded an almost mystical power.
Langdon loved this city, and as the jet touched down, he felt a rising excitement about what lay ahead. The jet taxied to a private terminal somewhere in the vast expanse of Dulles International Airport and came to a stop.
Langdon gathered his things, thanked the pilots, and stepped out of the jet's luxurious interior onto the foldout staircase. The cold January air felt liberating.
Breathe, Robert, he thought, appreciating the wide-open spaces.
A blanket of white fog crept across the runway, and Langdon had the sensation he was stepping into a marsh as he descended onto the misty tarmac.
"Hello! Hello!" a singsong British voice shouted from across the tarmac. "Professor Langdon?"
Langdon looked up to see a middle-aged woman with a badge and clipboard hurrying toward him, waving happily as he approached. Curly blond hair protruded from under a stylish knit wool hat.
"Welcome to Washington, sir!"
Langdon smiled. "Thank you."
"My name is Pam, from passenger services." The woman spoke with an exuberance that was almost unsettling. "If you'll come with me, sir, your car is waiting."
Langdon followed her across the runway toward the Signature terminal, which was surrounded by glistening private jets. A taxi stand for the rich and famous.
"I hate to embarrass you, Professor," the woman said, sounding sheepish, "but you are the Robert Langdon who writes books about symbols and religion, aren't you?"
Langdon hesitated and then nodded.
"I thought so!" she said, beaming. "My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!"
Langdon smiled. "Scandal wasn't really my intention."
The woman seemed to sense Langdon was not in the mood to discuss his work. "I'm sorry. Listen to me rattling on. I know you probably get tired of being recognized . . . but it's your own fault." She playfully motioned to his clothing. "Your uniform gave you away." My uniform? Langdon glanced down at his attire. He was wearing his usual charcoal turtleneck, Harris Tweed jacket, khakis, and collegiate cordovan loafers . . . his standard attire for the classroom, lecture circuit, author photos, and social events.
The woman laughed. "Those turtlenecks you wear are so dated. You'd look much sharper in a tie!"
No chance, Langdon thought. Little nooses.
Neckties had been required six days a week when Langdon attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and despite the headmaster's romantic claims that the origin of the cravat went back to the silk fascalia worn by Roman orators to warm their vocal cords, Langdon knew that, etymologically, cravat actually derived from a ruthless band of "Croat" mercenaries who donned knotted neckerchiefs before they stormed into battle. To this day, this ancient battle garb was donned by modern office warriors hoping to intimidate their enemies in daily boardroom battles.
"Thanks for the advice," Langdon said with a chuckle. "I'll consider a tie in the future."
Mercifully, a professional-looking man in a dark suit got out of a sleek Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal and held up his finger. "Mr. Langdon? I'm Charles with Beltway Limousine." He opened the passenger door. "Good evening, sir. Welcome to Washington."
Langdon tipped Pam for her hospitality and then climbed into the plush interior of the Town Car. The driver showed him the temperature controls, the bottled water, and the basket of hot muffins. Seconds later, Langdon was speeding away on a private access road. So this is how the other half lives.
As the driver gunned the car up Windsock Drive, he consulted his passenger manifest and placed a quick call. "This is Beltway Limousine," the driver said with professional efficiency. "I was asked to confirm once my passenger had landed." He paused. "Yes, sir. Your guest, Mr. Langdon, has arrived, and I will deliver him to the Capitol Building by seven P.M. You're welcome, sir." He hung up.
Langdon had to smile. No stone left unturned. Peter Solomon's attention to detail was one of his most potent assets, allowing him to manage his substantial power with apparent ease. A few billion dollars in the bank doesn't hurt either.
Langdon settled into the plush leather seat and closed his eyes as the noise of the airport faded behind him. The U.S. Capitol was a half hour away, and he appreciated the time alone to gather his thoughts. Everything had happened so quickly today that Langdon only now had begun to think in earnest about the incredible evening that lay ahead.
Arriving under a veil of secrecy, Langdon thought, amused by the prospect.
Ten miles from the Capitol Building, a lone figure was eagerly preparing for Robert Langdon's arrival.
The one who called himself Mal'akh pressed the tip of the needle against his shaved head, sighing with pleasure as the sharp tool plunged in and out of his flesh. The soft hum of the electric device was addictive . . . as was the bite of the needle sliding deep into his dermis and depositing its dye.
I am a masterpiece.
The goal of tattooing was never beauty. The goal was change. From the scarified Nubian priests of 2000 B.C., to the tattooed acolytes of the Cybele cult of ancient Rome, to the moko scars of the modern Maori, humans have tattooed themselves as a way of offering up their bodies in partial sacrifice, enduring the physical pain of embellishment and emerging changed beings.
Despite the ominous admonitions of Leviticus 19:28, which forbade the marking of one's flesh, tattoos had become a rite of passage shared by millions of people in the modern age--everyone from clean-cut teenagers to hard-core drug users to suburban housewives.
The act of tattooing one's skin was a transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh. The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices . . . cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids . . . even bulimia and transgendering. The human spirit craves mastery over its carnal shell.
A single bell chimed on Mal'akh's grandfather clock, and he looked up. Six thirty P.M. Leaving his tools, he wrapped the Kiryu silk robe around his naked, six-foot-three body and strode down the hall. The air inside this sprawling mansion was heavy with the pungent fragrance of his skin dyes and smoke from the beeswax candles he used to sterilize his needles. The towering young man moved down the corridor past priceless Italian antiques--a Piranesi etching, a Savonarola chair, a silver Bugarini oil lamp.
He glanced through a floor-to-ceiling window as he passed, admiring the classical skyline in the distance. The luminous dome of the U.S. Capitol glowed with solemn power against the dark winter sky.
This is where it is hidden, he thought. It is buried out there somewhere.
Few men knew it existed . . . and even fewer knew its awesome power or the ingenious way in which it had been hidden. To this day, it remained this country's greatest untold secret. Those few who did know the truth kept it hidden behind a veil of symbols, legends, and allegory.
Now they have opened their doors to me, Mal'akh thought.
Three weeks ago, in a dark ritual witnessed by America's most influential men, Mal'akh had ascended to the thirty-third degree, the highest echelon of the world's oldest surviving brotherhood. Despite Mal'akh's new rank, the brethren had told him nothing. Nor will they, he knew. That was not how it worked. There were circles within circles . . . brotherhoods within brotherhoods. Even if Mal'akh waited years, he might never earn their ultimate trust.
Fortunately, he did not need their trust to obtain their deepest secret.
My initiation served its purpose.
Now, energized by what lay ahead, he strode toward his bedroom. Throughout his entire home, audio speakers broadcast the eerie strains of a rare recording of a castrato singing the "Lux Aeterna" from the Verdi Requiem--a reminder of a previous life. Mal'akh touched a remote control to bring on the thundering "Dies Irae." Then, against a backdrop of crashing timpani and parallel fifths, he bounded up the marble staircase, his robe billowing as he ascended on sinewy legs.
As he ran, his empty stomach growled in protest. For two days now, Mal'akh had fasted, consuming only water, preparing his body in accordance with the ancient ways. Your hunger will be satisfied by dawn, he reminded himself. Along with your pain.
Mal'akh entered his bedroom sanctuary with reverence, locking the door behind him. As he moved toward his dressing area, he paused, feeling himself drawn to the enormous gilded mirror. Unable to resist, he turned and faced his own reflection. Slowly, as if unwrapping a priceless gift, Mal'akh opened his robe to unveil his naked form. The vision awed him.
I am a masterpiece.
His massive body was shaved and smooth. He lowered his gaze first to his feet, which were tattooed with the scales and talons of a hawk. Above that, his muscular legs were tattooed as carved pillars--his left leg spiraled and his right vertically striated. Boaz and Jachin. His groin and abdomen formed a decorated archway, above which his powerful chest was emblazoned with the double-headed phoenix . . . each head in profile with its visible eye formed by one of Mal'akh's nipples. His shoulders, neck, face, and shaved head were completely covered with an intricate tapestry of ancient symbols and sigils.
I am an artifact . . . an evolving icon.
One mortal man had seen Mal'akh naked, eighteen hours earlier. The man had shouted in fear. "Good God, you're a demon!"
"If you perceive me as such," Mal'akh had replied, understanding as had the ancients that angels and demons were identical--interchangeable archetypes--all a matter of polarity: the guardian angel who conquered your enemy in battle was perceived by your enemy as a demon destroyer.
Mal'akh tipped his face down now and got an oblique view of the top of his head. There, within the crownlike halo, shone a small circle of pale, untattooed flesh. This carefully guarded canvas was Mal'akh's only remaining piece of virgin skin. The sacred space had waited patiently . . . and tonight, it would be filled. Although Mal'akh did not yet possess what he required to complete his masterpiece, he knew the moment was fast approaching.
Exhilarated by his reflection, he could already feel his power growing. He closed his robe and walked to the window, again gazing out at the mystical city before him. It is buried out there somewhere.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Mal'akh went to his dressing table and carefully applied a base of concealer makeup to his face, scalp, and neck until his tattoos had disappeared. Then he donned the special set of clothing and other items he had meticulously prepared for this evening. When he finished, he checked himself in the mirror. Satisfied, he ran a soft palm across his smooth scalp and smiled.
It is out there, he thought. And tonight, one man will help me find it.
As Mal'akh exited his home, he prepared himself for the event that would soon shake the U.S. Capitol Building. He had gone to enormous lengths to arrange all the pieces for tonight.
And now, at last, his final pawn had entered the game.
Robert Langdon was busy reviewing his note cards when the hum of the Town Car's tires changed pitch on the road beneath him. Langdon glanced up, surprised to see where they were.
Memorial Bridge already?
He put down his notes and gazed out at the calm waters of the Potomac passing beneath him. A heavy mist hovered on the surface. Aptly named, Foggy Bottom had always seemed a peculiar site on which to build the nation's capital. Of all the places in the New World, the forefathers had chosen a soggy riverside marsh on which to lay the cornerstone of their utopian society.
Langdon gazed left, across the Tidal Basin, toward the gracefully rounded silhouette of the Jefferson Memorial--America's Pantheon, as many called it. Directly in front of the car, the Lincoln Memorial rose with rigid austerity, its orthogonal lines reminiscent of Athens's ancient Parthenon. But it was farther away that Langdon saw the city's centerpiece--the same spire he had seen from the air. Its architectural inspiration was far, far older than the Romans or the Greeks.
America's Egyptian obelisk.
The monolithic spire of the Washington Monument loomed dead ahead, illuminated against the sky like the majestic mast of a ship. From Langdon's oblique angle, the obelisk appeared ungrounded tonight . . . swaying against the dreary sky as if on an unsteady sea. Langdon felt similarly ungrounded. His visit to Washington had been utterly unexpected. I woke up this morning anticipating a quiet Sunday at home . . . and now I'm a few minutes away from the U.S. Capitol.
This morning at four forty-five, Langdon had plunged into dead-calm water, beginning his day as he always did, swimming fifty laps in the deserted Harvard Pool. His physique was not quite what it had been in his college days as a water-polo all-American, but he was still lean and toned, respectable for a man in his forties. The only difference now was the amount of effort it took Langdon to keep it that way.
When Langdon arrived home around six, he began his morning ritual of hand-grinding Sumatra coffee beans and savoring the exotic scent that filled his kitchen. This morning, however, he was surprised to see the blinking red light on his voice-mail display. Who calls at six A.M. on a Sunday? He pressed the button and listened to the message.
"Good morning, Professor Langdon, I'm terribly sorry for this early-morning call." The polite voice was noticeably hesitant, with a hint of a southern accent. "My name is Anthony Jelbart, and I'm Peter Solomon's executive assistant. Mr. Solomon told me you're an early riser . . . he has been trying to reach you this morning on short notice. As soon as you receive this message, would you be so kind as to call Peter directly? You probably have his new private line, but if not, it's 202-329-5746."
Langdon felt a sudden concern for his old friend. Peter Solomon was impeccably well-bred and courteous, and certainly not the kind of man to call at daybreak on a Sunday unless something was very wrong.
Langdon left his coffee half made and hurried toward his study to return the call.
I hope he's okay.
Peter Solomon had been a friend, mentor, and, although only twelve years Langdon's senior, a father figure to him ever since their first meeting at Princeton University. As a sophomore, Langdon had been required to attend an evening guest lecture by the well-known young historian and philanthropist. Solomon had spoken with a contagious passion, presenting a dazzling vision of semiotics and archetypal history that had sparked in Langdon what would later become his lifelong passion for symbols. It was not Peter Solomon's brilliance, however, but the humility in his gentle gray eyes that had given Langdon the courage to write him a thank-you letter. The young sophomore had never dreamed that Peter Solomon, one of America's wealthiest and most intriguing young intellectuals, would ever write back. But Solomon did. And it had been the beginning of a truly gratifying friendship.
A prominent academic whose quiet manner belied his powerful heritage, Peter Solomon came from the ultrawealthy Solomon family, whose names appeared on buildings and universities all over the nation. Like the Rothschilds in Europe, the surname Solomon had always carried the mystique of American royalty and success. Peter had inherited the mantle at a young age after the death of his father, and now, at fifty-eight, he had held numerous positions of power in his life. He currently served as the head of the Smithsonian Institution. Langdon occasionally ribbed Peter that the lone tarnish on his sterling pedigree was his diploma from a second-rate university--Yale.
Now, as Langdon entered his study, he was surprised to see that he had received a fax from Peter as well.
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY
THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Good morning, Robert,
I need to speak with you at once. Please call me this morning as soon as you can at 202-329- 5746.
Langdon immediately dialed the number, sitting down at his hand-carved oak desk to wait as the call went through.
"Office of Peter Solomon," the familiar voice of the assistant answered. "This is Anthony. May I help you?"
"Hello, this is Robert Langdon. You left me a message earlier--"
"Yes, Professor Langdon!" The young man sounded relieved. "Thank you for calling back so quickly. Mr. Solomon is eager to speak to you. Let me tell him you're on the line. May I put you on hold?"
As Langdon waited for Solomon to get on the line, he gazed down at Peter's name atop the Smithsonian letterhead and had to smile. Not many slackers in the Solomon clan. Peter's ancestral tree burgeoned with the names of wealthy business magnates, influential politicians, and a number of distinguished scientists, some even fellows of London's Royal Society. Solomon's only living family member, his younger sister, Katherine, had apparently inherited the science gene, because she was now a leading figure in a new cutting-edge discipline called Noetic Science.
All Greek to me, Langdon thought, amused to recall Katherine's unsuccessful attempt to explain Noetic Science to him at a party at her brother's home last year. Langdon had listened carefully and then replied, "Sounds more like magic than science."
Katherine winked playfully. "They're closer than you think, Robert."
Now Solomon's assistant returned to the phone. "I'm sorry, Mr. Solomon is trying to get off a conference call. Things are a little chaotic here this morning."
"That's not a problem. I can easily call back."
"Actually, he asked me to fill you in on his reason for contacting you, if you don't mind?"
"Of course not."
The assistant inhaled deeply. "As you probably know, Professor, every year here in Washington, the board of the Smithsonian hosts a private gala to thank our most generous supporters. Many of the country's cultural elite attend."
Langdon knew his own bank account had too few zeros to qualify him as culturally elite, but he wondered if maybe Solomon was going to invite him to attend nonetheless.
"This year, as is customary," the assistant continued, "the dinner will be preceded by a keynote address. We've been lucky enough to secure the National Statuary Hall for that speech."
The best room in all of D.C., Langdon thought, recalling a political lecture he had once attended in the dramatic semicircular hall. It was hard to forget five hundred folding chairs splayed in a perfect arc, surrounded by thirty-eight life-size statues, in a room that had once served as the nation's original House of Representatives chamber.
"The problem is this," the man said. "Our speaker has fallen ill and has just informed us she will be unable to give the address." He paused awkwardly. "This means we are desperate for a replacement speaker. And Mr. Solomon is hoping you would consider filling in."
Langdon did a double take. "Me?" This was not at all what he had expected. "I'm sure Peter could find a far better substitute."
"You're Mr. Solomon's first choice, Professor, and you're being much too modest. The institution's guests would be thrilled to hear from you, and Mr. Solomon thought you could give the same lecture you gave on Bookspan TV a few years back? That way, you wouldn't have to prepare a thing. He said your talk involved symbolism in the architecture of our nation's capital--it sounds absolutely perfect for the venue."
Langdon was not so sure. "If I recall, that lecture had more to do with the Masonic history of the building than--"
"Exactly! As you know, Mr. Solomon is a Mason, as are many of his professional friends who will be in attendance. I'm sure they would love to hear you speak on the topic."
I admit it would be easy. Langdon had kept the lecture notes from every talk he'd ever given. "I suppose I could consider it. What date is the event?"
The assistant cleared his throat, sounding suddenly uncomfortable. "Well, actually, sir, it's tonight."
Langdon laughed out loud. "Tonight?!"
"That's why it's so hectic here this morning. The Smithsonian is in a deeply embarrassing predicament . . ." The assistant spoke more hurriedly now. "Mr. Solomon is ready to send a private jet to Boston for you. The flight is only an hour, and you would be back home before midnight. You're familiar with the private air terminal at Boston's Logan Airport?"
"I am," Langdon admitted reluctantly. No wonder Peter always gets his way.
"Wonderful! Would you be willing to meet the jet there at say . . . five o'clock?"
"You haven't left me much choice, have you?" Langdon chuckled.
"I just want to make Mr. Solomon happy, sir."
Peter has that effect on people. Langdon considered it a long moment, seeing no way out. "All right. Tell him I can do it."
"Outstanding!" the assistant exclaimed, sounding deeply relieved. He gave Langdon the jet's tail number and various other information.
When Langdon finally hung up, he wondered if Peter Solomon had ever been told no.
Returning to his coffee preparation, Langdon scooped some additional beans into the grinder. A little extra caffeine this morning, he thought. It's going to be a long day.