CHAPTER 98

Robert Langdon regained consciousness with a crippling headache.

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Where am I?

Wherever he was, it was dark. Deep-cave dark, and deathly silent.

He was lying on his back with his arms at his side. Confused, he tried moving his fingers and toes, relieved to find they moved freely with no pain. What happened? With the exception of his headache and the profound darkness, everything seemed more or less normal.

Almost everything.

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Langdon realized he was lying on a hard floor that felt unusually smooth, like a sheet of glass. Stranger still, he could feel that the slick surface was in direct contact with his bare flesh . . . shoulders, back, buttocks, thighs, calves. Am I naked? Puzzled, he ran his hands over his body. Jesus! Where the hell are my clothes?

In the darkness, the cobwebs began to lift, and Langdon saw flashes of memory . . . frightening snapshots . . . a dead CIA agent . . . the face of a tattooed beast . . . Langdon's head smashing into the floor. The images came faster . . . and now he recalled the sickening image of Katherine Solomon bound and gagged on the dining-room floor.

My God!

Langdon sat bolt upright, and as he did, his forehead smashed into something suspended only inches above him. Pain exploded through his skull and he fell back, teetering near unconsciousness. Groggy, he reached up with his hands, groping in the darkness to find the obstacle. What he found made no sense to him. It seemed this room's ceiling was less than a foot above him. What in the world? As he spread his arms to his sides in an attempt to roll over, both of his hands hit sidewalls.

The truth now dawned on him. Robert Langdon was not in a room at all.

I'm in a box!

In the darkness of his small, coffinlike container, Langdon began pounding wildly with his fist. He shouted over and over for help. The terror that gripped him deepened with each passing instant until it was intolerable.

I have been buried alive.

The lid of Langdon's strange coffin refused to budge, even with the full force of his arms and legs pushing upward in wild panic. The box, from all he could tell, was made of heavy fiberglass. Airtight. Soundproof. Lightproof. Escape-proof.

I am going to suffocate alone in this box.

He thought of the deep well into which he had fallen as a young boy, and of the terrifying night he spent treading water alone in the darkness of a bottomless pit. That trauma had scarred Langdon's psyche, burdening him with an overwhelming phobia of enclosed spaces.

Tonight, buried alive, Robert Langdon was living his ultimate nightmare.

Katherine Solomon trembled in silence on the floor of Mal'akh's dining room. The sharp wire around her wrists and ankles had already cut into her, and the slightest movements seemed only to tighten her bonds.

The tattooed man had brutally knocked Langdon unconscious and dragged his limp body across the floor along with his leather bag and the stone pyramid. Where they had gone, Katherine had no idea. The agent who had accompanied them was dead. She had not heard a sound in many minutes, and she wondered if the tattooed man and Langdon were still inside the house. She had been trying to scream for help, but with each attempt, the rag in her mouth crept back dangerously closer to her windpipe.

Now she felt approaching footsteps on the floor, and she turned her head, hoping against hope that someone was coming to help. The massive silhouette of her captor materialized in the hallway. Katherine recoiled as she flashed on the image of him standing in her family home ten years earlier.

He killed my family.

Now he strode toward her. Langdon was nowhere to be seen. The man crouched down and gripped her around the waist, hoisting her roughly onto his shoulder. The wire sliced into her wrists, and the rag muffled her muted cries of pain. He carried her down the hallway toward the living room, where, earlier today, the two of them had calmly sipped tea together.

Where is he taking me?!

He carried Katherine across the living room and stopped directly in front of the large oil painting of the Three Graces that she had admired this afternoon.

"You mentioned you liked this painting," the man whispered, his lips practically touching her ear. "I'm glad. It may be the last thing of beauty you see."

With that, he reached out and pressed his palm into the right side of the enormous frame. To Katherine's shock, the painting rotated into the wall, turning on a central pivot like a revolving door. A hidden doorway.

Katherine tried to wriggle free, but the man held her firmly, carrying her through the opening behind the canvas. As the Three Graces pivoted shut behind them, she could see heavy insulation on the back of the canvas. Whatever sounds were made back here were apparently not meant to be heard by the outside world.

The space behind the painting was cramped, more like a hallway than a room. The man carried her to the far side and opened a heavy door, carrying her through it onto a small landing. Katherine found herself looking down a narrow ramp into a deep basement. She drew a breath to scream, but the rag was choking her.

The incline was steep and narrow. The walls on either side were made of cement, awash in a bluish light that seemed to emanate from below. The air that wafted up was warm and pungent, laden with an eerie blend of smells . . . the sharp bite of chemicals, the smooth calm of incense, the earthy musk of human sweat, and, pervading it all, a distinct aura of visceral, animal fear.

"Your science impressed me," the man whispered as they reached the bottom of the ramp. "I hope mine impresses you."

CHAPTER 99

CIA field agent Turner Simkins crouched in the darkness of Franklin Park and kept his steady gaze on Warren Bellamy. Nobody had taken the bait yet, but it was still early.

Simkins's transceiver beeped, and he activated it, hoping one of his men had spotted something. But it was Sato. She had new information.

Simkins listened and agreed with her concern. "Hold on," he said. "I'll see if I can get a visual." He crawled through the bushes in which he was hiding and peered back in the direction from which he had entered the square. After some maneuvering, he finally opened a sight line.

Holy shit.

He was staring at a building that looked like an Old World mosque. Nestled between two much larger buildings, the Moorish facade was made of gleaming terra-cotta tile laid in intricate multicolored designs. Above the three massive doors, two tiers of lancet windows looked as if Arabian archers might appear and open fire if anyone approached uninvited.

"I see it," Simkins said.

"Any activity?"

"Nothing."

"Good. I need you to reposition and watch it very carefully. It's called the Almas Shrine Temple, and it's the headquarters of a mystical order."

Simkins had worked in the D.C. area for a long time but was not familiar with this temple or any ancient mystical order headquartered on Franklin Square.

"This building," Sato said, "belongs to a group called the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine."

"Never heard of them."

"I think you have," Sato said. "They're an appendant body of the Masons, more commonly known as the Shriners."

Simkins shot a dubious glance at the ornate building. The Shriners? The guys who build hospitals for kids? He could imagine no "order" less ominous sounding than a fraternity of philanthropists who wore little red fezzes and marched in parades.

Even so, Sato's concerns were valid. "Ma'am, if our target realizes that this building is in fact `The Order' on Franklin Square, he won't need the address. He'll simply bypass the rendezvous and go directly to the correct location."

"My thoughts exactly. Keep an eye on the entrance."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Any word from Agent Hartmann in Kalorama Heights?"

"No, ma'am. You asked him to phone you directly."

"Well, he hasn't."

Odd, Simkins thought, checking his watch. He's overdue.

CHAPTER 100

Robert Langdon lay shivering, naked and alone in total blackness. Paralyzed by fear, he was no longer pounding or shouting. Instead, he had closed his eyes and was doing his best to control his hammering heart and his panicked breathing.

You are lying beneath a vast, nighttime sky, he tried to convince himself. There is nothing above you but miles of wide-open space.

This calming visualization had been the only way he had managed to survive a recent stint in an enclosed MRI machine . . . that and a triple dose of Valium. Tonight, however, the visualization was having no effect whatsoever.

The rag in Katherine Solomon's mouth had shifted backward and was all but choking her. Her captor had carried her down a narrow ramp and into a dark basement corridor. At the far end of the hall, she had glimpsed a room lit with an eerie reddish-purple light, but they'd never made it that far. The man had stopped instead at a small side room, carried her inside, and placed her on a wooden chair. He had set her down with her bound wrists behind the chair back so she could not move.

Now Katherine could feel the wire on her wrists slicing deeper into her flesh. The pain barely registered next to the rising panic she was feeling over being unable to breathe. The cloth in her mouth was slipping deeper into her throat, and she felt herself gagging reflexively. Her vision started to tunnel.

Behind her, the tattooed man closed the room's lone door and flipped on the light. Katherine's eyes were watering profusely now, and she could no longer differentiate objects in her immediate surroundings. Everything had become a blur.

A distorted vision of colorful flesh appeared before her, and Katherine felt her eyes starting to flutter as she teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. A scale-covered arm reached out and yanked the rag from her mouth.

Katherine gasped, inhaling deep breaths, coughing and choking as her lungs flooded with precious air. Slowly, her vision began to clear, and she found herself looking into the demon's face. The visage was barely human. Blanketing his neck, face, and shaved head was an astounding pattern of bizarre tattooed symbols. With the exception of a small circle on top of his head, every inch of his body appeared to be decorated. A massive double-headed phoenix on his chest glared at her through nipple eyes like some kind of ravenous vulture, patiently waiting for her death.

"Open your mouth," the man whispered.

Katherine stared at the monster with total revulsion. What?

"Open your mouth," the man repeated. "Or the cloth goes back in."

Trembling, Katherine opened her mouth. The man extended his thick, tattooed index finger, inserting it between her lips. When he touched her tongue, Katherine thought she would vomit. He extracted his wet finger and raised it to the top of his shaved head. Closing his eyes, he massaged her saliva into his small circular patch of untattooed flesh.

Repulsed, Katherine looked away.

The room in which she was sitting appeared to be a boiler room of some sort--pipes on the walls, gurgling sounds, fluorescent lights. Before she could take in her surroundings, though, her gaze stopped dead on something beside her on the floor. A pile of clothing--turtleneck, tweed sport coat, loafers, Mickey Mouse watch.

"My God!" She wheeled back to the tattooed animal before her. "What have you done with Robert?!"

"Shh," the man whispered. "Or he'll hear you." He stepped to one side and motioned behind him.

Langdon was not there. All Katherine saw was a huge black fiberglass box. Its shape bore an unsettling resemblance to the heavy crates in which corpses were shipped back from war. Two massive clasps firmly locked the box shut.

"He's inside?!" Katherine blurted. "But . . . he'll suffocate!"

"No, he won't," the man said, pointing to a series of transparent pipes that ran along the wall into the bottom of the crate. "He'll only wish he could."

In total darkness, Langdon listened intently to the muffled vibrations he now heard from the outside world. Voices? He began pounding on the box and shouting at the top of his lungs. "Help! Can anyone hear me?!"

Far off, a muted voice called out. "Robert! My God, no! NO!"

He knew the voice. It was Katherine, and she sounded terrified. Even so, it was a welcome sound. Langdon drew a breath to call out to her, but he stopped short, feeling an unexpected sensation at the back of his neck. A faint breeze seemed to be emanating from the bottom of the box. How is that possible? He lay very still, taking stock. Yes, definitely. He could feel the tiny hairs on the back of his neck being tickled by air movement.

Instinctively, Langdon began feeling along the floor of the box, searching for the source of the air. It took only a moment to locate. There's a tiny vent! The small perforated opening felt similar to a drain plate on a sink or tub, except that a soft, steady breeze was now coming up through it.

He's pumping air in for me. He doesn't want me to suffocate.

Langdon's relief was short-lived. A terrifying sound was now emanating up through the holes in the vent. It was the unmistakable gurgle of flowing liquid . . . coming his way.

Katherine stared in disbelief at the clear shaft of liquid that was progressing down one of the pipes toward Langdon's crate. The scene looked like some kind of twisted stage magician's act.

He's pumping water into the crate?!

Katherine strained at her bonds, ignoring the deep bite of the wires around her wrists. All she could do was look on in panic. She could hear Langdon pounding in desperation, but as the water reached the underside of the container, the pounding stopped. There was a moment of terrified silence. Then the pounding started again with renewed desperation.

"Let him out!" Katherine begged. "Please! You can't do this!"

"Drowning is a terrible death, you know." The man spoke calmly as he paced around her in circles. "Your assistant, Trish, could tell you that."

Katherine heard his words, but she could barely process them. "You may remember that I almost drowned once," the man whispered. "It was on your family's estate in Potomac. Your brother shot me, and I fell through the ice, out at Zach's bridge."

Katherine glared at him, filled with loathing. The night you killed my mother.

"The gods protected me that night," he said. "And they showed me the way . . . to become one of them."

The water gurgling into the box behind Langdon's head felt warm . . . body temperature. The fluid was already several inches deep and had completely swallowed the back of his naked body. As it began creeping up his rib cage, Langdon felt a stark reality closing in fast.

I'm going to die.

With renewed panic, he raised his arms and began pounding wildly again.

CHAPTER 101

"You've got to let him out!" Katherine begged, crying now. "We'll do whatever you want!" She could hear Langdon pounding more frantically as the water flowed into his container.

The tattooed man just smiled. "You're easier than your brother. The things I had to do to get Peter to tell me his secrets . . ."

"Where is he?!" she demanded. "Where is Peter?! Tell me! We did exactly what you wanted! We solved the pyramid and--"

"No, you did not solve the pyramid. You played a game. You withheld information and brought a government agent to my home. Hardly behavior I intend to reward."

"We didn't have a choice," she replied, choking back the tears. "The CIA is looking for you. They made us travel with an agent. I'll tell you everything. Just let Robert out!" Katherine could hear Langdon shouting and pounding in the crate, and she could see the water flowing through the pipe. She knew he didn't have a lot of time.

In front of her, the tattooed man spoke calmly, stroking his chin. "I assume there are agents waiting for me at Franklin Square?"

Katherine said nothing, and the man placed his massive palms on her shoulders, slowly pulling her forward. With her arms still wire-bound be hind the chair back, her shoulders strained, burning with pain, threatening to dislocate.

"Yes!" Katherine said. "There are agents at Franklin Square!"

He pulled harder. "What is the address on the capstone?"

The pain in her wrists and shoulders grew unbearable, but Katherine said nothing.

"You can tell me now, Katherine, or I'll break your arms and ask you again."

"Eight!" she gasped in pain. "The missing number is eight! The capstone says: `The secret hides within The Order--Eight Franklin Square!' I swear it. I don't know what else to tell you! It's Eight Franklin Square!"

The man still did not release her shoulders.

"That's all I know!" Katherine said. "That's the address! Let go of me! Let Robert out of that tank!"

"I would . . ." the man said, "but there's one problem. I can't go to Eight Franklin Square without being caught. Tell me, what's at that address?"

"I don't know!"

"And the symbols on the base of the pyramid? On the underside? Do you know their meaning?"

"What symbols on the base?" Katherine had no idea what he was talking about. "The bottom has no symbols. It's smooth, blank stone!"

Apparently immune to the muffled cries for help emanating from the coffinlike crate, the tattooed man calmly padded over to Langdon's day-bag and retrieved the stone pyramid. Then he returned to Katherine and held it up before her eyes so she could see the base.

When Katherine saw the engraved symbols, she gasped in bewilderment.

But . . . that's impossible! The bottom of the pyramid was entirely covered with intricate carvings. There was nothing there before! I'm sure of it! She had no idea what these symbols could possibly mean. They seemed to span every mystical tradition, including many she could not even place.

Total chaos.

"I . . . have no idea what this means," she said.

"Nor do I," her captor said. "Fortunately, we have a specialist at our disposal." He glanced at the crate. "Let's ask him, shall we?" He carried the pyramid toward the crate.

For a brief instant of hope, Katherine thought he was going to unclasp the lid. Instead, he sat calmly on top of the box, reached down, and slid a small panel to one side, revealing a Plexiglas window in the top of the tank.

Light!

Langdon covered his eyes, squinting into the ray of light that now streamed in from above. As his eyes adjusted, hope turned to confusion. He was looking up through what appeared to be a window in the top of his crate. Through the window, he saw a white ceiling and a fluorescent light.

Without warning, the tattooed face appeared above him, peering down. "Where is Katherine?!" Langdon shouted. "Let me out!"

The man smiled. "Your friend Katherine is here with me," the man said. "I have the power to spare her life. Your life as well. But your time is short, so I suggest you listen carefully."

Langdon could barely hear him through the glass, and the water had risen higher, creeping across his chest.

"Are you aware," the man asked, "that there are symbols on the base of the pyramid?"

"Yes!" Langdon shouted, having seen the extensive array of symbols when the pyramid had lain on the floor upstairs. "But I have no idea what they mean! You need to go to Eight Franklin Square! The answer is there! That's what the capstone--"

"Professor, you and I both know the CIA is waiting for me there. I have no intention of walking into a trap. Besides, I didn't need the street number. There is only one building on that square that could possibly be relevant--the Almas Shrine Temple." He paused, staring down at Langdon. "The Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine."

Langdon was confused. He was familiar with the Almas Temple, but he had forgotten it was on Franklin Square. The Shriners are . . . "The Order"? Their temple sits atop a secret staircase? It made no historical sense whatsoever, but Langdon was in no position at the moment to debate history. "Yes!" he shouted. "That must be it! The secret hides within The Order!"

"You're familiar with the building?"

"Absolutely!" Langdon raised his throbbing head to keep his ears above the quickly rising liquid. "I can help you! Let me out!"

"So you believe you can tell me what this temple has to do with the symbols on the base of the pyramid?"

"Yes! Let me just look at the symbols!"

"Very well, then. Let's see what you come up with."

Hurry! With the warm liquid rising around him, Langdon pushed up on the lid, willing the man to unclasp it. Please! Hurry! But the lid never opened. Instead, the base of the pyramid suddenly appeared, hovering above the Plexiglas window.

Langdon stared up in panic.

"I trust this view is close enough for you?"The man held the pyramid in his tattooed hands. "Think fast, Professor. I'm guessing you have less than sixty seconds."

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