Katherine Solomon hurried across the parking lot through the cold rain, wishing she had worn more than jeans and a cashmere sweater. As she neared the building's main entrance, the roar of the giant air purifiers got louder. She barely heard them, her ears still ringing from the phone call she'd just received.
That which your brother believes is hidden in D.C. . . . it can be found.
Katherine found the notion almost impossible to believe. She and the caller still had much to discuss and had agreed to do so later that evening.
Reaching the main doors, she felt the same sense of excitement she always felt upon entering the gargantuan building. Nobody knows this place is here.
The sign on the door announced:
SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM SUPPORT CENTER
The Smithsonian Institution, despite having more than a dozen massive museums on the National Mall, had a collection so huge that only 2 percent of it could be on display at any one time. The other 98 percent of the collection had to be stored somewhere. And that somewhere . . . was here.
Not surprisingly, this building was home to an astonishingly diverse array of artifacts--giant Buddhas, handwritten codices, poisoned darts from New Guinea, jewel-encrusted knives, a kayak made of baleen. Equally mind-boggling were the building's natural treasures--plesiosaur skeletons, a priceless meteorite collection, a giant squid, even a collection of elephant skulls brought back from an African safari by Teddy Roosevelt.
But none of this was why the Smithsonian secretary, Peter Solomon, had introduced his sister to the SMSC three years ago. He had brought her to this place not to behold scientific marvels, but rather to create them. And that was exactly what Katherine had been doing.
Deep within this building, in the darkness of the most remote recesses, was a small scientific laboratory unlike any other in the world. The recent breakthroughs Katherine had made here in the field of Noetic Science had ramifications across every discipline--from physics, to history, to philosophy, to religion. Soon everything will change, she thought.
As Katherine entered the lobby, the front desk guard quickly stashed his radio and yanked the earplugs from his ears. "Ms. Solomon!" He smiled broadly.
He blushed, looking guilty. "Pregame."
She smiled. "I won't tell." She walked to the metal detector and emptied her pockets. When she slid the gold Cartier watch from her wrist, she felt the usual pang of sadness. The timepiece had been a gift from her mother for Katherine's eighteenth birthday. Almost ten years had now passed since her mother had died violently . . . passing away in Katherine's arms.
"So, Ms. Solomon?" the guard whispered jokingly. "Are you ever gonna tell anybody what you're doing back there?"
She glanced up. "Someday, Kyle. Not tonight."
"Come on," he pressed. "A secret lab . . . in a secret museum? You must be doing something cool."
Miles beyond cool, Katherine thought as she collected her things. The truth was that Katherine was doing science so advanced that it no longer even resembled science.
Robert Langdon stood frozen in the doorway of the National Statuary Hall and studied the startling scene before him. The room was precisely as he remembered it--a balanced semicircle built in the style of a Greek amphitheater. The graceful arched walls of sandstone and Italian plaster were punctuated by columns of variegated breccia, interspersed with the nation's statuary collection--life-size statues of thirty-eight great Americans standing in a semicircle on a stark expanse of black-and-white marble tile.
It was exactly as Langdon had recalled from the lecture he had once attended here.
Except for one thing.
Tonight, the room was empty.
No chairs. No audience. No Peter Solomon. Just a handful of tourists milling around aimlessly, oblivious to Langdon's grand entrance. Did Peter mean the Rotunda? He peered down the south corridor toward the Rotunda and could see tourists milling around in there, too.
The echoes of the clock chime had faded. Langdon was now officially late.
He hurried back into the hallway and found a docent. "Excuse me, the lecture for the Smithsonian event tonight? Where is that being held?"
The docent hesitated. "I'm not sure, sir. When does it start?"
The man shook his head. "I don't know about any Smithsonian event this evening--not here, at least."
Bewildered, Langdon hurried back toward the center of the room, scanning the entire space. Is Solomon playing some kind of joke? Langdon couldn't imagine it. He pulled out his cell phone and the fax page from this morning and dialed Peter's number.
His phone took a moment to locate a signal inside the enormous building. Finally, it began to ring.
The familiar southern accent answered. "Peter Solomon's office, this is Anthony. May I help you?"
"Anthony!" Langdon said with relief. "I'm glad you're still there. This is Robert Langdon. There seems to be some confusion about the lecture. I'm standing in the Statuary Hall, but there's nobody here. Has the lecture been moved to a different room?"
"I don't believe so, sir. Let me check." His assistant paused a moment. "Did you confirm with Mr. Solomon directly?"
Langdon was confused. "No, I confirmed with you, Anthony. This morning!"
"Yes, I recall that." There was a silence on the line. "That was a bit careless of you, don't you think, Professor?"
Langdon was now fully alert. "I beg your pardon?"
"Consider this . . ." the man said. "You received a fax asking you to call a number, which you did. You spoke to a total stranger who said he was Peter Solomon's assistant. Then you willingly boarded a private plane to Washington and climbed into a waiting car. Is that right?"
Langdon felt a chill race through his body. "Who the hell is this? Where is Peter?"
"I'm afraid Peter Solomon has no idea you're in Washington today." The man's southern accent disappeared, and his voice morphed into a deeper, mellifluous whisper. "You are here, Mr. Langdon, because I want you here."
Inside the Statuary Hall, Robert Langdon clutched his cell phone to his ear and paced in a tight circle. "Who the hell are you?"
The man's reply was a silky calm whisper. "Do not be alarmed, Professor. You have been summoned here for a reason."
"Summoned?" Langdon felt like a caged animal. "Try kidnapped!"
"Hardly." The man's voice was eerily serene. "If I wanted to harm you, you would be dead in your Town Car right now." He let the words hang for a moment. "My intentions are purely noble, I assure you. I would simply like to offer you an invitation." No thanks. Ever since his experiences in Europe over the last several years, Langdon's unwanted celebrity had made him a magnet for nut-cases, and this one had just crossed a very serious line. "Look, I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I'm hanging up--"
"Unwise," said the man. "Your window of opportunity is very small if you want to save Peter Solomon's soul."
Langdon drew a sharp breath. "What did you say?"
"I'm sure you heard me."
The way this man had uttered Peter's name had stopped Langdon cold. "What do you know about Peter?"
"At this point, I know his deepest secrets. Mr. Solomon is my guest, and I can be a persuasive host."
This can't be happening. "You don't have Peter."
"I answered his private cell phone. That should give you pause."
"I'm calling the police."
"No need," the man said. "The authorities will join you momentarily."
What is this lunatic talking about? Langdon's tone hardened. "If you have Peter, put him on the phone right now." "
"That's impossible. Mr. Solomon is trapped in an unfortunate place." The man paused. "He is in the Araf."
"Where?" Langdon realized he was clutching his phone so tightly his fingers were going numb.
"The Araf? Hamistagan? That place to which Dante devoted the canticle immediately following his legendary Inferno?"
The man's religious and literary references solidified Langdon's suspicion that he was dealing with a madman. The second canticle. Langdon knew it well; nobody escaped Phillips Exeter Academy without reading Dante. "You're saying you think Peter Solomon is . . . in purgatory?"
"A crude word you Christians use, but yes, Mr. Solomon is in the in-between."
The man's words hung in Langdon's ear. "Are you saying Peter is . . . dead?"
"Not exactly, no." "Not exactly?!" Langdon yelled, his voice echoing sharply in the hall. A family of tourists looked over at him. He turned away and lowered his voice. "Death is usually an all-or-nothing thing!"
"You surprise me, Professor. I expected you to have a better understanding of the mysteries of life and death. There is a world in between--a world in which Peter Solomon is hovering at the moment. He can either return to your world, or he can move on to the next . . . depending on your actions right now."
Langdon tried to process this. "What do you want from me?"
"It's simple. You have been given access to something quite ancient. And tonight, you will share it with me."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"No? You pretend not to understand the ancient secrets that have been entrusted to you?"
Langdon felt a sudden sinking sensation, now guessing what this was probably about. Ancient secrets. He had not uttered a word to anyone about his experiences in Paris several years earlier, but Grail fanatics had followed the media coverage closely, some connecting the dots and believing Langdon was now privy to secret information regarding the Holy Grail--perhaps even its location.
"Look," Langdon said, "if this is about the Holy Grail, I can assure you I know nothing more than--"
"Don't insult my intelligence, Mr. Langdon," the man snapped. "I have no interest in anything so frivolous as the Holy Grail or mankind's pathetic debate over whose version of history is correct. Circular arguments over the semantics of faith hold no interest for me. Those are questions answered only through death."
The stark words left Langdon confused. "Then what the hell is this about?"
The man paused for several seconds. "As you may know, there exists within this city an ancient portal."
An ancient portal?
"And tonight, Professor, you will unlock it for me. You should be honored I contacted you--this is the invitation of your lifetime. You alone have been chosen."
And you have lost your mind. "I'm sorry, but you've chosen poorly," Langdon said. "I don't know anything about any ancient portal."
"You don't understand, Professor. It was not I who chose you . . . it was Peter Solomon." "What?" Langdon replied, his voice barely a whisper.
"Mr. Solomon told me how to find the portal, and he confessed to me that only one man on earth could unlock it. And he said that man is you."
"If Peter said that, he was mistaken . . . or lying."
"I think not. He was in a fragile state when he confessed that fact, and I am inclined to believe him."
Langdon felt a stab of anger. "I'm warning you, if you hurt Peter in any--"
"It's far too late for that," the man said in an amused tone. "I've already taken what I need from Peter Solomon. But for his sake, I suggest you provide what I need from you. Time is of the essence . . . for both of you. I suggest you find the portal and unlock it. Peter will point the way."
Peter? "I thought you said Peter was in `purgatory.'"
"As above, so below," the man said.
Langdon felt a deepening chill. This strange response was an ancient Hermetic adage that proclaimed a belief in the physical connection between heaven and earth. As above, so below. Langdon eyed the vast room and wondered how everything had veered so suddenly out of control tonight. "Look, I don't know how to find any ancient portal. I'm calling the police."
"It really hasn't dawned on you yet, has it? Why you were chosen?"
"No," Langdon said.
"It will," he replied, chuckling. "Any moment now."
Then the line went dead.
Langdon stood rigid for several terrifying moments, trying to process what had just happened.
Suddenly, in the distance, he heard an unexpected sound.
It was coming from the Rotunda.
Someone was screaming.
Robert Langdon had entered the Capitol Rotunda many times in his life, but never at a full sprint. As he ran through the north entrance, he spotted a group of tourists clustered in the center of the room. A small boy was screaming, and his parents were trying to console him. Others were crowding around, and several security guards were doing their best to restore order.
"He pulled it out of his sling," someone said frantically, "and just left it there!"
As Langdon drew nearer, he got his first glimpse of what was causing all the commotion. Admittedly, the object on the Capitol floor was odd, but its presence hardly warranted screaming.
The device on the floor was one Langdon had seen many times. The Harvard art department had dozens of these--life-size plastic models used by sculptors and painters to help them render the human body's most complex feature, which, surprisingly, was not the human face but rather the human hand. Someone left a mannequin hand in the Rotunda?
Mannequin hands, or handequins as some called them, had articulated fingers enabling an artist to pose the hand in whatever position he wanted, which for sophomoric college students was often with the middle finger extended straight up in the air. This handequin, however, had been positioned with its index finger and thumb pointing up toward the ceiling.
As Langdon drew nearer, though, he realized this handequin was unusual. Its plastic surface was not smooth like most. Instead, the surface was mottled and slightly wrinkled, and appeared almost . . .
Like real skin.
Langdon stopped abruptly.
Now he saw the blood. My God!
The severed wrist appeared to have been skewered onto a spiked wooden base so that it would stand up. A wave of nausea rushed over him. Langdon inched closer, unable to breathe, seeing now that the tips of the index finger and thumb had been decorated with tiny tattoos. The tattoos, however, were not what held Langdon's attention. His gaze moved instantly to the familiar golden ring on the fourth finger.
Langdon recoiled. His world began to spin as he realized he was looking at the severed right hand of Peter Solomon.
Why isn't Peter answering? Katherine Solomon wondered as she hung up her cell phone. Where is he?
For three years, Peter Solomon had always been the first to arrive for their weekly seven P.M. Sunday-night meetings. It was their private family ritual, a way to remain connected before the start of a new week, and for Peter to stay up-to-date on Katherine's work at the lab.
He's never late, she thought, and he always answers his phone. To make matters worse, Katherine was still not sure what she was going to say to him when he did finally arrive. How do I even begin to ask him about what I found out today?
Her footsteps clicked rhythmically down the cement corridor that ran like a spine through the SMSC. Known as "The Street," the corridor connected the building's five massive storage pods. Forty feet overhead, a circulatory system of orange ductwork throbbed with the heartbeat of the building--the pulsing sounds of thousands of cubic feet of filtered air being circulated.
Normally, during her nearly quarter-mile walk to her lab, Katherine felt calmed by the breathing sounds of the building. Tonight, however, the pulsing had her on edge. What she had learned about her brother today would have troubled anyone, and yet because Peter was the only family she had in the world, Katherine felt especially disturbed to think he might be keeping secrets from her.
As far as she knew, he had kept a secret from her only once . . . a wonderful secret that was hidden at the end of this very hallway. Three years ago, her brother had walked Katherine down this corridor, introducing her to the SMSC by proudly showing off some of the building's more unusual items--the Mars meteorite ALH-84001, the handwritten pictographic diary of Sitting Bull, a collection of wax-sealed Ball jars containing original specimens collected by Charles Darwin.
At one point, they walked past a heavy door with a small window. Katherine caught a glimpse of what lay beyond and gasped. "What in the world is that?!"
Her brother chuckled and kept walking. "Pod Three. It's called Wet Pod. Pretty unusual sight, isn't it?"
Terrifying is more like it. Katherine hurried after him. This building was like another planet.
"What I really want to show you is in Pod Five," her brother said, guiding her down the seemingly endless corridor. "It's our newest addition. It was built to house artifacts from the basement of the National Museum of Natural History. That collection is scheduled for relocation here in about five years, which means Pod Five is sitting empty at the moment."
Katherine glanced over. "Empty? So why are we looking at it?"
Her brother's gray eyes flashed a familiar mischief. "It occurred to me that because nobody is using the space, maybe you could use it."
"Sure. I thought maybe you could use a dedicated lab space--a facility where you can actually perform some of the theoretical experiments you've been developing for all these years."
Katherine stared at her brother in shock. "But, Peter, those experiments are theoretical! To actually perform them would be almost impossible."
"Nothing is impossible, Katherine, and this building is perfect for you. The SMSC is not just a warehouse of treasures; it's one of the world's most advanced scientific research facilities. We're constantly taking pieces from the collection and examining them with the best quantitative technologies money can buy. All the equipment you could possibly need would be here at your disposal."
"Peter, the technologies required to run these experiments are--"
"Already in place." He smiled broadly. "The lab is done."
Katherine stopped short.
Her brother pointed down the long corridor. "We're going to see it now."
Katherine could barely speak. "You . . . you built me a lab?"
"It's my job. The Smithsonian was established to advance scientific knowledge. As secretary, I must take that charge seriously. I believe the experiments you've proposed have the potential to push the boundaries of science into uncharted territory." Peter stopped and looked her squarely in the eyes. "Whether or not you were my sister, I would feel obliged to support this research. Your ideas are brilliant. The world deserves to see where they lead."
"Peter, I can't possibly--"
"Okay, relax . . . it was my own money, and nobody's using Pod Five right now. When you're done with your experiments, you'll move out. Besides, Pod Five has some unique properties that will be perfect for your work."
Katherine could not imagine what a massive, empty pod might offer that would serve her research, but she sensed she was about to find out. They had just reached a steel door with boldly stenciled letters:
Her brother inserted his key card into a slot and an electronic keypad lit up. He raised his finger to type his access code, but paused, arching his eyebrows in the same mischievous way he always had as a boy. "You sure you're ready?"
She nodded. My brother, always the showman.
"Stand back." Peter hit the keys.
The steel door hissed loudly open.
Beyond the threshold was only inky blackness . . . a yawning void. A hollow moan seemed to echo out of the depths. Katherine felt a cold blast of air emanating from within. It was like staring into the Grand Canyon at night.
"Picture an empty airline hangar waiting for a fleet of Airbuses," her brother said, "and you get the basic idea."
Katherine felt herself take a step backward.
"The pod itself is far too voluminous to be heated, but your lab is a thermally insulated cinder- block room, roughly a cube, located in the farthest corner of the pod for maximum separation."
Katherine tried to picture it. A box inside a box. She strained to see into the darkness, but it was absolute. "How far back?"
"Pretty far . . . a football field would fit easily in here. I should warn you, though, the walk is a little unnerving. It's exceptionally dark."
Katherine peered tentatively around the corner. "No light switch?"
"Pod Five is not yet wired for electricity."
"But . . . then how can a lab function?"
He winked. "Hydrogen fuel cell."
Katherine's jaw dropped. "You're kidding, right?"
"Enough clean power to run a small town. Your lab enjoys full radio-frequency separation from the rest of the building. What's more, all pod exteriors are sealed with photo-resistant membranes to protect the artifacts inside from solar radiation. Essentially, this pod is a sealed, energy-neutral environment."
Katherine was starting to comprehend the appeal of Pod 5. Because much of her work centered on quantifying previously unknown energy fields, her experiments needed to be performed in a location isolated from any extraneous radiation or "white noise." This included interference as subtle as "brain radiation" or "thought emissions" generated by people nearby. For this reason, a university campus or hospital lab wouldn't work, but a deserted pod at the SMSC could not have been more perfect.
"Let's go back and have a look." Her brother was grinning as he stepped into the vast darkness. "Just follow me."
Katherine stalled at the threshold. Over a hundred yards in total darkness? She wanted to suggest a flashlight, but her brother had already disappeared into the abyss.
"Peter?" she called.
"Leap of faith," he called back, his voice already fading away. "You'll find your way. Trust me."
He's kidding, right? Katherine's heart was pounding as she stepped a few feet over the threshold, trying to peer into the darkness. I can't see a thing! Suddenly the steel door hissed and slammed shut behind her, plunging her into total blackness. Not a speck of light anywhere. "Peter?!"
You'll find your way. Trust me.
Tentative, she inched forward blindly. Leap of faith? Katherine could not even see her hand directly in front of her face. She kept moving forward, but within a matter of seconds, she was entirely lost. Where am I going?
That was three years ago.
Now, as Katherine arrived at the same heavy metal door, she realized how far she had come since that first night. Her lab--nicknamed the Cube--had become her home, a sanctuary within the depths of Pod 5. Exactly as her brother had predicted, she had found her way through the darkness that night, and every day since--thanks to an ingeniously simple guidance system that her brother had let her discover for herself.
Far more important, her brother's other prediction had come true as well: Katherine's experiments had produced astonishing results, particularly in the last six months, breakthroughs that would alter entire paradigms of thinking. Katherine and her brother had agreed to keep her results absolutely secret until the implications were more fully understood. One day soon, however, Katherine knew she would publish some of the most transformative scientific revelations in human history.
A secret lab in a secret museum, she thought, inserting her key card into the Pod 5 door. The keypad lit up, and Katherine typed her PIN.
The steel door hissed open.
The familiar hollow moan was accompanied by the same blast of cold air. As always, Katherine felt her pulse rate start to climb.
Strangest commute on earth.
Steeling herself for the journey, Katherine Solomon glanced at her watch as she stepped into the void. Tonight, however, a troubled thought followed her inside. Where is Peter?