Director Inoue Sato stood with her arms folded, her eyes locked skeptically on Langdon as she processed what he had just told her. "He said he wants you to unlock an ancient portal? What am I supposed to do with that, Professor?"
Langdon shrugged weakly. He was feeling ill again and tried not to look down at his friend's severed hand. "That's exactly what he told me. An ancient portal . . . hidden somewhere in this building. I told him I knew of no portal."
"Then why does he think you can find it?"
"Obviously, he's insane." He said Peter would point the way. Langdon looked down at Peter's upstretched finger, again feeling repulsed by his captor's sadistic play on words. Peter will point the way. Langdon had already permitted his eyes to follow the pointing finger up to the dome overhead. A portal? Up there? Insane.
"This man who called me," Langdon told Sato, "was the only one who knew I was coming to the Capitol tonight, so whoever informed you I was here tonight, that's your man. I recommend--"
"Where I got my information is not your concern," Sato interrupted, voice sharpening. "My top priority at the moment is to cooperate with this man, and I have information suggesting you are the only one who can give him what he wants."
"And my top priority is to find my friend," Langdon replied, frustrated.
Sato inhaled deeply, her patience clearly being tested. "If we want to find Mr. Solomon, we have one course of action, Professor--to start cooperating with the one person who seems to know where he is." Sato checked her watch. "Our time is limited. I can assure you it is imperative we comply with this man's demands quickly."
"How?" Langdon asked, incredulous. "By locating and unlocking an ancient portal? There is no portal, Director Sato. This guy's a lunatic."
Sato stepped close, less than a foot from Langdon. "If I may point this out . . . your lunatic deftly manipulated two fairly smart individuals already this morning." She stared directly at Langdon and then glanced at Anderson. "In my business, one learns there is a fine line between insanity and genius. We would be wise to give this man a little respect."
"He cut off a man's hand!"
"My point exactly. That is hardly the act of an uncommitted or uncertain individual. More important, Professor, this man obviously believes you can help him. He brought you all the way to Washington--and he must have done it for a reason."
"He said the only reason he thinks I can unlock this `portal' is that Peter told him I can unlock it," Langdon countered.
"And why would Peter Solomon say that if it weren't true?"
"I'm sure Peter said no such thing. And if he did, then he did so under duress. He was confused . . . or frightened."
"Yes. It's called interrogational torture, and it's quite effective. All the more reason Mr. Solomon would tell the truth." Sato spoke as if she'd had personal experience with this technique. "Did he explain why Peter thinks you alone can unlock the portal?"
Langdon shook his head.
"Professor, if your reputations are correct, then you and Peter Solomon both share an interest in this sort of thing--secrets, historical esoterica, mysticism, and so on. In all of your discussions with Peter, he never once mentioned to you anything about a secret portal in Washington, D.C.?"
Langdon could scarcely believe he was being asked this question by a high-ranking officer of the CIA. "I'm certain of it. Peter and I talk about some pretty arcane things, but believe me, I'd tell him to get his head examined if he ever told me there was an ancient portal hidden anywhere at all. Particularly one that leads to the Ancient Mysteries."
She glanced up. "I'm sorry? The man told you specifically what this portal leads to?"
"Yes, but he didn't have to." Langdon motioned to the hand. "The Hand of the Mysteries is a formal invitation to pass through a mystical gateway and acquire ancient secret knowledge-- powerful wisdom known as the Ancient Mysteries . . . or the lost wisdom of all the ages."
"So you've heard of the secret he believes is hidden here." "A lot of historians have heard of it."
"Then how can you say the portal does not exist?"
"With respect, ma'am, we've all heard of the Fountain of Youth and Shangri-la, but that does not mean they exist."
The loud squawk of Anderson's radio interrupted them.
"Chief?" the voice on the radio said.
Anderson snatched his radio from his belt. "Anderson here."
"Sir, we've completed a search of the grounds. There's no one here that fits the description. Any further orders, sir?"
Anderson shot a quick glance at Sato, clearly expecting a reprimand, but Director Sato seemed uninterested. Anderson moved away from Langdon and Sato, speaking quietly into his radio.
Sato's unwavering focus remained on Langdon. "You're saying the secret he believes is hidden in Washington . . . is a fantasy?"
Langdon nodded. "A very old myth. The secret of the Ancient Mysteries is pre-Christian, actually. Thousands of years old."
"And yet it's still around?"
"As are many equally improbable beliefs." Langdon often reminded his students that most modern religions included stories that did not hold up to scientific scrutiny: everything from Moses parting the Red Sea . . . to Joseph Smith using magic eyeglasses to translate the Book of Mormon from a series of gold plates he found buried in upstate New York. Wide acceptance of an idea is not proof of its validity.
"I see. So what exactly are these . . . Ancient Mysteries?"
Langdon exhaled. Have you got a few weeks? "In short, the Ancient Mysteries refer to a body of secret knowledge that was amassed long ago. One intriguing aspect of this knowledge is that it allegedly enables its practitioners to access powerful abilities that lie dormant in the human mind. The enlightened Adepts who possessed this knowledge vowed to keep it veiled from the masses because it was considered far too potent and dangerous for the uninitiated."
"Dangerous in what way?"
"The information was kept hidden for the same reason we keep matches from children. In the correct hands, fire can provide illumination . . . but in the wrong hands, fire can be highly destructive."
Sato took off her glasses and studied him. "Tell me, Professor, do you believe such powerful information could truly exist?"
Langdon was not sure how to respond. The Ancient Mysteries had always been the greatest paradox of his academic career. Virtually every mystical tradition on earth revolved around the idea that there existed arcane knowledge capable of imbuing humans with mystical, almost godlike, powers: tarot and I Ching gave men the ability to see the future; alchemy gave men immortality through the fabled Philosopher's Stone; Wicca permitted advanced practitioners to cast powerful spells. The list went on and on.
As an academic, Langdon could not deny the historical record of these traditions--troves of documents, artifacts, and artwork that, indeed, clearly suggested the ancients had a powerful wisdom that they shared only through allegory, myths, and symbols, ensuring that only those properly initiated could access its power. Nonetheless, as a realist and a skeptic, Langdon remained unconvinced.
"Let's just say I'm a skeptic," he told Sato. "I have never seen anything in the real world to suggest the Ancient Mysteries are anything other than legend--a recurring mythological archetype. It seems to me that if it were possible for humans to acquire miraculous powers, there would be evidence. And yet, so far, history has given us no men with superhuman powers."
Sato arched her eyebrows. "That's not entirely true."
Langdon hesitated, realizing that for many religious people, there was indeed a precedent for human gods, Jesus being the most obvious. "Admittedly," he said, "there are plenty of educated people who believe this empowering wisdom truly exists, but I'm not yet convinced."
"Is Peter Solomon one of those people?" Sato asked, glancing toward the hand on the floor.
Langdon could not bring himself to look at the hand. "Peter comes from a family lineage that has always had a passion for all things ancient and mystical."
"Was that a yes?" Sato asked.
"I can assure you that even if Peter believes the Ancient Mysteries are real, he does not believe they are accessible through some kind of portal hidden in Washington, D.C. He understands metaphorical symbolism, which is something his captor apparently does not."
Sato nodded. "So you believe this portal is a metaphor."
"Of course," Langdon said. "In theory, anyway. It's a very common metaphor--a mystical portal through which one must travel to become enlightened. Portals and doorways are common symbolic constructs that represent transformative rites of passage. To look for a literal portal would be like trying to locate the actual Gates of Heaven." Sato seemed to consider this momentarily. "But it sounds like Mr. Solomon's captor believes you can unlock an actual portal."
Langdon exhaled. "He's made the same error many zealots make--confusing metaphor with a literal reality." Similarly, early alchemists had toiled in vain to transform lead into gold, never realizing that lead-to-gold was nothing but a metaphor for tapping into true human potential-- that of taking a dull, ignorant mind and transforming it into a bright, enlightened one.
Sato motioned to the hand. "If this man wants you to locate some kind of portal for him, why wouldn't he simply tell you how to find it? Why all the dramatics? Why give you a tattooed hand?"
Langdon had asked himself the same question and the answer was unsettling. "Well, it seems the man we are dealing with, in addition to being mentally unstable, is also highly educated. This hand is proof that he is well versed in the Mysteries as well as their codes of secrecy. Not to mention with the history of this room."
"I don't understand."
"Everything he has done tonight was done in perfect accordance with ancient protocols. Traditionally, the Hand of the Mysteries is a sacred invitation, and therefore it must be presented in a sacred place."
Sato's eyes narrowed. "This is the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building, Professor, not some sacred shrine to ancient mystical secrets."
"Actually, ma'am," Langdon said, "I know a great number of historians who would disagree with you."
At that moment, across town, Trish Dunne was seated in the glow of the plasma wall inside the Cube. She finished preparing her search spider and typed in the five key phrases Katherine had given her.
Here goes nothing.
Feeling little optimism, she launched the spider, effectively commencing a worldwide game of Go Fish. At blinding speed, the phrases were now being compared to texts all over the world . . . looking for a perfect match.
Trish couldn't help but wonder what this was all about, but she had come to accept that working with the Solomons meant never quite knowing the entire story.
Robert Langdon stole an anxious glance at his wristwatch: 7:58 P.M. The smiling face of Mickey Mouse did little to cheer him up. I've got to find Peter. We're wasting time.
Sato had stepped aside for a moment to take a phone call, but now she returned to Langdon. "Professor, am I keeping you from something?"
"No, ma'am," Langdon said, pulling his sleeve down over his watch. "I'm just extremely concerned about Peter."
"I can understand, but I assure you the best thing you can do to help Peter is to help me understand the mind-set of his captor."
Langdon was not so sure, but he sensed he was not going anywhere until the OS director got the information she desired.
"A moment ago," Sato said, "you suggested this Rotunda is somehow sacred to the idea of these Ancient Mysteries?"
"Explain that to me."
Langdon knew he would have to choose his words sparingly. He had taught for entire semesters on the mystical symbolism of Washington, D.C., and there was an almost inexhaustible list of mystical references in this building alone.
America has a hidden past.
Every time Langdon lectured on the symbology of America, his students were confounded to learn that the true intentions of our nation's forefathers had absolutely nothing to do with what so many politicians now claimed.
America's intended destiny has been lost to history.
The forefathers who founded this capital city first named her "Rome." They had named her river the Tiber and erected a classical capital of pantheons and temples, all adorned with images of history's great gods and goddesses--Apollo, Minerva, Venus, Helios, Vulcan, Jupiter. In her center, as in many of the great classical cities, the founders had erected an enduring tribute to the ancients--the Egyptian obelisk. This obelisk, larger even than Cairo's or Alexandria's, rose 555 feet into the sky, more than thirty stories, proclaiming thanks and honor to the demigod forefather for whom this capital city took its newer name. Washington.
Now, centuries later, despite America's separation of church and state, this state-sponsored Rotunda glistened with ancient religious symbolism. There were over a dozen different gods in the Rotunda--more than the original Pantheon in Rome. Of course, the Roman Pantheon had been converted to Christianity in 609 . . . but this pantheon was never converted; vestiges of its true history still remained in plain view.
"As you may know," Langdon said, "this Rotunda was designed as a tribute to one of Rome's most venerated mystical shrines. The Temple of Vesta."
"As in the vestal virgins?" Sato looked doubtful that Rome's virginal guardians of the flame had anything to do with the U.S. Capitol Building.
"The Temple of Vesta in Rome," Langdon said, "was circular, with a gaping hole in the floor, through which the sacred fire of enlightenment could be tended by a sisterhood of virgins whose job it was to ensure the flame never went out."
Sato shrugged. "This Rotunda is a circle, but I see no gaping hole in this floor."
"No, not anymore, but for years the center of this room had a large opening precisely where Peter's hand is now." Langdon motioned to the floor. "In fact, you can still see the marks in the floor from the railing that kept people from falling in."
"What?" Sato demanded, scrutinizing the floor. "I've never heard that."
"Looks like he's right." Anderson pointed out the circle of iron nubs where the posts had once been. "I've seen these before, but I never had any idea why they were there."
You're not alone, Langdon thought, imagining the thousands of people every day, including famous lawmakers, who strode across the center of the Rotunda having no idea there was once a day when they would have plunged down into the Capitol Crypt--the level beneath the Rotunda floor.
"The hole in the floor," Langdon told them, "was eventually covered, but for a good while, those who visited the Rotunda could see straight down to the fire that burned below."
Sato turned. "Fire? In the U.S. Capitol?"
"More of a large torch, actually--an eternal flame that burned in the crypt directly beneath us. It was supposed to be visible through the hole in the floor, making this room a modern Temple of Vesta. This building even had its own vestal virgin--a federal employee called the Keeper of the Crypt--who successfully kept the flame burning for fifty years, until politics, religion, and smoke damage snuffed out the idea."
Both Anderson and Sato looked surprised. Nowadays, the only reminder that a flame once burned here was the four-pointed star compass embedded in the crypt floor one story below them--a symbol of America's eternal flame, which once shed illumination toward the four corners of the New World.
"So, Professor," Sato said, "your contention is that the man who left Peter's hand here knew all this?"
"Clearly. And much, much more. There are symbols all over this room that reflect a belief in the Ancient Mysteries."
"Secret wisdom," Sato said with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "Knowledge that lets men acquire godlike powers?"
"That hardly fits with the Christian underpinnings of this country."
"So it would seem, but it's true. This transformation of man into God is called apotheosis. Whether or not you're aware of it, this theme--transforming man into god--is the core element in this Rotunda's symbolism."
"Apotheosis?" Anderson spun with a startled look of recognition.
"Yes." Anderson works here. He knows. "The word apotheosis literally means `divine transformation'--that of man becoming God. It's from the ancient Greek: apo--`to become,' theos--`god.' "
Anderson looked amazed. "Apotheosis means `to become God'? I had no idea."
"What am I missing?" Sato demanded.
"Ma'am," Langdon said, "the largest painting in this building is called The Apotheosis of Washington. And it clearly depicts George Washington being transformed into a god."
Sato looked doubtful. "I've never seen anything of the sort."
"Actually, I'm sure you have." Langdon raised his index finger, pointing straight up. "It's directly over your head."
The Apotheosis of Washington--a 4,664-square-foot fresco that covers the canopy of the Capitol Rotunda--was completed in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi.
Known as "The Michelangelo of the Capitol," Brumidi had laid claim to the Capitol Rotunda in the same way Michelangelo had laid claim to the Sistine Chapel, by painting a fresco on the room's most lofty canvas--the ceiling. Like Michelangelo, Brumidi had done some of his finest work inside the Vatican. Brumidi, however, immigrated to America in 1852, abandoning God's largest shrine in favor of a new shrine, the U.S. Capitol, which now glistened with examples of his mastery--from the trompe l'oeil of the Brumidi Corridors to the frieze ceiling of the Vice President's Room. And yet it was the enormous image hovering above the Capitol Rotunda that most historians considered to be Brumidi's masterwork.
Robert Langdon gazed up at the massive fresco that covered the ceiling. He usually enjoyed his students' startled reactions to this fresco's bizarre imagery, but at the moment he simply felt trapped in a nightmare he had yet to understand.
Director Sato was standing next to him with her hands on her hips, frowning up at the distant ceiling. Langdon sensed she was having the same reaction many had when they first stopped to examine the painting at the core of their nation.
You're not alone, Langdon thought. For most people, The Apotheosis of Washington got stranger and stranger the longer they looked at it. "That's George Washington on the central panel," Langdon said, pointing 180 feet upward into the middle of the dome. "As you can see, he's dressed in white robes, attended by thirteen maidens, and ascending on a cloud above mortal man. This is the moment of his apotheosis . . . his transformation into a god."
Sato and Anderson said nothing.
"Nearby," Langdon continued, "you can see a strange, anachronistic series of figures: ancient gods presenting our forefathers with advanced knowledge. There's Minerva giving technological inspiration to our nation's great inventors--Ben Franklin, Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse." Langdon pointed them out one by one. "And over there is Vulcan helping us build a steam engine. Beside them is Neptune demonstrating how to lay the transatlantic cable. Beside that is Ceres, goddess of grain and root of our word cereal; she's sitting on the McCormick reaper, the farming breakthrough that enabled this country to become a world leader in food production. The painting quite overtly portrays our forefathers receiving great wisdom from the gods." He lowered his head, looking at Sato now. "Knowledge is power, and the right knowledge lets man perform miraculous, almost godlike tasks."
Sato dropped her gaze back down to Langdon and rubbed her neck. "Laying a phone cable is a far cry from being a god." "Perhaps to a modern man," Langdon replied. "But if George Washington knew that we had become a race that possessed the power to speak to one another across oceans, fly at the speed of sound, and set foot on our moon, he would assume that we had become gods, capable of miraculous tasks." He paused. "In the words of futurist Arthur C. Clarke, `Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' "
Sato pursed her lips, apparently deep in thought. She glanced down at the hand, and then followed the direction of the outstretched index finger up into the dome. "Professor, you were told, `Peter will point the way.' Is that correct?"
"Yes, ma'am, but--"
"Chief," Sato said, turning away from Langdon, "can you get us a closer look at the painting?"
Anderson nodded. "There's a catwalk around the interior of the dome." Langdon looked way, way up to the tiny railing visible just beneath the painting and felt his body go rigid. "There's no need to go up there." He had experienced that seldom-visited catwalk once before, as the guest of a U.S. senator and his wife, and he had almost fainted from the dizzying height and perilous walkway.
"No need?" Sato demanded. "Professor, we have a man who believes this room contains a portal that has the potential to make him a god; we have a ceiling fresco that symbolizes the transformation of a man into a god; and we have a hand pointing straight at that painting. It seems everything is urging us upward."
"Actually," Anderson interjected, glancing up, "not many people know this, but there is one hexagonal coffer in the dome that actually swings open like a portal, and you can peer down through it and--"
"Wait a second," Langdon said, "you're missing the point. The portal this man is looking for is a figurative portal--a gateway that doesn't exist. When he said, `Peter will point the way,' he was talking in metaphorical terms. This pointing-hand gesture--with its index finger and thumb extended upward--is a well-known symbol of the Ancient Mysteries, and it appears all over the world in ancient art. This same gesture appears in three of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous encoded masterpieces--The Last Supper, Adoration of the Magi, and Saint John the Baptist. It's a symbol of man's mystical connection to God." As above, so below. The madman's bizarre choice of words was starting to feel more relevant now.
"I've never seen it before," Sato said.
Then watch ESPN, Langdon thought, always amused to see professional athletes point skyward in gratitude to God after a touchdown or home run. He wondered how many knew they were continuing a pre-Christian mystical tradition of acknowledging the mystical power above, which, for one brief moment, had transformed them into a god capable of miraculous feats.
"If it's of any help," Langdon said, "Peter's hand is not the first such hand to make an appearance in this Rotunda."
Sato eyed him like he was insane. "I beg your pardon?"
Langdon motioned to her BlackBerry. "Google `George Washington Zeus.' "
Sato looked uncertain but started typing. Anderson inched toward her, looking over her shoulder intently.
Langdon said, "This Rotunda was once dominated by a massive sculpture of a bare-chested George Washington . . . depicted as a god. He sat in the same exact pose as Zeus in the Pantheon, bare chest exposed, left hand holding a sword, right hand raised with thumb and finger extended."
Sato had apparently found an online image, because Anderson was staring at her BlackBerry in shock. "Hold on, that's George Washington?"
"Yes," Langdon said. "Depicted as Zeus."
"Look at his hand," Anderson said, still peering over Sato's shoulder. "His right hand is in the same exact position as Mr. Solomon's."
As I said, Langdon thought, Peter's hand is not the first to make an appearance in this room. When Horatio Greenough's statue of a naked George Washington was first unveiled in the Rotunda, many joked that Washington must be reaching skyward in a desperate attempt to find some clothes. As American religious ideals changed, however, the joking criticism turned to controversy, and the statue was removed, banished to a shed in the east garden. Currently, it made its home at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where those who saw it had no reason to suspect that it was one of the last vestigial links to a time when the father of the country had watched over the U.S. Capitol as a god . . . like Zeus watching over the Pantheon.
Sato began dialing a number on her BlackBerry, apparently seeing this as an opportune moment to check in with her staff. "What have you got?" She listened patiently. "I see . . ." She glanced directly at Langdon, then at Peter's hand. "You're certain?" She listened a moment longer. "Okay, thanks." She hung up and turned back toward Langdon. "My support staff did some research and confirms the existence of your so-called Hand of the Mysteries, corroborating everything you said: five fingertip markings--the star, the sun, the key, the crown, and the lantern--as well as the fact that this hand served as an ancient invitation to learn secret wisdom."
"I'm glad," Langdon said.
"Don't be," she replied curtly. "It appears we're now at a dead end until you share whatever it is you're still not telling me."
"Ma'am?" Sato stepped toward him. "We've come full circle, Professor. You've told me nothing I could not have learned from my own staff. And so I will ask you once more. Why were you brought here tonight? What makes you so special? What is it that you alone know?"
"We've been through this," Langdon fired back. "I don't know why this guy thinks I know anything at all!"
Langdon was half tempted to demand how the hell Sato knew that he was in the Capitol tonight, but they'd been through that, too. Sato isn't talking. "If I knew the next step," he told her, "I'd tell you. But I don't. Traditionally, the Hand of the Mysteries is extended by a teacher to a student. And then, shortly afterward, the hand is followed up with a set of instructions . . . directions to a temple, the name of the master who will teach you--something! But all this guy left for us is five tattoos! Hardly--" Langdon stopped short.
Sato eyed him. "What is it?"
Langdon's eyes shot back to the hand. Five tattoos. He now realized that what he was saying might not be entirely true.
"Professor?" Sato pressed.
Langdon inched toward the gruesome object. Peter will point the way.
"Earlier, it crossed my mind that maybe this guy had left an object clenched in Peter's palm--a map, or a letter, or a set of directions."
"He didn't," Anderson said. "As you can see, those three fingers are not clenched tightly."
"You're right," Langdon said. "But it occurs to me . . ." He crouched down now, trying to see up under the fingers to the hidden part of Peter's palm. "Maybe it's not written on paper."
"Tattooed?" Anderson said.
"Do you see anything on the palm?" Sato asked.
Langdon crouched lower, trying to peer up under the loosely clenched fingers. "The angle is impossible. I can't--"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Sato said, moving toward him. "Just open the damned thing!"
Anderson stepped in front of her. "Ma'am! We should really wait for forensics before we touch--" "I want some answers," Sato said, pushing past him. She crouched down, edging Langdon away from the hand.
Langdon stood up and watched in disbelief as Sato pulled a pen from her pocket, sliding it carefully under the three clenched fingers. Then, one by one, she pried each finger upward until the hand stood fully open, with its palm visible.
She glanced up at Langdon, and a thin smile spread across her face. "Right again, Professor."