Chapter 30-32

 

CHAPTER 30

Security warden Claude Grouard simmered with rage as he stood over his prostrate captive in front of the Mona Lisa.This bastard killed Jacques Sauniere! Sauniere had been like a well-loved father to Grouard and his security team.

Grouard wanted nothing more than to pull the trigger and bury a bullet in Robert Langdon's back. As senior warden, Grouard was one of the few guards who actually carried a loaded weapon. He reminded himself, however, that killing Langdon would be a generous fate compared to the misery about to be communicated by Bezu Fache and the French prison system.

Grouard yanked his walkie-talkie off his belt and attempted to radio for backup. All he heard was static. The additional electronic security in this chamber always wrought havoc with the guards' communications. I have to move to the doorway.Still aiming his weapon at Langdon, Grouard began backing slowly toward the entrance. On his third step, he spied something that made him stop short.

What the hell is that!

An inexplicable mirage was materializing near the center of the room. A silhouette. There was someone else in the room? A woman was moving through the darkness, walking briskly toward the far left wall. In front of her, a purplish beam of light swung back and forth across the floor, as if she were searching for something with a colored flashlight.

"Qui est la?" Grouard demanded, feeling his adrenaline spike for a second time in the last thirty seconds. He suddenly didn't know where to aim his gun or what direction to move.

"PTS," the woman replied calmly, still scanning the floor with her light.

Police Technique et Scientifique.Grouard was sweating now. I thought all the agents were gone!He now recognized the purple light as ultraviolet, consistent with a PTS team, and yet he could not understand why DCPJ would be looking for evidence in here.

"Votre nom!" Grouard yelled, instinct telling him something was amiss. "Repondez!" "C'est mot," the voice responded in calm French. "Sophie Neveu." Somewhere in the distant recesses of Grouard's mind, the name registered. Sophie Neveu? Thatwas the name of Sauniere's granddaughter, wasn't it? She used to come in here as a little kid, but that was years ago. This couldn't possibly be her! And even if it were Sophie Neveu, that was hardly a reason to trust her; Grouard had heard the rumors of the painful falling-out between Sauniere and his granddaughter.

"You know me," the woman called. "And Robert Langdon did not kill my grandfather. Believe me."

Warden Grouard was not about to take that on faith. I need backup! Trying his walkie-talkie again, he got only static. The entrance was still a good twenty yards behind him, and Grouard began backing up slowly, choosing to leave his gun trained on the man on the floor. As Grouard inched backward, he could see the woman across the room raising her UV light and scrutinizing a large painting that hung on the far side of the Salle des Etats, directly opposite the Mona Lisa.

Grouard gasped, realizing which painting it was.

What in the name of God is she doing?

Across the room, Sophie Neveu felt a cold sweat breaking across her forehead. Langdon was still spread-eagle on the floor. Hold on, Robert.Almost there.Knowing the guard would never actually shoot either of them, Sophie now turned her attention back to the matter at hand, scanning the entire area around one masterpiece in particular - another Da Vinci. But the UV light revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Not on the floor, on the walls, or even on the canvas itself.

There must be something here!

Sophie felt totally certain she had deciphered her grandfather's intentions correctly.

What else could he possibly intend?

The masterpiece she was examining was a five-foot-tall canvas. The bizarre scene Da Vinci had painted included an awkwardly posed Virgin Mary sitting with Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Angel Uriel on a perilous outcropping of rocks. When Sophie was a little girl, no trip to the Mona Lisa had been complete without her grandfather dragging her across the room to see this second painting.

Grand-pere, I'm here! But I don't see it!

Behind her, Sophie could hear the guard trying to radio again for help.

Think!

She pictured the message scrawled on the protective glass of the Mona Lisa.So dark the con of man.The painting before her had no protective glass on which to write a message, and Sophie knew her grandfather would never have defaced this masterpiece by writing on the painting itself. She paused. At least not on the front.Her eyes shot upward, climbing the long cables that dangled from the ceiling to support the canvas.

Could that be it? Grabbing the left side of the carved wood frame, she pulled it toward her. The painting was large and the backing flexed as she swung it away from the wall. Sophie slipped her head and shoulders in behind the painting and raised the black light to inspect the back.

It took only seconds to realize her instinct had been wrong. The back of the painting was pale and blank. There was no purple text here, only the mottled brown backside of aging canvas and -

Wait.

Sophie's eyes locked on an incongruous glint of lustrous metal lodged near the bottom edge of the frame's wooden armature. The object was small, partially wedged in the slit where the canvas met the frame. A shimmering gold chain dangled off it.

To Sophie's utter amazement, the chain was affixed to a familiar gold key. The broad, sculpted head was in the shape of a cross and bore an engraved seal she had not seen since she was nine years old. A fleur-de-lis with the initials P. S. In that instant, Sophie felt the ghost of her grandfather whispering in her ear. When the time comes, the key will be yours.A tightness gripped her throat as she realized that her grandfather, even in death, had kept his promise. This key opens a box, his voice was saying, where I keep many secrets.

Sophie now realized that the entire purpose of tonight's word game had been this key. Her grandfather had it with him when he was killed. Not wanting it to fall into the hands of the police, he hid it behind this painting. Then he devised an ingenious treasure hunt to ensure only Sophie would find it.

"Au secours!" the guard's voice yelled.

Sophie snatched the key from behind the painting and slipped it deep in her pocket along with the UV penlight. Peering out from behind the canvas, she could see the guard was still trying desperately to raise someone on the walkie-talkie. He was backing toward the entrance, still aiming the gun firmly at Langdon.

"Au secours!" he shouted again into his radio. Static. He can't transmit, Sophie realized, recalling that tourists with cell phones often got frustrated in here when they tried to call home to brag about seeing the Mona Lisa.The extra surveillance wiring in the walls made it virtually impossible to get a carrier unless you stepped out into the hall. The guard was backing quickly toward the exit now, and Sophie knew she had to act immediately.

Gazing up at the large painting behind which she was partially ensconced, Sophie realized that Leonardo Da Vinci, for the second time tonight, was there to help.

Another few meters, Grouard told himself, keeping his gun leveled.

"Arretez! Ou je la detruis!" the woman's voice echoed across the room. Grouard glanced over and stopped in his tracks. "Mon dieu, non!" Through the reddish haze, he could see that the woman had actually lifted the large painting off its cables and propped it on the floor in front of her. At five feet tall, the canvas almost entirely hid her body. Grouard's first thought was to wonder why the painting's trip wires hadn't set off alarms, but of course the artwork cable sensors had yet to be reset tonight. What is she doing!

When he saw it, his blood went cold.

The canvas started to bulge in the middle, the fragile outlines of the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and John the Baptist beginning to distort.

"Non!" Grouard screamed, frozen in horror as he watched the priceless Da Vinci stretching. The woman was pushing her knee into the center of the canvas from behind!" NON!"

Grouard wheeled and aimed his gun at her but instantly realized it was an empty threat. The canvas was only fabric, but it was utterly impenetrable - a six-million-dollar piece of body armor.

I can't put a bullet through a Da Vinci!

"Set down your gun and radio," the woman said in calm French," or I'll put my knee through this painting. I think you know how my grandfather would feel about that."

Grouard felt dizzy. "Please... no. That's Madonna of the Rocks!" He dropped his gun and radio, raising his hands over his head.

"Thank you," the woman said. "Now do exactly as I tell you, and everything will work out fine."

Moments later, Langdon's pulse was still thundering as he ran beside Sophie down the emergency stairwell toward the ground level. Neither of them had said a word since leaving the trembling Louvre guard lying in the Salle des Etats. The guard's pistol was now clutched tightly in Langdon's hands, and he couldn't wait to get rid of it. The weapon felt heavy and dangerously foreign.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Langdon wondered if Sophie had any idea how valuable a painting she had almost ruined. Her choice in art seemed eerily pertinent to tonight's adventure. The Da Vinci she had grabbed, much like the Mona Lisa, was notorious among art historians for its plethora of hidden pagan symbolism.

"You chose a valuable hostage," he said as they ran.

"Madonna of the Rocks,"she replied. "But I didn't choose it, my grandfather did. He left me a little something behind the painting."

Langdon shot her a startled look. "What!? But how did you know which painting? Why Madonnaof the Rocks?"

"So dark the con of man." She flashed a triumphant smile. "I missed the first two anagrams, Robert. I wasn't about to miss the third."

CHAPTER 31

"They're dead!" Sister Sandrine stammered into the telephone in her Saint-Sulpice residence. She was leaving a message on an answering machine. "Please pick up! They're all dead!"

The first three phone numbers on the list had produced terrifying results - a hysterical widow, a detective working late at a murder scene, and a somber priest consoling a bereaved family. All three contacts were dead. And now, as she called the fourth and final number - the number she was not supposed to call unless the first three could not be reached - she got an answering machine. The outgoing message offered no name but simply asked the caller to leave a message." The floor panel has been broken!" she pleaded as she left the message. "The other three are dead!" Sister Sandrine did not know the identities of the four men she protected, but the private phonenumbers stashed beneath her bed were for use on only one condition.

If that floor panel is ever broken, the faceless messenger had told her, it means the upper echelon has been breached. One of us has been mortally threatened and been forced to tell a desperate lie. Call the numbers. Warn the others. Do not fail us in this.

It was a silent alarm. Foolproof in its simplicity. The plan had amazed her when she first heard it. If the identity of one brother was compromised, he could tell a lie that would start in motion a mechanism to warn the others. Tonight, however, it seemed that more than one had been compromised.

"Please answer," she whispered in fear. "Where are you?" "Hang up the phone," a deep voice said from the doorway. Turning in terror, she saw the massive monk. He was clutching the heavy iron candle stand.

Shaking, she set the phone back in the cradle.

"They are dead," the monk said. "All four of them. And they have played me for a fool. Tell me where the keystone is."

"I don't know!" Sister Sandrine said truthfully. "That secret is guarded by others." Others who are dead!

The man advanced, his white fists gripping the iron stand. "You are a sister of the Church, and yet you serve them?"

"Jesus had but one true message," Sister Sandrine said defiantly. "I cannot see that message in Opus Dei."

A sudden explosion of rage erupted behind the monk's eyes. He lunged, lashing out with the candle stand like a club. As Sister Sandrine fell, her last feeling was an overwhelming sense of foreboding.

All four are dead.

The precious truth is lost forever.

CHAPTER 32

The security alarm on the west end of the Denon Wing sent the pigeons in the nearby Tuileries Gardens scattering as Langdon and Sophie dashed out of the bulkhead into the Paris night. As they ran across the plaza to Sophie's car, Langdon could hear police sirens wailing in the distance. "That's it there," Sophie called, pointing to a red snub-nosed two-seater parked on the plaza. She's kidding, right? The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen." SmartCar," she said. "A hundred kilometers to the liter."

Langdon had barely thrown himself into the passenger seat before Sophie gunned the SmartCar up and over a curb onto a gravel divider. He gripped the dash as the car shot out across a sidewalk and bounced back down over into the small rotary at Carrousel du Louvre.

For an instant, Sophie seemed to consider taking the shortcut across the rotary by plowing straight ahead, through the median's perimeter hedge, and bisecting the large circle of grass in the center.

"No!" Langdon shouted, knowing the hedges around Carrousel du Louvre were there to hide the perilous chasm in the center - La Pyramide Inversee - the upside-down pyramid skylight he had seen earlier from inside the museum. It was large enough to swallow their Smart-Car in a single gulp. Fortunately, Sophie decided on the more conventional route, jamming the wheel hard to the right, circling properly until she exited, cut left, and swung into the northbound lane, accelerating toward Rue de Rivoli.

The two-tone police sirens blared louder behind them, and Langdon could see the lights now in his side view mirror. The SmartCar engine whined in protest as Sophie urged it faster away from the Louvre. Fifty yards ahead, the traffic light at Rivoli turned red. Sophie cursed under her breath and kept racing toward it. Langdon felt his muscles tighten.

"Sophie?"

Slowing only slightly as they reached the intersection, Sophie flicked her headlights and stole a quick glance both ways before flooring the accelerator again and carving a sharp left turn through the empty intersection onto Rivoli. Accelerating west for a quarter of a mile, Sophie banked to the right around a wide rotary. Soon they were shooting out the other side onto the wide avenue of Champs-Elysees.

As they straightened out, Langdon turned in his seat, craning his neck to look out the rear window toward the Louvre. The police did not seem to be chasing them. The sea of blue lights was assembling at the museum.

His heartbeat finally slowing, Langdon turned back around. "That was interesting."

Sophie didn't seem to hear. Her eyes remained fixed ahead down the long thoroughfare of Champs-Elysees, the two-mile stretch of posh storefronts that was often called the Fifth Avenue of Paris. The embassy was only about a mile away, and Langdon settled into his seat. So dark the con of man.Sophie's quick thinking had been impressive. Madonna of the Rocks.

Sophie had said her grandfather left her something behind the painting. A final message? Langdon could not help but marvel over Sauniere's brilliant hiding place; Madonna of the Rocks was yet another fitting link in the evening's chain of interconnected symbolism. Sauniere, it seemed, at every turn, was reinforcing his fondness for the dark and mischievous side of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Da Vinci's original commission for Madonna of the Rocks had come from an organization known as the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which needed a painting for the centerpiece of an altar triptych in their church of San Francesco in Milan. The nuns gave Leonardo specific dimensions, and the desired theme for the painting - the Virgin Mary, baby John the Baptist, Uriel, and Baby Jesus sheltering in a cave. Although Da Vinci did as they requested, when he delivered the work, the group reacted with horror. He had filled the painting with explosive and disturbing details.

The painting showed a blue-robed Virgin Mary sitting with her arm around an infant child, presumably Baby Jesus. Opposite Mary sat Uriel, also with an infant, presumably baby John the Baptist. Oddly, though, rather than the usual Jesus-blessing-John scenario, it was baby John who was blessing Jesus... and Jesus was submitting to his authority! More troubling still, Mary was holding one hand high above the head of infant John and making a decidedly threatening gesture - her fingers looking like eagle's talons, gripping an invisible head. Finally, the most obvious and frightening image: Just below Mary's curled fingers, Uriel was making a cutting gesture with his hand - as if slicing the neck of the invisible head gripped by Mary's claw-like hand.

Langdon's students were always amused to learn that Da Vinci eventually mollified the confraternity by painting them a second," watered-down" version of Madonna of the Rocks in which everyone was arranged in a more orthodox manner. The second version now hung in London's National Gallery under the name Virgin of the Rocks, although Langdon still preferred the Louvre's more intriguing original.

As Sophie gunned the car up Champs-Elysees, Langdon said," The painting. What was behind it?" Her eyes remained on the road. "I'll show you once we're safely inside the embassy." "You'll show it to me?" Langdon was surprised. "He left you a physical object?" Sophie gave a curt nod. "Embossed with a fleur-de-lis and the initials P. S." Langdon couldn't believe his ears.

We're going to make it, Sophie thought as she swung the SmartCar's wheel to the right, cutting sharply past the luxurious Hôtel de Crillon into Paris's tree-lined diplomatic neighborhood. The embassy was less than a mile away now. She was finally feeling like she could breathe normally again.

Even as she drove, Sophie's mind remained locked on the key in her pocket, her memories of seeing it many years ago, the gold head shaped as an equal-armed cross, the triangular shaft, the indentations, the embossed flowery seal, and the letters P. S.

Although the key barely had entered Sophie's thoughts through the years, her work in the intelligence community had taught her plenty about security, and now the key's peculiar tooling no longer looked so mystifying. A laser-tooled varying matrix.Impossible to duplicate.Rather than teeth that moved tumblers, this key's complex series of laser-burned pockmarks was examined by an electric eye. If the eye determined that the hexagonal pockmarks were correctly spaced, arranged, and rotated, then the lock would open.

Sophie could not begin to imagine what a key like this opened, but she sensed Robert would be able to tell her. After all, he had described the key's embossed seal without ever seeing it. The cruciform on top implied the key belonged to some kind of Christian organization, and yet Sophie knew of no churches that used laser-tooled varying matrix keys.

Besides, my grandfather was no Christian... .

Sophie had witnessed proof of that ten years ago. Ironically, it had been another key - a far more normal one - that had revealed his true nature to her.

The afternoon had been warm when she landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport and hailed a taxi home. Grand-pere will be so surprised to see me, she thought. Returning from graduate school in Britain for spring break a few days early, Sophie couldn't wait to see him and tell him all about the encryption methods she was studying.

When she arrived at their Paris home, however, her grandfather was not there. Disappointed, she knew he had not been expecting her and was probably working at the Louvre. But it's Saturday afternoon, she realized. He seldom worked on weekends. On weekends, he usually -

Grinning, Sophie ran out to the garage. Sure enough, his car was gone. It was the weekend. Jacques Sauniere despised city driving and owned a car for one destination only - his vacation chateau in Normandy, north of Paris. Sophie, after months in the congestion of London, was eager for the smells of nature and to start her vacation right away. It was still early evening, and she decided to leave immediately and surprise him. Borrowing a friend's car, Sophie drove north, winding into the deserted moon-swept hills near Creully. She arrived just after ten o'clock, turning down the long private driveway toward her grandfather's retreat. The access road was over a mile long, and she was halfway down it before she could start to see the house through the trees - a mammoth, old stone chateau nestled in the woods on the side of a hill.

Sophie had half expected to find her grandfather asleep at this hour and was excited to see the house twinkling with lights. Her delight turned to surprise, however, when she arrived to find the driveway filled with parked cars - Mercedeses, BMWs, Audis, and a Rolls-Royce.

Sophie stared a moment and then burst out laughing. My grand-pere, the famous recluse! Jacques Sauniere, it seemed, was far less reclusive than he liked to pretend. Clearly he was hosting a party while Sophie was away at school, and from the looks of the automobiles, some of Paris's most influential people were in attendance.

Eager to surprise him, she hurried to the front door. When she got there, though, she found it locked. She knocked. Nobody answered. Puzzled, she walked around and tried the back door. It too was locked. No answer.

Confused, she stood a moment and listened. The only sound she heard was the cool Normandy air letting out a low moan as it swirled through the valley.

No music. No voices. Nothing. In the silence of the woods, Sophie hurried to the side of the house and clambered up on a woodpile, pressing her face to the living room window. What she saw inside made no sense at all. "Nobody's here!" The entire first floor looked deserted.

Where are all the people?

Heart racing, Sophie ran to the woodshed and got the spare key her grandfather kept hidden under the kindling box. She ran to the front door and let herself in. As she stepped into the deserted foyer, the control panel for the security system started blinking red - a warning that the entrant had ten seconds to type the proper code before the security alarms went off.

He has the alarm on during a party?

Sophie quickly typed the code and deactivated the system.

Entering, she found the entire house uninhabited. Upstairs too. As she descended again to the deserted living room, she stood a moment in the silence, wondering what could possibly be happening.

It was then that Sophie heard it.

Muffled voices. And they seemed to be coming from underneath her. Sophie could not imagine. Crouching, she put her ear to the floor and listened. Yes, the sound was definitely coming from below. The voices seemed to be singing, or... chanting? She was frightened. Almost more eerie than the sound itself was the realization that this house did not even have a basement.

At least none I've ever seen.

Turning now and scanning the living room, Sophie's eyes fell to the only object in the entire house that seemed out of place - her grandfather's favorite antique, a sprawling Aubusson tapestry. It usually hung on the east wall beside the fireplace, but tonight it had been pulled aside on its brass rod, exposing the wall behind it.

Walking toward the bare wooden wall, Sophie sensed the chanting getting louder. Hesitant, she leaned her ear against the wood. The voices were clearer now. People were definitely chanting... intoning words Sophie could not discern.

The space behind this wall is hollow!

Feeling around the edge of the panels, Sophie found a recessed finger hold. It was discreetly crafted. A sliding door.Heart pounding, she placed her finger in the slot and pulled it. With noiseless precision, the heavy wall slid sideways. From out of the darkness beyond, the voices echoed up.

Sophie slipped through the door and found herself on a rough-hewn stone staircase that spiraled downward. She'd been coming to this house since she was a child and yet had no idea this staircase even existed!

As she descended, the air grew cooler. The voices clearer. She heard men and women now. Her line of sight was limited by the spiral of the staircase, but the last step was now rounding into view. Beyond it, she could see a small patch of the basement floor - stone, illuminated by the flickering orange blaze of firelight.

Holding her breath, Sophie inched down another few steps and crouched down to look. It took her several seconds to process what she was seeing.

The room was a grotto - a coarse chamber that appeared to have been hollowed from the granite of the hillside. The only light came from torches on the walls. In the glow of the flames, thirty or so people stood in a circle in the center of the room.

I'm dreaming, Sophie told herself. A dream. What else could this be?

Everyone in the room was wearing a mask. The women were dressed in white gossamer gowns and golden shoes. Their masks were white, and in their hands they carried golden orbs. The men wore long black tunics, and their masks were black. They looked like pieces in a giant chess set. Everyone in the circle rocked back and forth and chanted in reverence to something on the floor before them... something Sophie could not see.

The chanting grew steady again. Accelerating. Thundering now. Faster. The participants took a step inward and knelt. In that instant, Sophie could finally see what they all were witnessing. Even as she staggered back in horror, she felt the image searing itself into her memory forever. Overtaken by nausea, Sophie spun, clutching at the stone walls as she clambered back up the stairs. Pulling the door closed, she fled the deserted house, and drove in a tearful stupor back to Paris.

That night, with her life shattered by disillusionment and betrayal, she packed her belongings and left her home. On the dining room table, she left a note.

I WAS THERE. DON'T TRY TO FIND ME.

Beside the note, she laid the old spare key from the chateau's woodshed.

"Sophie! Langdon's voice intruded. "Stop! Stop!"

Emerging from the memory, Sophie slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt. "What? What happened?!"

Langdon pointed down the long street before them.

When she saw it, Sophie's blood went cold. A hundred yards ahead, the intersection was blocked by a couple of DCPJ police cars, parked askew, their purpose obvious. They've sealed off AvenueGabriel!

Langdon gave a grim sigh. "I take it the embassy is off-limits this evening?"

Down the street, the two DCPJ officers who stood beside their cars were now staring in their direction, apparently curious about the headlights that had halted so abruptly up the street from them.

Okay, Sophie, turn around very slowly.

Putting the SmartCar in reverse, she performed a composed three-point turn and reversed her direction. As she drove away, she heard the sound of squealing tires behind them. Sirens blared to life.

Cursing, Sophie slammed down the accelerator.

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