As a water polo player, Robert Langdon had endured more than his fair share of underwater battles. The competitive savagery that raged beneath the surface of a water polo pool, away from the eyes of the referees, could rival even the ugliest wrestling match. Langdon had been kicked, scratched, held, and even bitten once by a frustrated defenseman from whom Langdon had continuously twisted away.
Now, though, thrashing in the frigid water of Bernini’s fountain, Langdon knew he was a long way from the Harvard pool. He was fighting not for a game, but for his life. This was the second time they had battled. No referees here. No rematches. The arms driving his face toward the bottom of the basin thrust with a force that left no doubt that it intended to kill.
Langdon instinctively spun like a torpedo. Break the hold! But the grip torqued him back, his attacker enjoying an advantage no water polo defenseman ever had—two feet on solid ground. Langdon contorted, trying to get his own feet beneath him. The Hassassin seemed to be favoring one arm . . . but nonetheless, his grip held firm.
It was then that Langdon knew he was not coming up. He did the only thing he could think of to do. He stopped trying to surface. If you can’t go north, go east. Marshalling the last of his strength, Langdon dolphin‑kicked his legs and pulled his arms beneath him in an awkward butterfly stroke. His body lurched forward.
The sudden switch in direction seemed to take the Hassassin off guard. Langdon’s lateral motion dragged his captor’s arms sideways, compromising his balance. The man’s grip faltered, and Langdon kicked again. The sensation felt like a towline had snapped. Suddenly Langdon was free. Blowing the stale air from his lungs, Langdon clawed for the surface. A single breath was all he got. With crashing force the Hassassin was on top of him again, palms on his shoulders, all of his weight bearing down. Langdon scrambled to plant his feet beneath him but the Hassassin’s leg swung out, cutting Langdon down.
He went under again.
Langdon’s muscles burned as he twisted beneath the water. This time his maneuvers were in vain. Through the bubbling water, Langdon scanned the bottom, looking for the gun. Everything was blurred. The bubbles were denser here. A blinding light flashed in his face as the killer wrestled him deeper, toward a submerged spotlight bolted on the floor of the fountain. Langdon reached out, grabbing the canister. It was hot. Langdon tried to pull himself free, but the contraption was mounted on hinges and pivoted in his hand. His leverage was instantly lost.
The Hassassin drove him deeper still.
It was then Langdon saw it. Poking out from under the coins directly beneath his face. A narrow, black cylinder. The silencer of Olivetti’s gun! Langdon reached out, but as his fingers wrapped around the cylinder, he did not feel metal, he felt plastic. When he pulled, the flexible rubber hose came flopping toward him like a flimsy snake. It was about two feet long with a jet of bubbles surging from the end. Langdon had not found the gun at all. It was one of the fountain’s many harmless spumanti . . . bubble makers.
Only a few feet away, Cardinal Baggia felt his soul straining to leave his body. Although he had prepared for this moment his entire life, he had never imagined the end would be like this. His physical shell was in agony . . . burned, bruised, and held underwater by an immovable weight. He reminded himself that this suffering was nothing compared to what Jesus had endured.
He died for my sins . . .
Baggia could hear the thrashing of a battle raging nearby. He could not bear the thought of it. His captor was about to extinguish yet another life . . . the man with kind eyes, the man who had tried to help.
As the pain mounted, Baggia lay on his back and stared up through the water at the black sky above him. For a moment he thought he saw stars.
It was time.
Releasing all fear and doubt, Baggia opened his mouth and expelled what he knew would be his final breath. He watched his spirit gurgle heavenward in a burst of transparent bubbles. Then, reflexively, he gasped. The water poured in like icy daggers to his sides. The pain lasted only a few seconds.
Then . . . peace.
The Hassassin ignored the burning in his foot and focused on the drowning American, whom he now held pinned beneath him in the churning water. Finish it fully. He tightened his grip, knowing this time Robert Langdon would not survive. As he predicted, his victim’s struggling became weaker and weaker.
Suddenly Langdon’s body went rigid. He began to shake wildly.
Yes, the Hassassin mused. The rigors. When the water first hits the lungs. The rigors, he knew, would last about five seconds.
They lasted six.
Then, exactly as the Hassassin expected, his victim went suddenly flaccid. Like a great deflating balloon, Robert Langdon fell limp. It was over. The Hassassin held him down for another thirty seconds to let the water flood all of his pulmonary tissue. Gradually, he felt Langdon’s body sink, on its own accord, to the bottom. Finally, the Hassassin let go. The media would find a double surprise in the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
“Tabban! “the Hassassin swore, clambering out of the fountain and looking at his bleeding toe. The tip of his boot was shredded, and the front of his big toe had been sheared off. Angry at his own carelessness, he tore the cuff from his pant leg and rammed the fabric into the toe of his boot. Pain shot up his leg. “Ibn al‑kalb! “He clenched his fists and rammed the cloth deeper. The bleeding slowed until it was only a trickle.
Turning his thoughts from pain to pleasure, the Hassassin got into his van. His work in Rome was done. He knew exactly what would soothe his discomfort. Vittoria Vetra was bound and waiting. The Hassassin, even cold and wet, felt himself stiffen.
I have earned my reward.
Across town Vittoria awoke in pain. She was on her back. All of her muscles felt like stone. Tight. Brittle. Her arms hurt. When she tried to move, she felt spasms in her shoulders. It took her a moment to comprehend her hands were tied behind her back. Her initial reaction was confusion. Am I dreaming? But when she tried to lift her head, the pain at the base of her skull informed her of her wakefulness.
Confusion transforming to fear, she scanned her surroundings. She was in a crude, stone room—large and well‑furnished, lit by torches. Some kind of ancient meeting hall. Old‑fashioned benches sat in a circle nearby.
Vittoria felt a breeze, cold now on her skin. Nearby, a set of double doors stood open, beyond them a balcony. Through the slits in the balustrade, Vittoria could have sworn she saw the Vatican.