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The confrontation lasted only seconds.

Camerlegno Ventresca was still screaming when Chartrand stepped past Rocher and blew open the door of the Pope’s office. The guards dashed in. Langdon and Vittoria ran in behind them.

The scene before them was staggering.

The chamber was lit only by candlelight and a dying fire. Kohler was near the fireplace, standing awkwardly in front of his wheelchair. He brandished a pistol, aimed at the camerlegno, who lay on the floor at his feet, writhing in agony. The camerlegno’s cassock was torn open, and his bare chest was seared black. Langdon could not make out the symbol from across the room, but a large, square brand lay on the floor near Kohler. The metal still glowed red.

Two of the Swiss Guards acted without hesitation. They opened fire. The bullets smashed into Kohler’s chest, driving him backward. Kohler collapsed into his wheelchair, his chest gurgling blood. His gun went skittering across the floor.

Langdon stood stunned in the doorway.

Vittoria seemed paralyzed. “Max . . .” she whispered.

The camerlegno, still twisting on the floor, rolled toward Rocher, and with the trancelike terror of the early witch hunts, pointed his index finger at Rocher and yelled a single word. “ILLUMINATUS!”

“You bastard,” Rocher said, running at him. “You sanctimonious bas—”

This time it was Chartrand who reacted on instinct, putting three bullets in Rocher’s back. The captain fell face first on the tile floor and slid lifeless through his own blood. Chartrand and the guards dashed immediately to the camerlegno, who lay clutching himself, convulsing in pain.

Both guards let out exclamations of horror when they saw the symbol seared on the camerlegno’s chest. The second guard saw the brand upside down and immediately staggered backward with fear in his eyes. Chartrand, looking equally overwhelmed by the symbol, pulled the camerlegno’s torn cassock up over the burn, shielding it from view.

Langdon felt delirious as he moved across the room. Through a mist of insanity and violence, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. A crippled scientist, in a final act of symbolic dominance, had flown into Vatican City and branded the church’s highest official. Some things are worth dying for, the Hassassin had said. Langdon wondered how a handicapped man could possibly have overpowered the camerlegno. Then again, Kohler had a gun. It doesn’t matter how he did it! Kohler accomplished his mission!

Langdon moved toward the gruesome scene. The camerlegno was being attended, and Langdon felt himself drawn toward the smoking brand on the floor near Kohler’s wheelchair. The sixth brand? The closer Langdon got, the more confused he became. The brand seemed to be a perfect square, quite large, and had obviously come from the sacred center compartment of the chest in the Illuminati Lair. A sixth and final brand, the Hassassin had said. The most brilliant of all.

Langdon knelt beside Kohler and reached for the object. The metal still radiated heat. Grasping the wooden handle, Langdon picked it up. He was not sure what he expected to see, but it most certainly was not this.

Langdon stared a long, confused moment. Nothing was making sense. Why had the guards cried out in horror when they saw this? It was a square of meaningless squiggles. The most brilliant of all? It was symmetrical, Langdon could tell as he rotated it in his hand, but it was gibberish.

When he felt a hand on his shoulder, Langdon looked up, expecting Vittoria. The hand, however, was covered with blood. It belonged to Maximilian Kohler, who was reaching out from his wheelchair.

Langdon dropped the brand and staggered to his feet. Kohler’s still alive!

Slumped in his wheelchair, the dying director was still breathing, albeit barely, sucking in sputtering gasps. Kohler’s eyes met Langdon’s, and it was the same stony gaze that had greeted Langdon at CERN earlier that day. The eyes looked even harder in death, the loathing and enmity rising to the surface.

The scientist’s body quivered, and Langdon sensed he was trying to move. Everyone else in the room was focused on the camerlegno, and Langdon wanted to call out, but he could not react. He was transfixed by the intensity radiating from Kohler in these final seconds of his life. The director, with tremulous effort, lifted his arm and pulled a small device off the arm of his wheelchair. It was the size of a matchbox. He held it out, quivering. For an instant, Langdon feared Kohler had a weapon. But it was something else.

“G‑give . . .” Kohler’s final words were a gurgling whisper. “G‑give this . . . to the m‑media.” Kohler collapsed motionless, and the device fell in his lap.

Shocked, Langdon stared at the device. It was electronic. The words SONY RUVI were printed across the front. Langdon recognized it as one of those new ultraminiature, palm‑held camcorders. The balls on this guy! he thought. Kohler had apparently recorded some sort of final suicide message he wanted the media to broadcast . . . no doubt some sermon about the importance of science and the evils of religion. Langdon decided he had done enough for this man’s cause tonight. Before Chartrand saw Kohler’s camcorder, Langdon slipped it into his deepest jacket pocket. Kohler’s final message can rot in hell!

It was the voice of the camerlegno that broke the silence. He was trying to sit up. “The cardinals,” he gasped to Chartrand.

“Still in the Sistine Chapel!” Chartrand exclaimed. “Captain Rocher ordered—”

“Evacuate . . . now. Everyone.”

Chartrand sent one of the other guards running off to let the cardinals out.

The camerlegno grimaced in pain. “Helicopter . . . out front . . . get me to a hospital.”