Langdon held his breath as the X‑33 spiraled into Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. Vittoria sat across from him, eyes closed as if trying to will the situation into control. The craft touched down and taxied to a private hangar.
“Sorry for the slow flight,” the pilot apologized, emerging from the cockpit. “Had to trim her back. Noise regulations over populated areas.”
Langdon checked his watch. They had been airborne thirty‑seven minutes.
The pilot popped the outer door. “Anybody want to tell me what’s going on?”
Neither Vittoria nor Langdon responded.
“Fine,” he said, stretching. “I’ll be in the cockpit with the air‑conditioning and my music. Just me and Garth.”
The late‑afternoon sun blazed outside the hangar. Langdon carried his tweed jacket over his shoulder. Vittoria turned her face skyward and inhaled deeply, as if the sun’s rays somehow transferred to her some mystical replenishing energy.
Mediterraneans, Langdon mused, already sweating.
“Little old for cartoons, aren’t you?” Vittoria asked, without opening her eyes.
“Your wristwatch. I saw it on the plane.”
Langdon flushed slightly. He was accustomed to having to defend his timepiece. The collector’s edition Mickey Mouse watch had been a childhood gift from his parents. Despite the contorted foolishness of Mickey’s outstretched arms designating the hour, it was the only watch Langdon had ever worn. Waterproof and glow‑in‑the‑dark, it was perfect for swimming laps or walking unlit college paths at night. When Langdon’s students questioned his fashion sense, he told them he wore Mickey as a daily reminder to stay young at heart.
“It’s six o’clock,” he said.
Vittoria nodded, eyes still closed. “I think our ride’s here.”
Langdon heard the distant whine, looked up, and felt a sinking feeling. Approaching from the north was a helicopter, slicing low across the runway. Langdon had been on a helicopter once in the Andean Palpa Valley looking at the Nazca sand drawings and had not enjoyed it one bit. A flying shoebox. After a morning of space plane rides, Langdon had hoped the Vatican would send a car.
The chopper slowed overhead, hovered a moment, and dropped toward the runway in front of them. The craft was white and carried a coat of arms emblazoned on the side—two skeleton keys crossing a shield and papal crown. He knew the symbol well. It was the traditional seal of the Vatican—the sacred symbol of the Holy See or “holy seat” of government, the seat being literally the ancient throne of St. Peter.
The Holy Chopper, Langdon groaned, watching the craft land. He’d forgotten the Vatican owned one of these things, used for transporting the Pope to the airport, to meetings, or to his summer palace in Gandolfo. Langdon definitely would have preferred a car.
The pilot jumped from the cockpit and strode toward them across the tarmac.
Now it was Vittoria who looked uneasy. “That’s our pilot?”
Langdon shared her concern. “To fly, or not to fly. That is the question.”
The pilot looked like he was festooned for a Shakespearean melodrama. His puffy tunic was vertically striped in brilliant blue and gold. He wore matching pantaloons and spats. On his feet were black flats that looked like slippers. On top of it all, he wore a black felt beret.
“Traditional Swiss Guard uniforms,” Langdon explained. “Designed by Michelangelo himself.” As the man drew closer, Langdon winced. “I admit, not one of Michelangelo’s better efforts.”
Despite the man’s garish attire, Langdon could tell the pilot meant business. He moved toward them with all the rigidity and dignity of a U.S. Marine. Langdon had read many times about the rigorous requirements for becoming one of the elite Swiss Guard. Recruited from one of Switzerland’s four Catholic cantons, applicants had to be Swiss males between nineteen and thirty years old, at least 5 feet 6 inches, trained by the Swiss Army, and unmarried. This imperial corps was envied by world governments as the most allegiant and deadly security force in the world.
“You are from CERN?” the guard asked, arriving before them. His voice was steely.
“Yes, sir,” Langdon replied.
“You made remarkable time,” he said, giving the X‑33 a mystified stare. He turned to Vittoria. “Ma’am, do you have any other clothing?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He motioned to her legs. “Short pants are not permitted inside Vatican City.”
Langdon glanced down at Vittoria’s legs and frowned. He had forgotten. Vatican City had a strict ban on visible legs above the knee—both male and female. The regulation was a way of showing respect for the sanctity of God’s city.
“This is all I have,” she said. “We came in a hurry.”
The guard nodded, clearly displeased. He turned next to Langdon. “Are you carrying any weapons?”
Weapons? Langdon thought. I’m not even carrying a change of underwear! He shook his head.
The officer crouched at Langdon’s feet and began patting him down, starting at his socks. Trusting guy, Langdon thought. The guard’s strong hands moved up Langdon’s legs, coming uncomfortably close to his groin. Finally they moved up to his chest and shoulders. Apparently content Langdon was clean, the guard turned to Vittoria. He ran his eyes up her legs and torso.
Vittoria glared. “Don’t even think about it.”
The guard fixed Vittoria with a gaze clearly intended to intimidate. Vittoria did not flinch.
“What’s that?” the guard said, pointing to a faint square bulge in the front pocket of her shorts.
Vittoria removed an ultrathin cell phone. The guard took it, clicked it on, waited for a dial tone, and then, apparently satisfied that it was indeed nothing more than a phone, returned it to her. Vittoria slid it back into her pocket.
“Turn around, please,” the guard said.
Vittoria obliged, holding her arms out and rotating a full 360 degrees.
The guard carefully studied her. Langdon had already decided that Vittoria’s form‑fitting shorts and blouse were not bulging anywhere they shouldn’t have been. Apparently the guard came to the same conclusion.
“Thank you. This way please.”
The Swiss Guard chopper churned in neutral as Langdon and Vittoria approached. Vittoria boarded first, like a seasoned pro, barely even stooping as she passed beneath the whirling rotors. Langdon held back a moment.
“No chance of a car?” he yelled, half‑joking to the Swiss Guard, who was climbing in the pilot’s seat.
The man did not answer.
Langdon knew that with Rome’s maniacal drivers, flying was probably safer anyway. He took a deep breath and boarded, stooping cautiously as he passed beneath the spinning rotors.
As the guard fired up the engines, Vittoria called out, “Have you located the canister?”
The guard glanced over his shoulder, looking confused. “The what?”
“The canister. You called CERN about a canister?”
The man shrugged. “No idea what you’re talking about. We’ve been very busy today. My commander told me to pick you up. That’s all I know.”
Vittoria gave Langdon an unsettled look.
“Buckle up, please,” the pilot said as the engine revved.
Langdon reached for his seat belt and strapped himself in. The tiny fuselage seemed to shrink around him. Then with a roar, the craft shot up and banked sharply north toward Rome.
Rome . . . the caput mundi, where Caesar once ruled, where St. Peter was crucified. The cradle of modern civilization. And at its core . . . a ticking bomb.