The interior of Santa Maria del Popolo was a murky cave in the dimming light. It looked more like a half‑finished subway station than a cathedral. The main sanctuary was an obstacle course of torn‑up flooring, brick pallets, mounds of dirt, wheelbarrows, and even a rusty backhoe. Mammoth columns rose through the floor, supporting a vaulted roof. In the air, silt drifted lazily in the muted glow of the stained glass. Langdon stood with Vittoria beneath a sprawling Pinturicchio fresco and scanned the gutted shrine.
Nothing moved. Dead silence.
Vittoria held the gun out in front of her with both hands. Langdon checked his watch: 8:04 P.M. We’re crazy to be in here, he thought. It’s too dangerous. Still he knew if the killer were inside, the man could leave through any door he wanted, making a one‑gun outside stakeout totally fruitless. Catching him inside was the only way . . . that was, if he was even still here. Langdon felt guilt‑ridden over the blunder that had cost everyone their chance at the Pantheon. He was in no position to insist on precaution now; he was the one who had backed them into this corner.
Vittoria looked harrowed as she scanned the church. “So,” she whispered. “Where is this Chigi Chapel?”
Langdon gazed through the dusky ghostliness toward the back of the cathedral and studied the outer walls. Contrary to common perception, Renaissance cathedrals invariably contained multiple chapels, huge cathedrals like Notre Dame having dozens. Chapels were less rooms than they were hollows —semicircular niches holding tombs around a church’s perimeter wall.
Bad news, Langdon thought, seeing the four recesses on each side wall. There were eight chapels in all. Although eight was not a particularly overwhelming number, all eight openings were covered with huge sheets of clear polyurethane due to the construction, the translucent curtains apparently intended to keep dust off the tombs inside the alcoves.
“It could be any of those draped recesses,” Langdon said. “No way to know which is the Chigi without looking inside every one. Could be a good reason to wait for Oliv—”
“Which is the secondary left apse?” she asked.
Langdon studied her, surprised by her command of architectural terminology. “Secondary left apse?”
Vittoria pointed at the wall behind him. A decorative tile was embedded in the stone. It was engraved with the same symbol they had seen outside—a pyramid beneath a shining star. The grime‑covered plaque beside it read:
Coat of arms of Alexander Chigi whose tomb is located in the secondary left apse of this Cathedral
Langdon nodded. Chigi’s coat of arms was a pyramid and star? He suddenly found himself wondering if the wealthy patron Chigi had been an Illuminatus. He nodded to Vittoria. “Nice work, Nancy Drew.”
“Never mind. I—”
A piece of metal clattered to the floor only yards away. The clang echoed through the entire church. Langdon pulled Vittoria behind a pillar as she whipped the gun toward the sound and held it there. Silence. They waited. Again there was sound, this time a rustling. Langdon held his breath. I never should have let us come in here! The sound moved closer, an intermittent scuffling, like a man with a limp. Suddenly around the base of the pillar, an object came into view.
“Figlio di puttana! “Vittoria cursed under her breath, jumping back. Langdon fell back with her.
Beside the pillar, dragging a half‑eaten sandwich in paper, was an enormous rat. The creature paused when it saw them, staring a long moment down the barrel of Vittoria’s weapon, and then, apparently unmoved, continued dragging its prize off to the recesses of the church.
“Son of a . . .” Langdon gasped, his heart racing.
Vittoria lowered the gun, quickly regaining her composure. Langdon peered around the side of the column to see a workman’s lunchbox splayed on the floor, apparently knocked off a sawhorse by the resourceful rodent.
Langdon scanned the basilica for movement and whispered, “If this guy’s here, he sure as hell heard that. You sure you don’t want to wait for Olivetti?”
“Secondary left apse,” Vittoria repeated. “Where is it?”
Reluctantly Langdon turned and tried to get his bearings. Cathedral terminology was like stage directions—totally counterintuitive. He faced the main altar. Stage center. Then he pointed with his thumb backward over his shoulder.
They both turned and looked where he was pointing.
It seemed the Chigi Chapel was located in the third of four recessed alcoves to their right. The good news was that Langdon and Vittoria were on the correct side of the church. The bad news was that they were at the wrong end. They would have to traverse the length of the cathedral, passing three other chapels, each of them, like the Chigi Chapel, covered with translucent plastic shrouds.
“Wait,” Langdon said. “I’ll go first.”
“I’m the one who screwed up at the Pantheon.”
She turned. “But I’m the one with the gun.”
In her eyes Langdon could see what she was really thinking . . . I’m the one who lost my father. I’m the one who helped build a weapon of mass destruction. This guy’s kneecaps are mine . . .
Langdon sensed the futility and let her go. He moved beside her, cautiously, down the east side of the basilica. As they passed the first shrouded alcove, Langdon felt taut, like a contestant on some surreal game show. I’ll take curtain number three, he thought.
The church was quiet, the thick stone walls blocking out all hints of the outside world. As they hurried past one chapel after the other, pale humanoid forms wavered like ghosts behind the rustling plastic. Carved marble, Langdon told himself, hoping he was right. It was 8:06 P.M. Had the killer been punctual and slipped out before Langdon and Vittoria had entered? Or was he still here? Langdon was unsure which scenario he preferred.
They passed the second apse, ominous in the slowly darkening cathedral. Night seemed to be falling quickly now, accentuated by the musty tint of the stained‑glass windows. As they pressed on, the plastic curtain beside them billowed suddenly, as if caught in a draft. Langdon wondered if someone somewhere had opened a door.
Vittoria slowed as the third niche loomed before them. She held the gun before her, motioning with her head to the stele beside the apse. Carved in the granite block were two words:
Langdon nodded. Without a sound they moved to the corner of the opening, positioning themselves behind a wide pillar. Vittoria leveled the gun around a corner at the plastic. Then she signaled for Langdon to pull back the shroud.
A good time to start praying, he thought. Reluctantly, he reached over her shoulder. As carefully as possible, he began to pull the plastic aside. It moved an inch and then crinkled loudly. They both froze. Silence. After a moment, moving in slow motion, Vittoria leaned forward and peered through the narrow slit. Langdon looked over her shoulder.
For a moment, neither one of them breathed.
“Empty,” Vittoria finally said, lowering the gun. “We’re too late.”
Langdon did not hear. He was in awe, transported for an instant to another world. In his life, he had never imagined a chapel that looked like this. Finished entirely in chestnut marble, the Chigi Chapel was breathtaking. Langdon’s trained eye devoured it in gulps. It was as earthly a chapel as Langdon could fathom, almost as if Galileo and the Illuminati had designed it themselves.
Overhead, the domed cupola shone with a field of illuminated stars and the seven astronomical planets. Below that the twelve signs of the zodiac—pagan, earthly symbols rooted in astronomy. The zodiac was also tied directly to Earth, Air, Fire, Water . . . the quadrants representing power, intellect, ardor, emotion. Earth is for power, Langdon recalled.
Farther down the wall, Langdon saw tributes to the Earth’s four temporal seasons—primavera, estate, autunno, invérno. But far more incredible than any of this were the two huge structures dominating the room. Langdon stared at them in silent wonder. It can’t be, he thought. It just can’t be! But it was. On either side of the chapel, in perfect symmetry, were two ten‑foot‑high marble pyramids.
“I don’t see a cardinal,” Vittoria whispered. “Or an assassin.” She pulled aside the plastic and stepped in.
Langdon’s eyes were transfixed on the pyramids. What are pyramids doing inside a Christian chapel? And incredibly, there was more. Dead center of each pyramid, embedded in their anterior façades, were gold medallions . . . medallions like few Langdon had ever seen . . . perfect ellipses. The burnished disks glimmered in the setting sun as it sifted through the cupola. Galileo’s ellipses? Pyramids? A cupola of stars? The room had more Illuminati significance than any room Langdon could have fabricated in his mind.
“Robert,” Vittoria blurted, her voice cracking. “Look!”
Langdon wheeled, reality returning as his eyes dropped to where she was pointing. “Bloody hell!” he shouted, jumping backward.
Sneering up at them from the floor was the image of a skeleton—an intricately detailed, marble mosaic depicting “death in flight.” The skeleton was carrying a tablet portraying the same pyramid and stars they had seen outside. It was not the image, however, that had turned Langdon’s blood cold. It was the fact that the mosaic was mounted on a circular stone—a cupermento —that had been lifted out of the floor like a manhole cover and was now sitting off to one side of a dark opening in the floor.
“Demon’s hole,” Langdon gasped. He had been so taken with the ceiling he had not even seen it. Tentatively he moved toward the pit. The stench coming up was overwhelming.
Vittoria put a hand over her mouth. “Che puzzo.”
“Effluvium,” Langdon said. “Vapors from decaying bone.” He breathed through his sleeve as he leaned out over the hole, peering down. Blackness. “I can’t see a thing.”
“You think anybody’s down there?”
“No way to know.”
Vittoria motioned to the far side of the hole where a rotting, wooden ladder descended into the depths.
Langdon shook his head. “Like hell.”
“Maybe there’s a flashlight outside in those tools.” She sounded eager for an excuse to escape the smell. “I’ll look.”
“Careful!” Langdon warned. “We don’t know for sure that the Hassassin—”
But Vittoria was already gone.
One strong‑willed woman, Langdon thought.
As he turned back to the pit, he felt light‑headed from the fumes. Holding his breath, he dropped his head below the rim and peered deep into the darkness. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he began to see faint shapes below. The pit appeared to open into a small chamber. Demon’s hole. He wondered how many generations of Chigis had been unceremoniously dumped in. Langdon closed his eyes and waited, forcing his pupils to dilate so he could see better in the dark. When he opened his eyes again, a pale muted figure hovered below in the darkness. Langdon shivered but fought the instinct to pull out. Am I seeing things? Is that a body? The figure faded. Langdon closed his eyes again and waited, longer this time, so his eyes would pick up the faintest light.
Dizziness started to set in, and his thoughts wandered in the blackness. Just a few more seconds. He wasn’t sure if it was breathing the fumes or holding his head at a low inclination, but Langdon was definitely starting to feel squeamish. When he finally opened his eyes again, the image before him was totally inexplicable.
He was now staring at a crypt bathed in an eerie bluish light. A faint hissing sound reverberated in his ears. Light flickered on the steep walls of the shaft. Suddenly, a long shadow materialized over him. Startled, Langdon scrambled up.
“Look out!” someone exclaimed behind him.
Before Langdon could turn, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck. He spun to see Vittoria twisting a lit blowtorch away from him, the hissing flame throwing blue light around the chapel.
Langdon grabbed his neck. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I was giving you some light,” she said. “You backed right into me.”
Langdon glared at the portable blowtorch in her hand.
“Best I could do,” she said. “No flashlights.”
Langdon rubbed his neck. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
Vittoria handed him the torch, wincing again at the stench of the crypt. “You think those fumes are combustible?”
“Let’s hope not.”
He took the torch and moved slowly toward the hole. Cautiously, he advanced to the rim and pointed the flame down into the hole, lighting the side wall. As he directed the light, his eyes traced the outline of the wall downward. The crypt was circular and about twenty feet across. Thirty feet down, the glow found the floor. The ground was dark and mottled. Earthy. Then Langdon saw the body.
His instinct was to recoil. “He’s here,” Langdon said, forcing himself not to turn away. The figure was a pallid outline against the earthen floor. “I think he’s been stripped naked.” Langdon flashed on the nude corpse of Leonardo Vetra.
“Is it one of the cardinals?”
Langdon had no idea, but he couldn’t imagine who the hell else it would be. He stared down at the pale blob. Unmoving. Lifeless. And yet . . . Langdon hesitated. There was something very strange about the way the figure was positioned. He seemed to be . . .
Langdon called out. “Hello?”
“You think he’s alive?”
There was no response from below.
“He’s not moving,” Langdon said. “But he looks . . .” No, impossible.
“He looks what ?” Vittoria was peering over the edge now too.
Langdon squinted into the darkness. “He looks like he’s standing up.”
Vittoria held her breath and lowered her face over the edge for a better look. After a moment, she pulled back. “You’re right. He’s standing up! Maybe he’s alive and needs help!” She called into the hole. “Hello?! Mi puó sentire? “
There was no echo off the mossy interior. Only silence.
Vittoria headed for the rickety ladder. “I’m going down.”
Langdon caught her arm. “No. It’s dangerous. I’ll go.”
This time Vittoria didn’t argue.