Langdon was the first to reach the screaming girl.
The terrified youngster stood frozen, pointing at the base of the obelisk where a shabby, decrepit drunk sat slumped on the stairs. The man was a miserable sight . . . apparently one of Rome’s homeless. His gray hair hung in greasy strands in front of his face, and his entire body was wrapped in some sort of dirty cloth. The girl kept screaming as she scampered off into the crowd.
Langdon felt an upsurge of dread as he dashed toward the invalid. There was a dark, widening stain spreading across the man’s rags. Fresh, flowing blood.
Then, it was as if everything happened at once.
The old man seemed to crumple in the middle, tottering forward. Langdon lunged, but he was too late. The man pitched forward, toppled off the stairs, and hit the pavement facedown. Motionless.
Langdon dropped to his knees. Vittoria arrived beside him. A crowd was gathering.
Vittoria put her fingers on the man’s throat from behind. “There’s a pulse,” she declared. “Roll him.”
Langdon was already in motion. Grasping the man’s shoulders, he rolled the body. As he did, the loose rags seemed to slough away like dead flesh. The man flopped limp onto his back. Dead center of his naked chest was a wide area of charred flesh.
Vittoria gasped and pulled back.
Langdon felt paralyzed, pinned somewhere between nausea and awe. The symbol had a terrifying simplicity to it.
“Air,” Vittoria choked. “It’s . . . him.”
Swiss Guards appeared from out of nowhere, shouting orders, racing after an unseen assassin.
Nearby, a tourist explained that only minutes ago, a dark‑skinned man had been kind enough to help this poor, wheezing, homeless man across the square . . . even sitting a moment on the stairs with the invalid before disappearing back into the crowd.
Vittoria ripped the rest of the rags off the man’s abdomen. He had two deep puncture wounds, one on either side of the brand, just below his rib cage. She cocked the man’s head back and began to administer mouth to mouth. Langdon was not prepared for what happened next. As Vittoria blew, the wounds on either side of the man’s midsection hissed and sprayed blood into the air like blowholes on a whale. The salty liquid hit Langdon in the face.
Vittoria stopped short, looking horrified. “His lungs . . .” she stammered. “They’re . . . punctured.”
Langdon wiped his eyes as he looked down at the two perforations. The holes gurgled. The cardinal’s lungs were destroyed. He was gone.
Vittoria covered the body as the Swiss Guards moved in.
Langdon stood, disoriented. As he did, he saw her. The woman who had been following them earlier was crouched nearby. Her BBC video camera was shouldered, aimed, and running. She and Langdon locked eyes, and he knew she’d gotten it all. Then, like a cat, she bolted.