Langdon and Vittoria observed Piazza Barberini from the shadows of a small alleyway on the western corner. The church was opposite them, a hazy cupola emerging from a faint cluster of buildings across the square. The night had brought with it a welcome cool, and Langdon was surprised to find the square deserted. Above them, through open windows, blaring televisions reminded Langdon where everyone had disappeared to.
“. . . no comment yet from the Vatican . . . Illuminati murders of two cardinals . . . satanic presence in Rome . . . speculation about further infiltration . . .”
The news had spread like Nero’s fire. Rome sat riveted, as did the rest of the world. Langdon wondered if they would really be able to stop this runaway train. As he scanned the piazza and waited, Langdon realized that despite the encroachment of modern buildings, the piazza still looked remarkably elliptical. High above, like some sort of modern shrine to a bygone hero, an enormous neon sign blinked on the roof of a luxurious hotel. Vittoria had already pointed it out to Langdon. The sign seemed eerily befitting.
“Five of ten,” Vittoria said, cat eyes darting around the square. No sooner had she spoken the words than she grabbed Langdon’s arm and pulled him back into the shadows. She motioned into the center of the square.
Langdon followed her gaze. When he saw it, he stiffened.
Crossing in front of them, beneath a street lamp, two dark figures appeared. Both were cloaked, their heads covered with dark mantles, the traditional black covering of Catholic widows. Langdon would have guessed they were women, but he couldn’t be sure in the dark. One looked elderly and moved as if in pain, hunched over. The other, larger and stronger, was helping.
“Give me the gun,” Vittoria said.
“You can’t just—”
Fluid as a cat, Vittoria was in and out of his pocket once again. The gun glinted in her hand. Then, in absolute silence, as if her feet never touched the cobblestone, she was circling left in the shadows, arching across the square to approach the couple from the rear. Langdon stood transfixed as Vittoria disappeared. Then, swearing to himself, he hurried after her.
The couple was moving slowly, and it was only a matter of half a minute before Langdon and Vittoria were positioned behind them, closing in from the rear. Vittoria concealed the gun beneath casually crossed arms in front of her, out of sight but accessible in a flash. She seemed to float faster and faster as the gap lessened, and Langdon battled to keep up. When his shoes scuffed a stone and sent it skittering, Vittoria shot him a sideways glare. But the couple did not seem to hear. They were talking.
At thirty feet, Langdon could start to hear voices. No words. Just faint murmurings. Beside him, Vittoria moved faster with every step. Her arms loosened before her, the gun starting to peek out. Twenty feet. The voices were clearer—one much louder than the other. Angry. Ranting. Langdon sensed it was the voice of an old woman. Gruff. Androgynous. He strained to hear what she was saying, but another voice cut the night.
“Mi scusi! “Vittoria’s friendly tone lit the square like a torch.
Langdon tensed as the cloaked couple stopped short and began to turn. Vittoria kept striding toward them, even faster now, on a collision course. They would have no time to react. Langdon realized his own feet had stopped moving. From behind, he saw Vittoria’s arms loosening, her hand coming free, the gun swinging forward. Then, over her shoulder, he saw a face, lit now in the street lamp. The panic surged to his legs, and he lunged forward. “Vittoria, no!”
Vittoria, however, seemed to exist a split second ahead of him. In a motion as swift as it was casual, Vittoria’s arms were raised again, the gun disappearing as she clutched herself like a woman on a chilly night. Langdon stumbled to her side, almost colliding with the cloaked couple before them.
“Buona sera,” Vittoria blurted, her voice startled with retreat.
Langdon exhaled in relief. Two elderly women stood before them scowling out from beneath their mantles. One was so old she could barely stand. The other was helping her. Both clutched rosaries. They seemed confused by the sudden interruption.
Vittoria smiled, although she looked shaken. “Dov’è la chiesa Santa Maria della Vittoria? Where is the Church of—”
The two women motioned in unison to a bulky silhouette of a building on an inclined street from the direction they had come. “È là.”
“Grazie,” Langdon said, putting his hands on Vittoria’s shoulders and gently pulling her back. He couldn’t believe they’d almost attacked a pair of old ladies.
“Non si puó entrare,” one woman warned. “È chiusa temprano.”
“Closed early?” Vittoria looked surprised. “Perchè?”
Both women explained at once. They sounded irate. Langdon understood only parts of the grumbling Italian. Apparently, the women had been inside the church fifteen minutes ago praying for the Vatican in its time of need, when some man had appeared and told them the church was closing early.
“Hanno conosciuto l’uomo? “Vittoria demanded, sounding tense. “Did you know the man?”
The women shook their heads. The man was a straniero crudo, they explained, and he had forcibly made everyone inside leave, even the young priest and janitor, who said they were calling the police. But the intruder had only laughed, telling them to be sure the police brought cameras.
Cameras? Langdon wondered.
The women clucked angrily and called the man a bar‑аrabo. Then, grumbling, they continued on their way.
“Bar‑аrabo?"Langdon asked Vittoria. “A barbarian?”
Vittoria looked suddenly taut. “Not quite. Bar‑аrabo is derogatory wordplay. It means Аrabo . . . Arab.”
Langdon felt a shiver and turned toward the outline of the church. As he did, his eyes glimpsed something in the church’s stained‑glass windows. The image shot dread through his body.
Unaware, Vittoria removed her cell phone and pressed the auto dial. “I’m warning Olivetti.”
Speechless, Langdon reached out and touched her arm. With a tremulous hand, he pointed to the church.
Vittoria let out a gasp.
Inside the building, glowing like evil eyes through the stained‑glass windows . . . shone the growing flash of flames.