Langdon had no idea where he was going. Reflex was his only compass, driving him away from danger. His elbows and knees burned as he clambered beneath the pews. Still he clawed on. Somewhere a voice was telling him to move left. If you can get to the main aisle, you can dash for the exit. He knew it was impossible. There’s a wall of flames blocking the main aisle! His mind hunting for options, Langdon scrambled blindly on. The footsteps closed faster now to his right.
When it happened, Langdon was unprepared. He had guessed he had another ten feet of pews until he reached the front of the church. He had guessed wrong. Without warning, the cover above him ran out. He froze for an instant, half exposed at the front of the church. Rising in the recess to his left, gargantuan from this vantage point, was the very thing that had brought him here. He had entirely forgotten. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa rose up like some sort of pornographic still life . . . the saint on her back, arched in pleasure, mouth open in a moan, and over her, an angel pointing his spear of fire.
A bullet exploded in the pew over Langdon’s head. He felt his body rise like a sprinter out of a gate. Fueled only by adrenaline, and barely conscious of his actions, he was suddenly running, hunched, head down, pounding across the front of the church to his right. As the bullets erupted behind him, Langdon dove yet again, sliding out of control across the marble floor before crashing in a heap against the railing of a niche on the right‑hand wall.
It was then that he saw her. A crumpled heap near the back of the church. Vittoria! Her bare legs were twisted beneath her, but Langdon sensed somehow that she was breathing. He had no time to help her.
Immediately, the killer rounded the pews on the far left of the church and bore relentlessly down. Langdon knew in a heartbeat it was over. The killer raised the weapon, and Langdon did the only thing he could do. He rolled his body over the banister into the niche. As he hit the floor on the other side, the marble columns of the balustrade exploded in a storm of bullets.
Langdon felt like a cornered animal as he scrambled deeper into the semicircular niche. Rising before him, the niche’s sole contents seemed ironically apropos—a single sarcophagus. Mine perhaps, Langdon thought. Even the casket itself seemed fitting. It was a scаtola —a small, unadorned, marble box. Burial on a budget. The casket was raised off the floor on two marble blocks, and Langdon eyed the opening beneath it, wondering if he could slide through.
Footsteps echoed behind him.
With no other option in sight, Langdon pressed himself to the floor and slithered toward the casket. Grabbing the two marble supports, one with each hand, he pulled like a breaststroker, dragging his torso into the opening beneath the tomb. The gun went off.
Accompanying the roar of the gun, Langdon felt a sensation he had never felt in his life . . . a bullet sailing past his flesh. There was a hiss of wind, like the backlash of a whip, as the bullet just missed him and exploded in the marble with a puff of dust. Blood surging, Langdon heaved his body the rest of the way beneath the casket. Scrambling across the marble floor, he pulled himself out from beneath the casket and to the other side.
Langdon was now face to face with the rear wall of the niche. He had no doubt that this tiny space behind the tomb would become his grave. And soon, he realized, as he saw the barrel of the gun appear in the opening beneath the sarcophagus. The Hassassin held the weapon parallel with the floor, pointing directly at Langdon’s midsection.
Impossible to miss.
Langdon felt a trace of self‑preservation grip his unconscious mind. He twisted his body onto his stomach, parallel with the casket. Facedown, he planted his hands flat on the floor, the glass cut from the archives pinching open with a stab. Ignoring the pain, he pushed. Driving his body upward in an awkward push‑up, Langdon arched his stomach off the floor just as the gun went off. He could feel the shock wave of the bullets as they sailed beneath him and pulverized the porous travertine behind. Closing his eyes and straining against exhaustion, Langdon prayed for the thunder to stop.
And then it did.
The roar of gunfire was replaced with the cold click of an empty chamber.
Langdon opened his eyes slowly, almost fearful his eyelids would make a sound. Fighting the trembling pain, he held his position, arched like a cat. He didn’t even dare breathe. His eardrums numbed by gunfire, Langdon listened for any hint of the killer’s departure. Silence. He thought of Vittoria and ached to help her.
The sound that followed was deafening. Barely human. A guttural bellow of exertion.
The sarcophagus over Langdon’s head suddenly seemed to rise on its side. Langdon collapsed on the floor as hundreds of pounds teetered toward him. Gravity overcame friction, and the lid was the first to go, sliding off the tomb and crashing to the floor beside him. The casket came next, rolling off its supports and toppling upside down toward Langdon.
As the box rolled, Langdon knew he would either be entombed in the hollow beneath it or crushed by one of the edges. Pulling in his legs and head, Langdon compacted his body and yanked his arms to his sides. Then he closed his eyes and awaited the sickening crush.
When it came, the entire floor shook beneath him. The upper rim landed only millimeters from the top of his head, rattling his teeth in their sockets. His right arm, which Langdon had been certain would be crushed, miraculously still felt intact. He opened his eyes to see a shaft of light. The right rim of the casket had not fallen all the way to the floor and was still propped partially on its supports. Directly overhead, though, Langdon found himself staring quite literally into the face of death.
The original occupant of the tomb was suspended above him, having adhered, as decaying bodies often did, to the bottom of the casket. The skeleton hovered a moment, like a tentative lover, and then with a sticky crackling, it succumbed to gravity and peeled away. The carcass rushed down to embrace him, raining putrid bones and dust into Langdon’s eyes and mouth.
Before Langdon could react, a blind arm was slithering through the opening beneath the casket, sifting through the carcass like a hungry python. It groped until it found Langdon’s neck and clamped down. Langdon tried to fight back against the iron fist now crushing his larynx, but he found his left sleeve pinched beneath the edge of the coffin. He had only one arm free, and the fight was a losing battle.
Langdon’s legs bent in the only open space he had, his feet searching for the casket floor above him. He found it. Coiling, he planted his feet. Then, as the hand around his neck squeezed tighter, Langdon closed his eyes and extended his legs like a ram. The casket shifted, ever so slightly, but enough.
With a raw grinding, the sarcophagus slid off the supports and landed on the floor. The casket rim crashed onto the killer’s arm, and there was a muffled scream of pain. The hand released Langdon’s neck, twisting and jerking away into the dark. When the killer finally pulled his arm free, the casket fell with a conclusive thud against the flat marble floor.
Complete darkness. Again.
There was no frustrated pounding outside the overturned sarcophagus. No prying to get in. Nothing. As Langdon lay in the dark amidst a pile of bones, he fought the closing darkness and turned his thoughts to her.
Vittoria. Are you alive?
If Langdon had known the truth—the horror to which Vittoria would soon awake—he would have wished for her sake that she were dead.