Like a recurring theme in some demonic symphony, the suffocating darkness had returned.
No light. No air. No exit.
Langdon lay trapped beneath the overturned sarcophagus and felt his mind careening dangerously close to the brink. Trying to drive his thoughts in any direction other than the crushing space around him, Langdon urged his mind toward some logical process . . . mathematics, music, anything. But there was no room for calming thoughts. I can’t move! I can’t breathe!
The pinched sleeve of his jacket had thankfully come free when the casket fell, leaving Langdon now with two mobile arms. Even so, as he pressed upward on the ceiling of his tiny cell, he found it immovable. Oddly, he wished his sleeve were still caught. At least it might create a crack for some air.
As Langdon pushed against the roof above, his sleeve fell back to reveal the faint glow of an old friend. Mickey. The greenish cartoon face seemed mocking now.
Langdon probed the blackness for any other sign of light, but the casket rim was flush against the floor. Goddamn Italian perfectionists, he cursed, now imperiled by the same artistic excellence he taught his students to revere . . . impeccable edges, faultless parallels, and of course, use only of the most seamless and resilient Carrara marble.
Precision can be suffocating.
“Lift the damn thing,” he said aloud, pressing harder through the tangle of bones. The box shifted slightly. Setting his jaw, he heaved again. The box felt like a boulder, but this time it raised a quarter of an inch. A fleeting glimmer of light surrounded him, and then the casket thudded back down. Langdon lay panting in the dark. He tried to use his legs to lift as he had before, but now that the sarcophagus had fallen flat, there was no room even to straighten his knees.
As the claustrophobic panic closed in, Langdon was overcome by images of the sarcophagus shrinking around him. Squeezed by delirium, he fought the illusion with every logical shred of intellect he had.
“Sarcophagus,” he stated aloud, with as much academic sterility as he could muster. But even erudition seemed to be his enemy today. Sarcophagus is from the Greek “sarx"meaning “flesh,” and “phagein” meaning “to eat.” I’m trapped in a box literally designed to “eat flesh.”
Images of flesh eaten from bone only served as a grim reminder that Langdon lay covered in human remains. The notion brought nausea and chills. But it also brought an idea.
Fumbling blindly around the coffin, Langdon found a shard of bone. A rib maybe? He didn’t care. All he wanted was a wedge. If he could lift the box, even a crack, and slide the bone fragment beneath the rim, then maybe enough air could . . .
Reaching across his body and wedging the tapered end of the bone into the crack between the floor and the coffin, Langdon reached up with his other hand and heaved skyward. The box did not move. Not even slightly. He tried again. For a moment, it seemed to tremble slightly, but that was all.
With the fetid stench and lack of oxygen choking the strength from his body, Langdon realized he only had time for one more effort. He also knew he would need both arms.
Regrouping, he placed the tapered edge of the bone against the crack, and shifting his body, he wedged the bone against his shoulder, pinning it in place. Careful not to dislodge it, he raised both hands above him. As the stifling confine began to smother him, he felt a welling of intensified panic. It was the second time today he had been trapped with no air. Hollering aloud, Langdon thrust upward in one explosive motion. The casket jostled off the floor for an instant. But long enough. The bone shard he had braced against his shoulder slipped outward into the widening crack. When the casket fell again, the bone shattered. But this time Langdon could see the casket was propped up. A tiny slit of light showed beneath the rim.
Exhausted, Langdon collapsed. Hoping the strangling sensation in his throat would pass, he waited. But it only worsened as the seconds passed. Whatever air was coming through the slit seemed imperceptible. Langdon wondered if it would be enough to keep him alive. And if so, for how long? If he passed out, who would know he was even in there?
With arms like lead, Langdon raised his watch again: 10:12 P.M. Fighting trembling fingers, he fumbled with the watch and made his final play. He twisted one of the tiny dials and pressed a button.
As consciousness faded, and the walls squeezed closer, Langdon felt the old fears sweep over him. He tried to imagine, as he had so many times, that he was in an open field. The image he conjured, however, was no help. The nightmare that had haunted him since his youth came crashing back . . .
The flowers here are like paintings, the child thought, laughing as he ran across the meadow. He wished his parents had come along. But his parents were busy pitching camp.
“Don’t explore too far,” his mother had said.
He had pretended not to hear as he bounded off into the woods.
Now, traversing this glorious field, the boy came across a pile of fieldstones. He figured it must be the foundation of an old homestead. He would not go near it. He knew better. Besides, his eyes had been drawn to something else—a brilliant lady’s slipper—the rarest and most beautiful flower in New Hampshire. He had only ever seen them in books.
Excited, the boy moved toward the flower. He knelt down. The ground beneath him felt mulchy and hollow. He realized his flower had found an extra‑fertile spot. It was growing from a patch of rotting wood.
Thrilled by the thought of taking home his prize, the boy reached out . . . fingers extending toward the stem.
He never reached it.
With a sickening crack, the earth gave way.
In the three seconds of dizzying terror as he fell, the boy knew he would die. Plummeting downward, he braced for the bone‑crushing collision. When it came, there was no pain. Only softness.
He hit the deep liquid face first, plunging into a narrow blackness. Spinning disoriented somersaults, he groped the sheer walls thatenclosed him on all sides. Somehow, as if by instinct, he sputtered to the surface.
Faint. Above him. Miles above him, it seemed.
His arms clawed at the water, searching the walls of the hollow for something to grab onto. Only smooth stone. He had fallen through an abandoned well covering. He screamed for help, but his cries reverberated in the tight shaft. He called out again and again. Above him, the tattered hole grew dim.
Time seemed to contort in the darkness. Numbness set in as he treaded water in the depths of the chasm, calling, crying out. He was tormented by visions of the walls collapsing in, burying him alive. His arms ached with fatigue. A few times he thought he heard voices. He shouted out, but his own voice was muted . . . like a dream.
As the night wore on, the shaft deepened. The walls inched quietly inward. The boy pressed out against the enclosure, pushing it away. Exhausted, he wanted to give up. And yet he felt the water buoy him, cooling his burning fears until he was numb.
When the rescue team arrived, they found the boy barely conscious. He had been treading water for five hours. Two days later, the Boston Globe ran a front‑page story called “The Little Swimmer That Could.”