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CHAPTER 14

STANDING SHOULDER TO shoulder with guests jostling around the podium, Robert Langdon watched in amazement as the number on the LCD screen ticked steadily higher.

Current remote attendees: 2,527,664

The background chatter in the cramped space had risen to the level of a dull roar, the voices of hundreds of guests buzzing with anticipation, many making excited last-minute phone calls or tweeting their whereabouts.

A technician stepped to the podium and tapped the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, we asked earlier that you please turn off your mobile devices. At this time, we will be blocking all Wi-Fi and cellular communications for the duration of this event.”

Many guests were still on their phones, and they abruptly lost their connections. Most of them looked wholly stupefied, as if they had just witnessed some miraculous piece of Kirschian technology capable of magically severing all connection with the outside world.

Five hundred dollars at an electronics store, Langdon knew, being one of several Harvard professors who now used portable cell-jamming technology to render their lecture halls “dead zones” and keep students off their devices during class.

A cameraman now moved into position with a massive camera on his shoulder, which he directed at the podium. The room lights dimmed.

The LCD screen read:

Live program begins in 38 seconds

Current remote attendees: 2,857,914

Langdon watched the attendee counter with amazement. It seemed to be climbing faster than the U.S. national debt, and he found it nearly impossible to fathom that close to three million people were sitting at home at this very moment watching a live stream of what was about to happen in this room.

“Thirty seconds,” the technician announced softly into the microphone.

A narrow door opened in the wall behind the podium, and the crowd immediately hushed, all looking expectantly for the great Edmond Kirsch.

But Edmond never materialized.

The door stood open for nearly ten seconds.

Then an elegant woman emerged and moved toward the podium. She was strikingly beautiful—tall and willowy with long black hair—wearing a formfitting white dress with a diagonal black stripe. She seemed to drift effortlessly across the floor. Taking center stage, she adjusted the microphone, took a deep breath, and gave the attendees a patient smile as she waited for the clock to tick down.

Live program begins in 10 seconds

The woman closed her eyes a moment, as if to gather herself, and then she opened them again, a portrait of poise.

The cameraman held up five fingers.

Four, three, two …

The room fell completely silent as the woman raised her eyes to the camera. The LCD display dissolved into a live image of her face. She fixed the audience with spirited dark eyes as she casually brushed a strand of hair from her olive-toned cheek.

“Good evening, everyone,” she began, her voice cultured and gracious, with a light Spanish accent. “My name is Ambra Vidal.”

An unusually loud burst of applause erupted in the room, making it apparent that a good number of people knew who she was.

¡Felicidades!” someone shouted. Congratulations!

The woman blushed, and Langdon sensed there was some piece of information he was missing.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, quickly pressing on, “for the past five years, I have been the director of this Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and I am here tonight to welcome you to an incredibly special evening presented by a truly remarkable man.”

The crowd applauded enthusiastically, and Langdon joined them.

“Edmond Kirsch is not only a generous patron of this museum, but he has become a trusted friend. It has been a privilege and a personal honor for me to have been able to work so closely with him over the past few months to plan the events of this evening. I’ve just checked, and social media is buzzing around the world! As many of you have no doubt heard by now, Edmond Kirsch is planning to make a major scientific announcement tonight—a discovery that he believes will be forever remembered as his greatest contribution to the world.”

A murmur of excitement shot through the room.

The dark-haired woman smiled playfully. “Of course, I begged Edmond to tell me what he had discovered, but he refused to give even a hint.”

A round of laughter was followed by more applause.

“Tonight’s special event,” she continued, “will be presented in English—Mr. Kirsch’s native language—although for those of you attending virtually, we are offering real-time translation in more than twenty languages.”

The LCD screen refreshed, and Ambra added, “And if anyone ever doubted Edmond’s self-confidence, here is the automated press release that went out fifteen minutes ago to social media around the globe.”

Langdon eyed the LCD screen.

Tonight: Live. 20:00 hours CEST

Futurist Edmond Kirsch to announce discovery that will change the face of science forever.

So that’s how you get three million viewers in a matter of minutes, Langdon mused.

As he returned his attention to the podium, Langdon spotted two people he had not noticed earlier—a pair of stone-faced security guards standing at full attention against the sidewall, scanning the crowd. Langdon was surprised to see the monogrammed initials on their matching blue blazers.

The Guardia Real?! What is the king’s Royal Guard doing here tonight?

It seemed unlikely that any member of the royal family would be in attendance; as staunch Catholics, the royals would almost certainly eschew public association with an atheist like Edmond Kirsch.

The king of Spain, as a parliamentary monarch, held very limited official power, and yet he retained enormous influence over the hearts and minds of his people. For millions of Spaniards, the crown still stood as a symbol of the rich Catholic tradition of los reyes católicos and Spain’s Golden Age. The Royal Palace of Madrid still shone as a spiritual compass and monument to a long history of stalwart religious conviction.

Langdon had heard it said in Spain: “Parliament rules, but the king reigns.” For centuries, the kings who had presided over Spain’s diplomatic affairs had all been deeply devout, conservative Catholics. And the current king is no exception, Langdon thought, having read of the man’s deep religious convictions and conservative values.

In recent months, the aging monarch was reported to be bedridden and dying, with his country now preparing for the eventual transition of power to his only son, Julián. According to the press, Prince Julián was something of an unknown quantity, having lived quietly in the long shadow of his father, and now the country was wondering what kind of ruler he would turn out to be.

Did Prince Julián send Guardia agents to scout Edmond’s event? Langdon flashed again on Edmond’s threatening voice mail from Bishop Valdespino. Despite Langdon’s concerns, he sensed the atmosphere in the room was amiable, enthusiastic, and safe. He recalled Edmond telling him that tonight’s security was incredibly tight—so perhaps Spain’s Guardia Real was an additional layer of protection to ensure that the evening went smoothly.

“For those of you who are familiar with Edmond Kirsch’s passion for the dramatic,” Ambra Vidal continued, “you know he would never plan to have us stand in this sterile room for long.”

She motioned to a set of closed double doors on the far side of the room.

“Through those doors, Edmond Kirsch has constructed an ‘experiential space’ in which to present his dynamic multimedia presentation tonight. It is fully automated by computers and will be streamed live around the entire world.” She paused to check her gold watch. “Tonight’s event is carefully timed, and Edmond has asked that I get you all inside so we can begin precisely at eight fifteen, which is only minutes away.” She pointed to the double doors. “So if you would, ladies and gentlemen, please move inside, and we will see what the amazing Edmond Kirsch has in store for us.”

On cue, the double doors swung open.

Langdon peered beyond them, expecting to see another gallery. Instead, he found himself startled by what lay beyond. Through the doors, there appeared to be a deep dark tunnel.

 

Admiral Ávila hung back as throngs of guests began jostling excitedly toward the dimly lit passageway. As he peered into the tunnel, he was pleased to see that the space beyond was dark.

Darkness would make his task a great deal easier.

Touching the rosary beads in his pocket, he gathered his thoughts, going over the details he had just been given regarding his mission.

Timing will be critical.

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