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CHAPTER 35

AMBRA VIDAL STOOD alone in the cabin of the water taxi, clutching Robert Langdon’s jacket around her. Minutes ago, when Langdon asked why she had agreed to marry a man she barely knew, Ambra had replied truthfully.

I was given no choice.

Her engagement to Julián was a misfortune she could not bear to relive tonight, not with everything else that had happened.

I was trapped.

I’m still trapped.

Now, as Ambra looked at her own reflection in the dirty window, she felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness engulf her. Ambra Vidal was not one to indulge in self-pity, but at the moment her heart felt brittle and adrift. I’m engaged to a man who is involved somehow in a brutal murder.

The prince had sealed Edmond’s fate with a single phone call only an hour before the event. Ambra had been frantically preparing for the arrival of the guests when a young staff member had rushed in, excitedly waving a slip of paper.

¡Señora Vidal! ¡Mensaje para usted!

The girl was giddy and explained in breathless Spanish that an important call had just come in to the museum’s front desk.

“Our caller ID,” she squeaked, “said Royal Palace of Madrid, and so of course I answered! And it was someone calling from the office of Prince Julián!”

“They called the front desk?” Ambra asked. “They have my cell number.”

“The prince’s assistant said he tried your mobile,” the staffer explained, “but they couldn’t get through.”

Ambra checked her phone. Odd. No missed call. Then she realized that some technicians had just been testing the museum’s cellular jamming system, and Julián’s assistant must have called while her phone was disabled.

“It seems the prince got a call today from a very important friend in Bilbao who wants to attend tonight’s event.” The girl handed Ambra the slip of paper. “He hoped you would be able to add one name to tonight’s guest list?”

Ambra eyed the message.

Almirante Luis Ávila (ret.)
Armada Española

A retired officer from the Spanish navy?

“They left a number and said you can call back directly if you want to discuss it, but that Julián was about to go into a meeting, so you probably won’t reach him. But the caller insisted that the prince does hope this request is not an imposition.”

An imposition? Ambra smoldered. Considering what you’ve already put me through?

“I’ll take care of it,” Ambra said. “Thank you.”

The young staffer danced away as if she’d just relayed the word of God Himself. Ambra glared at the prince’s request, irritated that he would think it appropriate to exert his influence with her in this way, especially after lobbying so hard against her participation in tonight’s event.

Once again, you leave me no choice, she thought.

If she ignored this request, the result would be an uncomfortable confrontation with a prominent naval officer at the front door. Tonight’s event was meticulously choreographed and would attract unparalleled media coverage. The last thing I need is an embarrassing tussle with one of Julián’s high-powered friends.

Admiral Ávila had not been vetted or placed on the “cleared” list, but Ambra suspected that demanding a security check was both unnecessary and potentially insulting. After all, the man was a distinguished naval officer with enough power to pick up the phone, call the Royal Palace, and ask the future king for a favor.

And so, facing a tight schedule, Ambra made the only decision she could make. She wrote Admiral Ávila’s name on the guest list at the front door, and also added it to the docenting database so a headset could be initialized for this new guest.

Then she went back to work.

And now Edmond is dead, Ambra reflected, returning to the present moment in the darkness of the water taxi. As she tried to rid her mind of the painful memories, a strange thought occurred to her.

I never spoke directly to Julián … the entire message was relayed through third parties.

The notion brought with it a small ray of hope.

Is it possible that Robert is right? And that maybe Julián is innocent?

She considered it a moment longer and then hurried outside.

She found the American professor standing alone on the bow, hands on the railing as he stared out into the night. Ambra joined him there, startled to see that the boat had left the main branch of the Nervión River and was now skimming northward along a small tributary that seemed less of a river than a perilous channel with high muddy banks. The shallow water and tight quarters made Ambra nervous, but their boat captain seemed unfazed, racing along the narrow gorge at top speed, his headlight blazing the way.

She quickly told Langdon about the call from Prince Julián’s office. “All I really know is that the museum’s front desk got a call that originated in the Royal Palace of Madrid. Technically, that call could have been from anyone there claiming to be Julián’s assistant.”

Langdon nodded. “That may be why the person chose to relay the request to you rather than talk to you directly. Any idea who might be involved?” Considering Edmond’s history with Valdespino, Langdon was inclined to look toward the bishop himself.

“It could be anybody,” Ambra said. “It’s a delicate time in the palace right now. With Julián taking center stage, a lot of the old advisers are scrambling to find favor and gain Julián’s ear. The country is changing, and I think a lot of the old guard are desperate to retain power.”

“Well, whoever is involved,” Langdon said, “let’s hope they don’t figure out we’re trying to locate Edmond’s password and release his discovery.”

As he spoke the words, Langdon felt the stark simplicity of their challenge.

He also sensed its blunt peril.

Edmond was murdered to keep this information from being released.

For an instant, Langdon wondered if his safest option might be simply to fly directly home from the airport and let someone else handle all this.

Safe, yes, he thought, but an option … no.

Langdon felt a profound sense of duty toward his old student, along with moral outrage that a scientific breakthrough could be so brutally censored. He also felt a deep intellectual curiosity to learn exactly what Edmond had discovered.

And finally, Langdon knew, there is Ambra Vidal.

The woman was clearly in crisis, and when she had looked into his eyes and pleaded for help, Langdon had sensed in her a deep well of personal conviction and self-reliance … yet he had also seen heavy clouds of fear and regret. There are secrets there, he sensed, dark and confining. She is reaching out for help.

Ambra raised her eyes suddenly, as if sensing Langdon’s thoughts. “You look cold,” she said. “You need your jacket back.”

He smiled softly. “I’m fine.”

“Are you thinking you should leave Spain as soon as we get to the airport?”

Langdon laughed. “Actually, that did cross my mind.”

“Please don’t.” She reached out to the railing and placed her soft hand on top of his. “I’m not sure what we’re facing tonight. You were close to Edmond, and he told me more than once how much he valued your friendship and trusted your opinion. I’m scared, Robert, and I really don’t think I can face this alone.”

Ambra’s flashes of unguarded candor were startling to Langdon, and yet also utterly captivating. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “You and I owe it to Edmond and, frankly, to the scientific community, to find that password and make his work public.”

Ambra smiled softly. “Thank you.”

Langdon glanced behind the boat. “I imagine your Guardia agents have realized by now that we’ve left the museum.”

“No doubt. But Winston was quite impressive, wasn’t he?”

“Mind-boggling,” Langdon replied, only now starting to grasp the quantum leap Edmond had made in the development of AI. Whatever Edmond’s “proprietary breakthrough technologies” had been, clearly he had been poised to usher in a brave new world of human–computer interaction.

Tonight, Winston had proven himself a faithful servant to his creator as well as an invaluable ally to Langdon and Ambra. In a matter of minutes, Winston had identified a threat on the guest list, attempted to thwart Edmond’s assassination, identified the getaway car, and facilitated Langdon and Ambra’s escape from the museum.

“Let’s hope Winston phoned ahead to alert Edmond’s pilots,” Langdon said.

“I’m sure he did,” Ambra said. “But you’re right. I should call Winston to double-check.”

“Hold on,” Langdon said, surprised. “You can call Winston? When we left the museum and went out of range, I thought …”

Ambra laughed and shook her head. “Robert, Winston is not physically located inside the Guggenheim; he is located in a secret computer facility somewhere and accessed remotely. Do you really think Edmond would build a resource like Winston and not be able to communicate with him at all times, anywhere in the world? Edmond talked to Winston all the time—at home, traveling, out for walks—the two of them could connect at any moment with a simple phone call. I’ve seen Edmond chat for hours with Winston. Edmond used him like a personal assistant—to call for dinner reservations, to coordinate with his pilots, to do anything that needed doing, really. In fact, when we were mounting the museum show, I talked to Winston quite often myself by phone.”

Ambra reached inside the pocket of Langdon’s tails jacket and pulled out Edmond’s turquoise-covered phone, flicking it on. Langdon had powered it down in the museum to save its battery.

“You should turn on your phone too,” she said, “so we both have access to Winston.”

“You’re not worried about being tracked if we turn these on?”

Ambra shook her head. “The authorities haven’t had time to get the necessary court order, so I think it’s worth the risk—especially if Winston can update us on the Guardia’s progress and the situation at the airport.”

Uneasy, Langdon turned on his phone and watched it come to life. As the home screen materialized, he squinted into the light and felt a twinge of vulnerability, as if he had just become instantly locatable to every satellite in space.

You’ve seen too many spy movies, he told himself.

All at once, Langdon’s phone began pinging and vibrating as a backlog of messages from this evening began pouring in. To his astonishment, Langdon had received more than two hundred texts and e-mails since turning off his phone.

As he scanned the in-box, he saw the messages were all from friends and colleagues. The earlier e-mails had congratulatory header lines—Great lecture! I can’t believe you’re there!—but then, very suddenly, the tone of the headers turned anxious and deeply concerned, including a message from his book editor, Jonas Faukman: MY GOD—ROBERT, ARE YOU OKAY??!! Langdon had never seen his scholarly editor employ all caps or double punctuation.

Until now, Langdon had been feeling wonderfully invisible in the darkness of Bilbao’s waterways, as if the museum were a fading dream.

It’s all over the world, he realized. News of Kirsch’s mysterious discovery and brutal murder … along with my name and face.

“Winston has been trying to reach us,” Ambra said, staring into the glow of Kirsch’s cell phone. “Edmond has received fifty-three missed calls in the last half hour, all from the same number, all exactly thirty seconds apart.” She chuckled. “Tireless persistence is among Winston’s many virtues.”

Just then, Edmond’s phone began ringing.

Langdon smiled at Ambra. “I wonder who it is.”

She held out the phone to him. “Answer it.”

Langdon took the phone and pressed the speaker button. “Hello?”

“Professor Langdon,” chimed Winston’s voice with its familiar British accent. “I’m glad we’re back in contact. I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“Yes, we can see that,” Langdon replied, impressed that the computer sounded so utterly calm and unruffled after fifty-three consecutive failed calls.

“There have been some developments,” Winston said. “There is a possibility that the airport authorities will be alerted to your names before you arrive. Once again, I will suggest you follow my directions very carefully.”

“We’re in your hands, Winston,” Langdon said. “Tell us what to do.”

“First thing, Professor,” Winston said, “if you have not yet jettisoned your cell phone, you need to do so immediately.”

“Really?” Langdon gripped his phone more tightly. “Don’t the authorities need a court order before anyone—”

“On an American cop show perhaps, but you are dealing with Spain’s Guardia Real and the Royal Palace. They will do what is necessary.”

Langdon eyed his phone, feeling strangely reluctant to part with it. My whole life is in there.

“What about Edmond’s phone?” Ambra asked, sounding alarmed.

“Untraceable,” Winston replied. “Edmond was always concerned about hacking and corporate espionage. He personally wrote an IMEI/IMSI veiling program that varies his phone’s C2 values to outsmart any GSM interceptors.”

Of course he did, Langdon thought. For the genius who created Winston, outsmarting a local phone company would be a cakewalk.

Langdon frowned at his own apparently inferior phone. Just then Ambra reached over and gently pried it from his hands. Without a word, she held it over the railing and let go. Langdon watched the phone plummet down and splash into the dark waters of the Nervión River. As it disappeared beneath the surface, he felt a pang of loss, staring back after it as the boat raced on.

“Robert,” Ambra whispered, “just remember the wise words of Disney’s Princess Elsa.”

Langdon turned. “I’m sorry?”

Ambra smiled softly. “Let it go.”

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