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CHAPTER 39

“HERE?” THE WATER taxi’s captain looked confused. “You want stop here? Airport is more far. I take you there.”

“Thanks, we’ll get out here,” Langdon said, following Winston’s advice.

The captain shrugged and brought the boat to a stop beside a small bridge marked PUERTO BIDEA. The riverbank here was covered with high grass and looked more or less accessible. Ambra was already clambering out of the boat and making her way up the incline.

“How much do we owe you?” Langdon asked the captain.

“No pay,” the man said. “Your British man, he pay me before. Credit card. Triple money.”

Winston paid already. Langdon was still not quite used to working with Kirsch’s computerized assistant. It’s like having Siri on steroids.

Winston’s abilities, Langdon realized, should come as no surprise considering daily accounts of artificial intelligence performing all kinds of complex tasks, including writing novels—one such book nearly winning a Japanese literary prize.

Langdon thanked the captain and jumped out of the boat onto the bank. Before heading up the hill, he turned back to the bewildered driver, raised his index finger to his lips, and said, “Discreción, por favor.

Sí, sí,” the captain assured him, covering his eyes. “¡No he visto nada!

With that, Langdon hurried up the slope, crossed a train track, and joined Ambra on the edge of a sleepy village road lined with quaint shops.

“According to the map,” Winston’s voice chimed on Edmond’s speakerphone, “you should be at the intersection of Puerto Bidea and the Río Asua waterway. You should see a small roundabout in the town center?”

“I see it,” Ambra replied.

“Good. Just off the roundabout, you will find a small road called Beike Bidea. Follow it away from the village center.”

Two minutes later, Langdon and Ambra had left the village and were hurrying along a deserted country road where stone farmhouses sat on acres of grassy pastureland. As they moved deeper into countryside, Langdon sensed that something was wrong. To their right, in the distance, above the crest of a small hill, the sky was aglow with a hazy dome of light pollution.

“If those are the terminal lights,” Langdon said, “we are very far away.”

“The terminal is three kilometers from your position,” Winston said.

Ambra and Langdon exchanged startled looks. Winston had told them the walk would take only eight minutes.

“According to Google’s satellite images,” Winston went on, “there should be a large field to your right. Does it look traversable?”

Langdon glanced over at the hayfield to their right, which sloped gently upward in the direction of the terminal lights.

“We can certainly climb it,” Langdon said, “but three kilometers will take—”

“Just climb the hill, Professor, and follow my directions precisely.” Winston’s tone was polite and as emotionless as ever, and yet Langdon realized he had just been admonished.

“Nice job,” Ambra whispered, looking amused as she started up the hill. “That’s the closest thing to irritation I’ve ever heard from Winston.”

 

“EC346, this is air traffic control,” blared the voice in Siegel’s headset. “You must either clear the ramp and take off or return to the hangar for repairs. What is your status?”

“Still working on it,” Siegel lied, glancing at his rearview camera. No planes—only the faint lights of the distant tower. “I just need another minute.”

“Roger that. Keep us apprised.”

The copilot tapped Siegel on the shoulder and pointed out through the windshield.

Siegel followed his partner’s gaze but saw only the high fence in front of the plane. Suddenly, on the other side of the mesh of the barrier, he saw a ghostly vision. What in the world?

In the darkened field beyond the fence, two spectral silhouettes were materializing out of the blackness, coming over the crest of a hill and moving directly toward the jet. As the figures drew closer, Siegel saw the distinctive diagonal black sash on a white dress that he had seen earlier on television.

Is that Ambra Vidal?

Ambra had flown on occasion with Kirsch, and Siegel always felt his heart flutter a bit when the striking Spanish beauty was aboard. He could not begin to fathom what in the world she was doing in a pasture outside Bilbao Airport.

The tall man accompanying Ambra was also wearing formal black-and-white attire, and Siegel recalled that he too had been part of the evening’s program.

The American professor Robert Langdon.

Winston’s voice returned suddenly. “Mr. Siegel, you should now see two individuals on the other side of the fence, and you will no doubt recognize both of them.” Siegel found the Brit’s manner spookily composed. “Please know that there are circumstances tonight that I cannot fully explain, but I am going to ask you to comply with my wishes on behalf of Mr. Kirsch. All you need to know right now is the following.” Winston paused for the briefest of moments. “The same people who murdered Edmond Kirsch are now trying to kill Ambra Vidal and Robert Langdon. To keep them safe, we require your assistance.”

“But … of course,” Siegel stammered, trying to process the information.

“Ms. Vidal and Professor Langdon need to board your aircraft right now.”

“Out here?!” Siegel demanded.

“I am aware of the technicality posed by a revised passenger manifest, but—”

“Are you aware of the technicality posed by a ten-foot-high security fence surrounding the airport?!”

“I am indeed,” Winston said very calmly. “And, Mr. Siegel, while I realize that you and I have worked together only a few months, I need you to trust me. What I am about to suggest to you is precisely what Edmond would want you to do in this situation.”

Siegel listened in disbelief as Winston outlined his plan.

“What you’re suggesting is impossible!” Siegel argued.

“On the contrary,” Winston said, “it is quite feasible. The thrust of each engine is over fifteen thousand pounds, and your nose cone is designed to endure seven-hundred-mile—”

“I’m not worried about the physics of it,” Siegel snapped. “I’m worried about the legality—and about having my pilot’s license revoked!”

“I can appreciate that, Mr. Siegel,” Winston responded evenly. “But the future queen consort of Spain is in grave danger right now. Your actions here will help save her life. Believe me, when the truth comes out, you will not be receiving a reprimand, you will be receiving a royal medal from the king.”

 

Standing in deep grass, Langdon and Ambra gazed up at the high security fence illuminated in the jet’s headlights.

At Winston’s urging, they stepped back from the fence just as the jet engines revved and the plane began rolling forward. Rather than following the curve of the access ramp, however, the jet continued straight toward them, crossing the painted safety lines and rolling out onto the asphalt skirt. It slowed to a crawl, inching closer and closer to the fence.

Langdon could now see that the jet’s nose cone was aligned perfectly with one of the fence’s heavy steel support posts. As the massive nose cone connected with the vertical post, the jet engines revved ever so slightly.

Langdon expected more of a fight, but apparently two Rolls-Royce engines and a forty-ton jet were more than this fence post could take. With a metallic groan, the post tipped toward them, pulling with it a huge mound of asphalt attached to its base like the root ball of a toppled tree.

Langdon ran over and grabbed the fallen fence, pulling it down low enough that he and Ambra could make their way across it. By the time they staggered onto the tarmac, the jet’s gangway stairs had been deployed and a uniformed pilot was waving them aboard.

Ambra eyed Langdon with a tight smile. “Still doubting Winston?”

Langdon no longer had any words.

As they hurried up the staircase and into the plush interior cabin, Langdon heard the second pilot in the cockpit talking to the tower.

“Yes, control, I read you,” the pilot was saying, “but your ground radar must be miscalibrated. We did not leave the access ramp. I repeat, we are still squarely on the access ramp. Our warning light is now off, and we’re ready for takeoff.”

The copilot slammed the door as the pilot engaged the Gulfstream’s reverse thrust, inching the plane backward, away from the sagging fence. Then the jet began its wide turn back onto the runway.

In the seat opposite Ambra, Robert Langdon closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled. The engines roared outside, and he felt the pressure of acceleration as the jet thundered down the runway.

Seconds later, the plane was shooting skyward and banking hard to the southeast, plunging through the night toward Barcelona.

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