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CHAPTER 45

THE GUARDIA’S DIVISION of electronic security is located in a windowless warren of rooms on the subterranean level of the Royal Palace. Intentionally isolated from the palace’s vast Guardia barracks and armory, the division’s headquarters consists of a dozen computer cubicles, one telephone switchboard, and a wall of security monitors. The eight-person staff—all under the age of thirty-five—is responsible for providing secure communication networks for the staff of the Royal Palace and the Guardia Real, as well as handling electronic surveillance support for the physical palace itself.

Tonight, as always, the basement suite of rooms was stuffy, reeking of microwaved noodles and popcorn. The fluorescent lights hummed loudly.

This is where I asked them to put my office, Martín thought.

Although “public relations coordinator” was technically not a Guardia post, Martín’s job required access to powerful computers and a tech-savvy staff; thus, the division of electronic security had seemed a far more logical home for her than an underequipped office upstairs.

Tonight, Martín thought, I will need every bit of technology available.

For the past few months, her primary focus had been to help the palace stay on message during the gradual transfer of power to Prince Julián. It had not been easy. The transition between leaders had provided an opportunity for protesters to speak out against the monarchy.

According to the Spanish constitution, the monarchy stood as “a symbol of Spain’s enduring unity and permanence.” But Martín knew there had been nothing unified about Spain for some time now. In 1931, the Second Republic had marked the end of the monarchy, and then the putsch of General Franco in 1936 had plunged the country into civil war.

Today, although the reinstated monarchy was considered a liberal democracy, many liberals continued to denounce the king as an outdated vestige of an oppressive religio-military past, as well as a daily reminder that Spain still had a way to go before it could fully join the modern world.

Mónica Martín’s messaging this month had included the usual portrayals of the king as a beloved symbol who held no real power. Of course, it was a tough sell when the sovereign was commander in chief of the armed forces as well as head of state.

Head of state, Martín mused, in a country where separation between church and state has always been controversial. The ailing king’s close relationship with Bishop Valdespino had been a thorn in the side of secularists and liberals for many years.

And then there is Prince Julián, she thought.

Martín knew she owed her job to the prince, but he certainly had been making that job more difficult recently. A few weeks ago, the prince had made the worst PR blunder Martín had ever witnessed.

On national television, Prince Julián had gotten down on his knees and made a ludicrous proposal to Ambra Vidal. The excruciating moment could not have been any more awkward unless Ambra had declined to marry him, which, fortunately, she had the good sense not to do.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath, Ambra Vidal had revealed herself to be more of a handful than Julián had anticipated, and the fallout from her extracurricular behavior this month had become one of Martín’s primary PR concerns.

Tonight, however, Ambra’s indiscretions seemed all but forgotten. The tidal wave of media activity generated by the events in Bilbao had swelled to an unprecedented magnitude. In the past hour, a viral proliferation of conspiracy theories had taken the world by storm, including several new hypotheses involving Bishop Valdespino.

The most significant development concerned the Guggenheim assassin, who had been given access to Kirsch’s event “on orders of someone inside the Royal Palace.” This damning bit of news had unleashed a deluge of conspiracy theories accusing the bedridden king and Bishop Valdespino of conspiring to murder Edmond Kirsch—a virtual demigod in the digital world, and a beloved American hero who had chosen to live in Spain.

This is going to destroy Valdespino, Martín thought.

“Everyone, listen up!” Garza now shouted as he strode into the control room. “Prince Julián and Bishop Valdespino are together somewhere on the premises! Check all security feeds and find them. Now!”

The commander stalked into Martín’s office and quietly updated her on the situation with the prince and the bishop.

“Gone?” she said, incredulous. “And they left their phones in the prince’s safe?”

Garza shrugged. “Apparently so we can’t track them.”

“Well, we’d better find them,” Martín declared. “Prince Julián needs to make a statement right now, and he needs to distance himself from Valdespino as much as possible.” She relayed all the latest developments.

Now it was Garza’s turn to look incredulous. “It’s all hearsay. There’s no way Valdespino could be behind an assassination.”

“Maybe not, but the killing seems to be tied to the Catholic Church. Someone just found a direct connection between the shooter and a highly placed church official. Have a look.” Martín pulled up the latest ConspiracyNet update, which was once again credited to the whistle-blower called [email protected] “This went live a few minutes ago.”

Garza crouched down and began reading the update. “The pope!” he protested. “Ávila has a personal connection with—”

“Keep reading.”

When Garza finished, he stepped back from the screen and blinked his eyes repeatedly, as if trying to wake himself from a bad dream.

At that moment, a male voice called from the control room. “Commander Garza? I’ve located them!”

Garza and Martín hurried over to the cubicle of Agent Suresh Bhalla, an Indian-born surveillance specialist who pointed to the security feed on his monitor, on which two forms were visible—one in flowing bishop’s robes and the other in a formal suit. They appeared to be walking on a wooded path.

“East garden,” Suresh said. “Two minutes ago.”

“They’ve exited the building?!” Garza demanded.

“Hold on, sir.” Suresh fast-forwarded the footage, managing to follow the bishop and the prince on various cameras located at intervals across the palace complex as the two men left the garden and moved through an enclosed courtyard.

“Where are they going?!”

Martín had a good idea where they were going, and she noted that Valdespino had taken a shrewd circuitous route that kept them out of sight of the media trucks on the main plaza.

As she anticipated, Valdespino and Julián arrived at the southern service entrance of Almudena Cathedral, where the bishop unlocked the door and ushered Prince Julián inside. The door swung shut, and the two men were gone.

Garza stared mutely at the screen, clearly struggling to make sense of what he had just seen. “Keep me posted,” he finally said, and motioned Martín aside.

Once they were out of earshot, Garza whispered, “I have no idea how Bishop Valdespino persuaded Prince Julián to follow him out of the palace, or to leave his phone behind, but clearly the prince has no idea about these accusations against Valdespino, or he would know to distance himself.”

“I agree,” Martín said. “And I’d hate to speculate as to what the bishop’s endgame might be, but …” She stopped.

“But what?” Garza demanded.

Martín sighed. “It appears Valdespino may have just taken an extremely valuable hostage.”

 

Some 250 miles to the north, inside the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, Agent Fonseca’s phone began buzzing. It was the sixth time in twenty minutes. When he glanced down at the caller ID, he felt his body snap to attention.

¿Sí?” he answered, his heart pounding.

The voice on the line spoke in Spanish, slowly and deliberately. “Agent Fonseca, as you are well aware, Spain’s future queen consort has made some terrible missteps this evening, associating herself with the wrong people and causing significant embarrassment to the Royal Palace. In order that no further damage be done, it is crucial that you get her back to the palace as quickly as possible.”

“I’m afraid Ms. Vidal’s location is unknown at the moment.”

“Forty minutes ago, Edmond Kirsch’s jet took off from Bilbao Airport—headed for Barcelona,” the voice asserted. “I believe Ms. Vidal was on that plane.”

“How would you know that?” Fonseca blurted, and then instantly regretted his impertinent tone.

“If you were doing your job,” the voice replied sharply, “you would know too. I want you and your partner to pursue her at once. A military transport is fueling at Bilbao Airport for you right now.”

“If Ms. Vidal is on that jet,” Fonseca said, “she is probably traveling with the American professor Robert Langdon.”

“Yes,” the caller said angrily. “I have no idea how this man persuaded Ms. Vidal to abandon her security and run off with him, but Mr. Langdon is clearly a liability. Your mission is to find Ms. Vidal and bring her back, by force if necessary.”

“And if Langdon interferes?”

There was a heavy silence. “Do your best to limit collateral damage,” the caller replied, “but this crisis is severe enough that Professor Langdon would be an acceptable casualty.”

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