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CHAPTER 51

STANDING LIKE A rough-hewn mountain on the corner of Carrer de Provença and Passeig de Gràcia, the 1906 Gaudí masterpiece known as Casa Milà is half apartment building and half timeless work of art.

Conceived by Gaudí as a perpetual curve, the nine-story structure is immediately recognizable by its billowing limestone facade. Its swerving balconies and uneven geometry give the building an organic aura, as if millennia of buffeting winds had carved out hollows and bends like those in a desert canyon.

Although Gaudí’s shocking modernist design was shunned at first by the neighborhood, Casa Milà was universally lauded by art critics and quickly became one of Barcelona’s brightest architectural jewels. For three decades, Pere Milà, the businessman who commissioned the building, had resided with his wife in the sprawling main apartment while renting out the building’s twenty remaining flats. To this day, Casa Milà—at Passeig de Gràcia 92—is considered one of the most exclusive and coveted addresses in all of Spain.

As Robert Langdon navigated Kirsch’s Tesla through sparse traffic on the elegant tree-lined avenue, he sensed they were getting close. Passeig de Gràcia was Barcelona’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris—the widest and grandest of avenues, impeccably landscaped and lined with designer boutiques.

Chanel … Gucci … Cartier … Longchamp …

Finally, Langdon saw it, two hundred meters away.

Softly lit from below, Casa Milà’s pale, pitted limestone and oblong balconies set it instantly apart from its rectilinear neighbors—as if a beautiful piece of ocean coral had washed into shore and come to rest on a beach made of cinder blocks.

“I was afraid of this,” Ambra said, pointing urgently down the elegant avenue. “Look.”

Langdon lowered his gaze to the wide sidewalk in front of Casa Milà. It looked like there were a half-dozen media trucks parked in front, and a host of reporters were giving live updates using Kirsch’s residence as a backdrop. Several security agents were positioned to keep the crowds away from the entrance. Edmond’s death, it seemed, had transformed anything Kirsch-related into a news story.

Langdon scanned Passeig de Gràcia for a place to pull over, but he saw nothing, and traffic was moving steadily.

“Get down,” he urged Ambra, realizing he had no choice now but to drive directly past the corner where all the press were assembled.

Ambra slid down in her seat, crouching on the floor, entirely out of view. Langdon turned his head away as they drove past the crowded corner.

“It looks like they’re surrounding the main entrance,” he said. “We’ll never get in.”

“Take a right,” Winston interjected with a note of cheerful confidence. “I imagined this might happen.”

 

Blogger Héctor Marcano gazed up mournfully at the top floor of Casa Milà, still trying to accept that Edmond Kirsch was truly gone.

For three years, Héctor had been reporting on technology for Barcinno.com—a popular collaborative platform for Barcelona’s entrepreneurs and cutting-edge start-ups. Having the great Edmond Kirsch living here in Barcelona had felt almost like working at the feet of Zeus himself.

Héctor had first met Kirsch more than a year ago when the legendary futurist graciously agreed to speak at Barcinno’s flagship monthly event—FuckUp Night—a seminar in which a wildly successful entrepreneur spoke openly about his or her biggest failures. Kirsch sheepishly admitted to the crowd that he had spent more than $400 million over six months chasing his dream of building what he called E-Wave—a quantum computer with processing speeds so fast they would facilitate unprecedented advances across all the sciences, especially in complex systems modeling.

“I’m afraid,” Edmond had admitted, “so far, my quantum leap in quantum computing is a quantum dud.”

Tonight, when Héctor heard that Kirsch planned to announce an earth-shattering discovery, he was thrilled at the thought that it might be related to E-Wave. Did he discover the key to making it work? But after Kirsch’s philosophical preamble, Héctor realized his discovery was something else entirely.

I wonder if we’ll ever know what he found, Héctor thought, his heart so heavy that he had come to Kirsch’s home not to blog, but to pay reverent homage.

“E-Wave!” someone shouted nearby. “E-Wave!”

All around Héctor, the assembled crowd began pointing and aiming their cameras at a sleek black Tesla that was now easing slowly onto the plaza and inching toward the crowd with its halogen headlights glaring.

Héctor stared at the familiar vehicle in astonishment.

Kirsch’s Tesla Model X with its E-Wave license plate was as famous in Barcelona as the pope-mobile was in Rome. Kirsch would often make a show of double-parking on Carrer de Provença outside the DANiEL ViOR jewelry shop, getting out to sign autographs and then thrilling the crowd by letting his car’s self-park feature drive the empty vehicle on a preprogrammed route up the street and across the wide sidewalk—its sensors detecting any pedestrians or obstacles—until it reached the garage gate, which it would then open, and slowly wind down the spiral ramp into the private garage beneath Casa Milà.

While self-park was a standard feature on all Teslas—easily opening garage doors, driving straight in, and turning themselves off—Edmond had proudly hacked his Tesla’s system to enable the more complex route.

All part of the show.

Tonight, the spectacle was considerably stranger. Kirsch was deceased, and yet his car had just appeared, moving slowly up Carrer de Provença, continuing across the sidewalk, aligning itself with the elegant garage door, and inching forward as people cleared the way.

Reporters and cameramen rushed to the vehicle, squinting through the heavily tinted windows and shouting in surprise.

“It’s empty! Nobody is driving! Where did it come from?!”

The Casa Milà security guards had apparently witnessed this trick before, and they held people back from the Tesla and away from the garage door as it opened.

For Héctor, the sight of Edmond’s empty car creeping toward its garage conjured images of a bereft dog returning home after losing its master.

Like a ghost, the Tesla made its way silently through the garage door, and the crowd broke into emotional applause to see Edmond’s beloved car, as it had done so many times before, begin its descent down the spiral ramp into Barcelona’s very first subterranean parking facility.

 

“I didn’t know you were so claustrophobic,” Ambra whispered, lying beside Langdon on the floor of the Tesla. They were crammed into the small area between the second and third row of seats, hidden beneath a black vinyl car cover that Ambra had taken from the cargo area, invisible through the tinted windows.

“I’ll survive,” Langdon managed shakily, more nervous about the self-driving car than his phobia. He could feel the vehicle winding down a steep spiral ramp and feared it would crash at any moment.

Two minutes earlier, while they were double-parked on Carrer de Provença, outside the DANiEL ViOR jewelry shop, Winston had given them crystal-clear directions.

Ambra and Langdon, without exiting the car, had climbed back to the Model X’s third row of seats, and then with the press of a single button on the phone, Ambra had activated the car’s customized self-park feature.

In the darkness, Langdon had felt the car driving itself slowly down the street. And with Ambra’s body pressed against his in the tight space, he could not help but recall his first teenage experience in the backseat of a car with a pretty girl. I was more nervous back then, he thought, which seemed ironic considering he was now lying in a driverless car spooning the future queen of Spain.

Langdon felt the car straighten out at the bottom of the ramp, make a few slow turns, and then slide to a full stop.

“You have arrived,” Winston said.

Immediately Ambra pulled back the tarp and carefully sat up, peering out the window. “Clear,” she said, clambering out.

Langdon got out after her, relieved to be standing in the open air of the garage.

“Elevators are in the main foyer,” Ambra said, motioning up the winding driveway ramp.

Langdon’s gaze, however, was suddenly transfixed by a wholly unexpected sight. Here, in this underground parking garage, on the cement wall directly in front of Edmond’s parking space, hung an elegantly framed painting of a seaside landscape.

“Ambra?” Langdon said. “Edmond decorated his parking spot with a painting?”

She nodded. “I asked him the same question. He told me it was his way of being welcomed home every night by a radiant beauty.”

Langdon chuckled. Bachelors.

“The artist is someone Edmond revered greatly,” Winston said, his voice now transferring automatically to Kirsch’s cell phone in Ambra’s hand. “Do you recognize him?”

Langdon did not. The painting seemed to be nothing more than an accomplished watercolor seascape—nothing like Edmond’s usual avant-garde taste.

“It’s Churchill,” Ambra said. “Edmond quoted him all the time.”

Churchill. Langdon needed a moment to realize she was referring to none other than Winston Churchill himself, the celebrated British statesman who, in addition to being a military hero, historian, orator, and Nobel Prize–winning author, was an artist of remarkable talent. Langdon now recalled Edmond quoting the British prime minister once in response to a comment someone made about religious people hating him: You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something!

“It was the diversity of Churchill’s talents that most impressed Edmond,” Winston said. “Humans rarely display proficiency across such a broad spectrum of activities.”

“And that’s why Edmond named you ‘Winston’?”

“It is,” the computer replied. “High praise from Edmond.”

Glad I asked, Langdon thought, having imagined Winston’s name was an allusion to Watson—the IBM computer that had dominated the Jeopardy! television game show a decade ago. No doubt Watson was probably now considered a primitive, single-celled bacterium on the evolutionary scale of synthetic intelligence.

“Okay, then,” Langdon said, motioning to the elevators. “Let’s head upstairs and try to find what we came for.”

 

At that precise moment, inside Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, Commander Diego Garza was clutching his phone and listening in disbelief as the palace’s PR coordinator, Mónica Martín, gave him an update.

Valdespino and Prince Julián left the safety of the compound?

Garza could not begin to imagine what they were thinking.

They’re driving around Madrid in an acolyte’s car? That’s madness!

“We can contact the transportation authorities,” Martín said. “Suresh believes they can use traffic cams to help track—”

“No!” Garza declared. “Alerting anyone to the fact that the prince is outside the palace without security is far too dangerous! His safety is our primary concern.”

“Understood, sir,” Martín said, sounding suddenly uneasy. “There’s something else you should know. It’s about a missing phone record.”

“Hold on,” Garza said, distracted by the arrival of his four Guardia agents, who, to his mystification, strode over and encircled him. Before Garza could react, his agents had skillfully relieved him of his sidearm and phone.

“Commander Garza,” his lead agent said, stone-faced. “I have direct orders to place you under arrest.”

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