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CHAPTER 69

AS LANGDON AND Ambra followed Father Beña toward the colossal bronze doors of Sagrada Família, Langdon found himself marveling, as he always did, over the utterly bizarre details of this church’s main entrance.

It’s a wall of codes, he mused, eyeing the raised typography that dominated the monolithic slabs of burnished metal. Protruding from the surface were more than eight thousand three-dimensional letters embossed in bronze. The letters ran in horizontal lines, creating a massive field of text with virtually no separation between the words. Although Langdon knew the text was a description of Christ’s Passion written in Catalan, its appearance was closer to that of an NSA encryption key.

No wonder this place inspires conspiracy theories.

Langdon’s gaze moved upward, climbing the looming Passion facade, where a haunting collection of gaunt, angular sculptures by the artist Josep Maria Subirachs stared down, dominated by a horribly emaciated Jesus dangling from a crucifix that had been canted steeply forward, giving the frightening effect that it was about to topple down onto the arriving guests.

To Langdon’s left, another grim sculpture depicted Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. This effigy, rather strangely, was flanked by a carved grid of numbers—a mathematical “magic square.” Edmond had once told Langdon that this square’s “magic constant” of thirty-three was in fact a hidden tribute to the Freemasons’ pagan reverence for the Great Architect of the Universe—an all-encompassing deity whose secrets were allegedly revealed to those who reached the brotherhood’s thirty-third degree.

“A fun story,” Langdon had replied with a laugh, “but Jesus being age thirty-three at the time of the Passion is a more likely explanation.”

As they neared the entrance, Langdon winced to see the church’s most gruesome embellishment—a collosal statue of Jesus, scourged and bound to a pillar with ropes. He quickly shifted his gaze to the inscription above the doors—two Greek letters—alpha and omega.

“Beginning and end,” Ambra whispered, also eyeing the letters. “Very Edmond.”

Langdon nodded, catching her meaning. Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Father Beña opened a small portal in the wall of bronze letters, and the entire group entered, including the two Guardia agents. Beña closed the door behind them.

Silence.

Shadows.

There in the southeast end of the transept, Father Beña shared with them a startling story. He recounted how Kirsch had come to him and offered to make a huge donation to Sagrada Família in return for the church agreeing to display his copy of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts in the crypt near Gaudí’s tomb.

In the very heart of this church, Langdon thought, his curiosity piqued.

“Did Edmond say why he wanted you to do this?” Ambra asked.

Beña nodded. “He told me that his lifelong passion for Gaudí’s art had come from his late mother, who had also been a great admirer of the work of William Blake. Mr. Kirsch said he wanted to place the Blake volume near Gaudí’s tomb as a tribute to his late mother. It seemed to me there was no harm.”

Edmond never mentioned his mother liking Gaudí, Langdon thought, puzzled. Moreover, Paloma Kirsch had died in a convent, and it seemed unlikely that a Spanish nun would admire a heterodox British poet. The entire story seemed like a stretch.

“Also,” Beña continued, “I sensed Mr. Kirsch might have been in the throes of a spiritual crisis … and perhaps had some health issues as well.”

“The notation on the back of this title card,” Langdon interjected, holding it up, “says that the Blake book must be displayed in a particular way—lying open to page one hundred and sixty-three?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

Langdon felt his pulse quicken. “Can you tell me which poem is on that page?”

Beña shook his head. “There is no poem on that page.”

“I’m sorry?!”

“The book is Blake’s complete works—his artwork and writings. Page one sixty-three is an illustration.”

Langdon shot an uneasy glance at Ambra. We need a forty-seven-letter line of poetry—not an illustration!

“Father,” Ambra said to Beña. “Would it be possible for us to see it right away?”

The priest wavered an instant, but apparently thought better of refusing the future queen. “The crypt is this way,” he said, leading them down the transept toward the center of the church. The two Guardia agents followed behind.

“I must admit,” Beña said, “I was hesitant to accept money from so outspoken an atheist, but his request to display his mother’s favorite Blake illustration seemed harmless to me—especially considering it was an image of God.”

Langdon thought he had misheard. “Did you say Edmond asked you to display an image of God?”

Beña nodded. “I sensed he was ill and that perhaps this was his way of trying to make amends for a life of opposition to the divine.” He paused, shaking his head. “Although, after seeing his presentation tonight, I must admit, I don’t know what to think.”

Langdon tried to imagine which of Blake’s countless illustrations of God Edmond might have wanted displayed.

As they all moved into the main sanctuary, Langdon felt as if he were seeing this space for the very first time. Despite having visited Sagrada Família many times in various stages of its construction, he had always come during the day, when the Spanish sun poured through the stained glass, creating dazzling bursts of color and drawing the eye upward, ever upward, into a seemingly weightless canopy of vaults.

At night, this is a heavier world.

The basilica’s sun-dappled forest of trees was gone, transformed into a midnight jungle of shadows and darkness—a gloomy stand of striated columns stretching skyward into an ominous void.

“Watch your step,” the priest said. “We save money where we can.” Lighting these massive European churches, Langdon knew, cost a small fortune, and yet the sparse utility lighting here barely illuminated the way. One of the challenges of a sixty-thousand-square-foot floor plan.

As they reached the central nave and turned left, Langdon gazed at the elevated ceremonial platform ahead. The altar was an ultramodern minimalistic table framed by two glistening clusters of organ pipes. Fifteen feet above the altar hung the church’s extraordinary baldachin—a suspended cloth ceiling or “canopy of state”—a symbol of reverence inspired by the ceremonial canopies once held up on poles to provide shade for kings.

Most baldachins were now solid architectural features, but Sagrada Família had opted for cloth, in this case an umbrella-shaped canopy that seemed to hover magically in the air above the altar. Beneath the cloth, suspended by wires like a paratrooper, was the figure of Jesus on the cross.

Parachuting Jesus, Langdon had heard it called. Seeing it again, he was not surprised it had become one of the church’s most controversial details.

As Beña guided them into increasing darkness, Langdon was having trouble seeing anything at all. Díaz pulled out a penlight and lit the tile floor beneath everyone’s feet. Pressing on toward the crypt entrance, Langdon now perceived above him the pale silhouette of a towering cylinder that climbed hundreds of feet up the interior wall of the church.

The infamous Sagrada spiral, he realized, having never dared ascend it.

Sagrada Família’s dizzying shaft of circling stairs had appeared on National Geographic’s list of “The 20 Deadliest Staircases in the World,” earning a spot as number three, just behind the precarious steps up the Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia and the mossy cliffside stones of the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall in Ecuador.

Langdon eyed the first few steps of the staircase, which corkscrewed upward and disappeared into blackness.

“The crypt entrance is just ahead,” Beña said, motioning past the stairs toward a darkened void to the left of the altar. As they pressed onward, Langdon spotted a faint golden glow that seemed to emanate from a hole in the floor.

The crypt.

The group arrived at the mouth of an elegant, gently curving staircase.

“Gentlemen,” Ambra said to her guards. “Both of you stay here. We’ll be back up shortly.”

Fonseca looked displeased but said nothing.

Then Ambra, Father Beña, and Langdon began their descent toward the light.

 

Agent Díaz felt grateful for the moment of peace as he watched the three figures disappear down the winding staircase. The growing tension between Ambra Vidal and Agent Fonseca was becoming worrisome.

Guardia agents are not accustomed to threats of dismissal from those they protect—only from Commander Garza.

Díaz still felt baffled by Garza’s arrest. Strangely, Fonseca had declined to share with him precisely who had issued the arrest order or initiated the false kidnapping story.

“The situation is complex,” Fonseca had said. “And for your own protection, it’s better you don’t know.”

So who was issuing orders? Díaz wondered. Was it the prince? It seemed doubtful that Julián would risk Ambra’s safety by spreading a bogus kidnapping story. Was it Valdespino? Díaz wasn’t sure if the bishop had that kind of leverage.

“I’ll be back shortly,” Fonseca grunted, and headed off, saying he needed to find a restroom. As Fonseca slipped into the darkness, Díaz saw him take out his phone, place a call, and commence a quiet conversation.

Díaz waited alone in the abyss of the sanctuary, feeling less and less comfortable with Fonseca’s secretive behavior.

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