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CHAPTER 75

LANGDON BROKE MY ribs.

Admiral Ávila felt sharp stabs each time he inhaled, wincing in pain as his chest heaved desperately, trying to restore oxygen to his body. Crouched on the stairs above him, Robert Langdon stared down, aiming the pistol awkwardly at Ávila’s midsection.

Ávila’s military training instantly kicked in, and he began assessing his situation. In the negative column, his enemy held both the weapon and the high ground. In the positive column, judging from the professor’s unusual grip on the gun, he had very little experience with firearms.

He has no intention of shooting me, Ávila decided. He will hold me and wait for the security guards. From all the shouting outside, it was clear that Sagrada Família’s security officers had heard the gunshots and were now hurrying into the building.

I must act quickly.

Keeping his hands raised in surrender, Ávila shifted slowly onto his knees, conveying full compliance and submission.

Give Langdon the sense that he is in total control.

Despite his fall down the stairs, Ávila could feel that the object he had lodged in the back of his belt was still there—the ceramic pistol with which he had killed Kirsch inside the Guggenheim. He had chambered the last remaining bullet before entering the church but had not needed to use it, killing one of the guards silently and stealing his far more efficient gun, which, unfortunately, Langdon was now aiming at him. Ávila wished he had left the safety engaged, guessing Langdon probably would have had no idea how to release it.

Ávila considered making a move to grab the ceramic gun from his belt to fire on Langdon first, but even if he were successful, Ávila estimated his chances of survival at about fifty-fifty. One of the perils of inexperienced gun users was their tendency to fire by mistake.

If I move too quickly …

The sounds of the yelling guards were growing closer, and Ávila knew that if he were taken into custody, the “victor” tattoo on his palm would ensure his release—or at least that’s what the Regent had assured him. At the moment, however, having killed two of the king’s Guardia Real agents, Ávila was not so sure that the Regent’s influence could save him.

I came here to carry out a mission, Ávila reminded himself. And I need to complete it. Eliminate Robert Langdon and Ambra Vidal.

The Regent had told Ávila to enter the church via the east service gate, but Ávila had decided to jump a security fence instead. I spotted police lurking near the east gate … and so I improvised.

Langdon spoke forcefully, glaring down over the gun at Ávila. “You said Edmond Kirsch killed your family. That’s a lie. Edmond was no killer.”

You’re right, Ávila thought. He was worse.

The dark truth about Kirsch was a secret Ávila had learned only a week ago during a phone call from the Regent. Our pope is asking you to target the famous futurist Edmond Kirsch, the Regent had said. His Holiness’s motivations are many, but he would like for you to undertake this mission personally.

Why me? Ávila asked.

Admiral, the Regent whispered. I’m sorry to tell you this, but Edmond Kirsch was responsible for the cathedral bombing that killed your family.

Ávila’s first reaction was complete disbelief. He could see no reason whatsoever for a well-known computer scientist to bomb a church.

You are a military man, Admiral, the Regent had explained to him, and so you know better than anyone: the young soldier who pulls the trigger in battle is not the actual killer. He is a pawn, doing the work of those more powerful—governments, generals, religious leaders—those who have either paid him or convinced him that a cause is worthy at all costs.

Ávila had indeed witnessed this situation.

The same rules apply to terrorism, the Regent continued. The most vicious terrorists are not the people who build the bombs, but the influential leaders who fuel hatred among desperate masses, inspiring their foot soldiers to commit acts of violence. It takes only one powerful dark soul to wreak havoc in the world by inspiring spiritual intolerance, nationalism, or loathing in the minds of the vulnerable.

Ávila had to agree.

Terrorist attacks against Christians, the Regent said, are on the rise around the world. These new attacks are no longer strategically planned events; they are spontaneous assaults carried out by lone wolves who are answering a call to arms sent out by persuasive enemies of Christ. The Regent paused. And among those persuasive enemies, I count the atheist Edmond Kirsch.

Now Ávila felt the Regent was beginning to stretch the truth. Despite Kirsch’s despicable campaign against Christianity in Spain, the scientist had never issued a statement urging the murder of Christians.

Before you disagree, the voice on the phone told him, let me give you one final piece of information. The Regent sighed heavily. Nobody knows this, Admiral, but the attack that killed your family … it was intended as an act of war against the Palmarian Church.

The statement gave Ávila pause, and yet it made no sense; Seville Cathedral was not a Palmarian building.

The morning of the bombing, the voice told him, four prominent members of the Palmarian Church were in the Seville congregation for recruiting purposes. They were targeted specifically. You know one of them—Marco. The other three died in the attack.

Ávila’s thoughts swirled as he pictured his physical therapist, Marco, who had lost his leg in the attack.

Our enemies are powerful and motivated, the voice went on. And when the bomber could not gain access to our compound in El Palmar de Troya, he followed our four missionaries to Seville and took his action there. I’m so very sorry, Admiral. This tragedy is one of the reasons the Palmarians reached out to you—we feel responsible that your family became collateral damage in a war directed against us.

A war directed by whom? Ávila demanded, trying to comprehend the shocking claims.

Check your e-mail, the Regent replied.

Opening his in-box, Ávila discovered a shocking trove of private documents that outlined a brutal war that had been waged against the Palmarian Church for over a decade now … a war that apparently included lawsuits, threats bordering on blackmail, and huge donations to anti-Palmarian “watchdog” groups like Palmar de Troya Support and Dialogue Ireland.

More surprising still, this bitter war against the Palmarian Church was, it appeared, being waged by a single individual—and that man was futurist Edmond Kirsch.

Ávila was baffled by the news. Why would Edmond Kirsch specifically want to destroy the Palmarians?

The Regent told him that nobody in the Church—not even the pope himself—had any idea why Kirsch had such a specific abhorrence for the Palmarians. All they knew was that one of the planet’s wealthiest and most influential people would not rest until the Palmarians were crushed.

The Regent drew Ávila’s attention to one last document—a copy of a typed letter to the Palmarians from a man claiming to be the Seville bomber. In the first line, the bomber called himself a “disciple of Edmond Kirsch.” This was all Ávila had to see; his fists clenched in rage.

The Regent explained why the Palmarians had never shared the letter publicly; with all the bad press the Palmarians had gotten recently—much of it orchestrated or funded by Kirsch—the last thing the Church needed was to be associated with a bombing.

My family died because of Edmond Kirsch.

Now, in the darkened stairwell, Ávila stared up at Robert Langdon, sensing that the man probably knew nothing of Kirsch’s secret crusade against the Palmarian Church, or how Kirsch had inspired the attack that killed Ávila’s family.

It doesn’t matter what Langdon knows, Ávila thought. He is a soldier like I am. We have both fallen into this foxhole, and only one of us will climb out of it. I have my orders.

Langdon was positioned a few steps above him, aiming his weapon like an amateur—with both hands. Poor choice, Ávila thought, quietly lowering his toes onto a step beneath him, planting his feet, and staring straight up into Langdon’s eyes.

“I know you find it hard to believe,” Ávila declared, “but Edmond Kirsch killed my family. And here is your proof.”

Ávila opened his palm to show Langdon his tattoo, which, of course, was no proof at all, but it had the desired effect—Langdon looked.

As the professor’s focus shifted ever so briefly, Ávila lunged upward and to his left, along the curved outer wall, moving his body out of the line of fire. Precisely as anticipated, Langdon fired on impulse—depressing the trigger before he could realign the weapon with a moving target. Like thunder, the gunshot reverberated in the cramped space, and Ávila felt a bullet graze his shoulder before ricocheting harmlessly down the stone stairwell.

Langdon was already re-aiming the gun, but Ávila rolled in midair, and as he began to fall, he drove his fists down hard on Langdon’s wrists, forcing the gun from his hands and sending it clattering down the stairs.

Bolts of pain ripped through Ávila’s chest and shoulder as he landed on the stairs beside Langdon, but the surge of adrenaline only fueled his intensity. Reaching behind him, he yanked the ceramic handgun from his belt. The weapon felt almost weightless after holding the guard’s pistol.

Ávila pointed the gun at Langdon’s chest, and without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The gun roared, but it made an unusual shattering noise, and Ávila felt searing heat on his hand, realizing at once that the gun barrel had exploded. Built for stealth, these new metal-free “undetectables” were intended for only a shot or two. Ávila had no idea where his bullet had gone, but when he saw Langdon already scrambling to his feet, Ávila dropped his weapon and lunged at him, the two men grappling violently near the precariously low inner edge.

In that instant, Ávila knew he had won.

We are equally armed, he thought. But I have position.

Ávila had already assessed the open shaft at the center of the stairwell—a deadly drop with almost no protection. Now, trying to muscle Langdon backward toward the shaft, Ávila pressed one leg against the outer wall, giving himself enormous leverage. With a surge of power, he pushed Langdon toward the shaft.

Langdon fiercely resisted, but Ávila’s position afforded him all the advantage, and from the desperate look in the professor’s eyes, it was clear that Langdon knew what was about to happen.

 

Robert Langdon had heard it said that life’s most critical choices—those involving survival—usually required a split-second decision.

Now, brutally driven against the low edge, with his back arched over a hundred-foot drop, Langdon’s six-foot frame and high center of gravity were a deadly liability. He knew he could do nothing to counter the power of Ávila’s position.

Langdon desperately peered over his shoulder into the void behind him. The circular shaft was narrow—maybe three feet across—but it was certainly wide enough to accommodate his plummeting body … which would likely carom off the stone railing all the way down.

The fall is unsurvivable.

Ávila let out a guttural bellow and regripped Langdon. As he did, Langdon realized there was only one move to make.

Rather than fighting the man, he would help him.

As Ávila heaved him upward, Langdon crouched, planting his feet firmly on the stairs.

For a moment, he was a twenty-year-old at the Princeton swimming pool … competing in the backstroke … perched on his mark … his back to the water … knees bent … abdomen taut … waiting for the starting gun.

Timing is everything.

This time, Langdon heard no starting gun. He exploded out of his crouch, launching himself into the air, arching his back out over the void. As he leaped outward, he could feel that Ávila, who had been poised to oppose two hundred pounds of deadweight, had been yanked entirely off balance by the sudden reversal of forces.

Ávila let go as fast as he possibly could, but Langdon could sense him flailing for equilibrium. As Langdon arched away, he prayed he could travel far enough in the air to clear the opening and reach the stairs on the opposite side of the shaft, six feet below … but apparently, it was not to be. In midair, as Langdon began instinctively folding his body into a protective ball, he collided hard with a vertical face of stone.

I didn’t make it.

I’m dead.

Certain he had hit the inner edge, Langdon braced himself for his plummet into the void.

But the fall lasted only an instant.

Langdon crashed down almost immediately on sharp uneven ground, striking his head. The force of the collision nearly knocked him into unconsciousness, but in that moment he realized he had cleared the shaft completely and hit the far wall of the staircase, landing on the lower portion of the spiraling stairs.

Find the gun, Langdon thought, straining to hold on to consciousness, knowing that Ávila would be on top of him in a matter of seconds.

But it was too late.

His brain was shutting down.

As the blackness set in, the last thing Langdon heard was an odd sound … a series of recurring thuds beneath him, each one farther away than the one before.

It reminded him of the sound of an oversized bag of garbage careening down a trash chute.

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