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The stitches in Langdon's scalp were throbbing again as he and Sienna squeezed inside the video control room with Marta and the two guards. The cramped space was nothing more than a converted vestment chamber with a bank of whirring hard drives and computer monitors. The air inside was stiflingly hot and smelled of stale cigarette smoke.
Langdon felt the walls closing in around him immediately.
Marta took a seat in front of the video monitor, which was already in playback mode and displayed a grainy black-and-white image of the andito, shot from above the door. The time stamp on-screen indicated that the footage had been cued to midmorning yesterday-precisely twenty-four hours ago-apparently just before the museum opened and long before the arrival of Langdon and the mysterious il Duomino that evening.
The guard fast-forwarded through the video, and Langdon watched as an influx of tourists flowed rapidly into the andito, moving in hurried jerky motions. The mask itself was not visible from this perspective, but clearly it was still in its display case as tourists repeatedly paused to peer inside or take photos before moving on.
Please hurry, Langdon thought, knowing the police were on their way. He wondered if he and Sienna should just excuse themselves and run, but they needed to see this video: whatever was on this recording would answer a lot of questions about what the hell was going on.
The video playback continued, faster now, and afternoon shadows began moving across the room. Tourists zipped in and out until finally the crowds began to thin, and then abruptly disappeared entirely. As the time stamp raced past 1700 hours, the museum lights went out, and all was quiet.
Five P.M. Closing time.
"Aumenti la velocità," Marta commanded, leaning forward in her chair and staring at the screen.
The guard let the video race on, the time stamp advancing quickly, until suddenly, at around 10 P.M., the lights in the museum flickered back on.
The guard quickly slowed the tape back to regular speed.
A moment later, the familiar pregnant shape of Marta Alvarez came into view. She was followed closely by Langdon, who entered wearing his familiar Harris Tweed Camberley jacket, pressed khakis, and his own cordovan loafers. He even saw the glint of his Mickey Mouse watch peeking out from under his sleeve as he walked.
There I am ... before I got shot.
Langdon found it deeply unsettling to watch himself doing things of which he had absolutely no recollection. I was here last night ... looking at the death mask? Somehow, between then and now, he had managed to lose his clothing, his Mickey Mouse watch, and two days of his life.
As the video continued, he and Sienna crowded in close behind Marta and the guards for a better view. The silent footage continued, showing Langdon and Marta arriving at the display case and admiring the mask. As they were doing this, a broad shadow darkened the doorway behind him, and a morbidly obese man shuffled into the frame. He was dressed in a tan suit, carried a briefcase, and barely fit through the door. His bulging gut made even the pregnant Marta look slender.
Langdon recognized the man at once. Ignazio?!
"That's Ignazio Busoni," Langdon whispered in Sienna's ear. "Director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. An acquaintance of mine for several years. I'd just never heard him called il Duomino."
"A fitting epithet," Sienna replied quietly.
In years past, Langdon had consulted Ignazio on artifacts and history relating to Il Duomo-the basilica for which he was responsible-but a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio seemed outside Ignazio's domain. Then again, Ignazio Busoni, in addition to being an influential figure in the Florentine art world, was a Dante enthusiast and scholar.
A logical source of information on Dante's death mask.
As Langdon returned his focus to the video, Marta could now be seen waiting patiently against the rear wall of the andito while Langdon and Ignazio leaned out over the stanchions to get the closest possible look at the mask. As the men continued their examination and discussion, the minutes wore on, and Marta could be seen discreetly checking her watch behind their backs.
Langdon wished the security tape included audio. What were Ignazio and I talking about? What are we looking for?!
Just then, on-screen, Langdon stepped over the stanchions and crouched down directly in front of the cabinet, his face only inches from the glass. Marta immediately intervened, apparently admonishing him, and Langdon apologetically stepped back.
"Sorry I was so strict," Marta now said, glancing back at him over her shoulder. "But as I told you, the display case is an antique and extremely fragile. The mask's owner insists we keep people behind the stanchions. He won't even permit our staff to open the case without him present."
Her words took a moment to register. The mask's owner? Langdon had assumed the mask was the property of the museum.
Sienna looked equally surprised and chimed in immediately. "The museum doesn't own the mask?"
Marta shook her head, her eyes now back on the screen. "A wealthy patron offered to buy Dante's death mask from our collection and yet leave it on permanent display here. He offered a small fortune, and we happily accepted."
"Hold on," Sienna said. "He paid for the mask ... and let you keep it?"
"Common arrangement," Langdon said. "Philanthropic acquisition-a way for donors to make major grants to museums without registering the gift as charity."
"The donor was an unusual man," Marta said. "A genuine scholar of Dante, and yet a bit ... how do you say ... fanatico?"
"Who is he?" Sienna demanded, her casual tone laced with urgency.
"Who?" Marta frowned, still staring at the screen. "Well, you probably read about him in the news recently-the Swiss billionaire Bertrand Zobrist?"
For Langdon the name seemed only vaguely familiar, but Sienna grabbed Langdon's arm and squeezed it hard, looking as if she'd seen a ghost.
"Oh, yes ..." Sienna said haltingly, her face ashen. "Bertrand Zobrist. Famous biochemist. Made a fortune in biological patents at a young age." She paused, swallowing hard. She leaned over and whispered to Langdon. "Zobrist basically invented the field of germ-line manipulation."
Langdon had no idea what germ-line manipulation was, but it had an ominous ring, especially in light of the recent spate of images involving plagues and death. He wondered if Sienna knew so much about Zobrist because she was well read in the field of medicine ... or perhaps because they had both been child prodigies. Do savants follow each other's work?
"I first heard of Zobrist a few years ago," Sienna explained, "when he made some highly provocative declarations in the media about population growth." She paused, her face gloomy. "Zobrist is a proponent of the Population Apocalypse Equation."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Essentially it's a mathematical recognition that the earth's population is rising, people are living longer, and our natural resources are waning. The equation predicts that the current trend can have no outcome other than the apocalyptic collapse of society. Zobrist has publicly predicted that the human race will not survive another century ... unless we have some kind of mass extinction event." Sienna sighed heavily and locked eyes with Langdon. "In fact, Zobrist was once quoted as saying that 'the best thing that ever happened to Europe was the Black Death.' "
Langdon stared at her in shock. The hair on his neck bristled as, once again, the image of the plague mask flashed through his mind. He had been trying all morning to resist the notion that his current dilemma related to a deadly plague ... but that notion was getting more and more difficult to refute.
For Bertrand Zobrist to describe the Black Death as the best thing ever to happen to Europe was certainly appalling, and yet Langdon knew that many historians had chronicled the long-term socioeconomic benefits of the mass extinction that had occurred in Europe in the 1300s. Prior to the plague, overpopulation, famine, and economic hardship had defined the Dark Ages. The sudden arrival of the Black Death, while horrific, had effectively "thinned the human herd," creating an abundance of food and opportunity, which, according to many historians, had been a primary catalyst for bringing about the Renaissance.
As Langdon pictured the biohazard symbol on the tube that had contained the modified map of Dante's inferno, a chilling thought struck him: the eerie little projector had been created by someone ... and Bertrand Zobrist-a biochemist and Dante fanatic-now seemed to be a logical candidate.
The father of genetic germ-line manipulation. Langdon sensed pieces of the puzzle now falling into place. Regrettably, the picture coming into focus felt increasingly frightening.
"Fast-forward through this part," Marta ordered the guard, sounding eager to get past the real-time playback of Langdon and Ignazio Busoni studying the mask so she could find out who had broken into the museum and stolen it.
The guard hit the fast-forward button, and the time stamp accelerated.
Three minutes ... six minutes ... eight minutes.
On-screen, Marta could be seen standing behind the men, shifting her weight with increasing frequency and repeatedly checking her watch.
"I'm sorry we talked so long," Langdon said. "You look uncomfortable."
"My own fault," Marta replied. "You both insisted that I should go home and the guards could let you out, but I felt that would be rude."
Suddenly, on-screen, Marta disappeared. The guard slowed the video to normal speed.
"It's okay," Marta said. "I remember going to the restroom."
The guard nodded and reached again for the fast-forward button, but before he pressed it, Marta grabbed his arm. "Aspetti!"
She cocked her head and stared at the monitor in confusion.
Langdon had seen it, too. What in the world?!
On-screen, Langdon had just reached into the pocket of his tweed coat and produced a pair of surgical gloves, which he was now pulling onto his hands.
Simultaneously, il Duomino positioned himself behind Langdon, peering down the hallway where Marta had moments earlier trudged off to use the restroom. After a moment the obese man nodded to Langdon in a way that seemed to mean that the coast was clear.
What the hell are we doing?!
Langdon watched himself on the video as his gloved hand reached out and found the edge of the cabinet door ... and then, ever so gently, pulled back until the antique hinge shifted and the door swung slowly open ... exposing the Dante death mask.
Marta Alvarez let out a horrified gasp and brought her hands to her face.
Sharing Marta's horror, Langdon watched himself in utter disbelief as he reached into the case, gently gripped the Dante death mask with both hands, and lifted it out.
"Dio mi salvi!" Marta exploded, heaving herself to her feet and spinning around to face Langdon. "Cos'ha fatto? Perché?"
Before Langdon could respond, one of the guards whipped out a black Beretta and aimed it directly at Langdon's chest.
Robert Langdon stared down the barrel of the guard's handgun and felt the tiny room closing in around him. Marta Alvarez was on her feet now, glaring up at him with an incredulous look of betrayal on her face. On the security monitor behind her, Langdon was now holding the mask up to the light and studying it.
"I took it out only for a moment," Langdon insisted, praying that this was true. "Ignazio assured me you wouldn't mind!"
Marta did not reply. She looked stupefied, clearly trying to imagine why Langdon had lied to her ... and indeed how in the world Langdon could have calmly stood by and let the tape play when he knew what it would reveal.
I had no idea I opened the case!
"Robert," Sienna whispered. "Look! You found something!" Sienna remained riveted on the playback, focusing on getting answers despite their predicament.
On-screen, Langdon was now holding the mask up and angling it toward the light, his attention apparently drawn to something of interest on the back of the artifact.
From this camera angle, for a split second, the raised mask partially blocked Langdon's face in such a way that Dante's dead eyes were aligned with Langdon's. He remembered the pronouncement-the truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death-and felt a chill.
Langdon had no idea what he might have been examining on the back of the mask, but at that moment in the video, as he shared his discovery with Ignazio, the obese man recoiled, immediately fumbling for his spectacles and looking again ... and again. He began shaking his head vigorously and pacing the andito in an agitated state.
Suddenly both men glanced up, clearly having heard something in the hallway-most likely Marta returning from the restroom. Hurriedly, Langdon pulled from his pocket a large Ziploc bag, into which he sealed the death mask before gently handing it to Ignazio, who placed it, with seeming reluctance, inside his briefcase. Langdon quickly closed the antique glass door on the now-empty display case, and the two men strode briskly up the hall to encounter Marta before she could discover their theft.
Both guards now had their guns trained on Langdon.
Marta wobbled on her feet, grasping the table for support. "I don't understand!" she sputtered. "You and Ignazio Busoni stole the Dante death mask?!"
"No!" Langdon insisted, bluffing as best as he could. "We had permission from the owner to take the mask out of the building for the night."
"Permission from the owner?" she questioned. "From Bertrand Zobrist!?"
"Yes! Mr. Zobrist agreed to let us examine some markings on the back! We met with him yesterday afternoon!"
Marta's eyes shot daggers. "Professor, I am quite certain you did not meet with Bertrand Zobrist yesterday afternoon."
"We most certainly did-"
Sienna placed a restraining hand on Langdon's arm. "Robert ..." She gave a grim sigh. "Six days ago, Bertrand Zobrist threw himself off the top of the Badia tower only a few blocks away from here."
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