The Otiselevator climbing the south pillar of the Eiffel Tower was overflowing with tourists. Inside the cramped lift, an austere businessman in a pressed suit gazed down at the boy beside him. You look pale, son. You should have stayed on the ground.
Im okay . . . the boy answered, struggling to control his anxiety. Ill get out on the next level. I cant breathe.
The man leaned closer. I thought by now you would have gotten over this. He brushed the childs cheek affectionately.
The boy felt ashamed to disappoint his father, but he could barely hear through the ringing in his
ears. I cant breathe. Ive got to get out of this box!
The elevator operator was saying something reassuring about the lifts articulated pistons and puddled-iron construction. Far beneath them, the streets of Paris stretched out in all directions.
Almost there, the boy told himself, craning his neck and looking up at the unloading platform. Just hold on.
As the lift angled steeply toward the upper viewing deck, the shaft began to narrow, its massive struts contracting into a tight, vertical tunnel.
Dad, I dont think
Suddenly a staccato crack echoed overhead. The carriage jerked, swaying awkwardly to one side. Frayed cables began whipping around the carriage, thrashing like snakes. The boy reached out for his father.
Their eyes locked for one terrifying second.
Then the bottom dropped out.
Robert Langdon jolted upright in his soft leather seat, startling out of the semiconscious daydream. He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.
Mr. Langdon? The intercom crackled overhead. Were on final approach.
Langdon sat up straight and slid his lecture notes back into his leather daybag. Hed been halfway through reviewing Masonic symbology when his mind had drifted. The daydream about his late father, Langdon suspected, had been stirred by this mornings unexpected invitation from Langdons longtime mentor, Peter Solomon.
The other man I never want to disappoint.
The fifty-eight-year-old philanthropist, historian, and scientist had taken Langdon under his wing nearly thirty years ago, in many ways filling the void left by Langdons fathers death. Despite the mans influential family dynasty and massive wealth, Langdon had found humility and warmth in Solomons soft gray eyes.
Outside the window the sun had set, but Langdon could still make out the slender silhouette of the worlds largest obelisk, rising on the horizon like the spire of an ancient gnomon. The 555-foot marble-faced obelisk marked this nations heart. All around the spire, the meticulous geometry of streets and monuments radiated outward.
Even from the air, Washington, D.C., exuded an almost mystical power.
Langdon loved this city, and as the jet touched down, he felt a rising excitement about what lay ahead. The jet taxied to a private terminal somewhere in the vast expanse of Dulles International Airport and came to a stop.
Langdon gathered his things, thanked the pilots, and stepped out of the jets luxurious interior onto the foldout staircase. The cold January air felt liberating.
Breathe, Robert, he thought, appreciating the wide-open spaces.
A blanket of white fog crept across the runway, and Langdon had the sensation he was stepping into a marsh as he descended onto the misty tarmac.
Hello! Hello! a singsong British voice shouted from across the tarmac. Professor Langdon?
Langdon looked up to see a middle-aged woman with a badge and clipboard hurrying toward him, waving happily as he approached. Curly blond hair protruded from under a stylish knit wool hat.
Welcome to Washington, sir!
Langdon smiled. Thank you.
My name is Pam, from passenger services. The woman spoke with an exuberance that was almost unsettling. If youll come with me, sir, your car is waiting.
Langdon followed her across the runway toward the Signature terminal, which was surrounded by glistening private jets. A taxi stand for the rich and famous.
I hate to embarrass you, Professor, the woman said, sounding sheepish, but you are the Robert Langdon who writes books about symbols and religion, arent you?
Langdon hesitated and then nodded.
I thought so! she said, beaming. My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!
Langdon smiled. Scandal wasnt really my intention.
The woman seemed to sense Langdon was not in the mood to discuss his work. Im sorry. Listen to me rattling on. I know you probably get tired of being recognized . . . but its your own fault. She playfully motioned to his clothing. Your uniform gave you away.
My uniform? Langdon glanced down at his attire. He was wearing his usual charcoal turtleneck, Harris Tweed jacket, khakis, and collegiate cordovan loafers . . . his standard attire for the classroom, lecture circuit, author photos, and social events.
The woman laughed. Those turtlenecks you wear are so dated. Youd look much sharper in a tie!
No chance, Langdon thought. Little nooses.
Neckties had been required six days a week when Langdon attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and despite the headmasters romantic claims that the origin of the cravat went back to the silk fascalia worn by Roman orators to warm their vocal cords, Langdon knew that, etymologically, cravat actually derived from a ruthless band of Croat mercenaries who donned knotted neckerchiefs before they stormed into battle. To this day, this ancient battle garb was donned by modern office warriors hoping to intimidate their enemies in daily boardroom battles.
Thanks for the advice, Langdon said with a chuckle. Ill consider a tie in the future.
Mercifully, a professional-looking man in a dark suit got out of a sleek Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal and held up his finger. Mr. Langdon? Im Charles with Beltway Limousine. He opened the passenger door. Good evening, sir. Welcome to Washington.
Langdon tipped Pam for her hospitality and then climbed into the plush interior of the Town Car. The driver showed him the temperature controls, the bottled water, and the basket of hot muffins. Seconds later, Langdon was speeding away on a private access road. So this is how the other half lives.
As the driver gunned the car up Windsock Drive, he consulted his passenger manifest and placed a quick call. This is Beltway Limousine, the driver said with professional efficiency. I was asked to confirm once my passenger had landed. He paused. Yes, sir. Your guest, Mr. Langdon, has arrived, and I will deliver him to the Capitol Building by seven P.M. Youre welcome, sir. He hung up.
Langdon had to smile. No stone left unturned. Peter Solomons attention to detail was one of his most potent assets, allowing him to manage his substantial power with apparent ease. A few billion dollars in the bank doesnt hurt either.
Langdon settled into the plush leather seat and closed his eyes as the noise of the airport faded behind him. The U.S. Capitol was a half hour away, and he appreciated the time alone to gather his thoughts. Everything had happened so quickly today that Langdon only now had begun to think in earnest about the incredible evening that lay ahead.
Arriving under a veil of secrecy, Langdon thought, amused by the prospect.
Ten miles from the Capitol Building, a lone figure was eagerly preparing for Robert Langdons arrival.