For Robert Langdon, the Capitol Rotundalike St. Peter's Basilicaalways had a way of taking him by surprise. Intellectually, he knew the room was so large that the Statue of Liberty could stand comfortably inside it, but somehow the Rotunda always felt larger and more
hallowed than he anticipated, as if there were spirits in the air. Tonight, however, there was only chaos.
Capitol police officers were sealing the Rotunda while attempting to herd distraught tourists away from the hand. The little boy was still crying. A bright light flasheda tourist taking a photo of the handand several guards immediately detained the man, taking his camera and escorting him off. In the confusion, Langdon felt himself moving forward in a trance, slipping through the crowd, inching closer to the hand.
Peter Solomon's severed right hand was standing upright, the flat plane of the detached wrist skewered down onto the spike of a small wooden stand. Three of the fingers were closed in a fist, while the thumb and index finger were fully extended, pointing up toward the soaring dome.
Everyone back! an officer called.
Langdon was close enough now that he could see dried blood, which had run down from the wrist and coagulated on the wooden base. Postmortem wounds don't bleed . . . which means Peter is alive. Langdon didn't know whether to be relieved or nauseated. Peter's hand was removed while he was alive? Bile rose in his throat. He thought of all the times his dear friend had extended this same hand to shake Langdon's or offer a warm embrace.
For several seconds, Langdon felt his mind go blank, like an untuned television set broadcasting only static. The first clear image that broke through was utterly unexpected.
A crown . . . and a star.
Langdon crouched down, eyeing the tips of Peter's thumb and index finger. Tattoos? Incredibly, the monster who had done this appeared to have tattooed tiny symbols on Peter's fingertips.
On the thumba crown. On the index fingera star.
This can't be. The two symbols registered instantly in Langdon's mind, amplifying this already horrific scene into something almost otherworldly. These symbols had appeared together many times in history, and always in the same placeon the fingertips of a hand. It was one of the ancient world's most coveted and secretive icons.
The Hand of the Mysteries.
The icon was rarely seen anymore, but throughout history it had symbolized a powerful call to action. Langdon strained to comprehend the grotesque artifact now before him. Someone crafted the Hand of the Mysteries out of Peter's hand? It was unthinkable. Traditionally, the icon was sculpted in stone or wood or rendered as a drawing. Langdon had never heard of the Hand of the Mysteries being fashioned from actual flesh. The concept was abhorrent.
Sir? a guard said behind Langdon. Please step back.
Langdon barely heard him. There are other tattoos. Although he could not see the fingertips of the three clenched fingers, Langdon knew these fingertips would bear their own unique markings. That was the tradition. Five symbols in total. Through the millennia, the symbols on the fingertips of the Hand of the Mysteries had never changed . . . nor had the hand's iconic purpose.
The hand represents . . . an invitation.
Langdon felt a sudden chill as he recalled the words of the man who had brought him here. Professor, tonight you are receiving the invitation of your lifetime. In ancient times, the Hand of the Mysteries actually served as the most coveted invitation on earth. To receive this icon was a sacred summons to join an elite groupthose who were said to guard the secret wisdom of all the ages. The invitation not only was a great honor, but it signified that a master believed you were worthy to receive this hidden wisdom. The hand of the master extended to the initiate.
Sir, the guard said, putting a firm hand on Langdon's shoulder. I need you to back up right now.
I know what this means, Langdon managed. I can help you.
Now! the guard said.
My friend is in trouble. We have to
Langdon felt powerful arms pulling him up and leading him away from the hand. He simply let it happen . . . feeling too off balance to protest.
A formal invitation had just been delivered. Someone was summoning Langdon to unlock a mystical portal that would unveil a world of ancient mysteries and hidden knowledge.
But it was all madness.
Delusions of a lunatic.