"That's it there," Sophie called, pointing to a red snub-nosed two-seater parked on the plaza.
She's kidding, right? The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen.
"SmartCar," she said. "A hundred kilometers to the liter."Langdon had barely thrown himself into the passenger seat before Sophie gunned the SmartCar upand over a curb onto a gravel divider. He gripped the dash as the car shot out across a sidewalk andbounced back down over into the small rotary at Carrousel du Louvre.
For an instant, Sophie seemed to consider taking the shortcut across the rotary by plowing straightahead, through the median's perimeter hedge, and bisecting the large circle of grass in the center.
"No!" Langdon shouted, knowing the hedges around Carrousel du Louvre were there to hide theperilous chasm in the center—La Pyramide Inversée—the upside-down pyramid skylight he hadseen earlier from inside the museum. It was large enough to swallow their Smart-Car in a singlegulp. Fortunately, Sophie decided on the more conventional route, jamming the wheel hard to theright, circling properly until she exited, cut left, and swung into the northbound lane, acceleratingtoward Rue de Rivoli.
The two-tone police sirens blared louder behind them, and Langdon could see the lights now in hisside view mirror. The SmartCar engine whined in protest as Sophie urged it faster away from theLouvre. Fifty yards ahead, the traffic light at Rivoli turned red. Sophie cursed under her breath andkept racing toward it. Langdon felt his muscles tighten.
"Sophie?"Slowing only slightly as they reached the intersection, Sophie flicked her headlights and stole aquick glance both ways before flooring the accelerator again and carving a sharp left turn throughthe empty intersection onto Rivoli. Accelerating west for a quarter of a mile, Sophie banked to theright around a wide rotary. Soon they were shooting out the other side onto the wide avenue ofChamps-Elysées.
As they straightened out, Langdon turned in his seat, craning his neck to look out the rear windowtoward the Louvre. The police did not seem to be chasing them. The sea of blue lights wasassembling at the museum.
His heartbeat finally slowing, Langdon turned back around. "That was interesting."Sophie didn't seem to hear. Her eyes remained fixed ahead down the long thoroughfare of Champs-Elysées, the two-mile stretch of posh storefronts that was often called the Fifth Avenue of Paris.
The embassy was only about a mile away, and Langdon settled into his seat. So dark the con ofman. Sophie's quick thinking had been impressive. Madonna of the Rocks.
Sophie had said her grandfather left her something behind the painting. A final message? Langdoncould not help but marvel over Saunière's brilliant hiding place; Madonna of the Rocks was yetanother fitting link in the evening's chain of interconnected symbolism. Saunière, it seemed, atevery turn, was reinforcing his fondness for the dark and mischievous side of Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci's original commission for Madonna of the Rocks had come from an organization knownas the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which needed a painting for the centerpiece ofan altar triptych in their church of San Francesco in Milan. The nuns gave Leonardo specificdimensions, and the desired theme for the painting—the Virgin Mary, baby John the Baptist, Uriel,and Baby Jesus sheltering in a cave. Although Da Vinci did as they requested, when he deliveredthe work, the group reacted with horror. He had filled the painting with explosive and disturbingdetails.
The painting showed a blue-robed Virgin Mary sitting with her arm around an infant child,presumably Baby Jesus. Opposite Mary sat Uriel, also with an infant, presumably baby John theBaptist. Oddly, though, rather than the usual Jesus-blessing-John scenario, it was baby John whowas blessing Jesus... and Jesus was submitting to his authority! More troubling still, Mary washolding one hand high above the head of infant John and making a decidedly threateninggesture—her fingers looking like eagle's talons, gripping an invisible head. Finally, the mostobvious and frightening image: Just below Mary's curled fingers, Uriel was making a cuttinggesture with his hand—as if slicing the neck of the invisible head gripped by Mary's claw-likehand.
Langdon's students were always amused to learn that Da Vinci eventually mollified theconfraternity by painting them a second, "watered-down" version of Madonna of the Rocks inwhich everyone was arranged in a more orthodox manner. The second version now hung inLondon's National Gallery under the name Virgin of the Rocks, although Langdon still preferredthe Louvre's more intriguing original.
As Sophie gunned the car up Champs-Elysées, Langdon said, "The painting. What was behind it?"Her eyes remained on the road. "I'll show you once we're safely inside the embassy.""You'll show it to me?" Langdon was surprised. "He left you a physical object?"Sophie gave a curt nod. "Embossed with a fleur-de-lis and the initials P.S."Langdon couldn't believe his ears.
We're going to make it, Sophie thought as she swung the SmartCar's wheel to the right, cuttingsharply past the luxurious H.tel de Crillon into Paris's tree-lined diplomatic neighborhood. Theembassy was less than a mile away now. She was finally feeling like she could breathe normallyagain.
Even as she drove, Sophie's mind remained locked on the key in her pocket, her memories ofseeing it many years ago, the gold head shaped as an equal-armed cross, the triangular shaft, theindentations, the embossed flowery seal, and the letters P.S.
Although the key barely had entered Sophie's thoughts through the years, her work in theintelligence community had taught her plenty about security, and now the key's peculiar tooling nolonger looked so mystifying. A laser-tooled varying matrix. Impossible to duplicate. Rather thanteeth that moved tumblers, this key's complex series of laser-burned pockmarks was examined byan electric eye. If the eye determined that the hexagonal pockmarks were correctly spaced,arranged, and rotated, then the lock would open.
Sophie could not begin to imagine what a key like this opened, but she sensed Robert would beable to tell her. After all, he had described the key's embossed seal without ever seeing it. Thecruciform on top implied the key belonged to some kind of Christian organization, and yet Sophieknew of no churches that used laser-tooled varying matrix keys.
Besides, my grandfather was no Christian....
Sophie had witnessed proof of that ten years ago. Ironically, it had been another key—a far morenormal one—that had revealed his true nature to her.
The afternoon had been warm when she landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport and hailed a taxihome. Grand-père will be so surprised to see me, she thought. Returning from graduate school inBritain for spring break a few days early, Sophie couldn't wait to see him and tell him all about theencryption methods she was studying.
When she arrived at their Paris home, however, her grandfather was not there. Disappointed, sheknew he had not been expecting her and was probably working at the Louvre. But it's Saturdayafternoon, she realized. He seldom worked on weekends. On weekends, he usually—Grinning, Sophie ran out to the garage. Sure enough, his car was gone. It was the weekend. JacquesSaunière despised city driving and owned a car for one destination only—his vacation chateau inNormandy, north of Paris. Sophie, after months in the congestion of London, was eager for thesmells of nature and to start her vacation right away. It was still early evening, and she decided toleave immediately and surprise him. Borrowing a friend's car, Sophie drove north, winding into thedeserted moon-swept hills near Creully. She arrived just after ten o'clock, turning down the longprivate driveway toward her grandfather's retreat. The access road was over a mile long, and shewas halfway down it before she could start to see the house through the trees—a mammoth, oldstone chateau nestled in the woods on the side of a hill.
Sophie had half expected to find her grandfather asleep at this hour and was excited to see thehouse twinkling with lights. Her delight turned to surprise, however, when she arrived to find thedriveway filled with parked cars—Mercedeses, BMWs, Audis, and a Rolls-Royce.
Sophie stared a moment and then burst out laughing. My grand-père, the famous recluse! JacquesSaunière, it seemed, was far less reclusive than he liked to pretend. Clearly he was hosting a partywhile Sophie was away at school, and from the looks of the automobiles, some of Paris's mostinfluential people were in attendance.
Eager to surprise him, she hurried to the front door. When she got there, though, she found itlocked. She knocked. Nobody answered. Puzzled, she walked around and tried the back door. It toowas locked. No answer.
Confused, she stood a moment and listened. The only sound she heard was the cool Normandy airletting out a low moan as it swirled through the valley.
In the silence of the woods, Sophie hurried to the side of the house and clambered up on awoodpile, pressing her face to the living room window. What she saw inside made no sense at all.
"Nobody's here!"The entire first floor looked deserted.
Where are all the people?
Heart racing, Sophie ran to the woodshed and got the spare key her grandfather kept hidden underthe kindling box. She ran to the front door and let herself in. As she stepped into the deserted foyer,the control panel for the security system started blinking red—a warning that the entrant had tenseconds to type the proper code before the security alarms went off.
He has the alarm on during a party?
Sophie quickly typed the code and deactivated the system.
Entering, she found the entire house uninhabited. Upstairs too. As she descended again to thedeserted living room, she stood a moment in the silence, wondering what could possibly behappening.
It was then that Sophie heard it.
Muffled voices. And they seemed to be coming from underneath her. Sophie could not imagine.
Crouching, she put her ear to the floor and listened. Yes, the sound was definitely coming frombelow. The voices seemed to be singing, or... chanting? She was frightened. Almost more eeriethan the sound itself was the realization that this house did not even have a basement.
At least none I've ever seen.
Turning now and scanning the living room, Sophie's eyes fell to the only object in the entire housethat seemed out of place—her grandfather's favorite antique, a sprawling Aubusson tapestry. Itusually hung on the east wall beside the fireplace, but tonight it had been pulled aside on its brassrod, exposing the wall behind it.
Walking toward the bare wooden wall, Sophie sensed the chanting getting louder. Hesitant, sheleaned her ear against the wood. The voices were clearer now. People were definitely chanting...
intoning words Sophie could not discern.
The space behind this wall is hollow!
Feeling around the edge of the panels, Sophie found a recessed fingerhold. It was discreetlycrafted. A sliding door. Heart pounding, she placed her finger in the slot and pulled it. Withnoiseless precision, the heavy wall slid sideways. From out of the darkness beyond, the voicesechoed up.
Sophie slipped through the door and found herself on a rough-hewn stone staircase that spiraleddownward. She'd been coming to this house since she was a child and yet had no idea this staircaseeven existed!
As she descended, the air grew cooler. The voices clearer. She heard men and women now. Herline of sight was limited by the spiral of the staircase, but the last step was now rounding into view.
Beyond it, she could see a small patch of the basement floor—stone, illuminated by the flickeringorange blaze of firelight.
Holding her breath, Sophie inched down another few steps and crouched down to look. It took herseveral seconds to process what she was seeing.
The room was a grotto—a coarse chamber that appeared to have been hollowed from the granite ofthe hillside. The only light came from torches on the walls. In the glow of the flames, thirty or sopeople stood in a circle in the center of the room.
I'm dreaming, Sophie told herself. A dream. What else could this be?
Everyone in the room was wearing a mask. The women were dressed in white gossamer gowns andgolden shoes. Their masks were white, and in their hands they carried golden orbs. The men worelong black tunics, and their masks were black. They looked like pieces in a giant chess set.
Everyone in the circle rocked back and forth and chanted in reverence to something on the floorbefore them... something Sophie could not see.
The chanting grew steady again. Accelerating. Thundering now. Faster. The participants took astep inward and knelt. In that instant, Sophie could finally see what they all were witnessing. Evenas she staggered back in horror, she felt the image searing itself into her memory forever.
Overtaken by nausea, Sophie spun, clutching at the stone walls as she clambered back up the stairs.
Pulling the door closed, she fled the deserted house, and drove in a tearful stupor back to Paris.
That night, with her life shattered by disillusionment and betrayal, she packed her belongings andleft her home. On the dining room table, she left a note.
I WAS THERE. DON'T TRY TO FIND ME.
Beside the note, she laid the old spare key from the chateau's woodshed.
"Sophie! Langdon's voice intruded. "Stop! Stop!"Emerging from the memory, Sophie slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt. "What? Whathappened?!"Langdon pointed down the long street before them.
When she saw it, Sophie's blood went cold. A hundred yards ahead, the intersection was blockedby a couple of DCPJ police cars, parked askew, their purpose obvious. They've sealed off AvenueGabriel!
Langdon gave a grim sigh. "I take it the embassy is off-limits this evening?"Down the street, the two DCPJ officers who stood beside their cars were now staring in theirdirection, apparently curious about the headlights that had halted so abruptly up the street fromthem.
Okay, Sophie, turn around very slowly.
Putting the SmartCar in reverse, she performed a composed three-point turn and reversed herdirection. As she drove away, she heard the sound of squealing tires behind them. Sirens blared tolife.
Cursing, Sophie slammed down the accelerator.