Professor Langdon?" Sato said. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Are you okay?"
Langdon hoisted his daybag higher onto his shoulder and laid his hand on top of it, as if somehow this might better hide the cube-shaped package he was carrying. He could feel his face had gone ashen. "I'm . . . just worried about Peter." Sato cocked her head, eyeing him askew.
Langdon felt a sudden wariness that Sato's involvement tonight might relate to this small package that Solomon had entrusted to him. Peter had warned Langdon: Powerful people want to steal this. It would be dangerous in the wrong hands. Langdon couldn't imagine why the CIA would want a little box containing a talisman . . . or even what the talisman could be. Ordo ab chao?
Sato stepped closer, her black eyes probing. "I sense you've had a revelation?"
Langdon felt himself sweating now. "No, not exactly."
"What's on your mind?"
"I just . . ." Langdon hesitated, having no idea what to say. He had no intention of revealing the existence of the package in his bag, and yet if Sato took him to the CIA, his bag most certainly would be searched on the way in. "Actually . . ." he fibbed, "I have another idea about the numbers on Peter's hand."
Sato's expression revealed nothing. "Yes?" She glanced over at Anderson now, who was just arriving from greeting the forensics team that had finally arrived.
Langdon swallowed hard and crouched down beside the hand, wondering what he could possibly come up with to tell them. You're a teacher, Robert--improvise! He took one last look at the seven tiny symbols, hoping for some sort of inspiration.
As Langdon's eidetic memory skimmed through his mental encyclopedia of symbols, he could find only one possible point to make. It was something that had occurred to him initially, but had seemed unlikely. At the moment, however, he had to buy time to think.
"Well," he began, "a symbologist's first clue that he's on the wrong track when deciphering symbols and codes is when he starts interpreting symbols using multiple symbolic languages. For example, when I told you this text was Roman and Arabic, that was a poor analysis because I used multiple symbolic systems. The same is true for Roman and runic."
Sato crossed her arms and arched her eyebrows as if to say, "Go on." "In general, communications are made in one language, not multiple languages, and so a symbologist's first job with any text is to find a single consistent symbolic system that applies to the entire text."
"And you see a single system now?"
"Well, yes . . . and no." Langdon's experience with the rotational symmetry of ambigrams had taught him that symbols sometimes had meanings from multiple angles. In this case, he realized there was indeed a way to view all seven symbols in a single language. "If we manipulated the hand slightly, the language will become consistent." Eerily, the manipulation Langdon was about to perform was one that seemed to have been suggested by Peter's captor already when he spoke the ancient Hermetic adage. As above, so below.
Langdon felt a chill as he reached out and grasped the wooden base on which Peter's hand was secured. Gently, he turned the base upside down so that Peter's extended fingers were now pointing straight down. The symbols on the palm instantly transformed themselves.
"From this angle," Langdon said, "X-I-I-I becomes a valid Roman numeral--thirteen. Moreover, the rest of the characters can be interpreted using the Roman alphabet--SBB." Langdon assumed the analysis would elicit blank shrugs, but Anderson's expression immediately changed.
"SBB?" the chief demanded.
Sato turned to Anderson. "If I'm not mistaken, that sounds like a familiar numbering system here in the Capitol Building."
Anderson looked pale. "It is."
Sato gave a grim smile and nodded to Anderson. "Chief, follow me, please. I'd like a word in private."
As Director Sato led Chief Anderson out of earshot, Langdon stood alone in bewilderment. What the hell is going on here? And what is SBB XIII?
Chief Anderson wondered how this night could possibly get any stranger. The hand says SBB13? He was amazed any outsider had even heard of SBB . . . much less SBB13. Peter Solomon's index finger, it seemed, was not directing them upward as it had appeared . . . but rather was pointing in quite the opposite direction. Director Sato led Anderson over to a quiet area near the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson. "Chief," she said, "I trust you know exactly where SBB Thirteen is located?"
"Do you know what's inside?"
"No, not without looking. I don't think it's been used in decades."
"Well, you're going to open it up."
Anderson did not appreciate being told what he would do in his own building. "Ma'am, that may be problematic. I'll have to check the assignment roster first. As you know, most of the lower levels are private offices or storage, and security protocol regarding private--"
"You will unlock SBB Thirteen for me," Sato said, "or I will call OS and send in a team with a battering ram."
Anderson stared at her a long moment and then pulled out his radio, raising it to his lips. "This is Anderson. I need someone to unlock the SBB. Have someone meet me there in five minutes."
The voice that replied sounded confused. "Chief, confirming you said SBB?"
"Correct. SBB. Send someone immediately. And I'll need a flashlight." He stowed his radio. Anderson's heart was pounding as Sato stepped closer, lowering her voice even further.
"Chief, time is short," she whispered, "and I want you to get us down to SBB Thirteen as quickly as possible."
"I also need something else from you."
In addition to breaking and entering? Anderson was in no position to protest, and yet it had not gone unnoticed by him that Sato had arrived within minutes of Peter's hand appearing in the Rotunda, and that she now was using the situation to demand access to private sections of the U.S. Capitol. She seemed so far ahead of the curve tonight that she was practically defining it.
Sato motioned across the room toward the professor. "The duffel bag on Langdon's shoulder."
Anderson glanced over. "What about it?"
"I assume your staff X-rayed that bag when Langdon entered the building?"
"Of course. All bags are scanned." "I want to see that X-ray. I want to know what's in his bag."
Anderson looked over at the bag Langdon had been carrying all evening. "But . . . wouldn't it be easier just to ask him?"
"What part of my request was unclear?"
Anderson pulled out his radio again and called in her request. Sato gave Anderson her BlackBerry address and requested that his team e-mail her a digital copy of the X-ray as soon as they had located it. Reluctantly Anderson complied.
Forensics was now collecting the severed hand for the Capitol Police, but Sato ordered them to deliver it directly to her team at Langley. Anderson was too tired to protest. He had just been run over by a tiny Japanese steamroller.
"And I want that ring," Sato called over to Forensics.
The chief technician seemed ready to question her but thought better of it. He removed the gold ring from Peter's hand, placed it in a clear specimen bag, and gave it to Sato. She slipped it into her jacket pocket, and then turned to Langdon.
"We're leaving, Professor. Bring your things."
"Where are we going?" Langdon replied.
"Just follow Mr. Anderson."
Yes, Anderson thought, and follow me closely. The SBB was a section of the Capitol that few ever visited. To reach it, they would pass through a sprawling labyrinth of tiny chambers and tight passages buried beneath the crypt. Abraham Lincoln's youngest son, Tad, had once gotten lost down there and almost perished. Anderson was starting to suspect that if Sato had her way, Robert Langdon might suffer a similar fate.
Systems security specialist Mark Zoubianis had always prided himself on his ability to multitask. At the moment, he was seated on his futon along with a TV remote, a cordless phone, a laptop, a PDA, and a large bowl of Pirate's Booty. With one eye on the muted Redskins game and one eye on his laptop, Zoubianis was speaking on his Bluetooth headset with a woman he had not heard from in over a year.
Leave it to Trish Dunne to call on the night of a play-off game.
Confirming her social ineptitude yet again, his former colleague had chosen the Redskins game as a perfect moment to chat him up and request a favor. After some brief small talk about the old days and how she missed his great jokes, Trish had gotten to her point: she was trying to unmask a hidden IP address, probably that of a secure server in the D.C. area. The server contained a small text document, and she wanted access to it . . . or at the very least, some information about whose document it was.
Right guy, wrong timing, he had told her. Trish then showered him with her finest geek flattery, most of which was true, and before Zoubianis knew it, he was typing a strange-looking IP address into his laptop.
Zoubianis took one look at the number and immediately felt uneasy. "Trish, this IP has a funky format. It's written in a protocol that isn't even publicly available yet. It's probably gov intel or military."
"Military?" Trish laughed. "Believe me, I just pulled a redacted document off this server, and it was not military." Zoubianis pulled up his terminal window and tried a traceroute. "You said your traceroute died?"
"Yeah. Twice. Same hop."
"Mine, too." He pulled up a diagnostic probe and launched it. "And what's so interesting about this IP?"
"I ran a delegator that tapped a search engine at this IP and pulled a redacted document. I need to see the rest of the document. I'm happy to pay them for it, but I can't figure out who owns the IP or how to access it."
Zoubianis frowned at his screen. "Are you sure about this? I'm running a diagnostic, and this firewall coding looks . . . pretty serious."
"That's why you get the big bucks."
Zoubianis considered it. They'd offered him a fortune for a job this easy. "One question, Trish. Why are you so hot on this?"
Trish paused. "I'm doing a favor for a friend."
"Must be a special friend."
"She is." Zoubianis chuckled and held his tongue. I knew it.
"Look," Trish said, sounding impatient. "Are you good enough to unmask this IP? Yes or no?"
"Yes, I'm good enough. And yes, I know you're playing me like a fiddle."
"How long will it take you?"
"Not long," he said, typing as he spoke. "I should be able to get into a machine on their network within ten minutes or so. Once I'm in and know what I'm looking at, I'll call you back."
"I appreciate it. So, are you doing well?"
Now she asks? "Trish, for God's sake, you called me on the night of a play-off game and now you want to chat? Do you want me to hack this IP or not?"
"Thanks, Mark. I appreciate it. I'll be waiting for your call."
"Fifteen minutes." Zoubianis hung up, grabbed his bowl of Pirate's Booty, and unmuted the game.
Where are they taking me?
As Langdon hurried with Anderson and Sato into the depths of the Capitol, he felt his heart rate increasing with each downward step. They had begun their journey through the west portico of the Rotunda, descending a marble staircase and then doubling back through a wide doorway into the famous chamber directly beneath the Rotunda floor.
The Capitol Crypt.
The air was heavier here, and Langdon was already feeling claustrophobic. The crypt's low ceiling and soft uplighting accentuated the robust girth of the forty Doric columns required to support the vast stone floor directly overhead. Relax, Robert.
"This way," Anderson said, moving quickly as he angled to the left across the wide circular space. Thankfully, this particular crypt contained no bodies. Instead it contained several statues, a model of the Capitol, and a low storage area for the wooden catafalque on which coffins were laid for state funerals. The entourage hurried through, without even a glance at the four-pointed marble compass in the center of the floor where the Eternal Flame had once burned.
Anderson seemed to be in a hurry, and Sato once again had her head buried in her BlackBerry. Cellular service, Langdon had heard, was boosted and broadcast to all corners of the Capitol Building to support the hundreds of government phone calls that took place here every day.
After diagonally crossing the crypt, the group entered a dimly lit foyer and began winding through a convoluted series of hallways and dead ends. The warren of passages contained numbered doorways, each of which bore an identification number. Langdon read the doors as they snaked their way around.
S154 . . . S153 . . . S152 . . .
He had no idea what lay behind these doors, but at least one thing now seemed clear--the meaning of the tattoo on Peter Solomon's palm.