Mal'akh had seen some eerie spaces in his life, but few rivaled the unearthly world of Pod 3. Wet Pod. The massive room looked as if a mad scientist had taken over a Walmart and packed every aisle and shelf with specimen jars of all shapes and sizes. Lit like a photographic darkroom, the space was bathed in a reddish haze of "safelight" that emanated from beneath the shelves, filtering upward and illuminating the ethanol-filled containers. The clinical smell of preservative chemicals was nauseating.
"This pod houses over twenty thousand species," the chubby girl was saying. "Fish, rodents, mammals, reptiles." "All dead, I hope?" Mal'akh asked, making a show of sounding nervous.
The girl laughed. "Yes, yes. All very much dead. I'll admit, I didn't dare come in for at least six months after I started work."
Mal'akh could understand why. Everywhere he looked there were specimen jars of dead life- forms--salamanders, jellyfish, rats, bugs, birds, and other things he could not begin to identify. As if this collection were not unsettling enough on its own, the hazy red safelights that protected these photosensitive specimens from long-term light exposure gave the visitor the feeling he was standing inside a giant aquarium, where lifeless creatures were somehow congregating to watch from the shadows.
"That's a coelacanth," the girl said, pointing to a big Plexiglas container that held the ugliest fish Mal'akh had ever seen. "They were thought to be extinct with the dinosaurs, but this was caught off Africa a few years back and donated to the Smithsonian."
Lucky you, Mal'akh thought, barely listening. He was busy scanning the walls for security cameras. He saw only one--trained on the entry door--not surprising, considering that entrance was probably the only way in.
"And here is what you wanted to see . . ." she said, leading him to the giant tank he had seen from the window. "Our longest specimen." She swept her arm out over the vile creature like a game-show host displaying a new car. "Architeuthis."
The squid tank looked like a series of glass phone booths had been laid on their sides and fused end to end. Within the long, clear Plexiglas coffin hovered a sickeningly pale and amorphous shape. Mal'akh gazed down at the bulbous, saclike head and its basketball-size eyes. "Almost makes your coelacanth look handsome," he said.
"Wait till you see her lit."
Trish flipped back the long lid of the tank. Ethanol fumes wafted out as she reached down into the tank and flipped a switch just above the liquid line. A string of fluorescent lights flickered to life along the entire base of the tank. Architeuthis was now shining in all her glory--a colossal head attached to a slithery mass of decaying tentacles and razor-sharp suckers.
She began talking about how Architeuthis could beat a sperm whale in a fight.
Mal'akh heard only empty prattling.
The time had come.
Trish Dunne always felt a bit uneasy in Pod 3, but the chill that had just run through her felt different.
Visceral. Primal. She tried to ignore it, but it grew quickly now, clawing deeply at her. Although Trish could not seem to place the source of her anxiety, her gut was clearly telling her it was time to leave.
"Anyhow, that's the squid," she said, reaching into the tank and turning off the display light. "We should probably get back to Katherine's--"
A broad palm clamped hard over her mouth, yanking her head back. Instantly, a powerful arm was wrapped around her torso, pinning her against a rock-hard chest. For a split second, Trish went numb with shock.
Then came the terror.
The man groped across her chest, grabbing her key card and yanking down hard. The cord burned the back of her neck before snapping. The key card fell on the floor at their feet. She fought, trying to twist away, but she was no match for the man's size and strength. She tried to scream, but his hand remained tightly across her mouth. He leaned down and placed his mouth next to her ear, whispering, "When I take my hand off your mouth, you will not scream, is that clear?"
She nodded vigorously, her lungs burning for air. I can't breathe!
The man removed his hand from her mouth, and Trish gasped, inhaling deeply.
"Let me go!" she demanded, breathless. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Tell me your PIN number," the man said.
Trish felt totally at a loss. Katherine! Help! Who is this man?! "Security can see you!" she said, knowing full well they were out of range of the cameras. And nobody is watching anyway.
"Your PIN number," the man repeated. "The one that matches your key card."
An icy fear churned in her gut, and Trish spun violently, wriggling an arm free and twisting around, clawing at the man's eyes. Her fingers hit flesh and raked down one cheek. Four dark gashes opened on his flesh where she scratched him. Then she realized the dark stripes on his flesh were not blood. The man was wearing makeup, which she had just scratched off, revealing dark tattoos hidden underneath.
Who is this monster?!
With seemingly superhuman strength, the man spun her around and hoisted her up, pushing her out over the open squid tank, her face now over the ethanol. The fumes burned her nostrils.
"What is your PIN number?" he repeated. Her eyes burned, and she could see the pale flesh of the squid submerged beneath her face.
"Tell me," he said, pushing her face closer to the surface. "What is it?"
Her throat was burning now. "Zero-eight-zero-four!" she blurted, barely able to breathe. "Let me go! Zero-eight-zero-four!"
"If you're lying," he said, pushing down farther, her hair in the ethanol now.
"I'm not lying!" she said, coughing. "August 4! It's my birthday!"
"Thank you, Trish."
His powerful hands clasped her head tighter, and a crushing force rammed her downward, plunging her face into the tank. Searing pain burned her eyes. The man pressed down harder, driving her whole head under the ethanol. Trish felt her face pressing into the fleshy head of the squid.
Summoning all of her strength, she bucked violently, arching backward, trying to pull her head out of the tank. But the powerful hands did not budge.
I have to breathe!
She remained submerged, straining not to open her eyes or mouth. Her lungs burned as she fought the powerful urge to breathe in. No! Don't! But Trish's inhalation reflex finally took over.
Her mouth flew open, and her lungs expanded violently, attempting to suck in the oxygen that her body craved. In a searing rush, a wave of ethanol poured into her mouth. As the chemicals gushed down her throat into her lungs, Trish felt a pain like nothing she had ever imagined possible. Mercifully, it lasted only a few seconds before her world went black.
Mal'akh stood beside the tank, catching his breath and surveying the damage.
The lifeless woman lay slumped over the rim of the tank, her face still submerged in ethanol. Seeing her there, Mal'akh flashed on the only other woman he had ever killed.
Long ago. Another life.
Mal'akh gazed down now at the woman's flaccid corpse. He grabbed her ample hips and lifted with his legs, hoisting her up, pushing forward, until she began to slide over the rim of the squid tank. Trish Dunne slithered headfirst down into the ethanol. The rest of her body followed, sloshing down. Gradually, the ripples subsided, leaving the woman hovering limp over the huge sea creature. As her clothing got heavier, she began to sink, slipping into the darkness. Bit by bit, Trish Dunne's body settled on top of the great beast. Mal'akh wiped his hands and replaced the Plexiglas lid, sealing the tank.
Wet Pod has a new specimen.
He retrieved Trish's key card from the floor and slipped it in his pocket: 0804.
When Mal'akh had first seen Trish in the lobby, he'd seen a liability. Then he'd realized her key card and password were his insurance. If Katherine's data-storage room was as secure as Peter had implied, then Mal'akh was anticipating some challenges persuading Katherine to unlock it for him. I now have my own set of keys. He was pleased to know he would no longer have to waste time bending Katherine to his will.
As Mal'akh stood up straight, he saw his own reflection in the window and could tell his makeup was badly mangled. It didn't matter anymore. By the time Katherine put it all together, it would be too late.
"This room is Masonic?" Sato demanded, turning from the skull and staring at Langdon in the darkness.
Langdon nodded calmly. "It's called a Chamber of Reflection. These rooms are designed as cold, austere places in which a Mason can reflect on his own mortality. By meditating on the inevitability of death, a Mason gains a valuable perspective on the fleeting nature of life."
Sato looked around the eerie space, apparently not convinced. "This is some kind of meditation room?"
"Essentially, yes. These chambers always incorporate the same symbols--skull and crossed bones, scythe, hourglass, sulfur, salt, blank paper, a candle, et cetera. The symbols of death inspire Masons to ponder how better to lead their lives while on this earth."
"It looks like a death shrine," Anderson said.
That's kind of the point. "Most of my symbology students have the same reaction at first." Langdon often assigned them Symbols of Freemasonry by Beresniak, which contained beautiful photos of Chambers of Reflection.
"And your students," Sato demanded, "don't find it unnerving that Masons meditate with skulls and scythes?"
"No more unnerving than Christians praying at the feet of a man nailed to a cross, or Hindus chanting in front of a four-armed elephant named Ganesh. Misunderstanding a culture's symbols is a common root of prejudice."
Sato turned away, apparently in no mood for a lecture. She moved toward the table of artifacts. Anderson tried to light her way with the flashlight, but the beam was beginning to dim. He tapped the heel of the light and coaxed it to burn a little brighter.
As the threesome moved deeper into the narrow space, the pungent tang of sulfur filled Langdon's nostrils. The subbasement was damp, and the humidity in the air was activating the sulfur in the bowl. Sato arrived at the table and stared down at the skull and accompanying objects.
Anderson joined her, doing his best to light the desk with the weakening beam of his flashlight.
Sato examined everything on the table and then placed her hands on her hips, sighing. "What is all this junk?"
The artifacts in this room, Langdon knew, were carefully selected and arranged. "Symbols of transformation," he told her, feeling confined as he inched forward and joined them at the table. "The skull, or caput mortuum, represents man's final transformation through decay; it's a reminder that we all shed our mortal flesh one day. The sulfur and salt are alchemical catalysts that facilitate transformation. The hourglass represents the transformational power of time." He motioned to the unlit candle. "And this candle represents the formative primordial fire and the awakening of man from his ignorant slumber--transformation through illumination."
"And . . . that?" Sato asked, pointing into the corner.