The revelation crashed over Langdon like a wave.
I know why I am here.
Standing in the center of the Rotunda, Langdon felt a powerful urge to turn and run away . . . from Peter's hand, from the shining gold ring, from the suspicious eyes of Sato and Anderson. Instead, he stood dead still, clinging more tightly to the leather daybag that hung on his shoulder. I've got to get out of here.
His jaw clenched as his memory began replaying the scene from that cold morning, years ago in Cambridge. It was six A.M. and Langdon was entering his classroom as he always did following his ritual morning laps in the Harvard Pool. The familiar smells of chalk dust and steam heat greeted him as he crossed the threshold. He took two steps toward his desk but stopped short.
A figure was waiting there for him--an elegant gentleman with an aquiline face and regal gray eyes.
"Peter?" Langdon stared in shock.
Peter Solomon's smile flashed white in the dimly lit room. "Good morning, Robert. Surprised to see me?" His voice was soft, and yet there was power there.
Langdon hurried over and warmly shook his friend's hand. "What in the world is a Yale blue blood doing on the Crimson campus before dawn?"
"Covert mission behind enemy lines," Solomon said, laughing. He motioned to Langdon's trim waistline. "Laps are paying off. You're in good shape."
"Just trying to make you feel old," Langdon said, toying with him. "It's great to see you, Peter. What's up?"
"Short business trip," the man replied, glancing around the deserted classroom. "I'm sorry to drop in on you like this, Robert, but I have only a few minutes. There's something I needed to ask you . . . in person. A favor."
That's a first. Langdon wondered what a simple college professor could possibly do for the man who had everything. "Anything at all," he replied, pleased for any opportunity to do something for someone who had given him so much, especially when Peter's life of good fortune had also been marred by so much tragedy.
Solomon lowered his voice. "I was hoping you would consider looking after something for me."
Langdon rolled his eyes. "Not Hercules, I hope." Langdon had once agreed to take care of Solomon's hundred-fifty-pound mastiff, Hercules, during Solomon's travels. While at Langdon's home, the dog apparently had become homesick for his favorite leather chew toy and had located a worthy substitute in Langdon's study--an original vellum, hand-calligraphed, illuminated Bible from the 1600s. Somehow "bad dog" didn't quite seem adequate.
"You know, I'm still searching for a replacement," Solomon said, smiling sheepishly.
"Forget it. I'm glad Hercules got a taste of religion."
Solomon chuckled but seemed distracted. "Robert, the reason I came to see you is I'd like you to keep an eye on something that is quite valuable to me. I inherited it a while back, but I'm no longer comfortable leaving it in my home or in my office."
Langdon immediately felt uncomfortable. Anything "quite valuable" in Peter Solomon's world had to be worth an absolute fortune. "How about a safe-deposit box?" Doesn't your family have stock in half the banks in America?
"That would involve paperwork and bank employees; I'd prefer a trusted friend. And I know you can keep secrets." Solomon reached in his pocket and pulled out a small package, handing it to Langdon.
Considering the dramatic preamble, Langdon had expected something more impressive. The package was a small cube-shaped box, about three inches square, wrapped in faded brown packing paper and tied with twine. From the package's heavy weight and size, it felt like its contents must be rock or metal. This is it? Langdon turned the box in his hands, now noticing the twine had been carefully secured on one side with an embossed wax seal, like an ancient edict. The seal bore a double-headed phoenix with the number 33 emblazoned on its chest--the traditional symbol of the highest degree of Freemasonry.
"Really, Peter," Langdon said, a lopsided grin creeping across his face. "You're the Worshipful Master of a Masonic lodge, not the pope. Sealing packages with your ring?"
Solomon glanced down at his gold ring and gave a chuckle. "I didn't seal this package, Robert. My great-grandfather did. Almost a century ago."
Langdon's head snapped up. "What?!"
Solomon held up his ring finger. "This Masonic ring was his. After that, it was my grandfather's, then my father's . . . and eventually mine."
Langdon held up the package. "Your great-grandfather wrapped this a century ago and nobody has opened it?"
"But . . . why not?"
Solomon smiled. "Because it's not time."
Langdon stared. "Time for what?"
"Robert, I know this will sound odd, but the less you know, the better. Just put this package somewhere safe, and please tell no one I gave it to you."
Langdon searched his mentor's eyes for a glint of playfulness. Solomon had a propensity for dramatics, and Langdon wondered if he wasn't being played a bit here. "Peter, are you sure this isn't just a clever ploy to make me think I've been entrusted with some kind of ancient Masonic secret so I'll be curious and decide to join?"
"The Masons do not recruit, Robert, you know that. Besides, you've already told me you'd prefer not to join."
This was true. Langdon had great respect for Masonic philosophy and symbolism, and yet he had decided never to be initiated; the order's vows of secrecy would prevent him from discussing Freemasonry with his students. It had been for this same reason that Socrates had refused to formally participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
As Langdon now regarded the mysterious little box and its Masonic seal, he could not help but ask the obvious question. "Why not entrust this to one of your Masonic brothers?"
"Let's just say I have an instinct it would be safer stored outside the brotherhood. And please don't let the size of this package fool you. If what my father told me is correct, then it contains something of substantial power." He paused. "A talisman, of sorts."
Did he say a talisman? By definition, a talisman was an object with magical powers. Traditionally, talismans were used for bringing luck, warding off evil spirits, or aiding in ancient rituals. "Peter, you do realize that talismans went out of vogue in the Middle Ages, right?"
Peter laid a patient hand on Langdon's shoulder. "I know how this sounds, Robert. I've known you a long time, and your skepticism is one of your greatest strengths as an academic. It is also your greatest weakness. I know you well enough to know you're not a man I can ask to believe . . . only to trust. So now I am asking you to trust me when I tell you this talisman is powerful. I was told it can imbue its possessor with the ability to bring order from chaos."
Langdon could only stare. The idea of "order from chaos" was one of the great Masonic axioms. Ordo ab chao. Even so, the claim that a talisman could impart any power at all was absurd, much less the power to bring order from chaos.
"This talisman," Solomon continued, "would be dangerous in the wrong hands, and unfortunately, I have reason to believe powerful people want to steal it from me." His eyes were as serious as Langdon could ever recall. "I would like you to keep it safe for me for a while. Can you do that?"
That night, Langdon sat alone at his kitchen table with the package and tried to imagine what could possibly be inside. In the end, he simply chalked it up to Peter's eccentricity and locked the package in his library's wall safe, eventually forgetting all about it.
That was . . . until this morning.
The phone call from the man with the southern accent.
"Oh, Professor, I almost forgot!" the assistant had said after giving Langdon the specifics of his travel arrangements to D.C. "There is one more thing Mr. Solomon requested."
"Yes?" Langdon replied, his mind already moving to the lecture he had just agreed to give.
"Mr. Solomon left a note here for you." The man began reading awkwardly, as if trying to decipher Peter's penmanship. "`Please ask Robert . . . to bring . . . the small, sealed package I gave him many years ago.' " The man paused. "Does this make any sense to you?" Langdon felt surprised as he recalled the small box that had been sitting in his wall safe all this time. "Actually, yes. I know what Peter means."
"And you can bring it?"
"Of course. Tell Peter I'll bring it."
"Wonderful." The assistant sounded relieved. "Enjoy your speech tonight. Safe travels."
Before leaving home, Langdon had dutifully retrieved the wrapped package from the back of his safe and placed it in his shoulder bag.
Now he was standing in the U.S. Capitol, feeling certain of only one thing. Peter Solomon would be horrified to know how badly Langdon had failed him.
My God, Katherine was right. As usual.
Trish Dunne stared in amazement at the search-spider results that were materializing on the plasma wall before her. She had doubted the search would turn up any results at all, but in fact, she now had over a dozen hits. And they were still coming in.
One entry in particular looked quite promising.
Trish turned and shouted in the direction of the library. "Katherine? I think you'll want to see this!"
It had been a couple of years since Trish had run a search spider like this, and tonight's results astounded her. A few years ago, this search would have been a dead end. Now, however, it seemed that the quantity of searchable digital material in the world had exploded to the point where someone could find literally anything. Incredibly, one of the keywords was a word Trish had never even heard before . . . and the search even found that.
Katherine rushed through the control-room door. "What have you got?"
"A bunch of candidates." Trish motioned to the plasma wall. "Every one of these documents contains all of your key phrases verbatim."
Katherine tucked her hair behind her ear and scanned the list. "Before you get too excited," Trish added, "I can assure you that most of these documents are not what you're looking for. They're what we call black holes. Look at the file sizes. Absolutely enormous. They're things like compressed archives of millions of e-mails, giant unabridged encyclopedia sets, global message boards that have been running for years, and so forth. By virtue of their size and diverse content, these files contain so many potential keywords that they suck in any search engine that comes anywhere near them."
Katherine pointed to one of the entries near the top of the list. "How about that one?"
Trish smiled. Katherine was a step ahead, having found the sole file on the list that had a small file size. "Good eyes. Yeah, that's really our only candidate so far. In fact, that file's so small it can't be more than a page or so."
"Open it." Katherine's tone was intense.
Trish could not imagine a one-page document containing all the strange search strings Katherine had provided. Nonetheless, when she clicked and opened the document, the key phrases were there . . . crystal clear and easy to spot in the text.
Katherine strode over, eyes riveted to the plasma wall. "This document is . . . redacted?"
Trish nodded. "Welcome to the world of digitized text."
Automatic redaction had become standard practice when offering digitized documents. Redaction was a process wherein a server allowed a user to search the entire text, but then revealed only a small portion of it--a teaser of sorts--only that text immediately flanking the requested keywords. By omitting the vast majority of the text, the server avoided copyright infringement and also sent the user an intriguing message: I have the information you're searching for, but if you want the rest of it, you'll have to buy it from me.
"As you can see," Trish said, scrolling through the heavily abridged page, "the document contains all of your key phrases."
Katherine stared up at the redaction in silence.
Trish gave her a minute and then scrolled back to the top of the page. Each of Katherine's key phrases was underlined in capital letters and accompanied by a small sample of teaser text--the two words that appeared on either side of the requested phrase. Trish could not imagine what this document was referring to. And what the heck is a "symbolon"?