Nothing is True. Everything is Connected.
Sylum Advent 2020: December 29th

Sylum Advent 2020: December 29th


Summary: Robert Langdon finds himself embroiled in the history and mythos of Washington.
Sylum Timeline: 2017 AD
Author’s Note: You’re getting the rough versions of Parts 1 & 2 during Advent … the completed story will be posted in 2021.

Part One

Chapter 6

Nicolaus couldn’t remember the last time he’d been inside the Capitol Rotunda but he was sure he hadn’t been running full spring when he’d entered.

Robert was right beside him, drawn to the screaming, imagining any number of hideous scenarios taking place for his benefit at the behest of the madman who’d brought him to D.C. that night.

But there was only a small group of tourists clustered in the center of the room when they arrived.

A small boy was the one screaming hysterically, while his parents struggled to comfort him.

Other people were milling around, staring, while a couple of security guards were trying to restore order.

Having been a Crime Scene Investigator, Nico’s first thought was that the man they were seeking had lingered in the vicinity to see what kind of impact his words would have on them, but instinct told him the kind of impact that such a deliberately calculating individual would need, far outweighed a single distraught child.

“He just pulled it out of his sling,” someone said frantically, “and left it there!”

Both Vampires could smell blood, but the strange object being pointed to on the floor seemed hardly worth all the fuss.

It looked to be what artists often referred to as a handequin – a jointed model used by painters and sculptors to aid in rendering the human body’s most complex feature, which was surprisingly not the face. The benefit of a mannequin hand was that the articulated fingers could be manipulated into any position required for the nature of the work being done.

Langdon had found more than one sophomoric college prankster leaving them around the Harvard Campus with the middle-finger extended straight up in the air. The one in the Rotunda, however, had been positioned with the index finger and thumb pointing toward the Dome.

It wasn’t smooth and plastic in texture though.

Langdon found himself stepping closer to it in a moment of peculiar fascination, realizing the hand was mottled and slightly wrinkled like real skin.

Nicolaus held him back as he tried to bend down for a closer look, and the strength of his Sire’s grip on his shoulder, startled him into seeing the blood.

The severed wrist had been skewered onto the spike of a simple wooden base so that it would stand up.

Langdon frowned, seeing how the tip of the finger and thumb had been tattooed with tiny symbols.

It was bizarre, and horrifying, but the familiar gold ring on the fourth finger left him in no doubt that he was staring at the severed right hand of Peter Solomon.

“He’s alive,” Nico assured him, “dead men don’t bleed when they’re mutilated.”

“That’s a comfort,” Robert muttered. “I’m sure Peter will appreciate the sentiment.”

“You sure it’s his?”

“Yeah. His ring is Masonic. And it smells like him too.”

“Okay, our guy is in the building. We have two choices – stay and chat to the Capitol Police who are absolutely on their way right now in greater force, or go after the man who set this up.” Nicolaus felt his phone vibrating urgently in his hand.

The Machine had already determined for him some time before, that the most immediately available resources to call on – Tony and Jethro – were the closest, having been in D.C. for the last 2 weeks concluding new threads from an old cold case.

If nothing had come of Leonardo’s frantic concerns over Robert’s unexpected excursion, Nicolaus would have either spent a night with them if they were free, or gone home again.

Lance was still waiting with the plane.

But suddenly he didn’t imagine he was going to get any rest any time soon.

“A crown and a star…” Langdon muttered, trying hard not to recall the many times Peter had extended that same hand to him in warmth and friendship. “On the fingertips. Do you see?”

Picking up on his words, The Machine was searching for reference.

Langdon knew full well that Peter had never been marked in such a fashion of his own free will.

The work was tiny, finely done, and he had to strain his Vampire senses to see them properly without crouching down.

The significance of a crown and a star finally worked its way through his horrified and sickened thoughts.

Such symbols always appeared together on the fingertips of a hand.

It was one of the most ancient and coveted icons in history.

The Hand of the Mysteries.

Rarely seen in a modern context, it had always been used as a call to action, a powerful on that could never be ignored.

Used in ink drawings or wood cuts and stone sculptures, it was never meant to be a real, physical hand, but there it was in all its grotesque abhorrence.

Someone had crafted The Hand of the Mysteries out of Peter’s hand.

It was unthinkable.

But inescapable.

The tips of the three clenched fingers would also be marked.

5 symbols in total.

That was the tradition.

“This is the invitation of a lifetime,” he murmured, echoing what the man they’d been talking too had told them. “Nico, this is a sacred summons to join an elite group said to guard the secret wisdom of all ages. It signifies that a Master believes me worthy to receive that wisdom!”

“A sun, a lantern, and a key. On the other fingers.” Sylum’s Clan Leader frowned at the simple image being shown on his phone. It was certainly old – a rendering on parchment.

Robert nodded. “This is madness,” he replied.

“Peter will point the way,” Nico reminded him, remembering what had been said, and it hardly surprised him that sadistic wordplay would be the joke of choice for someone who could cut the hand from another person just to send a message.

Langdon glanced upward, and the two of them followed the pointing finger’s gesture.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!”

Chapter 7

Capitol Police Chief, Mark Anderson, had been head of security at the U.S Capitol Complex for more than 2 decades.

Burly, square chested, lined of face, with bright red hair, he always wore a visible sidearm when in uniform, as an obvious warning to anyone who might be foolish enough to question the full extent of his authority.

Most of his work involved the co-ordination of a small army of police officers from a hi-tech surveillance center in the Capitol security offices, and trying not to be permanently annoyed at the tourists who took up so much of his patrol time.

“Chief?”

His intercom startled him just as he sat down at his office desk with a fresh cup of coffee, ready to contemplate next month’s staffing schedules. “What?”

“We’ve had some sort of disturbance in the Rotunda. I’ve got officers heading there now, but you’re going to have to take a look too,” his Watch Commander said briskly. “It seems peculiar.”

Anderson frowned, wondering if there should be certain words no longer permissible in a professional work setting.

‘Peculiar’ could cover so many things…

“Alright, I’m on it,” he sighed, and a moment later stepped out into the nerve-center of his facility, which was packed with flat scree video monitors on 3 walls, all feeding his officers live imagery from around the complex.

“Here, sir!” The Commander gestured for him to observe the footage on their largest central console. “The Rotunda, East Balcony camera, 90 seconds ago.”

Individual unaccompanied males were always the greatest concern in any environment where the majority of observable people tended to move in groups or mill with others. The same could also be said of anyone moving too hastily, or with too focused an intent. Naturally then, Anderson’s sharp and well trained eyes went straight to the man with the shaved head and injured arm in a sling. He appeared to move purposefully and deliberately, not with any sense of curiosity or wonder at his surroundings. He was also talking on a cell phone.

Arriving at the exact center of the Rotunda, he stopped abruptly, ended his call, and appeared to kneel down as if tying his shoe.

What he actually did instead of adjusting his footwear, was removed something from his sling and set it on the floor. Then he stood and moved briskly to the east exit.

“Is that a…?” Anderson leaned in toward the screen. “Good God! A hand?”

He spun away and ran for the door, barking order as he went. “Radio all points. Find that balk guy with the sling, and detain him. NOW!”

Then dashing out of the Security Center, he raced up the stairs, taking three treads at a time.

A lot more than 90 seconds had passed since the strange incident, but having seen which way the suspect had left the Rotunda, Anderson knew there was at least a slim chance of cutting him off.

As he reached the East-West Corridor, the hallway was quiet.

An elderly couple at the far end, walked slowly, hand in hand, while a blond haired tourist wearing a blue blazer stood reading a guidebook and studying the murals nearby.

“Excuse me, sir?” Anderson yelled, heading for the man he promptly startled. “Have you seen a bald guy wearing a sling on his arm?” All he got by way of reply was a confused look. “Sir! A bald man with a sling. Did you see him?”

The tourist blinked uncertainty written all over his face. “Um…” He glanced toward the far end of the hallway. “Yes, I think he just ran past, to that staircase over there.” He pointed and tried to see helpful.

Anderson nodded, pulled out his radio and snapped, “All points! Our suspect is heading for the south-east exit. Converge! Converge!!”

Sixty seconds later, at a quiet exit on the east side of the Capitol, the blond man in the blue blazer strode into the damp evening air, and smiled contentedly.

Over the centuries, he had grown highly adept at the use of personal transformation to avoid detection. There would, after all, forever be those who only saw what they were expecting to see.

Human beings were far easier to manipulate than Vampires.

But even the Undead had their own special weaknesses.

Chapter 8

 

Donning her lab coat, Katherine began what her brother would jokingly refer to as the ‘pre-flight checks’, making certain everything was in place and fully prepped for the coming week.

In the Mechanics Room, the hydrogen fuel cell was running normally, and its many spare tanks sat safely in their racks.

The back up units for the computer system were humming softly in the data storage area, protected from harm behind 3 inches of shatterproof glass. She knew it was somewhat foolish to store even the redundant drives on-site should anything unforeseen occur, like fire or earthquake, but the nature of her work had proven more than sufficiently controversial to warrant not having a potential data leak from an outside third party. Secrecy was paramount for a science that could change everything.

Literally.

She had recently overseen an experiment where her own intentional thought processes had cause the growth of ice crystals to changed into a pattern-like flowering shape when she dwelt on positive emotions, and then become more rough and jagged if she dwelt on negative emotions. It was a considerable breakthrough, but she needed to discuss far more than that with Peter should he ever answer his damn phone or show his face any time soon.

When she saw the light on under the Control Room door, her first – and only – thought was that he’d finally arrived, so yelling his name in relief and annoyance as she burst in, was more than enough to have her research assistant, Trisha Dunne, leaping away from the computer terminal she’d been working on.

“Oh, my God! Katherine, you scared me!”

Trish was a 26 year old, brown haired, genius data modeler, who rarely had to work at weekends. That she’d come in on a Sunday night to try and analyze the latest ice crystal data currently up on the giant plasma wall viewing screen, was hardly worthy of a heart attack.

“Sorry…” she sighed. “I was trying to finish off before you and your brother arrived.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

Trish shook her head. “I bet he’s still figuring out that new Starkphone you gave him for Christmas.”

Katherine appreciated the joke, but finding Trish at work gave her a sudden idea. “I’m glad you’re here tonight. You might be able to help me with something, if you don’t have to rush off.”

“Whatever you need, I’m good.”

“Well…” She stared at the screen that almost filled the wall’s entirety, its glow reminding her of something from NASA. “I’m not sure how to explain this, but earlier today I heard a unusual story. It sounds like fiction, or an old legend, and yet…”

“And yet?” Trish watched her boss fiddling with the stray hair that wouldn’t stay tucked behind her ear. It was a bad ‘tell’ for nerves, in someone usually so very much more reserved and self-controlled.

“I was told by a trusted source today, that the legend is true. I’m going to talk to Peter about it, but it occurs to me that you might be able to shed some light on it for me too. I’d love to know if this legend has ever been corroborated anywhere else in history.”

“In all of history?”

“Yes, anywhere in the world, in any language, at any point in history.”

Then years or so ago, such a task would’ve been almost impossible without an army of researchers and 5 years of continual study, but with the Internet, and the growth of the Word Wide Web, as well as many ongoing digitization projects across great libraries and museum collections everywhere, Katherine’s goal could be achieved by using a search engine equipped with a variety of translation modules and a raft of well chosen keywords.

“No problem,” Trish answered. She was often asked to write highly specialized Optical Character Recognition modules for the translation of obscure ancient languages into English, and she figured she was probably the only metasystems specialist on Earth who could build OCR in Old Frisian, Ye-Maek, and Akkadian. She’d learned a lot from the highly unusual book collection that Katherine and Peter had assembled. “Okay…” She scanned the list of search string terms and keywords that her boss had hastily scribbled on a Post-It. “You want me to search for all of this?” One of the words she didn’t even recognize, and her eyes grew a little wider as she wondered what kind of legend it related to. “Do you think we’ll find all these in one place? Verbatim?”

“Yes, if we try.”

The word ‘impossible’ was not permitted in ‘The Cube’. To believe anything could be impossible was dangerous in a field of research that was able to take pre-conceived falsehood and transform them into confirmed truths.

“How long to get results?” Katherine asked.

“Once I write the Search Spider, it should take about 15 minutes to exhaust itself. A traditional search engine can take about a day to crawl across the entire online universe, find new entires, fully digest their contents, and add it to our searchable database, but I’ll write a Delegator. It’s much faster. It’s not exactly legit, but it’ll work by ordering other people’s search engines to do the hard work for us. Every database has a search function, so let’s use them. I’ll call you if I get anything.”

“Thank you! I’ll be in the library.”

Trish settled into her new task.

It wasn’t menial, but it fell a bit below her pay grade. She didn’t mind though, as she would quite literally do anything for Dr. Solomon.

A ridiculous amount of good fortune had brought them together just over a year before.

She’d quit her job as a metasystems analyst, bored out of her skull at being stuck in a cubicle farm. She’d actually been so bored, that in her off time, she’d done some freelance work and started a tech industry blog called ‘Future Applications in Computer Metasystems Analysis’.

Then one evening, Katherine called her. She’d just recently written an article on the woman’s book, ‘Noetic Science: Modern Gateway to Ancient Wisdom’, and had apparently attracted the author’s attention. A great deal of discussion between them, each eager to learn more about the other’s field of study and expertise, had resulted in a deep sense of mutual respect and several meetings that finally led them to working together.

What sealed the deal was when Trish had explained how she’d come to have so vast and impressive a piece of property to live on in an exclusive area of Upstate New York.

“I got lucky a few years ago and licensed some software I’d written. A precursor to metasystems stuff. Following 9/11, the government was intercepting and crunching enormous amounts of data in various fields – civilian emails, cell phones, faxes, text messages, website hits… Essentially, they were sniffing out essential keywords that could be associated with terrorism, or terrorist communications. So I wrote a piece of software that allowed for processing it all in a second way. It generated what you might call an ‘additional intelligence product’ that took America’s temperature.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Katherine was astonished.

“Yeah, I know it sounds crazy but it quantified the nation’s emotional state. It offered a kind of cosmic consciousness barometer. It assessed the people’s mood based on occurrence densities of certain words and emotional context indicators. Happier times mean happier language, and stressful times mean more stress filled language. In the wake of say, a terror attack, the government could then use America’s psychological state to better advise the President on the emotional ramifications of any given event.”

“So,” Katherine answered thoughtfully, “you’re examining a population of individuals as if it were a single organism.”

“Exactly that, yes. A metasystem. An enormous entity defined by the sum of its component parts.”

“Like schools of fish moving as one. Or flocks of birds.”

“My software was meant to help government agencies better evaluate and respond to widespread, wide scale crises like pandemic diseases, large area tragedies, natural disasters, that kind of thing. Of course, there is always the potential for it to be used in other directions – perhaps to take a snapshot of the nation’s mindset and predict the outcome of a General Elections, or what the Stock Market will do at the next opening bell.”

“Sounds powerful.”

Trish gestured around her house. “The government certainly thought so.”

Katherine’s gray eyes focused in on her. “Let me ask you about the ethical dilemma posed by your work. I mean, you created a piece of software that can easily be abused. Those who posses it, have advantages over others because they alone can access powerful information not available to everyone. You didn’t have any kind of hesitation in creating it?”

Trish didn’t even blink before reply, “Absolutely not. My software is no different than say, a flight simulator, for example. Some users will practice for fun, some will use it to train for exams and tests, other to learn how to fly first aid missions into places with no real runways. Some will use it to practice flying passenger planes into skyscrapers. It assists in developing knowledge, and like all such tool, its impact on is in the hands of the user.”

Katherine smiled at her words. “Does it have a name?”

“Samaritan.”

“Interesting… So let me ask you a hypothetical.” Katherine bent down and picked up a miniscule speck of dust from the corner of the kitchen table. “It occurs to me that your metasystems work lets you calculate the weight of an entire sandy beach, by weighing one grain at a time. But every tiny grain has mass, like this dust. A very small mass, but mass nonetheless.”

Trish nodded. “Sure.”

“Because this speck of dust has mass, it therefore exerts gravity. Again, that gravity is too small to feel, but it is there.”

“Right. Yes.”

“If we take trillions of these specks, and put them together until they form something the size of the moon, then their combined gravity is enough to move the oceans, and draw the tides across our planet.” She tossed away the tiny fleck, and ran her hands over her knees as though to dust them off completely. “What if I told you that a thought – a tiny idea in your brain – actually has mass too? What if I told you that a thought is an actual measurable entity with a measurable mass? A very minuscule mass, of course, but mass nonetheless?”

“Then taking your hypothesis, I would have to say that even the tiniest of thoughts would also exert gravity and therefore be able to pull things toward it.”

“Very good. Take it a step forward.”

“Okay, so if a huge number of people all had the same thought, it would exert an ever greater mass until it cold be seen to exert actual tangible forces in the physical world.”

“Yes! And with your help, I’m going to prove it. Bring Samaritan too. It should be able to help us.”

Chapter 9

Tony had about as much knowledge of what we really going on, as Jethro did, but in his not inconsiderable history of life with Nicolaus Valerius Meridius, he’d both seen, and participated in, moments of weird confusion and utter insanity, enough to know that when he was abruptly summoned, he didn’t stop to ask why.

Jethro had also reached certain conclusions concerning his role both in Sylum Clan, and as Tony’s Mate, so he too came when instructed, remembering the old Batman and Robin TV show from decades before, and wondering whether a dramatic signal in the sky wouldn’t be more appropriate than a blunt text message from an unreadable phone number.

Getting into the Rotunda was not exactly difficult with the kind of ID they could flash at any curious uniform who decided to ask them stupid questions or otherwise impede their forward progress.

Following the sounds of rapidly barked orders being issued, and agitated civilians arguing with those who were clearly trying to fathom out whatever the hell had happened, seemed much like any number of crime scenes they’d ever attended, and bracing themselves, they headed straight into the fray.

Finding their Clan Leader and Professor Langdon at the center of it all, was not exactly shocking either.

Jethro certainly recognized Chief Anderson, who for some reason was waving around a medical sling with bandages hanging out of it, and a rather sorry looking old military coat. He was demanding to know where the owner of both items had seemingly vanished to.

Cell phones produced to take pictures of what appeared to be a human hand on the floor, were all being rapidly confiscated, and velvet ropes were being strung at the doors, politely signaling to other visitors in the building that ‘This Room Is Closed For Cleaning’.

Confusion didn’t even begin to cover it.

Not even close.

Jethro’s tendency to favor redheads was something Tony had learned years ago to accept, but seeing how the Capitol Police Chief responded at being personally addressed by name, was more than enough to make Sylum’s Second-in-Command as jealous as hell.

Of course his Mate knew the man!

His Mate knew every redhead in the District of Columbia.

How well he knew them, was another matter altogether.

Distraction complete, Tony managed to sidle over toward his Sire, who in the middle of all kinds of death and mayhem, somehow managed to appear innocent of all things.

Langdon was not so composed, and seeing a friendly ally made him bounce on the balls of his feet like an eager Terrier in a tweed jacket.

He’d been gesticulating at the dome when the Police arrived, and Nicolaus had told him to be quiet so there might be no immediate inference made between their presence and the hand on the floor.

As a strategy, it worked, making them no more than curious onlookers who knew nothing about the man who’d left them so gruesome a message. In return, the Chief had inadvertently given them a very clear picture of the suspect, right down to how he’d gotten into the building and done something so outrageous without being caught.

How he’d escaped remained not so much a mystery as a source of some considerable anger, but Nicolaus knew that one disguise would merely beget another.

The Machine, which had been inside the systems on Capitol Hill from the moment it was first released into the world, was already scanning video footage from multiple cameras, and would have a face for assessment soon enough.

“We have to get up there!” Langdon hissed, gesturing much like the hand on the floor, only doing it where none of the Police could see.

“And a nice cheery ‘good evening’ to you too, Prof,” Tony replied, frowning. “You want to fill me in on this?” Behind him he could hear Jethro explaining that the situation was connected to an NCIS investigation and there was no need to get anyone else involved in something that was not a threat to anyone in the government whatsoever.

“What do you know about the religious symbolism of Washington?” Nico asked his Second.

“The man or the city?” Tony glanced up, and back down. “If you want Washington himself, you’d be better off with Henry Sturges right now. So, who’s currently missing an appendage?”

“Peter Solomon,” Langdon said quickly.

Tony’s eyes widened. “Okay then, so we got your summons. What do you need? Forensics?”

“Access to the dome,” Nicolaus answered, before Robert could start gesturing again and drawing too much attention.

‘The Apotheosis of Washington’ is a 4,664 square foot fresco that sits at the very heart of the Capitol in the canopy of the Rotunda. Completed in just 11 months at the end of the US Civil War by a Greek-Italian artist named Constantino Brumidi, who previously spent 3 years working in the Vatican under Pope Gregory XVI, many of its 15 foot tall characters are visible from the floor 180 feet below, but not around the lower perimeter.

For many, the work represents Brumidi’s master achievement, because he could create the illusion of 3-dimensional forms on flat surfaces.

For most other observers, it generates only confusion, and it gets stranger the more they look at it, for its symbolism is a long way indeed from the ‘Christian Principles’ on which so many public and private voices liked to claim their nation was built.

Tony had never paid much attention to such things. The idea of divine transformation – specifically that of apotheosis, or becoming a god – was reserved for Christ alone in far deeper Mysteries than there were either adequate words or painted images to express.

He frowned. “What am I missing?”

The Police had emptied the room.

The crying child was gone.

The sudden sense of calm that descended on them seemed almost palpable.

“Yes,” Chief Anderson growled. “What are we all missing?”

Langdon shot a sideways glance at Nicolaus. “He can help us.”

Jethro nodded. “Mark’s agreed to give us access to solve the crime,” he said simply, eyeing his Mate, “before Homeland Security poke their beaks where we don’t need them.”

“The paperwork alone…” Anderson sighed, his expression speaking volumes on the subject of bureaucracy.

For his part, Sylum’s Clan Leader chose silence. His brain was still chewing over the tantalizing voice they’d heard on Robert’s cell, but the mental filing cabinet of vocal samples that he possessed was both extremely large and coming up blank. His instincts were telling him that nothing good could possibly come from the next few hours, while his phone had already provided a more than adequate background check on Mark Anderson, and determined that should circumstances dictate it necessary, he would take fairly easily to being introduced to the reality of Vampires.

Langdon glared at his watch.

Mickey Mouse ticked onward.

“We’re looking for Peter Solomon. That is his hand. The man who took him has crafted it to look like The Hand of the Mysteries, which was extended specifically to me tonight, that i might find an ancient portal which will lead to the source of all ancient wisdoms.” Robert couldn’t allow himself to think too hard on his friend’s current situation, but a renewed sense of needing to hurry, swept his words into faster and faster delivery. “For Peter, as a 33rd Degree Mason, this portal is metaphorical, a myth, pre-christian, thousands of years old. For his kidnapper, this portal is real.”

“Mad man,” Anderson grunted.

“Yes,” Langdon agree readily, hoping the Police Chief hadn’t intended that to be directed at him personally.

“What is this ‘ancient wisdom’?” Jethro asked.

“A body of knowledge kept secret because it would be too dangerous to let it become well known. One suggestion is that it would allow practitioners to access powerful abilities that lie dormant in the human mind. Imagine that in a place filled with politicians!” He’d meant it in a slightly light-hearted fashion, yet the grunts of agreement it provoked from his audience, suggested he’d hit home.

“But any knowledge could be used wrongly in the wrong hands,” Tony said simply. “No pun intended.”

The pointing finger in the middle of the floor was more accusatory than conclusive.

“Virtually every mystical tradition revolved – or still revolves – around the simple idea that there exists somewhere, arcane knowledge capable of imbuing humans with mystical, even godlike powers. Tarot, for example, gives divination of the future. Alchemy gives immortality through the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life. Immortality. Godlike. Everlasting.” As a Vampire, he knew the irony in his words was pretty thick. “Even Wicca is said to allow advanced practitioners to cast powerful spells. The list is vast. As an academic, I cannot deny the historical record that these traditions have generated – documents, artworks, artifacts – that suggest ancient peoples around the world had wisdoms they only shared through allegory, mythology, and symbolism, to ensure that only the properly initiated were could ever access it all.”

“Like a fully initiated 33rd Degree Mason?” Nicolaus had been reading Peter Solomon’s biography as The Machine parsed it for him.

Robert tried not to glance at the hand one more time. “Peter believes in ancient wisdom as a means for modern man to learn better ways of living and being. That doesn’t make him crazy enough to believe in this portal I’m meant to find somehow. Besides, that too is simply a metaphor. Portals and doorways are very common symbolic constructs representing rites of passage that transform the person taking part in them. To look for a literal portal would be like trying to find the actual Gates of Heaven!”

Tony and Jethro cast a significant glance at Nicolaus, both of them wondering whether the Stargate had some connection to what they were meant to find.

“Only zealots confuse reality with metaphor,” Nico said quietly. “Alchemists never found the Philosopher’s Stone. Turning lead into gold was a way for describing the education of a dullard into someone brilliantly enlightened.”

“Zealots chop off more than hands!” Anderson reminded them.

“And they’re usually startlingly well versed in their knowledge,” Robert continued. “The hand… This hand, extended as an invitation was traditionally extended in a sacred space.”

“This is the US Capitol, not some sacred shrine to ancient knowledge and mystical secrets.”

Langdon stared at the Police Chief much as he would a particularly dense Sophomore at Harvard. “Actually, I know a number of historians who would disagree with you.”

Tony snorted rudely. “This is a shrine to political moneymaking and partisan argument.”

“America has a hidden past, and the true intentions of this nation’s forefathers had nothing to do with what so many of its politicians like to claim.” In full Professorial Mode, Robert Langdon knew very well he could keep lecturing for hours, and often did, especially on so vast and fascinating a topic.

But they didn’t have hours.

And neither did Peter Solomon.

“America’s intended destiny has been lost to history,” he continued. “The Forefathers founded this nation’s capitol on a piece of swampland ridden with frogs and flies, because it was once called ‘Rome’, and its river was named the ‘Tiber’. It’s owner was one, Francis Pope, who might have been having one almighty joke on the universe way before George Washington was even born. From this particular ‘pope’ came the tradition that says he had almost prophetic powers in predicting from a dream that a more mighty capitol than even the original Rome, would one day come to occupy this rather uninspiring marshy bog. A quaint story perhaps, but a manuscript in the Maryland State Archives at Annapolis, dates a land deed to June 5, 1663, and so ‘Rome’ it indeed proved to be. Right here, gentlemen, where the Founders erected a Classical Capital of Temples and Pantheons, adorned with images of history’s great Gods and Goddesses – Apollo, Minerva, Venus, Vulcan, Helios, Jupiter. And in her center, many years later, an enduring tribute to the older ancients – the Egyptian Obelisk that proclaims thanks and honor to the Demigod father from whom this Capital City took it’s name.”

Nicolaus struggled with every fiber of his body not to roll his eyes and groan in pain. “And so, theatrics aside and centuries later, despite America’s infamous ‘Separation of Church and State’, this state-sponsored Rotunda we’re now standing in, has more religious significance than I can start listing,” he muttered sourly, raising his long suffering gaze to the fresco overhead.

“As you may know,” Langdon continued, not wanting his train of thought interrupted by an actual Roman with actual Roman opinions, “this Rotunda stands as a tribute to one of Rome’s moist venerated mystical shrines – The Temple of Vesta.”

“As in Vestal Virgins?” Jethro interjected. “In the Capital?”

“That might explain why the government’s always so eager to regulate the definition of sex, and who gets to have it,” Tony muttered with a smirk.

“Consider the shape,” Langdon insisted, glaring at Sylum’s Second-In-Command. “The Temple of Vesta was circular, with a gaping hole in the floor through which the Sacred Fire could be tended by a sisterhood of pure virgins whose job it was to ensure the flame never died. There are many sacred sites with Eternal Flames, even here in D.C., like say, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the tomb of JFK.”

“Okay, but there’s no hole here,” Anderson pointed out.

“No, but there was once a 10 foot circular opening meant to allow for viewing the tomb of George Washington in the crypt beneath us. Mention of a fire was reduced to a single torch that burned for a while, but Washington’s remains stayed at Mount Vernon in accordance with his Will and his wishes, so while the empty tomb remains below to this day, the drafty hole that never got its well-intentioned glass viewing floor, was covered in, and the torch extinguished in 1828.”

“It was probably getting damp,” Tony concluded.

Everyone nodded sagely.

“This isn’t getting us very far though,” Jethro reminded them.

“That’s why we need a proper look at the fresco,” Robert said, gesturing one more time like the hand on the floor.

“You know what that all means up there then?” Anderson asked, frowning.

“It’s actually the very epitome of this ‘secret knowledge rite of passage’ theme we’ve been talking about. Man achieving Godlike powers, right there in the central grouping of the panels. Do you see?” Langdon was emphatic. “That’s George Washington in regal dress, flanked by the personification of Liberty and Victory, ascending on a cloud above mere mortal man, and rising to the rank of God. This is the moment of his transformation. Those other 13 maidens around him represent the original States, but they could be Vestals too, yes?”

Nicolaus sighed heavily.

Robert ignored him. “Six groups of figures are all over the perimeter of the fresco. Ancient Gods presenting the Forefathers with advanced knowledge and wisdom.” He started moving clockwise around the floor. “There’s Minerva, representing science, granting technological inspiration to Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Samuel Morse. Then Neptune with his Trident. The God of the Sea is also with Venus there, holding the transatlantic cable that was being laid when the fresco was painted. Then there’s Mercury handing over a bag of money to Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Vulcan comes next. See his anvil and forge? He’s giving us cannons, and a steam engine. Beside him is Ceres, the Goddess of Grain and Root. From her we get the word ‘cereal’. She’s sitting on the McCormick Reaper, a technological breakthrough of the time, that allowed this country to become a world leader in food production. With her is America, wearing a red liberty cap. Then there’s Flora picking flowers. Knowledge is power, and it all comes from the Gods. The right knowledge allows man to perform deeds that are miraculous, almost Godlike.”

“Laying a phone cable is a far cry from being a God,” Anderson said bluntly.

“Only to modern man,” Tony replied, “but if George Washington knew that we had become a race of people with the power to speak to one another across oceans, fly around the world, and set foot on the moon, he would assume we had become Gods, able to perform the miraculous.”

“‘Any sufficiently advanced technology, is indistinguishable from magic’ – Arthur C. Clarke.” Nicolaus stared straight back when everyone turned to look at him in surprise. “What?” he demanded.

“You have spent way too long with Speed,” Tony grumbled, though he meant it as a joke.

“Who’s Speed?” Anderson asked, confused.

“Irishman. Really annoying. Tendency to drool,” Tony explained helpfully.

“Sounds valid,” the Chief replied. “Had our share of them in here over the years. So!” He rubbed his hands together decisively, having apparently given the evidence he’d been brandishing earlier, to one of his other officers before they’d all vacated the room. “There’s a catwalk around the interior of the dome up there. I can also tell you that not many people know about one of the hexagonal coffers actually swinging open like a portal, so that you can peer down and…”

“Wait a second!” Langdon flapped his arms in frustration. “You’re missing the point. The portal is figurative. It’s not an object that really physically exists.”

“But this hand here does.”

There was no arguing with that, though the Professor tried anyway. “The Hand of the Mysteries is also not something that physically exists except in art. Actually it’s all over the world. This same gesture appears in 3 of Leonardo’s most famous encoded masterpieces – The Last Supper, Adoration of the Magi, and Saint John the Baptist. It recognizes man’s mystical connection to God. As above, so below.”

Nicolaus pursed his lips. “Time is getting away from us.” He had no idea how long ago Peter Solomon had been taken by his kidnapper, but he was very well aware that every hour lost from then on, meant a successful return of the victim was less and less likely.

“Wait, I’ve never seen that gesture until today.” Anderson crossed his arms, refusing to move, when just moments before he’d seemed more than ready to help.

“Sure you have,” Jethro said quietly, “on ESPN all the time, Mark. Professional athletes point skyward in thanks to God after a touchdown or a home run. You have to wonder how many of them know they’re acknowledging something other than the God who for one brief moment transformed them too into Gods capable of miraculous feats?”

Tony grinned broadly at his Mate’s unexpected insight. “Nice!”

“If it helps, Peter’s hand is not the first to make such an appearance in this Rotunda,” Robert said somewhat smugly.

Anderson eyeballed Langdon like he’s gone crazy. “I beg your pardon?”

“If you get a chance, you should Google, ‘George Washington Zeus’,” he continued.

“Oh, for the love of Jupiter!” Nicolaus moaned, as even Tony tried not to facepalm. “Let’s save some time on that, okay? There’s a huge and seriously ugly sculpture of George Washington that was once placed in the Rotunda until people took offense at it. It was meant to depict Washington as the Olympian Zeus, in Godlike authority, bare-chested and sandaled. But, trust me when I tell you, it’s a hideous monstrosity.”

“And the artist should’ve been shot,” Tony concluded primly, remembering the other eyesore that Horatio Greenough had been responsible for.

“What matters,” Langdon interrupted, “is that it still exists, and in it Washington’s right hand is raised, pointing upward like Peter’s.” He stared over at the message he’d been left, and his jaw fell open. “It crossed my mind earlier that maybe this guy had left an object clenched in Peter’s palm. Maybe a map, or a letter, or directions…something! But the other three fingers aren’t fully clenched, are they? What if…” He licked his lips carefully. “What if it’s not written on paper?”

“Tattooed?” Nico asked.

“Like the fingertips.” Langdon nodded. “It might be…”

No one moved until Jethro stepped forward.

Pulling a pen from his inside coat pocket, he bent down and slid it as carefully as possible under the three bent fingers, then very gently pried them upward until the hand was open, and its palm clearly visible.

“Very good, Professor,” he said at last.

Chapter 10

Katherine Solomon couldn’t settle, and she found herself pacing around the library in frustration. If there had been a carpet, she would’ve worn a track in it.

She was well accustomed to waiting. Science took some considerable patience at every stage of investigation and experimentation, but that night, she truly felt like her whole world had been put on hold.

She was waiting for Trish’s search results.

She was waiting for Peter to show, or at least send word.

She was waiting for a message from the man who was responsible for throwing literally everything into confusion.

She wished he hadn’t told her anything.

At all.

Making new acquaintances wasn’t hard for her, but it was something she usually took great care over. Talking about herself and her work could go seriously wrong if she didn’t consider her words first, even over harmless drinks.

That she’d met the man for what was the first time that very afternoon, and he’d earned her trust in a matter of minutes, was no small feat.

His initial call had come while Katherine was at home, enjoying her usual Sunday ‘science journal catch up session’.

“Ms. Solomon?” an unusually wary voice asked. “My name is Doctor Christopher Abaddon. I was hoping I could speak with you for a moment about your brother.”

“I’m sorry, who is this?” she demanded. “And how did you get my private cell phone number?”

“Doctor Christopher Abaddon?”

“You say that as though I should recognize you.”

“Oh! I apologize.” He cleared his throat as though the situation had just developed into something terribly awkward. “My apologies, but I was under the impression your brother had told you about me. I’m his doctor you see, and your cell number is listed for his emergency contact.”

Naturally, Katherine’s heart skipped over suddenly. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I don’t think so, but your brother missed an appointment this morning, and I can’t seem to reach him on any of his numbers. He never misses an appointment without calling, and he’s gotten me a little worried. I did hesitate all morning before phoning you, but…”

“No, no! No, not at all. I appreciate the concern.” Katherine was still trying to place the doctor’s name. “I haven’t spoken to Peter since yesterday morning, but he probably left his new cell switched off. You, er… You say you’re his doctor?” She asked that, wondering if her brother was keeping news of an illness from her, and sure enough there was a positively weighty pause on the line.

“I’m terribly sorry, Ms. Solomon, but I’ve obviously just made a rather serious professional error in calling you. Your brother told me you were aware of his visits to see me, but that would now seem to not be the case.”

To think that Peter would lie to his doctor, actually made Katherine feel quite nauseous. “Is he…sick?”

“I’m sorry Ms. Solomon, but doctor-patient confidentiality precludes me from discussing your brother’s condition, and I’ve said too much already by even admitting that he’s my patient. I’m hanging up now, but if you hear from Peter today I’d appreciate you asking him to call me so I know he’s okay.”

“Wait! Please!! Please tell me what’s wrong with Peter!”

The doctor exhaled, sounding highly displeased with his own mistake. “I can hear that you are quite upset Ms. Solomon, and I don’t blame you. It’s really very understandable. I’m sure your brother is fine. He was in my office only yesterday.”

“What? And he’s scheduled again today? This sounds like something very urgent.”

The man heaved yet one more telling sigh. “I respectfully suggest we give him a little more time before we…”

“I’m coming by your office, right now.” Katherine was already heading for the door. “Where are you located?”

Silence.

“Doctor Christopher Abaddon. I can look up your address for myself, or you can save me that effort and simply tell me. Either way, I’m still coming to see you.”

The doctor paused. “If I meet with you, Ms. Solomon, would you kindly do me the courtesy of saying nothing to Peter about this until I’ve had chance to explain my little misstep to him myself?”

“That’s fine.”

“My office is in Kalorama Heights.”

He gave her the full address, and 20 minutes later she was driving the very regal, stately streets of Kalorama, having phoned all of her brother’s numbers with no reply.

Nothing felt right.

Peter keeping secrets?

Peter telling lies?

It was impossible.

When she finally located the place, she stared long and hard at the ridiculously opulent mansion before her, wondering if she’d made a mistake and turned left somewhere instead of right. The house was enormous – wrought irons security fencing, electronic camera surveillance, lush gardens and fountains.

As she slowed the car to double-check the location, one of the camera rotated toward her, and the gate swung open.

The driveway was at least a half mile long, and she parked next to a 6 car garage with a stretch limo sat outside.

As she stepped from her car, so the front door of the mansion opened, and a tall, remarkably handsome man drifted out to greet her.

It was impossible to gauge how old he might be, but he projected the poise and sophistication of someone who knew both wealth and power. He was dressed impeccably in a dark suit and tie, and his thick blond hair was immaculately coiffed.

“Ms. Solomon, I’m Doctor Christopher Abaddon,” he said crisply, and they shook hands.

“This is very lovely,” she said quietly, as he led her into the beautifully appointed foyer.

Classical music was playing softly in the background, and it smelled is if someone had burned incense.

“I am lucky to be able to work out of my home,” he replied, showing her into a living room that came complete with a wonderfully crackling fireplace. “Please, make yourself comfortable. I’m just steeping some tea. I’ll bring it out and we can talk.”

He strode toward the kitchen, and disappeared through the door.

Katherine did not sit.

Something about the place was making her skin crawl, but she wasn’t sure why. Nothing looked like a doctor’s office in any way, shape, or form.

There were antiques everywhere, and the walls were adorned in vast array of classical art pieces with mythical themes.

She paused before a large, spectacularly rendered painting of The Three Graces, whose semi-nude bodies were expressed in the most eye-catching colors.

The doctor appeared without warning beside her, holding a tray. “I thought we’d sit by the fire?” He led her to the living room, and offered her a seat. “There’s no reason to be nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Katherine said, entirely too quickly.

He offered her a reassuring smile. “Well, actually it’s my business to know when people are nervous.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m a practicing psychiatrist, Ms. Solomon. That’s my profession. I’ve been seeing your brother for almost a year now. I’m his therapist.”

Katherine sat down with all the air rushing from her lungs at once. She could only stare at the man in front of her.

“My patients often choose to keep their therapy to themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy. I obviously made a mistake in calling you, although in my defense, your brother misled me.”

“I honestly had no idea.”

“Allow me to apologize if I have done anything to make you nervous,” he continued, sounding embarrassed.

She found his voice to be oddly comforting, as it dropped into a lower and more intimate, even husky tone.

“I see you staring at my hair. I’m afraid I have a rather disturbing skin condition that has left me bald and badly scared. I usually have my wife help me with the wig, but when she’s not here, I have only my own less than subtle touch to rely on. I’m sorry if it startled you, because I got it backwards or something.” He shifted on the couch, awkwardly self-conscious. “I confess, my one sin is vanity.”

“And apparently mine is rudeness,” Katherine sighed.

“Not at all,” he assured her, with a disarming smile. “Shall we start over? Perhaps with some tea? It would be a shame to waste it.”

She let him pour and perform the traditional ritual niceties that tea demanded.

“Your brother got me into the habit of serving this during our sessions. He said the Solomons were tea drinkers.”

“Family tradition,” Katherine answered. “Black, please.”

They made polite smalltalk for a few minutes.

“Why was Peter coming to you?” she finally asked, not wanting to get sidetracked. It disturbed her that he might have hit a point where he could no longer cope.

“Peter came to see me because he trusts me. We have a bond that goes beyond normal doctor-patient boundaries.” Abaddon put his teacup back on the tray, and motioned to a framed document on the wall near the fireplace.

It appeared to be a Diploma of some kind, until Katherine spied the finer details. “You’re a Mason? And the highest degree no less!”

“Peter and I are brothers, of sorts.”

“You must have done something important to be invited into the 33rd Degree.”

“Not really,” he replied. “I have money, and I give a lot of it to Masonic Charities.”

Katherine suddenly understood why her brother had chosen to trust the man – family wealth, philanthropy, an interest in mythology. They had a lot in common.

“When I asked why Peter came to see you, I didn’t mean why he chose you. I meant, why is he seeking the services of a psychiatrist?”

Dr. Abaddon smiled. “Yes, I know that. I was trying to politely sidestep the question. It’s really not something we should be discussing.” He paused for a moment. “Although, I must say I’m rather confused about your brother keeping our discussions from you, especially considering how directly they relate to your research.”

“My research!?” Katherine was taken totally off guard. “He talks to you about my research?”

“Your brother came to see me recently, seeking a professional opinion about the psychological impact your breakthroughs are making in your lab.”

She almost choked on her next sip of tea. “Really? I’m…s…surprised,” she stuttered, wondering what the hell Peter was thinking bringing a Shrink into their confidence, when every ounce of extreme confidentiality and security had been her brother’s idea for the lab to start with!

“Certainly you are aware, Ms. Solomon, that Peter is deeply concerned about what could happen when your works goes fully public. He foresees the potential for a significant philosophical shift in the world, and so he came here to discuss possible ramifications from a psychological perspective.”

“I see,” Katherine said simply, desperately trying to get her cups and saucer to stop trembling.

“The questions we discuss are really very challenging ones. What happens to the human condition if the great mysteries of life are finally revealed? What happens when those beliefs that we accept on faith, are suddenly and categorically proven as fact? Or disproved as mere myth? One could well argue that there exists certain questions better left unanswered.”

Katherine was hardly able to believe what she was hearing, but somehow managed to keep her emotions from running away with her. “I hope you don’t mind, Doctor Abaddon, but I’d much prefer not to discuss the details of my work in this setting. I have absolutely no immediate plans to make anything public other than what has already been published. And for the time being, my discoveries will remain safely locked in my lab!”

The doctor leaned back in his chair for a moment, lost in thought. “In any event, I asked your brother to come back today, because yesterday he suffered a bit of a break. When that happens, I like to have clients…”

“Break??” Katherine’s heart was pounding again. “As in breakdown?!” She couldn’t imagine her brother breaking down over anything.

Abaddon reached out kindly. “Please, I can see that I’ve upset you. I’m so sorry for that. Considering these terribly awkward circumstances, I can understand how you might feel entitled to answers.”

“Whether I’m entitled or not, my brother is all I have left of my family. Nobody knows him better than I do, so if you tell me what the hell has happened, maybe I can help you. All either of us wants is what’s best for Peter.”

The doctor fell silent for several long minutes, then began slowly nodding as though agreeing with her on the validity of comment. “For the record, if I decide to share this information with you, it is only because I think your insight may well help me treat your brother.”

“Of course.”

Abaddon leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “For as long as I’ve been seeing Peter, I’ve sense in him a deep struggle with feelings of guilt. I’ve never pressed him on it, as that’s not why he comes to me. And yet, for a number of reasons I finally asked him about it.” He locked eyes with her. “Your brother opened up Ms. Solomon, rather dramatically. He told me things I had no idea about, including everything that took place the night your mother died.”

Katherine’s spine stiffened sharply.

“He told me your mother was murdered during a robbery attempt at your home. A man broke in looking for something he believed your brother was hiding.”

“Yes,” she murmured, knowing full well that psychiatrist was busily appraising.

“Peter said he shot the man dead.”

“Yes.”

“Do you, by any chance, recall what the intruder was looking for when he broke into your home?”

“Doctor, I have tried in vain for 10 years to block out these memories.” She shook her head. “Did Peter tell you our mother died in my arms?” She put her half empty cup down on the tray with a rattling crash. “Perhaps it would be better if I found my own psychiatrist when we are through?”

“I can certainly suggest a colleague, if you’d like. But I would not force you to see them.”

Katherine gave him a wan smile. “The answer to you other question though, is yes. The house invader made very specific demands that night, but none of us knew what he was talking about. None of it made any sense.”

“Well, it made sense to your brother.”

“What??” She visibly flinched.

“At least according to the story he told me yesterday. Peter knew exactly what the man who broke into your house was looking for. The problem was, he didn’t want to hand it over, so he pretended not to understand.”

“That’s absurd! Peter couldn’t possibly have known what the man wanted, because it made no sense!!”

“Interesting.” Dr. Abaddon paused, and jotted a few notes on the pad he kept to hand. “As I mentioned, however, Peter said he did know. Your brother also believes that if he’d cooperated with the intruder, it would have spared your mother her life. That decision is the source of his guilt.”

Katherine shook her head. “That’s crazy…”

Abaddon slumped, looking increasingly troubled. “Ms. Solomon, this has been useful feedback. As I feared, your brother seems to have had a little break with reality. Such delusional episodes are not uncommon when the relate directly to traumatic memories.”

Katherine shook her head forcefully, and squared her shoulders. “Peter is far from delusional.”

“I could agree except…”

“Except what?”

“Well, his accounting of the attack was just the beginning…a tiny fraction of the long and far-fetched tale he went on to tell.”

It was Katherine’s turn to lean forward eagerly. “What did he tell you?”

Abaddon gave a sad smile. “Ms. Solomon, let me ask you this. Has Peter ever mentioned to you, the item he believes is hidden here in Washington D.C.? Or the role he believes he play in protecting a great treasure of lost ancient wisdom?”

Katherine’s mouth fell open. “What in the world…?”

The doctor heavy a very long sigh. “What I am about to tell you, will be a bit shocking but it will be immeasurably helpful if you can tell me anything you may know about it.” He reached for the tray. “More tea?”

Chapter 11

7 tiny symbols had been tattooed on Peter’s palm beneath his lifeless clenched fingers:

“They look like numbers,” Jethro said. “But I don’t recognize them.”

“The first is a Roman Numeral,” Anderson replied.

“No, I don’t think so,” Langdon corrected. “The Roman Numeral I-I-I-X doesn’t exist. It would be V-I-I.”

“Then what about the rest of it?” Nico asked, turning his phone to let The Machine get a glimpse of the newest puzzle piece it could chew on.

“I’m not sure. It looks like eight-eight-five in Arabic Numbers.”

“Arabic?” Anderson was confused. “They look like normal numbers to me!”

“Our ‘normal’ numbers are Arabic.” The Professor had once prepared an entire lecture series about the scientific advances made by early Middle Eastern cultures, one of them being the numbering system whose advantages over Roman Numerals included positional notation, and or course the invention of the number zero. It was usually enough to stop any of his students asking him further questions they should have already had the answers to. “With this example though, the rectilinear writing looks unusual. These may not be numbers at all.”

“Then what are they?” Tony asked.

“The whole thing looks almost runic, but it’s hard to tell.”

“Then we do need Speed,” Nicolaus murmured.

“Or Google,” Anderson retorted.

Google is not a synonym for ‘research’!” Langdon snapped. “In these technological days of worldwide keyword searching and the desire for instant answers, everything might seem to be linked to everything else, but this increasingly dense web of tangled information we’ve all meshed ourselves into, doesn’t make the results either accurate or reliable!”

Sylum’s Clan Leader tried not to smirk apologetically at The Machine he was holding.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Tony sighed. “What about the Masons? Peter Solomon’s a leading figure. They like to keep their secrets. Maybe this tattoo means something to them?”

Robert stared at Peter’s ring. It was one of his friend’s most prized possessions – a Solomon family heirloom that bore the double-headed eagle symbol as a mystical icon representing the Stone of the Philosophers, the Magnum Opus of Spiritual Regeneration. Through its unification of one body, drawing together opposites, it signified the path of rebirth, leading to ascension of the Tree of Life.

Such a thought had him seriously wondering if Speed might not be more helpful to them at that point, rather than his brother. But Tony was one of the original Templars present at the birth of the Order, and very well aware of the strange modern revivalists who were hiding behind attempts at legitimacy.

Tony was a man who also knew how to keep secrets.

Which particular though then led Langdon to start facepalming repeatedly in a most undignified manner. “Oh! Oh, I can’t believe I forgot!”

Nicolaus glared at him silently, not liking the way he was clutching at his briefcase, and clenching his jaw.

“What?” Jethro demanded. He enjoyed a good puzzle along with the rest of them, but he despised knowing there was something else going on that no one had seen fit yet explain.

“It was 10 years ago. Peter came to me. In Rome. He was in Leo’s workshop, just waiting for me. I never quite knew how he got in, but it didn’t seem to matter. I hadn’t even realized he was in the country. It was a shock, but no an unpleasant surprise.” Robert frowned. “It wasn’t long after the terrible house invasion when his poor had been killed.”

The Machine began scrolling up details of that particular incident across Nico’s phone screen – everything from crime scene photos to salacious headlines.

“Of course, I tried to offer him some condolence, but even after all these years, there’s so little that can be said in the face of such tragedy…”

“Was there a purpose in this diversion, Prof?” Tony asked, peering over his Papa’s shoulder at written details of the circumstances under which Peter and Katherine Solomon had lost their last living parent.

“He said he didn’t have long, but he’d dropped by to ask me something in person.” Robert never noticed the way he was being stared at. His thoughts were with his dear friend. “He needed a favor. It was the first, and only time – until tonight – that he’d ever asked me for anything. I mean, what can the man who already has everything, possibly need from me?”

“To get to the point?” Anderson snapped.

“Too late,” Nico answered sourly.

Langdon fumbled with the catches on his case, forgetting it was still strapped to his shoulder. “He asked me to keep an eye on something he said was a valuable family inheritance, because he no longer felt comfortable leaving it at his home or office. I asked him why he wouldn’t put whatever it was in a Safe Deposit Box, seeing how he owned considerable stock in what amounted to at least half the banks in America, but he didn’t want to involve talkative employees and reams of paperwork and questioning. He knew instead that I could be trusted to keep a secret.” Langdon sighed, reaching into his bag and pulling out a small cube-shaped box about 3 inches square, wrapped in faded brown packing paper and tied with old scratchy twine. It appeared to be quite heavy. “It’s been carefully secured on one side with an embossed wax seal. I joked with him that he was the Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge, not the Pope, sealing packages with his ring like this! But he told me his great-grandfather had done it, almost a century ago.”

“Nobody’s ever opened the package?” Jethro frowned.

“Peter said it wasn’t time.”

“Time for what?” Anderson was impressed, yet growing increasingly annoyed.

“I don’t know.” Robert shrugged. “He just said to put it somewhere safe and tell no one I had it. The Solomons do have a propensity for dramatics, but I sensed he was being earnest.”

“Maybe you’ve been entrusted with some sort of ancient Masonic secret?” Jethro suggested. “The key to the portal?”

Langdon rolled his eyes, but he wasn’t about to start another round of repetitious instruction on the meaning of ‘metaphorical’. “I asked him if whatever this is wouldn’t be better off in the hands of one of his fellow Masons, but he said he wanted it kept outside the Brotherhood.”

“And he didn’t give you a clue what’s in it?” Anderson was aghast. “You never tried to open it?”

“I did as I was asked, and left in in my safe, until the caller who tricked me into coming here tonight, told me to bring it. And as no one knew about the box but Peter and I, of course I assumed the call was real!” He glared at his Sire for good measure. “But here we are. And as for the contents of this box, I am a man of my word. I have never looked at, or even tried to look at what’s in it. Peter said it was a talisman, that’s all.”

“An object with magical powers…” Nico let that observation hang in the air a while, thinking of the good Dr. Jekyll and whether he should give the man a call.

“Didn’t talismans go out of vogue in the Middle Ages?” Tony smirked.

“You’re a Catholic. Don’t even get me started,” Langdon warned. “Peter said this talisman could imbue its possessor with the ability to bring order from chaos. ‘Ordo ab Chao’ is the Motto of the 33rd Degree. Of course I told him that the reality of a talisman actually imposing any kind of real, physical power was absurd, but he simply said that it would be dangerous in the wrong hands, and he was deeply concerned that powerful people were going to try and steal it from him. After the loss of his mother, a little paranoia seemed okay to me.”

Nicolaus sent Jekyll a text message on the secure number designated for such purposes, putting him and his staff on short notice, just in case, all the while trying not to consider the very real talismanic purposes of at least 2 items in Arthur Pendragon’s study…

3 Comments

  1. najean1

    Arghh!!!! Cliffhangerd make me screaming nuts! And the fact I’m screaming above it is a sign of how much I am loving this story. I lmow it’s only a few days until “next year” but I want more nowee!
    Sorry about the whiney brat thing, but I needed to get that out….
    Mor, please?
    —-Naj ❤❤❤

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