Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own. He stared up in terror at the dark figure looming over him. "What do you want!"
"La chiave," the raspy voice replied. "The password."
"But... I don't - "
The intruder pressed down again, grinding the white hot object deeper into Vetra's chest. There was the hiss of broiling flesh.
Vetra cried out in agony. "There is no password!" He felt himself drifting toward unconsciousness.
The figure glared. "Ne avevo paura. I was afraid of that."
Vetra fought to keep his senses, but the darkness was closing in. His only solace was in knowing his attacker would never obtain what he had come for. A moment later, however, the figure produced a blade and brought it to Vetra's face. The blade hovered. Carefully. Surgically.
"For the love of God!" Vetra screamed. But it was too late.
High atop the steps of the Pyramid of Giza a young woman laughed and called down to him. "Robert, hurry up! I knew I should have married a younger man!" Her smile was magic.
He struggled to keep up, but his legs felt like stone. "Wait," he begged. "Please..."
As he climbed, his vision began to blur. There was a thundering in his ears. I must reach her! But when he looked up again, the woman had disappeared. In her place stood an old man with rotting teeth. The man stared down, curling his lips into a lonely grimace. Then he let out a scream of anguish that resounded across the desert.
Robert Langdon awoke with a start from his nightmare. The phone beside his bed was ringing. Dazed, he picked up the receiver.
"I'm looking for Robert Langdon," a man's voice said.
Langdon sat up in his empty bed and tried to clear his mind. "This... is Robert Langdon." He squinted at his digital clock. It was 5:18 A.M.
"I must see you immediately."
"Who is this?"
"My name is Maximilian Kohler. I'm a discrete particle physicist."
"A what?" Langdon could barely focus. "Are you sure you've got the right Langdon?"
"You're a professor of religious iconology at Harvard University. You've written three books on symbology and - "
"Do you know what time it is?"
"I apologize. I have something you need to see. I can't discuss it on the phone."
A knowing groan escaped Langdon's lips. This had happened before. One of the perils of writing books about religious symbology was the calls from religious zealots who wanted him to confirm their latest sign from God. Last month a stripper from Oklahoma had promised Langdon the best sex of his life if he would fly down and verify the authenticity of a cruciform that had magically appeared on her bed sheets. The Shroud of Tulsa, Langdon had called it.
"How did you get my number?" Langdon tried to be polite, despite the hour.
"On the Worldwide Web. The site for your book."
Langdon frowned. He was damn sure his book's site did not include his home phone number. The man was obviously lying.
"I need to see you," the caller insisted. "I'll pay you well."
Now Langdon was getting mad. "I'm sorry, but I really - "
"If you leave immediately, you can be here by - "
"I'm not going anywhere! It's five o'clock in the morning!" Langdon hung up and collapsed back in bed. He closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep. It was no use. The dream was emblazoned in his mind. Reluctantly, he put on his robe and went downstairs.
Robert Langdon wandered barefoot through his deserted Massachusetts Victorian home and nursed his ritual insomnia remedy - a mug of steaming Nestle's Quik. The April moon filtered through the bay windows and played on the oriental carpets. Langdon's colleagues often joked that his place looked more like an anthropology museum than a home. His shelves were packed with religious artifacts from around the world - an ekuaba from Ghana, a gold cross from Spain, a cycladic idol from the Aegean, and even a rare woven boccus from Borneo, a young warrior's symbol of perpetual youth.
As Langdon sat on his brass Maharishi's chest and savored the warmth of the chocolate, the bay window caught his reflection. The image was distorted and pale... like a ghost. An aging ghost, he thought, cruelly reminded that his youthful spirit was living in a mortal shell.
Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-five-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an "erudite" appeal - wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer, a toned, six-foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.
Langdon's friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma - a man caught between centuries. On weekends he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students; other times he could be spotted in his Harris tweed and paisley vest, photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.
Although a tough teacher and strict disciplinarian, Langdon was the first to embrace what he hailed as the "lost art of good clean fun." He relished recreation with an infectious fanaticism that had earned him a fraternal acceptance among his students. His campus nickname - "The Dolphin" - was a reference both to his affable nature and his legendary ability to dive into a pool and outmaneuver the entire opposing squad in a water polo match.
As Langdon sat alone, absently gazing into the darkness, the silence of his home was shattered again, this time by the ring of his fax machine. Too exhausted to be annoyed, Langdon forced a tired chuckle.
God's people, he thought. Two thousand years of waiting for their Messiah, and they're still persistent as hell.
Wearily, he returned his empty mug to the kitchen and walked slowly to his oak-paneled study. The incoming fax lay in the tray. Sighing, he scooped up the paper and looked at it.
Instantly, a wave of nausea hit him.
The image on the page was that of a human corpse. The body had been stripped naked, and its head had been twisted, facing completely backward. On the victim's chest was a terrible burn. The man had been branded... imprinted with a single word. It was a word Langdon knew well. Very well. He stared at the ornate lettering in disbelief.
Angels & Demons
"Illuminati," he stammered, his heart pounding. It can't be...
In slow motion, afraid of what he was about to witness, Langdon rotated the fax 180 degrees. He looked at the word upside down.
Instantly, the breath went out of him. It was like he had been hit by a truck. Barely able to believe his eyes, he rotated the fax again, reading the brand right-side up and then upside down.
"Illuminati," he whispered.
Stunned, Langdon collapsed in a chair. He sat a moment in utter bewilderment. Gradually, his eyes were drawn to the blinking red light on his fax machine. Whoever had sent this fax was still on the line... waiting to talk. Langdon gazed at the blinking light a long time.
Then, trembling, he picked up the receiver.
"Do I have your attention now?" the man's voice said when Langdon finally answered the line.
"Yes, sir, you damn well do. You want to explain yourself?"
"I tried to tell you before." The voice was rigid, mechanical. "I'm a physicist. I run a research facility. We've had a murder. You saw the body."