by Chris Hugh
You have nothing to fear. The young man choked down a spoonful of the thick, chunky paste. As the beef, potatoes, and spices of the sacred meal slid down his throat, he felt a sense of brotherhood with the men who had come before him. Tonight he would transform himself into the last member of the deadly Hashishin of yore. Literally the 'followers of Hassan,' they were famous for their mastery of asymmetrical warfare. Thus the word assassin derived from hashishin. There is little evidence that the Hashishin ate hash, but the young man knew little of etymology. He also smoked a lot of weed.
He picked up the tattoo needle and leaned toward the mirror, preparing himself mentally. Tattooing was an ancient art form practiced since the Stone Age and used as a mark of both distinction and nonconformity by sailors, Japanese Yakusa gangsters, Maori warriors, high schoolers, felons, celebrities and middle-aged Americans going through mid-life crises but too cheap to buy themselves sports cars. The man suspected that perhaps tattoos had lost a portion of their exotic exclusivity, but he pushed these doubts aside. I'm a nonconformist, he thought grimly. Even if everyone else is one too.
Over the course of years, he had wandered the Arab world, talking to everyone who would listen about the Hashishin tradition, and thus he had earned his Arabic name. Wherever he went, it would ring through the streets: Anta Ghati! Anta Ghati! Old men would mumble it. Young men would shout it. Children would giggle it and run away. The young man leaned over the bathroom sink and pushed aside his bangs. Tonight he would use the ancient art of tattooing to proclaim his name to the world. Tonight he would embrace his new name, his new identity, his new destiny. Tonight he would become Anta Ghati.
* * *
Meanwhile, Robert Langdon, Harvard professor and symbology consultant, was riding with the British Royal Air Force. He had been called in the early morning with a mysterious invitation and, upon accepting, found a modified McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II ground-attack aircraft waiting on his front lawn. He was now in England to have tea with the Queen.
Langdon was fascinated with the aircraft and talked animatedly with the pilots. "Technology is truly transformative," he said. "It's so interesting that the Harrier can be a helicopter when it takes off and then change into an airplane so that it can go fast!"
The copilot looked at him for a long moment and then spoke with a brittle smile. "As I've explained, Mr. Langdon, the Harrier uses thrust vectoring to give it vertical takeoff and landing ability. Nothing can change from a helicopter to a fixed-wing aircraft."
"Whatever you say, ma'am," Langdon said with a wink, holding up a Slingshot Transformer toy from the 1990's. He changed it from a robot to an AV-8A Harrier and back again. "But if this isn't variable geometry, I don't know what is. And over the course of my last adventures I've been forced to learn quite a bit about transformations."
The copilot took a deep breath while Langdon spun happily in his chair. "In my last case of world-wide importance," he said, "I discovered that if you take a cube-shaped box and sort of unglue part of it and spread it out, you'll end up with a cross-like shape. Like this!" He drew a diagram.
"And if you're lucky," he continued, "in the middle of that box will be a Kara's cupcake!" He smiled engagingly at the copilot, who was chewing her hair. The pilot turned off his headset. "You know what the real mystery is? Why would anyone in their right mind pay $3 for a cupcake!"
Langdon played with the Transformer a bit more. "This is a wonderful artifact," he said to the copilot, who was now holding herself and rocking back and forth. "Thank you for giving it to me, although I thought it unusual that you tried to insert it into me." He smiled ruefully to show there were no hard feelings. "I guess you have strange rituals in the military. I know all about rituals." He shrugged and bounced the toy playfully in his hands. "I could go on forever about the symbolism of this Slingshot Transformer," he said.
He proceeded to do so.
* * *
Anta Ghati sat down on the edge of the bathtub and dabbed his forehead with a towel. He had completed tattooing himself with his name. He smiled with satisfaction as he examined his handiwork in the mirror. His forehead now proclaimed Anta Ghati.
He went into the other room and set to work creating the banner by which he would proclaim his demands to his arch nemesis, Robert Langdon.
* * *
At length, Langdon wrapped up his impromptu seminar on Transformer symbolism. The copilot began to calm down, preparing to heave a sigh of relief. Then Langdon leaned toward her with a roguish air. "Transformers," he said. "They really are more than meets the--"
* * *
Langdon found himself strapped to the Harrier's AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.
The copilot had assured him, through clenched teeth, that this would get him to Buckingham Palace in the quickest possible manner, but as the missile launched, Langdon reminded himself that it would reach a speed of Mach 4. Langdon's weight was 200 pounds and the acceleration of gravity is approximately 32 feet per second squared. Making some quick calculations, Langdon determined he would hit the ground and with a force of--
"Holy crap!" Langdon thought. He struggled with the knot holding him against the missile and was both surprised and impressed that it was a monkey knot, the most complicated knot known to craft magazines. If only it were a Gordian knot, I could cut through it with my pocket knife. Langdon thought, furiously working at the devilishly-difficult ornamental knot, and leaving his pocket knife in his pocket. Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot with his sword, thus untying the knot and fulfilling the prophesy that the man to untie the Gordian Knot would become the King of Asia. Langdon froze for a moment. The wind whipping past his ears was the loudest sound he'd ever heard. His cheeks and even his forehead rippled with the effects of the G forces. Well, actually, few people are aware of it, but it was a retroactive prophesy thought up by Alexander's biographers after the fact. Langdon chuckled.
Eventually he worked the knot loose and freed himself from the missile. After that, it was all routine. Falling at 176 feet per second, Langdon simply pulled off his Harris Tweed jacket, looped the sleeves together to make a harness and used the main portion of the jacket as a parachute. Steering with his lapels, he casually guided himself to the closest body of water.
* * *
With the completed banner in his car, Anta Ghati drove to where he would hang it for all the world to see. As he made his way through the grey London streets, he noticed an ambulance coming toward him on the opposite side of the road. As Anta Ghati idly wondered why the word ecnalubmA was written across its hood, the ambulance suddenly responded to an emergency. It made a quick U-turn and came up behind Anta Ghati, its lights flashing. Anta Ghati saw it in his rearview mirror and pulled aside to let it pass. Funny, he thought. It said 'ecnalubmA' when I was looking at straight at it, but in the mirror it said 'Ambulance.' He stopped his car and rubbed at his new tattoo.
A bleak realization slowly came over him.
* * *
A beautiful thirty-year-old scientist with flowing brown hair and taut brown limbs helped Langdon out of the Buckingham Palace swimming pool.
Langdon struggled to his feet. "I'm having tea with the Queen! " he said by way of greeting. "Did you know that the Royal Family's name was chosen by a group of experts and adopted in 1917? Because of the impending First World War, the British Royal Family, then known as the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had to change their name to one that didn't remind people of the family's blood connection to the Germans. History books, dictionaries, maps and focus groups were consulted to create the most venerable name possible: Windsor." Langdon snorted as the dark exotic scientist wrapped him in a purple and gold towel from the palace. "Isn't that a pretentious name?" He put out his hand. "I'm Robert Langdon."
"And I am Crystaluria Panache Nevaeh Smythe. Neveah is 'heaven' spelled backwards," the woman breathed. Langdon blinked. "But you were brought here as a ruse, Professor," she continued. "I fear my brother D'Artagnan is in terrible trouble!"
"D'Artagnan Smythe!" Langdon looked into Crystaluria's deep green eyes. She was dressed in a lab coat that just hinted at the figure underneath. Her moves were graceful and powerful. He had never seen her before, but her brother D'Artagnan was his greatest mentor. Langdon had lost his father as a young boy. Since that time, D'Artagnan had acted as a surrogate father, going to high school events, helping him get into college, guiding his career. Now Langdon was learning that his trip to England had been part of an elaborate trap, that the man who meant the most to him might be in danger.
Robert spun Crystaluria around and held her by her shoulders. His face was a picture of excited concern. "You mean I'm not having tea with the Queen?"
Suddenly someone unfurled a banner from the roof of Buckingham Palace, and Langdon and Crystaluria were surrounded by British police. Everyone was reading the mysterious message:
I hold D'Artagnan Smythe prisoner!
Decipher the talismans he has given you or I will kill him!
Do not involve the CIA
That means you, Robert Langdon!
"That message doesn't make any sense. I don't have any talisman and I have no intention of involving the Culinary Institute of America, although if I'm not going to have tea with the Queen, I suppose I could get a snack somewhere else--" Langdon said.
An agent of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) put a friendly hand on Langdon's shoulder. "He might be referring to your Central Intelligence Agency when he says 'CIA.'"
"Uh, yeah, that's what I said," Langdon said.
The British agent continued, "But, by Jove, if he didn't want an intelligence agency involved, then why did he make a big banner like that? And if I'm not dashed mistaken, he's gone and written that message of his in blood!"
Langdon shrugged. "It's not the worst I've seen. The last time I got an invitation, it came in the form of a severed hand."
"Blimey," the agent said, squeezing Langdon's shoulder. He glanced at the banner again. "I'm sorry the blighter went and insulted ye like that."
"What do you mean?"
"Calling you stupid, mate." He pointed to the message. "I've been trained in Arabic. Anta Ghati means 'you're stupid.' Practically the first thing we heard in language school, it was."
Langdon coughed and shuffled his feet. "I don't doubt that Anta Ghati means what you say. However, I am an expert in symbology and I need to point out the dash before the phrase Anta Ghati. A dash is often used as an informal close to a letter or note in place of 'Yours truly,' or 'Love' or 'Cordially'..."
Little did Langdon know that Anta Ghati was standing right next to him at that very moment, eavesdropping and disguised as a bakery delivery man. His shoulders sagged as he listened to the professor's words. So that's what all those people were calling me! He squeezed his eyes shut and a silent tear slid down his cheek. Then he steeled himself and sniffled manfully; he would continue with his mission and make them all pay. He continued listening to Langdon.
"Or 'Yours respectfully', or 'XOXOXO' or 'Sincerely'..."
Everyone hoped Langdon wouldn't trot out that old saw about sincerely meaning without wax. Supposedly ancient sculptors filled in their errors with wax. Therefore a really honest statue without mistakes was sin cera or without wax, and that was where the word sincere came from, Oxford English Dictionary be damned, and yadda yadda yadda.
Langdon trotted it out.
He finally got back to the main subject. "In other words, the dash indicates that the writer is about to sign his name." Agents were nodding their heads now, some in understanding, others in sleep.
Suddenly Langdon's audience parted to let through a tiny, ancient woman in a dark business suit. She strode up to Langdon and stuck her pointed nose in his face.
"You're telling me this kidnapper's name is 'You're stupid?'" Her eyes were red and a cigarette hung from the corner of her mouth.
Langdon tried to take a step back, but found his way blocked by a burly CIA agent.
The woman stepped closer and pointed her finger at Langdon. "I am Patricia Snidely from the CIA," she said, punctuating every word with a painful jab in Langdon's sternum. Another two huge male CIA agents walked up and flanked her, glaring down at Langdon. "You will help me understand the significance of the talismans D'Artagnan left with you. This is a matter of national security!"
Langdon answered her politely. "Of course I'll help you any way I can." He looked down at his wet clothes. "You'll have to excuse me, I--"
"I don't have to do anything!" she sneered.
"I'm the one asking the questions here!" she snarled.
Langdon folded his arms across his chest and looked down at the rude woman. He was a polite, even chivalrous, man by nature, and he could tell the woman needed assistance even if she were demanding it in an inexcusable manner. He took a deep breath and started to offer his help again. "I--"
"There is no 'I' in team, Mr Langdon!" she spat.
Langdon drew himself up with uncustomary dignity. "You're rude and I don't want to talk to you. I'm a free man and a US citizen. I don't have to talk police. This is not a consensual encounter. If I am under arrest, then I invoke my right to counsel and I do not submit to interrogation. If I am not under arrest then I am leaving."
The CIA agents opened their hands slightly in an unconscious gesture of surrender and edged away. They knew the law. Snidely gaped at them, then turned to the one on her left. "You! Agent Nurnberg! Arrest him!"
"Gee, I can't do that," he replied. "I'm a CIA agent, but I have to follow the law like everyone else. Mr. Langdon doesn't realize it, but we're not peace officers. I don't have the authority to arrest him, other than the authority every person has to make a citizen's arrest if he or she sees a crime taking place. And he's not committing any crime."
Snidely stalked up to the agent. "Then shoot him," she said, narrowing her eyes. "Do you understand me?"
The agent gulped. Despite knowing that her command was illegal, despite knowing that he would be held accountable for his actions, despite being thirty-eight years old, he was too terrified to defy the woman's show of authority. He looked from his superior, who was glaring at him and wagging her finger, to Langdon, who was talking at length about the importance of civilian authority over police and military forces. He turned to Langdon and shot him in the middle of his exposition on the Posse Comitatus Act.
And his chest.
Langdon felt the impact before he heard the sound. His eyes flew open as his knees turned to water. As he sank to the ground he clutched his heart and whispered softly. "It was passed in 1878 and generally prohibited military personnel from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States, except where, where"--he drew a shuddering breath—-"where expressly authorized by the Constitution or Congress."
He collapsed just as Crystaluria picked him up in a fireman's carry and ran off.
* * *
Crystaluria patted Langdon's hand. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine," he whispered, pulling a shattered paperback copy of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code from his breast pocket. A .40 caliber hollow point bullet had penetrated the cover and wedged itself between page 414, where the female lead describes a gross-out sex ritual between her grandparents, and page 579, where she learns she's the direct descendent of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Crystaluria's mouth fell open. "I can't believe it."
"Yes, it's not only unsupported by any shred of proof, but it's also ridiculous and sacrilegious."
"No, I mean that the book saved your life."
"It's not unprecedented," Langdon answered. "In 2005, accountant Helen Kelly escaped death when the underwire of her Wonderbra deflected a bullet during a shooting outside London's Barbican Centre. In 2010, Californian Lydia Carranza's life was saved when her size D breast implants stopped a bullet that was aimed straight at her heart." Langdon struggled to continue. Although the bullet had been stopped, his chest was badly bruised. "And there is the oft-told tale of the formidable Mrs. Watts," he rasped, closing his eyes. "Her life was saved when her steel-boned corset deflected a Comanche arrow during the Battle of Plum Creek in 1840."
"Shhh," Crystaluria said softly. "We need to think about how to save D'Artagnan."
Langdon weakly scrabbled through the pockets of his trusty Harris Tweed jacket. "Here," he said, reverently pulling out the plain brown paper sack D'Artagnan had entrusted to him the last time they had seen each other. It contained a bottle. The label had been damaged; one letter was obscured and the end was torn away, but it was partially readable:
S A N G R A
They stared at the bottle.
"Ahh," Langdon said smugly, after a moment. "This sounds simple enough. Clearly this bottle is the Holy Grail. Sang means blood, and real means royal. So this is the Blood Royal or the Holy Grail." Langdon smiled and weakly polished his fingernails against his lapels. "I know all about the Holy Grail."
"There is something, however, you haven't noticed," Crystaluria interjected, pulling a curious bronze object from the bag. It was about an inch and a half in diameter, decorated with abstract designs and shaped like a shallow bowl. At the bottom of the bowl was a loop of elastic. Crystaluria slipped her fingertip through the loop and waggled it.
Langdon stared at the curious artifact and tried to think of some trivia.
"Recently," Crystaluria continued, "my brother has become interested in Middle Eastern artifacts. I think the label on the bottle is a red herring. I think it might contain a-–"
"--Genie," a harsh voice concluded. Anta Ghati grabbed the bottle, bag and tiny bowl and disappeared. Langdon took a running step after him, but faltered. He was still disoriented from being shot at and wasn't sure in which direction the man had fled.
"Look!" Crystaluria shouted, pointing. "We can follow him using this!"
"What?" Langdon asked, whipping his head around. "Do you have a special device to follow his heat signature? Did you attach an RFID beacon to him? Did you notice that he emits radiation?" He patted his pockets. "I have a Geiger counter around here somewhere. Did he--" Then he stopped and stared at the floor. The evil interloper, still disguised as a baker, had left behind a trail of bread crumbs. "What a convenient development," Langdon mused. Then he looked at their surroundings, at the wall of brooms. "But if he's left behind a trail of crumbs and we're in the broom closet..."
Suddenly, every door opened and a fleet of uniformed domestic staff rushed in and grabbed brooms. Langdon and Crystaluria's pursuit was blocked momentarily. When the servants left (as quickly and efficiently as they had arrived), the trail was gone, swept up in their aftermath. Langdon cursed in frustration as Patricia Snidely walked in and cornered him. She started jabbing him in the chest again.
"That bottle of yours is a matter of national security and you will help me decipher its secrets. Do you hear me? You will help me, or I will--"
He tossed her into the bottomless pit.
* * *
Langdon and Crystaluria ran out of the broom closet just in time to see coattails disappearing around a corner. They were right behind Anta Ghati. They chased him over rooftops, into curio shops, out of opium dens, past 221B Baker's Street, and basically through every single London cliché. Finally they wound up in a low-rent shopping district.
Crystaluria lurched to a stop, staring around at a garish little mall. "I know this place," she said. "I think my brother owns it."
"He owns this?" Langdon panted, catching up to her.
"Yes, this is definitely my brother's strip mall." It was a long row of brightly-lit businesses with a large and full parking lot. "It's an assortment of gentlemen's clubs with different themes. He calls this his Strip Strip Mall," Crystaluria said, pointing. "See? There's the coffee shop, Star Butts. Oh! There's the animal-themed club, The Dancing Bare." She stood on her tiptoes and bounced a little, peering into the distance. "And, look, the lunch stand, Snacks and Racks, and--."
She broke off as D'Artagnan himself ducked his head out of the door of the belly-dancing-themed Ali Hubba Hubba. "There you are!" he cried jovially. Anta Ghati was furiously rubbing the stolen bottle and exhorting a genie to appear as D'Artagnan held him roughly in a one-handed head lock.
"Are you alright?" Langdon asked. Crystaluria ran to her brother and gave him a hug.
"I'm just fine, folks," D'Artagnan replied. He wrested the bottle from Anta Ghati, clumsily poured some of liquid into an ice-filled, lemon-garnished glass, and offered it to Langdon.
Langdon took the glass with a trembling hand and brought it to his lips while D'Artagnan plucked the tiny bronze bowl from Anta Ghati's finger and tossed it to one of his strippers. She was dressed in colorful, scanty veils and jingling bells. "Thanks, D'Artagnan, I was looking for this." She attached it to her finger and chimed it against its mate. "My last cymbal!"
"But where were you?" Crystaluria cried, staring at her brother. "Anta Ghati said he was holding you prisoner!"
"Prisoner? Hardly, I was just drinking sangria"--he winked at Langdon--"in my old-man-themed dominatrix club, The Curmudgeons' Dungeon."
Langdon looked at his glass, took another sip and sighed. "Well, I guess the mystery is solved," he said.
"And what about this guy?" D'Artagnan asked, shaking Anta Ghati by the back of his collar. "What should we do about him?"
"I think he needs to talk to Agent Snidely of the CIA," Crystaluria answered. She took Langdon's hand and smiled up at him. "We'll drop him off."
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