The pale afternoon sun dipped low over the Piazza del Duomo, glinting off the white tiles of Giotto's bell tower and casting long shadows across Florence's magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
The funeral for Ignazio Busoni was just getting under way as Robert Langdon slipped into the cathedral and found a seat, pleased that Ignazio's life was to be memorialized here, in the timeless basilica that he had looked after for so many years.
Despite its vibrant facade, the interior of Florence's cathedral was stark, empty, and austere. Nonetheless, the ascetic sanctuary seemed to radiate an air of celebration today. From all over Italy, government officials, friends, and art-world colleagues had flooded into the church to remember the jovial mountain of a man they had lovingly called il Duomino.
The media had reported that Busoni passed away while doing what he loved most-taking a late-night stroll around the Duomo.
The tone of the funeral was surprisingly upbeat, with humorous commentary from friends and family, one colleague noting that Busoni's love of Renaissance art, by his own admission, had been matched only by his love of spaghetti Bolognese and caramel budino.
After the service, as the mourners mingled and fondly recounted incidents from Ignazio's life, Langdon wandered around the interior of the Duomo, admiring the artwork that Ignazio had so deeply loved ... Vasari's Last Judgment beneath the dome, Donatello and Ghiberti's stained-glass windows, Uccello's clock, and the often-overlooked mosaic pavements that adorned the floor.
At some point Langdon found himself standing before a familiar face-that of Dante Alighieri. Depicted in the legendary fresco by Michelino, the great poet stood before Mount Purgatory and held forth in his hands, as if in humble offering, his masterpiece The Divine Comedy.
Langdon couldn't help but wonder what Dante would have thought if he had known the effect his epic poem would have on the world, centuries later, in a future even the Florentine poet himself could never have envisioned.
He found eternal life, Langdon thought, recalling the early Greek philosophers' views on fame. So long as they speak your name, you shall never die.
It was early evening when Langdon made his way across Piazza Sant'Elisabetta and returned to Florence's elegant Hotel Brunelleschi. Upstairs in his room, he was relieved to find an oversize package waiting for him.
At last, the delivery had arrived.
The package I requested from Sinskey.
Hurriedly, Langdon cut the tape sealing the box and lifted out the precious contents, reassured to see that it had been meticulously packed and was cushioned in bubble wrapping.
To Langdon's surprise, however, the box contained some additional items. Elizabeth Sinskey, it seemed, had used her substantial influence to recover a bit more than he had requested. The box contained Langdon's own clothing-button-down shirt, khaki pants, and his frayed Harris Tweed jacket-all carefully cleaned and pressed. Even his cordovan loafers were here, newly polished. Inside the box, he was also pleased to find his wallet.
It was the discovery of one final item, however, that made Langdon chuckle. His reaction was part relief that the item had been returned ... and part sheepishness that he cared so deeply about it.
My Mickey Mouse watch.
Langdon immediately fastened the collector's edition timepiece on his wrist. The feel of the worn leather band against his skin made him feel strangely secure. By the time he had gotten dressed in his own clothes and slipped his feet back into his own loafers, Robert Langdon was feeling almost like himself again.
Langdon exited the hotel, carrying the delicate package with him in a Hotel Brunelleschi tote bag, which he had borrowed from the concierge. The evening was unusually warm, adding to the dreamlike quality of his walk along the Via dei Calzaiuoli toward the lone spire of the Palazzo Vecchio.
When he arrived, Langdon checked in at the security office, where his name was on a list to see Marta Alvarez. He was directed to the Hall of the Five Hundred, which was still bustling with tourists. Langdon had arrived right on time, expecting Marta to meet him here in the entryway, but she was nowhere to be seen.
He flagged down a passing docent
"Scusi?" Langdon called. "Dove passo trovare Marta Alvarez?"
The docent broke into a broad grin. "Signora Alvarez?! She no here! She have baby! Catalina! Molto bella!"
Langdon was pleased to hear Marta's good news. "Ahh ... che bello," he replied. "Stupendo!"
As the docent hurried off, Langdon wondered what he was supposed to do with the package he was carrying.
Quickly making up his mind, he crossed the crowded Hall of the Five Hundred, passing beneath Vasari's mural and heading up into the palazzo museum, staying out of sight of any security guards.
Finally, he arrived outside the museum's narrow andito. The passage was dark, sealed off with stanchions, a swag, and a sign: CHIUSO/CLOSED.
Langdon took a careful glance around and then slipped under the swag and into the darkened space. He reached into his tote bag and carefully extracted the delicate package, peeling away the bubble wrapping.
When the plastic fell away, Dante's death mask stared up at him once again. The fragile plaster was still in its original Ziploc bag, having been retrieved as Langdon had requested from the lockers at the Venice train station. The mask appeared to be in flawless condition with one small exception-the addition of a poem, inscribed in an elegant spiral shape, on its reverse side.
Langdon glanced at the antique display case. The Dante death mask is displayed face front ... nobody will notice.
He carefully removed the mask from the Ziploc bag. Then, very gently, he lifted it back onto the peg inside the display case. The mask sank into place, nestling against its familiar red velvet setting.
Langdon closed the case and stood a moment, gazing at Dante's pale visage, a ghostly presence in the darkened room. Home at last.
Before exiting the room, Langdon discreetly removed the stanchions, swag, and sign from the doorway. As he crossed the gallery, he paused to speak to a young female docent.
"Signorina?" Langdon said. "The lights above the Dante death mask need to be turned on. It's very hard to see in the dark."
"I'm sorry," the young woman said, "but that exhibit is closed. The Dante death mask is no longer here."
"That's odd." Langdon feigned a look of surprise. "I was just admiring it."
The woman's face registered confusion.
As she rushed off toward the andito, Langdon quietly slipped out of the museum.
Thirty-four thousand feet above the dark expanse of the Bay of Biscay, Alitalia's red-eye to Boston cruised westward through a moonlit night.
On board, Robert Langdon sat engrossed in a paperback copy of The Divine Comedy. The rhythm of the poem's lilting terza rima rhyme scheme, along with the hum of the jet engines, had lulled him into a near-hypnotic state. Dante's words seemed to flow off the page, resonating in his heart as if they had been written specifically for him in this very moment.
Dante's poem, Langdon was now reminded, was not so much about the misery of hell as it was about the power of the human spirit to endure any challenge, no matter how daunting.
Outside the window, a full moon had risen, dazzling and bright, blotting out all other heavenly bodies. Langdon gazed out at the expanse, lost in his thoughts of all that had transpired in the last few days.
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. For Langdon, the meaning of these words had never felt so clear: In dangerous times, there is no sin greater than inaction.
Langdon knew that he himself, like millions, was guilty of this. When it came to the circumstances of the world, denial had become a global pandemic. Langdon promised himself that he would never forget this.
As the plane streaked west, Langdon thought of the two courageous women who were now in Geneva, meeting the future head-on and navigating the complexities of a changed world.
Outside the window, a bank of clouds appeared on the horizon, inching slowly across the sky, finally slipping across the moon and blocking out its radiant light.
Robert Langdon eased back in his seat, sensing that it was time to sleep.
As he clicked off his overhead light, he turned his eyes one last time to the heavens. Outside, in the newly fallen darkness, the world had been transformed. The sky had become a glistening tapestry of stars.