The Road Beyond St. Peter's - Robert
A pyre of mystical fire . . . an angel materializing from out of the crowd . . . her soft hand taking his and leading him into the night . . . guiding his exhausted, battered body through the streets . . . leading him here . . . to this suite . . . propping him half-sleeping in a scalding hot shower . . . leading him to this bed . . . and watching over him as he fell asleep like the dead. – From Angels and Demons, Dan Brown
Robert Langdon couldn't tear his eyes away. The sight was horrific. The Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca, apparently, although it was difficult to tell exactly what happened, had just somehow set himself on fire. Robert had no idea what fuel he used, as the conflagration was obviously incendiary, where he got it, or why he did it. All he knew was that the bright light from the flame was now searing his eyes, the image burning into his mind. For a brief moment, Robert actually wondered if the flames were holy - from God - not of this earth. But then, the memories of the entire evening washed over him anew.
No, not holy. Not holy in the least. How ironic that this completely unholy man was now burning in what the rest of this crowd thought was a pillar of fire from God. Robert searched the crowd momentarily. Let them think it. Let them have it. They know nothing of Carlo Ventresca's murderous, hateful, vengeful deeds this night. Mortati's right, let them have their God. Let them think this man is a saint. I don't care any more.
If it had been earlier that evening, Robert would have dashed inside the Basilica and made some heroic attempt to save the Camerlengo, or to show the world that the holy fire burning now before them was purely false. But his job, his work, however unwanted it was, was now over. He was finished. Robert Langdon failed in part of it, succeeded in another. He knew that the Preferitti, the four Cardinals in line for the Papacy, were all dead. Robert couldn't escape a feeling of guilt knowing that he could have stopped each and every one of those deaths – but he didn't. Each time, he was too late, or too incompetent to prevent the Hassassin from carrying out his murderous tasks. He also knew that his success – bringing Ventresca's treachery to light – would go untold to the Catholic world, and would likely remain a secret forever.
As the illumination from the pillar of fire died out, all that was left to remind Robert of Ventresca's presence was a trail of gray smoke, whisping in curling waves over St. Peter's, and the beginnings of a horrible, acrid smell that Robert had experienced only hours before – that of roasting human skin, bone, and muscle. Surprisingly, the odor did not offend Robert in the least.
Let him burn, let the God damn traitor burn. Ventresca was a sick man, Robert thought, and he deserved much worse than to die at his own hands. Coward.
Robert didn't know what to feel. In fact, as he surveyed his body and his emotions, he realized that he was completely and utterly numb. His eyes were cast heavenward, toward and beyond the Basilica's balustrade, and he couldn't tear them away. He imagined that, if no one had bothered him, he could stand there forever – wondering what could have been, or what he could have done differently. He had not even noticed Vittoria Vetra at his side. He was an island unto himself - exhausted, weary, worn, and utterly emotionless. There was nothing left to do, nothing left to feel – other than possibly relief – relief that this whole surreal fiasco was finally over, and of course, that Vittoria was whole, healthy, and untouched by the Hassassin.
As the images of the unconscious Vittoria brutally tied to the divan re-entered his mind, it made him shiver slightly. He blinked fiercely, holding back emotionless tears. At that very moment, he felt a soft hand take his and pull him slightly westward. He didn't look down yet, wondering in his stupor if, perhaps, an angel had come to rescue him.
If I look at her, will her light burn me like Ventresca?
Robert Langdon didn't believe in angels, but in his present state, and recalling the things he saw that night, he would have believed anything. He thought he heard the angel's voice, heard her ask him if he was okay, but he was too numb to respond. She spoke again, her voice musical and sweet, like a Mozart concerto.
"Robert, let's go. We need to leave, now."
With more gentle pressure on his hand, the angel pulled him in a direction away from St. Peter's Square. Robert didn't argue.
What use is there in arguing with an angel?
In fact, Robert was glad for the distraction – something to finally pull him away from the horrific vision now ingrained in his mind – something to bring him back to life, restore feeling to his battered body. He followed the angel willingly, dutifully, knowing well that she was going to lead him to salvation – salvation in the form, hopefully, of a shower, some food, and a soft bed.
Robert had no idea where she was taking him, where they were going, or how long it would take to get there. Images and emotions now overtook the numbness, the bliss. Robert fought it. He didn't want to know, he didn't want to remember, he didn't want to feel, but there it was – all coming back to him. Among all of the deeds of that night, surprisingly, Robert's first thought was of the…
"Diagramma," Robert heard himself mumble.
"What was that? What did you say?"
"Diagramma." The voice Robert heard was not his own baritone. It was hoarse and chalky, the words catching dry in his mouth. The Diagramma. He had destroyed it. The only copy of Galileo's major work left in the entire world - in the entire universe - was now gone – disintegrated into shards of wet tissue. The kicker was, it was completely and utterly Robert Langdon's doing.
"What about Diagramma, Robert?"
Robert snapped to attention suddenly, Vittoria's voice bringing him out of his reverie. It was now that Robert was able to look down at the woman beside him and realize, she was not an angel from God, she was Vittoria, an angel unto herself. Despite this, he could not stop thinking of the archival sacrilege he had performed. The guilt weighed heavily on him.
"Got wet. Gone. I ruined it. Last copy, gone. Dissolved."
"That's the least of our worries, now isn't it?"
Robert thought for a moment. She's right. Diagramma is lost forever, I can do nothing about that. But the Cardinals, the Preferitti, the Hassassin, the brands, Ventresca, the Pope…the tape. That damn tape. Carlo Ventresca's confession. That, Robert knew, that he could do something about – the question was, what would he do about it? More importantly, what would Vittoria - who had an obvious vendetta against Ventresca – what would she do about it?
"What do we do about the tape?" Robert slurred, "About Ventresca's confession?" He had to know if Vittoria still intended somehow to tell the world about Ventresca's treachery.
"Let's not talk about that right now, Robert," Vittoria chided as she led Robert through a set of unfamiliar, heavy oak doors. "We can…"
"No, now." Gaining a modicum of energy, Robert stopped abruptly just inside the lobby and pulled Vittoria back toward him. He had to know. "What do we do?"
"What do you want to do, Robert?" Robert saw a hint of impatience in her eyes – a look he had seen frequently in the twelve hours he had known her. "I think Cardinal Mortati made it clear that he wanted to be the one to break the news to the world about Ventresca's…Ventresca's…ooh, I can't even say it, but I don't think it's our - yours or my - place to go blabbing to the press about…"
Relieved, Robert pulled his mouth into a weak smile, but he couldn't force his eyes to mirror it. "I hoped that was what you'd say."
Robert's right hand felt empty and cold without Vittoria's attached to it. He sought it out and clasped her tightly, again letting angel Vittoria lead him. Robert looked around, taking in his surroundings. The building was expansive, and Robert figured that they were in a large lobby in a rather posh Italian hotel. Robert's tired brain would not allow him to soak up any more information, would not allow him to, as he would normally do, appreciate the architecture or decoration. His brain, the limbic system taking over, merely wanted to know where he was and how close was he to a bed. He let Vittoria lead him to what appeared to be the hotel's front desk. After ensuring that Robert was solidly slumped against the wood and marble desk, Vittoria let go of his hand, and leaned over the counter.
She spoke something in Italian, and then called out, "Hello?"
A very dapper young man appeared from behind a partition wall, and said something back to Vittoria, again in Italian that Robert did not. He looked around, trying to focus the conversation out. He was drawn back again when the man addressed him directly.
"Dio mio, Signore! You are the…you are the man from the television…in the elicottero…Il Camerlengo…"
Elicottero…helicopter? Great, just great. Just what I want out of this whole thing - notoriety. I don't want fame, I just want to get this crap out of my hair, get out of this damnable itchy jumpsuit, and get into a bed.
Robert sighed, blowing a breath deliberately through his pursed lips, and sank his head into his chest. Robert lifted his face, licked his lips and smiled weakly. "Yes, signore, I am, and I'm exhausted. I need a shower. I need a bed, and I need those things right now, please, so the sooner you can give Ms. Vetra here a key to a huge, luxurious suite, the sooner I'll be a happy man."
The man behind the counter contemplated for a moment. "Si, signore," he said, smiling genuinely this time. "I have just the room for you two." He swiped a card through a reader, placed it in an envelope, and pushed it across the counter toward Vittoria. "Room 443, Signorina Vetra, Signore Langdon."
Robert watched as Vittoria rummaged through her pockets, trying desperately to remember which zippered compartment contained her credit cards. She pulled out a silver and blue Visa card with the CERN logo imprinted on it, and pushed it in the opposite direction toward the attendant. "Here, put everything on this card. Just take it. I'll pick it up tomorrow morning."
The attendant smiled again, placed two fingers on the credit card and slid it back toward Vittoria. "Your card is no good here, Signorina Vetra."
"Excuse me?" She blinked impatiently, her chin jutting forward with increasing annoyance. Robert again recognized this attitude, and it wasn't good. Vittoria would explode at any moment. "That card is perfectly good! It has a limit of over…"
He tilted his head and his eyes twinkled. "I do not question your credit limit, Signorina Vetra, and I do not question the validity of your credit card."
Vittoria let out a breath and rolled her eyes. Here it comes… "Then what, pray tell, is the problem?"
The man raised his hands in a gesture of submission. "There is no problem. None whatsoever. The room, and dinner this evening, Signorina Vetra, are gratis," he looked at Robert, "on the house, as you Americans say. Whatever you wish, we will provide. Now, the elevator is behind this counter to the left. Take it to the fourth floor, and turn right. Your room is on the left side. Enjoy your stay, and sleep well."
Robert was flabbergasted. The room, from the looks of the lobby, was probably a 700 a night job. Before he could say anything, Vittoria cut in. "Grazie, signore. Grazie."
Robert felt Vittoria's hand fill his once again, and she pulled him toward the elevators. She suddenly stopped and Robert nearly ran into her. She addressed the attendant again, handing him her credit card. "Oh, one more thing."
"You have a concierge, correct?"
"Please ask him to purchase some clothing and sundries for myself and Mr. Langdon. I can't quite wear these shorts and tank anymore, and Mr. Langdon certainly cannot travel back to the States wearing a medical jumpsuit. I wear an American size four, and Mr. Langdon looks to be your size exactly."
Brilliant, brilliant woman, that Vittoria Vetra. Brilliant.
"Sara un paciere, Signorina. I will personally ensure it is done. They will be delivered to your room later this evening – after you two have had time to rest." He picked up the card and placed it into a small file folder under the desk. "Should you need anything else, just call. My name is Ettore, and I am the hotel manager."
Robert Langdon generally hated elevators, especially the smaller, European ones, where he could feel every bump, every movement as the carriage was pulled up the shaft. This time, the ride didn't phase him. He was too sleepy to care.
I should be this tired more often. It may cure me of my claustrophobia.
Moments later, Robert heard a tinny "ding," and felt Vittoria wrap herself under his left arm. She supported his failing weight and ushered him out of the elevator, down a thin hallway, and to an ornate, white and gold door. Robert watched as she deftly slid the keycard into the lock, the door opening with a slight "whoosh." Just as the lobby downstairs, Robert knew, upon seeing the entryway, that if he was in his right mind, he would have had a field day with the luxury and décor of the room. But now, there were more important things to tend to.
Robert followed as Vittoria guided him in a sharp right turn, and sat him unceremoniously onto a closed toilet seat. It was cold, and he could feel the chill through the cotton jumpsuit. "Okay, Langdon, get your bulky body off me. Time for a clean-up, you smell like…like I don't know, but it's horrible."
"Silt… from the Tiber," Robert garbled. He was growing annoyed at his inability to make his mouth do what his brain wanted.
"You fell in the river?"
Robert felt his eyes involuntarily flicker open and closed, and his head bobbled as he waxed and waned into consciousness. "Uh-huh."
"How did you get out?"
How did I get out? He strained with the memory for a moment. Island. Hospital. Wet. White coats. Doctors. "Fell…by…hospital…pulled…me out."
"You are one lucky bastard, you know that?"
Lucky? "Tell…me…'bout…it." He curled the right side of his mouth in an exhausted grin, and chuckled slightly. "Don't…feel…lucky."
"You don't smell lucky, either, let's get you in the shower."
Robert heard a distinct "shussh" as Vittoria was apparently opening the shower door. He then heard a squeak and a "whoosh" as she turned on the water. Within seconds, steam began filling the bathroom. Robert breathed it in. The steam itself was soothing, as in a sauna.
"Do you have anything on under that jumpsuit?"
Do I? "No."
"Can you stand up?"
I'd damn well better be able to stand up…
Robert pushed off from the now slick seat and stood, feeling his legs wobble slightly. Before Robert could react, Vittoria's fingers started working on the button at the collar of his jumpsuit. Robert looked down as she grasped the large pull and began undoing the zipper, moving it down to where it stopped just below Robert's mid-section.
My God, she's stripping me naked, Robert thought, but am I going to stop her? No way.
He felt the scratchy fabric of the jumpsuit as she pushed it off of his shoulders. The chilled air hit his skin, and sent a slight shiver through him. Vittoria twisted his shoulders, turning him around, away from her.
This one has decency. But do I want decency? Either that, or she's just… "You…shy?" Robert felt a single chuckle bubble up and escape his slack lips
"No, just respectful," she laughed. Vittoria continued to remove the garment, pulling it down off of his arms. Despite his fatigue, her touch on his now bared skin sent waves of…Robert didn't know what…desire, possibly…through his battered body. Something inside him desperately wanted her to continue downward, to keep removing the garment…
"You want to do the rest?" He felt Vittoria back away slightly.
He took a cleansing breath in through his nose. "Yes, please." He was vaguely aware that Vittoria had turned her back to him, and he clumsily removed the rest of the jumpsuit, nearly slipping on the wet terrazzo floor. Once he was completely bare, the shower looked even more inviting. Without even a word to Vittoria, he grasped onto the edge of the shower door, and stepped into the marble bathtub, groaning as the scalding hot water hit his chest and trickled down his abdomen and legs.
The feeling of the water on his body was intense. Pure heat. He felt each and every one of his tensed muscles giving in to relaxation. He swayed rather drunkenly in the center of the bathtub, and contemplated for a moment leaning against a wall. The shower was so immense, however, that if he did so, he would have sacrificed the cascade of water against his skin.
Thankfully, and like the angel she was, Vittoria entered the shower behind Robert. He didn't look at her, but heard the sound of her feet hitting the pooled up water, felt her presence behind him, and then felt as she laid her hands gently on his upper back. Now, more than before, her mere touch made him feel incredibly relaxed. She was there. She was there with him. She was there for him. Robert thought for a moment that he could stand in this hot shower with her forever.
After a moment, Robert felt Vittoria reach over his shoulder. She moved her arm rhythmically as she pumped some kind of soap from a wall dispenser into her hand. Next, Robert felt a paroxysm of pleasure as she began working her hands through his mud-encrusted hair. His legs gave way from underneath him, and he, quite involuntarily, sank to the floor of the bathtub. He felt her kneel behind him, her hands still enmeshed in his hair. Robert didn't know how long she worked on his head, and was barely aware when she used the hand-held shower head to rinse the soapy stuff out. All he knew was that he didn't want her to stop – didn't want her to stop touching him. It was if she was washing away all of the fear, all of the hatred, adrenaline, horror, terror, and outrage of that night. The sensation of her fingers on his scalp, mixed with the hot water dripping down his face and neck, was pure bliss, and he never wanted it to end.
But it did end – Vittoria summarily stopped both the massage and the shower. "There. Finished. Clean as a whistle."
Oh, come on, now, that's not fair…not fair at all.
"Do you have to stop?"
Vittoria laughed, and Robert felt a slight chill as she stepped out of the bathtub. "The mud's all gone - down the drain."
"Yeah," Robert groaned, tilting his wet head to one side, "but do you have to stop?"
Maybe? Maybe she'll come back?
"Yes, I do," Vittoria chided, her tone of voice strangely suggestive, "however, Signore Langdon, we can pick it up later, after at least eight hours' sleep. Of course, only if you want to."
Yes. "I'd…I'd…like that."
After he exited the shower, he was barely aware of Vittoria scrubbing his hair dry, barely aware of Vittoria leaving the bathroom, barely aware of him toweling off his own body, and slipping into a bathrobe. He pulled at the handle of the bathroom door, and emerged into the bedroom of the suite. His goal, his number one desire at that moment lay before him in a cover of stark white goose down comforters, Egyptian cotton sheets, and fluffy pillows. The thing he most wanted in the world was waiting for him.
No, it was not Vittoria. That would have to come later. It was the bed. The tall, four-poster, queen-sized bed that lay before him. He was desperate for sleep. He smiled as he saw Vittoria pull up the covers for him. He padded around her, sank onto the bed, and pulled his legs up under the covers in one swift move. He felt like he could fall asleep immediately, but there was a slight interruption.
"You shouldn't sleep in that," Vittoria pointed to Robert's bathrobe, "it's too thick, the knot will drive you nuts and you'll get overheated."
Yeah, whatever she says. Take off the robe, okay.
Without a word, Robert reached his hands down and tugged at the loosely tied sash. He dropped the robe to the floor, satisfied with the "thud" noise it made. He then felt Vittoria lay the covers gently over him and tuck them under his torso. He could feel her wet hair trail over his shoulder. The softness of the sheets against his freshly-cleaned bare skin, combined with Vittoria's warmth, was comforting – perhaps one of the most comforting things he had felt in a long time.
He wondered, for a moment, if his bed would bounce as Vittoria climbed in next to him. The wonder became a wish. Despite his exhaustion, he, for some reason, craved the feeling of her next to him. He had only known her for twelve hours, yet, he, his body, his very soul, somehow needed her. When the characteristic bounce didn't come, he opened his eyes slightly, and saw Vittoria perched on the end of the bed opposite his. She was still in her bathrobe, and she was systematically pulling her hands through her hair, trying to loosen a number of tangles. He closed his eyes again, wholly unable to keep them open, wholly unable to stay awake.
Tomorrow, maybe. After some rest. After…some…
As Robert Langdon allowed his body to succumb to slumber, he felt the unmistakable sensation of a pair of eyes on him. She, Vittoria, was watching over him, watching him fall asleep, ensuring to his safety and comfort – just like a guardian angel does her charge.
He fell into peaceful sleep with the image of the angel in his mind – the image of Vittoria Vetra tending to and caring for him.
Angel. Vittoria is an angel…