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In Washington, Stalking Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol'

By Monica Hesse and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 15, 2009; 6:26 PM

Dan Brown's latest novel hit bookstores this morning at 12:01 a.m. By 6:45, two aspiring symbologists were already on the trail. Join Post reporters David Montgomery and Monica Hesse on their hourly-updated madcap dash through the Washington locations featured in the book. Warning: Spoilers and massive dorkiness abound.

7:30 a.m. House of the Temple

After a night of frantic speed-reading, our intrepid duo is ready to hit the pavement in search of Dan Brown's Lost Symbol, armed with only coffee and a GPS. The book follows Robert Langdon and scientist sidekick Katherine Solomon as the two to solve an ancient Masonic puzzle before Langdon's mentor is killed. It takes place in 12 hours, in a Washington very similar to our own. (Except in Brown's world, the Redskins are in the playoffs. What?!) Can they stick to that schedule, while avoiding both giant tattooed eunuchs (the book's bad guy) and D.C. traffic cops?

First stop, the Masonic House of the Temple, the site of two major acts of badness. 1) Threats of ritual human sacrifice. 2) Something unethical going on with a flowing blonde man-wig. And what's the appeal of drinking from a human skull?

S. Brent Morris, managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, meets them outside. They are disappointed to see he is wearing a pinstripe suit instead of a creepy cloak. His tie, however, looks promisingly Masonic ¿ red with circles and triangles.

"Does that tie have special significance?" they ask, determined to learn his secrets yet!

Yes, Morris explains. He made a donation to the Masons' Intendant of the Building Society, and they gave him this tie. Ladies get scarves.

Oh.

He leads them to the Temple Room. They see no signs of skulls or ancient daggers.

Nothing more to see here. They hop back into the car and speed to the next destination. When they arrive, David gasps!

What the --

8:51 a.m. The Capitol

David gasped.

What the -- How would they ever find parking?!

Sprinting from Second Street NE, they make it to the Capitol Visitors Center just as it opens. This was how Langdon accessed the temple of democracy.

Destination: the Rotunda ... and all its grisly secrets.

Wow.

Looking up at Brumidi's fresco on the domed ceiling, it was hard not to be as impressed as Langdon and the fictional CIA security chief were: the Apotheosis of Washington -- depicting the Father of the Country, and America's most famous Mason, ascending to heaven as a God. Sweet for the Masons.

But Washington in the painting? Eh. He kind of looks like an old woman with a lap blankie.

A maintenance man with a bucket and mop strolls by. "Heart of Washington," he says, pointing to the gold-colored bull's-eye directly beneath the fresco.

Indeed. But not a crime scene, as there was in the novel.

A final stop: the mysterious "SBB," the basement below the Senate basement that houses a secret chamber.

One problem, they can't find it. "It doesn't exist," said Capitol Police, tour guides and even staffers in the Architect of the Capitol's office.

But are they telling all they know?

10:01 a.m. The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has a nifty cameo in "The Lost Symbol" -- a chase sequence and a death-defying feat where Langdon and Katherine elude the CIA by riding the book conveyor belt that trolleys between the Library's three buildings.

David and Monica came to the Library for one purpose: They wanted to ride that conveyor belt. They would ride that conveyor belt or go down trying.

But when the librarian in the massive reading room heard of this plan, he delivered a devastating blow:

The conveyor belt system had been broken for years, and would not be replaced -- the system was so old the manufacturer stopped making the parts.

Except, apparently, in Dan Brown's world.

Devastated, they dashed out of the Library.

Would they be foiled at every turn??

10:48 a.m. The National Gallery

David and Monica raced out of the Library of Congress, through the streets of Capitol Hill.

"We need to go to the National Gallery!" David said, remembering that Albrecht Durer's painting "Melencolia I" played a role in "The Lost Symbol."

"No," said Monica, exasperated. "Robert Langdon just viewed the painting on the Gallery's Web site. Don't you remember? It was Katherine's idea!"

They logged on to www.nga.gov, examining the engraving of a forlorn angel and inscrutable geometric shapes. It's a very strange image, containing a mystical Magic Square that helped Langdon break a key code.

To the two aspiring symbologists, it looked like a Sudoku puzzle.

But David was still annoyed that Monica had been such a know-it-all. He pushed those feelings aside as they sped toward their next destination.

Just blocks from the real National Gallery, there was one site they couldn't call up on their laptop.

11:35 a.m. Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza is a map, Robert Langdon explains to Katherine in "The Lost Symbol." Sure enough, it is. Inscribed in the paving stones is a floor plan of the Capitol. Reaching the plaza allowed David and Monica "visit" the "Rotunda" for the second time today.

They realized too late that stopping here was a classic Dan Brown red herring. There were no Masonic symbols. It was all a ruse for the characters to throw off pursuers and allow time for useless narrative exposition, like the fact that the publishing date for "The Lost Symbol,"

9-15-09, adds up to 33, a sacred number that plays a role in the novel.

But there was no time for narrative exposition like that. David and Monica spied an ominous figure in uniform approaching.

"Please!" David begged. "Don't!"

1:24 p.m. National Cathedral

David and Monica spied an ominous figure approaching.

"Please!" David begged. "Don't!"

Fate was at last on their side. The meter man smiled benevolently and let them leave their illegal parking space without issuing a ticket.

They sped up Massachusetts Avenue toward the National Cathedral, where Langdon and Katherine find sanctuary and assistance from the kindly Dean of the Cathedral, who helps them solve a puzzle on a pyramid that may unlock the "ancient mysteries."

Dan Brown appeared to have done his research. The cathedral spots described in the novel -- the Garth, the Great Crossing, the annex with the Dean's office, the Cathedral College where they conduct a very interesting cooking experiment -- matched nearly perfectly with the real location. "Oh my gosh, he must have been on some tours," said Beth Mullen, the helpful assistant director of media relations, when she learned of the comparisons.

She had not read the book yet. A staffer had just run out to buy copies.

Then she delivered shattering news: David and Monica were not the first followers to hunt the Lost Symbol. Just that morning, a tour group from Destination DC had stopped by. They were buzzing about the book. The amateur symbologists exchanged an uneasy glance. The onslaught had begun.

What if someone finished stalking the Symbol before them?

They barely stopped to look at the statue of George Washington in a bay with Masonic symbols carved in stone, donated by the Freemasons, before heading back to the car.

They didn't know exactly where they were going, but Dan Brown had written that they had six minutes to get there.

2:14 p.m. Kalorama Heights

It actually took them about 17 minutes to reach the stately neighborhood where Langdon and Solomon were held captive in a mansion by the evil, bald, giant, tattooed 33rd-degree Mason eunuch who wears makeup and a flowing blond wig.

Nobody fit that description today.

4:02 p.m. The Smithsonian Museum Support Center

After failing to locate the Mason eunuch with a flowing blond wig, the amateur symbologists began to feel discouraged. They decided to divert from Langdon's path and travel to Katherine's workplace for hope. In "The Lost Symbol," Katherine works at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, studying the scientific possibilities of mind over matter.

Perhaps this power of positive thinking would rub off on the two Symbol stalkers, and give them the strength to complete their quest.

Alas, there was only disappointment at the SMSC. Instead of touring the sprawling beige complex and witnessing the mysteries of Pod 5, David and Monica were rebuffed by two smiling security guards and the museum's public relations staff, who told them they could not enter without an appointment.

But there was no time to wallow. They had just minutes to reach the final destination, the place Dan Brown called "the crossroads of America."

4:59 p.m. The Washington Monument

The great obelisk loomed bone white against the gray sky.

Dan Brown's lost symbol lay somewhere inside. But where?

Only one way to find out -- but, disaster! A sign said the last ticket for a tour to the top had already been distributed.

But the duo would not be foiled again. They marched up to the strong, knowledgeable National Park Service ranger who was posted at the entrance.

He was extemporizing on the cornerstone, which, he said, had been laid in a Masonic ceremony, with the presiding master wearing George Washington's Masonic apron.

"Do you want to be the hero of our story?" Monica asked the ranger.

"We need to get to the top!" Their quest depended on it!

The ranger smiled a hero's smile.

The splendor of Washington stretched in the four cardinal directions from America's crossroads. To the east, the Capitol, and beyond that somewhere, the Smithsonian's secret museum in the suburbs. To the north, the White House and the meridian line of 16th Street leading to the House of the Temple. To the northwest, the National Cathedral, and the mansion of the tattooed eunuch.

The duo had seen Washington through the lens of Dan Brown's imagination: crazy but intriguing, and surprisingly instructive. They had met Masons, historians and keepers of knowledge and had explored the boundaries between fact and fiction. There, at the top of the Washington Monument, they realized they had also become geeks of the 33rd degree.

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