Jimmy broke out in a wide grin, and he strode toward Ben, an arm outstretched, the other in the pocket of his trench coat.
"Hartman, you old dog," Jimmy crowed from a few yards away. "Hey, pal, great to see you!"
"My God, it really is you!" Ben exclaimed. At the same time, Ben was puzzled to see a metal tube protruding from his old friend's trench coat, a silencer, he now realized, the muzzle pointing directly up at him from waist level.
It had to be some bizarre prank, good old Jimmy was always doing that kind of thing. Yet just as Ben jokingly threw his hands up in the air and dodged an imaginary bullet, he saw Jimmy Cavanaugh shift his right hand ever so slightly, the unmistakable motions of someone squeezing a trigger.
What happened next took a fraction of a second, yet time seemed to telescope, slowing almost to a halt. Reflexively, abruptly, Ben swung his skis down from his right shoulder in a sharp arc, trying to scuttle the weapon but in the process slamming his old friend hard in the neck.
An instant later-or was it the same instant?-he heard the explosion, felt a sharp spray on the back of his neck as a very real bullet shattered a glass storefront just a few feet away.
This couldn't be happening!
Caught by surprise, Jimmy lost his balance and bellowed in pain. As he stumbled to the ground, he flung out a hand to grab the skis. One hand. The left. Ben felt as if he'd swallowed ice. The instinct to brace yourself when you stumble is strong: you reach out with both hands, and you drop your suitcase, your pen, your newspaper. There were few things you wouldn't drop--few things you'd still clutch as you fell.
The gun was real.
Ben heard the skis clatter to the sidewalk, saw a thin streak of blood on the side of Jimmy's face, saw Jimmy scrambling to regain his orientation. Then Ben lurched forward and, in a great burst of speed, took off down the street.
The gun was real. And Jimmy had fired it at him. Ben's path was obstructed by crowds of shoppers and businessmen hurrying to lunch appointments, and as he wove through the crowd he collided with several people, who shouted protests. Still he vaulted ahead, running as he'd never run before, zigzagging, hoping that the irregular pattern would make him an elusive target.
What the hell was going on? This was madness, absolute madness!
He made the mistake of glancing behind him as he ran, inadvertently slowing his pace, his face now a flashing beacon to a once-friend who for some unfathomable reason seemed bent on killing him. Suddenly, barely two feet away, a young woman's forehead exploded in a mist of red.
Ben gasped in terror.
No, it couldn't be happening, this wasn't reality, this was some bizarre nightmare--
He saw a small scattering of stone fragments, as a bullet pitted the marble facade of the narrow office building he was racing past. Cavanaugh was on his feet and running, now just fifty feet or so away from Ben, and though he had to fire in midstride, Cavanaugh's aim was still unnervingly good.
He's trying to kill me, no, he's going to kill me--
Ben feinted suddenly to the right, then jerked to the left, leaping forward as he did. Now he ran flat out. On the Princeton track team, he was an eight-hundred-meter man, and, fifteen years later, he knew his only chance for survival was to find a surge of speed inside him. His sneakers weren't made for running, but they'd have to do. He needed a destination, a clear goal, an endpoint: that was always the key. Think, dammit! Something clicked in his head: he was a block away from the largest underground shopping arcade in Europe, a garish, subterranean temple of consumption known as Shopville, beneath and adjacent to the main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. In his mind's eye, he saw the entrance, the bank of escalators at the Bahnhofplatz; it was always quicker to enter there and walk underneath the square than to fight through the crowds that typically thronged the streets above. He could seek refuge underground in the arcade. Only a madman would dare chase him down there. Ben sprinted now, keeping his knees high, his feet ghosting along with great soft strides, falling back into the discipline of the speed laps he used to devour, conscious only of the breeze at his face. Had he lost Cavanaugh? He didn't hear his footsteps anymore, but he couldn't afford to make any assumptions. Single-mindedly, desperately, he ran.
Excerpted from The SIGMA Protocol, (c) 2002 Robert Ludlum. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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