An explosion inches from his head: the sound of a lead bullet slamming into the steel briefcase. It jolted in his hands, partly from the impact of the bullet, partly from his own muscular reflex, and Ben noticed a bulge on the steel casing facing him, as if it had been stuck by a small hammer. The bullet had penetrated the first layer, had almost penetrated the second. His shield had saved his life, but only just.
Everything around him had gone blurry, but he knew he was entering the teeming Halle Landesmuseum. He also knew that carnage was still trailing him.
Throngs of people were screaming--huddled, cringing, running--as the horror, the gunfire, the bloodshed came closer.
Ben plunged into the frenzied crowd, was swallowed up by it. For a moment the gunfire seemed to have stopped. He tossed the briefcase to the floor: it had served its purpose, and its gleaming metal would now make him too easy to pick out of the crowd.
Was it over? Was Cavanaugh out of ammunition? Reloading?
Jostled one way, then another, Ben scanned the labyrinthine arcade for an exit, an Ausgang, through which he could disappear unseen. Maybe I've lost him, Ben thought. Yet he didn't dare look back again. No going back. Only forward.
Along the walkway that led to the Franscati department store, he spotted a fake-rustic sign of dark wood and gilt lettering in shrift: KATZKELLER-BIERIIALLE. It hung above an alcove, an entrance to a deserted restaurant. GESCHLOSSEN, a smaller sign read. Closed.
He raced toward it, his movement camouflaged by a frenzied rush of people in that general direction. Through a faux-medieval archway beneath the sign, he ran into a spacious, empty dining room. Cast-iron chains from the ceiling supported enormous wooden chandeliers; medieval halberds and engravings of medieval nobility adorned the walls. The motif continued with the heavy round tables, which were crudely carved in keeping with someone's fantasy of a fifteenth-century arsenal.
On the right side of the room was a long bar, and Ben ducked behind it, gasping loudly for breath, as desperately as he tried to remain silent. His clothes were soaked with sweat. He couldn't believe how fast his heart was thudding, and he actually winced from the chest pain.
He tapped the cabinetry in front of him; it made a hollow sound. Obviously fashioned from veneer and plaster, it was nothing that could be relied upon to stop a bullet. Crouching, he made his way around a corner and to a protected stone alcove, where he could stand and catch his breath. As he leaned back to rest against the pillar, his head cracked into a wrought-iron lantern mounted on the stone. He groaned involuntarily. Then he examined the light fixture that had just lacerated the back of his head, and he saw that the whole thing, the heavy black iron arm attached to the ornamental housing that held the bulb, could be lifted right out of the mounting bracket.
It came out with a rusty screech. He managed to get a firm grip and held it against his chest.
And he waited, trying to slow the beating of his heart. He knew something about waiting. He remembered all those Thanksgivings spent at the Greenbriar; Max Hartman was insistent that his sons learn how to hunt, and Hank McGee, a grizzled local from White Sulfur Springs, was given the job of teaching them. How hard could it be? he remembered thinking: he was an ace at skeet shooting, had reason to be proud of his hand-eye coordination. He let this slip to McGee, whose eyes darkened: You think the hunt's really about shootin'? It's about waitin'. And he fixed him with a glare. McGee was right, of course: the waiting was the hardest part of all, and the part he was temperamentally least suited for.
Hunting with Hank McGee, he had lain in wait for his quarry.
Now he was the quarry.
Unless . . . somehow . . . he could change that.
Excerpted from The SIGMA Protocol, (c) 2002 Robert Ludlum. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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