The Amigo in line approached the collection bowl, dropped in a coin, then climbed the short steps to the marble table where the stoic priest remained on guard. The two other Amigos slipped off their backpacks and unzipped them. The clangor of alarm bells inside Cotton's head took on a shriller tone. He could hear the robot from Lost in Space
, the old sci-fi show. Danger, Will Robinson
One Amigo removed a gun, the other held what appeared to be a metal cylinder. He pulled the pin and tossed the canister into the side chapel.
Smoke immediately billowed out.
Cotton's thoughts were shattered by the sharp report of the gun being fired twice into the ceiling. Plaster and wood splinters showered down. A wave of panic spread fast. A woman shrieked. Voices were raised. More screaming. People moved in a herd toward the only exit, a richly decorated circular staircase that led down. Maybe a hundred, all rushing out, creating pandemonium.
Another shot rang out.
A thick cloud of gray smoke billowed into the main nave, obstructing the view into the side chapel and reliquary. Cotton pushed through the crowd and headed for the smoke. Through the growing haze he saw the Amigo who'd been in line shoving the priest aside. Another wave of excited visitors formed a wall between where he stood and the Three Amigos, who were moving farther against the grain of the exodus. He pushed his way forward, the two other Amigos angling toward the third, who shattered the glass case holding the reliquary. The priest lunged, trying to stop the theft, but one of the Amigos planted a fist in the older man's face, sending him down.
What was this?
A classic flash-and-bang robbery?
Sure looked like it.
And it was working.
The Three Amigos moved toward the side door from which the priest had first entered, which surely led into the back bowels of the basilica. Probably another way down, too. Which meant these guys had done their homework.
Cotton cleared past the last of the frantic tourists and stepped into the side chapel. He was having trouble breathing, coughing out smoke, his eyes watering. The priest was a concern, so he made his way to the altar and found the older man lying on the floor.
"You okay?" he asked.
The guy was groggy, his right eye red and swollen. But the priest grabbed Cotton's right arm in a tight clamp. "Need to...get it back."
The Three Amigos were gone.
Surely the police were on the way. Somebody had to have alerted them. But they'd be little help in finding the thieves, who were about to dissolve into the busy streets of Bruges.
He galvanized himself into action.
"I'll get it back."
JONTY OLIVIER HATED THE INTIMIDATION ASPECT OF HIS BUSINESS. He considered himself a refined gentleman, a man of distinguished taste, a connoisseur of aged wine and good food. A learned man whose studies of the classics dominated his spare time. Even his name conjured up movie royalty. Olive-ee-ay
. As in Sir Laurence Olivier. Above all, he was a consummate professional. His specialty? Information. His reputation? One of a man who could provide exactly what someone needed to know.
Interested in the hidden net worth of a potential business partner or a possible buyer? No problem. How many automatic rifles and how much ammunition had the Boko Haram imported into Nigeria last month? Easy. What will the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia press for at the coming bilateral talks? A bit more difficult, but doable. What were the Hizbul Mujahideen up to in Kashmir, or how will the EU foreign exchange markets value the euro at the close of business today? Both tricky, but the answers would be close enough. Besides, he gave a discount if he wasn't 100 percent sure, since by and large partial information was far better than none at all. His motto? Scientia potentia est
. Sir Francis Bacon had been right.
Knowledge is power.
But its acquisition came with challenges. Greed remained a universal motivator, so money usually worked. Bartering also brought results. He didn't even mind a hard bargain, as that was the nature of the game.
But spies? Those he detested.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book SISTERS BY CHOICE by Susan Mallery.