From the time the first car entered the Avenue du Général Leclerc and blocked the prince’s route to the moment the assault squad regained their vehicles, hijacked the two BMW touring sedans, and departed the scene, no more than one minute had passed.
No one screamed. No shots were fired. The robbery was carried out with precision and discipline, relying on surprise, speed, and brute force, and never resorting to violence . . . apart from clubbing one of the prince’s bodyguards.
Staring down the barrel of an AK-47, Tino Coluzzi had learned, was ample motivation to do as you are told.
Now, forty-five minutes later, standing in a wheat field thirty kilometers south of Paris, watching flames engulf the stolen vehicles, Coluzzi could finally relax. The American had been right all along.
The prince really did travel with a million euros in cash.
The convoy of sixteen BMWs had arrived punctually at six p.m. The line of black touring sedans had drawn up in single file before the entrance of the Hotel George V, the last stopping halfway up the block.
Seated at Le Fouquet’s, Tino Coluzzi finished his espresso, slipped a ten-euro note beneath the saucer, and rose, taking a moment to dab the corners of his mouth. He was slim, of medium height, and elegantly dressed in a tan poplin blazer, dark slacks, and Italian driving shoes. Sunglasses shielded his eyes from the evening rays. A gambler’s mustache decorated his lip. His black hair had recently been cut and was combed neatly to one side, shiny with brilliantine.
It was impossible to detect the pistol cradled beneath his left arm or the stiletto he habitually wore at his ankle. The pistol was small—a .22 but loaded with hollow-point bullets. He used it rarely and only at close distances. He preferred the stiletto. Over the years, he’d gained an expert’s dexterity with it and could insert the blade, nick the heart, and be ten paces away before his victim had the slightest inkling he’d been mortally wounded.
“The prince is paying his bill,” said a voice in his earpiece. His contact in the hotel.
Coluzzi turned down the street toward the hotel. To look at, he appeared entirely at ease, one of Paris’s perennial bachelors with too much time on his hands. The sun was shining. The smell of the River Seine, a few blocks to the south, freshened the air. A calm breeze rustled the mature linden trees planted every ten meters. No one would ever suspect he was about to steal an enormous amount of money.
Coluzzi walked slowly, pretending to admire the goods on display in the numerous luxury boutiques. Jewelry. Dresses. Handbags. Nothing less than ten thousand euros. As if exhausted by the sheer variety of choices, he came to a halt in front of the store across the street from the hotel. Staring into the window, he caught a perfect reflection of the revolving glass doors that led into the lobby.
The Hotel George V—or the Four Seasons Hotel George V, as it was officially known these days—was one of Paris’s oldest and most prestigious hotels. Located in the famed Golden Triangle of the 8th arrondissement, it was a stone’s throw from the Champs-Élysées and a five-minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe. The price for a room began at eight hundred euros a night.
“Well?” asked Coluzzi. “How much?”
“One hundred twenty-two thousand euros and change.”
Approximately one hundred fifty thousand dollars. Coluzzi still valued his take in American currency.
“The prince never travels with less than a million euros in cash,” the American had informed him when he offered Coluzzi the job. “He likes to drop a few hundred thousand shopping while he’s in town. The rest is yours.”
They’d met in the bar of the Hôtel Costes a week earlier. The American was a sallow, fatigued-looking man with dark eyes and a nervous smile, out of place in the swank lounge. His French was nearly fluent but uneven, and he apologized incessantly for being rusty.
The target was Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud, a fifty-year-old Saudi Arabian playboy who traveled the world with his wives and kids as cover for his philandering. He never went anywhere without at least five bodyguards, and he moved around the city in convoys of black BMW sedans. Coluzzi was to hijack the convoy as the prince drove to Orly Airport in the southern outskirts of Paris.
“And for you?” Coluzzi had asked. “How much?”
“It’s not the money I’m interested in.”
The American had never said where he’d gotten Coluzzi’s name or, for that matter, his phone number. Coluzzi had needed one look to know he came from the shadows. All the better. He didn’t trust an honest man.
A bodyguard emerged from the hotel, then another, and Coluzzi’s heart picked up a beat. A moment later, both retreated inside.
“Where the hell is he?”
“Hold your horses. The family’s all here. Just another minute.”
For the past three days Coluzzi and his crew had been following the prince, his three wives, and their ten children as they spent their way across Paris. Ten thousand euros for a handbag at Hermès. Twenty thousand for a dress at Chanel. Thirty thousand for a diamond-encrusted watch at Cartier. (A gift for the prince’s oldest son, age twelve.) There were stops at the city’s finest restaurants. Lunch at Epicure. Cocktails at the Plaza Athénée. Dinner at Le Jules Verne. The prince had left the tenets of Islam in Saudi Arabia, along with his prayer rug.
And now the hotel bill totaling one hundred twenty-two thousand euros.
Which left approximately six hundred thousand for the taking.
“They’re headed your way,” said his contact.
Coluzzi came to attention. In the window’s reflection, he watched as bellmen streamed from the lobby, ferrying mountains of luggage to the automobiles. The bodyguards returned. Four formed a loose cordon to block pedestrian traffic. A fifth—who Coluzzi recognized as their leader—walked between them, eyes sweeping the street for threats. Seeing nothing, he retreated to the door and motioned that all was clear.
By now, passersby on both sides of the street had stopped to pay attention to the spectacle. The line of black sedans. The mountain of luggage. The bodyguards in their black suits. Turning around, Coluzzi allowed himself to gaze openly. It would be odd not to look.
The women and children filed from the hotel like prisoners on their way to jail, heads bowed, not a smile among them. For their return home, the mothers wore traditional black burkas, even their faces shielded from view. The younger girls pulled Hermès scarves over their heads. The boys slouched in ripped jeans and untucked shirts. Not one acknowledged the chauffeurs holding their doors.
The princess passed through the revolving doors and paused as the chief bodyguard ran ahead, looking this way and that. Finally, he waved her forward. The princess was not dressed in a burka like the others but in a navy blazer and tan pants, a large white purse slung over one arm.
“The prince and princess travel in the fifth car,” the American had said, after Coluzzi had agreed to take the job. “It’s his lucky number. The money goes in the sixth, all by itself.”
The princess walked to the fourth car and spoke to the driver. Coluzzi felt a twinge of unease. Not the fourth car, he admonished her. The fifth.
She paid him no heed. She placed a foot inside the back and lowered her head. From the hotel, a man shouted a rebuke. The princess turned her head. Coluzzi saw the prince gesturing unhappily to his wife. Immediately, she retraced her steps and climbed into the fifth car.
And then it was the prince’s turn. He exited the hotel in the company of the hotel’s general manager, the two walking arm in arm across the sidewalk. The prince was a handsome man dressed in his country’s traditional garb of a flowing white thobe and red-checked kaffiyeh secured with a black cord. As was his custom, he wore dark sunglasses. In his hand he carried a calfskin briefcase.
“All I want is the prince’s briefcase. The rest is yours.”
“Just the briefcase?”
“Tan calfskin. Leather handle.” The American had offered no further explanation. “Do we have a deal?”
Coluzzi swore under his breath. For two days he’d seen nothing of the briefcase. He’d begun to worry that the prince did not have it with him on this trip. Tan. Leather handle. There it was, thank God. He was staring so hard at it that he almost didn’t catch the bodyguard delivering the compact metal suitcase to the trunk of the sixth car.
The money goes in the sixth.
As the prince reached the car, his driver extended a hand to relieve him of the briefcase. The prince turned a shoulder to guard it, tensing like a rugby scrum half bracing for a hit. The driver retreated hastily.
The prince offered a last thank you to the hotel manager. There was a handshake. The manager bowed, slipping his gratuity into his pocket with a legerdemain Coluzzi admired. A final wave goodbye and the prince disappeared inside the car.
Not a second later, the first BMW peeled away from the curb. Then the second. In a minute, they were all gone, heading south en route to Orly airfield.
The Avenue George V was quiet once again. The excitement had passed. It was just another lazy Sunday evening in August.
A white Renault pulled up alongside Coluzzi and he jumped into the front seat. He took a two-way radio from the center console as the car sped away.
“The pigeon has flown the coop,” he said. “He’s coming at you.”
Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud settled into his seat and exhaled. “Hurry up,” he said to the driver. “I don’t want to be late.”
“It is our plane, darling,” said his wife, covering his hand with her own. “We can leave when we choose.”
The prince looked at her red nails, her mascara, and shook his hand free. “What do you know?”
The princess slid toward her door, saying nothing.
Prince Abdul Aziz stared out the window as the car crossed the Pont de l’Alma and slipped into the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. He knew he should be happier, rejoicing even. He’d pulled off the greatest coup of his career, yet it would mean nothing until the letter reached the proper hands. His only wish was to be gone from Paris as quickly as possible.
His eyes fell to the calfskin briefcase at his feet and his heart raced. He thought of the letter inside. A personal note from one man to another, handwritten in blue ink on the most exclusive of stationeries, in appearance as fresh as the day it was penned nearly thirty years ago.
And not just any note, but a note that would cause governments to collapse, alliances to realign, and death to many along the way.
Instinctively, he gripped the case between his ankles.
He leaned forward to squeeze the driver’s shoulder. “Faster.”
Tino Coluzzi followed the convoy across the city. The prince had chosen an unlikely route to the airport, using an August evening’s wideopen boulevards and traffic-free surface streets to navigate through Montparnasse toward Porte d’Orléans at the southern edge of the city. It was a move that shaved ten minutes off the more oft-chosen route along the Périphérique, the eight-lane superhighway that circled Paris. The decreased transit time had a cost, however, and that cost was security. It was nearly impossible to stop a convoy of sixteen vehicles once it was on the highway. Coluzzi would have no such difficulty on surface streets.
The Renault hit a dip as it crossed through an intersection, and Coluzzi grasped the stock of his AK-47 assault rifle. The poplin blazer was gone, as were the Italian driving shoes. He wore the same assault gear as the other men in the car with him. Three blocks ahead, the traffic signal for Porte d’Orléans burned red. Once past it, the prince would join the highway. Coluzzi’s chance would be gone.
“Tighten it up,” he said, placing his right hand on the door handle.
With a burst of acceleration, the Renault came up on the last BMW in line.
Coluzzi put the radio to his mouth. “Take him.”
A moment later, a car identical to his own darted into the street ahead of the first BMW. Red lights flared up and down the line of cars. Brakes squealed. The convoy stopped.
Coluzzi braced as his vehicle struck the car at a speed of ten kilometers per hour.
The kill box was established.
Coluzzi pulled the balaclava over his face and stepped out of the car. As he ran up the line of BMWs, another white Renault approached from a side street.
Coluzzi’s men poured from their vehicles. There were twelve including himself. All wore black commando gear, balaclavas pulled over their faces. Like him, all carried AK-47 assault rifles with an extra-long ammunition clip. The men fanned out to surround the convoy, weapons pointed at the idling automobiles. Coluzzi ran to the fifth vehicle and drove the butt of his rifle into the driver’s window. A second blow showered glass over the asphalt.
“Unlock the car,” he shouted. “Everyone out.”
The driver got out, hands held high. Coluzzi forced him to the ground, landing a boot on his back for good measure.
A bodyguard emerged from one of the cars farther back. It was the leader, and his gun was drawn. He moved slowly, unsurely. It was a show of mad loyalty rather than an effort to stop the robbery. One of Coluzzi’s men was on him before he cleared the car and clubbed him with the stock of his weapon. The bodyguard fell to the asphalt like a sack of rocks.
Coluzzi opened the back door. “Your Highness. If you please.”
The prince stepped out, lending a hand for the princess. The two stood, staring at each other, saying nothing.
Immediately, one of Coluzzi’s men climbed behind the wheel and closed the door.
Coluzzi hurried to the next car in line. The sixth, carrying the money. “Out.”
The driver climbed out.
“On the ground.”
The driver lay down.
One of Coluzzi’s men tossed his machine gun into the car and slid behind the wheel.
“My belongings,” said the prince, his eyes shifting to the calfskin briefcase visible in the back seat. “Please.”
Coluzzi returned to the prince. “Leave it.”
“Papers for my work. They are of no value to you.”
Already his men were running back to their vehicles.
Coluzzi shoved the prince away from the car, sunglasses falling to the ground, and the prince shoved back, fighting to go around him. The princess lunged at her husband in a vain effort to stop him. The prince knocked her away, then grabbed Coluzzi’s tunic. “I will find you.”
Coluzzi looked into the prince’s eyes. He saw fire and resolve. They were the eyes of a man accustomed to cruelty and having his way. They were not the eyes of a playboy.
“Excuse me,” he said, using the barrel of his rifle to free the prince’s hands from his person. “I must be going.”
The prince stepped away.
Coluzzi banged a fist on the roof of the prince’s car. The engine revved, then pulled out of line and sped away. Coluzzi jogged to the rear of the convoy and jumped into the Renault. “Allons-y.”
As the Renault accelerated, he looked over his shoulder. The prince and princess stood staring at the space where the cars had been.
Coluzzi wondered if five was still the prince’s lucky number.
Coluzzi threw the empty petrol can into the front seat of the burning BMW and watched the flames lick at the automobiles. His clothing, sunglasses, shoes, socks, even the false mustache he’d been wearing, were inside. Anything that could tie him or his men to the crime would be incinerated.
His phone rang. “Yes?”
“We counted it.”
“Six hundred twenty-two thousand.”
“Not bad for a few days’ work.”
“Not bad at all.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Coluzzi returned to his car. The engine was running, and in a moment they were doing a hundred down the farm road. He looked down at the calfskin briefcase and recalled how the prince had so zealously guarded it. He thought of the sallow, fatigued-looking American with his rusty French offering him the job.
“All I want is the prince’s briefcase,” he’d said. “The rest is yours.”
Just then his phone rang. It was the American. He let the phone ring and ring until the call rolled to his voice mail.
“Where to?” asked the driver.
Coluzzi put the satchel on his lap.
“Just drive,” he said.