Disclaimer: All Alex Rider characters herein are the property of Anthony Horowitz and the Penguin Group. No copyright infringement is intended.



The first of the massive explosions rocked the entire complex. Technicians and security personnel scattered like roaches, shouting in confusion. Red emergency lights started flashing down the corridors. Klaxons began screaming and employees in white lab coats ran toward the exits. Acrid gray smoke wafted down through the air vents. All was fire, panic and mayhem.

Tucked safely away in a dark little alcove down a utility corridor, Alex Rider raised his Casio digital wristwatch to his eyes. He counted softly: “Three. Two. One—”

A second explosion shook Reinhardt Industrial Research Laboratories to its foundation, this time from the visitor’s wing. A cloud of fire billowed up and consumed everything in its path. Fortunately, there were no visitors today.

Alex knelt down and pulled out a pair of Eliminator motorcycle goggles, strapping them on quickly. But these were no ordinary goggles; apart from their shatter-proof polycarbonate lenses, combination infrared/night-vision interface, and streamlined black and silver design, they were also completely airtight, making them useful against the teargas cartridges Alex had rigged in the central ventilation system twenty minutes ago. They were set to go off at intervals, just like the plastic explosives planted all around the complex.

With the employees rushing around and trying to evacuate the facility, Alex calculated he would have enough time to slip into the main testing laboratory and extract the 1.5-kilogram ruby rod from the Apollo inertial reactor, the largest, most powerful laser ever built.

Like most advances in the field of science, there was a dark side to the Apollo Project. Apart from having the ability to create stars from hydrogen capsules, possibly solving the world’s energy crisis once and for all, it was also capable of destroying whole cities in a matter of seconds. In the hands of a sociopathic malcontent like Peter Reinhardt, who planned to sell the laser to the highest bidding terrorist once the British Isles were reduced to molecular dust, it was the deadliest weapon ever made by man.

“A thousand times deadlier than the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Reinhardt has sneered to Alex from the other side of one of the facility’s many fusion chambers. “Oh, don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing. As soon as the lasers reach full power, you will simply cease to exist. You’ll become stardust again, Alex, atoms of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen, the same elements from which you and I and everything else in the universe were born. The matter of stars. Isn’t it a beautiful end, Alex? Most people simply rot in the ground after they die, but you . . . you should consider yourself lucky.” Reinhardt chuckled. “Or should I say, you should thank your lucky stars. So long, Alex—in astrum nos mos opportunus iterum!” In the stars we shall meet again.

And then he had walked away, cheerfully whistling Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and left the fifteen-year-old spy to die.

Alex had had a difficult time getting out of that one, but in the end it was nothing that a well-aimed spitball with an aluminum foil core couldn’t take care of. When the spitball landed in the muzzle of the ceiling-mounted laser cannon and disrupted the flow of the concentrating atoms, the resulting explosion had busted the entire reactor to pieces. Alex would have been incinerated if he hadn’t been wearing that heat-resistant Puma track suit Smithers had designed. He’d escaped the chamber with only a few bruises and some cuts from glancing shrapnel—nothing a few bandages couldn’t fix.

Now, 24 hours later, Alex was on his way to stop this operation once and for all. The Apollo laser was useless without its gain source, the ruby crystal, to help the beam molecules focus from a low energy state to a high energy state. Usually, lab-created crystals worked best for lasers, but this particular rod, crafted from the world’s largest ruby that had been stolen from Russia just four months ago, was a perfect specimen of corundum, more perfect than any synthetic ruby of comparable size.

MI6 had had no idea they would be sending Alex on anything other than a simple gem heist reconnaissance. He had been working too hard lately and this was supposed to be something of a winter holiday for him in sunny Lisbon, Portugal. In less than a week he had ended up on an isolated island in Norway, pretending to be a stupid, lazy grunt working the docks of Reinhardt Industrial. With unexpected help from a dissatisfied mechanical engineer—Dr Arne Nielsen, a warm-hearted man in his late 50s who had family living in London—Alex was able to infiltrate the main facility and locate the ruby, as well as learn of its sinister use in the Apollo Project. Alex had had no intention of doing anything other than getting the gem and getting the hell out, but after Peter Reinhardt had tried to vaporize him, Alex was determined to see the man get what he deserved. But first he had to make sure that the Apollo was rendered useless.

A third explosion rattled doors and cracked glass, right on schedule. As he jogged down the deserted corridor that led to the main testing lab, Alex glanced at his watch again. He had two minutes before the fourth and final diversion blast went off, and exactly fifteen minutes to grab the ruby, plant the 9-kilogram C-4 bomb that would take out the Apollo, and meet Dr Nielsen on the helipad. The Norwegian had insisted that nobody be injured in the process of dismantling Reinhardt’s murderous scheme, and had volunteered to assist in evacuating the facility. He had also pulled some strings on the mainland and hired a private pilot to pick them up. If all went according to plan, Alex and Nielsen would  be watching Reinhardt Industrial go up in flames from the safety of a departing helicopter. Alex would return to MI6 with the ruby, Peter Reinhardt would go to prison, and Arne Nielsen would be able to go back to his wife and daughters in London. A happy end for those who deserved one.

Alex shouldered his way through a pair of stainless steel swinging doors and found himself in a room the size of an Olympic gymnasium. The roof was at least three storeys high, with a bulging glass dome in the center. Polished gray concrete gleamed under a field of fluorescent lights mounted on the ceiling. It looked more like an observatory than a laboratory.

A bank of high-tech computer consoles curved around a large platform in the center of the room. Desks and drafting tables and scale models were tucked into several cubicles on the far end. But Alex was staring at the column of scaffolding surrounding the towering, 7-meter long cannon that was the Apollo laser, his skin prickling with awe.

He pushed his goggles back onto his forehead and blinked. He could see why they had named it Apollo. It was like the finger of a god, capable of untold death and destruction. Though its titanium-white hull was still under construction, it looked poised and ready to go—the deadliest gun on Earth.

Well, thought Alex, time to disarm it.

He pulled off his pack and took out the blocks of plastique, tucked them into his jacket, and began to climb the scaffolding. He needed to reach the laser’s optical resonator, the innermost chamber that comprised the largest part of the weapon. Alex located it immediately and set about removing the panels that covered the compartment.

He spared a glance at his watch. His sense of timing was perfect. The fourth blast went off, rumbling through the laboratory like thunder. Alex waited until the shockwaves subsided before getting back to work. Fifteen minutes to rendezvous. He was okay, doing good so far.

He folded back the last panel, revealing the cavity resonator, a hollow glass cylinder with large mirrors at either end. There, carefully mounted in the middle, was the ruby rod. Following Nielsen’s instructions, Alex pulled the glass-cutter from his pocket and set to work. He cut a jagged circle into the tube, tossed the piece of glass to the floor, and delicately removed the precious gem. Or what was left of it after Reinhardt had turned it into a component for death. No doubt the Russians would have some strong words concerning the recent cosmetic alterations.

Alex tucked the heavy rod in the inside pocket of his jacket and zipped it closed, then wrapped his arm around a scaffolding beam and pulled out the C-4. He placed the putty blocks inside the resonator, taking a few seconds to mold them in place and uncoil the wires connected to the digital timing device. Though Nielsen had told him there was no way the bomb could go off without first running through the programmed time setting, Alex still felt a bit dazed to be working with such potentially destructive materials. Although, he realized, the Apollo was a much bigger threat than a few kilos of plastic explosive.

After making sure everything was situated properly, Alex took a deep breath and hit the red initiation button. The time flashed on the digital display—00:07:00—and began counting down. Mission complete.

Alex scrambled down the scaffolding and onto the floor, turned around, and was suddenly face to face with Peter Reinhardt. The 32-year-old American physicist looked unkempt and completely insane. His glasses—the right lens cracked—sat crookedly on his face, which glistened with sweat.  His clothes looked partially singed, as if he might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the preliminary blasts went off. He stood in front of Alex, arms hanging at his sides, staring at the boy with a kind of detached fascination. Other than that, his pasty white face was utterly emotionless.

“What are you doing to my baby?” he asked in an eerie, unhinged voice. “What did you do to Apollo?”

Alex didn’t have time for this. Nielsen was waiting for him on the helipad, and Alex didn’t really care if this genocidal sociopath wanted to stay behind and get blown to Kingdom Come. All the better, actually.

Alex darted past Reinhardt and was breaking into a run when he felt something hot slice along the side of his thigh. He gasped and stumbled, sprawling to the ground.

His thigh felt like it was on fire. Pulling himself upright, Alex looked down at his leg and saw a perfect, pencil-thin tear in his jeans. Blood was suddenly soaking through the denim. It was as if he’d been cut with a scalpel. But how? He hadn’t seen Reinhardt carrying any weapons . . .

A shadow fell over Alex and he looked up to see Reinhardt glaring down at him, holding what looked like a silver fountain pen in his hand. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked in a low, threatening tone.

A red light shot out of the end of the device and burned a line across Alex’s shin, eating through cloth and skin. He cried out in pain and jerked his leg out of the beam’s path. A smell like singed hair permeated the air, and blood began to trickle from the freshly-cut skin.

Reinhardt turned off the miniature laser and smiled enthusiastically, his demeanor now delighted. “Like it?” he asked eagerly. “I call it the Razor Laser, my own design. First handheld lethal-grade laser weapon for personal defense.”

He was rambling now, caught up in the manic rush that is a hallmark of untreated sufferers of bipolar disorder.

“Small, light, easily concealed, no need for bullets. The ammo supply is essentially unlimited. It emits either a pulse or a continuous beam that cuts through wood, steel, granite . . . even flesh, see?”

To demonstrate, Reinhardt pressed a button on the side of the device. A thin shaft of red light shot out and slashed across Alex’s chest, opening a diagonal line through his t-shirt and the first two millimeters of his flesh.

It was like getting whipped with a red-hot wire, followed by a raging stinging sensation and—God!—more blood. Alex watched the front of his shirt blossom red stains and knew that Reinhardt was never going to let him leave this place alive.

“I should have done this from the start,” Reinhardt said, twisting the end of the laser. “Taken you apart piece by piece, just like what you did to all my plans. Let’s try a higher setting, shall we?”

Alex clambered backward as fast as he could, but not fast enough. He threw himself to the side, dodging the beam aimed at his neck. The laser fell to his exposed left arm, cutting a ferociously deep swipe down the length of it.

Alex screamed in agony as the pain shredded into him like a knife, accompanied by wisps of smoke rising from his scorched jacket. Dark red blood was suddenly running down his arm, spilling out onto the floor from his lacerated flesh. Alex pulled his arm close to his side and gritted his teeth, tears rolling down his face. All he could think about was the pain . . . and how much longer he had to live if any of his veins had been sliced.

“‘Bloody mess’, as you Brits say,” Reinhardt clucked, then aimed the laser at Alex’s head. “Let’s see what happens when I remove what you need to survi—”

A sudden noise came from behind Alex, followed by the deafening bang of a gunshot. Reinhardt jumped, startled by a bullet whizzing over his shoulder, and dropped the laser. A second shot rang out and flecks of blood leaped out of his chest. Alex threw himself face down on the floor and covered his head.

Another shot. And another, and another. Gunfire roared through the laboratory, resonating off of the bare metal walls. Finally the racket ceased and the echoes faded. There came the heavy thump of a body collapsing onto the floor, then nothing. Alex lifted his head.

Peter Reinhardt lay dead, his eyes staring blankly through his cracked glasses. His face was speckled with his own blood, the front of his body wracked with bullet holes.

“Alex, are you all right?” Arne Nielsen was suddenly crouching at Alex’s side with a 9mm CZ-75 pistol, staring at the blood with disbelief. “Herregud, what was he doing to you?”

“Cutting up,” Alex grunted. “But it looks like I’ll have the last laugh.”

“Did you get the ruby?”

“It’s right here.” Alex patted his jacket with his good arm, wincing a little as he touched the cut across his chest. “What are you doing down here? I thought you were going to meet me on the roof.”

“Yes, well . . . I’m afraid there has been a change of plan,” Nielsen sighed, then leveled his gun at Alex’s chest. “I will be taking that ruby now, if you don’t mind.”

Alex stared dumbly. Either he was losing too much blood or this sudden turn of events was too much for him to comprehend. His mind spun dizzily as he tried to make sense of it. “Wh-what?”

“Don’t make me shoot you, Alex. You’re a good kid. I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have to.”

It had all been a trick, Alex slowly realized. He had been double-crossed by the person he least expected. Kind old Dr Nielsen, so eager to assist, so willing and helpful. A little too helpful, it seemed.

A surge of anger flared up in Alex—mainly at himself for putting his trust in someone else. All this time, Nielsen had been pretending to help him just so he could get his hands on that ruby. It had to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, even whittled down to its current shape.

Alex hugged his bleeding arm to his body. “So you don’t want to shoot me, but you’ll leave me here to get blown up? That makes absolutely no sense.”

“I don’t have time to argue with you, Alex, now give me the ruby!”

Alex swallowed his contempt, knowing he had no choice. He reached into his jacket, removing the precious gem and handing it to Nielsen. The man stood and slipped the crystal into his coat pocket, then looked down at Alex pityingly. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

“Not as sorry as I am,” Alex muttered.

Nielsen sighed, lifted the gun, and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet tore through Alex’s already injured thigh and out the other side, narrowly missing his femur and smashing into the concrete beneath. Muscle and tissue seemed to swell in the bullet’s wake, painting the world in red and white shades of excruciating, mind-blowing pain. Alex gasped as his breath was taken away, then fell back on the floor, curling up into a fetal ball. It was all his body was capable of doing at this point.

Nielsen tossed the empty gun to the floor—getting rid of the evidence—and looked at his watch. He had been here long enough. It was time to go.

“Sorry, Alex,” he repeated. “I couldn’t risk you following me. Don’t worry, the pain won’t last long. Soon it will all be over.”

With one final look at the suffering boy at his feet, Nielsen hurried out of the lab, his footsteps merging with the screeching noise of the evacuation sirens.

Alex lay on the cold concrete floor, shot, cut, and slowly bleeding to death, feeling the world around him start to fade in and out. He thought about Jack, visiting her family in Washington DC right now. He thought about his parents and wondered if he’d see them on the other side. He thought about what it was going to be like to get blown apart, if he would feel anything, if there would be anything left for the world to bury.

It couldn’t end like this. It wasn’t fair. He had been tricked. Nielsen had to pay. Somebody had to stop him.

Alex pulled himself into a sitting position. His cheek was sticky. He’d been lying in a pool of his own blood.

He took a breath and tried to ignore the searing pain in his arm and leg. He needed medical attention. But first he needed to get out of this place before it was blown to pieces. He still had one good leg. He could limp on it.

Alex crawled up and put his left leg under him, his shoes squeaking on the blood that covered the floor. God, there was so much of it. He felt sick, as if he would faint at any second. If he stood, he was certain to fall.

He gulped down his nausea. Fine. If he couldn’t walk out of here, then he was just going to have to drag himself out.

Pushing with his left leg and pulling with his right arm, Alex scooted toward the doors just as the numbers on the  timing device read 00:04:30.


00:04:28 . . .

Arne Nielsen stepped out onto the cold, windy roof just as the helicopter—a sleek black-and-silver AS350 B3—was landing. He stood back and waited for the aircraft to touch down before ducking his head and trotting over. He opened the door and slid into the empty seat up front. The pilot, wearing a black cap and darkly-tinted aviator glasses, turned to look at him.

“Where is the boy?”

“He didn’t make it.”

“What happened?”

I said he didn’t fucking make it! Now get this fucking thing off the ground before we all die!”

The pilot said nothing, unruffled by Nielsen’s outburst. He calmly took hold of the controls and the helicopter slowly began to lift into the air.

Nielsen heaved a heavy sigh and slumped in his seat, scrubbing his face with one hand. He felt badly about leaving Alex like that, but he just didn’t have the heart to murder a kid in cold blood, no matter how much of a pretentious little snot he was. His worries would be over in a matter of minutes anyway, and then Nielsen could go retire on a tropical island somewhere and not have to work another day in his life. With that ruby he could probably buy his own island and divorce that nagging wife of his, marry a Brazilian supermodel or something. What was one human life when compared with all that?

Still, something was bothering him. Something wasn’t making sense, a little alarm chiming softly somewhere in the back of his mind. It took just a second’s consideration for him to realize what it was.

Nielsen turned to the pilot. “I never said anything about my partner being a boy. How do you—”

“What is that?” the pilot interrupted, pointing at the helipad below.

A young man had emerged from the doorway on the roof. His clothes were covered in blood and he was limping badly. His jacket, stained bright red, was wrapped tightly around his left arm. His face was pale and colorless, anemic from hemorrhage. He lurched toward the helicopter, waving his right arm and shouting.

It was Alex. Barely alive, barely standing, but still fighting. He had managed to crawl to his feet after leaving the laboratory and stumble through the corridors of Reinhardt Industrial until he had found the stairs to the roof. Leaving behind a trail of bloody prints on the floor and wall, he had gritted his teeth and hauled himself up the stairs one by one.

After almost two years of escaping from some of the worst situations imaginable, Alex Rider had forgotten what it was like to give up.

“Never mind,” Nielsen muttered to the pilot. “It’s too late. Pull up, we can’t save him, this facility is going to ex—”

Nielsen was cut off by the business end of an MP-443 Grach cocking on the end of his nose. Behind it, the pilot gazed at his passenger with an expression as cold and emotionless as black ice. Nielsen saw his terrified face reflecting back at him in those dark sunglasses. He opened his mouth to beg for his life, but he never got the chance.

There was a bang, a splash of blood against the Plexiglas window, and Nielsen slumped lifelessly in his seat.

Alex stopped waving his arm when the helicopter began to descend. Thank God, they were coming back for him. He might make it after all.

He sighed. He felt so tired, so heavy. His battle up the stairs had wiped him out. How much time was left? Minutes? Seconds? It felt like too little. How much blood had he lost? Two pints? Three? It felt like too much.

The clothes on his left side were drenched in blood—jeans, shirt, jacket. Even his shoe was soaked. He didn’t know how he had managed to stay standing. The pain in his thigh alone should have put him on his back. But getting blown apart would hurt worse, he had rationalized. Even though it wouldn’t have lasted long, it would undoubtedly be the worst pain of his life.

Every second seemed like it was passing in slow motion now: the helicopter coming down, each blade of the propeller scything slowly through the frigid winter air; the clouds drifting above, looking down from their quiet, lofty heights. It was like a dream dragging itself through an underwater world that seemed to be growing dimmer and dimmer and dimmer . . .

Alex’s blood-deprived brain had finally had all it could take. He closed his eyes felt himself topple, but he didn’t remember hitting the rooftop. He was sure he had, though. Everything was sideways now. He was so numb, so sleepy . . .

Oh, the helicopter had landed. When had that happened? What time was it? Wasn’t something going to happen here soon?

Someone was lifting him up, pushing him into the back seat of the helicopter. Was it Nielsen? No, it couldn’t be. Nielsen was sitting right over there with a red spot on his forehead, very still and quiet. Maybe he had fallen asleep, too.

Alex felt like he was flying now, gently soaring up and down. Everything was gray, all of the colors in the world running together to form a dull, muddy hue. He saw water stretching out below him. He was flying over the ocean. Maybe he had turned into a bird and was flying to Heaven. Or whatever happened to a human being when all metabolic functions ceased.

He was so tired. So, so tired.

Alex drew in one last, slow breath, then gently, mercifully, passed into darkness.

Soft voices were speaking. He couldn’t understand the words. It was almost musical, those steady, breathy tones. Then he realized it wasn’t voices. It was the sound of pigeons cooing.

Alex opened his eyes and stared up at a cream-colored ceiling. A wrought-iron chandelier hung in the center. Warm, golden light spilled into his room through a pair of French doors that gave onto a small balcony. Pigeons had gathered on the rail, shuffling around and peeking through the doors like nosy old women. Translucent curtains billowed gently in the pleasant, 20° Celsius air, and beyond the balcony Alex could see red roofs and hear ocean waves rolling against a shore.

He sat up slowly, his mind thick and drowsy. He was swimming in comfort and luxury: fine sheets of Egyptian cotton; a fluffy white duvet that was the softest thing he had ever touched; pillows like warm, satiny clouds; a mattress that contoured to his body’s every nuance. Everything felt so nice, so rich and comfortable. He was tempted to lie back down but his curiosity had begun to awaken.

What was this place? Heaven?

He slithered out of bed and stood to his feet, dimly registering that he was naked. It didn’t concern him at the moment—he was more interested in how light he felt, as if he could just lift his arms and float up to the ceiling if he wanted. He took a few experimental steps. There was no pain. Why was he expecting it to hurt? He couldn’t remember.

There was a bathroom attached to the bedroom and Alex stepped inside, taking in the large clawfoot bathtub, the porcelain sink, the open window that gazed out over pines and cypress trees. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and stared, barely recognizing his own face.

His skin looked so soft and even, a pale beige shade that almost seemed to glow. His hair appeared lighter than the last time he’d seen it, falling over his forehead in blond locks and curling outward at his ears. His eyes, which he had always thought of as rather plain, were somehow deep and warm, a hue of brown that was unique and mysterious.

Alex had never really paid much attention to his looks, but he suddenly felt himself to be very attractive, as if noticing it for the first time. He smiled at his reflection like he had just made a new friend. He looked good. He felt good. Everything was good.

He used the toilet and discovered a satin dressing gown hanging nearby. He pulled it on—a little long in the arms and much too wide—and wandered out of the bathroom, relishing that pleasant sense of everything being all right. The bedroom door was ajar. He gently pulled it open and padded out into a bright, open hallway. There was a breeze running through the house, no doubt supplied by other open windows. It smelled of grass and sea salt, clean and refreshing.

Soon Alex found himself standing at the top of a narrow balcony. A curving staircase led down to a sunny living area with a mosaic floor and pale yellow walls. Various pieces of art hung here and there. Verdant shrubs stood in corners. The sofas and chairs looked luxurious and inviting. There were shelves and coffee tables piled with books. What a comfortable, friendly home this was.

Alex tiptoed down the stairs and into the living room. The tiles felt cool against his bare feet. He took in his surroundings with little concern and few questions. The house appeared to be Mediterranean in style, a small villa of sorts, open and airy, with bold natural colors and a Spanish flair. It reminded Alex of a hotel he had stayed at in Barcelona once. Same style, same smell, same relaxed atmosphere.

His stomach grumbled and he realized how hungry he was. He wondered what kind of food he would find here. He wandered under the balcony in search of the kitchen. He found it in the back of the house, an equally cheery room with red walls and copper-bottomed pots dangling over the island counter top, modern stainless steel appliances, and a lovely view into a back yard carpeted with dark green grass.

Alex smiled to himself. Everything was so pleasant,  so clean and quiet. He liked it here. He hoped he could stay for a while.

A bowl of fruit caught his attention: plump oranges, vibrant yellow bananas, bunches of fat red grapes. His mouth began to water and he wandered over, trying to decide which to sample first.

And then, a voice:

“You should be in bed.”

Alex’s pulse spiked and he turned to look toward the table in the breakfast nook. A man was sitting on the far side, his face obscured by the newspaper he was reading. Alex opened his mouth to say something, but his brain seemed to have trouble calling up words.

The newspaper rustled as the man folded it and laid it on the table. Alex felt his heart freeze in his chest.

Yassen Gregorovich stared at him from across the kitchen. He was wearing a close-fitting black t-shirt, jeans, and brown Oxford boots. Completely casual. Utterly unruffled. There was an empty plate and a teacup in front of him, possibly brunch. Little about him had changed—his hair, his eyes, his expression—but he seemed different. Serene, peaceful. A bullet to the chest usually does that to people.

“Oh God,” Alex uttered, staggering back. “I’m dead. You’re a—”

A rush of dizziness slammed into him like a tidal wave. His arm shot out to support himself on the counter and a sharp pain raced from his wrist to his shoulder—the first real feeling his body had experienced since he’d woken up. He hissed and let go, took another unsteady step backward, and wobbled on feet that suddenly weren’t so sure how to deal with solid ground.

Yassen rose up with his characteristic grace and crossed the kitchen in a few quick strides. Alex tried to back away from him but he couldn’t stop staring at this man—no, this ghost. He couldn’t be real.

The Russian ducked down, sliding one arm around Alex’s waist and the other behind his knees, lifting him off the floor as if he weighed nothing. He was strong. Furthermore, he was solid. Warm. Breathing.

He was real.

Vertigo rolled through Alex’s head and he groaned, fumbling for purchase and finding it in Yassen’s shirt. When the world finally stopped spinning, he opened his eyes and froze.

Yassen’s face was inches away, gazing at him blankly. Alex could smell his aftershave, his breath, the laundry detergent in his clothes. He could see each of his golden-red eyelashes, every fine line on his face, the freckles he had never really noticed before, the rings of green around his pupils and how they faded to cool ocean-blue. The last time Alex had seen them they were almost gray, the color draining out of them as he watched the man bleed to death on Air Force One.

Or so he’d believed.

“Wha. Wh-what,” he stuttered, but then Yassen was moving, carrying him from the kitchen to the living room. By the time he began to make his way up the stairs, Alex had finally found his tongue.

“This isn’t happ—it’s not possible,” he protested. “I saw you die. You, you closed your eyes and didn’t move. You were dead . . . What happened? Where have you been all this time? Why didn’t you tell me you were alive?”

Yassen reached the top of the stairs and made his way down the hall, ignoring Alex’s deluge of questions. His silence only made Alex angry.

“I was almost killed because of you! You told me my father was an assassin and he wasn’t. You tricked me and sent me to Venice so that I’d become just like you—a lying, cold-blooded murderer!”

If he were capable, Alex would have thrown an elbow into Yassen’s cheek or slammed his knee up into the man’s jaw, but he was too feeble to even clench his fist, let alone deliver a blow with any power. He began to squirm and wriggle, fighting back the only way he could. He had become quite a burden by the time Yassen brought him back to his room.

“Let go of me, you bastard! I didn’t ask for your help! Put me down now or I swear to—”

Alex was suddenly deposited onto the bed, but apparently being out of Yassen’s arms wasn’t good enough. The fifteen-year-old was seething with wild, unfocused anger.

“You’re bloody unbelievable,” he spat. “I should never have listened to you. Everything about you is a lie. Your life, your friends, everything. You wouldn’t recognize truth if it—”

Yassen leaned over the bed, casting a shadow onto Alex’s body as he bent down toward his face, almost as if he were going to—

Alex panicked.

“No!” he shouted, thrashing his arms. “Don’t! Get away!”

Wordlessly, Yassen seized the boy’s left wrist in his hand and held it in front of his face.

Alex immediately ceased fighting when he caught sight of the ugly trail of black stitches marring the soft, tender underside of his arm. The loose ends of each individual suture made it look as if a crowd of spindly black spiders were waiting in line for something. The skin around the stitches was still red and inflamed, the long laceration already beginning to form crusty reddish-brown scabs where the flesh was being held together. It looked horrible, like something out of Frankenstein. Alex felt suddenly sick to his stomach.

“Are you going to cooperate?” Yassen asked levelly. “Or do I have to pull out a few?”

Alex slowly shook his head and Yassen let go of him. He cradled his arm in his lap, unable to stop staring at the stitches. Only now was he aware of how stiff and tight his skin felt, but other than that, he hardly felt a thing. How could he have missed such a horrendous mark on his body? A wound like that had to hurt. What was wrong with his mind? Had it completely disconnected from his body?

Yassen folded his arms over his chest and gazed at Alex. “I understand you have many questions. I will answer them all, but not right now.” Pause. “You must be hungry. Would you like something to eat?”

Alex, unable to believe what he was hearing and still distracted by his mutilated arm, gave a vague nod.

“All right,” said Yassen, moving toward the door. “Stay put. You don’t want to be on your feet when the morphine wears off.”

And then he was gone.

Alex sat in bed, his head swimming dazedly. Morphine. Stitches. Breakfast in bed. A living dead man. What the hell was going on?

Reluctantly, Alex willed himself to look down at his legs. Bruises. Cuts. Scrapes. Bloodstained butterfly bandages. There wasn’t a square inch of him that wasn’t beat up. Strips of gauze peeked out from the hem of his dressing gown, and slowly Alex pulled it back to reveal his thigh, wrapped two or three times in a wide elastic bandage. He didn’t know if he wanted to see what was underneath.

You don’t want to be on your feet when the morphine wears off.

Alex gulped, feeling sicker than ever. Pieces of memory began to float to the surface of his consciousness—smoke here, an explosion there, numbers counting down. And red. Red stones. Red fire. Red blood. Red light. Red pain. A world of red, some kind of hell. A nightmare, maybe. Or . . .

Alex closed his eyes for a moment, trying to collect himself. Then he slowly untied the belt of his dressing gown and opened it, revealing the full extent of his injuries.

“God,” he hissed softly.

He looked like a shark attack victim, a plane crash survivor. He had bruises and scratches all over his stomach and hips. More butterfly bandages were laid over long red cut that ran diagonally from his left shoulder down almost to his navel. It was as if a mad doctor had gone at him with a scalpel—

A face flashed through Alex’s mind. Dull, inhuman eyes. Thick glasses. Pale, pasty face. Demented smile. Peter. Peter Rin . . . Peter Red . . .

Red light. Red stone. Reinhardt.

It all came back.

For a long time Alex sat completely still, staring down at his mangled body while the pigeons cooed outside his window and a jet rumbled through the sky and life was beautiful somewhere else. He assessed the facts with as much lucidity as he could muster:

He had been attacked by Reinhardt, sliced almost to ribbons by his handheld laser. Then he’d been betrayed by Nielsen and shot in the leg. He had lost the precious ruby crystal he’d been charged with recovering. Somehow he had made it out of the facility and was brought to this house, wherever it was. He was drugged on painkillers, practically helpless, and in the custody of very dangerous man. And by the extent of his injuries, Alex was quite certain that he was going to be in abject agony when the morphine wore off.

This was bad. He was weak, needy, vulnerable, and completely at the mercy of his captor.

Footsteps down the hall alerted him to Yassen’s return. He quickly wrapped the dressing gown around himself and watched as Yassen entered the room with a tray in his hands. Alex wondered if he could stab him with a fork and get away somehow, but the idea was almost immediately dispelled. He wouldn’t get far in his condition, especially after the painkillers wore off, and he had no idea where he was. Besides, Yassen had survived being shot in the chest. It would take a lot more than a fork to kill him.

Yassen balanced the tray with one hand and unfolded the legs on each side. It was strange to see such domestic behavior from one of the world’s deadliest assassins. He carefully set the tray down over Alex’s lap and took a seat in the chair beside the bed, crossing his arms guardedly.

Alex glanced over at Yassen, then down at his food. There was a bowl of soup—some sort of broth with meat and green bits in it—and a glass of cold orange juice.

“What is this?” Alex asked, picking up his spoon and dipping it into the bowl.

“Oyster soup. It’s good for the blood.”

Alex tried to conceal his disgust as he stirred the chunks of oyster meat. He had never enjoyed eating mussels or clams or anything that lived in muck. Oysters were like blobs of living mucous. Just the thought of one of them sliding down his throat was enough to make him gag. However, he wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of insulting a host whose job it was to kill people. Alex sipped the broth for a little while and drank his orange juice, keenly aware that Yassen was watching his every move.

“I see that oyster is not your favorite dish,” said Yassen suddenly. “I appreciate the politeness, but you should try to eat it.”

Alex put down his spoon. “How did I end up here?”

Yassen gazed at him coolly. “I brought you here.”

“How? And why?”

“Eat your soup and I will tell you.”

Alex grimaced. It was one thing to be locked in a fusion chamber and left for dead, but quite another to be forced to eat something revolting. Maybe if he imagined he was eating something else, it would be easier. Mind over matter, that sort of thing.

He gathered up a spoonful of oyster meat, raised it to his face, closed his eyes, and put it in his mouth. He didn’t even bother chewing—he just swallowed. He gagged a little as it touched the back of his throat, but it went down. Better yet, it stayed down. He quickly took a gulp of orange juice and sent Yassen a disgusted glare.

“All right. Start talking.”

A flicker of a smile tugged at the corner of Yassen’s mouth, but it quickly faded. “I was hired to kill Peter Reinhardt.”

Alex was only slightly surprised. He thought of commenting about the irony of a dead man killing for a living, but he held his tongue. “Who hired you?”

Yassen nodded to the soup, and Alex grudgingly dipped his spoon in for another dose.

In this manner, question by question and oyster by oyster, Alex learned that Yassen had been contracted by a private agency in Russia to retrieve the priceless ruby that had been stolen from its homeland. He had also been instructed to eliminate the individual responsible for its theft. The SIS investigation was taking too long, Yassen had explained, and the Russians felt that if they wanted the job done right, they were going to have to send in one of their own.

“I had retired since our last meeting, Alex,” the 36-year-old assassin had told him. “It took a lot of money for them to convince me to return to my former profession. To most of the world, Yassen Gregorovich is dead. You know as well as I, Alex, that death is really the only way one can escape from Scorpia.”

Yassen’s voice had then dropped to a murmur. “I saw the scar on your chest. Personally, I would have used a .308 instead of a .22, but that is only because I believe in being thorough.”

“I guess I was lucky it wasn’t you pulling the trigger, then,” Alex had muttered.

As Alex forced down more soup, Yassen told of how he had tracked the ruby to Norway and staked out Reinhardt Industrial for a week, learning everything he could about the facility and the Apollo Project. He had admitted being surprised to see Alex Rider down at the docks one night, and discovered that he was working with Dr Nielsen to stop Reinhardt’s doomsday project. Yassen had been forced to make adjustments to his plan, but with his piloting abilities and prowess for identity theft, everything had worked out to his advantage. Though he hadn’t personally killed Reinhardt, no one could prove he hadn’t. He would be paid all the same.

Dr Nielsen had not been so lucky. Yassen had dumped the body out over the Norwegian Sea after relieving it of its expensive burden. Reports would later say that Nielsen, like Reinhardt, was presumed to have perished in the explosion that destroyed the facility. Alex listened to this epitaph with little sympathy. As far as he was concerned, both men had gotten what they deserved.

“What about me?” he finally asked. “How did I survive? I thought I was going to bleed to death.”

“You almost did,” said Yassen. “The tourniquet on your arm probably saved your life.”

Alex sat silently, waiting for the details.

Yassen shifted in his chair and drew in a breath. “You had already lost consciousness by the time we reached the mainland. I radioed the airport en route and told them I was carrying a passenger in critical condition. The medics were waiting when we arrived. You had lost a great deal of blood. They did not expect you to survive the ambulance ride, but somehow you did.

“You were taken to hospital in Harstad and given a blood transfusion. The bullet in your leg missed your femoral artery, but it left quite an exit wound. Your arm was the worst. You were in surgery for two hours.”

Alex tried to absorb the information as best as he could, but he still found it hard to believe he had gone through all that. “But how . . . Who authorized my surgery? How did anyone know who I was?”

Yassen, for the first time since entering the room, broke eye contact with Alex. “I told them you were my son. They asked no questions.”

Alex was speechless. Maybe he had an oyster stuck in his throat. Maybe it was the drugs he was on. Whichever it was, his verbal communications had shut down. All he could do was imagine Yassen in the hospital waiting room, sitting with expectant fathers and grieving families, signing papers and filling out forms about “Alex Gregorovich’s” medical history. The thought filled Alex with indignant fury. How dare Yassen think he could walk over John Rider’s grave like that. He was a ruthless, merciless killer with no sense of honor or loyalty—nothing at all like John.

Alex was about to open his mouth and let out some of the worst language he knew, but then Yassen unfolded his arms. Alex caught a glimpse of a faint bruise on the inside of his elbow, over the median cubital vein, the place where blood is usually drawn. He could see a red point in the center of the bruise, as if Yassen might have . . .

Alex’s hair stood on end. He saw it all so clearly now: the paleness of his skin, the slight weariness, the circles under his eyes. Yassen had recently given blood. A lot of blood.

Yassen noticed Alex staring at his arm, looked at it as well, then raised his head. “We were compatible.”

Shock coursed through Alex’s body. Yassen Gregorovich had given his blood to him. Blood that had saved his life. Blood that was now running through his veins, his heart, every part of him.

God. He might as well be his son. Most of the blood in him was probably Yassen’s.

Alex drew in his limbs as if he were trying to curl into a ball. He stared down at his empty soup bowl and tried not to think of all the oysters floating around in his stomach.

“Why?” he asked, his voice unsteady. “Why didn’t you just leave me in hospital? Why did you bring me here?”

“Because I needed to see you.”

Alex turned to glare at Yassen, who was as expressionless as ever. “Why?”

Yassen waited a moment, then leaned forward and picked up the tray. “You should rest now,” he said, standing up. “I will check on you later. Don’t leave this room, and don’t try anything stupid. Your body will make you regret it.” He made his way toward the door.

“You didn’t answer my question!”

Yassen paused and turned. “There is a time and a place for everything, Alex.” And with those last words, he disappeared into the hallway.

Alex let himself fall back into the pillows, frustrated and drained. He wanted to be angry with Yassen, but he was just too exhausted. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t really learned anything that might have been useful to him, such as where he was or how long Yassen was planning to keep him here. He didn’t even know how Yassen had survived being shot, but he supposed that it didn’t really matter. He was alive and Alex was his prisoner/patient for the time being. He should have been more prudent about the questions he had asked. He had so many of them . . .

Alex felt his eyelids drooping as an irresistible sleepiness took hold of him. He wondered if Yassen might have put sedatives in his soup, but he didn’t get the chance to dwell on it for very long. He was asleep in a matter of minutes.

He awoke sometime just before sundown. The room was growing dim and the pigeons had flown off, leaving just the breeze and the faint sound of the ocean. Alex sat up and noticed that he was underneath the covers again, which was odd; he was fairly certain he had fallen asleep on top of them.

Moving stiffly, he crawled out of bed and limped to the bathroom, pain shooting through his right thigh every step of the way. No more of that pleasant floating sensation—now he felt heavy and sore, aware of the aches in his back, legs, and arms. And when he looked in the mirror, he winced. Morphine must be a hell of a drug to make someone as mangled as Alex think he was actually attractive. He’d seen healthier looking corpses.

After relieving himself, Alex looked over at the bathtub and was overcome with the desire to shower. He knew it was probably going to sting like hell once the water found all of his open wounds, but his skin was crawling and his hair felt greasy and he didn’t care how much it hurt; he was going to clean himself up.

He shrugged off his dressing gown and turned on the tap, waiting until the water was just right, then pulled the shower lever and stepped in.

He had been right. Hot water and fresh wounds were not the greatest of friends. But the sensation of water cascading over his head was somehow familiar and comforting. It allowed him to clear his mind and think about the important things: surviving, healing, getting home. Thankfully he had everything he needed—soap, shampoo, wash cloth—and he spent a long time just standing under that warm, relaxing rain, letting it flow down his back while he tried to ignore the stinging and burning of his cuts, especially the long one on his chest.

When Alex had finished, he shut off the water and shook out his hair. It made him a little dizzy, moving his head that fast. He wobbled for a second before finding his center of gravity again, and pulled back the curtain.

Yassen was sitting on the lid of the toilet like a statue.

Alex uttered a gasp and froze. He stood there naked, dripping, completely exposed.

“You should have told me,” said Yassen, and his eyes traveled down to Alex’s arm. “You got your stitches wet.”

“How long have you been here?” Alex demanded. He desperately wanted to cover himself, but he didn’t want Yassen to think that he was at all shocked by his presence. He probably didn’t care anyway. At least that’s what Alex hoped. But why else would Yassen have come up to watch Alex shower? Unless . . .

For the first time, Alex found himself—with a great sense of trepidation—wondering if Yassen preferred men to women, if he liked boys, if he would ever touch a boy against his will. Then Alex wondered if Yassen found him attractive, if that was why he had kidnapped Alex from the hospital, if he would force himself on someone too weak to fight back. If so, it was a perfect plan. Alex had never been as defenseless and vulnerable as he was right now.

Yassen slowly rose to his feet and approached. Alex felt his heart leap into his throat and get stuck there, pounding like a drum. His feet squeaked on the treacherous porcelain. He stared at Yassen’s cold blue eyes—penetrating and predatory—as he stopped at the edge of the tub and lifted his arms—

To grab me, Alex thought. I was right. God, he’s going to

A soft towel was pulled around his shoulders. The panic drained out of Alex’s body as he stood, dumbfounded, while Yassen methodically patted his hair and dried the water from his shoulders.

“You could have fallen,” he murmured. “The bath is very slippery.”

He allowed Alex to take the towel and fasten it around himself, then he offered a firm arm to grasp as the teenager carefully climbed out of the tub. Yassen was right—it was very slippery. Alex hadn’t thought about how difficult it was going to be, trying to get out of a wet bath with an injured leg. He felt a little ashamed for jumping to conclusions. Obviously Yassen wasn’t someone to be trusted, but if he had wanted to take advantage of Alex, he had missed his golden opportunity.

“You will need new dressings,” said Yassen, nodding to the butterfly bandages on Alex’s chest. Some of them were peeling at the corners, the adhesive having worn off, and now were beginning to hang. “I will get the antiseptic.”

Five minutes later, Alex was sitting on the edge of his bed with the towel wrapped around his waist, biting his lower lip as Yassen, kneeling on the floor, dabbed at his cuts with a Betadine-soaked cotton pad. A comprehensive first-aid kit lay nearby, more like a suitcase or a toolbox than a kit. It had two stacking trays for smaller items and several compartments, as well as a larger space beneath for the heavy-duty supplies. Every now and then Yassen would lift his eyes to study Alex’s face.

“You are taking the pain very well,” he commented as he began to apply fresh bandages to the cut on Alex’s shin.

Alex blinked his watery eyes and shrugged his good shoulder. “I’ve felt worse.”

“You are quite the survivor.”

“Funny. I could say the same about you.”

A half-smile crept onto Yassen’s mouth, expressing both reflection and amusement. It had time to fade in the short lull before he spoke again. “I gave you a small shot of morphine while you were sleeping. I am taking you off of it after tonight. Tolerance and addiction develop quickly, and the sooner you get off of it, the better. It is a narcotic, after all.”

He glanced up at Alex, then began to unwrap the damp bandage from around his thigh.

“You have probably noticed the pain already. It will get worse as the morphine wears off. It may even be unbearable, but I will try to make you as comfortable as possible.”

“Why?” Alex interrupted. “Why are you doing this for me?”

Yassen was now carefully removing layers of bloodstained gauze. “You will recover faster if I look after you. In hospital they would have kept you drugged senseless for days. My way will be painful, but it is better.”

Alex narrowed his eyes. “Is that why you brought me here? To help me get better?”

Yassen said nothing.

The last strip of gauze fell away, and Alex finally got to see the damage a 9x19 millimeter round can do to a human body. The greater part of his thigh was purple, bruised from the sheer force of the bullet tearing through his flesh at 1200 feet per second. The entrance wound was smaller than Alex expected for the amount of pain it had caused him; it was red and swollen, held closed by three sutures. The cut on the side of his thigh—the first one Reinhardt had given him—was nothing when compared to the ugliness of the bullet hole.

Yassen poured Betadine onto a fresh pad and began to clean the wound. The antiseptic liquid seeped through Alex’s raw, broken skin, and for a moment he lost his composure, releasing a short, high-pitched groan. Tears were suddenly rolling down his cheeks one after the other, a physiological reaction to the pain.

Yassen raised his head and stopped what he was doing. “Would you like something to bite down on?”

Alex shook his head and sniffed wetly.

“Put your hand on my shoulder. You can squeeze if you want.”

Hesitantly, Alex did as Yassen instructed, laying his hand on the firm, solid shoulder. Warmth radiated from beneath the t-shirt, the heat of a living body. But it was more than that. There was a sense of power there as well, and serenity, like a bright light that refused to be put out. As Yassen continued to tend Alex’s wounds, Alex clamped down on his shoulder and stifled his moans. It was somehow easier to bear with him here, almost as if Alex were drawing strength from Yassen’s life force. He certainly had plenty to spare, Alex thought, especially if there was any truth to the saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

It took nearly half an hour to dress all of Alex’s wounds, and by then the morphine had definitely worn off. Alex could barely breathe without feeling some sort of pain. Yassen had provided him with some clothes—sweatpants and a t-shirt—but Alex had been too sore to pull them on. Yassen had helped him get dressed, carefully pulling the sweatpants over Alex’s bandaged legs and making sure he didn’t strain his stitches putting his arms into the t-shirt. Alex hadn’t even cared about being naked in front of Yassen again. He hurt too badly to care about anything, really.

When Alex was finally settled back into bed, his face was white and tense, his cheeks salty from the tears he had shed. He closed his eyes and wished Yassen would give him more morphine, even though he knew it was pointless. Maybe if he just lay here and was very still, the pain might go away after a while.

He listened to Yassen pack up the first aid kit and walk across the room. There came a shuffle and a click as he shut and locked the French doors, allowing the room to settle into a more intimate silence. Then his footsteps faded away. Alex found himself drifting into the first stages of sleep, his thoughts jumbling together messily like leaves in an English autumn.

What could have been fifteen or fifty minutes later, Alex opened his eyes to see Yassen placing a small tray on his bedside table. On it was a pear, a packet of crackers, and two bottles of vitamin water.

He suddenly felt like crying, remembering the few times he’d been too sick to go to school and how Jack would take care of him, just like this. But Jack was his housekeeper, his friend, practically his big sister. She was supposed to take care of him—she loved him, that’s why she did it. Yassen, however, was a vicious killer who would shoot a man in cold blood without even asking why. Human life was nothing but a price tag to him. And yet that made what he was doing now all the more miraculous; a fearsome wolf, licking the wounds of an injured lamb.

Yassen didn’t notice Alex staring at him until he had stood and was preparing to leave. He froze, as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, but his face gave no indication of surprise or alarm. He simply stood where he was, looking at Alex while Alex looked at him.

“I have business to take care of tomorrow morning,” he said at length. “I may not be here when you wake.” His eyes wandered over to the tray. “You have ibuprofen and something to eat if you get hungry. Try to keep your fluids up . . . And stay away from the stairs.” He turned to go.

“When will you be back?”

Yassen stopped, but he didn’t turn around. “I will be back,” he said simply, and then he had gone.

Alex stared at the empty doorway for several minutes before he finally closed his eyes again. He felt strange inside—confused, nervous, sad. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was morphine withdrawal. Maybe he felt insecure being left alone like this, unable to defend himself if anything happened. And Yassen, despite the amount of care and attention he was giving to Alex, was doing a fantastically poor job of making him feel comfortable, at least emotionally.

Alex sighed and tried to get settled. He wanted to sleep on his right side, but it put too much pressure on his thigh. There was no way he could sleep on his left side with his arm the way it was, and the cut on his chest would surely prevent him from sleeping on his stomach. That left him with no other way to sleep but on his back. So Alex stared up at the dark ceiling and trawled through the questions pounding at his brain.

How much time had he spent here? How long was Yassen planning to take care of him? Would he expect some sort of payment or favor once Alex was well again? Would he even let Alex go, or was he going to keep him a prisoner here forever? And what about MI6? Surely they had to have noticed he was missing by now. Were they searching for him, or did they believe him to be dead? How would they react if they ever saw him again? Would they interrogate him about where he had been for so long? Would he tell them that Yassen was alive, or keep it a secret and allow Yassen to go on killing people for money?

Alex didn’t know how long he lay awake, asking and asking without receiving any answers. It felt like a lifetime. But somehow, despite his troubled mind, sleep was able to find him. He had a dream that night, which was unusual. He dreamt that he was in a helicopter on the Norwegian Sea, floating on top of the gray, choppy waves. The sky was cloudy, colorless. A storm was brewing. He was hurt badly and bleeding into the ocean. Sharks were circling the helicopter as if it were a wounded seagull, excited by the smell of blood. Alex watched their evil-looking dorsal fins cut through the water, getting closer and closer. He kept looking into the cockpit, hoping to see the pilot, but no one was ever there. He was all by himself on this stormy sea, no land on the horizon, watching his life bleed into the water and draw even more sharks in for the feast . . .

The warm yellow sunlight cut through the darkness and terror of Alex’s dream and brought him back to the waking world. The French doors were open again, allowing the quiet beauty of morning to flow into the room and spread itself across the walls. In spite of his aching muscles, stiff joints, and stinging cuts, Alex sat up and smiled. His dismal dream vanished into memory, chased away by the sun’s rays. It was a new day, and he was glad he was alive to see it, prisoner or not.

He crawled out of bed and hobbled to the bathroom. He found a few personal effects in the drawers, all apparently new: a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, deodorant. There was even a safety razor and a can of shaving cream, but Alex would have no need for them yet; the soft fuzz on his jaw and upper lip still had a couple of years to go before developing into something more mature. He splashed water on his face and realized he felt much better than he had yesterday. Maybe it was because he finally had his mind back after getting the morphine out of his system.

Alex returned to bed and helped himself to the food and pills Yassen had left him. He was famished, and for good reason—aside from the oyster soup, he hadn’t had a decent meal in over a week. Even after finishing the pear, crackers, and both bottles of vitamin water, he was still hungry. He wondered if he could find a better breakfast in the kitchen.

Yassen’s warning to stay off the stairs rang briefly through Alex’s memory, but he quickly dismissed it and limped out of the room. He wasn’t an invalid. He could take care of himself. Besides, it was only fifteen or twenty stairs. If he took them slowly and held onto the rail, he’d be perfectly fine. Yassen probably just didn’t want him snooping around and trying to escape. That made Alex even more determined to go downstairs.

He got a reality check after the first two steps. His wounded thigh ached from the muscles extending and contracting while bearing so much of his body weight. He would have to be careful not to strain them, otherwise he might trip and fall. Unfortunately, the rail was on his left side. That meant he would have to lean on it with his sore, stitch-ridden left arm and hop down each stair on his left leg.

Maybe Yassen was right. This was starting to sound like a bad idea.

But what else am I supposed to do? thought Alex. He couldn’t just go back to bed and wait for Yassen to return. That could be hours from now. Alex was hungry and restless. He couldn’t stay in his room all day. He had to move around.

Slowly, cautiously, Alex balanced his weight against the rail, studied the third step, and hopped down. He landed softly, the ball of his foot absorbing the impact. He smiled. Piece of cake. He’d be downstairs in no time. He did it again and again, carefully gauging each step and checking his balance before jumping.

He should have made it all the way down, but as he neared the middle of the stairs, his confidence began to overwhelm his caution. He was only ten steps away from his goal, right in the middle of jumping from one stair to the other, when a dazzling bolt of pain shot up his left arm and caused him to let go of the rail. His right leg automatically came down to compensate for his loss of balance, but Alex, thinking only of his bullet wound, immediately reacted and put all his weight back on his left side.

It would have been better—and much less painful—if he had just landed on both feet. Instead, he came down on his left foot, reeled unsteadily, twisted his ankle, and stumbled backward. He crashed onto the stairs, badly wrenching his left arm and landing directly on the back of his injured thigh. He slid down one or two stairs before coming to a stop.

Alex was blind with pain. The world sizzled yellow and white for a few moments, then faded into patchy darkness. He lay sprawled on the stairs with his eyes closed and his teeth clenched, stock still, waiting for the pain to recede. Flashes of heat raced through his body, burning and throbbing around his stitches and cuts.

It was a long time before he was able to open his eyes again. He sat up slowly, feeling his pulse pound through his temples. His head ached. His stitches were sore. His thigh was on fire. His ankle felt like it had been hit with a sledge hammer.

Tears welled in Alex’s eyes. He was so angry with himself, so feeble, in so much pain. He had disobeyed Yassen’s instructions and gotten hurt, just like Yassen had said he would. He was probably on his way home now. He would take one look at Alex’s ankle and know that he had been on the stairs. Alex would probably be punished, locked in his room or chained to the bed, all because he had stupidly assumed that he didn’t need anyone’s help . . . Well, he certainly needed it now. He didn’t even want to try to stand up with his ankle the way it was. He had sustained injuries like this often enough in football to know that he wasn’t going anywhere, and he definitely didn’t want to risk falling again. Maybe, if he waited, the swelling would go down and he could drag himself downstairs and lie on one of the couches. Better than being stranded here in the mid—

There came the sound of vehicle crawling up the driveway, its engine purring as it parked in an unseen carport on the side of the house. The engine cut off and a heavy silence fell. Alex’s heart turned into a panicked bird, flapping and beating its wings against his ribcage. He resisted the overwhelming instinct to flee, knowing that he’d never make it back to his room in time. He heard the car door open and close, and the rattle of a deadbolt from somewhere in the kitchen.

He closed his eyes and laid his head against the rail, accepting his fate and awaiting the inevitable.

A minute or so later, footsteps rapped on the tile floor, paused, then continued until they came to a halt close by. Alex opened his red, teary eyes.

Yassen was standing at the base of the stairs, looking up at Alex with his head tilted to one side, as if the boy might have been an interesting, oddly-placed shrub. He was wearing jeans, a black leather jacket, and an open-neck shirt—by all appearances just a normal, ordinary man. He had a few nondescript bags in his hands, which he slowly set down. He removed his jacket, hung it over the rail, and began to climb the stairs. Alex’s stomach twisted and he braced himself for the worst.

Yassen crouched at Alex’s side and studied him for a few moments, taking in the twisted ankle and awkward position. Without a word, he leaned down and slipped his arms around Alex, helping him up.

No judgments. No condescending remarks. No I-told-you-sos or threats or scolding; just careful, quiet assistance. Alex could have taken being mocked or slapped around—that was the usual protocol for disobeying a captor’s orders—but this . . . this made his heart quiver with regret.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay,” Yassen interrupted. “Don’t talk. Put your arm around my shoulder.”

Alex did as he was told and Yassen easily lifted him off the stairs. For the second time in as many days, he found himself in the man’s arms, clinging to him helplessly. Their eyes met for a brief second before Alex bowed his head, unable to bear the sight of those frosty blue eyes drilling into his soul. Even though he said nothing, every cell in his body was screaming apologies.

Yassen carefully made his way down the stairs and brought Alex into the kitchen, setting him on the island counter top. Alex watched as he went to the freezer and took out a blue gel pack. He wrapped it in a kitchen towel and returned to Alex, who had already pulled the leg of his sweatpants up to reveal his puffy ankle.

“Hold this,” said Yassen, handing the gel pack to Alex and gently lifting the boy’s leg onto the counter. He leaned over and began to methodically inspect Alex’s ankle, checking its range of motion by gently rotating the foot. For the briefest second, Alex thought he looked like Mr Parry, the assistant football coach at Brookland. Same procedure. Same care. Alex felt even more uncomfortable.

“Is it bad?” he asked hesitantly.

“No. I don’t think you tore the ligaments. It’s a minor sprain. You should be fine.” Yassen stood straight again. “Keep ice on it for now. I have a compression bandage in the aid kit . . . You took the ibuprofen, yes?”

Alex placed the pack on his ankle, purposely avoiding Yassen’s eyes as he nodded.

Yassen continued to look at him for a few tense, awkward moments. Then he broke away and moved toward the refrigerator. “Do you want something to eat?”

Though Alex has lost much of his appetite since his tumble on the stairs, he knew he would be hungry again soon. “Sure,” he said uneasily, wondering if Yassen might have already guessed the reason behind his accident. It wouldn’t have surprised Alex; not much managed to escape the Russian’s keen senses.

For the next few minutes, Yassen ignored Alex as he went about gathering bread and other food items, moving around the kitchen as if there was nothing extraordinary about a world-renown assassin making lunch for his injured teenage prisoner. Alex was aware of his wavering grip on sanity as he watched Yassen stack turkey, cheese and lettuce between two slices of bread. Soon enough, there was a fantastic-looking lunch consisting of carrots, an overstuffed sandwich, and a glass of milk waiting at the table for him.

Yassen helped Alex climb down from the counter and sit at the table. He even pushed his chair in for him. It was this final, bizarrely polite gesture that caused Alex’s composure to snap.

“Why are you doing this?” he cried. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you being so nice to me?”

Yassen took a seat in the chair across from Alex. “Why not?”

“Because I’m your enemy!”

Yassen cocked his head. “Are you?”

“Well, yes! I ruined the Stormbreaker operation for you. I got in your way in the South of France and then Damian Cray shot you because of me.” Alex’s expression hardened suddenly. “And you killed my uncle. You terrorized my friends. You worked for the same mad, evil people who tried to assassinate me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re no different from them. And the fact that you knew my father—or thought you knew him—doesn’t change anything. I still hate you.”

Yassen didn’t blink for a while. Then he took a breath and clasped his hands together on the table. Alex noticed his black Luminox 1880 wrist watch—popular with the American Navy Seals and Special Forces—as well as the old, faded scars on his fingers and forearms.

“I know that you have no reason to trust me,” said Yassen slowly, “and certainly no reason to like me. Given our history, I cannot say that I blame you. But I am not your enemy, Alex. You will see.” He nodded to Alex’s untouched plate. “Eat. I have something for you when you finish.”

A pack of three plain white tees. Two pairs of no-name jeans. A three-pack of boxers. A six-pack of socks. A pair of secondhand Adidas sneakers, half a size too big. A gray, hooded sweatshirt jacket. And all of it was for him.

Alex studied his reflection in the full-length mirror. He didn’t look quite like himself, but at least he didn’t look like a hospital patient anymore.

After Alex had finished his sandwich, Yassen had wrapped his swollen ankle in an Ace bandage and brought out the brown bags Alex had seen earlier. The clothes weren’t much, but it was more than Alex could ask for. Feeling increasingly guilty about his outburst in the kitchen, he had gingerly limped upstairs under Yassen’s supervision and changed into his new clothes. He felt almost normal again as he brushed his teeth and combed his hair, consoled by the routine motions of everyday life.

Now, as he turned around to examine his new look, Alex realized that everything about his appearance was utterly generic, nondescript, as forgettable as could be. He had become Johnny Doe. No part of him stood out at all. Of course, Yassen probably wanted it that way, especially if what he said was true.

“I have to be someplace in a little while,” he had told Alex while gathering the dirty dishes. “I could drop you off at the beach on my way. The fresh air will do you good.”

Alex had been utterly staggered by the thought of being left on his own. He immediately began to formulate an escape plan. “Sure,” he said, trying to keep his tone nonchalant. “I’d like that.”

And now, roughly half an hour later, Alex bit his lip as he took the stairs one at a time. Between his left ankle and his right thigh, he barely had a leg to stand on. The stitches in his arm were stinging, too. He held back his tears and tried think of it as all part of the deal—enduring a few minutes of pain for the sake of escape. In a little while, he hoped, he would be on a train or a bus heading for home with this whole unpleasant experience vanishing behind him.

Yassen was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, wearing his leather jacket. He looked up as Alex approached and waited patiently for the boy to reach the floor. His expression was as unconcerned and indifferent as ever. “You were more careful this time,” he noted. “Good. You are learning.”

Alex flushed, annoyed and embarrassed. He followed Yassen through the kitchen and the adjoining laundry room, and out to the carport. The air was mild and humid, carrying with it the smell of sand and salt. The sea must be close by. Alex’s heart began to pound excitedly. He was almost free.

There was a white BMW 1 Series M parked in the carport, late model, with darkly tinted windows. Alex noted the license number, 4841 CKB, with a frown. The stars of the European Union hovered above the letter E. They were somewhere in Spain, Alex realized. Well, that would explain the style of the house and its décor, as well as the balmy climate.

There was another surprise waiting beside the BMW: a gleaming black Kawasaki ZZR1400. A very popular motorcycle worldwide, it had a 1352 cc, four-stroke engine and 6-speed transmission, making it the most powerful sport bike of its manufacture. Yassen slid into the saddle while Alex continued to admire the sleek chassis and shining stainless steel exhaust pipes. He wasn’t a gearhead by any means, but being a young man, he couldn’t help his fascination with motorized transport. And this had to be the coolest bike he’d ever seen.

“Come on,” said Yassen, jerking his head toward the rear.

Alex wasn’t too enthusiastic at the prospect of swinging his leg over the motorcycle’s back end, and much less so at the thought of having to cling to Yassen during the ride, but at this point he was willing to go to extremes if it meant escaping captivity. He almost felt like a trapped fox trying to gnaw off its own leg.

It took a few awkward, painful attempts before Alex finally managed to straddle the rear seat. He grunted with discomfort as he tried to find a good position for his legs while still keeping his distance from Yassen. Frankly, he didn’t want to get any closer than this.

“You okay?” Yassen asked over his shoulder. He had put on a pair of Oakley sunglasses, which made him look fast and dangerous. Sort of like this motorcycle.

“I’m fine,” muttered Alex.

He watched as Yassen deftly went through the motions of starting the bike, inserting the key into the ignition, adjusting the steering column, flicking the ignition switch, and pressing the electronic start button. The motorcycle growled to life like a predatory cat.

“What about helmets?” Alex started to ask, but was cut off by Yassen revving the engine and releasing the clutch. No helmets, then. Alex threw his arms around Yassen’s waist and hugged his back as they pulled out of the driveway and shot off.

There was something painfully ironic about hanging onto a killer for dear life, but Alex wasn’t in the mood to laugh about it now. He felt horribly exposed without a helmet, perched on the back of a motorcycle that designed for speed, not safety. The balmy wind whipped through his hair as Yassen shifted gears and went faster, passing houses with stucco siding and Spanish-style roofs, bright green manicured lawns, palm trees, tropical flowers and rock gardens. The terrain was flat, and when Alex raised his head to look over Yassen’s shoulder, he saw open sky and blue water straight ahead. The ocean was barely a kilometer away.

Alex kept his eyes open, even though the breeze was making them water. He wanted to see where he was going. Cars lined the sidewalk, and Alex got the impression that this was a wealthy neighborhood. He spotted a woman bending over a flower bed, wearing a sun hat and gardening gloves. A jogger passed by on the sidewalk. A man on the other side of the street walked his dog while talking on his cell phone. Did these people have any idea that an assassin was living just a few doors down?

They crossed two intersections before the road curved right and began to run parallel to the beach, stretching out uninterrupted for the better part of a mile. Alex looked to his left and took in the brilliant white sand and turquoise water. The ocean sprawled across the horizon like a huge blue cloak, calm and glittering and beautiful. It surprised Alex that there weren’t more beachgoers today. He wondered if the tourist season was over or if perhaps it was just an odd day of the week. The weather was pleasant, the skies fair—much better than the cold, gray conditions of Norway. Alex shivered at the memory.

Yassen shifted to a higher gear and the Kawasaki glided down the wide, two-lane road. Palm trees whipped by as they passed over a canal and entered more urban territory. Alex looked ahead and saw the curve of a huge bay in the distance, crowded with boats and piers. That must be the edge of the city. He could see clusters of terra cotta roofs and cypress trees, modern hotels and high rise apartments. A massive cathedral stood near the water, watching the comings and goings of the colorful boats in the harbor. Alex absorbed the sights like a sponge; he would need to know major landmarks if he hoped to navigate the city.

Yassen pulled over at a small parking lot beside the beach and stopped the bike. Alex took it as his cue to get off and clumsily began to crawl out of the seat. He slipped only once, falling against Yassen as he was lifting his leg over. Yassen reached out and grasped Alex’s uninjured arm, holding it securely while the boy found his balance again.

“Sorry,” Alex muttered, picking himself up and stepping back uncomfortably. “How long will you be gone?”

“An hour or so. Enjoy it.”

I will, Alex thought acidly. “Should I meet you back here, then?”

“No,” said Yassen, revving the bike. “I will find you.” 

The Kawasaki snarled and shot to the end of the parking lot. Suddenly it slowed and Yassen leaned to the side, planting his boot on the asphalt and using his leg to whip the bike around 180 degrees. Alex flinched as the bike blasted past him and disappeared down the road, the Russian handling it as if he had raced motorcycles all his life. Alex felt the smallest twinge of admiration, but he quickly put it out of his mind. He had more important things to think about right now.

Drawing in a deep breath, he turned to look at the shore. Finally, he was on his own. He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a black leather wallet. His little stumble getting off the bike had been a success after all. He would have expected better from the invincible Yassen Gregorovich, but perhaps the assassin had let his guard down in the presence of his helpless, pathetic guest. Alex grinned and opened the wallet.

It was empty.

The amusement abruptly dropped from his face as he began to riffle through the flaps and folds, looking for cash or ID or anything that could help him. But there was nothing. Positively nothing. It had been cleaned out.

Alex threw the wallet onto the pavement and cursed. Yassen had done this on purpose. There could be no other explanation. He probably didn’t even carry a wallet. He was probably laughing at Alex this very second, completely smug and satisfied. No doubt he delighted in this sort of thing, getting Alex’s hopes up and then dashing them to pieces with a cheap decoy. Alex was so filled with disgust and contempt that he was trembling.

After a few more moments of stewing, he bent down and picked up the wallet, tucking it into his back pocket. Fine. If Yassen wanted to play games, Alex was up for it. So what if he didn’t have any money—he could still find a way out of here. He had gotten out of some pretty hopeless situations over the past year and a half, and he wasn’t about to let a sadistic Russian stop him now.

Alex pointed himself toward the bay and started limping.

Disculpe, señor?

Felipe Garcia, a local fisherman and captain of the Caterina, looked up from his nets at the teenage boy standing on the dock. He stood with a smile, amused by this seemingly lost young tourist. “Yes, my friend!” he answered in heavily-accented English. “What can I do for you?”

Alex ignored the English and replied in Spanish, “I know this sounds strange, but could you tell me where I am?”

Felipe laughed. “You must be very lost if you have to ask that. You are in beautiful Palma de Mallorca, the jewel of the Balearic Islands.”

Alex felt his stomach twist. Balearic Islands? “Do you know where I could find a map?”

Felipe pointed up the coast. “Yes, there are many tourist shops along Vicari Joaquim where you can find maps and guides. But do not let them hassle you into buying one—you can get them for free at most places.”

“Thank you . . . Um, do you ever go to the mainland?”

“Not on Caterina!” Felipe chuckled, patting the peeling red hull of his boat. “She is too small to cross the sea. Her job is to fish. Are you interested in sightseeing?”

Alex shrugged. “You could say that.”

“My brother, Miguel, he does boat tours all around the island. He goes to Tortosa once a week to visit Mamá, but only if the weather is good. The sea can be very unpredictable this time of year.”

“I see. So are there no boats that go to the mainland, aside from your brother’s?”

“Oh, no, there are others, mostly for the tourists. There are ferries to the mainland, but most people fly. It is cheaper and faster than by sea.”

Alex raked a hand through his hair and tried to smile. “All right. Thank you very much, sir.”

“Of course, my friend. And if you go to Miguel, tell him Felipe sent you!”

Forty-five minutes later, Alex found himself sitting on the sand, fliers and pamphlets advertising beautiful Palma de Mallorca stuffed into his pockets, staring out at the wide blue ocean like a prisoner looking through the bars of his cell. He was tired. He was angry. His legs hurt. His ankle was sore. He had no money. And he was trapped on an island with an assassin and no chance of escaping.

Maybe if he wasn’t recovering from laser lacerations and gunshot wounds, he would have been able to stow away on a boat. However, stowing away was uncomfortable business, even for someone without Alex’s injuries. He wouldn’t last an hour sitting cramped in a cargo hold, and hitching a ride on an airplane was practically impossible—there just weren’t enough places to hide.

So that was it. Unless he was planning to swim for it, Alex was effectively stuck here. No wonder Yassen had been so willing to leave him on his own. He knew there was no way for an injured, penniless teenager to get off the island. The empty wallet just added insult to injury.

Alex massaged his aching thigh. He wasn’t a smoker, but suddenly he was craving a cigarette. Everything was just so horribly wrong, so frustratingly hopeless. He couldn’t even call for help. The special cell phone Smithers had given him had been confiscated by Reinhardt, and he had no idea what MI6’s number was anyway. He sincerely doubted he would find it in a foreign phonebook. Jack was at her parents’ house in Washington DC and Tom’s parents were still arguing over who should pay for their son’s cellular services . . . so Alex was completely on his own. He wished he had more friends. He could really use one right now.

He furiously chewed on his thumbnail, mulling over his thoughts as he watched two young women toss a Frisbee back and forth. A pair of die-hard surfers were lounging on their boards a quarter mile from the shore. A family of four was sitting at a table, drinking cappuccinos and playing with souvenirs. Mallorca was a beautiful place, but Alex couldn’t enjoy it. Not as long as he was stranded here.

He became aware of the distant buzz of a motorcycle and wondered if it was Yassen. I’ll find out soon enough, he thought glumly, rising to his feet.

Less than a minute later, the black Kawasaki slowed to a stop in the parking area of nearby surf shop. Alex limped over, glowering.

“Having fun?” Yassen asked over the rumbling engine. His hair was windswept and disheveled, as if he’d been racing all over the island for the past hour.

“A blast,” muttered Alex. He reached into his pocket and handed the empty wallet back to its owner. “I think you dropped this.”

Yassen smiled mysteriously. “I was wondering what happened to that. Thank you.”

It took every ounce of Alex’s willpower not to erupt then and there. He managed to contain his fury with a scowl and climb onto the back of the bike, latching his arms around Yassen’s waist. Slowly they turned and pulled out onto the road, Yassen driving at a much safer speed than when he had arrived. Alex didn’t even bother making note of the street signs or house numbers as they passed. It would make no difference—he wasn’t going anywhere. Only a miracle could save him from this place, and Alex had the feeling he had run out of those a long time ago.

He went straight to his room when they returned, refusing to talk to Yassen or acknowledge any of his statements, such as the one he made about dinner being at seven o’clock. Alex didn’t care. He wasn’t going to allow Yassen to jerk his feelings around by feeding him. It was probably going to be something disgusting anyway—oyster casserole with sheep brain pudding. What was Yassen getting at, pretending to be a normal, caring person? He wanted something, Alex was sure of it. He just didn’t know what it could be.

He swallowed another ibuprofen and collapsed into bed, listening to the birds and the ocean and the occasional car whispering down the street. He thought about his hopeless situation, his rapidly diminishing options, Yassen’s strange behavior. He must have been more tired than he thought, because it wasn’t long before he had fallen asleep, sprawled on top of the covers as the afternoon sun gradually sank lower and lower in the sky.

He awoke to the sound of a dog barking in the distance and the smell of something delicious cooking. He pulled himself up, wincing a little at the stiffness in his arm and legs, and went to the French doors. The house sat on a corner, the balcony overlooking the side yard and the roofs of neighboring houses. There was an empty lot across the street, allowing for an almost unobstructed view leading down to the ocean. The sky was already turning red-orange. Alex wondered what time it was, and where that smell was coming from.

He carefully made his way downstairs, aware of the sound of someone moving about in the kitchen as he drew closer. He heard drawers sliding open, metal utensils rattling, glass clinking. He had a flashbulb memory of Jack standing at the stove in her crazy pink socks, her reddish-blond hair pulled back, stirring a steaming pot of spaghetti noodles and singing along with the radio. She would dance from one task to another, chopping a head of lettuce or sampling the sauce, then look up and smile when she noticed Alex. “I’ll make ya a dinner ya can’t refuse!” she’d say, imitating Marlon Brando from The Godfather. Alex would just grin and shake his head. She was such a character.

Timidly, Alex stood at the kitchen door and peered in. There was a covered pot and a saucepan on the stove, steaming quietly. A cutting board littered with asparagus tips and mushroom stems sat nearby. Shakers of spices, skins of onions and garlic cloves, and empty food packaging were everywhere to be seen. Yassen was leaning over the island, reading a dog-eared paperback and wearing a black apron. He didn’t look as weird in it as Alex would have thought. Chefs could be pretty dangerous, he supposed, especially when they had access to meat cleavers and other dangerous tools. Maybe that’s what assassins did when they retired—they went into the food business.

The image of Yassen Gregorovich as a short-tempered, ball-busting, knife-wielding chef flitted through Alex’s mind for a brief second, and he smiled against his will. Of course, that was when Yassen chose to look up at him. To Alex’s surprise, he smiled back.

“Hi,” he said causally. “Hungry?”

“I didn’t know you cooked,” Alex said, resuming his cold demeanor as he wandered into the kitchen.

Yassen shrugged. “I know a few things.” He stood up and closed the book—a Spanish edition of The Old Man and the Sea. Alex would have thought The Art of War or Mein Kampf would have been more suited to Yassen’s literary tastes. Frankly, Alex was surprised he had any.

“When’s dinner?”

“Ten minutes,” said Yassen, moving to the stove. “Want to help?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“You always have a choice, Alex.”

Alex smiled sourly. “I’m afraid I don’t know anything about cooking.”

“You can set the table, then.” Yassen pointed. “Plates are in that cupboard, forks and knives here, glasses there.”

“What about the fingerbowls? You want me to put those out, too?”

Yassen nonchalantly stirred the contents of the saucepan. “No. I abhor cannibalism.”

Alex was silent for a full ten seconds. “That was the stupidest joke I have ever heard in my life.”

“I never said I was a comedian. The plates, please?”

Still scowling, Alex reluctantly gathered the dishes.

They ate dinner in the kitchen, another informality that reminded Alex of home. That was something he and Jack usually did, saving the dining room and the good china for when Ian came home or they had the occasional guest over. Alex had beef liver with asparagus and brown rice; Yassen was having bass filet with mushrooms and snap peas.

It was surreal to sit across from the assassin and watch him eat, balancing his fork and knife in his hands, cutting precise, bite-sized pieces, chewing thoroughly and observing proper etiquette. It was so odd, so out of place. In Alex’s mind, Yassen should be wearing combat boots and grimy BDUs, hacking at raw meat with a Bowie knife and drinking liquor straight from the bottle. Not this jeans-and-loafers, red-wine-and-table-manners version of a man he knew to be a notorious killer. Alex’s bewilderment began to culminate into a single word; a word that, halfway through dinner, finally blurted from his lips.

“Why?” he cried, dropping his fork with a clatter. “Just . . . why?”

Yassen gazed at Alex over the rim of his glass. “Did you not already ask this question today?”

“Yes, but you didn’t answer it.”

“Are you sure? Or did you just not like the answer?”

Alex fumbled for words, but Yassen held up his hand.

“Before you work yourself into a frenzy, why don’t you tell me about your day? Surely you learned something while you were on your own this afternoon.”

Alex’s mouth hung open for a moment, shocked speechless. Didn’t Yassen care how upset he was? No, he probably just wanted to gloat about Alex’s failure to escape. Well, fine. No sense in trying to cover it up anymore, was there?

Alex clenched his napkin and glared across the table at Yassen. “This is the island of Mallorca,” he said, “the largest of the Balearic Islands off the east coast of Spain. Its capital is Palma, about four kilometers west of this house. The primary industry is tourism and the official languages are Catalan and Spanish.” He paused.

Yassen nodded and set down his glass. “Keep going.”

“It’s 200 kilometers to the mainland. There are no bridges or roadways connecting to Mallorca. The only way on or off is by plane or boat. There are ferries to the mainland, but most visitors travel by air, and the fishing boats don’t go to the mainland, so unless I rob a bank to buy a plane ticket and a fake passport, I’m not getting off this island any time soon. I’m trapped and completely at your mercy and my life is in your hands.” He threw his napkin down angrily. “There. Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”

Yassen’s eyebrows arched as if he were genuinely surprised. “You mean you don’t like it here?”

“No!” Alex shouted, dropping both hands onto the table and rattling the flatware. “What sort of a stupid question is that? Why the hell would I want to be here when I could be home, where I belong?”

The Russian leaned back in his chair with a frown. “I’m sorry. I thought you would appreciate having a safe place to recover from your injuries.”

Safe?” Alex sputtered. “What makes you think I’m safe with you?”

Yassen stared directly into Alex’s eyes and lifted his shirt to reveal a matte black Heckler & Koch .45 pistol holstered to his belt. “There is no safer place to be in this world,” he said levelly, “than under the arm of an assassin.”

Alex’s skin crawled. Maybe it was the sight of the gun. Maybe it was Yassen’s words. But it was probably the realization of the truth that left him so stunned.

Yassen put down his shirt, leaned forward, and folded his arms on the table. “Alex,” he said gently, “I have been an assassin for seventeen years. I have never apologized for killing a man . . . but I think it’s time that I should.” He paused to exhale. “I am sorry for taking Ian from you. Sorrier than perhaps you will ever know. I can only hope you will someday find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Alex felt his eyes prickle with tears. Not because of Yassen’s strangely emotional tone, but because, after almost two full years of a life turned upside-down, this was the closest thing to closure he was ever going to get.

Yassen continued, “But if you cannot, I will understand. I have caused you great pain. There is nothing I can do to bring your uncle back, but I can at least look after the son of the only friend I have ever had.

“I loved your father, Alex. I would have given my life for him, but I never got the chance. Rescuing you in Norway was the closest I have come to fulfilling that promise. I was happy to do it, as I was happy to bring you here, to my home, where I could look after you. I did not kidnap you with evil intentions. I do not plan to torture or assault you. I want only to be a part of your life for this short time, to protect you as I would have protected John . . . as John protected me, and took care of me so many years ago.”

The Russian let his gaze fall to the table. “But if you are uncomfortable here, if you cannot stand to be near me, you are free to go whenever you please. But if you leave, you must not return. There are people who would be interested to know I am alive, such as your MI6 friends, so when you go, there is no coming back. That is how it must be . . . But if you would stay here for a little while, I will make sure that you are cared for and will be returned home safely, and in better condition than when you arrived.”

Silence fell. Across the table, Alex wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“So,” he said hoarsely, “you want me to stay.”

Yassen nodded. “Yes. Very much.”

“Because you feel like you’re repaying a favor to my dad. Isn’t that right? Because you feel guilty about killing my uncle and now you want keep me here so you can play doctor or, or daddy or whatever it is in that sick mind of yours—”

“No. Alex, you—”

Alex sprang from his chair with anguish burning in his eyes. “You’ve made it so that I have no choice but to stay here! You’ve taken away my freedom and turned me into weak, needy little boy who would die without you, and if I refuse to play your game, then I’m just an ungrateful brat, aren’t I?”

Yassen sat utterly still and stared at the livid teenager before him.

“Go fuck yourself,” croaked Alex, then turned and stormed from the table.

A few moments later there came the uneven rhythm of Alex marching up the stairs, followed by the tremendous slam of his bedroom door.

Yassen sighed heavily and rested his elbows on the table, cradling his face in his hands.

Outside, the setting sun was bathing the sky in shades of pink and orange. Jets left vapor trails drifting alongside the clouds, mixing with the last rays of dying light. Sailboats and yachts were coming back to port. Families were gathering around the dinner table to talk about their day while tourists got ready for a night out on the town. Beaches were closing and bars were opening, live bands filling the air with Catalonian music as their audiences danced and laughed.

Just another perfect day in Palma de Mallorca.

Alex slid down against the door and wept, openly and uncontrollably. It was too much—his father, his uncle, this entrapment, the idea that Yassen cared about him . . . or thought he did. Everything was going to hell at once and Alex was caught in the middle of it, hurt and confused and scared. He had just said a very ugly thing to Yassen, the man who had saved his life and taken him in. Surely there would be repercussions. Surely Alex was going to end up paying for all this in the end. God, why couldn’t Yassen just beat him and lock him in a dark room somewhere? Give him a dilemma to overcome, a problem to solve, something requiring brains and skill and the devil’s luck—anything but these alien emotions.

Every bone in Alex’s body had wanted to forgive Yassen, to let Yassen take care of him, to be Yassen’s friend like his father had. But his heart couldn’t let go of the grudges that had already taken root there. No apology in the world could compensate for Ian’s death. Yassen was the killer who had shot him in cold blood . . . and yet Yassen was also the caretaker who had been tending Alex’s wounds for the past three days.

God, who was Yassen Gregorovich?

Alex sat on the floor and spent the next ten minutes getting the tears out of his system. Then he dragged himself up and went to the bathroom, stripping off his clothes and bandages as he went. He turned on the shower and stepped in, hissing at the hot water on his skin. His cuts were beginning to close up and scab over. Soon he wouldn’t need the butterfly bandages. Nevertheless, he left small streaks of blood on his towel as he was drying off. Some wounds were slower to heal than others.

He re-bandaged his thigh and ankle, noticing that, despite all the walking he had done today, the swelling was almost gone. Only a lingering soreness remained, but Alex had learned to ignore such minor discomforts, especially when he was suffering from much larger ones. It was strange, but somehow the bullet hole in his thigh and the thirty-seven stitches in his arm had ceased to bother him. They were just physical wounds and would eventually heal . But the things happening right now between him and Yassen . . .

After dressing himself in the sweatpants and t-shirt he had worn last night, Alex limped out to the balcony and leaned against the rail. The sun had set and now the sky was turning dark as night approached. Shades of purple and blue reflected in the water, which lapped sleepily against the beach. The bars on the rail were far enough apart that Alex could sit down and let his legs dangle over the side. In this manner he sat and watched the world darken, listening to the chirping crickets and murmuring ocean. The stars began to appear and the lights of the city came on, little beads of red and white and yellow in the distance. The world was still turning out there. MI6 must have stopped wondering what had happened to their teenage agent by now.

Alex didn’t realize he was biting his nails until he tasted blood in his mouth. He looked down at his fingers and saw that the tips were red and inflamed, cuticles peeling and hangnails gnawed all the way to the first knuckle. The nails themselves had been chewed to the point of there being nothing left, and what little remained was jagged and scarred by teeth marks. They looked horrible. Alex had known his habit could be bad sometimes, but this was the worst he had ever seen it.

He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled to the bathroom, washing his hands with soap and water. God, what a perfect wreck he had become. He sighed and glanced up at his reflection in the mirror. Same brown eyes. Same fair hair. Same narrow mouth and scattered freckles. Same dark circles under his eyes and worried creases on his forehead. Was this still Alex Rider, or had that boy died on an island in Norway? Maybe this was hell. It sure felt like it.

He dried his hands and vowed to keep his fingers away from his mouth. He didn’t need to add to his growing list of damages. He wandered back out to the balcony and stared at the stars. It was much cooler now that the sun was down, and he felt goose bumps rise on his arms. His fingernails itched, begging to be bitten. For the second time that day, Alex wished he had a cigarette. He needed to release his stress somehow, and sitting up here and waiting for the other shoe to drop wasn’t exactly—

He suddenly forgot about cigarettes and fingernails and held his breath, listening. No, he wasn’t imagining it—there was music playing. Something gentle and soft. Strings. A piano. It sounded close.

Alex turned and went through his room, pausing with his ear to the door. He was right. It was coming from downstairs. Yassen must be playing a CD or something. Alex placed his hand on the doorknob but immediately stopped himself. What did he care if Yassen listened to music? It was probably a trap, something to lure him out of his room. Maybe Yassen was planning to draw Alex downstairs to listen to another sob story about how sorry he was and how much he wanted to help the son of his dear, dead friend.

Or maybe not.

Alex opened the door and limped purposefully down the hall. He was sick of this emotional keel-hauling. He refused to hide in his room any longer; he was going to face Yassen like a man and get this whole matter settled tonight. Maybe he could convince Yassen to send him home early. He wasn’t above begging, either. Pride was overrated—he had learned that long ago. What mattered was results, and he would get them no matter the cost. All he wanted was to go home. He wasn’t asking for the world. Just a plane ticket.

The pangs in his thigh while going down the stairs reminded Alex to get some more ibuprofen soon. He had taken the last one that afternoon and didn’t want to experience what an unmedicated gunshot wound felt like. He gratefully stepped onto level ground and tiptoed through the darkened living room, homing in on the source of the music. There was a hallway under the staircase that led down to a door, cracked open about an inch. Alex guessed the room behind it must be Yassen’s. It was directly under his own. He crept forward, staring at the sliver of yellow light escaping. There was another door adjacent to the bedroom, but it was locked. If Alex was caught, he’d have no place to run. Limp, he corrected himself grimly. Well, he would just have to not get caught, then.

Alex carefully sidled up to the door and peeked inside. A bed with dark burgundy covers. A pair of French doors like the ones in his own room. A dresser. A potted palm. An adjoining bathroom. A painting on the wall opposite the bed. A home stereo system in the corner. That was where the music was coming from. Alex didn’t recognize the song—he barely kept up with popular music and his knowledge of orchestral music was limited to Beethoven and Mozart—but he thought that it was pretty. In a complex, sad-but-happy way. He didn’t know how to describe it, it just—

Yassen suddenly emerged into view, startling Alex. He was shirtless and his hair was wet. He must have just gotten out of the shower. He still had a towel tied around his waist. Alex held his breath and stared as the Russian opened the drawers and took out clean clothes, tossing them onto the bed. He seemed to have no idea he was being watched.

A twinge of embarrassment flared through Alex when Yassen removed his towel, and he quickly averted his eyes. Honestly, it was just a body, he chided himself, all the same parts. Nothing he hadn’t seen before. But seeing Yassen like this, so naked and human, was something that Alex knew few had ever witnessed. It gave away so much about him. For a middle-aged man, Yassen kept himself in very good shape. No paunch or flab. He wasn’t rippling with muscles, despite the strength Alex knew he possessed. Yassen didn’t need muscles to be strong, he realized. His power came quietly from within, like a samurai or a dancer. He was slim, sinewy, graceful, soundless. And he was clever. That made him more dangerous than any iron-pumping gym rat. Yassen could probably take out five men twice his weight without breaking a sweat.

Alex suddenly stopped. Was he admiring Yassen? No. No, he was just looking, drawing conclusions. Hypothesizing. He didn’t . . . no, he wasn’t like that.

Yassen turned and Alex suddenly got a full view of his chest. A small white scar lay an inch or so to the left of his sternum, right near his heart. Without thinking, Alex reached up and touched his own bullet scar. Yes, that was about the same place. Like twins, Alex thought. There were other scars on Yassen as well: a stripe here, a nick there. A lot less than Alex had. Of course, Yassen was better trained and he had probably been in his 20s before he really started risking his life for money.

And I’m not even getting paid for my services, thought Alex bitterly. Even prostitutes get paid eventually.

He watched Yassen pull on a v-neck shirt and a pair of khaki trousers, then move to the stereo and adjust the volume, turning it up a little. The music floated through the air in waves and swells of violins and piano. Alex wanted to know what the name of the song was. He liked it. Yassen must have good taste in music to . . .

Slowly, like the sun rising at dawn, Alex felt something inside him open up and let the light pour in.

Everything he thought he knew about Yassen Gregorovich, every concept and assumption about his personal life, was wrong. He had known men like Yassen, one part monster and one part man: Damian Cray, Major Yu, Desmond McCain. They were all the same—wealthy, powerful, and completely insane. But Yassen was different. He was the inverse, a monster on the outside and a man on the inside. He didn’t boast about his wealth or his abilities. He didn’t enjoy talking about the people he had killed. He never pretended to be charming or sophisticated. He wore his name on his sleeve and left it at that. His grace came naturally. His kindness was genuine. He was probably the only adult who had never lied to Alex or tried to physically hurt him. When compared with MI6, Yassen was almost the lesser of two evils.

In the wake of revelation came regret, deep and profound. Alex felt horrible. Here was Yassen, risking his cover, possibly even his life, to take care of him, but Alex was too blinded by prejudice to even afford him the benefit of a doubt. Maybe he really was doing it out of the goodness of his heart or some misplaced love for Alex’s father—in the end, did it really matter? Yassen was showing a side of himself that was shockingly kind and gentle, a side he obviously had not spent much time with. Maybe Alex should have been more aware of that before so rashly jumping to conclusions.

Alex drew in a breath, raised his hand, and knocked.

Yassen turned toward the door as it opened, his face betraying no hint of surprise when he saw the boy standing awkwardly in the hallway. “What do you want?” he asked flatly.

Anxiety gripped Alex. Maybe he was too late. Maybe he had missed his chance to get on Yassen’s good side and now he was talking to “the monster”. But he couldn’t turn back now.

“I don’t want anything,” he said softly. “But I . . . I need to apologize.”

Yassen’s eyebrows twitched momentarily, but his face remained stoic. “Come in.”

Feeling like a mouse entering a snake pit, Alex came forward until he was within arm’s reach. His heart was slamming in his chest so forcefully that he was sure Yassen could hear it.

“About what happened at dinner,” he said. “I’m sorry. It was rude and . . . and I’m having a hard time right now just believing all this is happening. I, I do appreciate what you’re doing for me, but I can’t . . . it’s just so . . .”

“I know,” said Yassen. “It’s difficult for me too.”

Alex was so relieved he could have smiled. He looked down at the floor just in case he did, and felt a little strange to see his bare feet standing across from Yassen’s. Equals, he thought. Same parts. We’re both on neutral ground.

He raised his head and looked directly into Yassen’s calm blue eyes. “If I stay with you, can I still go outside?”

“You can go wherever you like, Alex.”

“To the beach? And the city?”

Yassen nodded. “Anywhere.”

Alex felt a little dizzy. Anywhere. He wasn’t thinking of escaping anymore, just of the freedom he was being given—and had apparently always possessed. The whole of Mallorca was his playground. Yassen obviously trusted Alex a lot more than Alex trusted him. Alex felt his shame deepen.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll stay.”

Something happened to Yassen’s face then. He smiled, but it was much different from any smile Alex had ever seen on his face. It was real. The normal smile of a normal man; true happiness, pure and unspoiled. The assassin had vanished and now Alex felt like he was seeing Yassen Gregorovich for the first time in his life.

“Good,” said Yassen. “I’m glad.”

Alex couldn’t help himself. He smiled back.

An awkward silence fell between them and Alex cleared his throat. “Um. Before I forget, do you have any more ibuprofen?”

“In the cupboard beside the refrigerator. Top shelf.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Alex bit his lower lip and began to back away. “Well . . . See you tomorrow, then.”

Yassen nodded, looking just as uneasy as Alex felt. “Tomorrow.”

Alex was so eager to get out of the room that he nearly forgot to ask. “One more thing,” he said, turning around.


“What is this song?”

The light in Yassen’s eyes shifted, warming despite their icy hue. “Sergei Rachmaninoff,” he answered. “Piano Concerto 2 in C Minor.”

Alex paused, as if committing the name to memory. “I like it.”

Yassen nodded slightly. “Me too.”

Another awkward silence, then Alex closed the door behind himself and stood in the dark for a few seconds. He released a huge, heavy breath, one he seemed to have been holding the entire time. He felt strange inside, mixed up, but no longer worried. Everything was fine between him and Yassen now. If he could just get through the next few days, he would be able to go home and put all this behind him. It didn’t sound so bad. He could make it. He was a survivor. Yassen had said so.

Funny. I could say the same thing about you.

Alex heard his own voice echo back to him in memory. Had that really been only last night? It seemed like so long ago . . .

He returned to the present with a shake of his head, clearing his mind as if it were an Etch-a-Sketch. What was he doing again? Right, ibuprofen. Cupboard beside the fridge. Top shelf.

Alex disappeared into the shadows of the hallway, leaving the last few notes of Rachmaninoff’s lilting concerto hanging in the air.