Author of Alex Rider, Foyle's War, Sherlock Holmes, TV and film writer, occasional journalist.

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Short Story: Alex Rider, A Taste of Death

Originally published for World Read Day 2012

Chapter One: Teething Problems

Alex Rider hated missing school. One day would have been fine – a whole week even, with a touch of flu, in bed with hot chocolate and home-made brownies, the latest edition of Nuts and (if his strength was up to it) an hour or two on his PS3. Jack Starbright, his ever-cheerful housekeeper and closest friend, loved fussing over him. When he was small, he’d only have to cough and she’d be out with the thermometer and the hot water bottle, wrapping him up as if he were a special gift – although one for her alone.

But in the last couple of months, Alex had been away from Brookland School more than he’d been in it. It had started with the funeral of his uncle, Ian Rider who had been killed, supposedly in a car accident in Cornwall. Alex had found out soon enough that the accident, like almost everything else in his uncle’s life, had been a lie. Ian Rider was a spy, an undercover agent working for the Special Operations division of MI6. That was the incredible truth. And once that secret door had opened and Alex had stepped through it, there had been no going back. MI6 – the British secret service – had discovered that they had a use for him. And, as they had quickly made clear, they were going to do everything they could to hang onto him.

Alex had been sent for two weeks’ training with the SAS in the Brecon Beacons. It had included assault courses, unarmed combat, forced marches and survival in the so-called Killing House, a mock-up of an embassy used to practice techniques in hostage release. Alex had found himself up to his eyes in freezing mud and water, stumbling up and down hills being shouted at by sergeants in khaki whose entire vocabulary seemed to be made up of four-letter words, swallowing down meals out of mess-tins and desperately snatching a few minutes of sleep when the exercises finally ended in the middle of the night. It was hardly surprising that after a few days he found himself missing the peace and quiet of geography and double maths.

As soon as he had finished his training, he had been sent to Port Tallon, to the headquarters of Sayle Enterprises where the so-called Stormbreaker computer was being mass-produced, for free distribution to every school in the UK. Sayle had turned out to be a psychopath and the computers deadly and after Alex had managed to dismantle the whole operation, he had hoped he would be left alone.

Of course, it hadn’t worked like that. He had barely been back at school a week when Alan Blunt, the head of MI6 Special Operations had come calling a second time. In part, it was Alex’s own fault. He should never have taken off after a couple of drug dealers, destroying their mobile laboratory but causing about half a million pounds of damage to the neighbourhood of Putney in the process. He had played the hero – and it gave Blunt the opportunity to force him into a second mission, this time providing him with the alias of Alex Friend, son of a multi-millionaire supermarket owner and sending him to the lethal Point Blanc Academy high up in the Alps. That had been Alex’s introduction to psychopath number two: Dr Hugo Grief. Alex knew that he had been lucky to escape alive.

That mission had finished three weeks ago. Finally, Alex was back at school and enjoying himself. He was catching up on the work he had missed. He had been chosen to play left wing for the school’s first football team. He had struck up a friendship with a boy of his own age – Tom Harris – and the two of them were talking about spending the summer together in Italy. Tom’s older brother had a flat in Naples. Even the weather was improving as May slipped past and the first day of June approached.

So another day off school was an annoyance but this time it couldn’t be helped and – for a change – there was a genuine excuse. Alex had to go to the dentist.

The note had come through in one of those envelopes that look like bad news even before you open them. It was time for his annual examination and although he had complained and tried to put it off, Jack had insisted. It wasn’t that Alex was afraid of dentists. Only a short while before, he had been tied up by Dr Grief and threatened with live dissection as a demonstration in a biology class, so visiting the dentist came fairly low on the terror scale. But it was boring and uncomfortable. Alex didn’t enjoy having latex-clad fingers and silver needles poking around in his mouth. Did anyone? He was fairly sure that his teeth were in good condition anyway. At least, the last time he looked, they were all there.

Jack had managed to get the first appointment at nine o’clock and they set off together after breakfast, at eight. Mr McNeil, who had been the family dentist since Alex was born, had offices in Cadogan Square and they walked down the King’s Road to take the tube from Sloane Square.

‘Why are you in such a bad mood?” Jack asked as the carriage doors slid shut behind them.

“I’m not,” Alex replied.

“It’s only once a year and if you don’t look after your teeth now, you’ll regret it when you’re older.”

“Now you sound like my nanny!”

“I am your nanny. Sort of…”

“Well, you certainly didn’t need to come with me. I could find my way there on my own.”

“Of course I had to come with you, Alex. And if you don’t stop complaining, I’m going to insist on holding your hand when we get to the surgery.”

Alex spent the rest of the journey in grumpy silence. He had decided that Jack was as bad in her own way as the hideous Nadia Vole (last seen suffocating and being stung to death beneath a giant jelly fish) while in his view Mr McNeil had all the charm and attractiveness of the hired killer, Yassen Gregorovich. Meanwhile, Jack was refusing to sympathise. She had buried herself in the morning paper and, glancing in her direction, Alex was confronted by the headline sprawled over the front page: GODLISS GOES ON TRIAL.

Sir Frank Godliss, Mr Money, the billionaire banker. Even Alex had been unable to avoid the story on TV and in the news. Godliss had been the chairman of one of the country’s leading banks until he had been caught with his fingers in the till…all eleven of them. He had been born with an extra finger on his left hand and of course the newspapers had gone to town with that. Somehow it seemed so appropriate. The banker had stolen millions of pounds – some said as much as a billion - channeling the money into private accounts in Switzerland, Monaco and the Cayman Islands. The plan had gone wrong at the last minute when he had been arrested at Heathrow Airport, on his way out of the country. The money was still missing and Godliss had refused to say where it could be found. His trial – with maximum security – was about to start at the Old Bailey in London.

A small, round face with glasses and a moustache, stared at Alex from the front page. “You’re off to the dentist,” he seemed to be saying. “Sooner you than me.” Alex turned away, plugged himself into his iPlayer and spent the rest of the journey listening to Coldplay.

They reached Oxford Circus in good time and climbed the escalator back into the daylight. It was ten to nine and the intersection, where Regent Street met Oxford Street, was packed with commuters. The dentist was about a five minute walk away.

“Free cake! Try a Cadbury’s Caramel Sponge! They’re absolutely free today. Perfect for elevenses…”

There were young men and women covering all the station entrances with trays around their necks and little cubes of cake in silver wrapping piled up in front of them. There was nothing new about this and Alex guessed that there would be similar distributors all over London. It often happened when there was a new product. The big companies gave away free samples at all the main stations. Almost without thinking, he reached out and took one.

“Forget it, Alex,” Jack protested. “You can’t eat chocolate cake five minutes before you go into the dentist.”

Alex’s heart sank. When he had been training with the SAS, he had been treated almost as an equal. Certainly, nobody had made allowances for his age. But here he was in the middle of London with Jack and she was talking to him as if he was…well, fourteen. And just because he was fourteen that didn’t make any difference. “I’m only taking it for later,” he said.

“You may not be able to eat it. After you’ve been drilled!”

“I bet you a fiver I don’t need a filling.”

“I’ll bet you the cake.” She took it from him and examined the packaging. “Delicious milk chocolate, caramel and sponge…” She stopped. “That’s funny.”

“What?”

“Cadbury’s.”

“What about it?”

“Well, it’s ridiculous and I don’t suppose anyone else would have noticed. But you know how I like chocolate.”

“Go on, Jack.”

“It’s just that they’ve written the word ‘Cadbury’s’ on the packaging. It ought to read ‘Cadbury’ without the s! It’s odd…that’s all.”

“New product, new typing error,” Alex suggested.

“I suppose so.” Jack looked at her watch. “Come on. We won’t want to be late.”

They crossed the road and were about to turn off towards Cadogan Square when Alex noticed a white van pull in and park on a yellow line. The driver got out and went round to open the back door.

And Alex recognized him.

In his twenties but already beginning to lose his hair. An upturned nose and a weak chin. The face of a man who has spent his whole life going nowhere and somehow knows it. Alex was jolted. It was quite extraordinary that the man should be here, in the middle of London, but he knew he wasn’t mistaken. It’s never hard to remember someone who has threatened to kill you.

And that was just what this man had done – in the secret research centre underneath Sayle Enterprises. He had been a guard, employed by Herod Sayle, and he had surprised Alex just as he came out of the disused mine.

If you make any sudden moves, I’ll shoot you in the head.”

Alex remembered his voice, the surly arrogance of almost any man with a gun in his hands. But the guard had been less than efficient. He hadn’t believed that any danger could come from a fourteen-year-old boy and he had looked away long enough to allow Alex to take him out with a well-placed karate move, an empi or elbow strike below the ear.

Alex watched as the man took out a large cardboard box and walked to the area where the pavement widened in front of the Niketown store which was where the cake distributors were hard at work. They seemed to know him, took the box and began to unload more of the silver cubes. So that was the set-up. A hired killer from Sayle Enterprises had now become a cake delivery man in the centre of London. Was that completely impossible? But there was something else. These cakes were supposed to be made by Cadbury but someone had made an elementary mistake with the packaging.

Perhaps it was something he had inherited from Ian Rider. Or maybe it had been knocked into him when he was with the SAS, moving through the dark and silent passageways of the Killing House. But Alex had learned to trust his instincts. And right now there was a warning bell jangling madly in his head. It might well be that he was about to make a complete fool of himself. But that didn’t matter. He knew he had to act.

“Jack,” he said. “I want you to contact Alan Blunt.”

“I don’t have his telephone number, Alex…”

“It doesn’t matter. Find him somehow. Or call the police. But I think there’s something going on.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The cakes!”

The man with the cardboard box was still waiting for the distributor to finish emptying it. Alex ran across the road, weaving between the traffic. There was the screech of a horn and a dispatch rider on a black BMW swerved round him, the driver swearing beneath his helmet. Alex reached the white van. He looked inside. It was empty. This must be the last delivery. But there were a few blanket bundled up on the floor. That would do. He took one quick glance around, then climbed in and pulled some of the blankets over himself.

For Jack it had all happened too quickly. She had heard what Alex had said and had watched him hurl himself across Upper Regent Street, almost getting mown down by a motorbike. She had seen him climb into the back of the van and stood there staring as the driver returned and casually swung the door shut without even looking inside. The man climbed into the front and a moment later the van drove off.

Jack was left there, still holding the cake and with Alex’s last words ringing in her ears.

Contact Alan Blunt. Or call the police.”

The van reached a green traffic light and went through. Suddenly Alex was gone. Jack shook her head, dazed. It was certainly quite a performance to avoid visiting the dentist!

Two: The Meat Market

A wooden panel divided the back of the white van from the driver’s seat but fortunately there was a knot in it which provided Alex with an eye-hole he could use to see out the front window. He had to be careful not to shift his weight while the van was standing still. Any movement would have told the driver that he was carrying an uninvited passenger. And it felt strange to be only inches away from a man who had once tried to take him prisoner, separated only by a thin sheet of wood. For a brief moment, Alex doubted the wisdom of what he was doing. The man had once worked for Herod Sayle. But Sayle was dead. Wasn’t it reasonable enough that he should have got himself another job? And if he couldn’t find another madman trying to destroy England, why not a confectionary company that needed chocolate cakes to be delivered for an advertising campaign? But there was still the spelling mistake on the packaging. If Alex was wrong, the worst that could happen was that he’d get a telling off from Jack. He might as well see this through to the end.

They drove through London, heading east. Alex had limited vision but he was able to make out the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and, a few minutes later, Holborn Station. As they lingered at the traffic lights, he noticed more young distributors with their trays, giving out free samples of cake. The commuters were snatching them up but then, he reflected, chocolate is one of the few things that unites adults and children. It’s a taste that stays with you all your life.

They continued past the huge building site that Farringdon had become with the construction of the new railway link and turned into a narrower street. Ahead of him, Alex saw what looked like a solid pavilion, an elegant construction of stone, brick and iron decorated with sculpted dragons and knights. A raised archway opened onto a cobbled street that allowed vehicles to drive through the middle. It was like a throwback to another century and Alex recognized it at once. He had walked here with Jack only a few Sundays before…she’d taken to doing London walks at the weekend and had dragged him along too.

It was the meat market at Smithfield. He remembered her saying that there had been a meat market here for over eight hundred years. It was one of the oldest in London and unlike Billingsgate (fish) or Covent Garden (vegetables) it had refused to move out. At two in the morning, huge lorries would park here and hundreds of carcasses, dangling on hooks, would trundle slowly forward, whole sheep and pigs making their final, undignified journey to the restaurants and supermarkets that had bought them.

Still gazing through the eye-hole, Alex saw a couple of workers crossing the road, wearing bloodstained white overalls. A huge lorry – PETE’S MEAT – pulled away. Several sections of the market had been closed. These were the more modern storage facilities, built after the war –soon to be demolished - and they stopped in front of one of them with a green, sliding door blocking their way. Almost at once it opened, activated from inside. The white van drove forward and stopped. Alex heard the click of an electric motor and the door slid shut behind him. The van’s engine was turned off. The driver opened the door and got out. Alex was left alone.

He was lucky. The back of the van could be opened from the inside and the driver hadn’t locked it. Alex waited for a minute, listening out for any sound. He could only see a brick wall through the eye-hole but he was fairly sure he was alone. Gently, he eased down the handle to open the door and slipped out, staying close to the back of the vehicle. Nobody saw him. He took a quick look round.

He was in a large, rectangular area – it reminded him an aircraft hangar with a high ceiling and a concrete floor. It was lit by industrial-sized neon bulbs, hanging on silver chains. The white van was parked next to another vehicle, a London ambulance. What was that doing here? At the far end, he could make out a glass-fronted office with four men sitting on plastic chairs, grouped around a desk, watching a television set. One of them was the Sayle guard who had brought him here. Two of them were smoking cigarettes. They were talking amongst themselves.

Alex looked back. There was an open door set in the wall, partly concealed by the ambulance. A large area, about a quarter of the available space, had been separated off by a breeze block wall. There was a light on inside.

Even so, Alex decided to start with the men. Their eyes were fixed on the TV so they didn’t notice as he sneaked down the side of the building, keeping low, staying in the shadows. It was obvious that this building had once been part of the market. There were still rusty meat hooks dangling from the ceiling and although it was now disused, the smell of so much blood and death had never quite left it. It was very run-down. There were pools of dirty water on the floor and many of the glass windows had been smashed. The office itself was cold, even on this warm spring day. There was an electric heater glowing on the floor. The men had been drinking coffee out of plastic cups.

He already knew the driver. The other three men were all in their thirties; one black, two white. The black man seemed to be in charge. He was huge, with wrestler’s arms and shoulders, thick lips and very white, broken teeth. His head was completely bald and polished but he had a pigtail which sprouted out of the back and fell all the way to his shoulders. One of the men had untidy grey hair and glasses which had broken in half and then been taped back together again. They dangled awkwardly off his face. The other was Asiatic, heavily pock-marked, with creases running down the side of his face and a tattoo of a snake on the side of his neck. All three men were dressed as paramedics, which tied in with the ambulance Alex had seen. The fourth was already pulling off his jacket and trousers, getting changed.

The man with the tattoo was speaking as Alex arrived and peered round the corner, through the glass. “How long will it take?”

“That depends how long our customers can resist their free caramel cakes.” The grey-haired man answered. “But if we leave in an hour, it should have started by then.”

“Relax, Raymond.” Pig-tail exhaled a lengthy jet of smoke. “We’ll see it on TV.”

“Will people die?”

“Johann?” Pig-tail didn’t seem to care.

The grey-haired man – Johann – shook his head. Alex thought he might have been a junior doctor or a scientist. Certainly he seemed to know what he was talking about. “Bufotenine is a hallucinogen rather than a poison. I’ve already told you. It’s actually extracted from frogs or toads…in Peru.”

“Croak! Croak!” Pig-tail muttered and laughed.

“People will get sick very suddenly. They might think they’re having a heart attack. There’ll be a lot of panic. But the symptoms will disappear as quickly as they came. No-one’s going to die.”

“Panic is what we want,” Pig-tail said. “An hour from now, London will be at a standstill. Now be quiet! I’m watching the news.”

The television was tuned to Sky Channel and there was a report about the banker, Sir Frank Godliss. Alex saw a security van driving into the Old Bailey in London with the usual scrum of journalists and photographers firing off their cameras into the blacked out windows. The driver who had brought him here was pulling on a new pair of trousers. Like the others, he was now disguised as a paramedic.

It was time for Alex to make his move. If they were going to wait here for an hour, that was plenty of time for the police to find them. Alex was annoyed that he didn’t have his phone with him. Mobiles weren’t allowed at Brookland School so, as usual, he’d left it beside his bed. He dipped away from the office, heading for the main door. But almost at once he saw he had a problem. The door opened and closed electronically. How could he leave the storage facility without alerting Pig-tail and the others? They would hear the noise and come after him at once. It was true that he had a head start on them but the roads were wide and empty around the meat market. He didn’t like the idea of giving them the chance.

There was still the door leading into the breeze block room. Alex decided he might as well have a quick look inside. It was always possible that he might find another way out. Glancing back at the office and at the men still gathered around the TV, he made his way behind the white van and the waiting ambulance and crept inside. He saw at once that the room had no windows and no second door. There was no other way out.

The room had been turned into a production facility. It occurred to Alex that the four men must have spent a great deal of money on this entire operation – and he still had no idea exactly what they were planning or why they had gone to so much trouble. There was even a commercial coffee machine, complete with water reservoir and plastic cup dispenser so that they could stop for a drink while they worked.

For this was where the cakes had been manufactured. There were two huge ovens that would have baked several hundred of them at a time and the floor, as well as many of the surfaces, had a thin coating of flour. The men had also invested in some sort of wrapping machine. Alex saw a sheath of silver paper printed with the fake CADBURY’S legend, complete with the spelling mistake that Jack had noticed. There were cake crumbs everywhere and the smell of sugar and cocoa still hung heavy in the air.

A whole section of the room was spotless. Alex walked past the coffee machine, and into an area that he could only think of as a laboratory. There was a gleaming sink, a sanitized work surface, an array of glass flasks and test-tubes. He noticed two large plastic containers filled with a colourless liquid. Each one carried a little sticker. It showed a crouching frog.

Bufotenine. A poison – or a hallucinogen – that made you think you were having a heart attack. Pig-tail and his three friends were setting out to poison half of London with food samples which they had given out at tube stations. That much was obvious. But he still didn’t know why.

That wasn’t Alex’s biggest problem right now. He had to find a way out of the building and this miniature factory wasn’t going to provide one. He moved back towards the door but even as he approached it a man suddenly appeared in front of him, carrying a tray. At first, Alex didn’t recognize him. The man was dressed as a paramedic, complete with cap. He was wearing tinted glasses and what little of his face was showing was partly hidden by a moustache. It took Alex a second or two to realise that this was actually the driver who had brought him here. He had changed his clothes – and he had also disguised himself. That made sense. Wherever he was going, whatever he was planning, he wouldn’t want to be identified once it was over.

But even before he had guessed who the man was, Alex was already moving. He ran forward, twisted round and lashed out with his foot, driving the heel and the sole into the man’s solar plexus. It was the fastest, easiest way to make sure that his opponent went down and stayed there but just to be sure, Alex struck out with an elbow to the side of the head. Even as the man’s eyes went white and he crumpled, it occurred to him that this was exactly the same move that had taken him out the last time they had met at Sayle Enterprises. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be a third time.

The tray clattered to the floor and Alex froze. Would the other men hear? Would one of them come and see what had happened? He peered out the door. They were on the other side of the hangar, still watching TV in the glass-fronted office. He glanced back at the unconscious man, annoyed with himself. One way or another he had just given himself away. When the driver failed to return, the others would know that they’d been rumbled. They might not be able to continue with their plan, but they would all get away and Alex was determined that wasn’t going to happen. If he was right, these people had just poisoned half of London. For that alone, they needed to pay.

What to do? Alex looked around him, his eyes taking in silver foil, a coil rope, a large cupboard, a roll of parcel tape. Everything he needed was right here. Already a plan was taking shape in his head. The driver had disguised himself. He quickly examined the unconscious man. The moustache was fake, glued into place. The glasses were deliberately shaded to hide his eyes. The cap did the rest. He was only a few inches taller than Alex and about the same build.

Yes. Why not…?

Five minutes later, a figure carrying four coffees walked back across the hangar and went into the office. By now, the driver was stripped to his undershorts, tied up and locked in the cupboard.

Alex was dressed as a paramedic. The glasses and the moustache were in place. Behind the disguise, he hoped that nobody would look at him too closely. He also hoped he was right about the coffee. The tray had been the clue. Why else would the driver have come into the production facility at that moment? Keeping his head down, and without saying anything, he placed the tray on the desk and then found himself a place at the very back of the office.

“What kept you, Colin?” Johann asked.

Alex didn’t reply. At least he knew what his name was supposed to be.

Johann didn’t seem to notice his silence and the other two men ignored him. They were all watching the television and, as luck would have it, the story they’d been waiting for was breaking at that very minute.

“Reports are coming in of a virus that seems to have broken out in the heart of London,” the newscaster was saying. “Police say their lines have been inundated by calls from people complaining of dizziness and nausea. So far there has been no statement from the Department of Health but food poisoning is suspected. Doctors are saying that if you are feeling unwell, you should lie down and drink plenty of water.”

“It’s beginning,” Raymond, the man with the tattoo, muttered. He smiled and Alex saw teeth that even Dr McNeil would have considered beyond hope.

“This is just the start.” Johann sipped his coffee and nodded at the screen. “An hour from now, the whole city will be at a standstill.”

Pig-tail also drank some of his coffee, then turned to Alex. “You pillock, Colin,” he scowled. “I asked you for sugar.”

Alex grunted his apology but said nothing.

The four of them remained in the office, watching the news: the sickness that was spreading around London the trial of the banker, more problems in Europe. The sickness had already become the lead story.

Pig-tail crumpled his coffee cup. “Time to go,” he said.

The four of them went.

Three: Emergency Services

The city didn’t know what had hit it.

The free cake samples had been distributed all around the West End, the City and King’s Cross and hundreds of people hadn’t even waited to get to work before they had eaten theirs. Others had sat down at their desks and enjoyed the snack with their first coffee or tea of the day. The sickness, when it came, was sudden and violent. It was like being punched in the stomach. One after another, secretaries, clerks, accountants, office managers, shop assistants, security guards and maintenance men had found themselves doubling up in pain, then staggering to the toilet, only to find long queues stretching down the corridors.

But the onslaught wasn’t confined to offices and shops. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery men and police officers had all been offered the free samples and all too many of them had succumbed. Taken suddenly ill, they had pulled over wherever they could and the streets were jammed with vehicles parked at odd angles, many of them with figures hunched over the steering wheels, white-faced and twisted with pain. There had been crashes. At the Aldwych, five cars had collided as the drivers lost control. A lorry had jack-knifed on Waterloo Bridge and broken through the barrier. It remained there, jamming the traffic, the front cabin dangling over the Thames.

Tube trains had come to a halt as the drivers crawled out onto the platform and waited for help to arrive. But many of the paramedics were themselves out of action. In the hospitals, nurses and doctors staggered into each other, helpless and frightened, aware more than anyone that what was happening was impossible, that so many of them couldn’t fall ill at the same time.

The rumour spread round faster than even the news channels could pick it up. London had been the victim of a terrorist attack. Someone had fired off a dirty bomb or released a deadly virus into the water system. If anyone remembered the little cube of sponge that they’d eaten only an hour before, they failed to put two and two together and didn’t see it as the cause. Parliament was sitting but fifty MPs had reeled out of the chamber, ignoring the debate. The prime minister hadn’t been affected. He, of course, seldom went out on the public street. He was already on his way back to Downing Street to call an immediate meeting of COBRA, the crisis council used by the government for emergencies just like this – if only he could find enough members to attend. Inside Downing Street, half the civil servants and the under secretaries sat, curled up in pain, gripping their stomachs, while the other half stared at them in horror, wondering what they had and whether it was contagious.

London had come to a full stop, just as Johann had predicted. Although the traffic lights changed from red to green and back again, the traffic didn’t move. Horns were blasting everywhere. The sound of sirens echoed through the air. In some of the shops, alarms had gone off as if they could somehow summon help that refused to come. People who were healthy, who were unaffected, stood on the pavements, gazing around them, wondering when they would be hit. The worst of it was that the enemy was invisible. People were doubling up and collapsing but nobody understood why. Scotland Yard, MI5, MI6 – even Special Operations – were crippled. How could anyone take action when so many of the computer operators had abandoned their keyboards and half the managers were barely able to speak, let alone give orders as to what to do?

Alex Rider saw some of this, sitting in the back of the ambulance as it pulled away from the meat market and made its way through the city. He could hear the din of the car horns and saw all the different vehicles scattered in front of him. Outside a Starbucks, a woman knelt beside her pram, holding onto it with one hand – perhaps to support herself, perhaps to protect her child. A chef in white hat and apron lay sprawled outside his restaurant. A newspaper seller hung out of his kiosk, crumpled pages all around him. A policeman threw up behind a lamp-post. Many of the roads were blocked. A fire engine, with its complete crew, had come to a halt at one crossroads. A bus had managed to crash into the stop sign and stood there, its bonnet crumpled and steaming, half on the road, half on the pavement.

“It’s brilliant,” Raymond muttered. “Look at it! London down…”

“Just keep driving,” Pig-tail replied. “We’re not there yet.”

Alex was shocked at the scale of the destruction. It was like some modern plague. How could these men have done such a thing? What prize could be so great as to make it all worth while?

At the same time, he was relieved that they hadn’t asked him to take the wheel. It would have been difficult, to say the least, to explain that he couldn’t actually drive and before he had spoken half a dozen words they would have been able to see that he wasn’t Colin. Raymond was driving with Pig-tail next to him. Alex and Johann were behind them, watching as the ambulance slowly made its way through London, away from the meat market.

But where they were going? Alex still had no idea what this was all about. He understood that Pig-tail and the others had created the perfect conditions for a crime. London had come to a halt. The police were going to be too sick or too busy to do anything. They could choose any bank or a museum and just walk in. There were millions of pounds worth of paintings, waiting to be taken in the National Gallery. Or how about the gold reserves, if there were any, in the Bank of England? Alex knew that he was close to the area known as Hatton Garden where thousands of diamonds were on display in the shops. Whatever the target was, it had to be close. Getting across London, even in an emergency vehicle, was going to be next to impossible. At the same time, the ambulance – and the paramedic outfits – were a perfect cover. They would be welcomed wherever they went.

Alex was right. They weren’t travelling far. They passed St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Alex could only imagine the chaos inside as the working doctors tried to deal with the flood of frightened patients. Next, they turned into Newgate Street with St Paul’s Cathedral just behind them. And it was then that Alex understood. It should have been obvious from the start.

They were approaching a handsome, domed building made out of grey stone with, high up, a golden statue of a woman carrying a sword and scales.

The Central Criminal Court.

Also known as the Old Bailey.

Sir Frank Godliss, the billionaire banker. That was what this was all about.

It was quite simple really. Godliss had stolen a fortune and hidden it away in a series of foreign bank accounts, all of them presumably with false names and code numbers. Even after he had been arrested, he had refused to tell the authorities where it could be found. He wouldn’t be able to enjoy the wealth for a very long time, of course. Once he had been found guilty, he would be sent to prison for so long that by the time he came out he would only be able to spend the money on gold-plated walking frames, soft food and slippers.

Suppose, though, that he managed to escape! He would have a billion pounds at his disposal! Suddenly Alex saw it all. There had to be a good reason for an operation this size, knocking out an entire city. Godliss must have hired Pig-tail, Malcolm, Johann and Colin to free him. With everyone fighting the mystery sickness, nobody would have a moment to think about him and by the time they noticed he was gone, he would be out of London and on his way to the other side of the planet. Maybe he would end up in South America. Maybe it would be China or Africa. Somebody would be glad to have him and then he would be able to access his secret accounts with a computer and all the wealth in the world would be his.

Alex was just taking this all in when the ambulance swung round a corner and stopped outside a thick, modern wall made of reinforced concrete. Vaguely he remembered that although the bulk of the Old Bailey was about a hundred years old, parts of it had been added more recently. That was where they were now.

In the front seat, Pig-tail twisted round. He had folded his pig-tail under his cap and although he hadn’t bothered with a fake beard or moustache, he was wearing dark glasses like everyone else.

“All right,” he said. “You all know what to do. Ten minutes maximum and we’re out.”

Alex stared. Pig-tail’s had taken out a gun, black and short-barreled and somehow ugly in his hand. It was a Mauser M2, self-loading and semi-automatic. He watched as the man tucked it away in his belt. He had to stop this! If there was going to be a shoot-out inside the Old Bailey he couldn’t simply stand by and do nothing. But he himself was unarmed. Colin, the man he had knocked out, hadn’t been carrying a weapon when he came to get the coffees. Presumably, his gun had been left behind in the office.

Three of them stepped out onto the pavement. The fourth, Raymond, stayed behind the wheel, ready to drive them away the moment they emerged. Of course, this was a high security area. On a normal day, no vehicle – not even an ambulance – would have been permitted to park here for even a minute. But there was nothing normal about this day and right now a working ambulance would have been the most welcome sight on earth.

Certainly the security men behind the door ushered them in fast enough. There were two of them; one elderly, perhaps a retired policeman, the other plump and round-faced. The older of the two had clearly not passed a tube station in his way to work. He was healthy.

“What’s going on?” he demanded. The name TRAVIS was written on a badge on his jacket. “It’s pandemonium in here. We’ve got juries, judges, half the legal profession dying on their feet.” He gestured at the other guard. “Cyril here has been throwing up for the past hour.”

“It’s an epidemic,” Johann explained. He was the one who looked most like a doctor. That was why he had been chosen to do the talking. “It’s all over London. We still don’t know the cause. We need to go in.”

“Of course.” Travis had been trained never to allow anyone through the doors, no matter what the circumstances. Certainly he should have demanded to see the paramedics’ ID. But he had never encountered anything like this. Everyone around him seemed to be dying. Even Cyril, the man he spent hours with, chatting and doing the crossword, had been brought down. Help had arrived. Travis was in no mood to question it or hold it up.

He used his electronic key-card to open a solid door with a small glass window. Ignoring the metal detectors, they all piled through and Alex found himself following a long, brightly lit corridor with white-tiled walls and a wooden floor. They went down a flight of stairs to another locked door with a second guard outside, clutching his stomach, drool coming out of his mouth.

“I’ve brought help,” Travis shouted. “Open the door!”

The second guard was as unquestioning as Travis had been. This door had a key-pad and needed a six figure combination before it would unlock but the guard managed to do it, fighting his pain to reach the right numbers. Ahead of them, a second corridor stretched out, this one with cell doors placed at regular intervals. A third guard sat in a chair. He was a West Indian man with silvery hair, in his sixties. Alex saw at once that he hadn’t eaten any of the free cakes either. He had been reading a newspaper as they came in but now he folded it away.

“What’s up?” he demanded. He looked past Johann and the other, supposed paramedics. “What are you doing, Travis? You can’t bring these people here.”

“They’ve come to help!” Travis explained. From the tone of his voice, it couldn’t have been more obvious. “Everyone’s falling sick!”

“They’re not authorised. You know the procedure.” The guard turned to Johann. “Look, I’m afraid…”

That was as far as he got. Pig-tail had taken out his Mauser and before Alex could do anything he had swung it through the air, bringing the butt cracking down on the man’s skull. At the same time, Johann produced another gun and turned it on Travis who stared at him with terrified eyes.

“OK. Colin. Find him…” Pig-tail was kneeling beside the unconscious guard. He found a bunch of keys and tossed them to Alex.

Alex caught them, unsure what to do. He was horribly aware that the two men would see through his disguise if they looked at him for even a few seconds. The secret was not to hesitate, to try to keep his face turned away. Keeping his head down, he hurried forward, examining the cells. Each one had a peep-hole, allowing the guards to look in. The first two cells were empty. The third contained a blonde-haired woman, reading a magazine. In the fourth, he found what he was looking for.

Sir Frank Godliss was wearing an expensive charcoal suit, a white shirt and a dark red tie. His shoes were brightly polished. He was sitting on a bunk with his hands resting on his knees. Alex saw the glint of a signet ring on his finger – one of six fingers, in fact. It was strange but absolutely true. There were five fingers next to the thumb on his left hand. The newspaper photograph that Alex had seen that morning hadn’t quite done him justice. He was much smaller and neater than Alex had imagined with a perfectly round head and a neat moustache that could almost have been drawn on with a pencil. His eyes, blinking in alarm, were a pale grey.

Alex found the right key and used it to open the door. The banker looked up curiously.

“Yes?” he asked.

Alex wasn’t sure what to say - and the less said the better. He had, after all, the voice of a fourteen-year-old boy. “Sir Frank?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“This way...”

The banker got up. He pushed past Alex and emerged into the corridor where Pig-tail and Johann were waiting. It took him only a few seconds to assess the situation. One guard unconscious, the other being held at gunpoint. He nodded briefly. “You’ve come for me?” he asked.

“That’s right,” Pig-tail said.

“Then we’d better go.”

Pig-tail dragged the unconscious man into the cell that Godliss had just left. Raymond followed, pushing Travis ahead of him. Once the two security men were inside, Alex closed the door and locked it, still doing his best to keep his face hidden beneath his cap. He was finding it hard to take all this in. A few hours ago he had been on the way to the dentist with Jack. But then a chance encounter at Oxford Circus had propelled him – for the third time – into a world that had nothing to do with him. He was in disguise. He was in the centre of a massive, perfectly planned operation. How could he have let this happen to him? If he’d just kept walking, he’d have been lying on a leather chair right now with a bright light in his eyes, being told he had perfect teeth.

They made their way back through the doors and up to street level. Nobody stopped them. As they reached the entrance hall, a policeman rushed towards them and for a brief moment Alex thought they were going to be stopped. But the policeman hadn’t even seen them. He was making for a toilet. Alex heard the door small and the sound of retching from the other side.

The ambulance was still outside in the street with its engine running. Once again, Alex climbed in the back with Johann. Godliss sat in the front between Sarko and Raymond.

“How did it go, Sarko?” Raymond asked.

“How do you think?” Alex had finally heard the leader’s name. Pig-tail was Sarko. “Now let’s go!”

They set off. At the same time, Raymond reached down and turned on the siren so that although Sarko and Godliss were talking to each other, Alex couldn’t hear a word they said.

The roads of London were still jammed. If anything, it had got even worse in the last ten or twenty minutes. Ahead of them, Holborn Viaduct was an unmoving wall of traffic. There were still sirens going off everywhere. But once again, they didn’t have far to go. Raymond maneuvered the ambulance through a series of back streets, heading back towards St Paul’s. At the same time, they were dipping down and looking ahead of him, Alex saw the buildings part to reveal the wide expanse of the River Thames. They had been driving for less than five minutes but he realised they had arrived. Across the river, the Tate Gallery, once a power station, loomed up in a clear blue sky. The Millennium Bridge, silver and slender, stretched across the water. Raymond stopped the ambulance and they all piled out, Alex feeling more exposed than ever in the bright, open air. Surely someone would see through his disguise and realise that the real Colin had been left behind.

“This way, Sir Frank,” Sarko said.

He led the banker down to the water’s edge. There was a boat moored there, a sixty-foot, white motor cruiser with a single, huge living and dining area opening onto a back deck with an open cockpit and further cabins below. The boat was called White Phantom and Alex saw at a glance that it was equipped with radar and radio. Every part of the plan had been thought through. The roads might be snarled up but the river wasn’t. They could take the banker through Greenwich and out to sea. Before the sun had set he would be abroad, in Holland or France. And the next day, presumably with a false passport, he would be on his way to anywhere in the world.

There was a fifth man, dressed in the white uniform and cap of a ship’s captain, waiting for them. They climbed up the gangplank: Sarko and Godliss, then Alex, Raymond and Johann. For a brief moment, Alex thought of trying to make a break for it. This was madness. Once he was on board, he would be helpless, with nowhere to run. They would be certain to discover that he wasn’t Colin. They could fill him with bullets and drop him overboard. Poor Jack! What would she say when he turned up, floating face down at Thamesmead?

But he wasn’t given the chance. It was almost as if Raymond and Johann had seen what he was thinking. As the group climbed the gangplank, they were right behind him, giving him no room to move. The captain untied White Phantom and suddenly they were away, travelling down the river, being carried by the rapid tide. The captain pressed down the throttle. The sound of the engine rose. They headed east, past the Globe Theatre, passing almost immediately under Southwark Bridge.

Alex didn’t like this. Sarko and the others had already taken off their caps and dark glasses and he would be expected to do the same. He was weighing up his options when he realised that, actually, he didn’t have any.

“What’s the matter, Colin?” Sarko was leering at him, inches away from his face. “You’ve been very quiet…”

Alex Rider waited, knowing what was coming. Sarko lashed out, the back of his hand slamming into the side of Alex’s face. Alex managed to ride the blow, lessening the pain. But it was still enough to force him to his knees. He knelt there with his hands on the deck, his head spinning. Sarko took out his gun.

“You’re not Colin,” he snarled. “Who are you and what are you doing here? You’ve got three seconds before I blow out your brains.”

Chapter Four: Down River

White Phantom continued its journey down the Thames, its twin 1050 horsepower diesel engines carrying it effortlessly forward while the bow and stern retractable thrusters made sure that it followed a perfectly straight line. Sir Frank Godliss was standing in front of the main cabin, watching with interest as the scene unfolded in front of him. Three men with guns. One on his knees. The London landmarks flashed past on both sides, one after another, but he didn’t even glance their way. His entire attention was focused on the deck.

“Take off the cap,” Sarko said. “And the glasses.”

Alex hesitated, then reached up and did as he was told. He had no choice. He took off the glasses, then the cap. Finally he tore off the moustache. He had felt ridiculous wearing it anyway.

The three men gaped.

Johann was the first to react, adjusting his own glasses as if he couldn’t believe the evidence of his eyes. He let out a brief, obvious swear word.

“He’s a kid!” Raymond muttered. “He’s just a boy…”

Sarko was equally shocked. After months of planning, the operation had been a complete success. But now, at the final moment, something inexplicable had happened. The group had been infiltrated…not by a detective or an undercover agent but by a schoolboy! “Who are you?” he demanded again.

“My name is Alex Rider,” Alex said. Things were bad and with every second they were getting worse. Southwark Bridge was already far behind him. London was slipping away. It felt as if his life was going with it.

“How did you get here? What happened to Colin? What do you think you’re doing, sticking your nose in our business?” Sarko’s hand tightened on the Mauser. He was aiming it directly between Alex’s eyes.

Alex didn’t know how to answer the questions. Where was he even supposed to begin? Looking back at the events that had taken place since he got off the tube train that morning, he saw that any explanation would be too complicated, too unbelievable. It was easier just to remain silent.

Everyone had forgotten Sir Frank Godliss, even though he was what this was all about. The banker had retreated slightly into the main cabin, trying to keep out of sight. Slowly, Sarko came to a decision. The boy had appeared from nowhere. He had broken into the meat storage facility and had somehow got the better of one of his men. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter where he had come from. He knew who they were and what they had done. They had to get rid of him, even if he was only a teenager. They had no other choice.

“Do it, Sarko!” Johann said. “Kill him!” He was furious. Months of planning, thousands of pounds spent. And at the end of the day, a schoolboy was making a fool of them. “We’ve got what we want. We’ve got Godliss. Just get it over with.”

“Right.”

Sarko took aim. There was nothing Alex could do. He was surrounded, outnumbered. But the shot never came. Sarko’s arm had fallen and the gun was pointing at the deck, not at Alex. Beads of sweat had suddenly appeared on his forehead and his eyes, wider than ever, seemed to be out of focus.

“What is it?” Raymond demanded.

Sarko jerked forward, his arms convulsing, his elbows burying themselves in his stomach. He was having difficulty breathing. “I…” He managed one word, then ran to the side of the boat and threw up.

The other two men stared at him.

“What…? Johnann began.

“Wait!” Raymond stared.

And then it was his turn. One moment he was standing there, utterly confident, the breeze in his hair. The next he was twisting on his feet, reaching out for support. All the colour had drained out of his face. A pulse was throbbing on his forehead, in time with his heart. Even the snake tattooed on his neck seemed to have come alive, writhing in pain.

The coffee.

When Alex had made coffee for the three men back at the meat market, he had come to a rapid decision. He had no weapons, no gadgets, nothing he could defend himself with. Somehow he had to turn the situation to his advantage and he had come up with the one option that was open to him. He would attack them without their knowing it. Even as the automatic coffee machine was filling the first of the three cups, he had been moving across to the laboratory shelves and to the plastic container marked with the crouching frog. Quickly he unscrewed it and examined the contents. The liquid inside was transparent. It had no smell. Alex had dragged the container over to the coffee machine and poured three doses of bufotenine into the hot drinks. He had no idea what sort of quantity was appropriate. He didn’t particularly want to kill the men. But he wouldn’t be sorry if they woke up in the critical care unit of St Bartholemew’s. After all, it was exactly what they deserved: a taste of their own medicine.

They had drunk the coffee about thirty minutes ago, before they left the meat market and this was the result. Raymond and Sarko had been hit at almost exactly the same moment, the frog poison attacking their nervous system, their stomach, maybe even their brain. They had completely forgotten Alex. Even if they still wanted to kill him, they would be unable to shoot straight.

And Alex was already moving. He might have stolen the advantage but he was still alone on a fast-moving boat with five men and two of them – Sir Frank and the captain – hadn’t drunk anything. As soon as they realised what was happening they would be onto him and even the reduced odds of two against one wouldn’t be enough to save him.

Before Sarko could recover, he made his move, rushing across the deck and using his own momentum to cannon into the larger man, both fists acting like pistons, barreling into his chest. Sarko was taken by surprise. He cried out, fell backwards and sumersaulting over the side. But even as he went, he managed to fire a single shot. The .45 bullet went nowhere near Alex, disappearing over his shoulder, but right behind him, the captain cried out and slumped to the floor, blood pouring from a wound in his shoulder. At once White Phantom spun out of control, veering first one way then another, thrown about by the tide. Sarko hit the water. Then he was gone, left far behind, the great bald head bobbing up and down like an unwanted buoy.

Alex had to steady himself as the boat pitched sideways. The captain must have had his hand on the throttle when he was hit and had dragged it down as he fell. The boat was rocketing forward, doubling its speed with every second that passed. Tower Bridge with its two mighty towers and sixty meter span was straight ahead. Would the boat go under it or crash into one of its massive concrete piers? Right now, that was down to luck. White Phantom would make the decision for itself.

There were still three men to deal with. Alex had lost sight of the banker but one glance told him that he didn’t need to worry about Raymond, The Asian man was doubled up in pain, retching and clutching his stomach. On the other hand, it looked as if Johann hadn’t drunk his coffee. The last member of the team was scrabbling for his own gun, tucked in his waistband, and as he pulled it free, Alex grabbed hold of him, his hand locking onto the man’s wrist. The boat jerked to the right and for a moment the two of them were like dance partners, twisting together as they struggled for balance. Johann was trying to bring the gun round…and he was succeeding. Millimeter by millimeter it was swinging towards Alex’s head. Johann was taller and stronger than him and Alex knew that he had to play dirty if he was going to survive. He made the one play available to him, suddenly dragging the gun down, leaning forward and sinking his teeth into Johann’s wrist.

Johann howled and dropped the gun. Alex tasted blood. At the same time he brought his knee up into the man’s groin. White Phantom was zig-zagging crazily along the Thames. Surely someone would see it, a police boat perhaps, and realise it was out of control. The water was rushing past. Tower Bridge was looming over them. Alex had to reach the wheel before they smashed into it! And where was Sir Frank? All these thoughts were tiny fragments, spinning through his head as the boat surged on.

Raymond was straightening up. Johann was holding his injured wrist, searching for his gun. Alex threw himself forward. There was a leather seat bolted to the deck and he grabbed hold of it with both hands, swinging his legs into the air. His two feet smashed into Johann’s face, breaking his glasses for once and for all and hurling him backwards. Johann collapsed, unconscious.

But then Raymond was onto him, ignoring his own sickness, determined to bring this to an end. As Alex reeled back, Raymond’s man’s hands closed around his throat and suddenly the two of them were so close that Alex could have counted the gaps in his teeth and smelled his rancid breath. Alex tried to suck in air but the man was too strong. Nothing was reaching his lungs. The world seemed to shudder and twist all around him…no, that was what was really happening. White Phantom had gone mad. The steering wheel, with no-one to hold it, was spinning so fast it had become a blur. The bridge was looming up. Alex knew that he was about to black out. Raymond was strangling him. The brightly coloured snake filled his vision. He tried to fight back but he no longer had the strength.

There was the sound of a gun-shot. Raymond’s face was inches from his and he saw the look of shock and pain in his eyes. His hands loosened and he fell to his knees. Alex looked past him and saw Sir Frank Godliss, standing there, holding Johann’s gun in both his hands, the second of his eleven fingers around the trigger. Smoke was rising from the nozzle. The banker looked shocked.

There was no time to talk. Alex leapt for the steering wheel and grabbed it just as the huge bulk of Tower Bridge rose up, right in front of him. He wrenched the wheel down with less than a second to spare. White Phantom span sideways with water jetting out. Even so, the starboard side hit concrete and there was the terrible sound of splintering wood as the entire length of the luxury cruiser was torn apart. Alex was sure they were going to capsize. The engines were screaming. He reached for the throttle and pushed it forward, reducing their speed. And then they were out the other side, slowing down, part of the cabin crushed and the gleaming handrail a piece of twisted metal. At the same time, far behind him, Alex heard sirens. The river police had finally arrived.

Sir Frank Godliss hadn’t moved. He was staring at Alex as if he couldn’t quite work out what had just happened but disapproved nonetheless. Alex was equally puzzled. The banker had just shot one of his own men and saved his life. Why?

“Are you all right?” Godliss asked.

“Yes,” Alex said. “Thank you.”

Godliss lowered the gun. “Well, that’s that,” he said. He didn’t sound too happy but then he had no reason to be. The police boats were drawing closer. In just a few minutes he would be under arrest once again.

“Why did you do it?” Alex asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You saved me.”

“That man was going to strangle you.”

“Yes. But didn’t you want him to? He was helping you get away.”

“Is that what you think?” The banker smiled. Alex got the impression that it was something he didn’t do very often. “You think these men were working for me?”

“Weren’t they?”

“They kidnapped me. I had never seen them before in my life. At first I thought they were genuine paramedics. That’s why I went with them. But they told me in the ambulance. They were going to force me to give them my money. They would have tortured me to find out where it was. So actually I was quite glad to shoot him.”

Alex looked around him – at the captain, sitting by the wheel, clutching his wound. Raymond wasn’t moving. He might be dead. Johann was unconscious. Two police launches had reached the boat and he saw Sarko sitting in one of them, soaking wet and handcuffed. And finally there was the banker in his neat suit, blinking behind his glasses, still holding the gun.

“What will you do with it?” Alex couldn’t resist asking. “The money?”

“Oh – I’ll hang onto it,” Sir Frank replied. “They can’t lock me up for ever. And it won’t be so bad being in prison. I was at boarding school for ten years so I know what it’s like. And at least I won’t be overdrawn.”

The first of the policemen climbed on board, immediately followed by several others. Alex watched as the gang was arrested and Sir Frank was led away. One of the officers came over to him.

“You’re Alex Rider?”

“Yes.”

The policeman shook his head in disbelief. “We were told you might be on board. We’re to escort you across London. You have an urgent meeting.”

“With MI6?”

“No, sir. With the dentist.”

So there was to be no escape after all. Alex climbed down into the police launch and a moment later they were skimming across the water, heading back the way they had come.