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PROLOGUE: Before the Kill
HE HAD CHOSEN THE hotel room very carefully.
As he crossed the reception area toward the elevators, he was aware of everyone in the area around him. Two receptionists, one on the phone. A Japanese guest checking in—from his accent, obviously from Miyazaka in the south. A concierge printing a map for a couple of tourists. A security man, Eastern European, bored, standing by the door. He saw everything. If the lights had suddenly gone out, or if he had closed his eyes, he would have been able to continue forward at exactly the same pace.
Nobody noticed him. It was actually a skill, something he had learned, the art of not being seen. Even the outfit he wore—expensive jeans, a gray cashmere jersey, and a loose coat—had been chosen because it made no statement at all. The clothes were well-known brands but he had cut out the labels. In the unlikely event that he was stopped by the police, it would be very difficult for them to know where they had been bought.
He was twenty-eight years old. He had fair hair, cut short, and ice-cold eyes with just the faintest trace of blue. He was not large or well built, but there was a sort of sleekness about him. He moved like an athlete—perhaps a sprinter approaching the starting blocks—but there was asense of danger about him, a feeling that you should leave well alone. He carried three credit cards and a driver’s license, issued in Swansea, all with the name Matthew Reddy. A police check would have established that he was a personal trainer, that he worked in a London gym and lived in Brixton. None of this was true. His real name was Yassen Gregorovich. He had been a professional assassin for almost half his life.
The hotel was in King’s Cross, an area of London with no attractive shops and few decent restaurants, a place where nobody really stays any longer than they have to. It was called The Traveller and it was part of a chain; comfortable but not too expensive. It was the sort of place that had no regular clients. Most of the guests were passing through on business and it would be their companies who paid the bill. They drank in the bar. They ate the “full English breakfast” in the brightly lit Beefeater restaurant. But they were too busy to socialize and it was unlikely they would return. Yassen preferred it that way. He could have stayed in central London, in the Ritz or the Dorchester, but he knew that the receptionists there were trained to remember the faces of the people who passed through the revolving doors. Such personal attention was the last thing he wanted.
A security camera watched him as he approached the elevators. He was aware of it blinking over his left shoulder. The camera was annoying but inevitable. London has more of these devices than any city in Europe, and the police and secret service have access to all of them. Yassen made sure he didn’t look up. If you look at a camera, that is when it sees you. He reached the elevators but ignored them, slipping through a fire door that led to the stairs. He would never think of confining himself in a small space, a metal box with doors that he couldn’t open, surrounded by strangers. That would be madness. He would have walked fifteen stories if it had been necessary—and when he reached the top, he wouldn’t even have been out of breath. Yassen kept himself in superb condition, spending two hours in the gym every day when that luxury was available to him, working out on his own when it wasn’t.
In fact, he was on the second floor. He had thoroughly checked the hotel on the Internet before he made his reservation, and number 217 was one of just four rooms that exactly met his demands. It was on the second floor, too high up to be reached from the street but low enough for him to jump out the window if he had to—after shooting out the glass. It was not overlooked. There were other buildings around, but any form of surveillance would be difficult. When Yassen went to bed, he never closed the curtains. He liked to see out, to watch for any movement in the street. Every city has a natural rhythm, and anything that breaks it—a man lingering on a corner or a car passing the same way twice—might warn him that it was time to leave at once. And he never slept for more than four hours, not even in the most comfortable bed.
A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung in front of him as he turned the corner and approached the door. Had it been obeyed? Yassen reached into his pants pocket and took out a small silver device, about the same size and shape as a pen. He pressed one end, covering the handle with a thin spray of diazafluoren—a simple chemical re-agent. Quickly, he spun the pen around and pressed the other end, activating a fluorescent light. There were no fingerprints. If anyone had gone into the room since he had left, they had wiped the handle clean. He put the pen away, then knelt down and checked the bottom of the door. Earlier in the day, he had placed a single hair across the crack. It was one of the oldest warning signals in the book, but that didn’t stop it from being effective. The hair was still in place. Yassen straightened up and went in using his electronic pass key.
It took him less than a minute to ascertain that everything was exactly as he had left it. His briefcase was 4.6 centimeters from the edge of the desk. His suitcase was positioned at a 95-degree angle from the wall. There were no fingerprints on either of the locks. He removed the digital tape recorder that had been clipped magnetically to the side of his service fridge and glanced at the dial. Nothing had been recorded. Nobody had been in. Many people would have found all these precautions annoying and time consuming, but for Yassen they were as much a part of his daily routine as tying his shoelaces or brushing his teeth.
It was twelve minutes past six when he sat down at the desk and opened his computer, an ordinary laptop. His password had seventeen digits and he changed it every month. He took off his watch and laid it on the surface beside him. Then he went into eBay, left-clicked on Collectibles, and scrolled through Coins. He soon found what he was looking for: a gold coin showing the head of the emperor Caligula with the date 11 AD. There had been no bids for this particular coin because, as any collector would know, it did not in fact exist. In 11 AD, the mad Roman emperor Caligula had not even been born. The entire website was a fake and looked it. The name of the coin dealer—Mintomatic—had been specially chosen to put off any casual purchaser. Mintomatic was supposedly based in Shanghai and did not have Top-Rated Seller status. All the coins it advertised were either fake or valueless.
Yassen sat quietly until a quarter past six. At exactly the moment that the second hand passed over the twelve on his watch, he pressed the button to place a bid, then entered his User ID—false, of course—and password. Finally, he entered a bid of $2,418.12. The figures were based on the day’s date and the exact time. He pressed Enter and a window opened that had nothing to do with eBay or with Roman coins. Nobody else could have seen it. It would have been impossible to discover where it had originated. The message had been bounced around a dozen countries, traveling through an anonymity network, before it had reached him. This is known as “onion routing” because of its many layers. It had also passed through an encrypted tunnel, a secure shell that ensured that only Yassen could read what had been written. If someone had managed to arrive at the same screen by accident, they would have seen only nonsense, and within three seconds a virus would have entered their computer and obliterated the motherboard. The computer, however, had been authorized to receive the message, and Yassen saw three words.
KILL ALEX RIDER
They were exactly what he had expected.