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Following the shocking events of Never Say Die, Alex Rider's world has changed: his biggest enemy, the evil organization Scorpia, has been destroyed. Alex is hoping his life can finally go back to normal, that he can go to school and spend time with his friendsbut very quickly everything changes. A new and dangerous criminal organizationNightshadeis rising.
When Alex discovers they've planned a mysterious attack on London, he will stop at nothing to take them down. But protecting his home city means facing off a ruthless new enemy and putting his life at stake, again. And this time, there's no one to save him if he makes a mistake.
The #1 New York Times and internationally bestselling Alex Rider series is back with a vengeance in this edge-of-your-seat adventure. Perfect for fans of James Bond and Jason Bourne!
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The British Airways Airbus A-318 had been kept in a holding pattern before it landed at Heathrow. Looking out of the window, Alex Rider watched the familiar landmarks slide beneath him for a third time. There was the River Thames, snaking its way past Slough and Maidenhead. Then Windsor Castle, built in the eleventh century and now home to the queen, visible for miles around. In the distance, he could see the first high-rise apartments, springing up around the edge of London.
He glanced at Jack Starbright, who was dozing in the seat next to him. The two of them were on their way back from a long weekend in Amsterdam . . . a treat they had promised themselves ever since they had returned from Smoke City, the industrial compound in Wales where Alex had come face-to-face with the Grimaldi brothers, the last two survivors of the criminal organization known as Scorpia. The Grimaldis had been planning the kidnapping of the century, code name Steel Claw, and would have succeeded if Alex hadn’t stumbled across their path. But it had been close. Alex still woke at night remembering the huge steam train that had come blasting through the night, chasing him as he made for the single tunnel that provided the only means of escape.
So much had happened in the past few weeks. He had thought Jack was dead, but discovered she was still alive. That had changed everything for him, lifting a huge weight off his shoulders and giving him a fresh start. She had once been his housekeeper, but she had become his closest friend and he had been unable to manage without her. At the same time, he had left America, picking up the pieces of his old life in London: his home, his friends. Jack had gone back to her studies—she hoped to become a lawyer—while Alex had gone back to school. As an added bonus, the two of them had suddenly found themselves with more money than they had ever known. They would be secure for life.
They had earned a weekend away together, an opportunity to walk along the canals, to visit art galleries and coffee shops, to shop, relax, and enjoy life. Above all, they had spent time together, laughing off everything that had happened in the past year. Even Mrs. Jones, the head of MI6 Special Operations, had urged him to leave his adventures behind him and settle down in a more ordinary life. Alex was convinced that his time as a spy was all behind him now.
He was wrong.
The aircraft had just passed over Cookham, an attractive village on the banks of the River Thames, and if Alex had been able to look down twenty thousand feet, he would have been able to watch as a murder—which had been planned to the last detail several weeks before—was finally put into action.
The security officer sitting outside Clifford Hall on the edge of Cookham had noticed the plane circling and knew at once that it was flight BA 423 from Amsterdam. But then, he knew the flight path of every plane that took off from or landed at Heathrow just as he knew the names of everyone who lived in the village. He could even recognize them by their license plates: the plumber in his white van, the local magistrate in her Volvo, the bank manager in his new Ford Fiesta. The security officer was sitting in a folding chair next to the main gates with a newspaper in his lap. But he had not read a word of it. His job was to watch, to be ready, always to stay alert. And although he looked half-asleep, his hand was never very far away from the Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol that fitted snugly into the thumb-release paddle holster clipped onto his belt, under his jacket. If necessary, he could draw, take aim, and fire with total accuracy in less than two seconds.
His name was Robert Spencer. He had been a second lieutenant in Afghanistan until a roadside bomb had crippled him, ending his military career. He was now a senior officer in Protection Command, a highly specialized division of the London Metropolitan Police. His job was to look after the man who lived at Clifford Hall.
James Clifford—now Lord Clifford—had been a politician for more than forty years, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that in all that time he had always been popular. He was a man who loved his country, who worked hard, who wanted to make a difference. He had been an extremely effective home secretary—in fact he had been so successful in his war on organized crime that, when he retired, it was decided that he should be given around-the-clock protection . . . just in case. He had, after all, made plenty of enemies.
He was retired now and lived with his wife in the handsome Georgian house that his family had owned for generations. Clifford Hall had the look of a French château with five bedrooms, a conservatory, and a perfect lawn that stretched all the way to the river with a view of Lock Island on the other side of a narrow stretch of water. Second Lieutenant Spencer had been given an apartment above the garage. There were CCTV cameras everywhere, and sitting in front of a bank of screens in his front room, he could see anyone who came near. Life in an English village is very much a matter of routine, and after all the time he had spent in Cookham, he had most of the day pinned down to the minute. 8:10 a.m.—the newspapers delivered. 8:25 a.m.—the mail. 9:00 a.m.—Mrs. Winters, the cleaning lady, arrives. 10:15 a.m.—Lady Clifford walks the dogs. And so on. There was almost no chance that anyone would seriously try to hurt Lord Clifford, but as Spencer knew from his time in the army, “almost” wasn’t good enough. He took his job seriously. And he liked Lord Clifford. He wanted to keep the old man safe.
As the British Airways flight curved out of sight, he became aware of two figures approaching the gate and the short drive that led to the front door. His hand slid an inch toward his gun, then stopped as he saw that the visitors were young girls, no more than twelve years old, dressed in the blue-and-red polo shirts that identified them as Girl Guides. One of them was carrying a wooden tray with a pile of chocolate muffins. They stopped in front of him.
“How can I help you girls?” Spencer asked.
“Hello. My name is Amy, and we’re raising money for our local campsite,” the first of them replied. She had fair hair, framing a very attractive face, blue eyes, and a scattering of freckles over her cheeks.
“We made them ourselves,” the other said. She was a year or two younger, a black girl with glasses and hair tied back in pigtails. “I’m Jasmine,” she added.
“They’re fifty p each.”
“Or you can buy three for a pound.”
Spencer smiled. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’m not into muffins.” He patted his stomach. “I have to watch my weight.”
“Would the people in the house like to buy some?” Jasmine, the girl with the pigtails, asked.
“I don’t think so.” Spencer shook his head. The truth was that he wouldn’t allow anyone to pass through the gates unless they were expected, not even someone as innocent as a Girl Guide.
But then a voice called out behind him. “I’d love a chocolate muffin. I’ll have it with my afternoon cup of tea.”
Spencer turned around. The front door was open. As luck would have it, Lord Clifford had chosen that moment to come into the garden for a little fresh air. Spencer stood up as his client, the man he was paid to protect, arrived at the front gate. He was wearing a blue blazer and a straw hat to protect himself from the hot sun, and he was supporting himself on a walking stick. He had suffered a heart attack earlier that summer, and he still hadn’t fully recovered his health. But he showed no sign of that as he stopped at the gate and smiled at the two new arrivals. “Do you live in Cookham?” he asked.
“No, sir. We live in Taplow.”
Taplow was another village, farther down the river.
“And you made these yourselves?”
“I can bring them up for you if you’d like, sir,” Spencer said.
“No, no. That’s all right, Robert.” The old man fumbled in his pocket for loose change. “What did you two young ladies say you were collecting for?”
“It’s for our campsite,” Amy repeated.
“We need to repaint our hut,” Jasmine explained.
“And we’re buying new equipment for the kitchen.”
“Well, that’s a very good cause.” Lord Clifford drew out a shiny pound coin. “I only want one of your muffins, but you can keep the change.”
“Thank you!” both the girls chorused.
One of them held up the tray. “You can help yourself to whichever one you want.”
Lord Clifford licked his lips, then reached out and took the biggest muffin from the top of the pile. “It smells delicious!” he exclaimed.
He took a bite.
Fifteen minutes later, the plane touched down and taxied toward terminal 5 before coming to a halt. Alex and Jack unbuckled their seat belts and reached up for their luggage, which included the great ball of Dutch cheese that Jack had insisted on buying in an Amsterdam market. Alex stuffed his exercise books into his backpack. He had school the next day and had been doing his homework during the flight.
At the same time, Lord Clifford suffered the first seizure that would lead to a major heart attack, followed by death.
Nobody guessed that he had been murdered and that the muffin he had eaten had been made with flour, eggs, milk, butter, chocolate, and sodium cyanide, a lethal poison that had begun to attack his heart and lungs the moment he had taken the first bite. Twenty-four hours later, the two Girl Guides had left the country. Protection Command made no further inquiries, and so they did not realize that there was no campsite in Taplow, no huts to repaint, no kitchen needing equipment.
The organization known as Nightshade had made its first move. They had killed Lord Clifford for one simple reason. His death would give them the opportunity to launch a major terrorist attack on the city that was Alex’s home. The attack would take place in exactly three weeks’ time.
The End of Alex
The dark blue Jaguar XJ Sentinel looked no different from the other cars that surrounded it as it swept around Buckingham Palace and continued through St James’s Park. It was sleek and expensive with tinted windows that turned the single passenger sitting in the back into nothing more than a vague shadow. Had anyone checked the license plate, they would have discovered that it belonged to the chairman of a private bank on Liverpool Street.
This was not true.
The car had cost almost four hundred thousand pounds to manufacture, and it was unique. It was equipped with the very latest communications equipment, the windows were made of armored glass, the interior was lined with titanium, and there was a half-inch steel plate underneath the floor. In the event of a chemical or biological attack, the car had its own oxygen system. The tires could be shot out without slowing it down. An advanced weapons system including lightweight Javelin surface-to-air missiles was built into the bodywork.
The passenger, sitting with her legs crossed, did not work in a bank, although with her rather severe haircut, her midnight-blue suit, and her gleaming black leather shoes, she certainly looked like a businessperson. Her name was Mrs. Jones and she was the chief executive of MI6 Special Operations—a division so secret that only half a dozen people in the country knew it existed. Today she was on her way to see one of those people, and she had an uneasy feeling in her stomach. There was no actual reason for it. The summons, which had arrived by e-mail, had been short and to the point.
Eleven o’clock. Tuesday morning.
But Mrs. Jones had been a spy all her life. Starting as a junior intelligence officer, she had risen up the ranks, finally replacing her boss, Alan Blunt, as department head. She had learned to trust her instincts, and the moment she had received the message, she had known she was in trouble. What she didn’t know was why.
She glanced out of the window and saw the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben ahead of her. The time was seven minutes to eleven. The car turned left and passed underneath a stone archway, stopping outside a massive nineteenth-century building with row after row of curved windows and miniature balconies, black wrought-iron railings and columns. Everything—from the steps leading up to the main entrance to the statue of Queen Victoria on the roof—seemed to whisper how important the place was. Arriving here, you could not fail to be awed.
The building was the headquarters of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, known as the FCO for short. This is the government department responsible for protecting British interests around the world. A large part of its responsibilities includes national security and counterterrorism. It is in charge of both MI5 and MI6.
A young assistant was waiting for her at the front door. In fact, he was ridiculously young, in his early twenties, with fair hair slicked back and a face that had surely never been shaved. As Mrs. Jones got out of the car, he watched her with watery blue eyes that seemed to cut her to the bone. He was wearing a made-to-measure suit that was a little tight on him, as if it had been made to measure for his younger brother. His shoes had been polished until they looked brand-new.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jones,” he said. “Please will you come this way?”
He did not speak again. His job was simply to take her through security and on to the office of Dominic Royce, the permanent undersecretary for Foreign Affairs and the single most powerful man in the building.
The head of the FCO is the foreign secretary. He is the man you will see on television, traveling around the world, talking to foreign leaders and the press. (So far only one woman has held the position.) But the permanent undersecretary works behind the scenes. He is a civil servant, not a politician. He runs the department on a day-to-day basis and makes all the most important decisions. Dominic Royce had joined the FCO only a few weeks before. He was very much a cold fish with no close friends. When he walked into a room, people fell silent or, if they could, found an excuse to leave. It was said that the foreign secretary was terrified of him and that, when he went to Downing Street, even the prime minister pretended to be out.
Mrs. Jones thought of all this as she followed the young man across a spectacular entrance hall with columns and galleries stretching up to an iron-and-glass ceiling far above. They came to a grand staircase, and suddenly their footsteps fell silent as they moved from bright-colored mosaic to soft carpet. They climbed two floors, then continued along a corridor to a double-height door at the end. They had passed a few people as they made their way, but nobody had looked at them. In this building, everyone minded their own business.
They went in without knocking. A woman sat in an outer office with a desk, three telephones, and a computer. “Mrs. Jones,” she said with the faintest flicker of a smile but no hint of enthusiasm. “Mr. Royce is expecting you.”
Outside, in the distance, Big Ben chimed eleven. Mrs. Jones continued through.
Dominic Royce was sitting behind a desk so enormous that it reduced him to the size of a schoolboy. He was a small man anyway, thin with a long, narrow face, gray eyes, and gray lips. His hair was very black, neatly combed back and a little greasy. He was wearing an old-fashioned pin-striped suit and round, wire-frame glasses that perched hesitantly on his upturned nose. He was clean-shaven, and from his looks, Mrs. Jones would have guessed that he was in his late forties. But there was no need to guess. She never went to a meeting without learning everything about everyone in the room, and she knew that he was actually forty-three years old, educated at Eton and Cambridge, married with two sons, who were also at Eton. He had inherited millions of pounds from his father, who had inherited millions more from his. He owned several properties, including an apartment in Pimlico and a huge country house with twenty acres of land just outside Salisbury. On the weekend, he liked to go shooting . . . birds, rabbits, deer. Anything that moved.
He looked up as Mrs. Jones came in, but he didn’t stand to shake her hand or anything like that. “Please sit down.” He turned his attention back to the folder that he had been examining. Mrs. Jones could see the words top secret in red on the cover.
In the silence that followed, she examined the office. She had been here before. The permanent undersecretary before Dominic Royce had been an altogether different sort of man, loud and cheerful, happy to discuss business over tea and cookies. Jaffa cakes had been his favorite. There were going to be no refreshments this time. The office was dark and severe with old wood paneling and leather-bound books on shelves. Two windows reached from floor to ceiling but very little light came in.
Royce laid the folder down, and Mrs. Jones saw a black-and-white photograph lying on top of the first page. She showed no emotion. She had been trained to give nothing away. But her throat tightened. Now she knew why she was here.
The picture, which had been taken more than a year ago, showed a very good-looking boy, dressed in a school uniform. He was gazing into the mid-distance, unaware that he was being snapped. Two strands of fair hair hung down, partly covering his eyes. He was pushing a bicycle, a Condor Junior Roadracer, and there was a backpack hanging off his shoulder.
“Tell me about Alex Rider.” The permanent undersecretary looked up from the file and challenged her with cold, unfriendly eyes.
“What is it you want to know?” Mrs. Jones replied.
Royce blinked heavily, then looked at her as if she had deliberately insulted him. “Well, let’s start with a simple question. Is it true that this boy works for you?”
“He used to work for the department. Yes, sir.” Mrs. Jones chose her words carefully. It was true that several months had passed since Special Operations had last used Alex—sending him out as an undercover agent to an international school in Cairo. That had brought him up against the criminal organization known as Scorpia and a secret hideout in the Western Desert. Not for the first time, it had almost gotten him killed.
“A schoolboy! He was fourteen years old!”
“That was what made him so effective. It’s all there in the file. Because he was so young, nobody suspected him. He was the perfect secret weapon.” She paused. The man sitting opposite her said nothing, so she went on. “His uncle was an agent who also worked for our department. Ian Rider was unfortunately killed investigating that Stormbreaker business, but it turned out that he had trained Alex . . .”
“Yes. I have read all this. Every last word of it!” The permanent undersecretary’s voice was thin and whiny and didn’t change no matter how angry he became. He was angry now. “You had him train with the SAS in the Brecon Beacons.”
“Alex passed with flying colors.”
“I find that extremely hard to believe. But whether he was ready or not, you then sent him all over the world.” He spread the file in front of him. All of Alex’s missions were described in detail. “First Cornwall. Then the Point Blanc Academy, some island off the coast of America, Thailand, Australia . . . You even blasted him into outer space!” He slammed the file shut. “Are you seriously telling me that the British government quite cheerfully went ahead and employed a child who wasn’t even old enough to vote? That you took him out of school and endangered his life . . . how many times?” He batted any answer away with his hand and continued without drawing a breath. “Do you have any idea how much embarrassment it would have caused if the wretched boy had managed to get himself killed? What do you think would have happened if anyone had found out?”
“We were very careful,” Mrs. Jones said. “And Alex was exceptionally gifted. In fact, thanks to him—”
“I’m not interested,” Royce cut in. “To be honest with you, I think you should be considering your position, Mrs. Jones. You must have taken leave of your senses. I mean, what were you thinking of, recruiting him in the first place?”
In fact, it hadn’t been Mrs. Jones who had recruited Alex. That had been Alan Blunt’s idea, and she had actually been against it. But she wasn’t going to tell Dominic Royce that. Whatever her differences with the man whose job she now occupied, she would never have taken sides against him. And there was something about the civil servant, his coldness and his arrogance, that disgusted her. She wasn’t going to waste her time trying to make excuses.
She waited for him to continue.
“How many people know about Alex Rider and his involvement with MI6?” Royce asked.
“Very few.” Mrs. Jones considered. It was certainly the case that a great many people who had come up against Alex were now dead. Herod Sayle, Dr. Grief, Colonel Sarov . . .
“Where is he now?” The question broke her train of thought.
“He’s back at school.”
“I want to get one thing absolutely straight, Mrs. Jones. When I was shown the contents of this file, I found it almost impossible to believe. I’ve never heard of anything quite so ridiculous and downright dangerous” He lifted a finger. “Dangerous for us, I mean! Can we trust the boy not to talk about his experiences? What happens if he tells his friends?”
“Alex is very discreet.”
“Well, I want you to make it absolutely clear that you’re to have nothing more to do with him. I never want to hear his name again. Do you understand me?”
“I presume he’s signed the Official Secrets Act. You can tell him that if he says one word to anyone about any of this, he will go to prison for a very long time. I want you to frighten the life out of him.”
“Alex isn’t very easily frightened.”
“Just do it, Mrs. Jones. This business with Alex Rider was a huge error of judgment on your behalf, and you are not to have any further communication with him under any circumstances. Good morning!”
The last two words were a dismissal. Mrs. Jones got to her feet.
At the same moment, the door opened, and the young man who had brought her to the office appeared. Presumably, the permanent undersecretary had summoned him with a button concealed under his desk. Once again, he said nothing but stood there, pale and silent, like a ghost. As Mrs. Jones walked back out of the Foreign Office, he followed close behind, a half smile on his face as if he had heard everything that had just been said. She ignored him, thinking about the conversation she’d just had.
As much as she disliked Dominic Royce, she had to admit that he had a point. It had been wrong to use Alex Rider, even if he had been a quite extraordinary success. He was a schoolboy, not a spy, but that hadn’t stopped MI6 tearing him away from his home and his friends, putting him in danger over and over again. How many times had he almost died? He had actually taken a bullet in the chest, right outside the office on Liverpool Street. In the year since she had first met Alex, she had seen just how much damage they had done to him. She was—or had been—a mother herself. Although she had tried to persuade herself otherwise, she knew that Alex had no place in her world.
The Jaguar was waiting for Mrs. Jones outside the Foreign Office with the engine already turning. She got in and closed the door. She didn’t need to tell the driver where to go. The car pulled away, heading back the way it had come.
So it was finally over. Dominic Royce was her boss, and she couldn’t argue with him. She could never use Alex Rider again.
Unless, of course, she went behind his back.
It was one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Rio de Janeiro may be famous for its fabulous beaches, its carnival, the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer standing on the summit of the Corcovado mountain—but it is also a home to violence and murder. Pickpocketing, kidnapping, bag snatching, carjacking . . . all of these are daily events, and it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies lying in the gutter. It’s hardly surprising. There are over one thousand slums—or “favelas”—in the city. Overcrowded, polluted, and full of disease, they are a breeding ground for organized crime. Ordinary people live their lives between the drug lords on the one side and the police and the army on the other with armed militias patrolling the streets, killing anyone who gets in their way. In Rio de Janeiro, it’s possible to download an app that will tell you where the nearest shoot-out has occurred. It’s at least one way to stay safe.
John Crawley was thinking about this as he left the British consulate in the Praia da Flamengo in the fashionable area of Rio close to Guanabara Bay. It was still early in the morning—Brazil is four hours behind the UK—but the sun was already shining, and in the distance, he could see the dark blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. The consulate itself was a smart building on a corner, seven stories high with a roof garden and a Union Jack fluttering over the main entrance. It would have been easy to mistake it for an expensive hotel, and he had indeed just spent the night there. But as he crossed the four lanes of traffic and headed into the park opposite, all his senses were alert. He was not carrying a gun. He wondered if that was wise.
It was unusual for Crawley to find himself so far away from Liverpool Street and the offices of MI6, where he was both a deputy to Mrs. Jones and one of her closest colleagues. To look at, he was one of the last people you would expect to be a spy. Although he was only in his thirties, he had the thinning hair and the blotchy skin of a much older man. He was dressed like a tourist with a striped jacket, sunglasses, and a straw hat and looked as if he had just come off a cruise ship. In fact, Crawley cultivated his appearance quite deliberately. He wanted the enemy to think that he was nothing more than an office manager, responsible for paperwork. They would be completely surprised when he killed them.
He was here to meet one of his agents, a man named Pablo. That wasn’t his real name, of course. He was Mario in Italy, Jean-Paul in France, and Samir in Beirut. He had a different passport for every country he visited, and no two passport photographs were quite the same. His hair could be dark or fair. He could be thin or fat, old or young. He was a deep-cover field operative who took extreme care to stay invisible. That was what had kept him alive.
But now he was in danger. Shortly after he had arrived in Rio, his cover had been blown, and there had been two attempts to kill him. He had spent the last week in hiding but had managed to send an emergency signal to MI6 requesting immediate assistance. Pablo had vital information, but he needed protection. There was nobody in Rio de Janeiro he could trust. He wanted someone he knew to meet him and to bring him in from the cold.
Crawley had recruited him. It was Crawley who had sent him on his current mission. Pablo knew him and would recognize him. The two men had agreed on a meeting place: 8:00 a.m. in Flamengo Park. That was where Crawley was heading now.
Halfway across the road, Crawley glanced to the right and saw Sugar Loaf Mountain, another Rio landmark, rising up in the distance. There was still very little traffic. On the weekends, the road could be jammed with drivers making their way to the beach. The perfect lawns and many palm trees of Flamengo Park were in front of him, and he quickened his pace, already looking around him for any unexpected movement, anything that might suggest a trap. Apart from Mrs. Jones, nobody knew that Crawley was in Rio. He was traveling with a fake passport. He was certain that he hadn’t been followed from the consulate. But he was still being careful. Pablo was one of his best agents, and yet he was scared. That made Crawley scared too.
He stepped off the concrete and felt the grass under his feet. He had left the city behind him and was quickly being swallowed up by the park. There was nobody around him, but that was hardly a surprise at this early hour. A single jogger ran past and clambered up the slope of a hill, disappearing into a cluster of palm trees at the top. Crawley followed him more slowly. He reached the trees and saw the sea straight ahead of him with about a dozen sailing boats moored next to each other on either side of a wooden jetty. This was the Marina da Glória. Crawley had only visited Rio once and that had been a while ago, but he had spent several hours on Google Earth, taking a virtual tour of the city. He knew that there was a modern art museum close by and that, if he continued along the coast, he would come to a small, domestic airport. He knew the name of every street for a mile around.
He quickly found what he was looking for. What looked like a sports arena sat between the road and the marina, with two concrete circles cut into the grass forming the shape of a figure eight. A wider track ran all the way around it, and whole thing was enclosed in a low blue fence. This was the Pistas de Aeromodelismo—the model airplane track—a place that had been specially built for Brazilian kids who gathered every weekend to fly their radio-controlled planes. Crawley glanced at his watch. He had arrived, deliberately, ten minutes early. Apart from two children—a boy and a girl who must have gotten up early and who were leaning over a model plane, putting it through its final checks—the track was empty. There was no sign of Pablo, but Crawley was certain that he would be somewhere nearby, watching. Only when he was sure that the area was completely safe would he show himself.
Crawley walked into the middle of the figure eight and stood there, waiting.
It was a perfect place for a meeting like this, both private and yet out in the open. Crawley could see for about six hundred feet in every direction. Apart from a few clumps of trees—which shielded them, separating them from the city—there was nowhere to hide, nowhere a sniper could take aim without being seen. The arena was completely flat and so large that Crawley would get plenty of warning if anyone approached. The sea was a short distance away, providing a natural barrier. To the north, he could see a modern archway, poking up above the bushes. He had never visited it but knew that it was a monument to Brazilian soldiers killed in the Second World War. A concrete bridge stretched over the road behind him. He wondered which direction Pablo would come from. Would he show up at all? Crawley hadn’t heard from him for forty-eight hours, and it was always possible that he was already dead.
Several minutes passed. The sun was getting warmer as it rose into the sky. Crawley could feel it beating down on his shoulders, and he was glad he had decided to wear a hat. On the far side of the track, the children had brought out their plane, and even at this distance, Crawley recognized the model: a Supermarine Spitfire. It was incredible how the old warplane was still an icon all over the world. He heard them start up the engine. A real Spitfire has a deep, throaty roar, but the model was more like an angry wasp. Now the children were fighting for the remote control, arguing who was going to fly it first.
A figure appeared coming through the trees, walking toward Crawley with the sea behind him. It was Pablo. When Crawley had shaken hands with him and wished him luck in his office on Liverpool Street, the agent had been wearing a suit. He had been relaxed, sure of himself. Now he was dressed in torn jeans and a dirty T-shirt with the single word bumbu, a make of Brazilian rum, printed on the front. His hair was long and matted, and he had an untidy beard. His skin had been burned dark brown by the Brazilian sun. If Crawley had not been expecting him, he might not have known who it was.
It took Pablo a long time to cross the arena. His entire body language was defensive, his shoulders hunched and his head twisting from side to side as if he expected to be attacked at any time. He glanced at the two children and hesitated as if even they might be a threat. But they were ignoring him, still fighting for control of the plane. Carefully, he checked there was no one else around. Then he continued forward.
As he drew closer, Crawley saw that he had been wounded. There was a bandage tightly wrapped around his left arm. Blood had seeped through, drying and turning brown. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten for days. Finally, he reached the center of the track and stood opposite Crawley. Behind them, the boy and the girl had come to an agreement. The girl stood back while the boy pushed a miniature joystick on his remote control. The buzzing of the engine became louder and more insistent as the Spitfire raced down the track and, with a brief wobble, launched itself into the air.
“How are you, Pablo?” Crawley asked.
“I’m glad to see you.” If anyone had been close by, they would have been surprised to hear the words, spoken in an upper-class English accent. Pablo was twenty-seven years old. It hadn’t been that long since he had left the sixth year at Dulwich College.
“We got your message. It’s unlike you to sound so . . . nervous.”
Pablo tried to smile, but he was obviously in pain. More than that—he was afraid and he couldn’t completely hide it. “You have no idea!” he muttered. “These people . . . I’ve never come across anyone like them. You want the truth? They make Scorpia look like a vicar’s tea party.” He shook his head. “You were right to send me here, Mr. Crawley. What they’re planning . . . it’s going to happen in London and it’s going to be soon. That’s why I had to see you . . . to warn you!”
He was about to go on, but just then the model Spitfire crossed the sun, casting a shadow over the two men. They were both trained to react to the slightest movement. Crawford saw Pablo reach behind him and guessed that he had a gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He himself lifted a hand, shielding his eyes from the glare. He watched the Spitfire tear past. That was the sound it was making now. It seemed to be ripping the sky in half.
“What happened to your arm?” Crawley asked.
Pablo touched the bandage as if he had forgotten it was there. He winced. “That was a bar in São Paulo. Three of them. They were waiting for me when I left.” Suddenly he was angry. “There’s been a leak, Mr. Crawley. They knew who I was. They knew I was there.”
“That’s impossible.” Crawley was aware of the seconds ticking away. It was dangerous out here, in the open. He wanted to find out what Pablo knew and to arrange his safe passage out of Brazil. “I sent you here and I report directly to Mrs. Jones. Your mission was code red. You really think either of us talked to anyone else?”
“I’m telling you . . . they were waiting for me,” Pablo insisted.
“Who were they?”
“Local gangsters. Hired hands.” Pablo shrugged. “You don’t need to worry about them. They’ve retired.”
So Pablo had managed to kill all three of them. But he had been hurt in the process.
“We need to get to the consulate,” Crawley said. “And then we’re going to get you home.”
“Yes. But first, I have to tell you . . .”
Crawley was aware of the Spitfire before he saw it. It was louder, which meant that it was closer. What were the two children doing? They had brought it swooping down . . . so low, it was going to hit them. Suddenly it was in his vision, a dark shape, nothing more. He saw it shoot past between him and Pablo, the wings outstretched. There was a spark of light, the sun reflecting off something silver. At the same time, Pablo shouted and twisted around, and there was a spray of crimson that seemed to come from nowhere, splashing over Crawley’s shirt. Pablo fell onto his knees. The Spitfire spun out of control and crashed to the ground. The boy had dropped the remote control. Both children had turned and were running away.
It took Crawley a few seconds to work out what had happened. Pablo had a terrible wound in his throat. He had been stabbed. But it was the Spitfire that had done it. One of its wings wasn’t a wing at all. It was a knife, razor sharp, and the child—was it really a child?—had expertly guided it out of the sky, using its own speed and momentum to strike the killer blow. Pablo was finished. There was no doubt of it. As Crawley knelt beside him, he tried to speak, but no words came out.
“Don’t try and talk,” Crawley said. “I’m getting help.”
Crawley’s hand was already in his pocket, squeezing the button on the transmitter that he had brought with him. He might not have been armed, but he had not come alone. As the two assassins sprinted to the edge of the park, half a dozen agents appeared from different angles, running toward the model airplane track. They worked for ABIN—the intelligence service of Brazil. Their job had been to provide backup for the MI6 men, staying out of sight unless they were needed. They were most definitely needed now.
For a moment they were confused. They saw Crawley kneeling beside the man he had come to meet. Mysteriously, that man had been badly injured. There was nobody in sight apart from two kids, who seemed to be empty-handed.
“Stop them!” Crawley shouted and pointed at the same time.
It was already too late. There had been a scooter, a little Vespa 300, parked behind a bush, out of sight. The girl was sitting in the front and started it up while the boy got on behind her. Neither of them bothered with helmets, and seconds later they were gone, bouncing over the grass and onto the narrow road that curved all the way around the Marina da Glória. But they hadn’t gotten away yet. Crawley heard the growl of engines and looked around as two more ABIN agents appeared, both of them riding bright red Honda motorbikes, cutting across the park. These were the machines used by the Brazilian police, and with their 500cc engines, they were much more powerful than the scooter they were following. It would take them ninety seconds, maybe less, to catch up.
But the children had the advantage of the distance. They had already passed the war memorial, and as they sped forward, the boy reached into his pocket, took something out, and hurled it behind him. There was a soft explosion, and a great curtain of black smoke seemed to spring up across the road, blocking them from sight. The agents pursuing them were forced to slow down. At the same time, they heard another sound: a soft humming that rose in pitch and very quickly became a high-pitched whine. A mile away, in the park, Crawley heard the sound and knew instantly what it was. A helicopter was preparing to take off.
It was a bright red, single-engine Bell 407. It had been parked close to the edge of the airport, beside the fence that separated the main runway from the perimeter road. Later on, it would be discovered that it had been there for forty-eight hours, supposedly with engine trouble. The helicopter was registered to a hospital in Salvador. Of course, they had never heard of it.
The Vespa pulled up. The girl leaped off and ran the short distance to the fence with the boy right behind her. The two red Hondas were roaring toward them. The fence was less than ten feet high, but it was topped with loops of razor wire and there was no way they would be able to climb over. They didn’t need to. Someone had already cut a hole big enough for them to pass through, and even as the two agents drew up, they were peeling back the wire as if it were a trapdoor. Meanwhile, the helicopter was ready to take off, the blades spinning so fast they had become invisible, whipping up a cloud of sand and dust.
The girl was through. The boy followed. The first of the two ABIN agents drew a gun, but he was half-blinded by the dust. The helicopter pilot, no more than a blur behind the glass, leaned forward and opened the cockpit door. The engine was screaming now. The helicopter was rocking slightly, ready to leave the ground. The ABIN agent shouted out a warning in Portuguese.
They would have both made it. But at the last moment, the boy was unlucky. The back of his T-shirt got snagged on the fence where the wire had been cut, and suddenly he was like a fish squirming on a hook. The girl hesitated. The agent saw that he had an opportunity and lunged forward, covering the ground between the edge of the road and the fence, throwing himself onto the boy. The pilot shouted something, and the girl turned and ran. She threw herself into the cockpit, and instantly, with the door still open, the Bell 407 twisted into the air and then soared away, over the sea.
The two agents had grabbed the boy and handcuffed him before he could make a move. He was screaming at them, swearing, his face contorted with anger. Neither of the men could quite believe what they were seeing. The boy had short hair and ears that stuck out. He was wearing round, plastic-framed glasses. He was only fifteen years old.
Meanwhile, in the park, an ambulance had finally arrived. Crawley was still kneeling beside Pablo and looked up as it drew to a halt, wondering if it had come in time.
Pablo’s eyes flickered open. He grabbed hold of Crawley’s arm. With the last of his strength, he uttered a single word. “Nightshade.”
And then he died.
The Big Skull
It was a horrible room. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were all made of concrete, raw and unpainted. The door was a slab of iron with no handle on the inside. There were no windows. The light came from a neon tube that hung crookedly on a chain, buzzing and flickering at it cast out a hard white glare. The room was in the basement, and although it was a warm afternoon, down here the air was chilly and damp.
The boy from Flamengo Park had been here for nine hours. He was sitting on a wooden chair on one side of a wooden table; all the furniture had been bolted to the ground. The boy was handcuffed, the chain fastened to the table. So far he had not spoken a word. He had been given a glass of water and a sandwich, but he hadn’t touched them. Some of the police officers who had seen him were beginning to wonder if there hadn’t been some sort of mistake. It was impossible to believe that he could have been involved in a murder. From the look of him, even stealing from a sweetshop would have been beyond him.
He was small for his age, slim and muscular. It would be easy to imagine him as a dancer or an athlete. He had dark hair, cut very neatly in a style that was almost military, as if he was about to go back to school. He was now dressed in a pale gray tracksuit that had been provided for him. He had been allowed to keep his glasses, but everything else had been taken away for analysis. He had been wearing short trousers and a polo shirt, the sort of clothes that might have been chosen for him by a mother or father wanting him to look smart. His sneakers were expensive, made by Adidas and not available in Brazil. In fact, the police had decided that the boy was almost certainly European. Although he had evidently been out in the sun, he was still too pale to be Brazilian. He had been given a complete physical examination, and the police doctor had noted that he was in perfect physical shape apart from a curving scar underneath his right ear that had long since healed.
After his arrest, the boy, who still had no name, had been handed over to the Special Operations Battalion of the Brazilian police. BOPE is also known as “the Big Skull” because of the logo—a skull impaled by a dagger—which appears on their uniforms and vehicles. BOPE is one of the toughest police units in the world. They carry a huge range of weapons, from assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols to general-purpose machine guns . . . They need them in their constant fight against the violent drug gangs that infest the city. They work out of an ugly, square building in the south of Rio de Janeiro. It’s reached by a single track that leads to a yard filled with burned-out motor vehicles and piles of broken-down crates and tires. It wasn’t just the room that was horrible. The whole place was.
The boy was being recorded and observed. A microphone was concealed under the table and a camera was watching him from behind the neon tube. In another room, one level up, on the ground floor, two men were watching him on a TV monitor. One of them was John Crawley. The other, dressed in a loose-fitting camouflage jacket and trousers, was an older man with a tangle of graying hair, a hawklike nose, and dark, watchful eyes. His name was Lieutenant Carlos Oliviera, and he was the senior commander of BOPE.
“Nine hours and not a single word,” he was saying. “I had one of my best interrogators in the room with him. We tried to be nice to him. We tried threats. We put the fear of God into him . . . and nothing!”
“What language did you speak?” Crawley asked.
“English, French, and Portuguese . . . but there’s not a flicker of interest. We’ve had the clothes that he was wearing examined and they came from Athens, so we tried Greek. That didn’t work either.”
“So you don’t know who he is or where he came from.”
“We’ve taken fingerprints and DNA samples. They’ve gone to every police force on the planet. But you know how it is, my friend. It’s going to take time to get a result even if he does turn up on somebody’s database.”
“We may not have time.” Crawley was thinking of the last words spoken by Pablo before he died. An organization called Nightshade. They were planning something hideous in London. It was clearly going to happen soon. That was why it had been so important for them to kill Pablo before he could speak.
“What else can we do?” Lieutenant Oliviera asked.
“I want to take him back to London.”
“Are you serious?”
“Pablo was my agent. I recruited him. He worked for MI6. And it looks like the UK is under threat.”
Lieutenant Oliviera liked Crawley, and he had also met Crawley’s boss when he was in London. Mrs. Jones. A tough, intelligent woman. He wanted to help them—but he had his orders. “This is all true,” he said. “But I’m sorry. What you ask is out of the question. The crime was committed on Brazilian soil, and therefore it is a matter for the Brazilian authorities. BOPE will handle this.” He shrugged. “We’re much more likely to get results. We’re used to having kids in our cells. The gangs use children to carry money and drugs . . . They call them porta-aviões, little airplanes. If this boy refuses to talk, we’ll rough him up a little and see where that gets us. You gringos are too softhearted. You wouldn’t know where to begin!”
And then the boy spoke.
“I want to go to the bathroom.”
They heard him on the television screen and turned to watch. He had spoken in English. He sounded on the edge of tears.
Oliviera thought for a moment, then picked up a radio transmitter and flicked it on. “Take him to the bathroom,” he ordered. Crawley looked at him, alarmed. “He can’t hurt anyone,” Oliviera explained.
“He’s just cut a man’s throat with a radio-controlled plane,” Crawley reminded him, adding: “I thought you said we were the ones who were too softhearted!”
It was too late. Oliviera’s command had been relayed to a guard outside the cell. Watching the monitor, they saw the door open and the man—dressed in the black BOPE uniform—walk in.
The guard’s name was Fabian, and he had only been with BOPE for a few months. Although he was not married himself, he had several nieces and nephews. Perhaps that was why he felt sorry for the gringo boy who had been brought in. He looked so young and innocent! As Fabian approached the table, he saw that the boy had been crying. Both sides of his face were streaked with tears.
“Don’t worry,” he said, in heavily accented English. “I am here to take you to the bathroom.” He leaned down to unlock the handcuffs.
“Thank you,” the boy whispered. The moment his hands were released, he brought them up to the side of his head, as if he were in pain.
“What is it?” Fabian asked.
He never found out.
When the boy had been arrested, his clothes had been taken and he had been made to shower, but nobody had noticed the flesh-colored stud that he had been wearing in his right ear: a tiny plastic ball on top of a metal pin. The moment he was free, the boy had pulled it out, and even as Fabian leaned over him, he had plunged it into the man’s neck. The pin was actually a syringe. Squeezing the ball had released the contents, which would later be identified as Carfentanil, one of the most dangerous drugs in the world. Carfentanil is used to tranquilize large animals, and it is ten thousand times stronger than morphine. Just one milligram will knock out a two-thousand-pound elephant. Fabian was dead before he could realize that he had made two mistakes.
He had come in on his own. And he hadn’t locked the door.
The boy covered the distance to the door with astonishing speed. He knew that he was being watched and that the alarm would be raised in the next few seconds. He had also seen that the guard he had just killed hadn’t been carrying a gun. That was unlucky, but he didn’t let it bother him. There were plenty of guns in the building. He would get one soon enough.
He opened the door, and at the same moment, sirens went off throughout the compound, a high-pitched scream that was so loud it was deafening. The alarm actually helped the boy. There were two more guards standing outside the cell. They were waiting to escort him to the bathroom, but now they froze, thrown off balance by the sudden explosion of sound, unsure what it meant. They saw the door swing open and a figure in a gray tracksuit emerge like some small demon out of a bad dream. Before they could even begin to take defensive action, he was onto them.
The boy was small, but he was incredibly strong. His first strike, a spinning back punch, put all his body weight behind his fist, smashing into the first guard’s face, lifting him clean off the floor and slamming him into the opposite wall. The second guard was armed. He had a Taurus PT92 semiautomatic pistol in a holster tucked into his waistband, and he was already scrambling for it as his colleague crumpled to the ground. The boy seemed to be in no hurry to attack him. The gun came free—but that was what the boy had been waiting for. He swung around a second time, the flat of his foot shooting up diagonally in an ax kick straight into the guard’s shoulder, causing him to cry out and drop the gun. For a moment, the two of them gazed at each other. Then, even though his whole arm was tingling and the hand was barely able to move, the guard threw himself onto the boy, using all his weight to pin him to the ground.
The ear stud hadn’t been his only concealed weapon. Even as the guard launched his attack, the boy had whipped off his spectacles as if to see more clearly and now he was clenching them in his fist. The two plastic arms of his glasses, the parts that hooped behind his ears, contained very slender blades, made from surgical steel, sharpened to a vicious point, and when the boy stabbed forward, the point of the weapon easily broke through the thin plastic casing and plunged into the side of the guard’s neck. The guard felt no pain. There was a brief flash of brilliant white light, the final punctuation mark in his life.
The alarm was still screaming. Three more men came pounding around the corner, and this time there was going to be no element of surprise. The scene told its own story. Somehow the boy had gotten out of his cell. Fabian was dead. Two more men were down, one of them with a pool of blood still spreading around his head. The boy was there in front of them. He had to be taken down immediately. All three of them had pistols. They took aim.
“Fique onde está!” one of them shouted. A warning. “Stay where you are!”
It was another mistake. The BOPE officers were used to dealing with drug dealers and gang members who were violent and often psychotic. They were criminals who would kill without a moment’s hesitation—but they were still smart enough to obey the rules of the game. When three men pointed guns at them, they stopped. They knew when the odds were hopeless and didn’t want to die themselves.
The boy didn’t care. With three guns pointing at him, he threw himself onto the ground, his hand reaching out for the Taurus PT92. Perhaps he had gambled on the fact that, despite everything, the three men would be reluctant to open fire. If so, he was right. They had been too slow. As a fan of bullets spread above his head, ricocheting off the walls and turning the brickwork into dust, he twisted around and fired six times. His bullets found their targets. The men jerked and fell onto each other in a miniature dance of death. At the same time, the boy sprang to his feet . . . quite literally. It was an extraordinary judo move, using his shoulders and the curve of his back to flip himself back up. The Taurus held seventeen rounds. The boy had used six of them. But even without doing the arithmetic, he knew he had eleven shots left. He had been trained to know instantly how many bullets there were in a gun, simply from its weight.
Leaving a tangle of bodies behind him—just one man remained alive, groaning—he continued down the corridor. The strange thing was that he didn’t act as if he was in any danger. He hardly seemed to be aware that he was trapped in the basement of a heavily fortified police building, surrounded by armed men who were now actively searching for him and that even if he did break out into the open air he would find himself fenced in and surrounded. From the way he behaved, and even with the siren still screaming and the gun dangling from his hand, he really could have been going for a stroll, perhaps looking for the bathroom.
He came to a staircase. An armed policeman dressed entirely in black with Kevlar vest and helmet was coming down toward him. The boy shot him in both his legs, waited until he fell, and then stepped over him. Another CCTV camera recorded what had happened. There was something particularly nightmarish about the images—which were black and white, slightly out of focus, shot from a single point of view. They looked as if they had come out of an old, silent horror film.
Crawley and Oliviera had watched all this on the monitor in the lieutenant’s office. As soon as the boy had left his cell, Oliviera had pulled open a drawer in his desk and taken out a revolver. “I have to stop this,” he said, getting to his feet.
“I’m coming with you,” Crawley said.
“I don’t believe this. This is insanity! It’s never happened before.”
Crawley remembered the last words of the agent before he had been killed in Flamengo Park. “These people . . . I’ve never come across anyone like them.” The police chief had said almost the same thing.
They left the office and found themselves in a wide corridor, brightly lit. Unlike the basement, this one had windows looking out onto the yard in front of the building. Crawley knew that the boy had no chance of leaving the complex. He wondered what he was trying to achieve.
Oliviera signaled—with the alarm, it would have been difficult to hear what he said—and the two men began to move down the corridor. And that was when, quite suddenly and with no warning, the boy stepped out in front of them. He had reached the top of the stairs and found them quite by chance. He didn’t know who they were. Nor did he care. Quite casually, he lifted his gun and fired. Oliviera cried out and fell backward.
The boy took another two steps forward so that now he was standing right in front of Crawley. For what seemed like a long time, nothing happened. Carefully, the boy took aim. Crawley knew he was finished. The boy was only fifteen, but he could have been the oldest man alive. He showed no emotion at all. His eyes were two empty holes. Little circles of death. His finger tightened on the trigger.
“Who are you?” Crawley whispered. “Where did you come from?”
And then, before the boy could answer, another policeman appeared behind him, carrying a rifle. The boy became aware of him, but too late. The policeman used his weapon like a club, crashing the stock into the back of his neck. The boy fired—but his bullet went wild, smashing a window. He fell. The policeman was left, staring at Crawley.
“Thank you,” Crawley said. Then, again, in Portuguese: “Obrigado.”
“Are you just going to leave me sitting here?”
The voice came from behind him and Crawley turned to see Lieutenant Oliviera struggling to his feet. He had been hit in the shoulder and his jacket was covered in blood, his right arm hanging limp. His face had lost much of its color. He looked down at the unconscious boy with disgust and rapped out some commands to the soldier who had knocked him out. “Take him back to his cell. Handcuffs. Leg-cuffs. No one is to go in under any circumstances. No food, no drink, no bathroom breaks . . . nothing!”
Ignoring Crawley, he turned and staggered back into his study. There was a bottle of rum in a cupboard. He took it out, using one arm, poured himself a glass, and threw it back in one gulp. Then, remembering his guest, he poured two more glasses. They drank together.
An hour later, they knew the worst.
Four men had been killed. Three had been injured, two of them seriously. Oliviera himself had been lucky. The bullet in his shoulder had missed the artery, but it had done severe damage to the nerve bundle that controlled all the movement in his arm and it would be weeks before he was able to return to work. Worse than that, though, his pride had taken a direct hit. He had been attacked in his own headquarters. He had lost four good men. And the enemy had been a child!
Perhaps that was why he made the decision.
“You can take him,” he told Crawley as the paramedics arrived to lead him out to the ambulance. “He’s not a child. He’s a devil. Take him back to London. I never want to see the little swine again!”
The Boy from Brazil
The Great Western train from Exeter to London had arrived twenty minutes late, its wheels grinding and its carriages giving one last shudder as if it was glad that the ordeal of the journey was finally over. That was certainly true of the passengers. As soon as the doors opened, they came pouring out, quickly spreading over the platform and disappearing with their brightly colored backpacks, strollers, and wheeled suitcases toward the barriers.
The last two people to leave the train were different. They were in no hurry and seemed unsure of themselves. They were a husband and wife. Although they were both in their early fifties, they looked older, with gray hair and slightly stooped shoulders. They were wealthy. That much was obvious from their clothes, their expensive suitcase, and even, perhaps, the fact that they had traveled first class. The man was wearing a jacket, jeans, and open-neck shirt. The woman had a skirt and jacket with a single pearl necklace. They were not speaking to each other. The station was busy, but somehow they were completely alone.
As they moved down the platform, a young man approached them. He was smartly dressed in a dark suit and tie but looked ill at ease, as if he was a little out of his depth. “Sir Christopher?” he asked.
“I was sent to meet you and Lady Gray. Can I take that for you?” He reached out for the suitcase. “I have a car waiting for you outside.”
“You’re with MI6?”
“Yes, sir.” The young man blushed. “Actually, I’m an intern. I work directly for Mr. Crawley. Would you like to check in to your hotel, or would you like to meet him straightaway?”
Sir Christopher glanced at his wife. She nodded. “We’ll go straight to wherever he is, I think.”
“Whatever you say, sir. Actually, Mr. Crawley is at Paddington Green. It’s only a few minutes away.”
“I’m sorry?” Susan Gray frowned. “Paddington Green is a police station.”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“Is that where the boy is being held?”
“I’m sure Mr. Crawley will explain everything.” The intern didn’t want to give too much away. “I’ll let him know we’re on the way.”
If the Grays had been nervous when they arrived, they were even more so now. They both knew that Paddington Green was no ordinary police station. It was a maximum-security building with sixteen cells located below ground level, specially designed for the very worst suspected terrorists who would be brought here for interrogation.
There was a car with a chauffeur waiting for them outside. The young man opened the door for the new arrivals, stowed their case in the trunk, and then sat in the front. They didn’t speak again as they moved off, joining the traffic, which was moving at a crawl. In fact, it might have been faster to walk, although the Grays, sitting together in the backseat, seemed in no particular hurry to arrive. Lady Gray, in particular, barely looked out of the window, clinging to her husband’s arm.
They pulled in outside an ugly, old-fashioned building, three floors high with a Union Jack fluttering on a pole above. The front was made up of double-height windows with frosted blue glass making it impossible to see inside. It was surrounded by a wide concrete sidewalk with a couple of trees that looked lonely and out of place. A four-lane flyover rose up opposite, carrying a constant stream of traffic in and out of London. The entire area was contaminated by dust and noise and the smell of gasoline.
The MI6 man jumped out to escort the Grays, leaving their suitcase behind. As he led them to the front door, they were watched by one of the many security cameras around the building, and the door was buzzed open the moment they approached. John Crawley was waiting for them on the other side, sitting on a metal chair that seemed to have been purposely designed to offer no comfort at all. He had left behind the tourist clothes he had worn in Rio. Now he was dressed in an old-fashioned suit with a striped tie that might belong to a club. The reception area was plain and empty. A few officers in the uniforms of the Metropolitan Police walked past.
“Sir Christopher, Lady Gray! I’m John Crawley. Welcome to London. Did you have a pleasant journey?”
“Not really.” Sir Christopher was a military man. He had been commissioned into the Royal Engineers and had risen to become a lieutenant general, working with the multinational force in Iraq. He had been given a DSO—a Distinguished Service Order—and a gold bar for gallantry, and when he had retired from the army, he had been knighted. He was a man with a short temper. He wouldn’t hesitate to speak his mind. “To be honest with you, I’d quite like to know what’s going on. You told me you had news about Freddy. What exactly do you mean and why have you brought us here?”
“Shall we talk inside?” Crawley was unfazed. He gestured at an open door, leading into an interview room.
The intern had already gone back to the car. The three of them walked into a blank, square room with no windows, a table, and three chairs. They sat down.
“Who exactly are you?” Sir Christopher asked.
“I told you—”
“You told me your name. Nothing more. You don’t look like a policeman—and nor did the young man who met us at the station. I know you’re with the intelligence service but in what capacity?”
Crawley gave him a thin smile. “I’m a sort of general manager.”
“So what is it you want to tell us about our son?”
Crawley hesitated. “This is very difficult, Sir Christopher. Your son, Frederick, died in a boating accident ten years ago.”
“Yes. That’s what we’ve had to live with.”
“I wonder if you would mind telling me exactly what happened.”
“Don’t you already know?” Sir Christopher frowned. “There was an inquest, Mr. Crawley. I’m sure you’ve read the official report.”
“Of course. But I’d still like to hear it from you.”
Sir Christopher hesitated, and his wife stepped in, wanting to get it over with. “Freddy was almost five years old,” she said. “He was our only child. It was the end of August, ten years ago almost exactly. My husband was home on leave, and we went on a family vacation . . . to Instow in Devonshire. We had a nanny, a lovely girl named Jenny, and she came with us. She would look after Freddy during the day so that we could have some time alone.”
“It happened on the third day of the vacation.” Sir Christopher took over. “Jenny asked us if she could take Freddy out in a boat on the River Torridge. She wanted to hire a dinghy with an outboard motor, and we agreed. Well, we trusted her completely. She’d been sailing all her life, Freddy was wearing a life jacket, and there weren’t any waves. The weather was perfect. Believe me, Mr. Crawley, my wife and I have wondered about that decision a thousand times and of course if we could go back in time, we wouldn’t let him out of our sight.”
He paused for a moment. His face showed no emotion.
“They left at eleven o’clock, and they were meant to be gone for an hour. But lunchtime came and there was no sign of them. I went down to the Marine Parade, which was where they had rented the dinghy, and the man there said they hadn’t gotten back yet. That was what set off the alarm bells, and we called the coast guard at once.” He paused a second time, and his wife reached out, taking his hand. “It didn’t take them long to find the boat,” he went on. “Somehow it had upturned. The nanny hadn’t been wearing a life jacket, and she had drowned. Her body was found washed up near the sand dunes. There was no sign of Freddy. The coast guard brought in frogmen and they searched the entire river but without success, and it was assumed that he had been swept out to sea. They asked for witnesses, but nobody had seen anything. The inquest took place a few weeks later. The verdict was accidental death.”
“We didn’t have any more children,” Lady Gray said. “But I’ve never believed that Freddy was dead.” She went on quickly before her husband could interrupt. “A mother always knows. And somehow, I’ve felt it in my heart, that Instow wasn’t the end of the story, that one day he would come back to us.” She looked at Crawley beseechingly. “Is that what you’re saying? Is Freddy here?”
“You’ve found him?” Sir Christopher was staring at Crawley in disbelief.
“We’ve found . . . someone,” Crawley replied, choosing his words carefully. “We’re holding a young person downstairs, but so far he’s refused to give us his name. However, we ran his photograph through facial recognition software and someone had the idea of comparing it against children who had gone missing in the past fifteen years and we got a match with your son. We’ve also looked at NHS records. He has a very unusual blood type—AB negative—the same as you, Lady Gray. His hair and eye color match too.”
“How long has he been here?”
“He was flown into the country only yesterday. We picked him up in Rio de Janeiro.”
“Rio de Janeiro?” This time it was Susan Gray who had cut in. “That’s insane!”
“There’s a great deal about this business that is hard to explain, Lady Gray. We’ve asked you to come up to London because we hope you can identify him. That would at least be a start.”
Lady Gray had gone very pale. Her hands were clutching the edge of the table. “I want to see him now,” she said.
“I’ll take you down in a moment,” Crawley replied. “But I have to warn you first. You have to prepare yourselves. I’m afraid this may not be a pleasant experience.”
“Has he been hurt?”
“No. It’s not that, Lady Gray.” Crawley seemed unsure how to continue. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The boy that we are holding in custody is responsible for the deaths of four people.”
“How is that possible?”
“I’d prefer not to go into details at this stage. But what I’m saying is that you may find his appearance and general manner distressing. We’ve been forced to restrain him, and he’s barely spoken a word since his arrest. He said nothing at all on the plane that brought him here, and he has been silent ever since.”
“None of this makes any sense,” Sir Christopher said. “A four-year-old boy disappears in Devonshire. He turns up, ten years later, in Brazil. And you’re asking me to believe that he killed five people?”
“There’s no doubt about it. I was there.”
Sir Christopher stood up. He had made his decision. “I think we should see him.”
Crawley nodded. “I’ll take you down now.”
They left the interview room. Security cameras watched them as they crossed the reception area and came to a steel-plated door that had to be opened electronically to let them pass. There was a loud buzz and then a click as the lock was released. On the other side, a solid flight of stairs led down to a metal gate with two armed policemen who examined Crawley’s pass before allowing the group to continue. Down here, everything was silent. No daylight was allowed to intrude, and the brick walls and arched ceiling closed in on them from all sides, as if they were being buried alive. They passed a number of doors with tiny observation hatches and single numbers, stenciled in black ink. Two more policemen were on duty, standing with their Heckler & Koch machine guns, slanted down.
At last they stopped outside cell 7. The Grays—Lady Gray in particular—had become increasingly uneasy. Crawley turned to them. “I’m afraid you cannot touch him,” he said. “I must ask you to keep at least three steps away. If you do believe him to be your son, you’ll want to embrace him or hold on to him but under no circumstances can you do that.” He nodded at the nearest policeman, who unlocked the door using a magnetic swipe key. “I should also warn you that he may not recognize you,” Crawley added. It was a last thought. “You need to be prepared for that too.”
They went in.
The cell was very similar to the interrogation room in Rio. Once again the boy was sitting at a table, wearing a tracksuit—this one dark blue. In addition, he had been strapped into a leather harness that allowed him to move his hands but not his arms, which were pinned to his sides. His feet were chained to the floor. There was a tray of food in front of him with a plastic knife and fork. So far he had eaten none of it.
The boy looked up. There was perhaps a flicker of recognition as he noticed Crawley. but he didn’t even seem to notice the other two visitors. Certainly he showed no sign of recognizing them. Sir Christopher and his wife hovered by the door, neither of them speaking. It was Crawley who broke the silence.
“I’ve brought two people to see you,” he said. “Do you know who they are?”
Nothing from the boy.
“They’ve come all the way from Exeter to be with you today,” Crawley went on. “That’s where you used to live. Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“Freddy?” Lady Gray had uttered the single word. She sounded shocked, puzzled, sad. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
Very slowly, the boy turned to examine her. At that moment, Crawley was sure he had made a mistake. If this was Freddy Gray, he certainly didn’t look anything like his parents. He might have the same color eyes as Lady Gray, the same shaped face as Sir Christopher—but he was a world apart from either of them. The truth was, he didn’t really look human at all.
“I don’t know who you are. Leave me alone.”
“I want to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you. Go away.”
Lady Gray let out a muffled sound that might have been a sob. Her husband took hold of her. Crawley saw there was nothing more to add and led them back out into the corridor.
“I’m sorry . . . ,” he began, once they were outside.
To his astonishment, Lady Gray was smiling. Her entire face had come alive and she seemed ten years younger than the woman who had gotten off the train. She glanced at her husband, who nodded, agreeing with what she was going to say. “It’s a miracle!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know what’s happened to him, but it’s Freddy . . . I’m absolutely certain of it. What happened in Instow was a lie. He didn’t die there. You’ve found our son, Mr. Crawley. He’s alive!”