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The nurse was twenty-three years old, blonde, and nervous. This was only her second week at St. Dominic’s, one of London’s most exclusive private hospitals. Rock stars and television celebrities came here, she had been told. There were also VIPs from abroad. VIPs here meant very important patients. Even famous people get sick, and the ones who wanted to recover in five-star comfort chose St. Dominic’s. The surgeons and therapists were world-class. The hospital food was so good that some patients had been known to pretend they were ill so that they could enjoy it for a while longer. That evening, the nurse was making her way down a wide, brightly lit corridor, carrying a tray of medicines. She was wearing a freshly laundered white dress. Her name—d. meacher—was printed on a badge pinned to her uniform. Several of the junior doctors had already placed bets on which of them would persuade her to go out with them first.
She stopped in front of an open door. Room nine.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Diana Meacher.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting you too,” the boy in room nine replied.
Alex Rider was sitting up in bed, reading a French textbook that he should have been studying at school. He was wearing pajamas that had fallen open at the neck and the nurse could just make out the bandages crisscrossing his chest. He was a very handsome boy, she thought. He had fair hair and serious brown eyes that looked as though they had seen too much. She knew that he was only fourteen, but he looked older. Pain had done that to him. Nurse Meacher had read his medical file and understood what he had been through.
In truth, he should have been dead. Alex Rider had been hit by a bullet fired from a .22 rifle from a distance of almost 250 feet. The sniper had been aiming for his heart—and if the bullet had found its target, Alex would have had no chance of surviving. But nothing is certain—not even murder. A tiny movement had saved his life. As he had come out of MI6’s headquarters on Liverpool Street, he had stepped off the sidewalk, his right foot carrying his body down toward the level of the road. It was at that exact moment that the bullet had hit him, and instead of powering into his heart, it had entered his body half an inch higher, ricocheting off a rib and exiting horizontally under his left arm.
The bullet had missed his vital heart structures, but even so, it had done plenty of damage, tearing through the subclavian artery, which carries blood over the top of the lung and into the arm. This was what Alex had felt when he was hit. As blood had poured out of the severed artery, filling the space between the lung and the thoracic cage, he had found himself unable to breathe. Alex could easily have died from shock or loss of blood. If he had been a man, he almost certainly would have. But the body of a child is different from that of an adult. A young person’s artery will automatically shut itself down if cut—doctors can’t explain how or why—and this will limit the amount of blood lost. Alex was unconscious, but he was still breathing, four minutes later, when the first ambulance arrived. There wasn’t much the paramedics could do: IV fluids, oxygen, and some gentle compression around the bullet’s point of entry. But that was enough. Alex had been rushed to St. Dominic’s, where surgeons had removed the bone fragments and put a graft on the artery. He had been in the operating room two and a half hours. And now he was looking almost as if nothing had happened. As the nurse came into the room, he closed the book and settled back into his pillows. Diana Meacher knew that this was his last night in the hospital. He had been here for ten days and tomorrow he was going home. She also knew that she wasn’t allowed to ask too many questions. It was there in large print on his file:
PATIENT 9/75958 RIDER/ALEX:
SPECIAL STATUS (MISO).
NO UNAUTHORIZED VISITORS. NO PRESS.
REFER ALL INQUIRIES TO DR. HAYWARD.
It was all very strange. She had been told she would meet some interesting people at St. Dominic’s, and she had been required to sign a confidentiality clause before she began work. But she’d never expected anything like this. MISO stood for Military Intelligence: Special Operations. But what was the secret service doing with a teenage boy? How had Alex managed to get himself shot? And why had there been two armed policemen sitting outside his room for the first four days of his stay? Diana tried to push these thoughts out of her mind as she put the tray down. Maybe she should have stuck with the NHS. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Looking forward to going home?”
Diana realized she was staring at Alex and turned her attention to the medicines. “Are you in any pain?” she asked. “Can I get you something to help you sleep?” “No, I’m all right.” Alex shook his head and for a moment something flickered in his eyes. The pain in his chest had slowly faded, but he knew it would never leave him completely. He could feel it now, vague and distant, like a bad memory.
“Would you like me to come back later?”
“No, it’s all right, thanks.” He smiled. “I don’t need anyone to tuck me in.”
Diana blushed. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “But if you need me, I’ll be just down the hall. You can call me anytime.”
“I might do that.”
The nurse picked up her tray and walked out of the room. She left behind the scent of her perfume—heather and spring flowers—in the air. Alex sniffed. It seemed to him that since his injury, his senses had become more acute.
He reached for his French book, then changed his mind. To hell with it, he thought. Irregular verbs could wait. It was his own future that concerned him more. He looked around at the neat, softly lit room that tried hard to pretend it belonged to an expensive hotel rather than a hospital. There was a TV on a table in the corner, operated by a remote control beside the bed. A window looked out over a wide north London street lined with trees. His room was on the second floor, one of about a dozen arranged in a ring around a bright and modern reception area. In the early days after his operation, there had been flowers everywhere, but Alex had asked for them to be taken away. They’d reminded him of a funeral parlor and he had decided he preferred being alive.
But there were still cards. He had received more than twenty and he’d been surprised how many people had heard that he’d been hurt—and how many had sent a card. There had been a dozen from school: one from the head; one from Miss Bedfordshire, the school secretary; and several from his friends. Tom Harris had sent him some photos taken on their trip to Venice and a note:
They told us it’s appendercitis but I bet it isn’t.
Get well soon anyway.
Tom was the only person at Brookland who knew the truth about Alex.
Sabina Pleasure had somehow discovered he was in the hospital and had sent him a card from San Francisco. She was enjoying life in America but missed England, she said. She was hoping to come over for Christmas. Jack Starbright had sent him the biggest card in the room and had followed it up with chocolates, magazines, and energy drinks, visiting him twice a day. There was even a card from the prime minister’s office—although it seemed the prime minister had been too busy to sign it.
And there had been cards from MI6. One from Mrs. Jones, another from Alan Blunt (a printed message with a single word—blunt—signed in green ink as if it were a memorandum, not a get-well card). Alex had been surprised and pleased to receive a card from Wolf, the soldier he had met while training with the SAS. The postmark showed it had been mailed in Baghdad. But his favorite had been sent by Smithers. On the front was a teddy bear. There was no message inside, but when Alex opened the card, the teddy bear’s eyes blinked and it began to talk.
“Alex—very sorry to hear you’ve been hurt.” The bear was speaking with Smithers’ voice. “Hope you get better soon, old chap. Just take it easy—I’m sure you deserve a rest. Oh, and by the way, this card will self-destruct in five seconds.”
Sure enough, to the horror of the nurses, the card had immediately burst into flames.
As well as cards, there had been visitors. Mrs. Jones had been the first.
Alex had only just come around after surgery when she appeared. He had never seen the deputy head of Special Operations looking quite so unsure of herself. She was wearing a charcoal-gray raincoat, which hung open to reveal a dark suit underneath. Her hair was wet and raindrops glistened on her shoulders.
“I don’t quite know what to say to you, Alex,” she began. She hadn’t asked him how he was. She would have already gotten that from the doctors. “What happened to you on Liverpool Street was an unforgivable lapse of security. Too many people know the location of our headquarters. We’re going to stop using the main entrance. It’s too dangerous.”
Alex shifted uncomfortably in the bed but said nothing.
“Your condition is stable. I can’t tell you how relieved I am personally. When I heard you’d been shot, I . . .” She stopped herself. Her black eyes looked down, taking in the tubes and wires attached to the boy lying in front of her, feeding into his arm, nose, mouth, and stomach. “I know you can’t talk now,” she went on. “So I’ll be brief.
“You are safe here. We’ve used St. Dominic’s before, and certain procedures are being followed. There are guards outside your room. Someone will be there twenty-four hours a day as long as necessary.
“The shooting on Liverpool Street was reported in the press, but your name was kept out of it. Your age too. The sniper who fired at you had taken a position on the roof opposite. We’re still investigating how he managed to get up there without being detected—and I’m afraid we’ve been unable to find him. But right now, your safety is our primary concern. We can talk to Scorpia. As you know, we’ve had dealings with them in the past. I’m sure I can persuade them to leave you alone. You destroyed their operation, Alex, and they punished you. But enough is enough.”
She stopped. Alex’s heart monitor pulsed softly in the dim light.
“Please try not to think too badly of us,” she added. “After everything you’ve been through—Scorpia, your father . . . I will never forgive myself for what happened. I sometimes think it was wrong of us ever to get you involved in the first place. But we can talk about that another time.”
Alex was too weak to reply. He watched as Mrs. Jones got up and left, and he guessed that Scorpia must have decided to leave him alone, because a few days later the armed guards outside his room quietly disappeared.
And now, in just over twelve hours, he would be out of here too. Jack had already been planning the weeks ahead. She wanted to take him on vacation to Florida or perhaps the Caribbean. It was October and the summer was definitely over, leaves falling and cold breezes coming in with the night. Jack wanted Alex to rest and regain his strength in the sun—but secretly he wasn’t so sure. He picked up the textbook again. He never thought he’d hear himself say this, but the truth was he just wanted to go back to school. He wanted to be ordinary again. Scorpia had sent him a simple, unforgettable message. Being a spy could get him killed. Irregular verbs were less dangerous.
There was a movement at the door and a boy looked in.
The boy had a strange accent—Eastern European, possibly Russian. He was fourteen, with short blond hair and light blue eyes. His face was thin, his skin pale. He was wearing pajamas and a large dressing gown, which made him seem smaller than he was. He was staying in the room next door to Alex and really had been treated for appendicitis, with complications. His name was Paul Drevin—the surname was somehow familiar—but Alex didn’t know anything more about him. The two of them had spoken briefly a few times. They were nearly the same age, and the only teenagers on the corridor.
Alex raised a hand in greeting. “Hi.”
“I hear you’re getting out of here tomorrow,” Paul said.
“Yes. How about you?”
“Another day, worst luck.” He hovered in the doorway. He seemed to want to come in, but at the same time something held him back. “I’ll be glad to leave,” he admitted. “I want to go home.”
“Where is home?” Alex asked.
“I’m not sure.” Paul was completely serious. “We live in London a lot of the time. But my father’s always moving. Moscow, New York, the South of France . . . he’s been too busy even to come in and see me. And we have so many houses, I sometimes wonder which is my home.”
“Where do you go to school?” Alex had picked up on the mention of Moscow and assumed that Paul must be Russian.
“I don’t go to school; I have tutors.” Paul shrugged. “It’s difficult. My life’s sort of weird, because of my father. Because of everything. Anyway, I’m jealous of you getting out before me. Good luck.”
Paul hesitated a fraction longer, then left. Alex gazed thoughtfully at the empty doorway. Perhaps his father was some sort of politician or banker. On the few occasions they had spoken, he’d gotten the impression that the other boy was friendless. He wondered how many kids were admitted into this hospital who had fathers willing to spend thousands to make them better, but who had no time to visit them while they were there.
It was nine o’clock. Alex flicked through the television channels, but there was nothing on. He wished now that he had accepted the sleeping pill from the nurse. A little sip of water and he would have been out for the night. And out of the hospital the next day. Alex was looking forward to that more than anything. He needed to start his life again.
He watched half an hour of a comedy that didn’t make him laugh. Then he switched off the television, turned off the light, and curled up in the bed one last time. He rather wished Diana Meacher had come back to see him. Briefly he remembered the scent of her perfume. And then he was asleep.
But not for long.
The next thing Alex knew, it was half past twelve. There was a clock beside the bed, its numerals glowing in the dark. He woke up reluctantly, trying to climb back down into the pit from which he had come. The truth was, it was difficult to sleep when he had done nothing to make him tired. All day he’d been lying there, breathing in the clean, conditioned atmosphere that at St. Dominic’s passed for air.
He lay in the semidarkness, wondering what to do. Then he got up and slipped into his dressing gown. This was the worst thing about being in the hospital. There was no way out, nowhere to go. Alex couldn’t get used to it. Every night for a week, he’d woken up at about the same time, and finally he’d decided to break the rules and escape from the sterile box that was his room. He wanted to be outside. He needed the smell of London, the noise of the traffic, the feeling that he still belonged to the real world.
He put on a pair of slippers and went out. The lights had been dimmed, casting no more than a discreet glow outside his room. There was a computer screen gleaming behind the nurses’ station but no sign of Diana Meacher or anyone else. Alex took a step forward. There are few places more silent than a hospital in the middle of the night and he felt almost afraid to move, as though he were breaking some sort of unwritten law between the healthy and the sick. But he knew he would just lie awake for hours if he stayed in bed. He had nothing to worry about. Mrs. Jones was certain that Scorpia was no longer a threat. He was almost tempted to leave the hospital and catch the night bus home.
Of course, that was out of the question. He couldn’t go that far. But he was still determined to reach the main reception with its sliding glass doors and—just beyond—a real street with people and cars and noise and dirt. By day, three receptionists answered the phones and dealt with inquiries. After eight o’clock there was just one. Alex had already met him—a cheerful Irishman named Conor Hackett. The two of them had quickly become friends. Conor was sixty-five and had spent most of his life in Dublin. He’d taken this job to help support his nine grandchildren. After they’d talked awhile, Alex had persuaded Conor to let him go outside, and he had spent a happy fifteen minutes on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance, watching the passing traffic and breathing in the night air. He would do the same again now. Maybe he could stretch it to half an hour. Conor would complain; he would threaten to call the nurse. But Alex was sure he would let him have his way.
He avoided the elevator, afraid that the noise of the bell as it arrived would give him away. He walked down the stairs to the first floor and continued along a corridor. From here he could look down on the polished floor of reception and the glass entrance doors. He could see Conor sitting behind his desk, reading a magazine. Even down here the lights were dimmed. It was as though the hospital wanted to remind visitors where they were the moment they came in. Conor turned a page. Alex was about to walk down the last few stairs when suddenly the front doors slid open.
Alex was both startled and a little embarrassed. He didn’t want to be caught here in his dressing gown and pajamas. At the same time, he wondered who could possibly be visiting St. Dominic’s at this time of night. He took a step back, disappearing into the shadows. Now he could watch everything that was happening, unobserved.
Four men came in. They were in their late twenties, and all looked fit. The leader was wearing a combat jacket and a Che Guevara T-shirt. The others were dressed in jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and sneakers. From where he was hiding, Alex couldn’t make out their faces very clearly, but already he knew there was something strange about them. The way they moved was somehow too fast, too energetic. People move more cautiously when they come into a hospital. After all, nobody actually wants to be there.
“Hey—how are you doing?” the first man asked. The words cut through the gloom. He had a cheerful, cultivated voice.
“How can I help you?” the receptionist asked. He sounded as puzzled as Alex felt.
“We’d like to visit one of your patients,” the man explained. “I wonder if you can tell us where he is.”
“I’m very sorry.” Alex couldn’t see Conor’s face, but he could imagine the smile in his voice. “You can’t visit anyone now. It’s almost one o’clock! You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you understand.”
Alex felt the first stirrings of nervousness. A note of menace had crept into the man’s voice. And there was something sinister about the way the other three men were positioned. They were spread out between the receptionist and the main entrance. It was as if they didn’t want him to leave. Or anyone else to enter. “We want to see Paul Drevin.”
Alex heard the name with a shiver of disbelief. The boy in the room next to his! Why would these men want to see him so late at night? “What room is he in?” the man in the combat jacket asked.
Conor shook his head. “I can’t give you that information,” he protested. “Come back tomorrow and someone will be happy to help you then.”
“We want to know now,” the man insisted. He reached into his jacket and Alex felt the floor sway beneath him as the man produced a gun. It was equipped with a silencer. And it was pointing at the receptionist’s head.
“What are you . . . ?” Conor had gone rigid; his voice had risen to a high-pitched squeak. “I can’t tell you!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“We want the room number of Paul Drevin. If you don’t give it to me in the next three seconds, I will pull the trigger and the only part of this hospital you’ll ever need again will be the morgue.”
“One . . .”
“I don’t know where he is!”
“Two . . .”
Alex felt his chest hurting. He realized he was holding his breath.
“All right! All right! Let me find it for you.”
The receptionist began to tap hurriedly at the keyboard hidden below the top of his desk. Alex heard the clatter of the keys.
“He’s on the second floor! Room eight.”
“Thank you,” the man said, and shot him.
Alex heard the angry cough of the bullet as it was spat out by the silencer. He saw a black spray in front of the receptionist’s forehead. Conor was thrown backward, his hands raised briefly.
“Room eight. Second floor,” one of the men muttered.
“I told you he was in room eight,” the first man said.
“Then why did you ask?”
“I just wanted to be sure.”
One of them sniggered.
“Let’s go and get him,” another said.
Alex was frozen to the spot. He could feel his wound throbbing angrily. This couldn’t be happening, could it? But it was happening. He had seen it for himself. The four men moved.
Alex turned and ran.