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It started with a letter. The letter. Plain white envelope, handwritten text. Standard-issue postage stamp of the Queen. No return address.
“You have fanmail,” Jack chirped cheerfully, handing Alex the letter as she sifted through Thursday morning’s aggregation of magazines, bills, and junk.
Alex studied the envelope for a moment, automatically accounting for every suspiciously auspicious detail before taking out his Swiss Army Knife and neatly slicing it open. Inside he found a single leaf of tri-folded white paper, bisected by one thin, ominous paragraph:
Alex’s heart slammed blood through his arteries as his mind began to race. Stay out of what? What stranger? What button? It wasn’t until he’d inadvertently crumpled the envelope in his fist that he realized something else was in it. He unfolded the wad of paper and shook out a single gray button. “ADIDAS SPORT” was stamped about its circumference.
Alex frowned. He owned an Adidas wind jacket—blue and dark gray, with the button-detachable hood. It wasn’t his favorite and he hardly wore it at all. Well, not counting when MI6 had sent him to Antwerp two weeks ago. He’d been investigating that dodgy Swedish astronomer whose secret government project turned out to be nothing more than a space-themed amusement par—
Every muscle in Alex’s body went suddenly rigid as a wave of memory crashed into him.
He’d been chased on foot by two Belgian police officers who had caught him breaking and entering Dr Sørensen’s warehouse. Alex had taken to the crowded streets of downtown Antwerp, hoping to lose them. He’d collided with civilians and smashed into street vendors until finally, cornered and with nowhere to run, he’d been forced to jump into the Scheldt River. Ruined everything he’d been wearing that day, including his favorite sneakers. And his Adidas jacket.
Alex stared at the button sitting quietly in his hand, then at the letter.
“Everything okay?” asked Jack, sipping coffee from her karate kittens mug.
“Yeah,” said Alex, folding the letter and shoving it in his back pocket. “Just an advert for a university.” He shouldered his backpack and started for the front door. “See you this afternoon, Jack.”
“Have a good day, hon!”
Alex did not have a good day. He spent the next seven hours trapped in school, trying to pay attention to his teachers and their completely irrelevant lessons, all the while feeling the letter burn in the back of his pocket like a hot piece of metal. He didn’t need to look at it again to remember what it said; he had memorized the words the first time he’d seen them.
I told you to stay out of this. Listen well . . .
When the school day finally ended, Alex mounted his bike and pedaled furiously down King’s Road, almost as if trying to outrace his own thoughts. But no speed was great enough to distance himself from the heart-stopping truth:
Yassen Gregorovich had been in Belgium two weeks before.
And now he knew where Alex lived.
Yassen stepped close, close enough for Alex to get a good look at his smooth face and long reddish-blond eyelashes. It took every ounce of his self control to resist the urge to bolt out from under the weight of the assassin’s gaze.
“You don’t belong to the same world as me,” Yassen murmured evenly. “Go back to school. Go back to your life. And the next time they ask you, say no.”
Alex swallowed dryly, returning the penetrating stare with all the courage he could muster. “I don’t have much of a choice.”
At that, Yassen’s mouth twisted upward into a smirk. “You always have a choice, Alex.” And then he turned, walking with smooth, graceful strides back to the waiting helicopter . . .
The digital clock on the nightstand read 1:40 AM. Alex lay in bed and stared at the shadows on the ceiling, wishing there was a way to shut off his brain. No matter how hard he concentrated on relaxing or how many times he did multiplication tables in his head, nothing could settle his anxious nerves.
He sighed and rolled over, wriggling uncomfortably into his covers.
So he’d managed to bump into Yassen Gregorovich during his escape from Sørensen’s warehouse. Alex was quite certain of it. But what business had the Russian had there? Negotiating another contract? Tracking down an unsuspecting target? Enjoying a murder-free holiday? He didn’t approve of Alex’s continued involvement with MI6, that was made perfectly clear courtesy of Royal Mail. But what did it matter to Yassen? Was he afraid that Alex might actually make a name for himself in the world of espionage and come gunning for vengeance one day? Or was he genuinely thinking of Alex’s best interests? If so, he’d set a hell of an example when he shot Ian Rider and left the fourteen-year-old without a family. No, Yassen Gregorovich was a cold-blooded murderer who didn’t give a damn about anyone, child or adult. So why the threat? Did he want to keep Alex from harm so that he might one day have the pleasure of finishing him off for himself?
The fear and worry had vanished, and now Alex was simply fascinated. Of course, he hated Gregorovich with every fiber of his being, but even Ian’s murder wasn’t enough to dampen the irresistible draw to the dangerous, enigmatic assassin. Alex hardly knew the man, which made it difficult to properly hate him—he needed a reason. He had to find out more.
Alex threw off the covers and padded across the carpet of his bedroom, the moonlight washing over his bare chest. He went to his closet and pulled his jeans out of the dirty laundry hamper, rifling through the pockets until he found the note and the button.
Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe he should just tear up the paper and flush it down the toilet with the button and be done with it, pretend he never received it.
But the itch of curiosity was too great to resist. Perhaps there was something more to the message.
Alex sat down at his desk and clicked on the lamp. He took out a notebook and pencil and copied down the words as he saw them. He spent the next twenty minutes rearranging letters, counting them, trying to form a picture, writing them backward, but it was for nothing. Despite its threatening qualities, it seemed to be just an ordinary letter.
At 2:20 Alex sighed in frustration and dropped his pencil. He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his tired, prickly eyes. He was going to look like hell tomorrow morning, he just knew it. He stared down at the letter and the button on his desk, wondering if there was nothing more to them than what he saw now. Working for MI6 was beginning to get to him, he thought. He was looking too deeply into simple things.
He picked up the button from his lost Adidas jacket—probably at the bottom of a rubbish heap by now—and rolled it between his fingers. More an act of restless fidgeting than anything else.
Yassen had been close enough to pull this button right off his jacket. Close enough to have had his hands on him. Alex shivered, thinking of the dangerous situation he had only narrowly avoided. Yassen could have taken him out at that precise moment, but he had probably been shocked to see Alex plowing through Antwerp like a madman. That brief second of surprise may have saved Alex’s life.
When Alex finally returned from being lost in his own thoughts, he looked at the button in his hand and dropped it with a startled gasp.
It had turned blood red.
What the hell? Alex leaned over the harmless-looking plastic disk on his desk and watched it slowly fade to its normal color again. Once he was certain it wasn’t going to explode or spray poison gas, he picked it up again. Didn’t feel any different, seemed perfectly all right. Then a thought occurred to him.
He cupped his hands over the button and blew between his thumbs, feeling the moist heat of his breath sink into his palms. When he opened his hand the button had gone bright red again.
The word surfaced in his mind, and he suddenly recalled (with a small amount of pride) a brief chemistry lesson last quarter. The students had been studying states of matter and some of the creative ways in which liquid crystals were used in everyday products, such as battery charge indicators and thermometers. The class had even conducted an experiment using crystalline zinc oxide on pieces of white paper. To an observer’s eye the paper appeared to be blank, but when held over a Bunsen burner the zinc oxide turned yellow, making whatever was written on the paper visible.
Alex smiled to himself incredulously. Invisible ink. This button had been coated with it, and the dye had reacted with the heat of his hand, rearranging the molecular structure of the crystals to form this red chroma. Oldest spy trick in the book. And if invisible ink was on the button, then that meant—
Alex snatched the letter from his desk and hugged it, wrapping his arms around himself and pressing it against his chest. He waited a minute or two for his body heat to sink in before pulling the letter away and staring.
Alex smiled triumphantly.
So much for sleeping.