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ALEX RIDER SERIES. SCORPIA. EXTRA WORK. For the two thieves on the cc Vespa scooter, it was a case of the wrong victim, in the wrong place, on the . BOOKS BY ANTHONY HOROWITZ The Devil and His Boy THE ALEX RIDER ADVENTURES: Stormbreaker Point Blank Skeleton Key Eagle Strike Scorpia Ark . ALSO BY ANTHONY HOROWITZ. THE ALEX RIDER NOVELS: Stormbreaker. Point Blank. Skeleton Key. Eagle Strike. Scorpia. Ark Angel. Snakehead.

His shoulders came clear and he knew that there was nothing above him except water. The crowd had quickly tired of the mad English boy who was making a fool of himself. Joining back up with MI6, he is sent back to Scorpia. The water bus was about to leave again. Alex had managed to destroy the missiles.

At once the gondolier pulled away. Rothman raised a hand. The little boat cut swiftly through the gray canal. Rothman turned and went back into the building. Max Grendel watched her sadly. For more than two decades he had devoted all his energies to the organization.

It had kept him young, kept him alive. But now there were his grandchildren to consider. He thought of little Hans and Rudi—the twins. They too were twelve years old. He had made the right decision. He had almost forgotten the package resting on his thighs. That was typical of Julia. Perhaps it was because she was the only woman on the executive committee, but she had always been the one who was most emotional.

He wondered what she had bought him. The parcel was heavy. On an impulse, he pulled the ribbon, then ripped off the paper.

It was an executive briefcase. It was obviously expensive. He could tell from the quality of the leather, the hand-stitching. It had been made by Gucci. His initials—MUG—had been engraved in gold just under the handle. With a smile he opened it. And screamed as the contents spilled over him. Dozens of them. They were at least four inches long, sand colored, with tiny pincers and fat, swollen bodies. As they tipped into his lap and began to climb his shirt, he recognized them for what they were: Max Grendel fell backward, shrieking, his eyes bulging, his arms and legs flailing as the hideous creatures found the folds in his clothes and crawled through his shirt into his armpits and down under the waistband of his trousers.

The first one stung him on the side of his neck, the next on his chest. Then, suddenly, the scorpions were stinging him everywhere, over and over again, until his screams died unheard in his throat. His heart gave out long before the neurotoxins killed him.

As the gondola floated gently forward, being steered now toward the island cemetery of Venice, the tourists might have noticed him lying still with his hands spread out, gazing with sightless eyes at the bright Venetian sky. It seemed that all life had gathered in the Piazza Esmerelda, a few miles outside Venice. Church had just finished and whole families were strolling together in the brilliant sunlight; grandmothers in black, boys and girls in their best suits and Communion dresses.

The coffee bars and ice cream shops had opened, spilling their customers onto the sidewalks and out into the street. A huge fountain—all naked gods and serpents—gushed jets of ice-cold water.

And there was a market. Stalls had been set up selling kites, dried flowers, old postcards, clockwork birds, and packets of seed for the hundreds of pigeons that strutted and squawked around. One was short and dark, with spiky black hair and bright blue eyes. The other was Alex Rider. It was the beginning of September. It had been the end of an adventure that had taken him to Paris and Amsterdam and finally to the main runway at Heathrow Airport even as a dozen nuclear missiles had been fired at targets all around the world.

Alex had managed to destroy the missiles. He had been there when Cray died. And at last he had gone home with the usual collection of bruises and scratches only to find a grim-faced and determined Jack Starbright waiting for him in the main living room. Jack was his housekeeper, but she was also his friend and, as always, she was worried about him. But this is getting ridiculous. You come home bruised and battered and completely exhausted.

You need a vacation! A week in the sun! Jack had noticed it at once. Tom Harris. You know. He said I could come too. But then she brightened up. You ought to spend more time with your own friends. Venice and Naples will be terrific. And the main thing is to make sure you have a real rest. Tom Harris was his best friend at Brookland. It was certainly true that he was regularly bottom in everything.

He always managed to be cheerful and he was always fun to be with. Tom had been talking about this trip to Italy for some time, but it was only recently that Alex had discovered why he was so keen to go. It was what he always ordered when he was in Italy: It was halfway between an ice cream and a drink and there was nothing in the world more refreshing.

He was wearing Diesel light-sensitive sunglasses that he had bought for himself at Heathrow duty-free. They were one size too big for his face and kept slipping down his nose.

But Miss Bedfordshire asked me about you. She said you got into trouble once for stealing a crane or something. Did she really believe he was mad? Alex and Tom were staying in a youth hostel in the little town of San Lorenzo, just outside Venice itself. He broke off. It had happened very quickly and both boys had seen it, on the opposite side of the square.

There was an elegantly dressed woman, out with her two children. She had just stepped off the sidewalk and was about to cross the road when a motorbike surged forward. It was a cc Vespa Granturismo, almost brand-new, with two men riding it.

They were both dressed in jeans and loose, long-sleeved shirts. The passenger had a helmet and visor, as much to hide his identity as to protect him if they crashed. The driver—wearing sunglasses— steered toward the woman, as though he intended to run her over. But at the last moment he veered away. It was done so neatly that Alex knew the two men were professionals. Bag thieves.

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Both her children had seen what had happened. One of them was shouting and pointing but there was nothing they could do. The bike was already accelerating away. The driver had his head low. His partner was cradling the leather bag in his lap. They were speeding diagonally across the square, heading toward Alex and Tom.

It had seemed that there were people everywhere a few moments before, but suddenly the center of the square was empty and there was nothing to prevent their escape. Alex got up and ran forward. But it was hopeless. The driver would easily be able to swerve around him—and if he chose not to, Alex really would end up in the hospital. The bike was already doing about forty miles per hour, its singlecylinder, four-stroke engine carrying the two thieves effortlessly toward him.

A net? A bucket of water? But there was no net and the fountain was too far away, although there were buckets. The bike was less than twenty yards away, accelerating all the time. Alex ran forward and snatched a bucket from the flower stall, emptied it, scattering dried flowers across the sidewalk, and filled it with birdseed from the stall next door.

Both the stall owners were shouting at him in Italian, but he ignored them. Without stopping, he swung around and hurled the birdseed at the Vespa just as it was about to go past him.

Tom was watching. They were continuing regardless. There must have been two or three hundred pigeons in the square and all of them had seen the seed shooting out of the bucket. The two riders were covered in it. Seed had lodged in the folds of their clothes, under their collars, and in the sides of their sneakers. With a soft explosion of gray feathers, they came swooping out of the sky, falling on the two men from all directions.

Suddenly the driver had a pigeon clinging to the side of his face with its claws while its beak hammered at his head, tearing the seed out of his hair. There was another pigeon at his throat, a third between his legs, pecking at the most sensitive area of all. His passenger had two pigeons on his neck, another one hanging off his shirt, another half-buried in the stolen bag. And more pigeons were joining in. There must have been at least twenty of them, flapping and batting around them, a twisting cloud of feathers, claws, and—triggered by greed and excitement—flying pellets of white bird droppings.

The driver was blinded, one hand on the handlebars, the other tearing at his face. As Alex watched, the bike performed a degree turn so that now it was coming back, heading straight toward them, moving faster than ever. For a moment he stood poised, waiting to throw himself aside.

It looked as though he was going to be run over. But then the bike veered a second time and now it was heading for the fountain, the two men barely visible in a cloud of beating wings. Both men were thrown off. The birds scattered. In the brief second before he hit the water, the man who had grabbed the handbag yelled and let go of it. Almost in slow motion, the bag arced through the air.

Alex took two steps forward and caught it. And then it was all over. The two thieves were a tangled heap, half-submerged in cold water. The Vespa was lying, buckled and broken, on the ground. A pair of Italian policemen, who had arrived when it was almost too late, were hurrying toward them. The stall owners were laughing and applauding. Tom was staring. Alex went over to the woman and gave her the bag.

The woman stared at him in astonishment. Alex turned and walked back to his friend. He sat down at the table. A bloody great museum. Every building seemed to compete with its neighbor to be more ornate and more spectacular. A short walk could take you across four centuries and every corner seemed to lead to another surprise. It might be a canal-side market with great slabs of meat laid out on the tables and fish dripping blood onto the paving stones.

Or a church, seemingly floating, surrounded by water on all four sides. A grand hotel or a tiny local restaurant. Even the shops were works of art with windows framing exotic masks, brilliantly colored glass vases, dried pasta, and antiques.

It was a museum, maybe, but one that was truly alive. And yet, part of him felt guilty for dragging Tom here. Tom would have preferred to go straight down to Naples, but Alex had managed to persuade him to spend a few days, first, in Venice. Night after night he had thought about them, turning over in bed, unable to get to sleep. His father—John Rider—had worked with Yassen. But then John Rider had been killed by MI6, the very same people who had forced Alex to work for them three times: It was almost impossible to believe, but Yassen had offered him proof.

Scorpia could be a person. Alex had looked in the telephone book and had found no fewer than fourteen people living in and around Venice with that name. It could be a business. Or it could be a single building. Scuole were homes set up for poor people. La Scala was an opera house in Milan.

No signs pointed to it. No streets were named after it. It was only now that he was here, one day before they were due to leave, that Alex began to see that it had been hopeless from the start. Had they worked for Scorpia? If so, Scorpia would be very carefully concealed. Alex looked again at the staircase his guidebook had described. Scorpia could be anywhere.

Or anyone. And after six days in Venice, Alex was nowhere. What do you want to do? We could go down to St. You seem to like pigeons. He turned his head.

There was nothing. A canal leading away. Another canal crossing it. A single motor cruiser sliding underneath a bridge. The usual facade of ancient brown walls dotted with wooden shutters. A church dome rising above the red roof tiles. He had imagined it. But then the cruiser began to turn and that was when he saw it a second time and knew that it was really there. It was a silver scorpion decorating the side of the boat, pinned to the wooden bow. Alex stared as it swung into the second canal.

There were two crew members in immaculate white jackets and shorts, one at the wheel, the other serving a drink to the only passenger. This was a woman, sitting upright, looking straight ahead.

Alex only had time to glimpse black hair, an upturned nose, a face with no expression. Then the motorboat completed its turn and disappeared from sight. A scorpion decorating a motorboat. It was only the most slender of connections, but suddenly Alex was determined to find out where the boat was going.

It was almost as though the silver scorpion had been sent to guide him to whatever it was he was meant to find. And there was something else. The stillness of the woman sitting in the back. How was it possible to be carried through this amazing city without registering some emotion, without— at least—turning her head from left to right?

Alex thought of Yassen Gregorovich. He would have been the same. He and this woman were two of a kind. Alex turned urgently to Tom.

But almost at once, he saw that he had a problem. The city of Venice had been originally built on no fewer than a hundred islands. In the fifteenth century, the area had been little more than a swamp.

That was why there were no roads—just waterways and oddly shaped bits of land connected by bridges. The woman was on the water. Alex was on the land. Following her would be like trying to find his way through an impossible maze in which his path and hers would never meet. Already he had lost her. The alleyway he had taken should have continued straight ahead. Instead it suddenly turned at an angle, blocked by a tall section of apartments.

He ran around the corner, watched by two Italian women, both in black dresses, sitting outside on wooden stools. There was a canal ahead of him, but it was empty. A flight of heavy stone steps led down to the murky water, but there was no way forward. He craned around to the left and was rewarded 32 SCORPIA with a glimpse of wood and water churned up by the propellers of the motorboat as it passed a fleet of gondolas that were roped together beside a rotting jetty.

There was the woman, sitting in the back, now sipping a glass of wine. The boat continued underneath a bridge so tiny, there was barely room to pass. There was only one thing he could do. He turned around and retraced his steps, running as fast as he could. The two Italian women saw him again and shook their heads disapprovingly. The sun seemed to be trapped in the narrow streets, and even in the shadows the heat still lingered. Already sweating, he burst back out on the street where he had begun.

There was no sign of Tom. Alex guessed he would already set out for the hostel, happy to get a rest. Which way? Suddenly every street and every corner looked the same. Relying on his sense of direction, Alex turned left and ran past a fruit shop, a candle shop, and an open-air restaurant with the waiters already laying the tables for lunch.

He came to a turning and there was the bridge—so short, he could cross it in five steps. He stopped in the middle and leaned over the edge, gazing down the canal.

The boat was nowhere to be seen. But he knew which way it had been going. He darted forward. A Japanese tourist had just been about to take a photograph of his wife and daughter.

Alex actually heard the camera shutter click as he ran between him and them. When they got back to Tokyo, they would have a picture of a slim, athletic boy with long, fair hair, dressed in a Billabong T-shirt, with sweat running down his face and determination in his eyes. Something to remember him by. A crowd of tourists. A student playing a guitar. Waiters with silver trays. Alex plowed through them all, ignoring the shouts of protest thrown after him. There was no sign of water anywhere.

The street seemed to go on forever. But he knew there must be a canal somewhere ahead. He found it. The road fell away suddenly. Gray water lapped past. He had reached the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in Venice. And there was the motorboat with the silver scorpion, now fully visible.

It was at least fifty yards away, surrounded by other vessels, and getting farther with every second that passed. There were too many channels it could take, opening up on both sides.

He had come to a wooden platform floating on the water just ahead of him and he realized it was one of the landing docks for the vaporetti—the Venice water buses.

There was a kiosk selling tickets, a mass of people milling about. A yellow sign gave the name of this point on the canal: Santa Maria del Giglio. A large, crowded boat was just pulling out, a number one bus. The school party had taken it from the main railway station the day they arrived and Alex knew that it traveled the full length of the canal. It was moving very slowly but already a couple of yards separated it from the landing dock. Alex glanced back. There was no way he was going to be able to find his way through the labyrinth of streets in pursuit of the motorboat.

The water bus was his only hope. But it was already too far away. He had missed it and there might not be another one for five or ten minutes. A gondola drew past, the gondolier singing in Italian to the grinning family of tourists he was carrying. For a moment Alex thought of stealing the gondola. Then he had a better idea. The family looked on in alarm as he plunged backward into the water.

Meanwhile, Alex had tested the oar. It was about ten yards long and heavy. The gondolier had been holding it vertically, using the splayed paddle end to guide his boat through the water. Alex ran forward. He was lucky. The tide was low and the bottom of the canal was littered with everything from old washing machines to bicycles and wheelbarrows, cheerfully thrown in by the Venetian residents with no thought of pollution.

The bottom of the oar hit something solid and Alex was able to use the length of solid wood to propel himself forward. It was exactly the same technique he had used pole-vaulting at Brookland sports day. For a moment he was in the air, leaning backward, suspended over the Grand Canal.

Then he swung down, sweeping through the open entrance of the water bus and landing on the deck. He dropped the oar behind him and looked around.

The other passengers were staring at him in amazement. But he was on board. So there was nobody to challenge Alex about his unorthodox method of arrival or to demand a fare. He leaned over the edge, grateful for the breeze sweeping over the surface of the water.

It was still ahead of him, traveling away from the main lagoon and back into the heart of the city. A slender wooden bridge stretched out over the canal ahead of him and Alex recognized it at once as the Bridge of the Academy, leading to the biggest art gallery in the city. For a moment he wondered what he was doing. He had just abandoned his friend. He had run the full length of Venice. And why? What did he have to go on? A silver scorpion decorating a private boat.

He must be out of his mind. The vaporetto began to slow down. It had already reached the next landing dock. Alex tensed himself. He knew that if he waited for one load of passengers to get off and another to get on, he would never see the motorboat again. He was on the other side of the canal now. The streets were a little less crowded here. Alex caught his breath.

He wondered how much farther he could run. And then he saw, with a surge of relief, that the motorboat had also arrived at its destination.

As Alex watched, two more uniformed servants appeared. One moored the boat. The other held out a white-gloved hand. The woman took the hand and stepped ashore. She was wearing a tight-fitting cream-colored dress with a jacket cut short above the waist. A handbag swung from her arm. She could have been a model stepping off the front cover of a fashion magazine. While the servants busied themselves with her suitcases, unloading them from the boat, she disappeared behind a stone column.

The water bus was about to leave again. Quickly, Alex stepped off and climbed onto the landing dock. Once again he had to work his way around the buildings that crowded onto the Grand Canal. But this time he knew what he was looking for. A few minutes later, he found it. It was a typical Venetian palace, pink and white, its narrow windows built into a fantastic embroidery of pillars, arches, and balustrades. But what made the place so unforgettable was its position.

It sank right into it, the water lapping against the brickwork. The woman from the boat had gone through some sort of portcullis, as though entering a castle. But it was a castle that was floating. Or sinking. It was impossible to say where the water ended and the palace floor began.

The building did at least have one side that could be reached by land. It backed onto a wide square with trees and bushes growing out of ornamental tubs. There were men—servants—everywhere, setting up rope barriers, positioning oil-burning torches, and unrolling a red carpet.

Carpenters were at work, constructing what looked like a small bandstand. More men were carrying in a variety of crates and boxes. Alex saw champagne bottles, fireworks, different sorts of food. They were obviously preparing for a serious party.

Alex stopped one of them. Alex tried a second man, with exactly the same result. He recognized the type. The guards at the Point Blanc Academy. These were people who worked for someone who made them nervous. They were paid to do a job and they never stepped out of line. Were they people with something to hide? Alex left the square and walked around the side. A second canal ran the full length of the building and this time Alex was luckier.

There was an elderly woman, a grandmother figure in a black dress with a white apron, sweeping the towpath. He approached her.

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She put the broom down. I speak good English. Who can I do? For a birthday. Masks and costumes. Many important people come.

But once again age was on his side. He was only fourteen. What did it matter if he was curious? She is very rich lady. Invisible Sword. Julia Rothman was in command. There was a trace of a Welsh accent in her voice. She had in fact been born in Aberystwyth, Wales. Her parents had been Welsh nationalists, burning down the cottages of English vacationers who had bought them as second homes.

Unfortunately, they burned one of these cottages with the English family still inside it, and when Julia was six, she found herself in an 6 SCORPIA institution while her parents began life sentences in jail. This was, in a way, the start of her own criminal career. To call him rich would be an understatement. He is a multibillionaire. This man has looked at the world, at the balance of power, and he has decided that something has gone seriously wrong.

He has asked us to remedy it. He looks at Great Britain and the United States. It was the friendship between them that won the Second World War. And it is this same friendship that now allows the West to invade any country that it pleases and to take anything it wants.

Our client has asked us to end the Anglo-American alliance once and for all. Rothman smiled sweetly. Perhaps he is completely insane. He has offered us an enormous sum of money— one hundred million dollars, to be exact—to do what he wants. And I am happy to be able to tell you that twenty million dollars, the first installment of that money, arrived in our Swiss bank yesterday.

We are now ready to move into phase two. As the men waited for Mrs. Rothman to speak again, the faint hum of an air conditioner could be heard. But no sound came from outside. More than that: By the end of the month both countries will be on their knees.

The US will be hated throughout the entire world. England will have witnessed a horror beyond anything they could ever have imagined. We will all be a great deal richer.

And our client will consider his money well spent. I have a question. Three bowed his head politely. His face seemed to be made of wax and his hair—jet-black— looked twenty years younger than the rest of him. It had to be dyed. He was very small and might have been a retired teacher. He had written several books on the subject. Julia Rothman considered. Many thousands. They will mainly be twelve and thirteen years old. And I have to say, the psychological effect of so many young people dying will, I think, be useful.

Does it concern you? Three shook his head. Rothman noticed Max Grendel shift uncomfortably on his chair at the far end of the table. He was the oldest man in the room, seventy-three, with sagging skin and liver spots on his forehead. He suffered from an eye disease that made him weep constantly. He was dabbing at his eyes now with a tissue. But it was not he who spoke. The platform, the gas cylinders, and the rest of the machinery will be delivered later today.

It was typical of Levi Kroll to be blunt and to the point. He had joined Scorpia from Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and still thought of himself as a soldier. For twenty years he had slept with an FN 9mm pistol under his pillow. Then, one night, it had gone off. He was a large man with a beard that covered most of his face, concealing the worst of his injuries. A patch covered the empty socket where his left eye had once been. Rothman was offended. But I have to tell you that Professor Liebermann is something of a genius.

But by then it will be too late. The streets of London will be littered with corpses. Three asked. He may have invented Invisible Sword, but he has no idea how we plan to use it. Rothman looked around the room. He was a father and a grandfather. Worse than that, in his old age he had become sentimental.

But this project. Are we really going to kill so many children? How will we be able to live with ourselves? Rothman muttered. A single tear trickled from one of his diseased eyes. We spoke of this the last time we met. But I have decided that enough is enough. I want to retire to my castle in Vienna. Invisible Sword will be your greatest achievement, I am sure. But I no longer have a heart for it.

It is time for me to retire. You must go ahead without me. He was black but with Japanese eyes. There was a diamond the size of a pea embedded in one of his front teeth. I felt there was no need to inform the entire committee. But as my late husband used to say—all good things come to an end. It had happened just two days after his marriage to her. At last they stood in the bright sunlight with the sounds and smells of real life all around.

Max Grendel glanced back at the palazzo—the four-story building from which he had just emerged. It was, he thought, as beautiful as its owner. Grendel looked for his motorboat. It seemed to have already left, but a gondola was waiting to take him back down the canal. Rothman took his arm. Not with you at the head. It was bobbing up and down on the choppy surface. A gondolier stood in the back, dressed in a traditional striped jersey, leaning on his pole.

And keep in touch. Then she helped him into the gondola. He sat down awkwardly, the brightly colored box resting on his knees. At once the gondolier pulled away. Rothman raised a hand. The little boat cut swiftly through the gray canal. Rothman turned and went back into the building.

Max Grendel watched her sadly. For more than two decades he had devoted all his energies to the organization. It had kept him young, kept him alive. But now there were his grandchildren to consider. He thought of little Hans and Rudi—the twins.

They too were twelve years old. He had made the right decision. He had almost forgotten the package resting on his thighs. That was typical of Julia. Perhaps it was because she was the only woman on the executive committee, but she had always been the one who was most emotional. He wondered what she had bought him. The parcel was heavy.

On an impulse, he pulled the ribbon, then ripped off the paper. It was an executive briefcase. It was obviously expensive. He could tell from the quality of the leather, the hand-stitching.

It had been made by Gucci. His initials—MUG—had been engraved in gold just under the handle. With a smile he opened it. And screamed as the contents spilled over him.

Dozens of them. They were at least four inches long, sand colored, with tiny pincers and fat, swollen bodies. As they tipped into his lap and began to climb his shirt, he recognized them for what they were: Max Grendel fell backward, shrieking, his eyes bulging, his arms and legs flailing as the hideous creatures found the folds in his clothes and crawled through his shirt into his armpits and down under the waistband of his trousers.

The first one stung him on the side of his neck, the next on his chest. Then, suddenly, the scorpions were stinging him everywhere, over and over again, until his screams died unheard in his throat. His heart gave out long before the neurotoxins killed him. As the gondola floated gently forward, being steered now toward the island cemetery of Venice, the tourists might have noticed him lying still with his hands spread out, gazing with sightless eyes at the bright Venetian sky.

It seemed that all life had gathered in the Piazza Esmerelda, a few miles outside Venice. Church had just finished and whole families were strolling together in the brilliant sunlight; grandmothers in black, boys and girls in their best suits and Communion dresses.

The coffee bars and ice cream shops had opened, spilling their customers onto the sidewalks and out into the street. A huge fountain—all naked gods and serpents—gushed jets of ice-cold water.

And there was a market. Stalls had been set up selling kites, dried flowers, old postcards, clockwork birds, and packets of seed for the hundreds of pigeons that strutted and squawked around. One was short and dark, with spiky black hair and bright blue eyes. The other was Alex Rider. It was the beginning of September.

It had been the end of an adventure that had taken him to Paris and Amsterdam and finally to the main runway at Heathrow Airport even as a dozen nuclear missiles had been fired at targets all around the world. Alex had managed to destroy the missiles.

He had been there when Cray died. And at last he had gone home with the usual collection of bruises and scratches only to find a grim-faced and determined Jack Starbright waiting for him in the main living room. Jack was his housekeeper, but she was also his friend and, as always, she was worried about him. But this is getting ridiculous. You come home bruised and battered and completely exhausted. You need a vacation!

A week in the sun! Jack had noticed it at once. Tom Harris. You know. He said I could come too. But then she brightened up. You ought to spend more time with your own friends. Venice and Naples will be terrific. And the main thing is to make sure you have a real rest.

Tom Harris was his best friend at Brookland. It was certainly true that he was regularly bottom in everything. He always managed to be cheerful and he was always fun to be with. Tom had been talking about this trip to Italy for some time, but it was only recently that Alex had discovered why he was so keen to go.

It was what he always ordered when he was in Italy: It was halfway between an ice cream and a drink and there was nothing in the world more refreshing. He was wearing Diesel light-sensitive sunglasses that he had bought for himself at Heathrow duty-free.

They were one size too big for his face and kept slipping down his nose. But Miss Bedfordshire asked me about you. She said you got into trouble once for stealing a crane or something. Did she really believe he was mad? Alex and Tom were staying in a youth hostel in the little town of San Lorenzo, just outside Venice itself.

He broke off. It had happened very quickly and both boys had seen it, on the opposite side of the square. There was an elegantly dressed woman, out with her two children. She had just stepped off the sidewalk and was about to cross the road when a motorbike surged forward. It was a cc Vespa Granturismo, almost brand-new, with two men riding it.

They were both dressed in jeans and loose, long-sleeved shirts. The passenger had a helmet and visor, as much to hide his identity as to protect him if they crashed. The driver—wearing sunglasses— steered toward the woman, as though he intended to run her over. But at the last moment he veered away. It was done so neatly that Alex knew the two men were professionals.

Bag thieves. Both her children had seen what had happened. One of them was shouting and pointing but there was nothing they could do. The bike was already accelerating away. The driver had his head low. His partner was cradling the leather bag in his lap. They were speeding diagonally across the square, heading toward Alex and Tom. It had seemed that there were people everywhere a few moments before, but suddenly the center of the square was empty and there was nothing to prevent their escape.

Alex got up and ran forward. But it was hopeless. The driver would easily be able to swerve around him—and if he chose not to, Alex really would end up in the hospital. The bike was already doing about forty miles per hour, its singlecylinder, four-stroke engine carrying the two thieves effortlessly toward him.

A net? A bucket of water? But there was no net and the fountain was too far away, although there were buckets.

The bike was less than twenty yards away, accelerating all the time. Alex ran forward and snatched a bucket from the flower stall, emptied it, scattering dried flowers across the sidewalk, and filled it with birdseed from the stall next door.

Both the stall owners were shouting at him in Italian, but he ignored them. Without stopping, he swung around and hurled the birdseed at the Vespa just as it was about to go past him. Tom was watching. They were continuing regardless. There must have been two or three hundred pigeons in the square and all of them had seen the seed shooting out of the bucket.

The two riders were covered in it. Seed had lodged in the folds of their clothes, under their collars, and in the sides of their sneakers. With a soft explosion of gray feathers, they came swooping out of the sky, falling on the two men from all directions. Suddenly the driver had a pigeon clinging to the side of his face with its claws while its beak hammered at his head, tearing the seed out of his hair. There was another pigeon at his throat, a third between his legs, pecking at the most sensitive area of all.

His passenger had two pigeons on his neck, another one hanging off his shirt, another half-buried in the stolen bag. And more pigeons were joining in. There must have been at least twenty of them, flapping and batting around them, a twisting cloud of feathers, claws, and—triggered by greed and excitement—flying pellets of white bird droppings.

The driver was blinded, one hand on the handlebars, the other tearing at his face. As Alex watched, the bike performed a degree turn so that now it was coming back, heading straight toward them, moving faster than ever. For a moment he stood poised, waiting to throw himself aside. It looked as though he was going to be run over. But then the bike veered a second time and now it was heading for the fountain, the two men barely visible in a cloud of beating wings.

Both men were thrown off. The birds scattered. In the brief second before he hit the water, the man who had grabbed the handbag yelled and let go of it. Almost in slow motion, the bag arced through the air. Alex took two steps forward and caught it. And then it was all over. The two thieves were a tangled heap, half-submerged in cold water.

The Vespa was lying, buckled and broken, on the ground. A pair of Italian policemen, who had arrived when it was almost too late, were hurrying toward them. The stall owners were laughing and applauding. Tom was staring. Alex went over to the woman and gave her the bag. The woman stared at him in astonishment. Alex turned and walked back to his friend. He sat down at the table.

A bloody great museum. Every building seemed to compete with its neighbor to be more ornate and more spectacular. A short walk could take you across four centuries and every corner seemed to lead to another surprise. It might be a canal-side market with great slabs of meat laid out on the tables and fish dripping blood onto the paving stones.

Or a church, seemingly floating, surrounded by water on all four sides. A grand hotel or a tiny local restaurant. Even the shops were works of art with windows framing exotic masks, brilliantly colored glass vases, dried pasta, and antiques.

It was a museum, maybe, but one that was truly alive. And yet, part of him felt guilty for dragging Tom here. Tom would have preferred to go straight down to Naples, but Alex had managed to persuade him to spend a few days, first, in Venice. Night after night he had thought about them, turning over in bed, unable to get to sleep. His father—John Rider—had worked with Yassen. But then John Rider had been killed by MI6, the very same people who had forced Alex to work for them three times: It was almost impossible to believe, but Yassen had offered him proof.

Scorpia could be a person. Alex had looked in the telephone book and had found no fewer than fourteen people living in and around Venice with that name. It could be a business.

Or it could be a single building. Scuole were homes set up for poor people. La Scala was an opera house in Milan. No signs pointed to it. No streets were named after it. It was only now that he was here, one day before they were due to leave, that Alex began to see that it had been hopeless from the start. Had they worked for Scorpia? If so, Scorpia would be very carefully concealed. Alex looked again at the staircase his guidebook had described.

Scorpia could be anywhere. Or anyone. And after six days in Venice, Alex was nowhere. What do you want to do? We could go down to St. You seem to like pigeons. He turned his head. There was nothing. A canal leading away.

Another canal crossing it. A single motor cruiser sliding underneath a bridge. The usual facade of ancient brown walls dotted with wooden shutters. A church dome rising above the red roof tiles. He had imagined it. But then the cruiser began to turn and that was when he saw it a second time and knew that it was really there.

It was a silver scorpion decorating the side of the boat, pinned to the wooden bow. Alex stared as it swung into the second canal. There were two crew members in immaculate white jackets and shorts, one at the wheel, the other serving a drink to the only passenger. This was a woman, sitting upright, looking straight ahead. Alex only had time to glimpse black hair, an upturned nose, a face with no expression.

Then the motorboat completed its turn and disappeared from sight. A scorpion decorating a motorboat. It was only the most slender of connections, but suddenly Alex was determined to find out where the boat was going. It was almost as though the silver scorpion had been sent to guide him to whatever it was he was meant to find. And there was something else. The stillness of the woman sitting in the back.

How was it possible to be carried through this amazing city without registering some emotion, without— at least—turning her head from left to right? Alex thought of Yassen Gregorovich. He would have been the same. He and this woman were two of a kind. Alex turned urgently to Tom. But almost at once, he saw that he had a problem. The city of Venice had been originally built on no fewer than a hundred islands.

In the fifteenth century, the area had been little more than a swamp. That was why there were no roads—just waterways and oddly shaped bits of land connected by bridges. The woman was on the water.

Alex was on the land. Following her would be like trying to find his way through an impossible maze in which his path and hers would never meet. Already he had lost her. The alleyway he had taken should have continued straight ahead. Instead it suddenly turned at an angle, blocked by a tall section of apartments.

He ran around the corner, watched by two Italian women, both in black dresses, sitting outside on wooden stools. There was a canal ahead of him, but it was empty. A flight of heavy stone steps led down to the murky water, but there was no way forward. He craned around to the left and was rewarded 32 SCORPIA with a glimpse of wood and water churned up by the propellers of the motorboat as it passed a fleet of gondolas that were roped together beside a rotting jetty.

There was the woman, sitting in the back, now sipping a glass of wine. The boat continued underneath a bridge so tiny, there was barely room to pass. There was only one thing he could do. He turned around and retraced his steps, running as fast as he could. The two Italian women saw him again and shook their heads disapprovingly. The sun seemed to be trapped in the narrow streets, and even in the shadows the heat still lingered.

Already sweating, he burst back out on the street where he had begun. There was no sign of Tom. Alex guessed he would already set out for the hostel, happy to get a rest. Which way? Suddenly every street and every corner looked the same. Relying on his sense of direction, Alex turned left and ran past a fruit shop, a candle shop, and an open-air restaurant with the waiters already laying the tables for lunch.

He came to a turning and there was the bridge—so short, he could cross it in five steps. He stopped in the middle and leaned over the edge, gazing down the canal. The boat was nowhere to be seen. But he knew which way it had been going.

He darted forward. A Japanese tourist had just been about to take a photograph of his wife and daughter. Alex actually heard the camera shutter click as he ran between him and them. When they got back to Tokyo, they would have a picture of a slim, athletic boy with long, fair hair, dressed in a Billabong T-shirt, with sweat running down his face and determination in his eyes. Something to remember him by. A crowd of tourists. A student playing a guitar. Waiters with silver trays.

Alex plowed through them all, ignoring the shouts of protest thrown after him. There was no sign of water anywhere. The street seemed to go on forever. But he knew there must be a canal somewhere ahead. He found it. The road fell away suddenly. Gray water lapped past. He had reached the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in Venice. And there was the motorboat with the silver scorpion, now fully visible. It was at least fifty yards away, surrounded by other vessels, and getting farther with every second that passed.

There were too many channels it could take, opening up on both sides. He had come to a wooden platform floating on the water just ahead of him and he realized it was one of the landing docks for the vaporetti—the Venice water buses. There was a kiosk selling tickets, a mass of people milling about. A yellow sign gave the name of this point on the canal: Santa Maria del Giglio. A large, crowded boat was just pulling out, a number one bus. The school party had taken it from the main railway station the day they arrived and Alex knew that it traveled the full length of the canal.

A single motor cruiser sliding underneath a bridge. The usual facade of ancient brown walls dotted with wooden shutters. A church dome rising above the red roof tiles. He had imagined it.

Pdf alex rider scorpia

But then the cruiser began to turn and that was when he saw it a second time and knew that it was really there. It was a silver scorpion decorating the side of the boat, pinned to the wooden bow. Alex stared as it swung into the second canal. There were two crew members in immaculate white jackets and shorts, one at the wheel, the other serving a drink to the only passenger.

This was a woman, sitting upright, looking straight ahead. Alex only had time to glimpse black hair, an upturned nose, a face with no expression. Then the motorboat completed its turn and disappeared from sight. A scorpion decorating a motorboat. It was only the most slender of connections, but suddenly Alex was determined to find out where the boat was going.

It was almost as though the silver scorpion had been sent to guide him to whatever it was he was meant to find. And there was something else. The stillness of the woman sitting in the back. How was it possible to be carried through this amazing city without registering some emotion, without— at least—turning her head from left to right?

Alex thought of Yassen Gregorovich.

He would have been the same. He and this woman were two of a kind. Alex turned urgently to Tom. But almost at once, he saw that he had a problem.

The city of Venice had been originally built on no fewer than a hundred islands. In the fifteenth century, the area had been little more than a swamp. That was why there were no roads—just waterways and oddly shaped bits of land connected by bridges. The woman was on the water. Alex was on the land.

Following her would be like trying to find his way through an impossible maze in which his path and hers would never meet. Already he had lost her. The alleyway he had taken should have continued straight ahead. Instead it suddenly turned at an angle, blocked by a tall section of apartments. He ran around the corner, watched by two Italian women, both in black dresses, sitting outside on wooden stools.

There was a canal ahead of him, but it was empty. A flight of heavy stone steps led down to the murky water, but there was no way forward. He craned around to the left and was rewarded 32 SCORPIA with a glimpse of wood and water churned up by the propellers of the motorboat as it passed a fleet of gondolas that were roped together beside a rotting jetty.

There was the woman, sitting in the back, now sipping a glass of wine. The boat continued underneath a bridge so tiny, there was barely room to pass. There was only one thing he could do. He turned around and retraced his steps, running as fast as he could. The two Italian women saw him again and shook their heads disapprovingly. The sun seemed to be trapped in the narrow streets, and even in the shadows the heat still lingered.

Already sweating, he burst back out on the street where he had begun. There was no sign of Tom. Alex guessed he would already set out for the hostel, happy to get a rest. Which way? Suddenly every street and every corner looked the same. Relying on his sense of direction, Alex turned left and ran past a fruit shop, a candle shop, and an open-air restaurant with the waiters already laying the tables for lunch.

He came to a turning and there was the bridge—so short, he could cross it in five steps. He stopped in the middle and leaned over the edge, gazing down the canal. The boat was nowhere to be seen.

But he knew which way it had been going. He darted forward. A Japanese tourist had just been about to take a photograph of his wife and daughter. Alex actually heard the camera shutter click as he ran between him and them. When they got back to Tokyo, they would have a picture of a slim, athletic boy with long, fair hair, dressed in a Billabong T-shirt, with sweat running down his face and determination in his eyes.

Something to remember him by. A crowd of tourists. A student playing a guitar. Waiters with silver trays. Alex plowed through them all, ignoring the shouts of protest thrown after him. There was no sign of water anywhere. The street seemed to go on forever. But he knew there must be a canal somewhere ahead. He found it. The road fell away suddenly. Gray water lapped past. He had reached the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in Venice.

And there was the motorboat with the silver scorpion, now fully visible. It was at least fifty yards away, surrounded by other vessels, and getting farther with every second that passed. There were too many channels it could take, opening up on both sides.

He had come to a wooden platform floating on the water just ahead of him and he realized it was one of the landing docks for the vaporetti—the Venice water buses. There was a kiosk selling tickets, a mass of people milling about. A yellow sign gave the name of this point on the canal: Santa Maria del Giglio. A large, crowded boat was just pulling out, a number one bus.

The school party had taken it from the main railway station the day they arrived and Alex knew that it traveled the full length of the canal. It was moving very slowly but already a couple of yards separated it from the landing dock. Alex glanced back. There was no way he was going to be able to find his way through the labyrinth of streets in pursuit of the motorboat. The water bus was his only hope. But it was already too far away. He had missed it and there might not be another one for five or ten minutes.

A gondola drew past, the gondolier singing in Italian to the grinning family of tourists he was carrying. For a moment Alex thought of stealing the gondola. Then he had a better idea.

The family looked on in alarm as he plunged backward into the water. Meanwhile, Alex had tested the oar. It was about ten yards long and heavy. The gondolier had been holding it vertically, using the splayed paddle end to guide his boat through the water.

Alex ran forward. He was lucky. The tide was low and the bottom of the canal was littered with everything from old washing machines to bicycles and wheelbarrows, cheerfully thrown in by the Venetian residents with no thought of pollution. The bottom of the oar hit something solid and Alex was able to use the length of solid wood to propel himself forward. It was exactly the same technique he had used pole-vaulting at Brookland sports day. For a moment he was in the air, leaning backward, suspended over the Grand Canal.

Then he swung down, sweeping through the open entrance of the water bus and landing on the deck. He dropped the oar behind him and looked around. The other passengers were staring at him in amazement. But he was on board. So there was nobody to challenge Alex about his unorthodox method of arrival or to demand a fare. He leaned over the edge, grateful for the breeze sweeping over the surface of the water. It was still ahead of him, traveling away from the main lagoon and back into the heart of the city.

A slender wooden bridge stretched out over the canal ahead of him and Alex recognized it at once as the Bridge of the Academy, leading to the biggest art gallery in the city. For a moment he wondered what he was doing. He had just abandoned his friend. He had run the full length of Venice. And why? What did he have to go on? A silver scorpion decorating a private boat. He must be out of his mind. The vaporetto began to slow down.

It had already reached the next landing dock. Alex tensed himself. He knew that if he waited for one load of passengers to get off and another to get on, he would never see the motorboat again. He was on the other side of the canal now. The streets were a little less crowded here. Alex caught his breath. He wondered how much farther he could run.

And then he saw, with a surge of relief, that the motorboat had also arrived at its destination. As Alex watched, two more uniformed servants appeared. One moored the boat. The other held out a white-gloved hand. The woman took the hand and stepped ashore. She was wearing a tight-fitting cream-colored dress with a jacket cut short above the waist.

A handbag swung from her arm. She could have been a model stepping off the front cover of a fashion magazine. While the servants busied themselves with her suitcases, unloading them from the boat, she disappeared behind a stone column. The water bus was about to leave again. Quickly, Alex stepped off and climbed onto the landing dock. Once again he had to work his way around the buildings that crowded onto the Grand Canal.

But this time he knew what he was looking for. A few minutes later, he found it. It was a typical Venetian palace, pink and white, its narrow windows built into a fantastic embroidery of pillars, arches, and balustrades. But what made the place so unforgettable was its position.

It sank right into it, the water lapping against the brickwork. The woman from the boat had gone through some sort of portcullis, as though entering a castle. But it was a castle that was floating. Or sinking.

It was impossible to say where the water ended and the palace floor began. The building did at least have one side that could be reached by land. It backed onto a wide square with trees and bushes growing out of ornamental tubs. There were men—servants—everywhere, setting up rope barriers, positioning oil-burning torches, and unrolling a red carpet.

Carpenters were at work, constructing what looked like a small bandstand. More men were carrying in a variety of crates and boxes. Alex saw champagne bottles, fireworks, different sorts of food.

They were obviously preparing for a serious party. Alex stopped one of them. Alex tried a second man, with exactly the same result. He recognized the type. The guards at the Point Blanc Academy. These were people who worked for someone who made them nervous. They were paid to do a job and they never stepped out of line. Were they people with something to hide? Alex left the square and walked around the side.

A second canal ran the full length of the building and this time Alex was luckier. There was an elderly woman, a grandmother figure in a black dress with a white apron, sweeping the towpath. He approached her. She put the broom down.

I speak good English. Who can I do? For a birthday. Masks and costumes. Many important people come. But once again age was on his side. He was only fourteen. What did it matter if he was curious? She is very rich lady. The owner of the house. Like the cigarette? Alex looked around and saw one of the men from the square, standing at the corner, watching him. He realized he had outstayed his welcome. He decided to have one last try. The old woman stared at him as though she had been slapped in the face.

She picked up the broom and at the same time her eyes darted over to the man at the corner. Even so, Alex knew it was time to go. There was yet another bridge ahead of him and he crossed it. A boat with a silver scorpion had led him to a palace.

The palace was protected by a number of mean-looking men and the moment he had mentioned the name of Scorpia to a cleaning woman, he had suddenly become as welcome as the plague. There was going to be a masked ball tonight, a birthday party. Important people had been invited. He would be there all the same. It was an extraordinary sight. The oil-burning torches had been lit and the flames cast orange and black shadows across the square. The servants had changed into eighteenth-century costumes with wigs, tightly fitting stockings, pointed shoes, and waistcoats.

A string quartet played in the open air, sitting on the bandstand that Alex had seen being constructed, underneath the night sky. The stars were out in their thousands and there was even a full moon. It was as though whoever had organized the party had managed to control the weather too. Guests were arriving by water and on foot.

They too were in costume with elaborate hats and richly colored velvet cloaks hanging all the way to the ground.

Some carried ebony walking sticks. But not a single face could be seen among the crowd making its way to the front door.

Their faces were hidden behind white masks and gold masks, masks encrusted with jewels and masks surrounded by huge plumes of feathers. It was impossible to know who had been invited to Mrs. The canal entrance to the palace was closed and everyone was being directed up to the main door that Alex had seen earlier that day.

Four security guards, themselves wearing the bright red tunics of Venetian courtiers, were positioned there, checking the invitations that the guests had brought with them.

Alex watched all this from the other side of the square. He was crouching behind one of the miniature trees with Tom, the two of them outside the circle of light thrown by the torches.

This was meant to be their last night in Venice before they set off for Naples and Tom had been looking forward to a large plate of spaghetti and an early night. Alex had other plans. He had found everything he needed in Venice before he went back to the hostel.

Tom had to come too. He was used to this. When he thought of all the things that had happened to him in the past year, the way he had been dragged into the world of espionage, a world of secrecy and lies, this was the worst part. MI6 had turned him into a spy. And at the same time they had made it impossible for him to be what he wanted.

He had been living two lives, one day saving the world from a nuclear holocaust, the next struggling with his chemistry homework. Two lives, but he had somehow ended up trapped between them. Apart from them, he had no real friends.

He made up his mind. But not now. On the train to Naples. Inside it were the various items he had bought in Venice. Quickly, he stripped off his shorts and T-shirt, then put on a pair of loose-fitting silk trousers and a velvet waistcoat that left his arms and chest bare. Next, he took out a tub of what looked like jelly—except that it was colored gold. Body paint. He scooped some out and rubbed it between his hands, then smeared it over his arms, his neck, and his face.

He signaled to Tom, who grimaced and then finished the backs of his shoulders. All his skin was now gold. Finally, he brought out gold sandals, a white turban with a single mauve feather, and a plain halfmask, just big enough to cover his eyes.

He had asked the costume shop to supply him with everything he would need to become a Turkish slave. Tom nodded, wiping his hands on his trousers. If his plan was going to work, he had to choose the right moment. He also had to wait for the right guests. They were still coming thick and fast, milling around the main entrance while the guards checked their invitations.

He glanced over to the Grand Canal. A water taxi had just pulled in and two people were climbing out. Both of them were masked; a man in a frock coat and a woman in a black cloak that trailed behind her. They were perfect. He nodded to Tom. A moment later, Alex slipped around the other way, keeping to the shadows. There was a snarl-up at the entrance. A guard was holding an invitation, questioning one of the guests. That was helpful too. Alex needed as much confusion as possible.

And Tom must have seen this was the right moment. He had just let off a firecracker and with everyone watching, he lit another. How are you? Alex had picked the words out of a guidebook. They were the only Italian Tom had been able to learn. Tom threw the second firecracker and there was another bang. At the same time, Alex hurried down to the edge of the Grand Canal just as the two guests climbed the steps that would bring them up to the square.

His sandals flapped on the paving stones as he ran forward, but nobody noticed him. As she continued toward the main door, he walked behind her, holding the material above the ground. It worked exactly as he had hoped. The crowd had quickly tired of the mad English boy who was making a fool of himself. One of the guards had already been sent to deal with him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw Tom turn around and run away. The guard glanced at the new arrivals and ushered them through. He had assumed that Alex was with the guests.

They had brought a Turkish boy with them as part of their disguise. Meanwhile, the guests had assumed that Alex worked in the palace and had been sent to escort them in. Why else would he have appeared? The three of them passed through the door and into a grand reception hall with white columns, a marble floor, and a domed ceiling covered in mosaic.

A pair of double-height glass doors opened into a courtyard with a fountain surrounded by ornamental shrubs and flowers, where at least a hundred guests were chatting, laughing, and drinking champagne from crystal glasses. It was obvious they were all pleased to be there. Servants, identically dressed to the ones outside, circulated with silver trays of food. A man sitting at a harpsichord played Mozart and Vivaldi.

In keeping with the atmosphere, all the electric lights had been turned off, but there were beacons mounted on the walls as well as thousands of candles, the flames bowing and dancing in the evening breeze. He looked up. The palace rose three floors above him, connected by a spiraling staircase like the one he had seen at the Contarini del Bovolo. The first floor opened onto a gallery with yet more arches and columns, and some of the guests had found their way up here and were strolling slowly together, gazing down on the crowds below.

Looking around him, Alex found it hard to believe that this really was the twenty-first century. A perfect illusion had been created within the palace walls. Now that he was here, he was unsure quite what to do. Had he really found his way to Scorpia? How could he be sure? It occurred to him that if Yassen had been telling the truth and his father really had once worked for these people, they might be happy to meet him. He would ask them what had happened, how his father had died, and they would tell him.

He had no need to creep around in disguise. But suppose he was wrong? And then there were the hard-eyed men working outside the palace. By the time someone had laid their hands on an English dictionary, he might find himself floating facedown in the canal. He had to find out more before he made his approach. Who was this woman—Mrs. What was she doing here? It seemed incredible to Alex that a grand masked ball in a Venetian palace could in any way be connected with a murder that had taken place fourteen years ago.

The chimes of the harpsichord rang out. The conversation was getting louder as more and more people arrived. Most of them had taken off their masks—it was impossible otherwise to eat or drink— and Alex saw that this was truly an international gathering.

The guests were mainly speaking in Italian, but there were many black and Asian faces among the crowd. He caught sight of a short Chinese man deep in discussion with another man who had a diamond set into his front tooth.

A woman he thought he knew crossed the courtyard in front of him and with a start he recognized her as one of the most famous film actresses in the world. Now that he looked around, he saw that the place was packed with Hollywood stars. Why had they been invited? Then he remembered. Well, that told him something about Mrs. Rothman if she had the clout to invite celebrities like these. He was the only teenager in the palace and it could only be a matter of time before someone noticed him.

He was horribly exposed. His arms and his shoulders were bare. The silk trousers were so thin, he could hardly feel them on him. The Turkish disguise might have helped get him in, but it was awkward and unhelpful now that he was actually here. He decided to make a move. There was no sign of Mrs. Rothman on the ground floor. She was the person he most wanted to see. Perhaps he would find her somewhere upstairs.

He made his way through the party-goers and climbed the spiral staircase. He reached the gallery and saw a series of doors opening into the palace itself. It was less crowded here and a few people glanced at him curiously as he proceeded. Alex knew that the important thing was not to stop. If he allowed himself to be challenged, he would soon be thrown out.

He went through a door and found himself in an area that was something between a very wide corridor and a room in its own right. A heavy wardrobe stood opposite. Otherwise, the area was empty. There was a door at the far end and Alex was about to continue toward it when he heard muffled voices approaching. He looked around for somewhere to hide. There was only the wardrobe. Like the courtyard, the upper floor was lit only by candles.

He hoped the bulk of the wardrobe would throw a big enough shadow to conceal him. The door had opened. Two people had come out, talking in English; one a man, the other a woman.

Rothman, timing is everything. The cold chain cannot be broken. The boxes will be flown to England the same day. After that. You have done very well. However, leaning forward, he could see their reflections in the mirror. There was no other way for Alex to describe her. She was more like a film star than any of the actresses he had seen downstairs, her long black hair falling in waves to her shoulders.

She had a mask, but it was in her hand, on the end of a wooden rod, so he was able to see her face, the brilliant, dark eyes, the bloodred lips, the perfect teeth. A gold necklace set with dark blue sapphires clung to her throat. The man she was with was the complete opposite of her.

He was about fifty years old and, like her, he was in costume—a long, fur-lined cloak with an Elizabethan collar and a peaked hat. He was carrying a wand. The head that poked out the top was bald and ugly with a large nose and glasses. He was very tall, towering over Julia Rothman.

Yet still, somehow, she dwarfed him. Despite the clothes, he looked like a nerd and Alex wondered why he had been invited. Rothman replied. A small fortune. Think about it, Dr. Liebermann was frozen.