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Eagle Strike (Alex Rider Adventures)by Anthony Horowitz
Not My Business
Alex Rider lay on his back, drying out in the midday sun.
He could feel the salt water from his last swim trickling through his hair and evaporating off his chest. His shorts, still wet, clung to him. He was, at that moment, as happy as it is possible to be; one week into a vacation that had been perfect from the moment the plane had touched down in Montpellier and he had stepped out into the brilliance of his first Mediterranean day. He loved the South of France?the intense colors, the smells, the pace of life that hung on to every minute and refused to let go. He hadn?t any idea what time it was, except that he was getting hungry and guessed it must soon be time for lunch. There was a brief burst of music as a girl with a radio walked past, and Alex turned his head to follow her. And that was when the sun went in, the sea froze, and the whole world seemed to catch its breath.
He wasn?t looking at the girl with the radio. He was looking past her, down to the seawall that divided the beach from the jetty, where a yacht was just pulling in. The yacht was enormous, almost the size of one of the passenger boats that carried tourists up and down the coast. But no tourists would ever set foot on this craft. It was completely uninviting, cruising silently through the water, with tinted glass in the windows and a massive bow that rose up like a solid white wall. A man stood at the very front, staring straight ahead, his face blank. It was a face that Alex recognized instantly.
Alex sat perfectly still, supporting himself on one arm, his hand half buried in the sand. As he watched, a man in his twenties appeared from the cabin and busied himself mooring the boat. He was short and apelike, wearing a T-shirt that showed off the tattoos that completely covered his arms and shoulders. A deckhand? Yassen made no offer to help him with his work. A third man hurried along the jetty to greet the yacht. He was fat and bald, dressed in a cheap white suit. The top of his head had been burned by the sun and the skin had turned an ugly, cancerous red. Yassen saw the man and climbed down, moving like spilled oil. He was wearing blue jeans and a white shirt open at the neck. Other men might have had to struggle to keep their balance walking down the swaying gangplank, but he didn?t even hesitate. There was something inhuman about him. With his close-cropped hair, hard blue eyes, and pale, expressionless face, he was obviously no vacationer. But only Alex knew the truth about him. Yassen Gregorovich was a contract killer, the man who had murdered Alex?s uncle and forever changed his life. He was wanted all over the world.
So what was he doing here in a little seaside town on the edge of the marshes and lagoons that made up the Camargue? There was nothing in Saint-Pierre apart from beaches, campsites, too many restaurants, and an oversized church that looked more like a fortress.
?Alex? What are you looking at?? Sabina murmured, and Alex had to force himself to turn around, to remember that she was there.
?I?m . . .? The words wouldn?t come. He didn?t know what to say.
?Do you think you could rub a little more sunscreen into my back? I?m overheating. . . .? That was Sabina. Slim, dark-haired, and sometimes much older than her fifteen years. But then she was the sort of girl who had probably swapped toys for boys before she hit eleven. Although she was using SPF 25, she seemed to need more sunscreen rubbed in every fifteen minutes, and somehow it was always Alex who had to do it for her. He glanced quickly at her back, which was in fact perfectly bronzed. She was wearing a bikini made out of so little material that it hadn?t bothered with a pattern. Her eyes were covered by a pair of fake Dior sunglasses (which she had bought for a tenth of the price of the real thing), and she had her head buried in The Lord of the Rings. She waved the sunscreen at Alex.
Alex looked back at the yacht. Yassen was shaking hands with the bald man. The deckhand was standing nearby, waiting. Even at this distance Alex could see that Yassen was very much in charge, that when he spoke, the two men listened. Alex had once seen Yassen shoot a man dead just for dropping a package. He still possessed an extraordinary coldness that could neutralize even the hot Mediterranean sun. The strange thing was that there were very few people in the world who would have been able to recognize the Russian. Alex was one of them. Could Yassen?s being here have something to do with him?
?Alex . . . ?? Sabina said. The three men moved away from the boat, heading into the town. Suddenly Alex was on his feet.
?I?ll be right back,? he said.
?Where are you going??
?I need a drink.?
?I?ve got water.?
?No, I want a Coke.?
Even as he swept up his T-shirt and pulled it over his head, Alex knew that this was not a good idea. Yassen Gregorovich might have come to the Camargue because he wanted a vacation. He might have come to murder the local mayor. Either way, it had nothing to do with Alex and it would be crazy to get involved with Yassen again. Alex remembered the promise he had made the last time they had met, on a rooftop in central London. You killed Ian Rider. One day I?ll kill you. At the time he had meant it?but that had been then. Right now he didn?t want anything to do with Yassen or the world he represented.
And yet . . . Yassen was here. Alex had to know why. The three men were walking along the main road, following the line of the sea. Alex doubled back across the sand, passing the white concrete bullring that had struck him as bizarre when he?d first come here?until he had remembered that he was only about a hundred miles from Spain. There was to be a bullfight tonight. People were already lining up at the tiny windows to buy tickets, but he and Sabina had decided they would keep well clear. ?I hope the bull wins? had been Sabina?s only comment.
Yassen and the two men turned left, disappearing into the town center. Alex quickened his pace, knowing how easy it would be to lose them in the tangle of lanes and alleyways that surrounded the church. He didn?t have to be too careful about being seen. Yassen thought he was safe. It was unlikely that, in a crowded vacation resort, he would notice anyone following him. But with Yassen you never knew. Alex felt his heart thumping with every step he took. His mouth was dry, and for once it wasn?t the sun that was to blame.
Yassen was gone. Alex looked left and then right. There were people crowding in on him from all sides, pouring out of the shops and into the open-air restaurants that were already serving lunch. The smell of paella filled the air. He cursed himself for hanging back, for not daring to get any closer. The three men could have disappeared inside any of the buildings. Could it be, even, that he had imagined seeing them in the first place? It was a pleasant thought, but it was dashed a moment later when he caught sight of them sitting on a terrace in front of one of the smarter restaurants in the square, the bald man already calling for menus.
Alex walked in front of a shop selling postcards, using the racks as a screen between himself and the restaurant. Next came a café serving snacks and drinks beneath wide, multicolored umbrellas. He edged into it. Yassen and the other two men were now less than ten yards away and Alex could make out more details. The deckhand was pushing bread into his mouth as though he hadn?t eaten for a week. The bald man was talking quietly, urgently, waving his fist in the air to emphasize a point. Yassen was listening patiently. With the noise of the crowd all around, Alex couldn?t make out a word any of them were saying. He peered around one of the umbrellas and a waiter almost collided with him, letting loose a torrent of angry French. Yassen glanced in his direction and Alex ducked away, afraid that he had drawn attention to himself. A line of plants in wooden tubs divided the café from the restaurant terrace where the men were eating. Alex slipped between two of the tubs and moved quickly into the shadows of the restaurant?s interior. He felt safer here, less exposed. The kitchens were right behind him. To one side was a bar and in front of it about a dozen tables, all of them empty. Waiters were coming in and out with plates of food, but all the customers had chosen to eat outside.
Alex looked out through the door. And caught his breath. Yassen had gotten up and was walking purposefully toward him. Had he been spotted? But then he saw that Yassen was holding something: a cell phone. He must have received a call and was coming into the restaurant to take it privately. Another few steps and he would reach the door. Alex looked around him and saw an alcove screened by a beaded curtain. He pushed through it and found himself in a storage area just big enough to conceal him. Mops, buckets, cardboard boxes, and empty wine bottles crowded around him. The beads shivered and became still. Yassen was suddenly there.
?I arrived twenty minutes ago,? he was saying. He was speaking English with only a very slight trace of a Russian accent. ?Franco was waiting for me. The address is confirmed and everything has been arranged.? There was a pause. Alex tried not to breathe. He was inches away from Yassen, separated only by the fragile barrier of brightly colored beads. But for the fact that it was so dark inside after the glare of the sun, Yassen would surely have seen him.
?We?ll do it this afternoon. You have nothing to worry about. It is better for us not to communicate. I will report to you on my return to England.? Yassen Gregorovich clicked off the phone and suddenly became quite still. Alex actually saw the moment, the sudden alertness as some animal instinct told Yassen that he had been overheard. The phone was still cradled in the man?s hand, but it could have been a knife that he was about to throw. His head was still, but his eyes glanced from side to side, searching for the enemy. Alex stayed where he was behind the beads, not daring to move. What should he do? He was tempted to make a break for it, to run out into the open air. No. He would be dead before he had taken two steps. Yassen would kill him before he even knew who he was or why he had been there. Very slowly, Alex looked around for a weapon, for anything to defend himself with. And then the kitchen door swung open and a waiter came out, swerving around Yassen and calling to someone at the same time. The stillness of the moment was shattered. Yassen slipped the phone into his pants pocket and went out to rejoin the other men. Alex let out a huge sigh of relief.
What had he learned?
Yassen Gregorovich had come here to kill someone. He was sure of that much. The address is confirmed and everything has been arranged. But at least Alex hadn?t heard his own name mentioned. So he was right. The target was probably some Frenchman, living here in Saint-Pierre. It would happen sometime this afternoon. A gunshot or perhaps a knife flashing in the sun. A fleeting moment of violence and someone somewhere would sit back, knowing they had one enemy less.
What could he do?
Alex pushed through the beaded curtain and made his way out of the back of the restaurant. He was relieved to find himself in the street, away from the square. Only now did he try to collect his thoughts. He could go to the police, of course. He could tell them that he was a spy who had worked, three times now, for MI6?British military intelligence. He could say that he had recognized Yassen, knew him for what he was, and that a killing would almost certainly take place that afternoon unless he was stopped.
But what good would it do? The French police might understand him, but they would never believe him. He was a fourteen-year-old English schoolboy with sand in his hair and a suntan. They would take one look at him and laugh. He could go to Sabina and her parents. But Alex didn?t want to do that either. He was here only because they had invited him, and why should he bring murder into their vacation? Not that they would believe him any more than the police. Once, when he had been staying with her in Cornwall, Alex had tried to tell Sabina the truth. She had thought he was joking. Alex looked around at the tourist shops, the ice-cream parlors, the crowds strolling happily along the street. It was a typical picture-postcard view. The real world. So what was he doing getting mixed up again with spies and assassins? He was on vacation. This was none of his business. Let Yassen do whatever he wanted. Alex wouldn?t be able to stop him even if he tried. Better to forget that he had ever seen him.
Alex took a deep breath and walked back down the road toward the beach to find Sabina and her parents. As he went, he tried to work out what he would tell them: why he had left so suddenly and why he was no longer smiling now that he was back.
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