Authors: Anthony Horowitz
or the two thieves on the 200cc Vespa scooter, it was a case of the wrong victim, in the wrong place, on the wrong Sunday morning in September.
It seemed that all life had gathered in the Piazza Esmeralda, a few miles outside Venice. Church had just finished and 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 were open, their customers spilling onto the pavements 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 sacks of seed for the hundreds of pigeons that strutted around.
In the middle of all this were a dozen English schoolchildren. It was bad luck for the two thieves
that one of them was Alex Rider.
It was the beginning of September. Less than a month had passed since Alex’s final confrontation with Damian Cray on Air Force One – the American presidential plane. 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 twenty-five nuclear missiles had been fired at targets all around the world. Alex had managed to destroy these 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. Jack was his housekeeper but she was also his friend, and, as always, she was worried about him.
“You can’t keep this up, Alex,” she said. “You’re never at school. You missed half the summer term when you were at Skeleton Key and loads of the spring term when you were in Cornwall and then at that awful academy Point Blanc. If you keep this up, you’ll flunk all your exams and then what will you do?”
“It’s not my fault—” Alex began.
“I know it’s not your fault. But it’s my job to do something about it, and I’ve decided to hire a tutor for what’s left of the summer.”
“You’re not serious!”
“I am serious. You’ve still got quite a bit of holiday left. And you can start right now.”
“I don’t want a tutor—” Alex started to protest.
“I’m not giving you any choice, Alex. I don’t care what gadgets you’ve got or what smart moves you might try – this time there’s no escape!”
Alex wanted to argue with her but in his heart he knew she was right. MI6 always provided him with a doctor’s note to explain his long absences from school, but the teachers were more or less giving up on him. His last report had said it all:
Alex continues to spend more time out of school than in it, and if this carries on, he might as well forget his GCSEs. Although he cannot be blamed for what seems to be a catalogue of medical problems, if he falls any further behind, I fear he may disappear altogether
So that was it. Alex had stopped an insane, multimillionaire pop singer from destroying half the world – and what had he got for it? Extra work!
He started with ill grace – particularly when he discovered that the tutor Jack had found actually taught at Brookland, his own school. Alex wasn’t in his class, but even so it was an embarrassment and he hoped nobody would find out. However, he had to admit that Mr Grey was good at his job. Charlie Grey was young and easy-going, arriving on a bicycle with a saddlebag crammed with books. He taught humanities but seemed to know
his way round the entire syllabus.
“We’ve only got a few weeks,” he announced. “That may not seem very much, but you’d be surprised how much you can achieve one to one. I’m going to work you seven hours a day, and on top of that I’m going to leave you with homework. By the end of the holidays you’ll probably hate me. But at least you’ll start the new school year on a more or less even keel.”
Alex didn’t hate Charlie Grey. They worked quietly and quickly, moving through the day from maths to history to science and so on. Every weekend, the teacher left behind exam papers, and gradually Alex saw his percentages improve. And then Mr Grey sprang his surprise.
“You’ve done really well, Alex. I wasn’t going to mention this to you, but how would you like to come with me on the school trip?”
“Where are you going?”
“Well, last year it was Paris; the year before that it was Rome. We look at museums, churches, palaces … that sort of thing. This year we’re going to Venice. Do you want to come?”
It had been in Alex’s mind all along – the final minutes on the plane after Damian Cray had died. Yassen Gregorovich had been there, the Russian assassin who had cast a shadow over so much of Alex’s life. Yassen had been dying, a bullet lodged in his chest. But just before the end he’d managed
to blurt out a secret that had been buried for fourteen years.
Alex’s parents had been killed shortly after he was born and he had been brought up by his father’s brother, Ian Rider. Earlier this year, Ian Rider had died too, supposedly in a car accident. It had been the shock of Alex’s life to discover that his uncle was actually a spy and had been killed on a mission in Cornwall. That was when MI6 had made their appearance. Somehow they had succeeded in sucking Alex into their world, and he had been working for them ever since.
Alex knew very little about his mother and father, John and Helen Rider. In his bedroom he had a photo of them: a watchful, handsome man with close-cut hair standing with his arm round a pretty, half-smiling woman. He had been in the army and still looked like a soldier. She had been a nurse, working in radiology. But they were strangers to him; he couldn’t remember anything about them. They had died while he was still a baby. In a plane crash. That was what he had been told.
Now he knew otherwise.
The plane crash had been as much a lie as his uncle’s car accident. Yassen Gregorovich had told him the truth on Air Force One. Alex’s father had been an assassin – just like Yassen. The two of them had even worked together; John Rider had once saved Yassen’s life. But then his father had
been killed by MI6 – the very same people who had forced Alex to work for them three times, lying to him, manipulating him and finally dumping him when he was no longer needed. It was almost impossible to believe, but Yassen had offered him a way to find proof.
Go to Venice. Find Scorpia. And you will find your destiny…
Alex had to know what had happened fourteen years ago. Discovering the truth about John Rider would be the same as finding out about himself. Because, if his father really had killed people for money, what did that make him? Alex was angry, unhappy … and confused. He had to find Scorpia, whatever it was. Scorpia would tell him what he needed to know.
A school trip to Venice couldn’t have come at a better time. And Jack didn’t stop him from going. In fact, she encouraged him.
“It’s exactly what you need, Alex. A chance to hang out with your friends and just be an ordinary schoolboy. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”
Alex said nothing. He hated having to lie to her, but there was no way he could tell her the truth. Jack had never met his father; this wasn’t her affair.
So he let her help him pack, knowing that, for him, the trip would have little to do with churches and museums. He would use it to explore the city and see what he unearthed. Five days wasn’t a long
time. But it would be a start. Five days in Venice. Five days to find Scorpia.
And now here he was. In an Italian square. Three days of the trip had already gone by and he had found nothing.
“Alex – you fancy an ice cream?”
“No. I’m all right.”
“I’m hot. I’m going to get one of those things you told me about. What did you call it? A
Alex was standing beside another fourteen-year-old boy who happened to be his closest friend at Brookland. He had been surprised to hear that Tom Harris was going to be on the trip, as Tom wasn’t exactly interested in art or history. Tom wasn’t interested in any school subjects and was regularly bottom in everything. But the best thing about him was that he didn’t care. He was always cheerful, and even the teachers had to admit that he was fun to be with. And what Tom lacked in the classroom, he made up for on the sports field. He was captain of the school football team and Alex’s main rival on sports day, beating him at hurdles, four hundred metres and the pole vault. Tom was small for his age, with spiky black hair and bright blue eyes. He wouldn’t have been found dead in a museum, so why was he here? Alex soon found out. Tom’s parents were going through a messy divorce, and they had packed him off to get him out of the way.
Alex said. It was what he always
ordered when he was in Italy: crushed ice with fresh lemon juice squeezed over it. It was halfway between an ice cream and a drink and there was nothing in the world more refreshing.
“Come on. You can order it for me. When I ask anyone for anything in Italian they just stare at me like I’m mad.”
In fact, Alex only spoke a few phrases himself. Italian was one language Ian Rider hadn’t taught him. Even so, he went with Tom and ordered two ices from a shop near the market stalls, one for Tom and one – Tom insisted – for himself. Tom had plenty of money. His parents had showered him with euros before he left.
“Are you going to be at school this term?” he asked.
Alex shrugged. “Of course.”
“You were hardly there last term – or the term before.”
“I was ill.”
Tom nodded. He was wearing Diesel lightsensitive sunglasses that he had bought at Heathrow duty-free. They were too big for his face and kept slipping down his nose. “You do realize that no one believes that,” he commented.
“Because nobody’s that ill. It’s just not possible.” Tom lowered his voice. “There’s a rumour you’re a thief,” he confided.
“That’s why you’re away so much. You’re in trouble with the police.”
“Is that what you think?”
“No. But Miss Bedfordshire asked me about you. She knows we’re mates. She said you got into trouble once for nicking a crane or something. She heard about that from someone and she thinks you’re in therapy.”