When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. Alex Rider was woken by the first chime. His eyes flickered open, but for a moment he stayed completely still in his bed, lying on his back with his head resting on the pillow. He heard a bedroom door open and a creak of wood as somebody went downstairs. The bell rang a second time, and he looked at the alarm clock glowing beside him. There was a rattle as someone slid the security chain off the front door.
He rolled out of bed and walked over to the open window, his bare feet pressing down the carpet pile. The moonlight spilled onto his chest and shoulders. Alex was fourteen, already well built, with the body of an athlete. His hair, cut short apart from two thick strands hanging over his forehead, was fair. His eyes were brown and serious. For a moment he stood silently, half hidden in the shadow, looking out. There was a police car parked outside. From his second-floor window Alex could see the black ID number on the roof and the caps of the two men who were standing in front of the door. The porch light went on and, at the same time, the door opened.
"No. I'm the housekeeper. What is it? What's happened?"
"This is the home of Mr. Ian Rider?" "Yes."
"I wonder if we could come in ..." And Alex already knew. He knew from the way the police stood there, awkward and unhappy. But he also knew from the tone of their voices. Funeral voices ... that was how he would describe them later. The sort of voices people use when they come to tell you that someone close to you has died. He went to his door and opened it. He could hear the two policemen talking down in the hall, but only some of the words reached him.
"... a car accident ... called the ambulance ... intensive care ... nothing anyone could do ... so sorry."
It was only hours later, sitting in the kitchen, watching as the gray light of morning bled slowly through the West London streets, that Alex could try to make sense of what had happened. His uncle-Ian Rider-was dead. Driving home, his car had been hit by a truck at Old Street roundabout and he had been killed almost instantly. He hadn't been wearing a seat belt, the police said. Otherwise, he might have had a chance. Alex thought of the man who had been his only relation for as long as he could remember. He had never known his own parents. They had both died in another accident, this one a plane crash, a few weeks after he had been born. He had been brought up by his father's brother (never "uncle"-Ian Rider had hated that word) and had spent fourteen years in the same terraced house in Chelsea, London, between the King's Road and the river. The two of them had always been close. Alex remembered the vacations they'd taken together, the many sports they'd played, the movies they'd seen. They hadn't just been relations, they'd been friends. It was almost impossible to imagine that he would never again see the man, hear his laughter, or twist his arm to get help with his science homework. Alex sighed, fighting against the sense of grief that was suddenly overwhelming. But what saddened him the most was the realization-too late now-that despite everything, he had hardly known his uncle at all. He was a banker. People said Alex looked a little like him. Ian Rider was always traveling. A quiet, private man who liked good wine, classical music, and books. Who didn't seem to have any girlfriends ... in fact, he didn't have any friends at all. He had kept himself fit, had never smoked, and had dressed expensively. But that wasn't enough. It wasn't a picture of a life. It was only a thumbnail sketch.
"Are you all right, Alex?" A young woman had come into the room. She was in her late twenties with a sprawl of red hair and a round, boyish face. Jack Starbright was American. She had come to London as a student seven years ago, rented a room in the house-in return for light housework and baby-sitting duties-and had stayed on to become housekeeper and one of Alex's closest companions. Sometimes he wondered what the Jack was short for. Jackie? Jacqueline? Neither of them suited her and although he had once asked, she had never said.
Alex nodded. "What do you think will happen?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"To the house. To me. To you."
"I don't know." She shrugged. "I guess Ian would have made a will," she said. "He'll have left instructions."
"Maybe we should look in his office."
"Yeah. But not today, Alex. Let's take it one step at a time." Ian's office was a room running the full length of the house, high up on the top. It was the only room that was always locked-Alex had only been in there three or four times, and never on his own. When he was younger, he had fantasized that there might be something strange up there ... a time machine or a UFO. But it was merely an office with a desk, a couple of filing cabinets, shelves full of papers and books. Bank stuff-that's what Ian said. Even so, Alex wanted to go up there now.
"The police said he wasn't wearing his seat belt." Alex turned to look at Jack. She nodded. "Yeah. That's what they said."
"Doesn't that seem strange to you? You know how careful he was. He always wore his seat belt. He wouldn't even drive me around the corner without making me put mine on." Jack thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, it is strange," she said. "But that must have been the way it was. Why would the police have lied?" The day dragged on. Alex hadn't gone to school even though, secretly, he wanted to. He would have preferred to escape back into normal life, the clang of the bell, the crowds of familiar faces, instead of sitting here, trapped inside the house. But he had to be there for the visitors who came throughout the morning and the rest of the afternoon. There were five of them. A lawyer who knew nothing about any will but seemed to have been charged with organizing the funeral. A funeral director who had been recommended by the lawyer. A vicar-tall, elderly-who seemed disappointed that Alex refused to cry. A neighbor from across the road-how did she even know that anyone had died? And finally a man from the bank. "All of us at the Royal and General are deeply shocked," he said. He looked about thirty, wearing a polyester suit with a Marks & Spencer tie. He had the sort of face you forget even while you're looking at it and had introduced himself as Crawley, from personnel. "But if there's anything we can do ..."
"What will happen?" Alex asked for the second time that day.
"You don't have to worry," Crawley said. "The bank will take care of everything. That's my job. You leave everything to me." The day passed. Alex killed a couple of hours knocking a few balls around on his uncle's snooker table-and then felt vaguely guilty when Jack caught him at it. But what else was he to do? Later on she took him to a Burger King. He was glad to get out of the house, but the two of them barely spoke. Alex assumed Jack would have to go back to America. She certainly couldn't stay in London forever. So who would look after him? At fourteen, he was still too young to look after himself. His whole future looked so uncertain that he preferred not to talk about it. He preferred not to talk at all.
And then the day of the funeral arrived and Alex found himself dressed in a dark jacket and cords, preparing to leave in a black car that had come from nowhere surrounded by people he had never met. Ian Rider was buried in Brompton Cemetery on the Fulham Road, just in the shadow of the Chelsea soccer field, and Alex knew where he would have preferred to be on that warm Wednesday afternoon. About thirty people had turned up, but he hardly recognized any of them. A grave had been dug close to the lane that ran the length of the cemetery, and as the service began, a black Rolls-Royce drew up, the back door opened, and a man got out. Alex watched him as he walked forward and stopped. Alex shivered. There was something about the new arrival that made his skin crawl.
And yet the man was ordinary to look at. Gray suit, gray hair, gray lips, and gray eyes. His face was expressionless, the eyes behind the square, gunmetal spectacles, completely empty. Perhaps that was what had disturbed Alex. Whoever this man was, he seemed to have less life than anyone in the cemetery. Above or below ground. Someone tapped Alex on the shoulder and he turned around to see Mr. Crawley leaning over him. "That's Mr. Blunt," the personnel manager whispered. "He's the chairman of the bank." Alex's eyes traveled past Blunt and over to the Rolls-Royce. Two more men had come with him, one of them driving. They were wearing identical suits and, although it wasn't a particularly bright day, sunglasses. Both of them were watching the funeral with the same grim faces. Alex looked from them to Blunt and then to the other people who had come to the cemetery. Had they really known Ian Rider? Why had he never met any of them before? And why did he find it so difficult to believe that they really worked for a bank?
"... a good man, a patriotic man. He will be missed." The vicar had finished his graveside address. His choice of words struck Alex as odd. Patriotic? That meant he loved his country. But as far as Alex knew, Ian Rider had barely spent any time in it. Certainly he had never been one for waving the Union Jack. He looked around, hoping to find Jack, but saw instead that Blunt was making his way toward him, stepping carefully around the grave.
"You must be Alex." The chairman was only a little taller than him. Up close, his skin was strangely unreal. It could have been made of plastic. "My name is Alan Blunt," he said. "Your uncle often spoke about you."
"That's funny," Alex said. "He never mentioned you." The gray lips twitched briefly. "We'll miss him. He was a good man."
"What was he good at?" Alex asked. "He never talked about his work." Suddenly Crawley was there. "Your uncle was overseas finance manager, Alex," he said. "He was responsible for our foreign branches. You must have known that."
"I know he traveled a lot," Alex said. "And I know he was very careful. About things like seat belts."
"Well, sadly, he wasn't careful enough." Blunt's eyes, magnified by the thick lenses of his spectacles, lasered into his own, and for a moment, Alex felt himself pinned down, like an insect under a microscope. "I hope we'll meet again," Blunt went on. He tapped the side of his face with a single gray finger. "Yes ..." Then he turned and went back to his car. That was when it happened. As Blunt was getting into the Rolls-Royce, the driver leaned down to open the back door and his jacket fell open, revealing a stark white shirt underneath. There was a black shape lying against it and that was what caught Alex's eye. The man was wearing a leather holster with an automatic pistol strapped inside. Realizing what had happened, the driver quickly straightened up and pulled the jacket across. Blunt had seen it too. He turned back and looked again at Alex. Something very close to an emotion slithered over his face. Then he got into the car, the door closed, and he was gone.
A gun at a funeral, Alex thought. Why? Why should bank managers carry guns?
"Let's get out of here." Suddenly Jack was at his side. "Cemeteries give me the creeps."
"Yes. And quite a few creeps have turned up," Alex muttered. They slipped away quietly and went home. The car that had taken them to the funeral was still waiting, but they preferred the open air. The walk took them fifteen minutes and as they turned the corner onto their street, Alex noticed a moving van parked in front of the house, the words stryker & son painted on its side.
"What's that doing ...?" he began.
At the same moment, the van shot off, the wheels skidding over the surface of the road. Alex said nothing as Jack unlocked the door and let them in, but while she went into the kitchen to make some tea, he quickly looked around the house. A letter that had been on the hall table now lay on the carpet. A door that had been half open was now closed. Tiny details, but Alex's eyes missed nothing. Somebody had been in the house. He was almost sure of it. But he wasn't certain until he got to the top floor. The door to the office, which had always, always been locked, was now unlocked. Alex opened it and went in. The room was empty. Ian Rider had gone and so had everything else. The desk drawers, the closets, the shelves ... anything connected to the dead man's work had been taken. Whatever the truth was about his uncle's past, someone had just wiped it out.