The entrance to the building site was crowded with construction workers preparing to go home. Alex was reminded of Brookland an hour earlier. Nothing really changed when you got older-except that maybe you weren't given homework. The men and women drifting out of the site were tired, in a hurry to be away. That was probably why none of them tried to stop Alex as he slipped in among them, walking purposefully as if he knew where he was going, as if he had every right to be there.
But the shift wasn't completely finished yet. Other workers were still carrying tools, stowing away machinery, packing up for the night. They all wore protective headgear, and seeing a pile of plastic helmets, Alex snatched one up and put it on. The great sweep of the block of apartments that was being built loomed up ahead of him. To pass through it, he was forced into a narrow corridor between two scaffolding towers. Suddenly a heavy-set man in white overalls stepped in front of him, blocking his way.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"My dad ..." Alex gestured vaguely in the direction of another worker and kept walking. The trick worked. The man didn't challenge him again. He headed toward the crane. It stood in the open, the high priest of construction. Alex hadn't realized how very tall it was until he had reached it. The supporting tower was bolted into a massive block of concrete. It was very narrow-once he squeezed through the iron girders, he could reach out and touch all four sides. A ladder ran straight up the center. Without stopping to think, Alex began to climb.
It's only a ladder, he told himself. You've climbed ladders before. You've got nothing to worry about. But this was a ladder with three hundred rungs. If Alex let go or slipped, there would be nothing to stop him from falling to his death. There were rest platforms at intervals, but Alex didn't dare stop to catch his breath. Somebody might look up and see him. And there was always a chance that the barge, loose from its moorings, might begin to drift. Alex knew he had to hurry. After two hundred and fifty rungs, the tower narrowed. Alex could see the crane's control cabin directly above him. He looked back down. The men on the building site were suddenly very small and far away. He climbed the last ladder. There was a trapdoor over his head, leading into the cabin. But the trapdoor was locked.
Fortunately, Alex was ready for this. When MI6 had sent him on his first mission, they had given him a number of gadgets-he couldn't exactly call them weapons-to help him out of a tight spot. One of these was a tube marked zit- clean, for healthier skin. But the cream inside the tube did much more than clean up pimples. Although Alex had used most of it, he had managed to hold on to the last remnants and often carried the tube with him as a sort of souvenir. He had it in his pocket now. Holding on to the ladder with one hand, he took the tube out with the other. There was very little of the cream left, but Alex knew that a little was all he needed. He opened the tube, squeezed some of the cream onto the lock, and waited. There was a moment's pause, then a hiss and a wisp of smoke. The cream was eating into the metal. The lock sprang open. Alex pushed back the trapdoor and climbed the last few rungs. He was in.
He had to close the trapdoor again to create enough floor space to stand on. He found himself in a square, metal box, about the same size as a sit-in arcade game. There was a pilot's chair with two joysticks-one on each arm-and instead of a screen, a floor-to-ceiling window with a spectacular view of the building site, the river, and the whole of West London. A small computer monitor had been built into one corner, and at knee level, there was a radio transmitter. The joysticks beside the arms were surprisingly uncomplicated. Each had just six buttons-two green, two black, and two red. There were even helpful diagrams to show what they did. The right hand lifted the hook up and down. The left hand moved it along the jib, closer or farther from the cabin. The left hand also controlled the whole top of the crane, rotating it three hundred and sixty degrees. It couldn't have been much simpler. Even the start button was clearly labeled. A big switch for a big toy.
He turned the switch and felt power surge into the control cabin. The computer lit up with a graphic of a barking dog as the warm-up program spun into life. Alex eased himself into the operator's chair. There were still twenty or thirty men on the site. Looking down between his knees, he saw them moving silently far below. Nobody had noticed that anything was wrong. But still he knew he had to move fast. He pressed the green button on the right-hand control-green for go-then touched his fingers against the joystick and pushed. Nothing happened! Alex frowned. Maybe it was going to be more complicated than he'd thought. What had he missed? He rested his hands on the joysticks, looking left and right for another control. His right hand moved slightly and suddenly the hook soared up from the ground. It was working!
Unknown to Alex, heat sensors concealed inside the handles of the joysticks had read his body temperature and activated the crane. All modern cranes have the same security system built into them, in case the operator has a heart attack and dies. There can be no accidents. Body heat is needed to make the crane work.
And luckily for him, this crane was a Liebherr 154 EC-H, one of the most modern in the world. The Liebherr is incredibly easy to use, and also remarkably accurate. Even sitting so high above the ground, the operator can pick up a tea bag and drop it into a small china pot. Now Alex pushed sideways with his left hand and gasped as the crane swung around. In front of him he could see the jib stretching out, swinging high over the rooftops of London. The more he pushed, the faster the crane went. The movement couldn't have been smoother. The Liebherr 154 has a fluid coupling between the electric motor and the gears so that it never jolts or shudders. It glides. Alex found a white button under his thumb and pressed it. The movement stopped at once. He was ready. He would need some beginner's luck, but he was sure he could do it, provided nobody looked up and saw the crane moving. He pushed with his left hand again and this time waited as the jib of the crane swung all the way around past Putney Bridge and over the River Thames. When the jib was pointing directly at the barge, he stopped. Now he maneuvered the cradle with the hook, using his other hand. First he slid it right to the end of the jib. Then he lowered it, quickly to begin with, more slowly as it drew closer to ground level. The hook was solid metal. If he hit the barge, Skoda might hear it, and he would have given himself away. Carefully, now, one inch at a time. Alex licked his lips and, using all his concentration, took careful aim. The hook crashed onto the deck. Alex cursed. Surely Skoda would have heard it and would even now be grappling with the door. Then he remembered the boom box. With luck, the music would have drowned out the noise. He lifted the hook, at the same time dragging it across the deck toward him. He had seen his target. There was a thick metal stanchion welded into the deck at the near end. If he could just loop the hook around the stanchion, he would have caught his fish. Then he could reel it in.
His first attempt missed the stanchion by more than a foot. Alex forced himself not to panic. He had to do this slowly or he would never do it at all. Working with his left and right hands, balancing one movement against the other, he dragged the hook over the deck and then back toward the stanchion. He would just have to hope that the boom box was still playing and that the sliding metal wasn't making too much noise. He missed the stanchion a second time. This wasn't going to work! No. He could do it. It was the same as the game at the amusement park ... just bigger. He gritted his teeth and maneuvered the hook a third time. This time he saw it happen. The hook caught hold of the stanchion. He had it!
He looked down. Nobody had noticed anything wrong. Now ... how do you lift? He pulled with his right hand. The hook tightened. The cable became taut. He actually felt the crane take the weight of the barge. The whole tower tilted forward alarmingly, and Alex almost slid out of his seat. For the first time he wondered whether his plan was actually possible. Could the crane lift the barge out of the water? What was the maximum load? There was a white placard at the end of the crane arm, printed with a measurement-3900KG. Alex made a quick calculation. That was about five tons. Surely the boat couldn't weigh that much. He glanced at the computer screen. One set of digits was changing so rapidly he was unable to read them. They were showing the weight that the crane was taking. What would happen if the boat was too heavy? Would the computer initiate an automatic cutoff? Or would the whole thing just fall over? Alex settled himself in the chair and pulled back, wondering what would happen next. Inside the boat, Skoda was opening a bottle of gin. He'd had a good day, selling more than a hundred and fifty dollars' worth of merchandise to the kids at his old school. And the best thing was, they'd all be back for more. Soon, he'd sell them the stuff only if they promised to introduce it to their friends. Then the friends would become customers too. It was the easiest market in the world. He'd gotten them hooked. They were his to do with as he liked. The fair-haired man working with him was named Beckett. The two had met in prison and decided to go into business together when they got out. The boat had been Beckett's idea. There was no real kitchen and no toilet, and it was freezing in winter ... but it worked. It even amused them to be so close to a police station. Sometimes they enjoyed watching the police cars or boats going past. Of course, the pigs would never think of looking for criminals right on their own doorstep. Suddenly Beckett swore. "What the ...?"
"What is it?" Skoda looked up.
"The cup ..." Skoda watched as a cup of coffee, which had been sitting on a shelf, began to move. It slid sideways, then fell off with a clatter, spilling cold coffee on the gray rag that they called a carpet. Skoda was confused. The cup seemed to have moved on its own. Nothing had touched it. He giggled. "How did you do that?" he asked.
"I didn't ..."
"Then ..." The fair-haired man was the first to realize what was happening-but even he couldn't guess the truth. "We're sinking!" he shouted.
He scrabbled for the door. Now Skoda felt it for himself. The floor was tilting. Test tubes and beakers slid into each other, then crashed to the floor, glass shattering. He swore and followed Beckett-uphill now. With every second that passed, the gradient grew steeper. But the strange thing was that the barge didn't seem to be sinking at all. On the contrary, the front of it seemed to be rising out of the water.
"What's going on?" Skoda yelled.
"The door's jammed!" Beckett had managed to open it an inch, but the wire on the other side was holding it firm. "Check the other door!" But the second door was now high above them. More bottles rolled off the table and smashed. In the kitchen, dirty plates and mugs slid into each other, pieces flying. With something between a sob and a snarl, Skoda tried to climb up the mountainside that the inside of the boat had become. But it was already too steep. The door was almost over his head. He lost his balance and fell backward, shouting as, one second later, the other man was thrown on top of him. The two of them rolled into the corner, tangled up in each other. Plates, cups, knives, forks, and dozens of pieces of scientific equipment crashed into them. The walls of the barge were grinding with the pressure. A window shattered. A table turned itself into a battering ram and hurled itself at them. Skoda felt a bone snap in his arm and screamed out loud.
The barge was completely vertical, standing in the water at ninety degrees. For a moment it rested where it was. Then it began to rise ...