"Jack," Alex Rider said slowly, staring down into his bowl, "What is that?"
Jack Starbright, a young red-haired woman and Alex's best friend for too many years to count, beamed and rattled off something in an Asian language—Vietnamese, Alex assumed, though neither he nor his guardian spoke the language fluently. Either Jack had simply invented a string of nonsense syllables or, more likely, she had taken breaks in preparing dinner to pore intensely over an English-Vietnamese phrasebook.
With trepidation, Alex returned his gaze to the contents of his bowl. There were fresh green cucumber slices, a sprig of mint, and pale slimy strips that Alex could only assume were jellyfish tentacles.
Jack smiled and passed Alex a set of chopsticks. "Bữa ăn tối được phục vụ—Ăn nào!" she announced brightly, which presumably meant, "enjoy your dinner" or "you've done something to really piss me off." The jellyfish in the salad was not nearly as big, nor as purplish tinted as the Portuguese Man-of-War that had nearly killed Alex in a giant fish tank the previous year, but it's appearance was equally ominous.
"Jack," he said carefully, "you shouldn't have."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Jack assured him, lifting a cucumber to her lips. "It's been ages since we tried something new. It's healthy, too."
She inflected the words with deliberate carelessness; Alex stared into his jellyfish salad with a familiar pang of guilt, a pain that always seemed to throb at the bullet-shaped scar beside his heart. Ever since the sniper attack, Jack had taken to casting fast, furtive glances in Alex's direction whenever he so much as winced, and her preoccupation with heart-healthy food was compulsive almost to the point of obsession. Alex remembered from primary school that jellyfish had little nutritional value—they were, after all, composed mostly of water—but he also remembered that the flesh of certain cannonball jellyfish had been proven to lower risk of heart disease.
Alex doubted he would live long enough to worry about heart attacks. Jack, apparently, disagreed.
"Come on," she pressed impatiently, when Alex continued to pick at the cucumbers. "You're supposed to be a spy, aren't you? You should be thrilled at the chance to try something new! What if you have to go undercover as a Japanese—"
"Vietnamese," Alex corrected, deadpan.
"—Jellyfish connoisseur one day?" Jack plunged on, folding her arms.
"You think I'd pass for Vietnamese?" Alex said, studying his own reflection on the polished tabletop. "I could stand to be a little shorter—"
"You love sushi, Alex. How is jellyfish any different?"
Alex had not told Jack about the incident in Herod Sayle's tank, nor did he want to admit that the close call had caused any psychological change in him whatsoever. This was one tight spot he couldn't work his way out of. Resisting the urge to sigh, he lifted a pale, slimy chunk of tentacle with his chopsticks and tried to imagine that it was, in fact, sushi, a harmless delicacy that would not sting his throat as it slithered down.
Then the telephone rang.
"I'll get it!" Alex volunteered, dropping his chopsticks and shooting from the table before Jack could so much as blink.
"Stupid telemarketers!" Jack fumed, while Alex reached for the phone. "And during dinner, too—"
"Hello?" Alex said, overwhelmingly grateful toward whoever was on the other end.
"I need to speak with an A. Rider."
The male voice was clipped and cold, with the dryness of a major banking company and the edge of a professional bearer of bad news. Immediately, Alex's smile evaporated. He sighed, trying to ignore the mixed rush of dread and adrenaline. "Speaking."
"Rider? Alex Rider?"
The man sounded surprised to hear a teenager's voice. Alex smiled grimly. "You must be new."
Whoever the man was, he recovered quickly. "Mr. Rider, your presence is requested at the Royal and General Bank in London, as soon as physically possible."
"Can I respectfully decline?" Alex said flatly.
"You have been advised not to."
Over the dark marble and the mint-green salads, Alex met Jack's eyes. She smiled sadly and turned away; she had heard a similar note in Alex's voice before, and she knew that in a month's time, Alex would be returning home with a hollowness in his serious brown eyes and a few new scars, emotional and physical, to add to his collection.
But the man on the phone had another bullet in the chamber. "I've also been instructed to request the presence of a Miss Jacqueline Starbright, of the same residence," he said. "A car has been sent for both of you."
Alex was so thrown by the use of Jack's full name, long and foreign and fragile-sounding, that it took him a moment to connect the dots between the words and the meaning. When he did, however, his heart jumped into double-time. "Jack? What the hell do you want her for?"
Across the table, Jack turned sharply back toward Alex, her eyes wide.
"A car will be sent for both of you," the man repeated, his voice turning sharper. "Our organization does not have time for childish games."
"Who's playing games?"
"I'm only confused," Alex said calmly, "because Jack's not here."
A dead beat.
"I'm sorry?" the man asked.
"Jack's on holiday."
Alex had no qualms about lying, and he did so very smoothly. Across the kitchen, Jack was mouthing and gesticulating frantically, desperate for some indication of what the man was saying—Alex shook his head slightly and pressed a finger to his lips. He didn't care what the new mission was. They wouldn't have Jack.
"Mr. Rider," the man said, with a serrated edge, "I'm having trouble understanding you."
"Here's an idea," Alex said, his temper flaring. "Maybe you would hear me better if you'd pull the phone out of your—"
"Enough, Mr. Rider."
And, indeed, the last shred of the man's patience had evaporated. The line crackled with impatience, and annoyance, and a desire to forget this irksome phone call like the desk drone had done with so many others.
Still, Alex took one last stab at persuasion. "I'm telling you, Jack left a few weeks ago, and I don't know when she'll be—"
"You've got a great deal still to learn." The voice was bored. It had already forgotten that Alex existed. It had forgotten him five minutes ago. "When the car arrives at Royal and General, I suggest that both yourself and Miss Starbright be inside it."
"I'm telling you—"
But the voice wasn't finished. "One more thing, Mr. Rider. Tell Miss Starbright to bring some of that delectable looking salad. Waste not."
And a solid click told Alex that the conversation was closed.
Alex and Jack sat on the cold leather backseat of an ash-gray sedan, with tinted glass sealing them away from the driver and the rest of the world. Jack stared out at the rainy street, her face pale and determined. Alex had tried, for the first few minutes, to make conversation, but Jack had only nodded mutely in response, and after awhile he decided that her approach was better. There was really nothing he could say that Jack didn't already know.
When they reached the bank, Alex held the door for Jack and then headed straight for the lifts. Jack, however, stood for a moment in the center of the lobby, struggling to comprehend the vastness of the bank tellers' silver nameplates and the little boxes of paperclips. She hadn't visited the bank since Ian Rider's death—now that she knew about MI6, a whole parallel world had unfolded. What government secrets lurked beneath the parquet floors and the combination vaults? What was the real occupation of the teller with the slight paunch and the argyle sweater vest? What classified data was the woman at receptions reading as her cold eyes scrolled listlessly down the computer screen, again and again?
"Jack." Alex caught his guardian by the elbow. "Come on."
Jack nodded quickly and followed him toward the lifts. She missed the old days when a teenager was a teenager, a bank was a bank, and a part-time baby-sitting job was the farthest thing from a permanent stamp on the rest of her life.
As the lift rose, Jack leaned against the wall and resisted the compulsive urge to stab the emergency button. Alex would've stopped her, anyway. On the seventh floor, the doors slid open, and Alex led the way down a blank gray corridor. Too soon, he and Jack were standing in front of the office with "Alan Blunt" in block letters on the silver nameplate.
Jack stared at the doorknob. "What do they want with me?"
Alex didn't speak. He couldn't.
MI6 was going to yank Jack's Visa and send her back to America, and Alex knew that, no matter how appropriately indignant Jack might act, she would seize hold of deportation like a lifeline in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. The woman had signed on to watch over a five-year-old boy, part-time. Now she was the single caretaker of a teenage superspy—and she was constantly haunted by the shadow of the police officers who had informed her that Ian Rider was dead, and whose echoes would deliver the same bad news about Alex some day. Who could blame her for wanting out?
Alex couldn't speak, because he knew the answer.
Jack seemed to be thinking along the same lines. She turned toward Alex, her green eyes more solemn than he had ever seen them.
"Alex," she said quietly, "Look at me."
He already had been, but he appreciated her attempt at emphasis. "It's okay, Jack."
"No," Jack said, suddenly bold. "None of this is okay."
Alex shrugged. "We've both known that for awhile."
Jack shook her head, her eyes a little too bright, and Alex prayed, rather selfishly, that she wouldn't cry. In ten years, the only time he had seen Jack really cry had been after Ian Rider's funeral. Alex didn't think he could handle the knowledge that the situation he had put her in was nearly as painful as Ian Rider's death.
Jack breathed shakily and formed a steeple with both hands, pressing her fingertips against her closed eyelids. When she spoke, however, it was in carefully measured tones.
"I know I complain. Sometimes I complain more than I should. But the only reason I hate your—job—so much is because of how much I—" She took a deep, shaky breath and opened her eyes. "You're my best friend, Alex. I'm sorry it had to turn out this way."
Alex grinned ruefully. "Me too. And I'm sorry we left the jellyfish salad on the table."
"Oh my God!" Jack's hand flew to her mouth. "We did, didn't we? The jellyfish, the cucumbers—"
"And the sprig of mint," Alex said helpfully.
Jack's lip twitched. "We might not be home for weeks, or even months."
"It'll be a biohazard," Alex said solemnly. "A culture of jellyfish-eating bacteria. Or parasites. Or deadly parasitic bacteria."
Jack snorted helplessly. "You know what? Maybe we can trick the MI6 people into going inside."
Alex laughed, his first genuine laughter anywhere on the premises of the MI6 headquarters; Jack, meanwhile, was giggling so desperately that she couldn't breathe. Alex loved her for her contradictions—the cynical optimism, the sullen humor. At the same time, however, he felt a flicker of guilt. He had led her none-too-subtly into sarcasm, because he couldn't stand to hear her lie for his sake.
Finally, Jack's breathless laughter died away. She wiped away a tear.
"Oh my God. We really did leave the jellyfish out. And I'll never be back to put it right."
Alex reached for the doorknob of Alan Blunt's office.
"Wait! Shouldn't we knock f—"
Before Jack could finish her sentence, before Alex's hand even touched the silver, the door swung open to reveal Mrs. Jones standing stiffly in the doorway, her hair dark and her eyes even darker. As always, she slipped a peppermint into her mouth.
"You should bring enough of those for everyone," Alex remarked.
She ignored him.
Alex stepped into the office, Jack closely behind him, as though afraid that if she fell behind more than a step she would get lost in the bare floor and the heavy silence. Alan Blunt, seated behind his sweeping mahogany desk, looked older, grayer, and more lifeless than Alex remembered. Despite the fact that he was the one who had summoned Alex, the man appeared deeply engrossed in a file of documents.
The silence was endless. No one spoke.
"Well," Alex said at last, stepping back toward the door. "I'm glad we've had this little chat, but—"
"Sit down, Alex."
Blunt sounded tired. It was more emotion than Alex had ever heard from him, and it was for this reason only that Alex closed his mouth and dropped into one of the old armchairs in front of the desk. Jack sat next to him. Blunt rifled through the papers for a few more minutes; then, finally, he looked through his spectacles at Alex as though seeing him there for the first time.
"Alex, welcome back. Have you enjoyed your holiday?"
Alex pretended to think. "Oh. You mean my full month of not being beaten, drowned, or dissected? Yeah, it's been grand."
Mrs. Jones's expression flickered with something like pity; she worked her peppermint viciously, and the weakness disappeared as quickly as it had come. "You look well, Alex. I'm glad. We need your help again."
Alex felt Jack move restlessly beside him. He watched as Blunt pushed a folder across the desktop.
"Have a look."
Alex opened the folder, sliding out a glossy black-and-white photograph of a craggy shore and a concrete building with small barred windows. "What's this?"
"A maximum-security juvenile prison," Mrs. Jones said.
Alex stared at the picture for a minute. Then he looked up.
"You're sending me to juvie?"
"In the crudest sense, yes."
Alex smiled ironically. "I've already been. According to my year-mates, anyway."
Mrs. Jones's lip twitched. Blunt, however, didn't blink.
"You're looking at a surveillance photo of Stony Creek Center for Troubled Youth. The name's a misnomer—these teenagers are more trouble than troubled. The prison is a last resort for anyone whose crime was too serious and behavior too dangerous to allow for extended incarceration in an ordinary detention center. And we need an agent to go in."
"Send someone else," Alex said, but without any real conviction.
Blunt shook his head. "You're the only man—boy—for the job," he said.
"Thanks," Alex said bitterly.
Blunt frowned. "Whoever goes into Stony Creek will have to investigate a specific target—an incarcerated youth. Another, older agent would be limited to the undercover role of guard, or officer. Limited access, as I'm sure you've gathered. But seeing as you're fourteen—"
"Fifteen," Alex corrected flatly. "Thanks for the birthday card.
"—You'll be able to blend in with the other inmates."
"There's no danger involved," Mrs. Jones added.
"Except, you know, a bunch of murderers and crooks," Alex shrugged.
"You'll only have to get the information and get out," Mrs. Jones pressed. "No one at the prison will suspect a new inmate—they'd never dream that we would go so far as to employ a teenage spy."
"And maybe that should tell you something," Jack mumbled.
Alex studied the photograph. Tall razor-wire fences. Two watchtowers that loomed over the harsh landscape. It was hardly a five-star resort. The shore looked craggy and the waves treacherous; moreover, there was something ominous about the steady curve of the shoreline. Alex looked up curiously.
"Is this an island?"
"Yes," Mrs. Jones said, smiling slightly. "A few miles offshore from Grimsby."
Alex nodded slowly, studying the picture in greater detail.
"It's a children's Alcatraz," Jack said, sounding horrified.
Blunt rubbed his eyes. "I'd be much obliged if you would not talk, Miss Starbright. This morning I awoke to a screeching catfight outside my window, and I'd prefer to avoid that frequency for the rest of the day."
Jack blinked. "You asshole."
"I'm sorry?" Blunt said, without an ounce of inflection.
"You're an asshole," Jack repeated clearly, her voice rising. "You're a cold, conscienceless drone. You're sending Alex into prison, and yet you're concentrating more on stupid, smug insults than on the child whose life you're destroying! I can't even look at you—such a sick, sad, inhuman—"
"Miss Starbright, I understand your position," Mrs. Jones said delicately.
"You can go to hell. Alex is too young."
"The perfect cover," Blunt agreed, emotionless.
"No!" Jack shouted, pounding her fists on the table. "You can't keep doing this! You're just going to keep blackmailing him into mission after mission after mission, wearing him down to nothing, until the mission he doesn't come back from." She took a deep breath. "You can do whatever you want with me. You can take away my Visa and kick me out of the country. You can have the house—you can have everything I've ever owned—you can threaten me until you're blue in the face. But you won't have Alex."
"Miss Starbright—" Mrs. Jones looked rather lost, having accidentally swallowed her peppermint during Jack's tirade. "I have to ask you to step outside. Just for a few minutes."
"No!" Jack shrieked again, with pure frustration. "God! One day, you people will have to deal with a very long fall from grace." She stood up, trembling with the fear and fury that had battled inside her ever since she set foot in the Royal and General. "Alex, we're leaving. Now."
Mrs. Jones dug in her pocket for a fresh peppermint, her hand shaking. She fumbled with the wrapper. Blunt, however, looked supremely unconcerned. He stared straight at Alex. "You're wondering what's in that prison that's so important."
Alex looked coolly back at him.
"Alex, tell them," Jack said, her head pounding with furious conviction. "We're leaving. I was wrong earlier—everything will be okay."
She fully expected Alex to agree with her. Why wouldn't he? She was his guardian, and he trusted her a million times more than anyone else, and MI6 had done nothing but make his life miserable—and nearly end it.
Alex took a deep breath. "Jack—"
"Just a few minutes, alright?"
Jack felt as though a fifty-pound weight had just hit her in the face. She blinked quickly. "Right. You're right, Alex. You handle this alone."
She backed out into the hallway, trying not to show how hurt she was. The look in Alex's eye was one that she had never seen there before Ian Rider's death, and one that had started to inhabit the boy's serious brown gaze more and more frequently—and it scared her.
Alex looked away, and Mrs. Jones closed the office door.