Here is chapter two. Sorry for the long wait... the job hunt is, um, interesting. Have you any idea how difficult it is to convince bars to give you a job when you've never pulled a pint in your life?
So... I got all excited earlier today on seeing that there was a 'Regeneration' section on the site, and clicked on it thinking it would be fanfiction for Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy... then was bitterly disappointed when it wasn't. The moral of the tale is - publishers should make sure books aren't double-named, and Pat Barker's Regeneration should be required reading EVERYWHERE. It's awesome. But if it's a toss-up between that and Lord Peter Wimsey, read Lord Peter. Because those books deserve to be made out of GOLD.
OK, so I should say something witty and interesting here, but I, er... can't. It's four in the morning and I'm exhausted. Can we all just pretend I was amusing, and I'll let you get on to the chapter relatively quickly for once?
Didn't think I'd hear many complaints.
DISCLAIMER: Alex Rider... isn't mine. My brain aches too much to be amusing about saying that. And really, who honestly thinks he is mine? If I had a penny for every time I disclaimed any ownership of Alex Rider I'd be... a pound richer than I am now.
...yeah, that isn't quite as impressive as I thought it was gonna be... (yawns and stumbles off to bed)
Oh, and it's still SLASH, guys. No man-on-man sexing this chapter, but it is coming. It is coming. (collapses)
Alex's flight over to New York was blissfully uneventful. He checked in, with his fake passport – 'Alex Brendon' – sat in the first class seat this mysterious law firm had paid for, next to the mother MI6 had provided, and idly read through the book he had been set by his school; even if he didn't have to go there anymore, there was no reason to slack off. Everything went off without a hitch; the plane landed safely in New York, they were met by a tall man with a suitably welcoming-yet-sympathetic smile, who eyed their coats doubtfully, and managed to emphasis his own scarf, thick coat and gloves without once bringing attention to them.
They had left London in the beginnings of spring and stepped out into a New York which seemed to be just considering coming out of winter.
Alex's 'mother' – a tall, blonde woman called Susanne ("Annie, please"), with smiling blue eyes and a no-nonsense manner, whom Alex had taken to immediately – put one hand on his shoulder. "You alright, Alex?"
"Yeah. Bit cold, though…"
Annie smiled at him. "I can certainly agree with you there." She mimed a theatrical little shiver, and he gave her the unwilling smile he thought would be normal for a boy who had just lost an apparently adored father.
"The car is right this way, ma'am." The man said. He'd introduced himself as 'Richie', but Alex didn't think they were ever going to get to know him well enough to need his name. He paused, tactfully. "We're all very sorry for your loss."
Annie nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
The law firm was housed in a large glass building which seemed designed to intimidate, and Annie put a hand on Alex's shoulder as they were steered tactfully through Reception, and into an impressive lift – "elevator" – and up to the office of the partner who had worked most closely with 'Mr. Brendon'.
Richie left them outside the office with another suitable smile, and they knocked and were called in.
"Mrs. Brendon, Alex." The tall, broad man greeted them, standing with an equally suitable smile; vaguely, Alex wondered whether it was something employees learnt when they joined the firm, a Smile for Every Occasion. He shook the thought off, hastily, and concentrated back on the conversation. "…Jerry Kent, I'm one of the partners here. We were all very impressed with your husband here at Gage Whitney(1), Mrs. Brendon. He was very well liked."
"Thank you." Annie nodded, and Alex took his cue from her.
"Someone obviously didn't like him." He broke in, every inch the over-sensitive, grieving teenager, looking for someone on whom to take out his anger; Alex could play this part to perfection. After all, nearly three years ago, it had been him. "D'you have any idea who could have killed him, Mr. Kent?"
Annie's hand found its way back onto his shoulder, and squeezed a little. "Alex." She chided, gently. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Kent." She told him, quietly. "My son – he took Mark's death very hard. He just wants someone to blame."
"Oh, I can understand that, Mrs. Brendon. I can't even begin to understand what you're going through, Alex," Kent said, turning his attention back to Alex, "But I'm sad to tell you, I don't have a name and face to give you. Your father's death was a tragic accident – nothing more."
"He was shot." Alex replied, remembering the feeling he'd had when he'd found out that Ian's death had been no freak accident where his uncle, for once, had not been wearing his seat-belt, but a deliberate murder, and allowing his voice to crack now as he had never let it then. "Mum told me. How is that an accident?"
Kent shrugged, but met Alex's eyes squarely. "I'm sorry, son," he winced at his choice of words just as Alex glared at him. "But we all knew your Dad did volunteer work in a dangerous part of the city. It was good of him, and it's a tragedy that he's dead, but this is no time for any vigilante stunts, alright? You gotta be strong for your mom."
Alex met his eyes sullenly for a moment, and then Annie squeezed his shoulder gently again, and he let his gaze drop to the floor. "Yes, sir." He agreed, a little morosely, and stayed quiet for the rest of their short visit.
Annie spent her time hashing out the details of moving her 'husband's' things back to England, and the transportation of the body:
"Don't worry about it, Mrs. Brendon, Gage Whitney would be happy to go through his things for you and send them over. We don't want to upset you at this unhappy time."
"Oh, I'd rather go through my husband's things myself. Closure, you know – I'm sure you can understand." The smile she gave Kent was just the right side of 'too sweet'.
"Of course, Mrs. Brendon. I hope you'll at least let us pick up the tab."
"Oh, no, I couldn't possibly-"
"Mrs. Brendon, we absolutely insist."
I bet you do, Alex thought, cynically, allowing his face to fall into the lines of a frown, watching as Annie played her own part perfectly.
"Well… if you're sure…"
"Absolutely sure." He nodded, with gallantry, and she wavered for a moment, then nodded.
"Well, then… that would be kind of you, thank you."
They had been put up in a hotel suite near Mark Gruen's flat, and swept the rooms thoroughly for bugs before unpacking. They found three in each room, and, rather than dismantling all of them – which would have raised suspicion – simply left them in place. They would go elsewhere for any private conversations they needed to have.
They took about half an hour to unpack, and Annie knocked on his door. "Alex, sweetie." She gave him a quick, sad little smile. "Is everything OK here for you?"
He turned to look at her, and paused for a long moment. "I just thought-" he shrugged. "I thought Dad would be showing me round New York for my first visit." He finished quietly. "I miss him, Mum."
"I know, Al." she held out an arm, and he gave her a quick, awkward hug – there was no way of telling whether the security cameras had been hacked into, and it was vital that appearances be kept up. "Well, look. We've got the rest of the day to-" she had been about to say 'kill', Alex knew, before changing her words abruptly. "We've got a whole day before we start going through Dad's stuff, haven't we? So why don't we go out, explore the city a little bit, maybe grab a hotdog, or whatever it is New Yorkers do."
He gave her a slightly reluctant smile. "Yeah. Sounds good. I've always wanted to get a real American Starbucks coffee."
"Oh, I think we can stretch to that, don't you?" Her smile was just a little brighter than it had been before. "Come on, darling. I've wanted to see Central Park for years."
About half an hour later, they were both kitted out with coffee, and carefully found themselves a quiet part of Central Park to stroll through before starting the break-down of events so far.
"What do you think, then?" Annie asked, quietly, taking a sip of her coffee.
"He's a little too – neat, don't you think?" Alex asked, blowing thoughtfully on his cappuccino. "Too glib, you know? He brushed us off too easily; he doesn't want us asking questions at all."
She nodded, slowly. "Yes, I know what you mean. I thought so too – but that doesn't prove anything; I doubt any self-respecting law firm would want family asking awkward questions about the death of one of their employees. And after all, Gruen did volunteer to take on Gage Whitney's 'charity cases', it was the easiest way for him to research. As Kent said, accidents happen. A very convenient accident in this case, but it's difficult to prove otherwise."
"We don't really need to prove it, though, do we?" Alex said, quietly. "We need to find out who did it, tell them up-top, and deal with it. It needn't stand up in a court, so long as we're certain it's the right person."
"'Judge, jury and executioner', you mean?" she asked, wryly. "I suppose you're right. We just need to prove the mafia links; we have enough problems with high crime there without getting a fully organised mafia of our own. So, no. We're not making a case against these people, whoever they are."
"Seems to me like the best thing to do is to find out which area of the city Gruen was working in, and for me to disappear there. Kent already thinks I'm going to try some vigilante stuff-"
"Which means he'll be looking for you." Annie pointed out.
Alex nodded. "But it gives you an excuse to go looking for me there. We both have an excuse to be in the part of the city Gruen was murdered, and we can both get some work done on this case."
She offered him a quick grin. "Rider, I like the way you think."
Packing up all of Gruen's things was surprisingly difficult for Alex – so much of what he owned was similar to what Ian had packed to go abroad on one of his month-long 'conferences', and Alex felt almost voyeuristic as he picked through it, turning over one piece or another, and carefully placing it in the big packing crates to be sent home. What MI6 was planning on doing with it, Alex had no idea; they had said Gruen had no family, after all, so perhaps it would be sold, or simply discarded.
It was an empty prospect. Gruen's funeral would continue the lie he had lived before he died, and no one would be there to contradict it. No one wanted this photo of Gruen with his parents – now presumably dead. The only photos which would be kept were the fake MI6-mock-ups which perpetuated the all-important lie, that they had been a family. The entire thing was fake – Annie was constantly calling Alex over with a quick, sad 'remember this, Alex?' or 'Oh, Alex, look!', but none of it was real.
Alex was heartily sick of the entire thing by the time they left. As they locked the little flat up again, Annie said, clearly, "All of this furniture is ours, now, Alex – we'll have to come back after the funeral, and decide how to deal with it."
They flew back with Gruen's body two days later, for a brief, impersonal funeral. Alex managed to force out some tears at the graveside ceremony, and Annie was crying silently behind the thin black veil on her hat, but it was all fake. The priest was the only person who believed what he was saying, and even he didn't look all that convinced. Blunt was as impassive as usual – Mrs. Jones sucked stoically on a peppermint and spoke to no one. Apart from a handful of other guests, presumably friends of the deceased, no one else had appeared.
An empty life, Alex thought dully, on the plane once more. Three trans-Atlantic trips in a week were far too many, and his body-clock was totally off, but his mind was spinning anyway. MI6 was taking over his life, that much was certain, especially after the whole issue with his schooling – and if he let it get too far, didn't make an attempt to reach out to people, all he could look forward to was an early funeral attended by people he barely knew.
It was a depressing thought, and Alex looked suitably miserable as he climbed once more into the Gage Whitney-provided car, and was taken back to the hotel they had stayed in before.
Back in the suite, he and Annie talked clearly about their plans for the next few days; since they were feeding those listening in the information they wanted them to have, the last thing they wanted was for them to miss anything.
"Well, I have to go to Gage Whitney's to sort out all Dad's legal affairs." Annie said, carefully, "Did you want to come?"
"No." Alex said, shortly. "I'll go over to his flat, keep packing up his stuff. We'll be here forever if I don't, and I don't want to sit in some stuffy lawyer's office all day."
"I don't like the idea of you wandering around a strange city all on your own." Annie fussed, anxiously. "What if you get lost? Or if something happens to you?"
"Mum, I'll be fine." He almost snapped it at her. "I'll have my mobile with me, and I'll go straight to Dad's flat, and come straight back again."
"Well, OK then." She said, doubtfully, "But ring me if anything happens, alright? And make sure you take some warm clothes, a scarf and gloves. I'll come and join you about lunchtime, after I've finished up at Whitney's."
Armed with the keys to the flat and a mobile phone he promptly turned off, Alex headed to the flat Gruen had been living in, and spent an hour or so going through the papers on the man's desk, sorting them into two piles – making a mental note to tell Annie which could contain possible evidence to do with their case. A glance at the clock told him he had to leave now or risk being caught by his 'mum', so he put the papers away neatly and headed out, locking the door behind him.
Gruen's flat had been near the Gage Whitney building – Alex could only assume that the flat had come with the job, because it didn't look like the sort of place MI6 would spring for. It made it a longer journey down to the area Gruen had been working in, but at the same time, that would give Alex more time there before he was 'found'.
Three out of seven of the dead man's 'case notes' dealt with a particular man, Ned Maritz, and Alex knew that the best he could do at the moment was go to the address Gruen mentioned, and start from there. If he was lucky, the guy would be out, and he'd be able to search the premises. If he wasn't, it'd be a chance to case the place, so he could return later. In just under three years of working for MI6, Alex had got fairly good at the whole breaking-and-entering deal.
The journey out of the main business centre and down to Maritz's flat took maybe half an hour on the subway, and Alex was justifiably cautious about turning up there – it wasn't in the nicest area. According to Gruen's standard notes, Maritz had been the owner of a liquor store and his store had come under various licence violations and a couple of wholly unsurprising 'drunk-and-disorderly' warnings. Alex and Annie, however, knew where to look, and his other notes suggested that Maritz's shop and flat had had visitors far shadier than some badly behaved drunks. It was as good a place as any to start looking.
Alex reached the address at four thirty, and was surprised to see the downstairs shop shut, but not locked. The sign had been hastily flipped over, and the door was locked when he tried it, but the metal grille hadn't been pulled down and the lights were still on inside – Alex, with instincts trained over a couple of years, was deeply suspicious. Maritz was really no use to him dead, especially not if he did have the connections of which Gruen had suspected him. His flat would have been stripped bare.
Hurriedly, Alex made his way round to the back of the building, pausing for a moment to check the area then hastily picking the lock. Once the door was open, he stopped again, listening – but the building was completely silent.
He made his way towards the stairs, when a tiny sound made him slip back into the shadows – someone was upstairs, and Alex was fairly certain that it wasn't Maritz.
Hidden just out of sight of the stairs, Alex considered his next move; should he head upstairs regardless and try and brazen it out, should he leave and come back some other time, or should he wait until the other man left?
The choice was taken out of his hands by nature – a gust of wind made the backdoor slam shut, and Alex winced as swift, soft footsteps headed towards the stairs. He was either absolutely screwed, or… he stopped his train of thoughts right there before panic could set in, and made a split second decision. He had maybe a few seconds until whoever it was came downstairs, and he had a balaclava shoved into his bag for protection against the freezing New York weather, part of the 'warm clothes' Annie had insisted he take.
As quickly as he could, he pulled the damn thing out and shoved it on his head, just as the footsteps started down the flight of stairs.
"Who are you?" Alex almost froze – that voice seemed so familiar. "What are you doing here?"
There was no way it was who he thought it was. And there were loads of-
Turning back to the stairs, his vision swam momentarily in shock as he came face to face with Yassen Gregorovich.
One quick swallow – easy to pass off as simple nervousness – he forced the panic back once more and acted on instinct. If he was in this situation for real, he would reach for his gun…
He slid one arm behind him, fast, as though going for a gun tucked into the waistline of his trousers, and found himself face-to-face with Gregorovich's own weapon. "Not a good move." The Russian told him, sounding almost amused. "Who are you?"
"None of your goddamn business." Alex muttered, sullenly, dusting off an American accent he hadn't needed to use in years and deliberately making his voice lower so he would sound older. Now that he was fully grown, he would hopefully pass for an adult with the balaclava on.
"I asked you a question, and I expect an answer." The assassin told him, pleasantly. "Your name. Now."
Alex opened his mouth as if to continue his resistance, shifting and setting his shoulders defiantly, before Yassen twitched the gun minutely, a clear warning. He allowed his eyes to fix on it as if hypnotised. "Harry." He said, unwillingly. "Harry Amis."
"Well, Harry, I would leave now if I were you." Gregorovich said, amiably. "And I wouldn't bother coming back. You won't find anything here."
Mentally, Alex swore. This was so very, very bad – though, the presence of an assassin like Gregorovich (a dead assassin, his mind pointed out mutinously, and he squashed that thought before he could really think about it) did rather confirm some extremely shady links of some kind. If Gage Whitney had been presenting this man, who knew what other 'misdemeanours' they had been covering up? "Who are you?" he asked, trying desperately to prolong the conversation. "You're not Mr. Maritz."
"I told you to leave." Gregorovich gestured with the gun once more. "Ned is my brother-in-law." If Alex was any judge of character, 'Ned' was also very dead. The silencer on Gregorovich's gun was a 'dead' giveaway. "I would so hate to see him robbed."
And if that wasn't bitter irony, Alex didn't know what was. "Fine." he muttered, defiantly, edging towards the door, and Gregorovich himself. "I'm going."
"Wise choice." Gregorovich agreed, urbanely, watching with gimlet eyes as Alex shuffled towards him.
As he moved slowly towards the assassin, Alex's mind was racing. How to deal with this? What should he do? He hadn't got a hope of overpowering Gregorovich, not when the man was so much better trained, and so much more experienced, than him, but he had to do something, or Gregorovich would wipe the entire slate clean before he had a chance.
It was a risky move to make, but Alex was relatively confident he could pull it off. If it worked, all to the good. If it didn't, he should be able to pass it off as an accident.
He managed to contrive a trip on the edge of the worn runner-carpet in the hallway, stumbling forwards and treading heavily on Gregorovich's foot, before his entire weight followed his foot, sending both men tumbling to the ground. Alex's hands shot out 'naturally' to save himself, and one hit Gregorovich firmly in the chest, sending the man down far faster than he would otherwise have gone, the other flailing wildly and finally grabbing hold of the wrist of the hand which held the gun, wrenching it badly as the two of them fell.
The Russian was a consummate professional, but by the time they were both sprawled on the floor, he was also dazed, bruised, and the possessor of a spectacularly sprained wrist – Alex had really wrenched the thing round. It was a moment's work to pull the gun out of a very-loosened grip and to deal the man a stunning blow to the temple. Gregorovich, for all his expertise, went out like a light.
Alex didn't waste time thinking about what he'd just done – after all, he couldn't have beaten the man in a fair fight, so the only way to win was to fight unfairly; and he was a spy, he couldn't afford the morals which might have allowed him to feel bad about it – or, more importantly about the fact that the man lying on the floor in Maritz's hallway was supposed to be already dead. That would all come later. For the moment, he had a job to do, he didn't have long and every minute was going to count.
Keeping a firm hold on the gun, he headed up the stairs.
Maritz's flat was small – a bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a sitting-room-come-kitchen. All the same, Alex was going to have to search them, and that was going to take time. Grimly, he hoped he had hit Gregorovich hard enough.
It took half-an-hour to search the flat thoroughly, but by the end of it he was relatively certain he had what he wanted – Maritz's banking details had been stuffed into one big, conveniently marked box, and the man had kept his shadier details under his bed. Various other odds-and-ends went into Alex's bag, for him and Annie to consider later at leisure – and with that done, Alex didn't bother to tidy up after himself. Hoping that the assassin he had run into would still be out of it, he ran.
He only allowed himself to take the balaclava off when he was several streets away, and once he had checked that there were no security cameras near to record it. He continued to feel twitchy all the way back to his hotel – he changed lines several times, riding the subway for nearly two hours in an attempt to throw any potential watchers off the scent – and though he knew a locked door and hotel security wouldn't do anything against an assassin of Gregorovich's character, he felt a little more relaxed when he was back in the suite.
Back there, he hastily hid the evidence he had gained all throughout the school files he had brought with him, never more than two pieces together at a time, and left them. He would discuss them with Annie when she got back. At the moment, he had more on his mind.
Yassen Gregorovich. How in the name of God was he even alive?
And... that's it. I hope you enjoyed! Do tell?
Oh, and (1) - for anyone who watches The West Wing, Gage Whitney is indeed the name of the law firm Sam worked for in 'In the Shadow of Two Gunmen'. For anyone who doesn't watch the West Wing, it was tooootally original. Yeah. (nods)