UPDATE 05/04/2014 – see bottom of this chapter.
A/N: I'm SORRY it's been so long – really I am. I've had some lovely reviews since I updated, and some more demanding ones (!), so I know it's been rather unfair of me not to update for so long. Life rather got in the way. But here is Chapter 16! I'm into my holiday now, so I'll do my best to knock out several chapters in the coming months.
The two criminals were not the type to describe themselves as criminals but as professionals with a mission. And that mission was a very special one indeed.
The preparations had been in the pipeline for months and months – well over a year – and the planning even longer. There had been some hiccups – actually, many more hiccups than they might have liked. They hadn't expected the SAS to cotton on to them so quickly, for a start, though they had soon dealt with that problem. The Rider boy had been a bigger obstacle. He had been staying with one of the SAS operatives, and they had feared this would delay the SAS unit's return to the field. After a little digging, they'd also discovered he had a formidable reputation.
That was when they'd decided he had to go.
The brat made things worse, of course – playing detective, and without realising its importance, he'd stumbled on what the two 'professionals' had been getting away with for months. Stealing information and killing those who got in their way.
They tried to scare him at first. Batter him around a little, hope he'd leave them alone. It didn't work. They'd had to poison him. But he was like a damned cockroach – kept slipping away, somehow surviving. Eventually they'd decided to leave him alone. They hadn't anticipated just how protective MI6 was of their little protégé and they were beginning to draw attention to themselves. Quit while you're ahead, they'd thought. It had worked until Rider had followed one of the men back to his house. If he'd seen his face and survived, that would have been it. For days, both men cursed themselves for not being quicker and killing him anyway. It would have drawn attention to them, but the time was close enough that they could have fled the country.
Now they were glad they hadn't.
This was so much better.
They hadn't even anticipated the Rider boy might be sent to Iraq. He had a reputation, but no one really believed it. But perhaps they could see where MI6 was coming from. The directors were feeling scared and vulnerable, and they needed people they knew weren't going to betray them. Who better to rely on than a child who still saw the world in black and white?
"What are we going to do about this kidnapping?" The two of them were sitting in a dark corner of a cafe in Chinatown. They knew they weren't going to be overheard there. The one who had spoken was smoking, aware that the smoking law was never enforced there. He flicked the ash off his cigarette and into the ashtray as he waited for his partner's response.
"I don't know." The second man's tone was one of musing rather than irritability. He knew, like his companion, that the knowledge provided a great opportunity; just neither was sure how to use it.
"Bit of luck we found out about it, really; if we'd just heard it the way they wanted us to – thinking Rider was just the ambassador's son – we might have made some huge mistakes."
The other man bobbed his head up and down. "We need to be careful, though," he warned. "We can't be too clever. Rider has got a reputation. He'll find us out. He's come close enough."
The man with the cigarette took a last drag and then stubbed it out in the ashtray. His tone was scoffing. "He's got a reputation, but he's fourteen. Don't worry so much. We'll sort him out. About time someone did." He smirked. "I've got lots of ideas."
Despite the tension that was still evident in his posture, his companion allowed himself a small smile. "Rider really doesn't stand a chance, does he?"
The first man contemplated this for a moment while he lit another cigarette. He took a long drag and then blew out smoke. "No," he said finally, "I don't believe he does."
And in a few more smoke rings, Alex Rider's fate was decided.
Ben always slept lightly these days.
When he'd been in the SAS he'd been a heavy sleeper – had had to be with Eagle's snorts and Wolf's grunts – but working for MI6 had put him more on edge. Sleeping could get you killed when there was only one of you.
A door creak and soft footsteps on the landing past Ben's door was therefore enough to nudge Ben into consciousness. He blinked up in the dark for several seconds, confused about what had woken him, when he heard the bathroom door click shut and the sound of the lock sliding across.
Alex was going to the toilet. That was all. Ben rolled over and closed his eyes.
Then he heard the retching.
Ben's eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright in bed. He was sure he wasn't mistaken, even as he heard the toilet flush. Alex was throwing up. This was not good when they had a meeting with Blunt the next day and a mission for which they might be deployed at any time. He pushed back the duvet as he heard the tap running, the water rushing through the pipes. He'd better go and check that he was all right and wasn't coming down with something terrible.
He met Alex out on the landing, the boy just coming out of the bathroom, rubbing his face and looking exhausted, even in the half light, and Ben just emerging from his room. Ben studied the younger spy closely.
"Everything all right?"
He received a weak – and totally false – smile in return. "Yeah." Alex gestured to the bathroom. "Just going to the toilet. See you in the morning."
The lie made Ben pause for a second while he assessed Alex's reasons for lying. Possibly he didn't want Ben to worry about him, or he didn't want to make a fuss because it was nothing serious. Or Alex had something to hide.
Unfortunately Alex was nearly at his room when Ben made this connection.
"I heard you being sick," he said evenly, making Alex stop dead. The boy turned around to look at him again.
"It's not a big deal," he said. Ironically, it was the blank expression he so carefully cultivated that gave him away. The same blank expression all spies had when they were avoiding the truth.
"Are you ill?" Ben persisted. "I can call off the meeting tomorrow."
"No, I'm fine." Alex's tone was flat, expressionless, but Ben could see the tension in his shoulders, the slight tightness of the muscles around his brows. He also noted the slight sheen of sweat on Alex's face. Was he running a fever? But what could Ben do? He couldn't force answers out of his charge.
"Are you sure you don't feel shivery?" he asked finally, wincing both at the inadequacy of the words and how over-protective they sounded.
"I'm fine." Alex's smile was pained and said the opposite. "Just trouble sleeping. Good night."
He was so fast he was in his room and behind a closed door before Ben could piece together what he'd said. Just trouble sleeping.
Ben had heard that one before. Mostly from Wolf and Snake in the last few months. He hadn't expected it to come out of Alex's mouth. Ben's hand curled into a fist. Alex hadn't had 'trouble sleeping' before now – at least, not when he'd been staying with Ben. Yet now he was being sent somewhere on a mission, there were problems. Ben clicked his teeth together, mulling this over. He had no way of telling if this was normal behaviour – for Alex, anyway. Was he always uptight before a mission? Or was this one – dangerous and risky even by MI6's standards – getting to him?
Ben was up for two hours more before the answer came to him.
It was time to talk to Jack Starbright.
Wolf too was having trouble sleeping that night. The team had gone to bed at one o'clock, having been out on a night exercise, but by half past three Wolf was still staring into the darkness, listening to Eagle snorting to himself. Snake always slept silently, but Wolf could tell he was asleep from his heavy breathing. As usual, Jackal didn't make a sound. When they were all asleep and in the dark, Wolf could almost make himself believe it was really Fox who was still with them; he'd always slept quietly too. Wolf gritted his teeth when he thought of Fox. Everything had been fine before he'd left. It was when they'd had to get a replacement in their team that everything had gone wrong.
Not that Wolf blamed Fox; the pay packet at MI6 was definitely more attractive and the accommodation on Special Ops missions certainly beat camping in the Amazon jungle. Nor did Wolf blame Jackal. Although he doubted he was ever going to be best friends with the man, they were all adults and professionals. They could get along. They just hadn't had time to get used to one another before Iraq. And now they had that to cope with too. Wolf closed his eyes as he thought about Iraq for what seemed the millionth time just that day. The Sergeant had called Wolf to his office earlier to discuss it, in fact. He was 'concerned'.
"I'll admit it, soldier, your team is giving me some anxiety."
Wolf had remained silent, swallowing, wondering what was coming next.
"Snake's physical condition is giving the physiotherapist some concern."
Wolf found his voice. "He's keeping up, Sir."
"It's less than ideal. The only reason I haven't sent him home yet is because you're working together as a team to compensate for him." The Sergeant leaned back against his desk, his hand finding a piece of paper there. He picked it up and studied it for a second. "Well, that, and the fact I have orders that K unit should remain in training. The whole unit."
Wolf's mouth almost dropped open, but he didn't dare ask for an explanation; the Sergeant didn't always take kindly to curiosity. Luckily, the Sergeant seemed angry enough at being told what to do that some information slipped out.
"Bloody Special Ops; think we're their lackeys. Don't know what their obsession is with K unit in particular..."
That had been enough to make Wolf turn white. Thinking about it now, Wolf still felt uneasy. Why did SO have such an obsession with K unit? Snake was incredibly fit, particularly considering how severe his injuries had been, but he still wasn't up to the standard the rest of them were. Why would MI6 insist on keeping them in training?
The answer was in the back of his mind, eating away at him, whispering in his ear, taunting him. Cub. It had to be. If K unit was away, no one had the kid's back. Well, Fox did, but even this didn't feel quite right. Fox did care about Cub, but he worked for MI6 and Wolf knew Blunt would exert as much pressure as possible on Fox to make him agree to whatever he wanted. Wolf gripped the blanket over him tightly, and then released it, suddenly feeling far too much like a child holding his cuddle blanket. If the other members of K unit saw that, he'd never hear the end of it.
He felt restless – unable to go to sleep, but unable to get up and go for a walk because he knew he should get some sleep. They had a practice stakeout starting at six a.m.
So when he heard the creaking of a bed on the other side of the room, a shuffling, and then in the dim light saw someone moving around, slipping on some clothes, Wolf was confused. It crossed his mind that the person might be going to the bathroom, but on the person's way out, he saw something emit an eerie glow, lighting up Jackal's face, and, straining his eyes, Wolf saw a mobile phone in the man's hand. Who took a phone to the bathroom in the middle of the night? In fact...Wolf's frowned deepened, and he was already sitting up in bed, pulling on a jumper. They weren't permitted to have mobile phones during training. Why did Jackal have one, and how did he think he was going to get it past his team leader?
Just as silently as Jackal, he crept across the wooden floorboards and eased his way out of the door. Eagle let out another snort behind him.
It was pitch black at this time of night – no artificial light anywhere, and the clouds blocked any moonlight there might have been. It was also below freezing and Wolf was barefoot, but he didn't worry about it. Jackal couldn't go very far.
As his gaze penetrated the darkness, searching for movement, he saw Jackal ahead, moving towards the trees. The perfect cover. For both of them.
Wolf moved at the same pace as Jackal, keeping his distance and close to anything that might conceal his presence – bushes, trees, more barracks – but, although Jackal did look round a few times, he didn't clock Wolf following him. It was only when Jackal disappeared into the trees that Wolf took a risk and moved into the open, padding as quickly but as quietly as he could. Although it wasn't strictly against the rules to be out like this at night, questions would still be asked, quite apart from not wanting to be caught by Jackal. The mud was soggy and freezing cold under his feet, but Wolf barely noticed as he moved into the thick of the evergreens. He caught sight of the eerie glow from the mobile phone again somewhere up ahead, and, although he drew behind the cover of the leaves, he inched forward, closer, so he could see Jackal. He saw his teammate frowning as he looked at his phone, and then he punched a few buttons and put the phone to his ear. The two soldiers were once again plunged into darkness. Wolf stayed very still, wishing his breath didn't come out in white clouds in the freezing air. He strained his ears, listening.
"It's Blanco," Wolf heard Jackal say quietly. Wolf didn't know Jackal's name, but he guessed this must be it. Unlike his relationship with Eagle, Fox and Snake, he had never had a desire to learn it.
"Yeah, yeah, no names over the phone; I got you."
Had Wolf been in any other profession, he might have raised his eyebrows at this. But when he was part of an organisation who insisted you only ever went by an animal code-name, he could perhaps understand the need for secrecy. Perhaps.
"What's the problem? I thought we were aiming for minimal contact; it's risky to call you, even in the middle of the night." There was a long pause in which Jackal said nothing, and Wolf assumed he must be listening to the other person speaking. Wolf started to get distracted, gritting his teeth as he reached down to rip a leech from his foot, when he heard Jackal's voice get more urgent.
"Are you sure this information is correct?" Another pause. "How did you find this out?" He started to chuckle quietly. "You're right, this is a good opportunity. But," his voice became serious again, "are you quite sure we should change the plans to accommodate the kid? I know he's got a reputation, but, aside from being able to shoot well, he seemed harmless."
Wolf almost stopped breathing. A kid with a reputation who can shoot well? Wolf only knew one person who fit that description. It didn't make sense that Jackal would be talking about him, but who else would it be?
"You're right, of course; it would give us away." Another pause. "All right; you're the boss. I'd just damned careful about how you handle that kid. He's lucky. You don't want to give him any opportunity to gain the upper hand." And with that, there was a snap as Jackal snapped the phone shut. Wolf waited, heart pumping, thudding in his ears. Jackal couldn't mean Cub. Even if he didn't mean Cub, though, his conversation still sounded shady. Don't give a kid the opportunity to gain the upper hand? Admittedly Jackal could be describing any manipulative five year-old, but a kid who could shoot well? With a reputation?
Wolf was so caught up with his thoughts that he'd let his guard down. He shifted his weight onto his right foot and a branch snapped under his weight. It was sharp and loud in the silence.
Jackal was in front of him in seconds, grabbing his arm in the darkness and twisting it behind his back, simultaneously using the light from his phone to see who it was. When he saw it was Wolf, he dropped his grip and Wolf spun around, but in the phone's glow, Jackal didn't look at all sorry. Or remotely surprised.
"Spying on me, Wolf?" His tone was almost lazy.
Wolf found his voice. "I came to find you."
"And you thought you'd find me behind a tree? How interesting."
His words weren't aggressive, but there was something there that put Wolf on the defensive. Or perhaps he was already feeling unsettled by what he'd just overheard. Either way, it made him uncomfortable. He shouldn't have to defend himself; he was Jackal's superior, and Jackal was breaking the rules.
"You're not allowed a mobile phone," he said, trying to keep his voice hard.
"What're you going to do, confiscate it?"
Wolf's eyebrows shot up at this insolence. "Yes, exactly."
"And what if I don't want to hand it over?" Jackal leaned against a tree, casually flipping the mobile open and shut. It gave a strange effect, the phone light throwing his face into sharp relief every time.
Wolf struggled to keep a lid on his temper. He clenched his fists. "There are several ways we can go about this, Jackal. You can give me the fucking phone. Or we can fight it out and either way I'll go to the Sergeant and get you disciplined for disobeying orders. In real terms that means you'll be binned."
His words had the desired effect. Jackal seemed to hesitate for a second, the phone remaining open, and then he snapped it shut once more and chucked it at Wolf, who caught it in one hand.
"Are you going to give it to the Sergeant?" Jackal asked, but Wolf wasn't done yet.
"Who were you talking to?" he demanded. He could just about make out Jackal's features in the dark, but the soldier showed no expression.
"My mother." Wolf caught the sarcasm in his voice and ignored it.
"Your mother doesn't like you to use your name?"
"You were spying on me!" Jackal exclaimed. Wolf decided to take a risk and lay his cards on the table.
"I heard the whole conversation. Who were you talking to? Who's the kid you were talking about?"
"I was talking to my brother. We were talking about my niece. She's a handful."
"She can shoot?" Wolf was incredulous.
"I taught her last summer."
If Wolf hadn't been so suspicious anyway, he might have accepted this explanation, save for one thing. "You referred to the kid as male." He gritted his teeth. "You were talking about Cub!"
"Cub? That kid you were looking after?" Jackal gave a short, sharp laugh. "You're bloody paranoid about him, aren't you?"
"Just answer the fucking question!" Wolf growled. "The kid you were talking about was male."
Jackal was silent for several seconds. "You must be mistaken," he said at last. "I kept the phone for family reasons. I was talking to my brother. His wife's ill and he's worried about his daughter." He sounded so certain that Wolf felt the first prickling of doubt. Was he being too suspicious? So worried about Cub being manipulated by MI6 that he somehow made every situation accommodate his concern? His hesitation was a mistake. Jackal sensed it and took advantage.
"It's late and we've got an exercise at six; I'm going back to bed." He started to walk away from Wolf, but Wolf caught his arm in a tight grip and pulled him closer again.
"If I ever catch you doing anything suspicious again," he spat, "your career in the SAS will be over. I promise."
"I wasn't aware you were someone who kept your promises," Jackal said coolly. "Didn't you swear you weren't going to let that kid get mixed up with MI6 again?"
He caught Wolf so off guard with this that Wolf's grip slacked, and Jackal was almost sprinting away before Wolf's brain had caught up with what he'd said. He'd be back at the barracks before Wolf easily, and Wolf couldn't wake everyone up at this hour. Too many questions would be asked.
"I wasn't aware you were someone who kept your promises. Did you swear you weren't going to let that kid get mixed up with MI6 again?"
Wolf stared through the darkness. Did Jackal know something he didn't? Again he remembered the man's contact in MI6. Wolf stared down at the phone in his hand, and resisted the urge to call Fox right away. If he was caught, he'd certainly be stripped of his rank, and possibly even binned altogether. Rules were taken seriously in the SAS. Wolf wanted to scream in frustration. What could he do?
He pocketed the phone, and slowly made his way back to the barracks. Jackal was right; they needed to get some sleep before tomorrow. Maybe he could find some way to talk to Eagle and Snake about it without Jackal being there. Had he been mistaken about what he'd heard? Twisted it in his head because he was already worried?
Wolf took a thirty second shower before he went to bed again to wash the mud off his feet. There was an angry-looking leech mark on his ankle that was going to hurt like a bitch when he put his boots on in the morning. Wolf didn't think about it. His thoughts remained on Jackal and Cub and Fox all through the night while the phone burned a hole in his pocket.
And still that feeling of utter hopelessness: what on earth could he do?
Three o'clock on the fourth of January found Alex once again sitting beside Ben in Alan Blunt's office. He'd had to leave school early ("Hospital appointment"). This might have bothered him but for the fact he was about to be absent from school for a few weeks. He remembered vaguely, while they waited for the other agents to arrive, that he had Chemistry coursework due in two weeks that he'd not finished. It was unlikely his teacher would cut him much slack, despite his improved grades.
Ben was looking serious. Alex noticed the man's gaze flickered over to him once or twice, and he wished he'd stop. He wasn't about to break.
The two agents arrived less than five minutes late, but still four minutes too late for Alex, who was trying to avoid looking at Ben, Blunt and Mrs. Jones simultaneously.
"Ah, Agent Limes. How good of you to join us."
Alan Blunt's tone was cool – cutting even, but the agent entered the room as if he'd arrived on time; head up, serious look and not a guilty or apologetic expression to be seen. He was tall and perhaps even good-looking, but he emitted such an aura of arrogance that it was difficult to see past it. He was perhaps around Ben's age. Like Ben, he somehow gave the impression of having seen more than his years might permit. He took a seat on the other side of Ben, nodding to him.
"Daniels." His gaze moved to Alex. "You must be Alex Rider." There was nothing in his words to suggest they knew one another, but Alex caught the man's strange tone.
"Have we met before?" he asked, trying to sound casual. "You seem familiar." The perfect way to start a working relationship: with a lie.
A flicker of anger passed over Limes's face before the emotionless mask was back in place. "You knocked me unconscious a few days ago."
"Agent Limes was assigned to follow you on New Years' Eve," Mrs. Jones cut in.
Alex felt the blush creep into his cheeks, but he held the man's gaze. "Sorry," he said. "No one told me. You just looked suspicious."
"Yeah, well, I won't be underestimating you again," Limes muttered, rubbing his neck – the pressure point Alex had used to take him down.
Thankfully at that moment the second agent and last member of the team arrived. In contrast to Limes, he looked far more flustered and embarrassed. He was tall and well built, but somehow gave the impression of being smaller.
"So sorry I'm late," he said. "Ran into Smithers. He said we'd be seeing him later?"
"Of course." Mrs. Jones waved at the last seat. "Will you sit down? Have you met Ben Daniels and Alex Rider?"
The man's head jerked up. "Ben...yes, yes, I've seen you around. And Alex Rider...well, until you were mentioned at yesterday's meeting, I thought you were just a rumour. You really are that young."
Alex gave a thin-lipped smile, uncomfortable at having his age pointed out. The man gave a nervous smile back, as though he couldn't quite read Alex.
"This is Agent Maximilian Lacey," Mrs. Jones informed him. Alex looked Lacey over with a more critical eye. This was the agent they thought was being targeted? The man looked as though he'd come off worse in a fight with a mouse.
"You're all aware of what a sensitive operation this is," Blunt cut in, business-like, as usual. "It's essential you work together. You're our best and brightest and most trustworthy. But this is a dangerous operation and you must work as a team."
"We understand this is an unusual situation for you all," Mrs. Jones said. "You're all used to working alone or in pairs. A team like this isn't our usual style. What will make it more difficult is that obviously Alex will be isolated from the rest of you as he'll be staying with the ambassador. Any contact between you and him will jeopardise the operation. The enemy must believe Alex is the ambassador's son. As we have told you, we will be advertising the fact that the ambassador's son is to accompany him to Iraq within MI6, and we will ensure Alex's name is kept out of it. To make this more convincing, from tomorrow Alex will be staying with the ambassador until they leave for Iraq on Monday."
Limes's gaze flickered to Alex and back to the heads again. "So we watch the place in Baghdad until Rider is kidnapped, we follow the kidnappers, find Rider and get him out of there."
"What if we don't see the kidnappers?" Max Lacey sounded nervous, as though he was more afraid of Blunt's reaction should this happen than of what it would mean.
Blunt looked at him coldly as if to reaffirm this fear. "You will see them. You will station yourselves in such a way as to make it impossible for the enemy to get out without being seen. Should you fail..."
I'm as good as dead, Alex realised with a shiver. Mrs. Jones hastily took over.
"You won't fail," she said. "Just ensure you work as a team."
"Will we have any further backup?" Limes asked. Even though Alex had taken an immediate dislike to the man, he had to admit he had been wondering the same thing. Three agents didn't seem enough to cover all sections of the building Alex would be staying in. What if they didn't see the kidnappers? And even if they did, how on earth were they planning to rescue him without attracting too much attention?
"No, there will be no backup," Blunt said after a pause. "Our position is compromised enough already. We want to keep the operation small. The more people involved, the more chance there is of it going wrong."
Alex did not agree at all, but kept his mouth shut. He noted Ben hadn't spoken once during the entire meeting. When Alex risked a glance at him, all he saw was the same unreadable grim, closed expression that Ben had worn since the meeting the day before. Ben did have questions for Alan Blunt, however.
"What happens when we've got Alex out?" he said. "Presumably that's our first priority. Then what?"
Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones shared a look only they understood. There was a silence as they both considered their words. It was Blunt again who finally spoke.
"The point of the mission is to discover who these people are and what they're planning. Since we don't know where their base is, it is necessary for Alex to be kidnapped. Whilst rescuing Alex, you should aim to gather as much intelligence as possible. The fact Alex has been kidnapped should not distract from the importance of the mission."
Alex felt a shiver run down his spine. Blunt's meaning was clear: your first priority is to deliver intelligence, not to rescue Alex.
Ben looked as though he was about to explode, but it was Limes who cut in.
"We can split up at that point," he suggested. "Two of us can find Alex whilst the other gathers intelligence, or vice versa."
Mrs. Jones looked relieved. Alex hadn't even realised she'd been anxious. "Excellent idea," she said. "You will be able to communicate with us, of course, so if you need advice at that point you can contact Headquarters." She turned her attention to Alex. "You'll be staying with the Ambassador for Iraq at his home in Suffolk from tomorrow. A car will pick you up at twelve o'clock. The Ambassador is expecting you. You may take your own clothes; you're supposed to be a normal teenager after all." To the agents she said, "We will provide Army-issued combat gear to wear in Baghdad. Remain as inconspicuous as possible, but you'll have fewer problems if you look like soldiers rather than white civilians. In fact..." She looked at her watch. "Alex, if you have no questions, you might want to see Smithers now while the rest of us discuss the cover."
Alex didn't really want to leave. He'd have preferred to hear all aspects of the mission, but he supposed he could ask Ben later. He was clearly being dismissed, and, although he resented it, feeling like a child being sent to bed early, he wasn't in the mood to argue. So he nodded and stood up, muttered a goodbye to Limes and Lacey and a 'see you later' to Ben, and left.
Smithers must have known he was coming – probably watched him approach on the CCTV – but as always, he reacted as though Alex's visit was a pleasant surprise.
"Alex, old boy!" Smithers's round face beamed as Alex knocked and put his head around the door. "Come in, come in! How've you been?"
"Not bad," Alex said, unable to resist staring around the room. It was always so interesting. Abandoned bits of wire, iPods, Walkmans, countless mobile phones that had all been tampered with in some way (one of which appeared to have a stun dart half-fired out of it), items of clothing and accessories, and a remote controlled car that was zooming around the room, apparently without a remote control.
"Heard about that poisoning business – terrible, terrible," Smithers said as he picked the toy car up and put it upside down on his desk. Its wheels continued to spin. "They still haven't found the people who did it?"
"No." Alex sat down on a stool on the other side of the desk. He didn't want to contemplate the prospect of more than one enemy right now; even if it were connected to this case, he didn't want to consider that the enemy might already want him dead. He changed the subject. "What've you got for me this time?"
"Well, it's been rather a challenge because of course you want to be kidnapped, but they'll remove any weapons you might have, or any obvious gadgets, so it has to be subtle. Very subtle indeed." Smithers winked, and Alex had a feeling the man had something up his sleeve. He was confused, however, when he opened a drawer and pulled out a mobile phone. It was a nice phone – the latest iPhone, in fact – but it made no sense.
"Surely a phone is the first thing they'll take from me," Alex said.
Smithers wagged his finger. "Aha, exactly. It's fingerprint sensitive. As soon as anyone – anyone – touches any surface of this phone except you, it will send out a distress signal to MI6. An insurance policy, if you like. Just in case your team don't manage to follow you. The signal's good for seventy-two hours."
A weight was lifted from Alex shoulders that he didn't even know he'd been carrying. So MI6 weren't just going to leave him to the mercy of his kidnappers.
"It behaves as a normal phone, too, by the way. Works anywhere in the world, including above ground, below ground, in the water..." Smithers looked pleased as Alex grinned and pocketed the phone.
"Of course! It's always a pleasure to develop things for you." Smithers opened another drawer and pulled out what looked like a pile of clothing. Alex raised an eyebrow. Clothes? What use would that be?
Smithers saw his expression. "The trouble with this mission is that we know you're going to be kidnapped, so we know you're going to have to defend yourself. Unfortunately, as you so rightly pointed out, they're bound to take everything of use away from you. So whatever you can use needs to be cleverly concealed.
"So I use my clothing at a weapon? You want me to end up naked?" Alex couldn't help his sarcasm.
Smithers chuckled. "Certainly not – that's not a dignified way for a spy to escape. Bond was never naked unless he was in bed with a woman...perhaps you're a bit young for that. Good job too, else you'd have made my job twice as difficult!" He unfolded the first item of clothing. It was a striped pyjama top that buttoned down the front, and underneath there were a pair of trousers to match.
"I think I'd have a hard time attracting any women in those," Alex said dryly.
"Actually, they're Ted Baker," Smithers said. "At least...extremely close. But these," he tapped the buttons down the front, "are explosives."
"Exploding pyjamas," Alex muttered. "Wonderful."
"Don't you worry, they're perfectly safe. They only become dangerous when you rip the buttons off...they actually have to be separated from the item of clothing in order to be activated. You have three seconds before they explode, so don't hang around. They won't kill you, but they will take your hand off if you're holding one. There are a couple of stronger ones inside..." Smithers turned the top inside out, and showed Alex some 'spare' buttons attached to the label inside. "They work the same way, but you've got five seconds...you want to put some distance between yourself and these."
He folded the pyjama top again and picked up the trousers. "Now it's the drawstring that's important for these...they might well remove the drawstring in case you hang yourself – that's quite common – but if they leave it with you, you're a lucky boy. There's a skeleton key hidden inside the drawstring...quite accessible – all you have to do is pull off one end, I've made it quite easy. The key's quite thin – has to be, or it'd be bloody obvious – but it should do the trick if you need to escape. I've been instructed to tell you that you are not permitted to use this for the first seventy-two hours; this is a last resort. You need to give the other agents a chance to find out where you are – find the enemy and gather intelligence. If they haven't turned up in seventy-two hours, though, there's no guarantee they will."
Better hope I'm still alive after seventy-two hours, Alex thought. Out loud, his thoughts were more pragmatic: "What if I'm not kidnapped in the middle of the night?"
"That's what all this is for." Smithers gestured to the large pile of clothing. "They don't all do the same thing – the zip of these jeans, for instance, can be removed and makes a rather wonderful cutting device – so you should be protected at any time. Here, I'll show you how it works..."
Alex left forty minutes later, armed with a new mobile phone and a duffle bag of new clothing. It didn't look like he'd need to pack much of his own clothing, contrary to Mrs. Jones's suggestion.
Smithers had apologised he couldn't give him much else, but he explained there was very little that could be of use to Alex once he'd been kidnapped.
"If only kidnappers let their captives have laptops!" he'd exclaimed with a chuckle. "We'd be able to rescue everyone in a matter of minutes!"
Alex didn't like to think that this might mean they'd find it difficult to rescue him.
He let himself into Ben's flat at a little after five. As he came through the door, the phone was ringing. He dropped the duffle bag on the floor.
"Ben?" he called. There was no answer. Alex took a step towards the phone, but it must have been ringing for a while, because as he did so it stopped and switched to the answer machine. Alex shrugged and picked up the duffle bag to take to his room, but then the beep sounded on the answer machine and a woman's voice filled the hallway. It was a voice Alex recognised. He stopped dead.
"Hi Ben, this is Jack Starbright – I got your message. If Alex is having nightmares again...it usually only happens right after something's happened...or when he knows it's about to. So if he's started having nightmares again, that means... Ring me. We'll talk about it. In the meantime, there's not a lot you can do...hot chocolate seems to help him get to sleep, but he doesn't like to talk much so I wouldn't make too much fuss. It's...good to know someone else cares about Alex."
There came the sound of a phone being put down, and there was silence. Alex simply stood there, heart thumping painfully. He'd pushed Jack out of his mind since she'd left, made himself believe that, like everyone else around him, she didn't care about him...it was easier to cope that way. Yet it seemed she did...
Clearly not that much, a small voice said in the back of his mind, else she'd be here for you right now.
Still, hearing Jack's voice had put an awkward lump in his throat that he tried to swallow. He was missing her. Ben was great, but at the end of the day he was tied to MI6 – there was only so much he could do for Alex without losing his job. If Jack had known about the upcoming mission, she would have been furious – at least in the old days. She would have fussed, cooking him his favourite meals and ironing all his clothes, even if he wasn't taking any of them.
The phone rang again. Alex moved towards it and then changed his mind. The lump hadn't gone away and he didn't trust his voice right now. It went through to the answer phone.
"And he likes milk but no sugar in his hot chocol—"
Alex snatched up the phone. "Jack?"
There was a small, shocked silence. "Alex?"
"Er, yeah, it's me..." Alex wasn't sure why he'd picked the phone up and he was beginning to regret it. Their friendship had once been so easy, and now he had no idea what to say. "Er...how are you?" Stiff, formal.
"Yeah, I'm great, I'm..." Jack paused. "Missing you, actually."
"I..." Alex didn't want to say it – he didn't want to make Jack feel bad; it was his fault she'd left, really – but he knew he'd regret it if he didn't. "I miss you too."
"How're you finding staying with Ben? He seems nice." She seemed to realise her mistake almost immediately: that Alex might not have known that Ben had contacted her, and he may not have wanted Alex to know. But she explained, in that light-hearted, teasing way that only Jack could do: "He rang me up. Wanted advice about you. And your hot chocolate habit."
"I know, I heard your first message."
Jack seemed relieved at this. "Oh...well, that makes it easier...I was wondering how to bring it up. Are you OK? What have Blunt and Jones done this time?"
Alex opened his mouth to explain – if there was one person who understood him, it was Jack. But then he abruptly closed it. She hadn't wanted to be involved in this anymore. He couldn't tell her what was going on.
"Nothing," he said. "It's just old stuff. I'm fine."
"Alex..." Jack said warningly.
"I'm fine." He almost snapped it. She'd made it so this wasn't her business anymore; he was under no obligation to tell her his thoughts now. "I have to go; football practice," he said shortly. "Nice talking to you." The stiff formality was back.
"Bye, Jack." He put the phone down. Part of him instantly regretted it; she'd been trying to reach out to him and he'd pushed her away. The larger part of him knew he had to. She'd gone now. His picking up the phone had been a moment of weakness. It was better for both of them if he didn't off load his problems.
He leaned his back against the wall and slowly sank onto the floor. It was the first time he'd appreciated how desperately lonely he felt.
Jack stared at the phone for several long seconds after she heard the dial tone as Alex hung up. Alex had never been that abrupt with her before. He wasn't a talker, but he'd always told her what was going on, even if he didn't tell her how he felt about it.
Yes, well, that was before you abandoned him, a nasty little voice said in her head.
I didn't abandon him. I made sure he had somewhere to go.
You left him in the clutches of MI6. Now look what's happened.
It was never supposed to be like this! I was just a housekeeper and child minder for a banker. I didn't know I was going to get so tied up with the British Secret Service. It was really hard. We're not even family.
He's like a brother to you, though. Always has been. He needs you. It's not his fault he got tied up in all this, either.
Jack had no argument to counter that. In frustration she threw the phone across the room. It made a mark on the wallpaper.
Jack sat down on her parents' sofa and cried.
A/N: Slightly shorter chapter, but an appropriate place to stop – the action will all kick off in the next chapter, which I PROMISE will not take as long. Please review and let me know what you think!
05/04/2014 – UPDATE – I accidentally lied – the update has taken FOREVER. But it will come in June (not before, and not after). Please accept my apologies.