Excerpts for Skeleton Key


Skeleton Key


By Anthony Horowitz

Puffin Books

Copyright © 2006 Anthony Horowitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780142406144

Chapter One

The Cribber

It had taken the engineer just a few minutes to take the water dispenser apart. Now he reached inside and carefully disengaged a slim glass vial from a tangle of wires and circuit boards.

"Built into the filter," he said. "There's a valve system. Very ingenious."

He passed the vial to a stern-looking woman who held it up to the light, examining its contents. It was half filled with a transparent liquid. She swirled it around, smelled it, finally applied a little to her index finger and tasted it. Her eyes narrowed.

"Librium," she announced. She had a clipped, matter-of-fact way of speaking. "Nasty little drug. A spoonful will put you out cold. A couple of drops, though ... they'll just confuse you. Basically knock you off-balance."

The restaurant, and indeed the entire Millennium Building, had been closed for the night. There were three other men there. John Crawley was one. Next to him stood a uniformed policeman, obviously senior. The third man was gray-haired and elderly, wearing a Wimbledon tie with dark green stripes. Alex was sitting to one side, feeling suddenly tired and out of place. Nobody apart from Crawley knew that he worked for MI6. As far as they were concerned, he was just a ball boy who had somehow stumbled onto the truth.

Alex was dressed in his own clothes now. He had telephoned Crawley, then taken a shower and changed, leaving his ball boy uniform back in his locker. Somehow he knew that he had worn it for the last time. He wondered if he would be allowed to keep the shorts, shirt, and sneakers with the crossed rackets logo embroidered on the tongue. The uniform is the only payment Wimbledon ball boys receive.

"It's pretty clear what was going on," Crawley was saying now. "You remember, I was worried about that break-in we had, Sir Norman." This to the man in the striped tie. "Well, it seems I was right. They didn't want to steal anything. They came here to fix up the water dispensers. In the restaurant, in the lounge, and probably all over the building. Remote control ... is that right, Henderson?" Henderson was the man who had taken the water dispenser apart. Another MI6 operative. "That's right, sir," he replied. "The dispenser functioned perfectly normally, giving out iced water. But when it received a radio signal-and that's what our friend was doing with the fake cellular phone-it injected a few milliliters of this drug, Librium. Not enough to show up in a random blood test if anybody happened to be tested. But enough to destroy their game." Alex remembered the German player, Blitz, leaving the court after he had lost his match. He had looked dazed and out of focus. But he had been more than that. He had been drugged.

"It's transparent," the woman added. "And it has virtually no taste. In a cup of iced water it wouldn't have been noticed."

"But I don't understand!" Sir Norman said. "What was the point?"

"I think I can answer that," the police chief said. "As you know, the guard isn't talking, but the tattoo on his arm would indicate that he is-or was-a member of the Big Circle."

"And what exactly would that be?" Sir Norman spluttered.

"It's a triad, sir. A Chinese gang. The triads, of course, are involved in a range of criminal activities. Drugs. Vice. Illegal immigration. And gambling. I would guess this operation was related to the last. Like any other sporting event, Wimbledon attracts millions of dollars in bets. Now, as I understand it, the young Frenchman-Lefevre-began the tournament with odds of three hundred to one against his actually winning."

"But then he beat Blitz and Raymond," Crawley said.

"Exactly. I'm sure Lefevre had no idea, personally, what was going on. But if all his opponents were drugged before they went onto the court ... Well, it happened twice; it could have gone on right up through the final. Big Circle would have made a killing! A hundred thousand dollars' bet on the Frenchman would have brought them thirty million." Sir Norman stood up. "The important thing now is that nobody finds out about this," he said. "It would be a national scandal and disastrous for our reputation. In fact we'd probably have to begin the whole tournament again!" He glanced at Alex, but spoke to Crawley. "Can this boy be trusted not to talk?" he asked.

"I won't tell anyone what happened," Alex said.

"Good. Good."

The policeman nodded. "You did a very good job," he added. "Spotting this chap in the first place and then following him and all the rest of it. Although I have to say, I think it was rather irresponsible, locking him in the deep freeze."

"He tried to kill me," Alex said.

"Even so! He could have frozen to death. As it is, he may well lose a couple of fingers from frostbite."

"I hope that won't spoil his tennis playing."

"Well, I don't know ..." The policeman coughed. He was clearly unable to figure Alex out.

"Anyway, well done. But next time, do try to think what you're doing. I'm sure you wouldn't want anyone to get hurt." To hell with all of them!

Alex stood watching the waves, black and silver in the moonlight as they rolled into the sweeping curve of Fistral Beach. He was trying to put the policeman, Sir Norman, and the whole of Wimbledon out of his mind. He had more or less saved the entire All England Tennis Tournament, and although he hadn't been expecting a season ticket in the royal box and tea with the Duchess of Kent, neither had he thought he would be bundled out of the complex quite so hastily. He had watched the finals, on his own, on TV. At least they'd let him keep his Wimbledon sports kit.

And there was one other good thing that had come out of it all. Sabina hadn't forgotten her invitation.

He was standing on the veranda of the house her parents had rented, a house that would have been ugly anywhere else in the world, but seemed perfectly suited to its position on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Cornish coast. It was old-fashioned, square, part brick, part white-painted wood. It had five bedrooms, three staircases, and too many doors. Its garden was more dead than alive, blasted by salt and sea spray. The house was called Brook's Leap, although nobody knew who Brook was, why he had leaped, or even if he had survived. Alex had been there for three days. He had been invited to stay the week.

There was a movement behind him. Sabina Pleasure stepped out from a door, wrapped in a thick terry cloth robe, carrying two glasses. It was warm outside. Although it had been raining when Alex arrived-it seemed to always be raining in Cornwall-the weather had cleared and this was suddenly a summer's night. Sabina had left him outside while she went in to have a bath. Her hair was still wet. The robe draped loosely down to her bare feet. Alex thought she looked much older than her fifteen years.

"I brought you a Coke," she said.

"Thanks."

The veranda was wide with a low balcony, a swing chair, and a table. Sabina set the glasses down, then sat herself down. Alex joined her. The wooden frame of the swing chair creaked and they swung together, looking out at the view. For a long time neither of them said anything. Then, suddenly ...

"Why don't you tell me the truth?" Sabina asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I was just thinking about Wimbledon. Why did you leave before the quarterfinals? You were there one minute. Centre Court! And then-"

"I told you," Alex cut in, feeling uncomfortable. "I wasn't well...."

"That's not what I heard. There was a rumor that you were involved in a fight. And that's another thing. I've noticed you in your swimming trunks. I've never seen anyone with so many cuts and bruises."

"I'm bullied at school."

"I don't think so. I've got a friend who goes to Brookland. She says you're never there. You keep on disappearing. You were away twice last term and the day you got back, half the school burned down."

Alex leaned forward and picked up his Coke, rolling the cold glass between his hands. An airplane was crossing the sky, tiny in the great darkness, its lights blinking on and off.

"All right, Sab," he said. "I'm not really a schoolboy. I'm a spy, a teenage James Bond. I have to take time off from school to save the world. I've done it twice so far. The first time was here in Cornwall. Then it was France. What else do you want to know?" Sabina smiled. "All right, Alex. Ask a stupid question ..." She drew her legs up, snuggling into the warmth of the robe. "But there is something different about you. You're like no boy I've ever met." "Kids?" Sabina's mother was calling out from the kitchen. "Shouldn't you be thinking about bed?" It was ten o'clock. The two of them would be getting up at five to catch the surf.

"Five minutes!" Sabina called back.

"I'm counting!"

Sabina sighed. "Mothers!" Alex had never known his mother.

Twenty minutes later, getting into bed, he thought about Sabina Pleasure and her parents: her father a slightly bookish man with long gray hair and spectacles, her mother round and cheerful, more like Sabina herself. There were only the three of them. Maybe that was what made them so close. They lived in West London and rented this house for four weeks every summer. Sabina said they didn't have a lot of money. They were the sort of family who didn't need it. He turned off the light and lay back in the darkness. His room, set high up near the roof of the house, had only one small window, and he could see the moon, glowing white. From the moment Alex had arrived, Sabina's parents had treated him as if they had known him all his life. Every family has its own routine and Alex had been surprised how quickly he had fallen in with theirs, joining them on long walks along the cliffs, helping with the shopping and the cooking, or simply sharing the silence-reading and watching the sea.

Why couldn't he have had a family like this? Alex felt an old, familiar sadness creep up on him. His parents had died when he was just a few weeks old. He had no brothers or sisters and hadn't learned the truth about the uncle who raised him until after the man's death. Ian Rider had been a spy. How could Alex have guessed? It didn't matter anyway because now he was alone. Sometimes he felt as isolated as the plane he had seen out on the veranda, making its long journey across the night sky.

Alex pulled the pillows up around his head, annoyed with himself. He had friends. He enjoyed his life. He'd managed to catch up with his work at school and he was having a great summer vacation. And with a bit of luck, with the Wimbledon business behind him, MI6 would leave him alone. So why was he letting himself slip into this mood? The door opened. Somebody had come into his room. Alex recognized the faint smell of Sabina's shampoo. She leaned over him. He felt her hair fall against his cheek. Her lips brushed gently against his.

"You're much cuter than James Bond," she said. And then she was gone. The door closed behind her. Alex turned over and tried fruitlessly to sleep. Five-fifteen the next morning. If this had been a school day, Alex wouldn't have woken up for another two hours, and even then he would have dragged himself out of bed unwillingly. It had taken him a long time to get to sleep, but even so, he was awake in an instant and, walking down to Fistral Beach with the dawn light still pink in the sky, he could feel the energy and tension coursing through him. The sea was calling to him, daring him to come in.

"Look at the waves!" Sabina said.

"They're big," Alex muttered.

"They're huge. This is amazing!"

It was true. Alex had been surfing twice before-once in Norfolk, once with his uncle in California-but he had never seen anything like this. There was no wind. The local radio station had warned of deepwater squalls and an exceptionally high tide. Together these had produced waves that took his breath away. They were at least ten feet high, rolling slowly inland as if they carried the weight of the whole ocean on their shoulders. The crash as they broke was huge, terrifying. Alex could feel his heart pounding. He looked at the moving walls of water, the dark blue, the foaming white. Was he really going to ride one of these monsters on a flimsy board made of nothing more than fiberglass and foam? Sabina noticed his hesitation. "What do you think?" she asked.

"I don't know ...," Alex replied, realizing he was shouting to make himself heard above the roar of the waves.

"The sea's too strong!" Sabina was a good surfer. The morning before, Alex had watched her skillfully maneuvering some nasty reef breaks close to the shore. But now she too looked uncertain. "Maybe we should go back to bed!"

Alex took in the whole scene. There were another half dozen surfers on the beach, and in the far distance, a man was steadying a Jet Ski in the shallow water. He knew he and Sabina would be the youngest people there. Like her, he was wearing a three-millimeter neoprene wet suit and boots, which would protect him from the cold. So why was he shivering? Alex didn't have his own board, but had rented an Ocean Magic thruster. Sabina had chosen a wider, thicker board, going for stability rather than speed. Alex preferred the thruster for its grip and the feeling of control provided by its three fins. He was also glad that he had chosen an eight-foot-four. If he was going to catch waves as big as these, he was going to need the extra length. If ...

Alex wasn't sure he was going into the water. The waves looked three or four times taller than he was, and he knew that if he made a mistake, he could all too easily drown. Sabina's parents had forbidden her to go in if the sea looked too rough and he had to admit, it had never looked rougher. He watched another wave come crashing down and might have turned back if he hadn't heard one surfer calling to another, the words whipping across the empty sands.

"The Cribber!"

It couldn't be true. The Cribber had come to Fistral Beach! Alex had heard the name many times. The Cribber was a legend not just in Cornwall but throughout the surfing world. Its first recorded visit had been in September 1966, and it had been more than twenty feet high, the most powerful wave ever to hit the English coast. Since then there had been occasional sightings, but few had seen it and fewer still had managed to take the ride.

"The Cribber! The Cribber!" The other surfers were calling its name, whooping and shouting. He watched them dance across the sand, their boards over their heads. Suddenly he knew that he had to go into the water. True, he was too young. And the waves were too big. But he would never forgive himself if he missed the chance.

"I'm going!" he shouted, then ran forward, carrying his board in front of him, the tail connected to his ankle by a tough urethane leash. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sabina raise a hand in a gesture of good luck. He reached the edge of the sea and felt the cold water grip his ankles. He threw the board down and dived on top of it, the momentum carrying him forward. And then he was lying flat on his stomach, his legs stretched out behind him, his hands paddling furiously over the top of the board. This was the most exhausting part of the journey. Alex concentrated on his arms and shoulders, keeping the rest of his body still. He had a long way to go. He needed to conserve energy.

He heard a sound above the pounding of the sea and noticed the Jet Ski pulling away from the shore. That puzzled him. Personal watercraft were rare in Cornwall and he certainly hadn't seen this one before. Normally they were used to tow surfers out to the bigger waves, but this Jet Ski was striking out on its own. He could see the rider, hooded, in a black wet suit. Was he-or she-planning to ride the Cribber on a machine?

He forgot about it. His arms were getting tired now and he hadn't even made it halfway. His cupped hands scooped the water and he felt himself shoot forward. The other surfers were well ahead of him. He could see the point where the waves crested, about twenty yards away. A mountain of water rose up in front of him and he duck-dived through it. For a moment he was blinded. He tasted salt and the chill of the water hammered into his skull. But then he was out the other side. He fixed his eyes on the horizon and redoubled his efforts. The thruster carried him forward as if it had somehow been filled with a life of its own.



Continues...


Excerpted from Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz Copyright © 2006 by Anthony Horowitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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