When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.
Alex Rider was woken by the first chime. His eyes flickered open, but for a moment he stayed completely still in his bed, lying on his back with his head resting on the pillow. He heard a bedroom door open and a creak of wood as somebody went downstairs. The bell rang a second time, and he looked at the alarm clock glowing beside him. There was a rattle as someone slid the security chain off the front door.
He rolled out of bed and walked over to the open window, his bare feet pressing down the carpet pile. The moonlight spilled onto his chest and shoulders. Alex was fourteen, already well built, with the body of an athlete. His hair, cut short apart from two thick strands hanging over his forehead, was fair. His eyes were brown and serious. For a moment he stood silently, half hidden in the shadow, looking out. There was a police car parked outside. From his second-floor window Alex could see the black ID number on the roof and the caps of the two men who were standing in front of the door. The porch light went on and, at the same time, the door opened.
"No. I'm the housekeeper. What is it? What's happened?"
"This is the home of Mr. Ian Rider?"
"I wonder if we could come in . . ."
And Alex already knew. He knew from the way the police stood there, awkward and unhappy. But he also knew from the tone of their voices. Funeral voices . . . that was how he would describe them later. The sort of voices people use when they come to tell you that someone close to you has died.
He went to his door and opened it. He could hear the two policemen talking down in the hall, but only some of the words reached him.
". . . a car accident . . . called the ambulance . . . intensive care . . . nothing anyone could do . . . so sorry."
It was only hours later, sitting in the kitchen, watching as the gray light of morning bled slowly through the West London streets, that Alex could try to make sense of what had happened. His uncle—Ian Rider—was dead. Driving home, his car had been hit by a truck at Old Street roundabout and he had been killed almost instantly. He hadn't been wearing a seat belt, the police said. Otherwise, he might have had a chance.
Alex thought of the man who had been his only relation for as long as he could remember. He had never known his own parents. They had both died in another accident, this one a plane crash, a few weeks after he had been born. He had been brought up by his father's brother (never "uncle"—Ian Rider had hated that word) and had spent fourteen years in the same terraced house in Chelsea, London, between the King's Road and the river. The two of them had always been close. Alex remembered the vacations they'd taken together, the many sports they'd played, the movies they'd seen. They hadn't just been relations, they'd been friends. It was almost impossible to imagine that he would never again see the man, hear his laughter, or twist his arm to get help with his science homework.
Alex sighed, fighting against the sense of grief that was suddenly overwhelming. But what saddened him the most was the realization—too late now—that despite everything, he had hardly known his uncle at all.
He was a banker. People said Alex looked a little like him. Ian Rider was always traveling. A quiet, private man who liked good wine, classical music, and books. Who didn't seem to have any girlfriends . . . in fact, he didn't have any friends at all. He had kept himself fit, had never smoked, and had dressed expensively. But that wasn't enough. It wasn't a picture of a life. It was only a thumbnail sketch.
"Are you all right, Alex?" A young woman had come into the room. She was in her late twenties with a sprawl of red hair and a round, boyish face. Jack Starbright was American. She had come to London as a student seven years ago, rented a room in the house—in return for light housework and baby-sitting duties—and had stayed on to become housekeeper and one of Alex's closest companions. Sometimes he wondered what the Jack was short for. Jackie? Jacqueline? Neither of them suited her and although he had once asked, she had never said.
Alex nodded. "What do you think will happen?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"To the house. To me. To you."
"I don't know." She shrugged. "I guess Ian would have made a will," she said. "He'll have left instructions."
"Maybe we should look in his office."
"Yeah. But not today, Alex. Let's take it one step at a time."
Ian's office was a room running the full length of the house, high up on the top. It was the only room that was always locked—Alex had only been in there three or four times, and never on his own. When he was younger, he had fantasized that there might be something strange up there . . . a time machine or a UFO. But it was only an office with a desk, a couple of filing cabinets, shelves full of papers and books. Bank stuff—that's what Ian said. Even so, Alex wanted to go up there now.