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The entrance to the building site was crowded with construction workers preparing to go home. Alex was reminded of Brookland an hour earlier. Nothing really changed when you got older-except that maybe you weren’t given homework. The men and women drifting out of the site were tired, in a hurry to be away. That was probably why none of them tried to stop Alex as he slipped in among them, walking purposefully as if he knew where he was going, as if he had every right to be there.
But the shift wasn’t completely finished yet. Other workers were still carrying tools, stowing away machinery, packing up for the night. They all wore protective headgear, and seeing a pile of plastic helmets, Alex snatched one up and put it on. The great sweep of the block of apartments that was being built loomed up ahead of him. To pass through it, he was forced into a narrow corridor between two scaffolding towers. Suddenly a heavy-set man in white overalls stepped in front of him, blocking his way.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“My dad …” Alex gestured vaguely in the direction of another worker and kept walking. The trick worked. The man didn’t challenge him again. He headed toward the crane. It stood in the open, the high priest of construction. Alex hadn’t realized how very tall it was until he had reached it. The supporting tower was bolted into a massive block of concrete. It was very narrow-once he squeezed through the iron girders, he could reach out and touch all four sides. A ladder ran straight up the center. Without stopping to think, Alex began to climb.
It’s only a ladder, he told himself. You’ve climbed ladders before. You’ve got nothing to worry about. But this was a ladder with three hundred rungs. If Alex let go or slipped, there would be nothing to stop him from falling to his death. There were rest platforms at intervals, but Alex didn’t dare stop to catch his breath. Somebody might look up and see him. And there was always a chance that the barge, loose from its moorings, might begin to drift. Alex knew he had to hurry. After two hundred and fifty rungs, the tower narrowed. Alex could see the crane’s control cabin directly above him. He looked back down. The men on the building site were suddenly very small and far away. He climbed the last ladder. There was a trapdoor over his head, leading into the cabin. But the trapdoor was locked.
Fortunately, Alex was ready for this. When MI6 had sent him on his first mission, they had given him a number of gadgets-he couldn’t exactly call them weapons-to help him out of a tight spot. One of these was a tube marked zit- clean, for healthier skin. But the cream inside the tube did much more than clean up pimples. Although Alex had used most of it, he had managed to hold on to the last remnants and often carried the tube with him as a sort of souvenir. He had it in his pocket now. Holding on to the ladder with one hand, he took the tube out with the other. There was very little of the cream left, but Alex knew that a little was all he needed. He opened the tube, squeezed some of the cream onto the lock, and waited. There was a moment’s pause, then a hiss and a wisp of smoke. The cream was eating into the metal. The lock sprang open. Alex pushed back the trapdoor and climbed the last few rungs. He was in.