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Alex Rider lay on his back, drying out in the midday sun.
He could feel the salt water from his last swim trickling through his hair and evaporating off his chest. His shorts, still wet, clung to him. He was, at that moment, as happy as it is possible to be; one week into a vacation that had been perfect from the moment the plane had touched down in Montpellier and he had stepped out into the brilliance of his first Mediterranean day. He loved the South of France-the intense colors, the smells, the pace of life that hung on to every minute and refused to let go. He hadn’t any idea what time it was, except that he was getting hungry and guessed it must soon be time for lunch. There was a brief burst of music as a girl with a radio walked past, and Alex turned his head to follow her. And that was when the sun went in, the sea froze, and the whole world seemed to catch its breath.
He wasn’t looking at the girl with the radio. He was looking past her, down to the seawall that divided the beach from the jetty, where a yacht was just pulling in. The yacht was enormous, almost the size of one of the passenger boats that carried tourists up and down the coast. But no tourists would ever set foot on this craft. It was completely uninviting, cruising silently through the water, with tinted glass in the windows and a massive bow that rose up like a solid white wall. A man stood at the very front, staring straight ahead, his face blank. It was a face that Alex recognized instantly.
Alex sat perfectly still, supporting himself on one arm, his hand half buried in the sand. As he watched, a man in his twenties appeared from the cabin and busied himself mooring the boat. He was short and apelike, wearing a T-shirt that showed off the tattoos that completely covered his arms and shoulders. A deckhand? Yassen made no offer to help him with his work. A third man hurried along the jetty to greet the yacht. He was fat and bald, dressed in a cheap white suit. The top of his head had been burned by the sun and the skin had turned an ugly, cancerous red. Yassen saw the man and climbed down, moving like spilled oil. He was wearing blue jeans and a white shirt open at the neck. Other men might have had to struggle to keep their balance walking down the swaying gangplank, but he didn’t even hesitate. There was something inhuman about him. With his close-cropped hair, hard blue eyes, and pale, expressionless face, he was obviously no vacationer. But only Alex knew the truth about him. Yassen Gregorovich was a contract killer, the man who had murdered Alex’s uncle and forever changed his life. He was wanted all over the world.