Authors: Chris Ryan
Meet the team:
lex - A quiet lad from Northumbria, Alex leads the team in survival skills. His dad is in the SAS and Alex is determined to follow in his footsteps, whatever it takes. He who dares . . .
i - Expert in martial arts and free-climbing, Li can get to grips with most situations . . .
aulo - The laid-back Argentinian is a mechanical genius, and with his medical skills he can patch up injuries as well as motors . . .
ex - An ace hacker, Hex is first rate at codebreaking and can bypass most security systems . . .
mber - Her top navigational skills mean the team are rarely lost. Rarely lost for words either, rich-girl Amber can show some serious attitude . . .
With plenty of hard work and training, together they are Alpha Force - an elite squad of young people dedicated to combating injustice throughout the world.
Alpha Force are in South America, on the trail of a dangerous drugs baron . . .
Also available in the Alpha Force series:
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Quito, the capital city of Ecuador . . .
The sleek, black 4x4 slipped into the Old Town area and prowled through the narrow, cobbled streets like a panther. The windows were fitted with mirrored glass to protect the driver from curious eyes, but no-one noticed the big car as it whispered past. It was Easter in Quito, which meant it was
time and, although it was after midnight, the streets were full of wet, happy people chucking water bombs at one another. A gang of young people overtook the slow-moving car, pausing only to check their brightly coloured masks and costumes in the mirrored glass before running on in pursuit of a rival gang. The driver barely glanced at them.
He had no interest in
He was out hunting.
A row of five high-powered halogen lamps were bracketed to the roof of the 4x4. The three central lamps faced forwards over the bonnet but the two end lamps were angled so that they pointed off to each side. The driver brought the car to a stop across the entrance to a dark alleyway. He opened a compartment in the dashboard and took out a dull, black, snub-nosed pistol with a silencer screwed onto the end of the barrel. Placing the pistol on the passenger seat beside him, he switched on the left side halogen lamp. Instantly, a powerful beam of light flooded into the alleyway and picked out a kissing couple. The startled pair sprang apart, turning their heads away from the blinding light and shielding their eyes with their hands. The driver studied the couple briefly, then turned his attention to the alleyway behind them. It was empty. The driver showed no impatience as he flicked off the halogen lamp and moved on. He was a patient hunter and he knew he would track down his prey before the night was over.
Twenty minutes later, as the driver edged his car out into a small, cobbled square, he found what he was looking for. The young
gang had finally cornered their rivals and a spectacular water fight was under way. A small crowd had gathered in the square to watch the fun and a thin, dark-haired boy of about thirteen was hovering at the back, directly behind a pair of American tourists. The boy was the only one not craning his neck to see the water fight.
The driver narrowed his eyes as he caught sight of the boy. He killed the 4x4's headlights and eased the big car back into the shadows. The boy edged closer to the American tourists, then glanced quickly from left to right to make sure no-one was watching him. As the boy turned his head, the driver saw the tell-tale red smears around his nose and mouth. It looked as though the boy had been helping himself to a pot of raspberry jam but the driver knew differently. The red marks were a rash caused by sniffing glue.
The driver's mouth tightened. The boy was definitely one of Quito's street kids. Street
he preferred to call them. There were thousands of them infesting his beautiful city, begging, stealing and making their filthy nests in back alleys. As far as he was concerned, they were vermin and every one he exterminated made the streets of Quito that little bit cleaner. They were street rats - and he was the Rat-catcher.
The boy stepped up behind one of the tourists and took out a razor blade. The tourist had left a fat wallet sticking out of the back pocket of his jeans. With an expert flick of his razor, the boy slit the pocket and let the wallet fall onto his outstretched hand. He made the wallet disappear into his jacket as he sauntered out of the square without looking back. The driver put his car into gear and followed the boy at a distance. When the boy turned down a relatively empty street, the driver flicked on the halogen lamps. The boy twisted round, his dark eyes wide in the glare of the lamps, and the driver smiled. The boy tripped, picked himself up, then set off at a stumbling run with the big car at his heels.
The hunt was on.
In another back alley in a quieter part of the Old Town Eliza was sitting on the wet cobbles with her back against a ventilator grille. Her little brother Toby was fast asleep beside her, curled up inside their father's woollen poncho. The alley was behind a restaurant and the grille was venting hot air from the kitchens. The warm breeze at her back eased her shivering, but the rich smells of cooking were making her stomach rumble. She yawned and looked across at her big brother Marco, who was building their shelter for the night.
'Nearly there,' said Marco, giving her a cheerful smile as he arranged the sheets of cardboard against the back wall of the restaurant, making a sloping roof over the floor of wooden pallets.
Eliza nodded, then yawned again. She pulled her legs up to her empty belly and rested her head on her knees for a moment. Her eyes began to close but she jerked herself awake. Her little brother Toby was only two, so it was all right for him to be asleep, but she was six and that was too old to be carried to bed. Eliza sat up straighter and waited for Marco to finish the shelter.
'You know,' said Marco, 'I think Oscar left this wood and cardboard out here on purpose, just for us. And he promised us a plateful of leftovers when the restaurant closes.'
'Because you cleaned his shoes for free until they shone like mirrors,' said Eliza.
'Only to repay his kindnesses,' said Marco. 'Anyway, that's not why Oscar helps us.'
'I think he helps us because he loves your beautiful smile, little Eliza.'
Eliza beamed. She liked Oscar too. He was the owner of the restaurant and he had been helping them out in little ways ever since their mother . . .
Eliza's smile fell away as she remembered. It was hard to believe that a few short months ago her family had celebrated Christmas together in their own house. So many bad things had happened to them since the New Year, when her father had gone up into the higher mountain passes to look for a lost ewe. He had not come home that night. The next day a search party discovered his dead body at the bottom of a ravine. Two weeks later the family had been forced to leave their small farm on the lower slopes of the Andes to make way for a new tenant.
Eliza's father was a gentle, intelligent, hardworking man who loved his family. He was also a Quechua Indian. Quechuas were an old race who had been natives of Ecuador long before the Spaniards invaded. In modern-day Ecuador they were often treated as second-class citizens. Eliza's mother came from a wealthy white family and they had disowned her when she married him. After he died, Eliza's mother had swallowed her pride and returned to Quito with her children to ask for help. Her family had refused to see them. The problem was that Eliza, Marco and Toby were
or mixed-race children. To make matters worse, while Toby had his mother's pale skin and fair hair, Eliza and Marco were both
meaning their skin was dark.
For three months their mother had struggled on, hoping the family would have a change of heart and help her and the children. They never did. Finally, worn out after months of struggling to get by, she had come down with severe food-poisoning and died overnight.
Eliza blinked fiercely in the dark alleyway, squashing away the tears that were trying to form in her eyes as she thought about her mother. She bent over her little brother, brushing his blond curls away from his face and tucking the poncho more firmly under his chin.
'Your room is ready now, madam,' said Marco, with an elaborate bow.
Eliza gave him a wobbly smile, then crawled inside the cardboard lean-to. Marco's precious shoe-shine kit, their only means of earning a living, was already in the shelter and Eliza settled down with her back resting against the wooden box.
'Comfy?' asked Marco.
Eliza nodded and held out her arms. Marco gently picked up Toby and handed him to her.
'Here, you can add these to the savings,' said Marco, handing over the coins they had earned from another long day on their shoe-shine corner. 'Soon we will have enough to rent a room,' he continued, as Eliza tucked the coins into the drawstring purse tied around her neck. 'In the meantime, at least we are together. We will be fine here.'
'Are you sure?' whispered Eliza.
Marco reached out, lifted Eliza's chin and looked into her eyes. 'Yes,' he said firmly. 'I can look after you. I am thirteen now. Nearly a man. You will be safe with me, Eliza. I promise.'
Eliza stared into Marco's warm brown eyes and suddenly the flimsy cardboard shelter felt as safe as a fortress. Her beaming smile returned and Marco grinned back at her.
Then the silence was disturbed by stumbling footsteps at the other end of the alleyway.
'Quiet as a mouse!' warned Marco, before hastily pulling a sheet of cardboard over the entrance to the lean-to. Through a narrow gap in the cardboard sheets, Eliza saw Marco check the shelter briefly, then give a nod of satisfaction. With the doorway covered, it looked to be nothing more than a stack of cardboard waiting for the refuse-collectors.
The footsteps were getting closer. Marco turned and stood with his feet apart and his fists clenched, ready to defend his family. As she stared through the gap in the cardboard walls, Eliza felt her spine stiffen with anxiety. Then a figure stumbled into the dim pool of light coming from the restaurant kitchens. Eliza relaxed. It was only another boy, the same age and height as Marco. He was thin and dirty, with a red, glue-sniffer's rash around his mouth, and he looked exhausted.
'Are you all right?' asked Marco.
The boy ignored him. Instead, he looked around the alleyway and groaned when he realized it was a dead end. He glanced back over his shoulder, then fumbled an expensive-looking leather wallet out of his jacket. He pulled out a wad of notes, threw the wallet to the ground and stuffed the money into his trouser pocket.
'Did you steal that?' asked Marco. 'You shouldn't steal.'
The boy gave a gasping laugh, then checked the dark entrance to the alleyway again. 'You haven't been on the streets long, have you?'
'A few weeks,' said Marco. 'My name is Marco.'
'Leopoldo,' grunted the boy. 'But everyone calls me Leo. Listen, Marco, perhaps we can help one another out.'
'How?' asked Marco.
'Have you heard of the Rat-catcher?' said Leo.
Eliza shuddered in the lean-to. Everyone knew about the man in the black car who hunted them down like rats. He was an evil legend amongst the street kids. Nobody knew what he looked like - and nobody wanted to. If you saw his face, you were as good as dead.
'I've heard of him,' said Marco.
'Yeah, well, he's after me,' said Leo.
'What! Right now?' asked Marco.
'He's clever,' said Leo. 'I've only just realized what he's been doing. I thought I was getting away from him, but he's been herding me. Edging me here, into the quiet part of town.'
Leo shivered and looked over his shoulder again as he remembered how he had run through the grids of narrow streets, twisting and turning to get away from the big car. Every time he had stopped to catch his breath, the black bonnet had nosed into view at the top of the street and the halogen lamps had picked him out of the darkness once more.
'Perhaps you've lost him now,' said Marco.
As though in answer, they all heard the growing hum of engine noise as the big car idled into the street at the end of the alleyway. In the shelter, Eliza clutched the sleeping Toby more tightly and bit her lip to stop herself from crying out.
'So,' said Leo hastily, glancing at the high wall to his left, then back to Marco, 'if you help me out now, I'll help you out later. I'll show you how to survive on the streets. Teach you some of the rules. Deal?'
There was no time for hesitation. The darkness at the entrance to the alleyway was growing paler by the second. Marco turned his back on Leo as though he was thinking. He looked straight at the shelter and put a finger to his lips. Eliza understood that he was telling her to stay still and quiet. It was their only chance.
'Deal,' said Marco, turning back to Leo.
Leo smiled. 'OK. You help me onto the top of that wall, then I'll pull you up after me. That way we can both get out of here.'
Marco nodded, then ran to the wall and braced himself against it, making a human ladder for Leo to climb. Leo reached the top of the wall just as the big car turned the corner into the alleyway. Suddenly the whole area was lit up as bright as day. The car moved slowly closer as Marco held his hand up to Leo, waiting for him to grasp it.
Leo hesitated, then looked down at Marco. 'Street rule number one,' he said. 'Trust no-one.'
'Wait!' said Marco, but Leo had already disappeared. Marco tried to scrabble his way up the smooth, whitewashed stone, but the wall was too high. He dropped to the ground again and stood with his back against the wall as a car door slammed shut and the Rat-catcher stepped in front of the 4x4. The blinding light of the lamps turned him into a black silhouette.
'It wasn't me,' said Marco, shielding his eyes against the glare as the man kicked the discarded wallet across the cobblestones towards him.
'Doesn't matter,' said the Rat-catcher. 'You're all the same. Thieving little rats. You'll do.'
He brought his hand up and levelled the pistol at Marco. In the lean-to, Eliza felt her breath stop in her throat. She closed her eyes and clamped a hand over her mouth as she heard Marco give a scared, hopeless whimper. There was one muffled crack, then a dull thud as her brother's body fell to the cobbles.
Eliza opened her eyes again and saw that the whitewashed wall was splashed with glistening red blood. She sat in the little shelter, frozen with shock as the Rat-catcher grabbed Marco by his ankles and dragged him towards the boot of the car. A noise from the kitchens made the man turn and Eliza saw the face of the Rat-catcher for the first time. She stared at him until every detail was etched into her memory.
The Rat-catcher returned to the task of dragging Marco to the boot of his car. As her brother's body began to disappear into the darkness behind the halogen lamps, Eliza made herself take one last look at his face. His head was tilted back and his brown eyes were open in a wide, blank stare. A few moments ago those eyes had been full of warmth as Marco smiled at her. Now all the warmth was gone.