Sample chapters ©Robert Muchamore.
Published by Hodder Children’s books October 2007
Even by aircraft standards the toilet inside a C5 transport plane is cramped. James Adams had a shoulder touching the plastic wall on either side of him as he leaned over the steel bowl, looking at flecks of his lunch in the disinfectant blue water.
His girlfriend Dana Smith yelled from outside. ‘Are you OK?'
James had pressed the flush and didn't hear her voice over the roaring turboprop engines as his puke got sucked away. He stood up and turned to face himself in the mirror. He'd spent the last eight days camped out in the Malaysian jungle and despite regular applications of sun block, his skin was peeling.
‘James,' Dana repeated, this time banging the door to make sure she got his attention.
‘I'll be out in a sec.'
There were no paper cups in the dispenser, so James washed the bitter taste from his mouth by dribbling water into the palm of his hand and sucking it dry.
‘Did I just hear you throwing up?'
He gargled and spat out the water before answering. ‘Must have been those nasty hotdogs we had at lunchtime…'
But it had nothing to do with lunch and Dana knew it. ‘You'll do OK, James,' she said soothingly.
James dried his hands by wiping them on his camouflage trousers and had to duck under the door frame as he stepped out into the cavernous interior of the aircraft. His hands were trembling and he couldn't help thinking he'd be visiting the toilet again soon.
‘I never realised you were scared of heights,' Dana grinned, as she put a grubby hand on the back of his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
‘I'm not,' James said defensively. ‘Heights I can handle, but jumping out of an aeroplane is slightly different.'
‘I'm surprised you've been a cherub for so long without doing a jump. I did one in basic training. Come to think of it I did a couple before then; when I was a red shirt.'
‘I don't think I can do this,' James said warily, as they set off on an unsteady walk through the giant cargo bay. The turbulence did his stomach no favours as they clanked across the corrugated metal floor, heading away from the cockpit.
The Hercules C5 is a dual role aircraft. For cargo operations the interior can be loaded with anything from United Nations food parcels to Challenger tanks. When the Parachute Regiment comes to town, rows of seats are bolted to the floor and the side doors can deploy a company of paratroops in ninety seconds.
This mission wouldn't stretch the aircraft's capacity: only twelve bodies would make the jump. Eight were ten-to-twelve-year-olds nearing the end of CHERUB's hundred-day basic training course. James and Dana were senior CHERUB agents and the final jumpers were adult instructors.
Mr Pike was the head training instructor. He was tough but fair and James respected him a great deal. He wasn't so sure about Mr Kazakov who'd been appointed less than a month earlier. He was a bully who James had got to know rather too well after sharing his tent for the past seven nights.
Like all CHERUB instructors, Kazakov was physically imposing. He was Ukrainian by birth with a dusting of cropped grey hair and a facial scar worthy of an action figure. After serving with the Spetznatz – the Russian special forces – and seeing combat during the invasion of Afghanistan, Kazakov had spent ten years training SAS soldiers in guerrilla combat techniques, before making the move to CHERUB.
‘What are you lovebirds playing at?' Mr Pike roared, giving James and Dana the evil eye as he pointed at the drop clock. This bright LED display hung over the door at one side of the aircraft and indicated that there were only 186 seconds until they were over the landing zone.
‘He's crapping himself,' Dana explained.
Mr Pike shook his head. ‘I can't believe you've never made a drop.'
‘Don't you start…' James said, feeling even more anxious as he realised that trainees half his size already had parachutes on their backs and equipment packs strapped to their chests. Some of them were so small that they could barely see over the bed rolls on top of their packs.
Mr Kazakov was inspecting each trainee in turn, checking helmets tightening harnesses and screaming abuse when they got something wrong. Right now he was dealing with ten-year-old Kevin Sumner. Ironically, James had helped Kevin get over his fear of heights a few months earlier.
‘What's this, Sumner?' Kazakov spat, as he noticed a metal spork bulging through the fabric of the pack strapped to Kevin's chest. Kazakov hurriedly unbuckled the pack, ripped out the metal object and wagged it in the boy's face. ‘I told you to wrap sharp items inside something soft. Do you want to land on that? Do you want to find yourself with a spork sticking out of your chest on an island beach an hour's boat ride from the nearest emergency room?'
James hooked his parachute over his back as Kevin said, ‘No sir,' guiltily.
‘No time to repack,' Kazakov yelled, before sending the spork clattering across the aircraft and launching a volley of Russian swear words. ‘You're not getting that back. You'll remember your lesson every time you have to eat with your fingers.'
Unlike the trainees, James didn't have equipment to contend with because the instructors' stuff was being delivered by boat.
‘A hundred and twenty seconds,' Mr Pike shouted. ‘Start hooking up, people.'
As Dana whispered something in Mr Pike's ear, the eight trainees formed a line and began clipping hooks – known as strops - between the back of their parachutes and a taut metal cable above their heads. The youngsters would be making a static line jump, meaning that a pull on the strop would open their chutes automatically once they were clear of the aircraft.
As the countdown dropped below 100 seconds, Mr Kazakov and Dana both started walking towards James, who'd strapped on his helmet, but was still struggling to fit his parachute harness.
‘Come on,' Kazakov said, showering James with spit. ‘You're useless; you're supposed to be helping out with the little ones.'
Kazakov grabbed the harness of James' parachute and yanked the straps so tightly that his shoulders squeezed together. His stomach churned as the giant Russian eyeballed him.
‘I can't do this,' James said weakly. ‘I've psyched myself out.'
Dana interrupted. ‘Mr Kazakov, I spoke to Pike about James and he's changed the drop order. I'll jump last and James second to last so that I can give him some encouragement if his nerves get to him.'
Kazakov glowered at James. ‘I don't share my tent with cowards. You make that jump or tonight you sleep outside with the spiders and snakes.'
‘I'm not a trainee you know,' James said indignantly. ‘You can't boss me around.'
‘You're jumping sixth now,' Dana said, diplomatically pointing Kazakov towards the trainees by the door. ‘I'll sort James out. You'd better go hook up.'
A warning buzzer sounded as Mr Pike began opening the aircraft door, flooding the gloomy metal tube with sunlight. The numbers on the clock began to flash as the count dropped below sixty seconds.
‘I feel like such a dick,' James confessed, as he looked across at the trainees. ‘Some of them are ten years old.'
‘Focus,' Dana said firmly as their gloved fingers interlocked. ‘You've been trained for this. Now take deep breaths and stay calm.'
‘Hook up, you two,' Mr Pike shouted, from beside the door. ‘Eighteen seconds.'
James fought a spasm in his gut as Dana dragged him towards the trainees lined up against the fuselage. None of them looked happy, but none had worked themselves into as much of a state as James.
‘Good luck, kids,' Kazakov shouted. ‘Remember: three elephants, check canopy and steer gently if you drift close to another jumper.'
James and Dana hooked their strops on to the cable, as an announcement loud enough to be heard in a war zone blasted out of a speaker beside them.
‘This is the co-pilot speaking. Navigation confirms we are in location. Winds are nine knots north easterly, giving us a drop zone window of fifty-eight seconds on my mark.'
James looked over the helmets of the trainees as the countdown clock flashed triple zero. There was an eleven-year-old boy less than twenty centimetres ahead and Dana right behind with a reassuring glove on his shoulder, but he felt isolated.
Part of him wanted to fling the chute off his back and go spew in the toilet, while another was acutely aware of how much abuse he'd get back on campus if he did. And if he could master his nerves, he'd be down in under two minutes.
‘Mark,' the co-pilot announced.
The drop clock changed from red to green as Mr Pike began yelling, ‘Go, go, go.'
To ensure that as many people as possible made the drop smoothly, the most confident trainees – mainly ones who'd jumped when they were red shirts – were lined up first. As soon as the first trainee was out the next had to stand with their toes overhanging the door. After waiting in a crouching position for the two seconds it took the previous jumper to clear the aircraft, it was their turn to leap clear.
The gap of less than four seconds between jumps turned the queue into a slow walk. Every time someone lined up in the doorway, James hoped they'd mess up so that they'd be out of the drop zone before his turn came around. But each trainee had invested ninety-six gruelling days into qualifying as a CHERUB agent. Bruised, hungry and exhausted, they'd put in too much to let fear get the better of them.
So James found himself in the doorway, buffeted by freezing air and sunlight with his strop hooked to the cable above his head. With the drop zone closing in 22 seconds, he crouched and felt extremely dizzy as he looked down. They were below cloud cover and the orange chute of the previous jumper was unravelling, high above seven kilometres of golden sand.
‘Move your arse, James,' Mr Pike yelled impatiently. ‘Seventeen seconds. Go!'
He was locked to the spot. He felt like he was going to shit and puke at the same time and made a lunge for the handle on the side of the door. But before he got a grip, Dana batted his hand away and slammed her palm into the back of his chute, tipping him forward.
‘Chicken,' she sneered, exchanging smiles with Mr Pike as she took James' place in the doorway.
James found himself falling face first towards the beach. The reality of this was more than his brain could comprehend. His trousers billowed, air tore beneath his helmet, making his chin strap dig into his neck. It was awful and wonderful. Out of every moment of James' life freefalling 500 metres above ground was the wildest.
The shock of being pushed meant that he'd forgotten to count three elephants, but the jump training he'd received the previous day kicked in when he felt a tiny jolt as the line connecting him to the aircraft went taut and ripped open his chute before snapping away.
‘Check canopy,' James shouted.
His first upward glance only earned him a face full of sunlight, but two seconds later the sun was filtered through a billowing mushroom of orange nylon. If it hadn't opened he would have had less than five seconds to deploy his reserve chute, but it seemed OK so he followed his training and shouted the next order.
The brilliant sunshine turned the beach below into white glare, but he looked down and was reassured to see the previous jumper hundreds of metres away. You couldn't look up through the canopy, so the rule was that you only worried about people below you.
‘Check drift,' James gasped, before looking down and realising that the ground was approaching rapidly.
The weather was calm and the landing zone huge so he didn't have to open his lift webs to correct his path. This was a huge relief, because you can't get a feel for steering a parachute while standing on the ground and the most common cause of accidents for inexperienced jumpers is steering too violently before touchdown.
The final part of jump training had involved the landing: you're supposed to know which way the wind is blowing and get your feet in a safe position. If you get this wrong, you'll find yourself falling one way while the wind tugs your chute in another. Instead of crumpling, your body gets twisted in all directions.
So James was alarmed when he looked down and saw a crab the size of a dinner plate coming into focus. His mind was blank: he couldn't remember which way the wind was blowing, or even which way he was pointing.
All he could do was crumple and hope for the best.
In the summer of 2004 a CHERUB mission was instrumental in bringing down the cocaine baron Keith Moore and his gang, known as KMG. For many years KMG imposed a kind of order on criminal activities over an area that stretched from the northern suburbs of London to Oxfordshire.
Although KMG only sold cocaine, the cash generated by this business enabled associates to diversify into other criminal activities, ranging from illegal raves to armed robbery. When more than a dozen of KMG's most senior figures were imprisoned, it created a power vacuum that gave rise to a bloody gang war.
There are at least five significant gangs operating in the territory once dominated by KMG. No single gang controls a significant area, but the most fearsome reputation belongs to the Luton based Slasher Boys (so named because of their reputation for attacking enemies with machetes). The gang is believed to have approximately eighty members.
Slasher Boys are almost exclusively of Jamaican origin and the leaders are believed to be closely connected with Jamaican gangs who use their island as a stop off point for illegal drugs travelling from South America…
…The mission to infiltrate and undermine the Slasher Boys will require two CHERUB agents of Afro-Caribbean appearance and has been categorised as HIGH risk…
Excerpts from a mission briefing for Gabrielle O'Brien and Michael Hendry, January 2007.
The Bedfordshire Halfway House was a residential home close to the centre of Luton, but everyone called it The Zoo. Built in the 1980s, it had been grafittied and trashed by several generations of freshly released young offenders and youths too troubled for foster homes.
To say that The Zoo had a bit of a reputation was like saying that getting run over by an eighteen wheeled truck would give you a bit of a headache. It had seen every scandal going, from teen pregnancy, to kids stabbing each other in the showers and two drunk girls almost killing a cyclist by lobbing a roof slate on to his head.
The Zoo knocked fifty-thousand off the value of every house in the neighbourhood and the only reason it hadn't been shut down was the tide of objections that arose every time the council found a piece of land on which to build its replacement.
But despite two months living in The Zoo with a mattress that stank of god knows what and kids running riot 24/7, Gabrielle was happy. She'd turned fifteen at Christmas and fallen in love before new year.
Michael Hendry was a navy shirt CHERUB and Gabrielle's first proper boyfriend. They'd been going out for six months. At first it was kind of mechanical: going bowling, going cinema, going shopping and snogging in Michael's room afterwards. That's what Kerry and Gabrielle's other mates did with their boyfriends and she'd only joined them out of curiosity and the desire to fit in.
But it got more intense and they'd become one of the closest couples on CHERUB campus. Their friends felt excluded, but the young lovers didn't care and the isolation of being on mission together stoked things even further.
It was a Thursday, just gone ten. Most of the kids in The Zoo were supposed to be at school, but teachers are happy for kids like this to stay away and at least half of the dozen bedrooms on the third floor had someone who was suspended, excluded, or just couldn't be arsed to get out bed.
Gabrielle's roommate Tisha was one of the few Zoo residents who did pack books into a bag and head for school. This suited Gabrielle, because it meant Michael could come up from the boys' floor and spend a couple of hours snuggled beneath her mauve duvet.
‘Don't answer,' Michael begged, when Gabrielle's phone started ringing.
But she reached out blindly and grabbed her mobile from the vinyl floor. She expected it to be her mission controller, Chloe Blake, but was surprised by the name flashing on the display.
‘It's Major Dee.'
Michael's dark torso was glazed with sweat as he sat up sharply. ‘I've never known him bat an eyelid this side of lunchtime.'
‘Major,' Gabrielle said, troweling on her Jamaican twang. She'd become self conscious and toned down her accent after joining CHERUB, but roots in the Caribbean were a big help on this mission and she'd found her old voice with surprising ease.
‘Morning, sweet pea,' Major Dee said. ‘Tell me what clothes you're wearing. What colour are your panties?'
Major Dee was the leader of the Slasher Boys; a big man with a line of gold teeth and a vicious reputation. In Dee's eyes, women stayed home to make food and babies. Gabrielle had to work ten times harder than Michael to prove herself and even now, Dee treated her with a lack of respect that would have earned any boy on CHERUB campus a mouthful of blood.
‘My panties are my business,' Gabrielle said, making out like she thought his cheek was funny. ‘If you're ringing me this early it had better be some way to make bread.'
‘I'll give you half a loaf,' the major said, which was his way of saying fifty pounds. ‘Is Michael there?'
‘In the flesh,' Gabrielle nodded.
‘I've got a man who wants to buy a K bag. I want you two to dig one up in the park and bring it over.'
‘You're at home?'
‘I'm home, but your man will be in the Green Pepper.'
Gabrielle was surprised by this instruction. The Green Pepper café was a hangout for dealers that frequently came under police surveillance. Small quantities of cocaine and marijuana got passed under tables, but high ups like Major Dee only went there to talk trash and eat the best Jamaican food in Luton.
‘You want me to take a kilo bag into the Green Pepper? Are you on a trip?'
Gabrielle heard Dee tut, then his temper snapped. ‘Listen, dumb girl. You're always around trying to act like you're something and saying you want to make money. I don't want a hundred questions. You do this for me or I hang up and don't you bother showing your face no more.'
‘OK, I'll pick it up,' Gabrielle said. ‘I'm just saying that it's rank.'
‘I know it's dodgy. That's why I want a girl for this. The cops ain't got two brain cells to rub; they'll think you're somebody's bitch.'
‘What's the guy look like?'
Gabrielle groaned; Dee was high for sure. ‘The guy I'm meeting. Unless you want me to hand a big bag of cocaine to the first random soul that comes my way.'
Major Dee didn't sound sure. ‘Just get the bag to the Green Pepper. Someone will be expecting you.'
The call went dead and Gabrielle looked around at Michael.
‘Pickup?' Michael asked.
Gabrielle nodded. ‘But it's weird. He wants me to go into the Green Pepper with a whole K of coke.'
‘Did you tell him that's insane?'
‘He reckons the police won't suss me because I'm a girl… I mean, I know the police aren't genius IQ, but I think they can get their heads around the idea of a female drug dealer.'
‘He's probably mashed,' Michael reasoned. ‘Knowing Dee he's smoked about twenty joints and hasn't even been to bed yet.'
‘If I get arrested it'll wreck the mission.'
Michael thought as Gabrielle pulled a t-shirt over her head. ‘Here's what we do, Gab: we grab the coke from the park, but once you've got it you give Major Dee a call and say that there's a cop car circling around the Green Pepper and that you'll have to meet the dealer somewhere else. He won't want to risk losing a whole kilo of cocaine, no matter how stoned he is.'
‘Sounds like a plan,' Gabrielle nodded, as she kissed Michael's shoulder and nuzzled his neck. ‘But I don't like this one little bit.'
Mad Dogs will be released in October 2007.
And keep your eye out for CHERUB: The Sleepwalker and a World Book Day special both arriving March 2008!