Read CHERUB: The Sleepwalker Online
Authors: Robert Muchamore
‘New mission nerves,’ Lauren explained.
Mac nodded and glanced at his watch. ‘Pretty standard, I think.’
‘I’m always fine once the mission starts and you know what you’re getting into,’ Lauren said. ‘It’s fear of the unknown, I guess.’
‘How about you, Jake?’ Mac asked. ‘You holding up OK?’
Jake sat at the kitchen table wolfing down his food, dressed only in the football shorts and grubby white socks he’d worn the day before. He was small for his eleven years, with spiky black hair, big brown eyes and a boyishly cute face.
‘I never get nerves,’ Jake said, his cheeks bulging with bacon and toast. ‘I’ve been trained. I know what I’m doing – more or less.’
Lauren gritted her teeth. Jake was so full of himself it made her want to scream.
‘You should take it more seriously, Jake,’ she warned. ‘If training goes wrong, you might break a few bones or have to repeat the exercise. If you mess up on a mission you, me and possibly lots of other people could end up dead.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jake said dismissively. ‘I’ve been hearing the same lecture since I was five years old. I’m not stupid, you know? I just can’t see the point in worrying about stuff you can’t control.’ Then he looked over at Mac. ‘Here, Doc, your scrambled eggs are way better than the ones on campus. You got any more going spare?’
Lauren groaned to herself as she headed down the hallway to put on her school uniform. It would be a miracle if she got through the mission without giving in to the urge to crack Jake around the back of the head.
Fahim couldn’t get into Burleigh Arts and Media where his friend Louis went because the school had a waiting list. Instead, he had to get a bus to the opposite end of the borough and attend Camden Central. It was the kind of inner-city school that sends shivers down the backs of posh parents.
Fahim hated it but didn’t dare complain. He suspected his father still wanted to send him off to be educated in Abu Dhabi and he didn’t want to provide any excuses.
There were a few kids in Fahim’s class who were OK, but lonely Year Sevens had a rough time in the public spaces. The five-minute walk from the bus stop to his form room was always precarious, and he’d evolved a strategy to minimise the risk. He walked fast, keeping his hands in his blazer and his face aimed straight ahead.
Lauren and Jake had got an early bus to make sure that they spotted Fahim as he left his bus.
‘Looks chunkier than in that picture from his old school,’ Jake noted, as they got off the bench under the bus stop and began following a few paces behind. Their job was easy because the streets were full of kids in black uniforms and blue ties identical to their own.
‘He looks depressed,’ Lauren said. ‘Definitely a fish out of water.’
miserable. His father kept inventing reasons why he couldn’t speak to his mum and why she wasn’t coming back, but Fahim was certain it was all lies. Hassam claimed to have spoken to Yasmin on her mobile, but Fahim knew the phone sat in her dressing-room with a flat battery.
At first Hassam said Fahim couldn’t talk to his mum because she was in the countryside and the reception was bad. A week later he claimed that Yasmin had rushed off to Dubai to look after a sick relative. But Fahim knew the code to his father’s safe and he’d snuck inside while he was at a meeting and found all of the family passports inside.
Fahim had no friends at his new school and he shut down all thoughts about his mother because they made him want to cry. In his darkest moments, Fahim had considered killing himself. He’d also thought about killing his father or going to the police, but he was scared of the consequences.
With his mother out of the picture and his father locked up, he’d end up being adopted by his grandfather or his uncle Asif. Either option was a one-way ticket to the kind of ultra-strict upbringing endured by his cousins.
‘What a tub of lard,’ Jake said, grinning at Lauren as Fahim emerged from a newsagent with a Snickers bar and a packet of Skittles.
‘Will you shut up for two seconds?’ Lauren said irritably.
Jake smiled. ‘Sorry, you’re sensitive about that, aren’t you? Bethany told me that your mum was a fatty.’
Lauren gritted her teeth. ‘Jake, if you want to keep your teeth within the vicinity of your head, I’d suggest you don’t talk about my mum like that.’
‘Sorry,’ Jake said, with an obvious lack of sincerity. ‘Don’t overreact, will you?’
By this time they’d reached the school gates. In 2003 Camden Central had opened its doors to both sexes in a desperate bid to attract more pupils, but there were still five boys for every girl. Apart from a few kids who hadn’t got into their first-choice schools, everyone came from sink housing estates nearby. Most faces were black or Asian and Lauren felt uneasy. White girls were a novelty and she could feel boys eyeing her up from all directions.
‘Bend over and show me some of that arse,’ a Year Eleven shouted, as one of his mates blew kisses and another grabbed his crotch and thrust his hips at her.
Lauren felt her cheeks burn and consoled herself with the thought that her combat skills would shatter their oversized egos if they tried anything more than verbals. But she regretted being proud of her legs and picking the shortest skirt she could find from the uniform storeroom on campus.
‘Where are you going?’ Jake said, grabbing Lauren’s blazer as they went up four steps and passed through the school entrance.
She’d been flustered by the boys and hadn’t noticed Fahim taking a right turn. The narrow corridor echoed with raucous lads and a kid screamed as a football blasted against a door centimetres from his head.
‘So close,’ someone shouted. ‘You’re lucky.’
‘Fahim,’ a muscular Asian boy called Alom shouted.
Alom’s mates chanted, ‘Fahim, Fahim, Fahim,’ as Fahim got grabbed by his collar and bundled against the wall. They were all in Year Nine and Fahim had the dejected look of someone who knew he was beat.
‘Skittles,’ Alom said happily, as he extracted the red packet from Fahim’s blazer.
He ripped them open, tipped back his head and poured them decadently into his mouth. About half of the Skittles made it between Alom’s lips; the remainder bounced off his face and clattered down to the tiled floor. Lauren and Jake stopped walking and leaned against the wall like they were waiting for class.
‘Faaaahim!’ another bully shouted, as he jabbed Fahim in the ribs.
‘Here’s the …’ Alom said, as he struggled with a mouth crammed with Skittles. ‘The thing is, Fahim, I seem to have lost my appetite.’
He gobbed the multicoloured clump of chewed-up Skittles into his hand and broke into an evil smile.
‘I tell you what Fahim, why don’t
Fahim looked desperately up and down the corridor, hoping for a teacher to save his butt.
‘I insist,’ Alom grinned. ‘Eat them up or I’ll be seeing you again outside school.’
A tense crowd had gathered around Fahim, including a few of his fellow Year Sevens. Jake reared forward, but Lauren pulled him back.
‘If we save him now he’ll owe us big,’ Jake said.
‘Use your brain,’ Lauren said. ‘There’ll be a riot if you start on that lot. At best we’ll get busted for fighting, at worst one of those nuts will pull a knife out of his jacket and stick it in your back.’
The crowd had started to chant ‘Eat, eat, eat …’ and Fahim looked close to tears.
‘I’ll batter you, Fahim,’ Alom threatened.
The rest of his gang closed in so that Fahim could smell their breath. Everyone quietened down as Fahim took the blob of spit-soaked Skittles from Alom’s beefy hand. He opened his mouth and raised it to his lips.
‘Chomp it down, fat boy.’
As the blob was almost entering his mouth, Fahim thrust his palm forward and screamed out: ‘Bollocks.’
The Year Nine backed up, but Fahim got Alom in the chin with the blob, then mashed it down the front of his shirt, leaving a multicoloured trail. Everyone was stunned by this turn of events and Fahim used his bulk to surge forward. He shoved desperately through the crowd as it let out a collective gasp.
‘Crazy dog,’ Lauren grinned.
But the Year Nines weren’t so happy. ‘You can run, fat boy,’ Alom shouted, as he stared aghast at his stained shirt. ‘But when I catch you you’re
Some of the Year-Seven kids started laughing. Lauren glowered at a Year Eleven who said, ‘Hey baby,’ as he brushed past. Then Alom completely lost it. He started lashing out and going psycho.
‘What are you all staring at? Get out of my face, you Year-Seven dicks, or I’ll mash you up.’
Then he turned and saw that some of his own mates were laughing.
‘What’s your problem?’ Alom shouted. ‘Why’d you let him run off?’
The gang all shrugged and mumbled stuff about being taken by surprise.
Lauren looked at her watch, then down at Jake. ‘Go to your classroom and try being nice to Fahim,’ she whispered. ‘My form room is up on the next floor, but I’ve got my phone if you need me.’
‘Cool,’ Jake smiled. ‘Fahim might be a fat arse, but you’ve got to admire his balls.’
James felt depressed as he started his second day at Deluxe Chicken. Kerry had come to work in ripped jeans and the mud-encrusted Nikes she used for running on campus. She deliberately broke the rules by leaving her Deluxe Chicken shirt unbuttoned so that you could see one of Bruce’s T-shirts with the gory poster from a martial arts movie on it.
She was clearly looking for an excuse for a row with the manager, but Gabriel cowered in his tiny office pretending to be busy.
This left Gemma in charge of the staff, which consisted of James, Kerry and a friendly old dude called Harold who worked three days a week to supplement his pension. A couple more would come in at lunchtime to deal with the busy period.
‘Gabriel’s scared of you, Kerry,’ Gemma said happily as the four staff members stood around the kitchen, leaning against the equipment. ‘He knows if you report him for what he did, he might get fired, and even if they couldn’t make it stick he’d never get promoted.’
Kerry had her bum on the service counter – another breach of the rules. ‘He’d better be scared of me,’ she grinned. ‘If he ever touches me again, I won’t bop his head against the microwave, I’ll stick it inside and give him eight hundred watts.’
James was smiling his head off. ‘I
this,’ he said. ‘You guys don’t know Kerry, but she’s always a good girl. This is totally unlike her. It’s like that episode of
where Lisa goes bad and starts smoking and tells Miss Hoover to shove it.’
perfect, James,’ Kerry protested. ‘The way you carry on sometimes, you’d think I didn’t even fart.’
James wanted to joust some more, but he couldn’t take the argument with Kerry any further without using examples of stuff that had happened on campus and he couldn’t do that while Gemma and Harold were around.
James noticed that his ex had been a lot chattier on the bus that morning and with her boyfriend Bruce away on a mission and her best friend Gabrielle spending most of her time with her boyfriend Michael, he suspected Kerry was lonely. She might even be up for an illicit snog if he tried his luck …
But a warning claxon went off in James’ head the instant he thought this. There were lots of good reasons why he shouldn’t try getting off with Kerry again: when they were together their relationship always lurched from one train wreck to the next, he now had a completely cool relationship with Dana and Kerry was now Bruce Norris’ girlfriend. Not only was Bruce one of James’ best friends, he was a martial arts expert who would shatter the spine of anyone who touched his girl while he was away on a mission.
Against all this solid reasoning was one undeniable fact: there had been chemistry between James and Kerry since the first day they met. James loved Dana, but that did nothing to alter the tingle down his back every time Kerry smiled in the way he liked, or got her pouty look when things didn’t go her way. He could never put his finger on exactly what it was Kerry had, but she had it in spades.
Growing up on CHERUB campus, Jake knew that you got thirty laps for late homework, washing-up duty for back-chatting a teacher and punishments you didn’t even want to think about if you were caught doing something more serious. But he’d never been inside a London comprehensive and it was a big shock.
Kids sat on the desks and carried on talking when the teacher told his class to sit down for morning registration. People belched out loud and lobbed litter out of the windows. When they got to first lesson, Jake sat near Fahim but didn’t start talking because he’d been trained not to act pushy.
It took the teacher ten minutes to get the class to settle down, then another ten taking a register and listening to excuses as to why nobody had done their homework. When he got around to handing out exercise books and a worksheet, half the kids either didn’t have pens or claimed not to have pens, and then a bunch of nutters started swinging from the curtains at the back of the room, at which point the teacher went red and started screaming.
Twenty minutes into the lesson, Jake realised that he’d left his timetable in the form room and had no clue what subject was being taught. Then a bunch of Year-Ten girls started battering someone in the corridor outside and Jake’s class threw stuff around and went mental while the teacher stepped out to deal with the girls.
‘It’s a lunatic asylum,’ Jake told Lauren, when he met up with her in the main lobby at morning break. ‘How the hell can anyone be expected to learn anything?’
Lauren laughed as she offered Jake half of her Twix bar. ‘Nobody does learn anything. This school has the worst exam results in the borough and almost the worst in the country.’
Jake grinned guiltily. ‘It’s kind of fun, actually.’
‘Yeah, Jake. Unless you’re like the boy in my class who turned up to second period practically crying ’cos two hard cases kicked him in the nuts and pissed on his bag.’
‘No way,’ Jake gasped.
‘Yes way,’ Lauren said. ‘Remember, the kids in your class have just moved from primary school. They’re angelic compared to my lot.’