Authors: Robert Muchamore
‘You’re screwed,’ James grinned. ‘We don’t have to be at Deluxe Chicken till half-ten, but I’m not even gonna bust a gut to get there that early. It’s not like they’re paying us.’
Kerry giggled. ‘We’re gonna feel like absolute shit.’
‘Language, Kerry,’ Dana smiled.
Kerry slammed her hands on the table top. ‘You all make out like I’m such a princess,’ she slurred. ‘But I’m totally not.’
James found this hilarious. ‘When Gabriel touched your butt it’s like he opened a door into this whole new Kerry.’
‘Blah, blah, blah,’ Kerry mocked, swaying as she got out of her seat. ‘My name is James Adams and I talk utter crap twenty-four-seven. Arsenal, birds and motorbikes, blah, blah, boring, boring.’
‘You’re so wasted,’ James laughed. ‘I need a slash before we leave and we’d better say thanks to Gemma if we can find her.’
‘I’m a ditzy blond boy and I love myself
so much,’ Kerry continued, as James got a little irritated. ‘But my penis is very, very tiny.’
Dana stifled her laughter because she had her mobile out and was trying to speak to a cab company.
‘Dispatcher said they’ll have a car out front for us in five to ten minutes,’ she said finally.
‘I’ll go to the gents and meet you both by that pink sculpture thingy,’ James said.
The spiral staircase that led up to the roof terrace was trendy, but less than ideal when you’re drunk and you have to negotiate people sitting on the carpeted steps. When James got to the bottom a tiny Goth stepped up to him and put her hand on his chest.
‘Lookin’ nice,’ she grinned.
She looked totally up for it, but with Dana and Kerry present he didn’t have a hope. ‘Sorry, I’m taken,’ he said.
‘Young but cute,’ the girl snorted, as she turned back towards friends who accused her of cradle snatching.
Having a random girl throw herself at you is always good for the ego, but James’ mood wilted as he headed into the toilets. They were quite swanky, but a centimetre deep in water from a flooded urinal. This didn’t seem to have discouraged a couple shagging in a cubicle and James couldn’t concentrate on peeing because the girl kept saying, ‘Ahhh big boy,’ with an accent that reminded him of Schwarzenegger.
It was as much as he could do not to burst out laughing and he finally cracked up as he emerged into the corridor. One direction led back to the club, but he noticed Gemma and Danny at the opposite end by a set of fire doors. He headed towards them and realised too late that they were having a row.
‘It’s not your money,’ Danny snarled, as he shook Gemma by her shoulders.
‘I lent you all my savings,’ Gemma shouted. ‘You never would have got this night started without me. I want my share.’
James wanted to turn and leave them to it, but Danny had spotted him.
‘Good night?’ he asked, acting like nothing was out of the ordinary.
James nodded awkwardly. ‘Really good, but we’ve got shit to do in the morning so Dana booked us a cab.’
‘Life goes on, I guess,’ Danny said. ‘We had our best crowd yet. It’s building all the time and that DJ is the dog’s! Be sure to tell your mates about us, yeah?’
‘Sure,’ James said. ‘And thanks for inviting us and letting us into the VIP and stuff. I’d never been to a proper club before.’
Gemma looked less tense and managed a smile. ‘Better than a youth club disco then?’
James grinned. ‘There’s more sex and drugs at a youth club, but this was classier.’
Gemma and Danny both laughed. ‘Have a safe trip home,’ Danny said, as James started walking away.
He made six steps before Gemma yelled, ‘Get your hands off me.’
James turned back and saw that Danny had grabbed Gemma’s wrist and shoved her against the wall. He thought about ignoring it, but Gemma was struggling and he didn’t feel he could leave her.
‘Come on, Danny,’ James said as he walked back. ‘Calm down, eh?’
Danny narrowed his eyes. ‘None of your business, kid.’
James shook his head. ‘You’re twice her size,’ he said indignantly. ‘Whatever you’re fighting about might not be my business, but I’m not gonna stand here and let you push her around.’
‘I’m OK,’ Gemma said shakily. ‘Just go back to the girls.’
‘Sling your hook before I knock you into next week,’ Danny said.
James shook his head and reached out to Gemma. ‘Why don’t you walk back with me? We can get our cab to drop you off at the flat.’
Danny didn’t like this one bit. His eyes opened wide and he turned towards James. ‘You’re asking for a slap, you chunk of shit.’
Danny was a big man who’d been in his share of scraps, but he moved like a sack of potatoes. He tried shoving James back with his two massive hands, but even though he was quite drunk, James was too fast for him. He ducked down, then brought his knee up to slam Danny in the kidneys.
Danny groaned in pain but kept coming forward.
‘You’re getting it now, ya little bastard.’
‘Leave him alone,’ Gemma screamed, but she needn’t have worried.
Danny was going in slow-motion compared to the teenagers James met thrice weekly in combat training. As the big man waded in, James flattened his palm and slammed it against Danny’s right temple. Seeing stars, Danny collapsed sideways, hitting the corridor wall before sliding down and ending up slumped in the trail of water leaking from the gents’ toilet.
‘Holy shit,’ Gemma gasped, leaning over Danny before raising her hands up to her face. ‘What did you knock him out for?’
‘Was I supposed to stand there and let him slap you about?’
Gemma was frightened. ‘There’s four other bouncers out there, James, and they’re all Danny’s mates. You’d better get out of here, because if they see this they’ll bloody murder you.’
‘Come with us,’ James begged. ‘Our cab should be here any second.’
Gemma sounded irritated. ‘Where am I going to go, James? I live in his house.’
‘Well …’ James said, feeling bad.
Gemma managed a slight smile as she placed a hand on James’ shoulder. ‘I know you meant well, but we’re a couple. You flooring him won’t do me any good.’
A couple of blokes were ambling towards the gents. They were surprised seeing the big man on the ground, but they didn’t want to get involved.
‘Do you want me to drag him somewhere out of harm’s way?’ James asked.
‘No,’ Gemma said anxiously. ‘Find Kerry and Dana and get in your cab,
‘Guess I’ll see you at work tomorrow.’
Gemma shook her head. ‘Friday,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow’s my day off.’
James wasn’t sure what to feel as he walked off. He thought he’d done the right thing, but Gemma clearly didn’t agree and he was worried about what would happen to her when Danny came round.
‘Took you long enough,’ Kerry said, as they met up in the lobby. ‘Cab’s waiting.’
‘I met Gemma,’ James said – but he saved the rest of the explanation for the ride home.
‘What were you talking to that little Goth about?’ Dana asked.
James was drunk and distracted, so it took him a couple of seconds to remember the incident. ‘It was nothing,’ he tutted. ‘She just asked if I had a lighter … and you’re one to talk with a phone number written on your neck.’
He was pleased that Dana cared enough to be jealous, but he didn’t smile until they’d walked past the bouncers on the door and climbed into the waiting Nissan.
Once all the listening devices were in place, there wasn’t much for Lauren and Jake to do except go to school and stay friendly with Fahim. Lauren didn’t mind because Camden Central was slack and she had to do way less than on campus. Plus they were in London, so Bethany, Rat and a couple of Jake’s friends had visited on the weekend. Rat didn’t know London so they went on the Millennium Wheel and took in a couple of other touristy places, but mostly they just wandered around the shops and then went to the cinema in the evening.
Mac was almost unbearably sad on Tuesday, when his wife of forty years, plus his daughter-in-law and grandchildren Angus and Megan, were cremated in a private service. Although Mac’s father was the founder of CHERUB and the organisation had been a huge part of his life, his family thought that he worked as a weapons evaluation specialist for the army. This explanation covered the fact that Mac worked on a military firing range as well as his regular meetings in London and occasional trips abroad.
Despite his obvious grief, Mac maintained a professional attitude towards the mission. After Lauren and Jake left for school he’d spend each morning looking for clues in the latest intelligence briefings and reports from the crash investigation team. In the afternoon he’d receive an e-mail report from the MI5 team who were monitoring the surveillance equipment inside Fahim’s house.
Lauren was always anxious for news of progress when she got in from school, whilst Mac enjoyed hearing the kids charging up the stairs to the apartment after spending the day on his own. It was now Friday, nine days after they’d planted the bugs.
‘You want cocoa?’ Mac yelled, as Lauren dumped her backpack and hooked up her blazer in the hallway before wandering through to the kitchen. ‘Cruelty-free organic milk, as per Madam’s instructions.’
‘Sounds lovely,’ Lauren said, as she grabbed her hot mug and let the steam rise up to her face. ‘It’s a right miserable day out there.’
With time on his hands, Mac took good care of the two young agents. There was always cooked breakfast and packed lunches prepared before they got out of bed, hot drinks and a snack when they came home from school and a good dinner after homework. Mac’s cooking was decent, but didn’t extend beyond roasts, fish and chips and other traditional British fare, so they’d also been out for a curry and visited an excellent Italian restaurant in the parade of shops directly below their apartment.
‘Where’s the little guy?’ Mac asked, as he sat at the opposite end of the small dining table, facing Lauren. ‘I made some for him too.’
‘Playstation at Fahim’s house. They’re getting on really well – I almost feel unnecessary.’
‘That was always likely to be the case,’ Mac said. ‘But Jake needed your help at the start and I’d rather your experience was still on hand. We’ll need you again if anything interesting crops up now.’
‘Any news from MI5 surveillance today?’
‘Nothing,’ Mac sighed. ‘If Hassam and Asif are part of a terrorist organisation they’re hiding it remarkably well.’
‘If they’re cautious they might stick to speaking in code.’
Mac rocked his head from side to side. ‘That’s possible, but you’d think it unlikely when you’re talking about conversations between two brothers in their own offices.’
‘Maybe Hassam is involved but not Asif,’ Lauren suggested.
‘I was wondering that myself,’ Mac nodded. ‘But to be honest I’m starting to think we’re flogging a dead horse.’
‘But Fahim seems pretty certain about what his parents said,’ Lauren noted. ‘And there’s no denying that his mum vanished off the face of the earth in very dodgy circumstances.’
‘Perhaps Fahim misunderstood,’ Mac said. ‘He seems very bright, but MI5 have three operatives on twenty-four-hour surveillance duty. They’ve picked up every phone call, listened to every conversation and read every e-mail. Hassam’s DNA and picture have been checked against all known terrorist databases and he comes up clean, as does his entire immediate family.
‘We’ve opened every file on the hard disks and studied all the documentation you copied. There’s evidence of tax fraud in the accounts, but the picture we’re getting is of a slightly shady trading company that’s bending the rules here and there. Not one word has been said about terrorism.’
‘What about Fahim’s mum saying that the plane was refitted by a company owned by his grandfather?’
Mac shook his head. ‘The plane that crashed originally belonged to a Japanese airline. It was given an overhaul and fitted with an Anglo-Irish interior in India a couple of months before it crashed. I checked out the maintenance facility’s ownership and none of the major shareholders have links to the Bin Hassam family.’
‘Isn’t that a bit iffy?’ Lauren asked. ‘I mean, why send planes to a developing country for maintenance?’
‘It surprised me too,’ Mac nodded. ‘But apparently the aviation industry has boomed in India recently. You can easily fly an aircraft to the sub-continent and maintenance work is labour intensive. It costs up to a third less in India than in Europe or America. Most Indian workshops are modern and either owned or co-owned by Western aerospace companies who stake their reputations on highly trained workers and standards equal or better than anywhere else.’
‘But still,’ Lauren said, ‘it must be easier for a terrorist to get hold of explosives and detonators and place them onboard an airliner while it’s undergoing maintenance in India than it would be to get a bomb through airport security at Heathrow?’
‘Perhaps,’ Mac shrugged. ‘Straight after the crash the investigators sent people across to India to speak with the team that refurbished the aircraft and get copies of their maintenance logs. But none of this alters the fact that after all the information we’ve gathered and a week of surveillance, the only thing we have linking Hassam Bin Hassam with the air crash is Fahim’s claim that he heard his parents mention it during an argument.’
‘So you think it’s all in Fahim’s head?’ Lauren asked, as she pulled off her school shoes and wriggled her toes.
have a history of nightmares and erratic behaviour,’ Mac said. ‘You know him better than me, what do you think?’
‘He seems perfectly normal,’ Lauren said. ‘I mean, he’s depressed, but under the circumstances who wouldn’t be? And when I’ve had conversations with him about random stuff, he’s obviously intelligent – and more mature than Jake, truth told.’
‘I was thinking,’ Mac said as he shook his head. ‘The reason I first took Fahim’s call to the crash investigation hotline seriously was the obvious fear in his voice. But what if he was traumatised by a nightmare and he woke up scared and confused?’
‘You mean he didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t? He was suffering from a concussion. His parents got in a big fight, his mum disappeared and his brain jumped to all kinds of crazy conclusions.’