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by Honore De Balzac
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CHERUB agents are all seventeen and under. They wear skate tees and hemp, and look like regular kids. But they're not. They are trained professionals who are sent out on missions to spy on terrorists and international drug dealers. CHERUB agents hack into computers, bug entire houses, and download crucial documents. It is a highly dangerous job. For their safety, these agents DO NOT EXIST.
James is the latest CHERUB recruit. He and his sister were recently orphaned, and James has been in a lot of trouble. But he is brilliant in math. And CHERUB needs him. After one hundred days, the grueling training period is over. But the adventure has just begun.
James Choke hated Combined Science. It should have been test tubes, jets of gas, and sparks flying all over the place, like he'd imagined when he was still at primary school. What he got was an hour propped on a stool watching Miss Voolt write on a blackboard. You had to write everything down even though the photocopier got invented forty years earlier.
It was his second to last class, raining outside and turning dark. James was sleepy because the lab was hot and he'd been up late playing Grand Theft Auto the night before.
Samantha Jennings sat next to him. Teachers thought Samantha was fantastic: always volunteering for stuff, neat uniform, glossed nails. She did all her diagrams with three different colored pens and covered her textbooks in wrapping paper so they looked extra smart. But when the teachers weren't looking Samantha was a total cow. James hated her. She was always winding him up about his mum being fat:
"James's mum is so fat, they have to grease the bath tub or she gets stuck in it."
Samantha's cronies laughed, same as always.
James's mum was huge. She had to order her clothes out of a special catalog for fat people. It was a nightmare being seen with her. People pointed, stared. Little kids mimicked the way she walked. James loved his mum, but he tried to find excuses when she wanted to go somewhere with him.
"I went for a five-mile jog yesterday," Samantha said. "Two laps around James's mum."
James looked up from his textbook.
"That's so funny, Samantha. Even funnier than the first three times you said it."
James was one of the toughest kids in Year Seven. Any boy cussing his mum would get a punch. But what could you do when it was a girl? Next lesson he'd sit as far from Samantha as he could.
"Your mum is so fat -- "
James was sick of it. He jumped up. His stool tipped over backwards.
"What is it with you, Samantha?" James shouted.
The lab went quiet. Every eye turned to the action.
"What's the matter, James?" Samantha grinned. "Can't take a joke?"
"Mr. Choke, pick up your seat and get on with your work," Miss Voolt shouted.
"You say one more word, Samantha, I'll..."
James was never any good at comebacks.
Samantha giggled. "What will you do, James? Go home and cuddle big fat Mommy?"
James wanted to see something other than a stupid grin on Samantha's face. He grabbed Samantha off her stool, pushed her up against the wall, then spun her around to face him. He froze in shock. Blood was running down Samantha's face. Her cheek had a long cut where it had caught on a nail sticking out of the wall.
James backed away, scared. Samantha cupped her hands over the blood and started bawling her head off.
"James Choke, you are in extremely serious trouble!" Miss Voolt shouted.
Everyone in James's class was making some sort of noise. James couldn't face up to what he'd done. No one would believe it was an accident. He made a run for the door.
Miss Voolt grabbed James's blazer.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"Get out of my way," James shouted.
He gave Miss Voolt a shove. She toppled backwards, limbs flipping helplessly in the air like a beetle turned upside down.
He slammed the classroom door and ran down the corridor. The school gates were locked, but he escaped over the barrier in the teachers' car park.
James stormed away from school, muttering to himself, getting less angry and more scared as it dawned that he was in the deepest trouble of his life.
He was twelve in a few weeks' time. He started wondering if he'd live that long. His mum was going to kill him. He'd definitely get suspended. It was probably bad enough to get expelled.
By the time James got to the little playground near his flats he felt sick. He looked at his watch. If he went home this early his mum would know something was up. He didn't have change for a cup of tea in the chip shop. The only thing to do was go into the playground and shelter from the drizzle in the concrete tunnel.
The tunnel seemed smaller than James remembered. There was graffiti sprayed all over and it smelled like a dog had peed inside. James didn't mind. He felt he deserved to be somewhere cold that smelled of dog. He rubbed his hands to get them warm and remembered when he was little.
He mum was nowhere near as fat in those days. Her face would appear in the end of the tunnel with a daft grin. She'd speak in a deep voice, "I'm coming to eat you up, James." It was cool, because the tunnel had a killer echo when you were sitting inside. James tried the echo:
"I'm a total idiot."
The echo agreed with him. He pulled his coat hood up and did the zip to the top so it covered half his face.
After half an hour sulking, James knew he had two options: stay in the tunnel for the rest of his life, or go home and get killed.
James stepped in the hallway of his flat and checked the mobile phone on the table under the coatrack:
12 MISSED CALLS
It looked like school had been trying to get hold of his mum pretty bad, but she hadn't answered. James thanked God, but wondered why she hadn't picked up. Then he noticed Uncle Ron's jacket hanging up.
Uncle Ron had turned up when James was a toddler. It was like having a loud, smelly rug in the flat. Ron smoked, drank, and only went out to go to the pub. He got a job once, but it only lasted a fortnight.
James had always thought Ron was an idiot and his mum had eventually agreed and kicked him out. But only after she'd married him and given birth to his daughter. Even now James's mum had a soft spot for Ron. They'd never got divorced. Ron turned up every few weeks, supposedly to see his daughter, Lauren. But mostly he came when Lauren was at school and he was short of a few quid.
James walked into the living room. His mum, Gwen, was spread out on a sofa. Her feet were up on a stool and her left leg was bandaged. Ron was in an armchair, feet on the coffee table, toes poking out of his socks. They were both drunk.
"Mum, you're not supposed to drink with your pills," James said, so annoyed he forgot his problems.
Ron straightened up and took a drag of his cigarette.
"Hey Jamie boy, Daddy's home," Ron said, grinning.
James and Ron eyed each other up.
"You're not my father, Ron," James said.
"No," Ron replied. "Your dad legged it the day he saw your ugly face."
James didn't want to say about school in front of Ron, but the truth was eating at him.
"Mum, something happened at school. It was an accident."
"Wet your pants again, did you?" Ron giggled.
James didn't want to take the bait.
"Listen, James, me darlin'," Gwen said, slurring her words. "Whatever trouble you're in this time, we'll talk later. Go and get your sister from school. I've had a few too many drinkies and I'd better not drive."
"I'm sorry, Mum, it's really serious. I have to tell you..."
"Just get your sister, James," his mum said sternly. "My head is pounding."
"Lauren's big enough to come home on her own," James said.
"She isn't," Ron interrupted. "Do what you're told. He needs my boot up his backside if you ask me."
"How much money does he want this time?" James asked sarcastically.
Gwen waved her hand in front of her face. She was fed up with both of them.
"Can't you two stay in the same room for two minutes without fighting? James, go to my purse, buy something for tea on the way home. I'm not cooking tonight."
"Get out, James, before I lose my temper."
James couldn't wait until he was old enough to batter Uncle Ron. His mum was OK when Ron wasn't around.
James found his mum's purse in the kitchen. A tenner was enough for his dinner, but he took two twenties. Ron would steal everything in the purse before he left, so James wouldn't get blamed. It felt nice stuffing forty quid into his school trousers. Gwen never left anything lying around that she didn't expect James or Ron to steal. She kept the big money upstairs in a safe.
Copyright © 2004 by Robert Muchamore
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