CHAPTER 1 GAS
It was half seven in the morning, but James had already been in the dojo for ninety minutes. Six pairs of kids were spread over the padded floor, wearing sweaty kit and a mass of protective padding.
Exhausted from a brutal twenty-minute sparring session, James bowed to his training partner Gabrielle, before grabbing a plastic bottle off the floor. He tipped back his head, opened his mouth wide and squeezed out a jet of high-energy glucose drink.
As he tried to swallow, a palm slammed into his back and he stumbled forwards, crashing into the springy blue floor with juice dribbling down his chin. Miss Takada ground James’s head against the mat, using a sixty-year-old foot with gnarled yellow nails and sandpaper-tough skin.
“Wa ru one?” instructor Takada shouted. Her English was awful, but luckily she stuck to pet phrases that James knew by heart.
“Rule one,” James replied awkwardly, as the foot squished his lips out of shape. “Always be alert; an attack can come from any direction at any time.”
“Be alert, stay alert,” Takada tutted. “Drink quick, not glaring at ceiling like fool. Get off my floor. You dishonor my floor.”
James dragged himself up, keeping a wary eye on his teacher.
“OK!” Takada shouted, clapping her hands to get the attention of the whole class. “Final exercise. Speed test, little balls.”
A few of the shattered teenagers mustered enough energy to moan. There were only ten days of CHERUB’s six-week advanced combat course left, so everyone knew how to play: six students lined up against the wall at each end of the dojo, Miss Takada would throw out ten mini soccer balls and the two who didn’t make it into the changing room with a ball had to forsake breakfast and run twenty laps around the outside of the dojo. It was a violent game and even wearing protective gear, broken bones weren’t out of the question.
Takada reached into a net filled with balls and threw out the first three. Twelve teenagers charged forwards, as they bobbled across the floor.
James sighted one rolling fortuitously towards him, but Gabrielle was faster and bundled him out of the way. As James plowed into the floor for the hundredth time that morning, Gabrielle ripped the ball out of reach.
She managed three gangly steps, before coming under attack from two boys who’d started from the other end of the room. One hit Gabrielle headfirst, butting her in the stomach, while the other slid in with a two-footed tackle. Gabrielle groaned in pain as she hit the deck, but managed to hold on to the ball by tucking it under her chest.
The boy who’d butted Gabrielle tried to lever her into an arm lock, but caught a padded elbow in the face for his trouble and crumpled backwards in a heap.
While battle still raged over the first three balls, Miss Takada tossed in two more. James was exhausted, but the prospect of laps around the dojo gave him enough motivation to spring up and take a lunge. This time he judged it right and plucked the ball from between his legs without breaking stride.
James was thrilled to see less than fifteen meters between himself and the archway into the boys’ changing room. He leapt over a flying kick, picked up speed, and could almost taste a cooked breakfast in the campus dining room. But three paces shy, the dream was shattered by a bulky sixteen-year-old called Mark Fox.
Mark had ham-size fists and a twenty-centimeter height advantage over James, who got bundled into the padded wall before spinning out and adopting a fighting stance. It didn’t seem fair facing off an opponent who was so much bigger, but advanced combat training was meant to be realistic and the real world isn’t fair either.
James tried to visualize himself as the plucky underdog, who could come off best like in some kids’ movie. But the illusion didn’t last. Mark moved ruthlessly, spraying James with flying sweat as he landed a left-right punch
combo, followed by a knee in the ribs. James crumpled up as Mark tore the ball from his grasp.
“Later.” Mark grinned, looking smug as he swaggered towards the archway.
The padded blows had only knocked the wind out of James, but he’d landed awkwardly and bent back some fingers. He stood as soon as he’d caught his breath, but his face was screwed up in pain. Six kids had now made it into the changing rooms; three more were almost there with no opponent in sight. That left James and two girls fighting over the last ball.
Dana Smith currently held it. She was a fifteen-year-old Australian, about the same height as James, muscular for a girl and an excellent athlete and swimmer. Gabrielle O’Brien had just turned fourteen and was the youngest on the course, but she could hold her own and had Dana penned into a corner looking for a way out.
James positioned himself a couple of meters behind Gabrielle. He figured Dana would make a break for it. Hopefully, Gabrielle would take her down, and he’d be able to wade in and grab the ball while the girls tangled on the floor.
But Dana showed no sign of moving and Miss Takada was growing impatient. She had a queue of red-shirts outside waiting for their beginners’ karate class.
“You got one minute, or all three of you run,” Takada said, drumming on the face of her watch.
James sensed an opportunity to snatch the ball, while Gabrielle was falling and Dana was on her knees. He plowed into Dana, grappled her around the neck, ripped the ball out of her hand, and clasped it to his chest, ignoring the pain in his fingers.
Gabrielle backed away from the corner, trying to lure Dana out. James was backing up too, as Dana made her move. Gabrielle lashed out, but Dana dropped down and skidded beneath the flying kick on her knees, sweeping away Gabrielle’s leg in the process.
Dana yelled as she broke out of the choke hold and flipped James on to his back, before straddling his waist. She pinned his shoulders under her knees and batted him across the face. As she did so, James’s weakened fingers lost their sweaty grip on the ball. It bounced between his legs and began rolling across the mat.
Gabrielle spotted the ball and dived in. By the time Dana realized that James had let go, Gabrielle was sprinting triumphantly towards the girls’ changing room.
James was still pinned to the floor as Miss Takada made a circular motion with her finger. “OK, you two. Round and round, twenty time. You know the drill.”
As the instructor stepped out to yell at the rowdy group of red-shirts outside, James looked up at Dana with a hint of desperation. Her beefy thigh muscles loomed over him and her entire bodyweight pressed on his shoulders.
“Let us up,” James gasped. “It’s over.”
Dana gave him an evil smile. James didn’t know Dana all that well. She was a loner, still a gray shirt after five years of CHERUB missions, and notoriously bitter towards younger kids like him who’d achieved better things.
“This is because I’m a navy shirt, isn’t it?” James said. “Well maybe you’ve been unlucky, or whatever, but you can’t blame me for that.”
“It’s not that.” Dana grinned.
“C’mon, let me up,” James said, getting angry as he
tried to wriggle out. “Takada’s gonna have a right go if she comes back and sees we’re not running.”
“She’ll be a few minutes helping the little kids get changed. I’ve got long enough.”
“Long enough for what?”
“You’ll see,” Dana said, shuffling forwards so that her bum loomed over James’s head.
James heard a rumbling sound from inside Dana’s shorts and felt a blast of warm air.
“Oh, Jeeeeeesus,” James whined, screwing up his face.
Dana started laughing as she rolled off and found her feet.
“You’re an animal,” James groaned, wafting his hand in front of his face. “That’s putrid. I’ll get you back for that.”
He couldn’t help seeing the funny side. He liked Dana, even though she was an oddball.
Dana shrugged. “Don’t expect me to lose any sleep.”
James’s laughter dried up as he staggered towards the dojo exit, grabbed his trainers, and began stripping off his padding. Twenty laps around the dojo takes half an hour when you’re knackered, and it was freezing outside.