1: Unexpected

January 2013

It was one of the coldest days of the winter and there was a harsh east wind blowing which had Rex shivering even through his thick jacket. He was happy to pull the collar up over his mouth and follow Ralph, a stocky black boy he'd done basic training with. The two lads were good friends, but they'd been up early to catch a train to Nottingham and the few hours they'd spent in each other's company were already beginning to wear.

Ralph had his phone out in front of him, checking the route as he walked. They'd skirted around the railway line and followed a main road into a suburban bit of Nottingham, where, since it was a working Tuesday, there didn't seem to be anyone around.

"Next left," Ralph said, looking up from the screen to see if he could see the side street they wanted. "Should be somewhere up there on the right."

It seemed to Rex like they'd been walking for ages and all the houses looked the same, so he just shrugged.

"If you say so, dude."

Just before the turning they passed a church, set back from the road with a graveyard surrounding it. Rex looked up at it as they passed, Ralph's eyes back on the phone.

"Nice church," he said, jogging a little to catch up.

Ralph cracked a smile and looked round at him. "I really couldn't care less about the local church architecture."

Rex shrugged. "Just making conversation."

They took the left, onto Sussex Road, and Ralph pushed his phone back into his pocket. With everyone at work, there weren't many parked cars, except for a white van parked on the kerb with 'Mayhew & Sons Carpentry and Joiners Ltd.' stencilled on the side. As they passed behind it, both of them pulled out tiny, button-sized earpieces and put them into their ears.

"Ralph, Rex, do you read?" the voice of mission controller Chloe Blake said in their ears. Both boys just nodded as they passed the van, which looked empty from the outside but, in reality, had a couple of high-tech cameras mounted to the outside and Chloe herself sitting inside, monitoring their progress.

"House is all clear," she added as they crossed the road, walking purposefully up the drive of number twelve. "He left for work two hours ago and I've not detected any activity."

Ralph knocked twice on the door, while Rex moved close and pushed his lock gun into the door. It took a couple of jiggles to get it right, but the lock turned and they both stepped inside.

The two thirteen-year-olds had been asked to help out with another ongoing mission by breaking into a suspect's house and hunting for evidence of his role in drug dealing. It came with the usual ransacking element, but since certain pieces of drug paraphernalia are fragile or look like everyday objects, they had to comb the place thoroughly first before they could get to the destruction.

Rex followed Ralph's example and pulled on a pair of gloves before doing anything else. The house was set up like a typical family semi, with piles of shoes lying by the door and family photos stuck on the wall by the stairs. Ralph took the first right, into the living room, while Rex headed for the kitchen. He'd been trained in what to look for and began in the fridge-freezer, pushing aside packets of sweetcorn and Birds Eye fish cakes. Not finding anything meaningful, he started on the kitchen cabinets, but a five-minute search left him with the impression it was a regular family's kitchen.

"Any luck?" he said, sticking his head around the door to see how Ralph was doing.

The other boy was feeling around behind the sofa, but shook his head. "Did you check for loose wall panels and stuff?" he asked, withdrawing his hand and wiping a sticky patch of his glove on the sofa cushion.

"Tried everything I could, no joy," Rex replied.

"You try the downstairs loo, I'll go upstairs," Ralph said, almost leaving the room before doubling back and shoving his hand up the chimney. There was nothing there, so Rex let him get past before pushing open the door to the toilet. It was a tiny room with a miniscule sink, and took him all for twenty seconds to search before concluding there was nothing there.

His plan was to go upstairs and help Ralph, but he saw feet coming back down the stairs and waited to see what was going on.

Ralph's expression was a mixture of anxiety and glee as he looked at Rex.

"You have got to see this," he grinned, turning and going back the way he came, taking care to keep quiet on the carpeted stairs. Rex followed, bewildered, and when they reached the top Ralph pushed open the door to the master bedroom with a smirk.

Rex put his head inside and gasped, almost smacking his head on Ralph's as he backed up.

"His wife's still here?" Rex whispered, sneaking another look at the half-naked woman lying face down on the bed. "What the hell is Chloe playing at?"

Ralph shook his head. "This dude's got kids our age. His wife would be at least in her thirties, and that bird isn't a day over twenty-five."

Rex cracked a huge grin. "No way! Dirty old bastard." He put his head in for another look, feeling a mixture of lust and repulsion towards the woman as he got an eyeful of her skimpy knickers.

In the meantime, Ralph took a few steps through into the second bedroom and pressed on the earpiece.

"Chloe, do you read?"

"Loud and clear, Ralph."

"We've got an unidentified woman sleeping in the front bedroom. Thoughts?"

Chloe swore. "You're serious?"

"One hundred percent. Do we pull out?"

"His wife's away in Florida, who on earth has he got sleeping in his bed?"

Ralph chuckled. "Cat's away, mice will play," he said. "I'd guess she's in her twenties, dressed like he found her on a street corner."

"Negative. You don't let prostitutes sleep in your house while you go to work," Chloe said. "Alright, can you get out?"

"We've poked around downstairs, but if we nick the telly or something it'll probably cover us," Ralph told her. "He'll assume it was burglars looking for cash if anything's been moved."

"Can you carry on without waking her?"

"I doubt it. Drop something breakable and it's game over."

There was a pause while Chloe thought it over. "Do you boys think you can knock her out somehow?"

"I suppose. It won't be elegant, though, just a smack on the head," Ralph said.

"Do it. We've waited four months for this chance, and I'm not waiting for another."

"Received and understood," Ralph finished, letting go of the earpiece and going back out onto the landing, almost colliding with Rex coming the other way.

"What's the plan?" Rex asked.

Ralph made a punching gesture and pointed to the room. "Knock her out."

Rex looked uncomfortable. "But she's topless," he hissed.

Rolling his eyes, Ralph pushed past and crept into the bedroom, moving quickly. The duvet had been thrown off the bed and he had to squeeze past it to get close enough, keeping his eyes off the woman's bare skin. As he got close, there was a strong smell of stale alcohol and the woman had a puddle of drool next to her mouth.

He could see Rex looking on from the doorway as he made sure his feet were making a wide base and launched an explosive punch, connecting cleanly with the side of her head. The bed absorbed most of the blow, but Ralph had felt it even though his gloves and was sure he'd done enough. To make sure, he grabbed her shoulder and shook her, but she didn't respond except to roll her head into the patch of drool.

"Get to work," Ralph said, pointing to Rex. "I've no idea how long we'll have."

Rex disappeared to go and search the other rooms, while Ralph gritted his teeth and rolled the woman into the recovery position, unable to tell whether the blow to the head would cause her to vomit or anything. He fervently wished she'd decided to fall asleep with more clothes on as he positioned her, feeling weird touching her, but once she was lying safely he picked up the duvet and threw it on top of her.

"She's unconscious," he relayed to Chloe.

"Good work. You're under time pressure so be as thorough as you can and leave," Chloe replied.

There was tons of clutter in all the bedrooms, so it took the Cherubs quite a while to be sure they'd searched everywhere. There was no sign of anything incriminating, which was frustrating, but every time a car drove past on the street outside it reminded them that they didn't have time for an in-depth look.

Meeting on the upstairs landing again, both boys were empty-handed.

"Time to go?" Ralph asked.

Rex nodded, but as Ralph started down the stairs, he stopped dead, examining the carpet.

"Look at this," he said, crouching down and pointing to two square indents in the pile. "Looks like something is normally resting here."

Ralph was confused. "What would you rest at the top of the stairs?" he asked out loud. "It's only got two legs so it can't be a chair or a table."

"Must be heavy to leave indents, too," Rex said.

Ralph started tapping on the walls and floor, looking for anything hidden, but Rex grabbed his shoulder with a smile, pointing up at the ceiling. There was a hatch leading to the loft space.

"Fiver says these are from the ladder," Rex said. "I saw a hook in the bathroom for opening the hatch."

The ladder was folded up inside the attic and unfolded as you pulled it down, where the legs slotted into the indents on the carpet.

"Good spot," Ralph said, testing the ladder for strength before climbing it with Rex waiting at the bottom.

He fumbled around at the top for a light switch, eventually finding it, and then laughed out loud when he could see.

"What is it?" Rex asked, peering up into the square of light.

"Looks like we came on the right day," Ralph said. "Here, catch."

Reaching around, he dropped a vacuum sealed pack of marijuana into Rex's arms.

"Jackpot," Rex grinned, turning it over in his hands. "A mistress and an attic full of drugs. This guy's life is going to be so shit when we're done with him."

With their findings reported to Chloe and most of the house now trashed (they'd both avoided the master bedroom since the woman was still unconscious in there), they finally made their exit, Rex opening the door while Ralph struggled out with the wall-mounted TV in his arms.

"Don't drop it," Rex reminded him, grinning.

"Don't lock the door, either," Ralph said, hoisting the TV up so he could get a better grip. "We want it to look like a break-in."

Rex pulled the door shut and left it unlocked, grabbing the other end of the TV as he helped Ralph carry it over to the van. Once they were close, the rear doors popped open and they passed it to a flustered-looking Chloe.

"Sorry, I did not expect anyone else to be in there," Chloe said apologetically. "We've been observing the house since yesterday, but it's not impossible for her to have just not gone outside all day yesterday."

"Don't sweat it," Ralph said, manhandling the TV so it was secure against the side of the van. "She was breathing easily when we left her, so hopefully she'll just wake up with nothing more than a serious headache."

"Good job, boys," Chloe said. "See you back on campus sometime."

She pulled the doors closed from the inside and Rex and Ralph walked back the way they'd come, zipping up coats against the cold.

Rex checked his watch. "If we get a move on we'll make it in plenty of time to get to George's party."

"He said the go-karting was at six, right?" Ralph asked, pushing his hands into his jacket pockets to keep warm.

"Half six," Rex corrected him. "I also want to eat dinner before then. Those railway station sandwiches were titchy."

"Should've gone for the pasty like me," Ralph told him. "That thing was huge, even if I'm pretty sure the meat was horse or dog or something."