Chapter One: Gray
CHERUB campus looked so much better with a gray T-shirt on.
Sam Hills was an ten-year-old CHERUB agent, fresh back from Malaysia. The year was 2017, and Campus Village had been completed the previous year. Sam noted its beauty as he walked past the small houses with fresh coats of paint separated by red and yellow trees. His favorite was a largo oak tree next to the communal red-shirt playground. It had another, slightly smaller, kid friendly tree right next to it that the red shirts would climb, and the older kids would climb the bigger one. He had quite a few good memories there, from meeting his best friend Matt Jones to rescuing his cat Socks from its branches.
As Sam stepped inside the house he shared with five other agents, a dog, and a cat, Matt Jones greeted him.
"Hey, man!" Matt cheered. "What's up? Where were you?"
"A mission controller said he wanted me for a project soon, so he wanted to make sure I was available then. I have a briefing later today," Sam said excitedly.
"That's awesome!" Matt hugged Sam briefly, petting Socks, who was sitting on the ground. "This guy missed you. I think he's worried you'll go away again. Josh said he's been meowing since you left for basic."
"Aww, Socks, did you miss me?" Sam cooed, stroking Socks.
Then, Tom Freeman appeared in the doorway. Tom was a sixteen-year-old black shirt, the veteran in their small house. "Did I hear you say you've got a mission lined up already?" Tom asked Sam. He held John Watson's leash tight in his hand. The Labrador was all too happy to be going on a walk.
"How is Watson?" Sam asked. "I haven't seen him since I left for training."
"He's been doing pretty well," Tom answered. "Hasn't missed you as much as Socks here has."
"I'm sure," Sam said wryly.
"When's your appointment?" Tom asked.
"Five minutes, actually," Sam said, looking at his watch. "My mission controller just wanted me to drop off my bag."
"Me and Watson will come with you," Tom said.
As soon as they were out the door, Tom asked, "Who do you have?"
"I have two," Sam answered. "It's a big operation and there are two parts to it anyway. Like, me and one agent are infiltrating from one end and two more are on the other."
"Okay, who are your two mission controllers? And who's working more on your end?"
"Kerry and James," Sam said. "Kerry's working more closely with me."
"That's cool," Tom nodded. "James and Kerry are cool. And Kerry working more closely with you is a stroke of luck for you. Personally, I like James better, but Kerry is more open to gay boys like you."
Sam blushed. Right before basic, he'd confessed to Matt that he was gay, and Matt's warm reaction spurred him to confess to Tom, Josh, Leia, and Greg as well. Frankly, he'd known since he was little, and he knew he was pretty young to know he was gay—ten years old!—but it had always been attracted to guys and barely ever to girls, and he knew it wouldn't change with age.
"Shut up," Sam hissed. "Come on. Seriously, does James have that much of a problem with gay people?"
"To be fair," Tom said, "I've never actually witnessed him being homophobic, but Kyle Blueman—you've heard of Kyle Blueman—has said some things about James, and Kyle would know."
"Isn't James the guy who had sex in the campus fountain?" Sam asked.
"James told me that was just a rumor," Tom said. "Lauren, his sister, apparently started that, so…"
"I don't care," Sam said defiantly. "You guys are the only guys I've ever told besides my parents, and I don't plan on telling people—or at least adults."
Tom shut his mouth at that point. Sam had been put in foster care when he was eight after he'd told his parents he was gay. His dad had broken his jaw and his nose, and smashed up his ear (to this day, Sam couldn't hear well to at all from his right ear and his ear still looked a mess, and probably would forever) and then set him out onto the streets. Tom knew Sam had only ever planned to tell Matt, but he'd become slightly more comfortable with his homosexuality since telling Matt and the others.
Sam self-consciously touched his mashed-up ear. He knew some kids at CHERUB had worse family problems—a former CHERUB, Bruce Norris, had been sexually abused by his parents, James Adams's stepdad had convinced his mom to drink with medication, which killed her, a black shirt named Terri Heathers had watched her father kill her mother, an ex-cherub named Dante Welsh had seen his parents and two of his siblings killed by a biker gang. His problems were barely anything compared to them.
"Hey, Sam, look at me," Tom said warmly. Sam did. "Look, I swear, even if you do tell James and Kerry—or anybody for that matter—and they're anything less than supportive, me, Josh, Matt, and the others will personally kick their asses. Okay? And even if James finds out, or if you tell him, he's not homophobic to the point where he'll beat you like your dad did. I just meant he's uncomfortable with gay people. And if he does do anything I swear to God I'll kick his ass. We're here for you, Sam."
Sam arrived at the mission control building a minute before his appointment. He bid Tom and Watson goodbye, then knocked on James Adams's door.
"Hey, James," Sam said. Kerry was also in his office, along with three other boys.
"Hey, Sam," James replied. "So, everyone's here? OK, good! Everyone, I'm James. That's Kerry. That's Ryan, that's Harry, that's Owen, and that's Sam."
Ryan and Harry were sixteen. Both black shirts. That was weird. Sam knew the name of every black shirt on campus. There wasn't a Harry. Well, maybe he was just forgetting someone.
Owen was an eleven-year-old prodigy. He got his black shirt when he was ten, on his second mission. He got his navy shirt on his first. That's when Sam knew this was big. They didn't send Owen Paulsen on little missions.
"Anyway," James continued, "this mission might be typical for some of you, and atypical for others. I'm not good at giving summaries, so maybe just read the briefing?"
MISSION BRIEFING FOR OWEN PAULSEN, HARRY
JONES, RYAN NEWPORT, AND SAM HILLS
THIS DOCUMENT IS PROTECTED WITH
A RADIO FREQUENCY IDENTIFICATION TAG
ANY ATTEMPT TO REMOVE IT FROM THE
MISSION PREPARATION BUILDING
WILL SET OFF AN ALARM
DO NOT PHOTOCOPY OR MAKE NOTES
Robert "Bobby" Vincent was born in Manhattan, New York, US. Bobby's father, Gregg Vincent, was a former member of Joey's Gang, a minor gang that would mug tourists, shoplift, and rob minor chains.
Bobby's early life was a pretty predictable pattern. Every day he would help his dad fix up cars, ride his dirt bike, take Karate lessons, or practice his pickpocketing skills.
When he was eight years old, Bobby met a man named Carl DeShawn. Carl was a gangster, and he invited Bobby over to play Texas Hold Em' Poker with him and some other boys they were considering. Bobby immediately picked up on the game, and Carl asked him to compete locally.
Bobby did just that, even though people laughed at an eight-year-old boy playing Poker competitively. Unfortunately for them, he won the town wide tournament and ten thousand dollars along with it.
When he was a teenager, Carl recruited Bobby into his gang, the Manhattan Men. Bobby was Carl's most loyal recruit, and Carl favorited him even to other, senior members of the Manhattan Men.
-THE FALL OF THE MANHATTAN MEN
In 2009, when Bobby was 23, the Manhattan Men were shut down by the police. Bobby narrowly escaped arrest.
-THE RED PANTHERS
After watching the Manhattan Men split open, and his childhood mentor Carl DeShawn go down, Bobby realized what he wanted to do with his life. He started a small group of his closest (free) friends from the Manhattan Men into the group known as the Red Panthers.
Sam read the rest of the briefing, including the point where it said HIGH RISK and whatnot, but not too closely because James and Kerry planning on telling them the rest. When Sam looked up, Ryan was the only one still reading. When Ryan finished, James spoke.
"OK, guys," James said. "This mission is High Risk, so please, feel no peer pressure to accept. This is one of the most dangerous missions CHERUB agents have ever been offered. Kerry, do you want to explain the mission structure?"
"I'd love to, James," Kerry said fondly. Then she turned to the agents and her face was hard. "The plan is like this. Bobby Vincent is young—only thirty-one—and his gang members are young too. The oldest member of the Red Panthers is thirty-eight, and there are about eight or nine teenagers. Ryan and Harry are going to try and infiltrate the Panthers directly. Owen and Sam's roles are a little more complicated."
Kerry took a breath. "Bobby has been known to go to the Manhattan Men Hangout, now the Panther Hangout, which is targeted at boys of your age, to scout for talent like himself, much like his mentor Carl DeShawn did. Owen and Sam would try to make Bobby take a shine to one of them. If one or both of you fail at that part—and honestly, it's hard to see that part succeeding—you goal would be to befriend Teddy Vincent, Bobby's eleven-year-old son. That side of the mission is textbook CHERUB stuff—befriend the kid, place listening devices. You could also befriend Teddy even if Bobby wanted you."
Sam turned to look at the other agents. Owen seemed hard as steel. Harry seemed chill, not a word Sam usually used but relaxed wasn't quite right. Ryan just looked tense.
Sam then raised his hand, looking at James and Kerry. "Question?"
"What's up?" James asked.
"If this mission is as dangerous as you say it is, I understand having three black shirts on it, but…why am I here?"
Kerry blinked, but James answered. "Pardon me?"
"I'm a gray shirt. This is my first mission. I'm probably hurting my chances of actually getting to go on this, but…"
Sam hesitated. He thought of them looking at his file, and—wait! If they'd seen his file, would they know he was gay? Like, would it say that his dad had beaten him because of his sexuality? He'd never seen his file. But he'd never told the police the reason he'd been beaten, and yeah, his dad had screamed something about his queer son, the police just thought it was an insult. So no. Hope to God they didn't know.
"Why am I here? Why not a navy shirt, or another prodigy like Owen?"
Sam immediately regretted the words, but Owen didn't seem offended or miffed by the comment, and neither did Harry or Ryan.
"First of all, Owen is your peer," Kerry said. "Second. Sam, I'm sorry, but I can't tell you why you were picked for this mission. You keep your secrets, and we keep ours."
"You like apricots!" James blurted, then calmed himself. "We wanted someone who liked apricots on the mission."
Sam didn't like apricots.
"Sure, James," Kerry said, rolling her eyes. "Let's go with that."
"Does anyone want to deny the mission?" James asked, suddenly at ease.
Nobody said anything.
"Then, just sign here, and be here tomorrow morning!" James said cheerfully.
As soon as everybody was out except James, Sam raced to catch Kerry.
"How did you know?" Sam asked breathlessly.
"Know about what?" Kerry raised her eyebrows, amused.
"About me being…you know…"
"What are you talking about?" Kerry seemed confused now. Then she laughed. "Sam, when I read your file, I knew that there had been something you hadn't told the police. You keep secrets. So do I. That's all I meant."
"So you don't…know?" Sam asked.
"No," Kerry laughed. "But if you're this concerned, you might want to see a counselor before tomorrow. To…get it off your chest."
"No thank you," Sam said politely. "I told some…friends."
"Well, whatever floats your boat," Kerry joked, then changed to a serious tone. "Seriously though, Sam, everyone has secrets. And if it's this important to you to keep this one, then don't just assume someone knows because they implied something. Just some advice."
And she was gone.