Itch Rocks by Simon Mayo

After his last adventures, MI5 have moved into Itch's house and life is anything but normal for him, his sister Chloe and cousin Jack...

Simon Mayo
Extract | Itch by Simon Mayo

Cornwall, England 

The most protected boy in the world was in his bedroom making chlorine gas. Having failed in his attempts to buy any, he was mixing his own. Nowadays, the only time he had to himself was before everyone got up, so he had been setting his alarm for six a.m. A tattered old book lay open on the floor, and Itch, kneeling down in his pyjamas, read the instructions aloud.

Add five grams of manganese dioxide...’ He scooped up a small quantity of black powder from a dish and tipped it into his test tube. ‘Now add the hydrochloric acid and heat gently.’

From an old biscuit tin he produced a small bottle of clear liquid and measured the suggested 3ml, dripping in the exact amount.  Warming the mixture with an old lighter, he picked up another test tube, ready to catch the gas. It wasn’t the most efficient way of collecting a sample of element number 17 for his collection, but it would have to do.

As the mixture began to bubble, Itch leaned eagerly towards the tube. Unfortunately, he miscalculated by a few centimetres. The error was small but the effect was huge. Chlorine gas seared into his lungs like fire and he dropped the test tube. His gasp sounded like he was being throttled. In the quiet house, it was like an alarm going off.

Seemingly from nowhere, three figures crashed through his bedroom door.

‘Call Fairnie!’ shouted the leader, scooping Itch up in her arms. ‘And check the room.’ She carried him, coughing and retching, back down the stairs.

‘Are you OK, Itch?’ asked the woman, setting him down on a kitchen chair. ‘Can you breathe?’

Itch nodded, his eyes pressed tightly together but watering anyway. The back door was open, and through it appeared a small, athletic man with a neat black moustache.

‘Chlorine gas, sir,’ barked the woman, her voice loud in the kitchen. ‘Small tube. Self-inflicted.’

‘Take him outside,’ sighed Dr Jim Fairnie. ‘He needs the air.’

She led Itch out into the floodlit back garden and sat him on the kitchen step. After he had taken a few deep breaths, Fairnie knelt down beside him.

He tapped Itch on the shoulder and waited for him to open his eyes. ‘Idiot,’ he said.

‘Sorry,’ croaked Itch. ‘Thought I could bottle some before school—’ He broke off, coughing.

Fairnie looked up as Nicholas and Jude Lofte appeared behind them in the kitchen. They were both tall – Nicholas easily six four – but it was Jude that Itch most closely resembled; their hair both mousy, wavy, and uncontrolled. ‘He’s fine! He’s fine!’ he called before they could say anything. ‘Just a little chlorinated mouthwash to start the day. He’ll be OK just as soon as his lungs have stopped burning. Give him five minutes.’

Itch’s parents stared at their son, then at the man in charge of his security.

‘But what happened?’ asked his father. ‘It’s six in the morning, for heaven’s sake!’

As if in answer to Nicholas’s question, the two men who had been checking Itch’s bedroom appeared in the doorway holding a bag of smashed chemistry equipment.

Jude Lofte rolled her eyes. ‘You have got to be kidding...’

Itchingham Lofte had been allowed home at the beginning of October, after three months in a military hospital.

And ‘home’ was now very different.

MI5 had taken over his house and forced the neighbours to move. Dr Fairnie – who was also a colonel in the British army – ran a cell of seven agents from what had been the Cole family’s house next door. There were three on duty, three off, twenty-four hours a day. (The final member of the team had moved in with Itch’s cousin Jack and her family.) On every window, the Lofte house now had steel shutters that could be lowered if there was a perceived threat. There was a very visible CCTV at the front and back of the property, and a complex alarm system triggered by laser beams that crisscrossed the garden. Inside, there were cameras downstairs but, by common agreement, none upstairs.

The fence between the two semi-detached houses had been removed and replaced with powerful lighting, a satellite dish and a generator. In the Coles’ house, the living rooms were now stuffed with a battery of monitors running images from inside and outside the next-door house. Other cameras showed the roads around the town and the Cornwall Academy, the school attended by Itch and his eleven-year-old sister, Chloe.

The agents tried to interfere with family life as little as possible, keeping to the kitchen as much as they could. The on-duty team would have one member watching the screens next door while the other two patrolled the garden.

And all this because a man called Cake had given Itch a rock. It had looked unremarkable enough – largely brown and pebble-sized – but that rock had turned out to consist of the previously undiscovered element 126. Highly radioactive and extremely powerful, its value was incalculable – but so was the danger it presented. Depending on who controlled it, element 126 had the potential to solve the world’s energy crisis or make its owner a nuclear power overnight.

Itch’s science teacher, Dr Nathaniel Flowerdew, had been quick to spot its value. He’d stolen it from Itch, who promptly stole it back, with the help of Chloe and their cousin Jack. When Cake died from radiation poisoning, they found that he had left behind seven more of the radioactive rocks, and the Loftes had been forced to go on the run to keep them out of Flowerdew’s hands.

In the end, Itch had managed to evade Flowerdew and leave the rocks in the bottom of a very deep well. By the time he had completed his mission, he was almost dead from radiation poisoning. Itch didn’t know who it was who had carried him out of the well and left him at a nearby hospital, but his mysterious rescuer was the only other person who could locate the final resting place of element 126. The identity of this person was a continual worry to Itch: whoever it was knew his secret. Would they go and retrieve the rocks he had gone to such lengths to hide? What were their motives? If it was Flowerdew or Greencorps, surely they would have acted by now?

The reward for Itch’s heroics had been an emergency bone-marrow transplant, followed by three months of recovery and interrogation by MI5, who were desperate to know where the rocks were hidden. When it became clear that Itch wasn’t going to tell them, the British government finally allowed him to go home. But, of course, they couldn’t run the risk of anyone else forcing him to give up his secret. And so the government had come with him...

The Loftes now lived with MI5. Nicholas had given up his job on the oil rigs and was living at home permanently for the first time that Itch could remember. Chloe, who had recovered from her own, less serious, radiation poisoning, had made the adjustment to their new lifestyle with ease. Itch suspected she secretly rather enjoyed the drama that Fairnie and his team brought with them. She had certainly made herself popular with her homemade biscuits.

Itch and Chloe had an older brother, Gabriel, who was away at Warwick University. Apart from a brief visit when Itch was discharged from hospital, he hadn’t come home – a fact that Jude Lofte was not very happy about. In fact, apart from having Itch back home and – all things considered – healthy, his mother, a solicitor, didn’t seem happy about very much at all. She didn’t like the way MI5 ‘messed up the garden’, or the disruption they caused to her normal routines; she certainly didn’t like having them in the house. Itch suspected that she secretly wished that he would just tell Fairnie where he had hidden the rocks, just so they could all go back to living their normal lives.

That November morning found Itch and Chloe having breakfast with two of the daytime security team, Sam Singh and Tina Greaves. The third member was a former marine called Moz Taylor, doubtless watching them from the monitors next door. Tina was the team leader and ex-army, while Sam was as much of a science nut as Itch, and was giving him a hard time about the chlorine:

‘I would have thought you’d put your body through enough without inhaling poison gas for fun.’

Itch was irritated – both by the criticism and by his mistake. ‘I know, I know,’ he snapped. ‘I told Colonel Fairnie I was sorry, didn’t I? It was only a tiny amount. I didn’t need rescuing like that. Now Mum’s mad again.’

‘Mum is always mad,’ said Chloe, pouring herself a cup of tea. ‘You know that. But if I’d heard you choking, I might have raised the alarm too.’

‘You need a history lesson, Itch,’ said Sam. ‘Try looking up how chlorine gas was used in the First World War and then see if you still want to inhale some.’

‘I wasn’t trying to... Oh, never mind. I’ll do without chlorine. Go for something more fun, like mercury, instead.’ Itch checked the clock. ‘Time to go?’

‘Give me five,’ said Chloe.

Tina spoke into the tiny pin-sized microphone built into her sleeve. ‘School run in five minutes.’

The ‘school run’ was actually shorthand for the complex operation needed to get Itch and Chloe to and from school; it required the whole cell. The walk to the Cornwall Academy was the same as it had ever been: down the hill towards the sea, across the golf course, then through the town. Itch and Chloe used to go on their own. Now they had two agents walking twenty metres in front and another two twenty metres behind. Two more followed in a white van with blacked-out windows. All six were in constant radio contact, while Colonel Fairnie monitored events from the Coles’ house.

When Itch and Chloe first returned to school, Jude and Nicholas had assumed that they would be driven there in the van, but Jim Fairnie had said no.

‘If they want to carry on walking, we can cover that. So much has changed for them, it would be good to keep some things the same. We can always change the routine if anyone is unhappy.’

The parents had agreed, and so the twice daily ‘run’ began.

Initially, both Itch and Chloe had been very conscious of all the attention, and laughed and cringed with embarrassment all the way. After all, this level of security was normally reserved for prime ministers, presidents and royalty. But after two weeks the routine had come to feel almost normal.

Tina’s radio crackled, and Colonel Fairnie’s voice came through: ‘School run, your route is clear.’

‘Roger that,’ replied Tina. ‘OK, let’s go.’

The two agents stationed at the front door, Sam Singh and ex-policewoman Kirsten Jones, opened it and stepped out. Casually dressed in jeans and leather jackets, they looked like a couple going to work or shopping in town, not agents from MI5 on a security detail. Itch knew better though. He knew that their clothing had to conceal a Glock 17 pistol. All the agents carried firearms 24/7 – another thing that upset Jude Lofte, who hated the idea of guns in the house. Itch thought it was pretty cool. He’d asked to examine one and been refused.

After ten seconds Tina called, ‘OK, Itch, Chloe – your turn,’ and they walked out of the house.

The security team’s van, with Danny Stein, the youngest of Fairnie’s team, and Chris Lakeman, both ex-policemen, was idling in the middle of the road. As the Loftes headed down the hill, it followed a few metres behind them. Completing the procession, Tina left the house with Moz. They walked side by side on the other side of the road behind Itch and Chloe. Every few seconds one of them would turn and walk backwards for a few steps, checking the surrounding area for anything out of the ordinary. Itch had originally assumed they’d all walk together, but Fairnie had vetoed that.

‘Close protection is only used when the threat is, frankly, assassination. Here it is kidnap that we are preventing, so twenty metres is best.’

‘You see, Chloe,’ Itch had said grimly, ‘we’re not going to be assassinated. I told you everything would be fine.’

When they reached the golf course, the van peeled off. The route had been approved by Fairnie, even though it had to drive round and meet the rest of the group on the other side. Crossing the golf course was much quicker and meant they usually encountered fewer people. On the edge of one of the fairways, they passed an impressive two-metre pile of wood, ready for Bonfire Night.

‘I hope you’re not planning anything involving fireworks,’ said Chloe, smiling. ‘You shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them!’

‘Yeah, that’s pretty much what Fairnie said,’ replied Itch. ‘Which is a shame – I could probably put on quite a show.’

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