A Class Apart Preview Chapters
On this page, you can read the Prologue and Chapter One of A Class Apart, the first book in the Class Heroes series. Or, if you prefer, you can download a PDF of these chapters.
Sunday 12 June
Samantha Blake sat up in her hospital bed. She tried to read the article about her on the 24/7 Interactive News website, but her eyes kept flicking nervously to the door of her private room. Nobody was there.
The article had been updated only five minutes ago. It was chilling and surreal to read about the events that she was experiencing – as they were actually happening. The text flowed across the screen of her phone.
Breaking News – School Bus Bombing – Were Twins Targeted?
Fears that teenage twins were targeted in terror attack, amid reports of SECOND strike in victims’ hospital!
Sam could feel her heart thumping and her pulse quickening as she read the piece. Targeted? Really? Her and James? They must be the twins referred to, as there hadn’t been any others on the coach. Surely the bombing hadn’t been an attack on them? It was stupid! Who would want to target them?
Sam looked around nervously. The report claimed there been an attack on the hospital. Within the isolation of these four walls, she had heard nothing, seen nothing. She was alone, but she could almost imagine an assassin in the bathroom, or a bomb under her bed. She had no way of being sure, because she could not move from the bed or leave the room. She wished her brother, James, was here.
Eight days ago it had been their 14th birthday. They’d had a big party with all their school friends. Many of them were no longer alive.
Now she lay in this hospital bed, cold, alone, scared and hungry.
She scrolled further down the page. There was another video report, but this one was from three hours ago.
Mystery Death Dive at Bomb Survivors’ Hospital
Bosses refuse to confirm whether a teenage boy has fallen out of 36th-storey window at Brent Valley General
Sam watched the video, her heart in her mouth. The reporter was standing outside the hospital, pointing at fragments of glass on the ground and a broken window at the top of the huge building. The reporter said that eyewitnesses had claimed that a body had come through the window, although the whereabouts of the body was unknown and unexplained.
Three hours ago, James had told her he was heading up to the 36th floor. That was the last she had heard from him. Could it have been James who had fallen out of the window?
Sam jumped in fright. Through the glass panels in her door, she saw a shape. A figure in the corridor. She couldn’t see who it was. Friend or enemy?
Samantha Blake shrank down into her bed. Even with the amazing things that she could do, she had reason to be fearful.
The door opened, and Sam breathed a sigh of relief. It was a friend. Everything was ok.
And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t...
Chapter 1 – Combustive
Tuesday 7 June
Brian Hacker closed his eyes while the coach was stopped at the traffic lights, and tried to shut out the noise. He’d been a coach driver for 23 years and on most days he loved his job.
Brian was driving a coach party of 30 children, two teachers and two parents from South Ealing Comprehensive School in West London. They had been on a day trip to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Imperial War Museum.
There were shrieks, giggles, mobile ringtones, and competing perfume and aerosol sprays circulating around the coach, all of which served to exacerbate the agony of his pounding head and sandpaper throat. Flu. The symptoms had started yesterday.
Brian opened his eyes to see the lights were green, as three drivers behind him started leaning on their horns. He inched the coach forward. They’d successfully navigated the Hangar Lane gyratory and were probably no more than 30 minutes from the school. It would almost certainly be another two hours before he could get home, kiss his wife, say “hi” to the boys, and collapse into bed. He looked at the large digital clock at the front of the coach.
It read 19:17.
Towards the back of the coach, Samantha Blake closed her eyes and tried to blot out the noise. Two sources of noise really. One was Emma Venton, the nastiest piece of work in the school by some distance, and her faithful lapdog Anika Ali. Both were sitting on the back seat, periodically throwing paper missiles at Sam’s head and texting unpleasant messages to her mobile. ‘Freak’, ‘stick insect’ and ‘twiglet’ were the nicer parts of the messages.
The second source, more benign but no less annoying, was Philip Randerson. He was sitting on the seat in front of hers, propped up on his knees and facing her over the back of the chair. In one hand he was holding a book, The Country of the Blind and other stories by HG Wells.
Philip was intense. You never quite knew what he was thinking, or what he was on about, or indeed what planet he was on half the time. He was nice enough, but very hard work. He was amazingly intelligent. The cleverest pupil in the year, probably in the school. So why couldn’t he work out how annoying he was?
Sam was trying her best to be polite. She never wanted to be one of life’s Emma Ventons or her chavette entourage, but she couldn’t help but feel that by being nice to Philip, she had somehow been penalised. As though she had left a door ajar, and Philip was eagerly trying to push his foot into the opening. His obscure conversational topics and his habit of doggedly flogging a line of argument to the death made him very wearing. Fifteen minutes ago, he had asked Sam what type of boys she found attractive. Foolishly, and despite knowing exactly what was coming, she had replied:
“Well, he has to be nice, and have a good sense of humour. Um, kind, nice looking...”
“You put ‘good sense of humour’ and ‘kind’ ahead of looks,” pounced Philip. “Why do girls always say that when really it’s ‘looks’ every time?”
Sam had spiritedly played along in the argument, although she found her mind wandering. Philip was a mouth breather, she noticed. She wanted to tell him to close his mouth and breathe through his nose, but worried that it might offend him. Or worse, it might prompt another line of argument. He was called ‘gormless’ a lot. She wanted to suggest that his fair hair, in the classic pudding-basin style, might benefit from a slightly more fashionable cut. He was called some unpleasant names about that too. But she couldn’t bring herself to say anything that might upset him. She knew all too well what it felt like to be on the receiving end of bullying.
Sam’s best friend, Nina Palmer, had tired of the conversation 14 minutes ago. She had been brushing her shiny black hair and studying the results with her make-up mirror. She hadn’t paid much attention to the conversation but Philip was getting on her nerves.
“Oh, why don’t you just tell her that you fancy her?!” she snapped.
Philip was momentarily derailed.
“It’s so obvious. That’s why you keep asking her what boys she fancies, and why you keep taking the mickey out of her, and going on and on with your stupid arguments!”
Philip got right back onto the rails.
“I think you’ll find that if I fancied her, it would be more logical for me to tell her I fancied her, and maybe buy her flowers in the traditional way.”
“Well then why don’t you, instead of dribbling over her all day?” Nina snapped, and returned to reading her magazine.
“Well perhaps you fancy her, Nina. You’re always hanging out with Sam. You’re together in classes, in the playground, and on the bus. And you’re wearing that top.”
The top that Philip was referring to was an unofficial school sweater. Very unofficial. Essentially it was just the standard South Ealing Comprehensive School navy-blue sweater, with the school emblem on it. But the current trend among the older girls was to have the sweater altered to include the school name as the acronym S.E.C.S, and with the words ‘South Ealing girls know good’ just before it. Funnily enough, it wasn’t an item that they wore when they got home. The trend was now filtering down to the lower years, much to the consternation of parents and teachers.
“You should get one as well, Sam. You’re like lovers,” said Philip.
“They’re like freaks!” called out Emma Venton from the back seat.
Nina Palmer flushed. She didn’t fancy Sam, but she did have a bit of a thing for Sam’s brother James. But she couldn’t really say anything to her best friend.
She stood up and shouted back at Emma Venton.
“You wearing your mum’s perfume again, Venton? Or did we just go past a pub?”
Emma Venton glowered.
Closer to the front of the coach James Blake, Samantha’s twin brother, removed his earphones and paused the track on his phone’s music player. The mobile was brand new. It had been his and Sam’s 14th birthday on Saturday, and they’d been given identical smartphones as a present from their mum and dad.
James had his hat pulled down over his eyes, his feet were resting on the seat in front and he had been lost in thought trying to work out the guitar riffs that he was listening to. But something tugged at his subconscious. He had a tingling feeling that his sister needed him. People had always told him that he must share a special connection with Sam.
They often finished each other’s sentences, independently picked out identical presents for people and generally seemed to know what the other was thinking. He had read that this was not an uncommon ability in twins, although privately he thought that given how much time they had spent together it was not surprising that their outlook on life was similar and their tastes the same. Nevertheless, he had often accurately sensed when his sister needed him and she, too, always seemed to know when he needed her.
James sat up, removed his hat and ran a hand through his fair hair. James and Sam were unmistakable as brother and sister. They shared the same wide mouth and flawless skin. James was a little sensitive to this fact; he wondered if it meant he didn’t look masculine enough. It irked him that he couldn’t grow enough stubble to give him a more rugged look, as his baby-soft skin often lead to him being called ‘pretty boy’ on the football pitch. And that was just by his own team.
James looked back down the bus to see Emma Venton kneeling on the back seat, with Anika Ali sitting next to her. Anika was tearing out sheets of paper from another girl’s set of Imperial War Museum worksheets, screwing them up, and handing them to Emma. Emma was then throwing them at Sam. Most of them were missing their target, but he still felt a stab of anger as he looked at his sister’s kind face.
Samantha was strong, she was witty and she could hold her own against a bully like Emma, but she never showed any inclination to fight back. James kept telling Sam she should confront Emma – face her down, show her that she was not to be messed with. Sam, probably to her credit, just said that Emma wasn’t worth it.
Emma Venton had never hurt Sam; all the bullying was done from a distance and usually via a phone or the internet. But that wasn’t because Emma shied away from physical bullying. She was perfectly willing and able to hurt other girls, and some boys, quite badly just for the hell of it, if she thought she could. James was worried that maybe Emma was testing Sam, trying to gauge whether she could take her on in a fight.
James had often told Sam that he felt Emma was jealous of her. Emma Venton was a lot plainer looking than Sam. Not ugly – well, not physically ugly. But she had a hardness to her that somehow made her look a lot older than 14. Watching Emma and Anika now, James wondered if maybe he should make a pre-emptive strike himself; just some kind of warning shot, to let them know his sister wasn’t to be messed with.
“Slaaaaaags!” yelled Emma Venton at Sam and Nina, accompanied by the nervous shrieks and giggles of Anika.
Feeling his blood boil, James was about to mount a punitive expedition to the back of the coach when Mr Stark, the History teacher, stood up and bellowed at Emma to sit properly in her seat and behave. Which, temporarily and reluctantly, she did. Mr Stark sat back down next to Mrs Cutts, the PE teacher, and muttered something under his breath to his colleague.
James sunk back into his seat, equally reluctantly and seething with frustration. He had been looking for an opportunity to put Emma Venton in her place and get her off his sister’s back, but often what had stopped him was the fact that Emma was a girl, and seriously what was he going to do? He could give her a mouthful, but that was it. What could he threaten her with? He would never lay a finger on a girl, not even one as vicious as Emma Venton.
James had seen Emma hit other boys, and it was clear from the sound of the punch and the reaction of the boy that she packed quite a wallop. But, so far, none of the boys could quite bring themselves to retaliate. Emma knew this and played on it. She caught James’s eye from the back of the bus. She’d seen his slight movement before Mr Stark had stood up behind him. She gave James a can’t-touch-me smile. James made a rude gesture in return, which prompted some sarcastic “Oooo-oooooh”s from Emma and Anika.
Brian Hacker sighed as he caught a glimpse of the Venton girl in his rear-view mirror. A bad one that. Sad how every class seemed to have a rotten egg, although it had been a while since he’d seen one that rotten. He cast a quick look at the clock: 19:28. It had been a long day. He had arrived at South Ealing Comprehensive’s playground nearly 12 hours ago. Still, only another 20 minutes to the school and maybe an hour and a half till he was back in his sick bed. Unfortunately though, he had another 6am start tomorrow and it had been made clear to him by his boss that he would be doing that job, even if he was dying!
Brian guided the coach forward another few precious metres. Then something caught his eye. Was he dreaming? He squinted and leaned forward in his seat. If that wasn’t the damnedest thing he had ever seen. On the roof of one of the big houses along Hangar Lane, there was a girl. He blinked as the low evening sun made his eyes water. But there was no mistake. A young girl, no more than 16 years old, was sitting on the apex of the roof, with her legs swinging over the edge. What was she playing at, the stupid little fool? She could kill herself.
The driver of the car behind bibbed his horn again. Brian Hacker looked angrily in the mirror, then at the road ahead. He inched forward into the available space.
The girl on the roof looked down at the coach. She could see the disbelieving expression on the driver’s face. She considered giving him a little wave. She was enjoying this game. She had an excellent view of the road ahead. Traffic was still moving slowly, thanks to the wrecked car that had been carelessly left at the side of the road. Now who would do a thing like that? The coach would pass it in about five minutes. She stood up, totally unfazed by her dizzying distance from the ground. She had the grace, posture and physique of a gymnast. She wore black lycra running trousers and a black sweat top.
She looked at the next house along the road. There was a distance of about ten metres in length and three metres in height between the roof she was standing on and the roof of the next house. She sprinted along the roof, jumped, somersaulted in the air, and landed steadily on the adjacent building. She had reached the higher ground with ease.
Brian Hacker stopped the coach nose-to-bumper with the car in front. He looked up at the rooftop again. The girl was gone. The sun was in his eyes, annoyingly. Should he ring the police? Or had he just imagined it?
Sam’s phone buzzed again, but this time it wasn’t another Venton vent of venom. It was Mum, saying that she hoped they had both enjoyed their day, and that she was preparing chicken pie for dinner. Sam looked down the bus at James. He was looking back at her. They’d received the same text. Sam smiled and felt a warm wave of homely love wash through her, tempered by a slight stab of guilt. Mum was worried about her and was trying gently to help. Sam thought about getting home. Instead of having dinner, she just wanted to have a shower and go to bed. She hoped Mum wouldn’t be too cross or upset.
“I saw you on Comic Relief the other night Blake” shouted out Emma Venton.
“You pretend that you think you are not attractive,” continued Philip Randerson, “when, in reality, you know that you are attractive. But by acting like you believe you are not, you end up gathering more attention.”
“Shut your face!” came another voice from somewhere else on the bus.
A hundred conversations seemed to be reaching Sam’s ears all at once.
“Everyone just keep the noise down,” bellowed Mr Stark.
“I hope you snap in half Blake, you freak,” shouted out Emma Venton, half standing on the back seat now, reminding Sam of a monkey in a cage, about to fling excrement at passing tourists. “I hope you die looking at a McDonalds, and your family feed you to the birds!”
That was it! James stood up, blood pumping in his ears, his vision slightly hazy with rage. He was up to his full height of five foot seven. He barely heard Mr Stark call out to him to sit down. He could only see the eyes of Emma Venton. Those eyes changed from surprise, to triumph, to a momentary fear as she saw the intent in James’s face. Maybe, finally, she had gone too far? Her mouth curled to display grim defiance. She clenched her fists.
James didn’t know what he was going to do. He still didn’t think he could hit Emma Venton, but he might at least grab the phone out of her hand and destroy the tool that sent poison to his sister’s mobile. He was eight steps away. Seven steps away. He caught his sister’s eye and noted that she looked worried – worried about him.
Brian Hacker narrowed his eyebrows as he saw James Blake, a likeable, polite and decent lad, marching to the back of the bus. The teachers would have their hands full now. He hoped his own boys hadn’t been in any trouble at school today.
Those thoughts were quickly forgotten when he saw that some idiot had abandoned a car on the double yellow line further down the road. Even from here he could see that the car wheels were bent out at an awkward angle, the back window was smashed and there was an ‘Authorities Aware’ sticker across the boot. Why hadn’t it been towed away? So that had been the cause of the slow-moving traffic. He would have to pull out into the oncoming traffic to get around it. What on earth were the police doing, leaving it there?
James was two paces away from Emma Venton now – she had both feet planted on the back seat, ready to meet him, brandishing her sharp nails and signalling her intent to slash at his face. She looked feral, crouched on the seat like a cornered animal. She didn’t take her eyes off her challenger, hoping to intimidate him. James prepared to block the initial slash and fend off the second blow, which would then unbalance Emma. Then he’d grab the mobile from where she had left it on the seat between her feet, and before she had a chance to recover, he would throw it out of the window and under the wheels of a passing car.
Emma Venton picked her moment as James Blake came grimly and steadfastly towards her, his face set and his eyes strangely cold, like the Terminator. She would cut his stupid face. She prepared to take her swipe.
Brian Hacker pulled the coach smoothly around the obstructing car. He had his eyes firmly on the road and had judged his approach perfectly. They would pass the car and be back on their own side of the road before the approaching lorry was anywhere near them. He changed down the gear and turned the steering wheel.
For a second, Brian Hacker caught another glimpse of the girl on the rooftop, now on top of another house nearby. This time she seemed to be waving at him. He switched his eyes back to the road. The coach was now level with the broken down vehicle.
That was when the car exploded.
Everything happened at once. The blast ripped through the front of the coach, with the large vehicle effectively absorbing the entire force of the eruption. Glass crashed inwards. The coach’s passenger-side wheels left the ground and the vehicle pitched over and began to slide across the road. There were screams and a terrifying noise of metal grinding against tarmac. A hundred car and burglar alarms rippled out from the epicentre of the blast.
The car driver behind the coach was no longer leaning on his horn, but swerving on to the pavement. He ended up crashing into the gardens of the block of flats that were at the side of the road, and instantly had a face full of air bag. A succession of drivers behind him slammed on their brakes and found themselves rear-ending the car in front.
The driver of the oncoming lorry pulled at his steering wheel and jabbed his brakes, and the huge vehicle started skidding forwards towards the upturned coach.
Only barely alive, the last thing Brian Hacker saw was a flash of fast-moving metal bearing down upon him. He tried one last attempt to free himself from his seat.
The screech of the lorry’s tyres suddenly gave way to another sickening crunch as the cab impacted against the lower bodywork of the front of the coach, smashing out the remaining windows.
There were few pedestrians on the roadside by Hangar Lane, but those who were close by ran for their lives.
Inside the coach, the world was red, orange and black. Several of the passengers had been killed instantly by the blast and many others had been knocked unconscious. Through his blurred vision, James Blake just saw a mass of limbs as he was thrown first towards the front of the coach, then sideways, and then he was upside down.
James caught sight of his sister screaming out in pain, pinned to the upturned roof of the bus, one of her legs twisted at a horrible angle. He was conscious for only six seconds more. In those seconds, he felt a cold sensation in his neck and his back as glass embedded itself in his body. He cried out from the pain, which was far worse than anything he had ever known. His head bashed into the armrest of a nearby seat, and someone else fell on top of him. He had to get out, but he couldn’t! He felt a terrible rage and tried summoning up every bit of strength he had to break free but it was useless. Then he had a brief glimpse of a bloodstained, wild face, which he thought was Philip Randerson’s, before they connected heads and James blacked out.
Samantha was still conscious but she could not feel her legs. There was a large piece of twisted metal embedded in her right thigh. It had pierced her blue school skirt, which itself was now soaked in her blood. She couldn’t even see her other leg. She screamed, but was drowned out by the sound of another explosion which this time seemed to come from the back of the bus. It was deafeningly loud, and already it had become impossible to see more than an arm’s length in front of her as the coach was filling up with smoke. She choked, and scrabbled desperately to get clear of whatever was pinning her down. As the coach had fallen on its side the only daylight coming in was from above, where the passenger-side windows were now facing the evening sky. Sam tried reaching as high as she could but was suddenly hit by another shower of glass and a ball of flames. She could barely see, and it was painful to even breathe. She made one last effort to try and remove the large shard of metal that was embedded in her leg, but it was impossible. She blacked out.
On a nearby rooftop, with a grandstand view of the suffering and devastation, the girl sat filming the event below using her mobile phone. She smiled as she heard the screams, the cries and the pitiful whinnying of the dying. She stopped filming and attached the video file to a message which read:
‘Daddy. Aren’t you lucky to have such an efficient daughter? Love Lolly.’
The girl called Lolly sent the message. She zipped the phone up in the pocket of her black running top and brushed herself down. It was time to go. She took a running jump, crossing the gulf to the next house, and grabbed hold of a windowsill. She hung from the ledge for a few seconds. She then descended, swinging from one handhold to the next like she was performing a gymnastic display, until she landed elegantly on the ground. She smartened her jacket again, brushed back a wisp of her long brown hair from her forehead, and walked calmly onto the street.
Sam briefly came to. She thought she must have been jolted awake by the pain of the metal shard being removed from her thigh. She felt a strange sensation in her body. She couldn’t identify it but, weirdly, it reminded her of the time when she was eight years old and ate a chilli thinking it was a sweet.
She still could not see properly because of the smoke. She was coughing and retching. Then it felt as though strong arms were lifting her out of the wreckage. Suddenly the heat from the flames gave way to the cool summer air, and she thought she was floating above the burning coach. Next thing she knew, she was being laid gently down on cold concrete. A hand tenderly brushed her hair back and then was gone.
Or maybe she had dreamed that bit?
The coach had set off at 07:03 from South Ealing Comprehensive School, with 30 children aged 13 and 14, two teachers, two parents and a driver. At 19:38, the burning wreckage of the coach lay across both carriageways of Hangar Lane in West London, less than five miles from the school.
Brian Hacker would not be returning home to his wife and children. Mrs Cutts the PE teacher, Mr Stark the History teacher, Tom Harrad, Simon Elburn, and Suzi Twyford, who were all sitting near the front of the bus, were killed instantly.
Four others died within the following two minutes.
It would be several days before James Blake would realise how lucky he was that he had marched angrily to the back of the coach.
It would be some considerable time before the long-term consequences of the blast would be realised.
The anger, bitterness and grief at the senseless loss of loved ones by families, friends, classmates and a community would last a lifetime.