"You fancy yourself as a bit of a swimmer, do you, Bond?"
Today CBn can offer an extended excerpt from SilverFin, the bestselling first Young Bond novel by Charlie Higson. SilverFin will be published in the U.S. by Miramax Books on April 27.
James was shivering. His body felt raw, as if he’d had the skin peeled off it, like Croaker’s eel. He rubbed his arms to try to get some feeling back into them, and the raised goose bumps made them feel as rough as sandpaper.
If it was this cold out of the water, what was it going to be like in it?
Well, there was only one way to find out.
It was half an hour before afternoon lessons and he was standing on a low diving board at Ward’s Mead, peering at the water, which looked like some of Codrose’s less appetizing soup. Cold soup. Freezing-cold soup.
“Come on, then,” he said out loud. “Just do it.”
He pulled back his arms, took a deep breath and flung himself forward. When he entered the water it was like being hit by a cricket bat. He was stunned by the cold and for a moment he couldn’t move, but then he came alive, clawed his way to the surface and gasped. All his limbs were aching and his throbbing head felt numb. The only way to stay in the water and stop himself from jumping out was to swim. He thrashed across the Mead to the other side and fought the urge to get out and run back to his room. After a moment’s hesitation, he forced himself round and swam back to the other side.
Weak sunlight was filtering through the low cloud; at least it was warmer than yesterday, but these were hardly ideal swimming conditions. Nevertheless, if he was going to stand any chance in the cup, which was only three weeks away, he knew that he would have to get used to it.
After three widths he found that his body was adjusting to the temperature and, while it could never have been described as pleasant, at least he knew that he was not going to die after all.
He swam a few more widths, and when he had had just about all that he could stand he swam over to where he’d left his clothes and prepared to pull himself out of the water. But, just as he was getting his knees up, somebody put a shoe in his face and shoved him back into the Mead.
He looked up. It was George Hellebore.
“Hey, if it ain’t my old pal, Jimmy Bond,” he said.
“Hello, Hellebore.” James once more tried to scramble out on to the grassy bank.
“Where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?” said Hellebore, pushing him back in again.
“To get changed.”
“Always in a hurry, aren’t you, Bond? Always got to go somewhere fast.”
“I’m cold and I want to get out.”
“Yeah, I bet you do. Well, I’m in charge of the river today.” Hellebore knelt down and gave James a big, sinister smile. “And if you want to get out, first of all you have to pass a little test.”
James looked up into George’s face. His china-blue eyes were glinting with crazy amusement and there was an ugly smirk on his lips.
“Look, Hellebore,” said James, holding on to the side. “You’re not in charge here.”
“Hey, if I say I’m in charge, I’m in charge.”
There was no point in arguing, Hellebore was backed up by his usual gang of cronies: Wallace, with his big, square head and gap-toothed grin, Sedgepole, who had an extremely small head and sticking-out ears, and Pruitt, who was rather good-looking and elegant. They leered at James, daring him to try his luck.
“What do you want?” said James, trying not to let his teeth rattle together with the cold.
“You fancy yourself as a bit of a swimmer, do you, Bond?” said the American, and Bond shrugged. “Well, I’ve not seen anybody in this country of yours that was half as good a swimmer as me. I practically grew up in the water.”
“Yes,” said Bond, kicking his legs to try and keep warm. “You’re supposed to be quite good.”
“Quite good?” Hellebore opened his eyes wide in mock amazement: “Quite good? I’m the best, Bond. Care to have a race?”
“Not now, Hellebore.”
“But that’s the test you have to pass, Bond, old boy. You have to win a swimming race.”
“I’m not racing you, Hellebore . . .”
“Who said anything about racing me? You couldn’t beat me in a thousand years. No, you’re not racing me.” Hellebore whistled and a boy in swimming trunks shuffled reluctantly over from the bushes where he’d been sheltering. It was Leo Butcher, a robust, cheerful, round boy who played in the school brass band. Bond had seen him puffing away at a recent concert given by the Musical Society in School Hall.
“Hello, Bond,” he said sheepishly. It was obvious that he had no more desire to be here than James.
‘Hello, Butcher,’ said James.
“The deal is . . .” said Hellebore. “You get to race Butcher.”
Bond frowned. Butcher didn’t look like much of a swimmer. What was the catch?
“What do you say, Bond?” Hellebore slapped Butcher hard across the shoulders, and Bond saw him wince with the pain. “A race against fatty Butcher here. The loser gives me . . .” Hellebore paused for dramatic effect, “let’s say, their hat.”
Bond glanced at Butcher, who was staring at the ground.
“It should be a fun race,” said Hellebore. “But I’ll warn you, Bond, Butcher’s good. He’s the best.” The older boys laughed.
“If it’s all the same to you,” said James, “I’d rather not . . .”
Hellebore suddenly grabbed James by the hair and forced his head under the surface. Taken by surprise, James swallowed a mouthful of muddy water. He came up, coughing and retching.
“You race Butcher, Bond. Or me and my good friends are going to play football with your head. Understand?” Hellebore grabbed him and pulled him on to the bank. “So, what’s it to be?”
James stood up; George’s hands had left red marks on his arms.
“All right,” he said quietly.
Hellebore clapped his hands. “Good fellow,” he said. “May the best man win.”
James and Butcher arranged themselves at the edge of the Mead. Butcher was shivering madly and his knees were knocking together. James wondered what threats Hellebore had used to get him to cooperate.
“Are you all set?” Hellebore called out. “Two widths, loser pays out the forfeit.”
Try as he might, James couldn’t understand what Hellebore was up to. He could beat Butcher easily — the blond American must be planning some kind of trick. But what?
“On your marks, get set . . .” Hellebore stopped suddenly. Butcher was caught off guard and toppled into the water. Hellebore’s pals laughed.
“Oh, I forgot, Bond,” said Hellebore as Butcher clambered back out again. “One more thing.”
James looked over at him. Here it came.
“You have to stay under the water.”
“You heard me. It’s an underwater race. As soon as you come up for air, you’re out of the running. If you don’t make it back, then whoever gets the furthest is the winner.”
James looked over at Butcher, who looked away.
Oh, well. It wasn’t the end of the world. James still had a chance. Butcher couldn’t be that good, and James was pretty confident that he could hold his breath for quite a while.
“Set! Go!” shouted Hellebore quickly, and they dived in.
James was ready for the coldness this time, but it was worse having to swim underwater. He could only see about three inches in front of him; it was like trying to peer through a particularly vile, greenish-brown fog. Indefinable scraps and dross floated past in the gloom and he thought he glimpsed a pale shape far off that could have been Butcher, but it was gone before he could see it clearly. Slimy weeds brushed against his belly and the thought of the eels waiting below in the mud made him shudder.
He had no idea how far he’d gone, but he knew that it was going to be a struggle reaching the far side, let alone turning round and swimming back again.
He felt awful, as if a cold iron cage were clamped round his head; all he wanted to do was to get to the surface, stick his head out and be up in the fresh air, warmth and light. But he resisted the urge and swam harder, using a clean, strong breaststroke, deciding that the quicker he went, the less time he’d need to hold his breath. However, the quicker he went, the more oxygen he used up, and soon his lungs began to burn. He struggled on, the pounding in his head getting worse and worse. A few more strokes and he had to let some air out, then some more, until his lungs were completely empty and the pain was crippling him. Still he battled on, one more stroke, another, then — no, it was too much, his whole body was crying out for oxygen, he couldn’t fight it any longer. He bobbed to the surface and gulped in several great mouthfuls of air. Then he trod water, panting and choking. He’d drifted way off course and was nowhere near the other side, but where was Butcher? He must still be down there somewhere. Was he all right? Maybe he’d got tangled in weeds?
No, he saw his feet splashing near the far bank. He’d reached the other side, but still he didn’t come up. James caught sight of him doggedly sculling back towards the start point. Bond forgot all about losing, forgot all about the cold, forgot all about the older boys jeering from the edge of the Mead. He marveled at Butcher’s capacity for holding his breath. It was only when he was within five or six feet of the edge that he finally floated up and took in more air, although he hardly seemed out of breath at all.
“Well done, Butcher,” yelled Hellebore. “You’re a champion turtle.”
James swam to them. He was looking forward to getting warm and dry but, as he reached the older boys, Hellebore suddenly grabbed him by the hair again and forced him back under the water. He had had no time to take a breath and was soon struggling, but, try as he might, he couldn’t break free of Hellebore’s grip and come up again. The last of his air came out in a huge bubble and he swallowed a gut-full of water. He mustn’t panic, that would only make things worse. The American wasn’t going to drown him . . . he wasn’t . . .
Or was he? A few more moments and he’d be breathing in water . . . He couldn’t force himself upwards, the boy’s arm was too strong . . . But if he couldn’t go upwards . . . maybe he could go the other way.
It was drastic, but it was the only solution.
He suddenly grabbed hold of Hellebore’s wrist and pulled. Caught off guard, the boy tumbled over and landed in the water with an almighty splash, letting go of James in the process. James quickly squirmed on to the bank and vomited up a stream of mucus and river scum.
Hellebore was furious; he yelled something, and Sedgepole and Pruitt grabbed James. He knew he was in big trouble now, but anything was better than drowning.
Hellebore clumsily scrambled out in his soaking clothes. His eyes were red, his blue lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl, his hair flattened to his head. All traces of the handsome young boy had gone, to be replaced by the features of a crazed animal.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Bond,” he rasped.
SilverFin copyright © 2005 by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. Reprinted with permission.
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