Well, maybe not just anybody, and James had a whole roll of crisp fivers in his pocket, not just one. "A misdirected sense of curiosity" would be a nice way of describing the particular aspect of his personality that had led him to the discovery of the chemistry cupboard key in the lab tech's pocket.
The key was a little brass one, and it had a brother that opened something even more intriguing: the fumes cabinet that contained a collection of mysterious glass bottles filled with red and brown liquids with heavy gasses swirling about under their stoppers like so many genies just waiting to get out.
Neither of these cupboards had ever been opened in the presence of pupils, not to James's knowledge, because they contained dangerous substances and weren't to be opened for health and safety reasons, even when everyone had their plastic goggles on. The nearest his class ever got was watching on their laptops while Griff, the chemistry teacher, and Gonzo, the lab tech, messed about with stuff. Not that James cared. He wasn't the least bit interested in chemistry, but he was interested in dangerous substances.
It was an interest that was threatening to get him into a whole lot of trouble, more trouble than he could have possibly imagined. If he was going to get out of it, he was going to have to keep his nerve and think fast. James' first idea was to get in, nick some of the stuff and have a play with it, in the park, or the woods, somewhere it wouldn't do much harm.
The trouble was, he'd told his brother, Jasper, and the trouble with Jasper was that he had very little up top, and any brain cells he had left were under serious threat from his steady consumption of weed. First of all, Jasper had wanted to blow the school up, or set fire to it. James could see the merits of this, but setting fire to the place with them still in it did not strike him as an especially inspired idea. Then Jas came up with another plan, but he didn't tell James about that one until it was way too late.
Jasper knew some bad boys, who in turn knew people even worse than them. Much worse. So much worse that when Jas told James about them, his face drained of colour and his hands began to shake. He would only speak about them in their bedroom and then he talked in a whisper with the TV turned up loud as if as they were creeping about on the landing or had the place bugged. He'd got himself into a bit of trouble, he said, his voice hoarse with more than smoking.
He owed some people money.
"How much money?"
The sum made James give a low whistle, but he could tell by the pinched set of his brother's mouth, by the way he kept blinking and the way he couldn't keep his fingers still but fidgeted about, arranging and re- arranging the Warhammer figures he used to play with, that there was more to it. Much more to it than that.
"They've sold the debt on."
What were they? International bankers?
"Who to, exactly?"
"I don't know. But if you can't find the money they take payment in body parts."
James couldn't think of anything to say to that.
"But I've had an idea," Jasper went on after a while.
"It's a good plan and they might just fall for it." He spoke faster, his voice growing stronger. "We could wipe the debt right out, might even make some money ."
"We? We? Now hang on a minute! This is your problem, not mine!"
"Yes I know." Jasper was older than James, but his voice took on a "little brother" whine. "I need help. Else they'll hurt me. Hurt me badly." He flicked his long hair back out of his eyes and might even have sniffled. "You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"
He wiped his nose on his ragged sleeve and waited for an answer while James thought. That depended. He didn't know. Jasper really was a useless slacker, hanging out with his pathetic skater mates, who all wore those baggy jeans, festooned with stupid chains and showing acres of Calvins. Everything about him was annoying, but he was his brother.
"Oh, OK," James replied eventually. "What do we have to do?" Jittery movements
A meeting was arranged for the key to be handed over, but not before James had made a copy. They met in the local park. The boys might be tooled up with every kind of blade and guns, too, for all James knew, but they were nervous, he could see it in their jittery movements and the way their eyes flicked about. He dropped the key on the table, along with the school's address and a rough sketch map showing the position of the lab, the internal layout, and where to find the ladder.
"And it's good stuff?"
"Are you kidding? It's the real deal. Proper chemicals. Sodium, phosphorus, chlorine and, and ."
"Acids." Jasper suggested.
"Yeah." James nodded. Maybe Jasper wasn't that stupid. "All kinds of acids. Sulphuric, hydrochloric ."
"And what's the brown stuff with the swirly fumes?"
"Nitric?" James wasn't sure. "That, too."
"OK, OK." The leader waved a dismissive hand. "Enough of the chemistry lesson."
"Just saying," James shrugged. "There's all sorts there and absolutely lethal."
"What about CCTV?" The leader narrowed his eyes.
James gave a snort. "Vandalised ages ago. It's just for show."
"What about alarms?" He wasn't leaving anything to chance.
"Ditto," James shrugged. "That don't work either, and the caretaker will be on holiday," he added the last bit to be extra convincing, although he was not sure if that was absolutely true.
That seemed to clinch it. The leader nodded and picked up the key and the map. James grabbed the money and his brother and made it out of there before they had time to change their minds. James unpeeled a couple of notes and gave them to Jasper, who legged it off to join his mates. James took up station by the park entrance. Sure enough, the boys were soon sauntering along, hoods up, swaggering a bit, but not enough to bring them undue attention. They swung out of the park gates and spread themselves across the pavement, moving back into town. James followed at a distance. He did not want to be spotted by them, but none of them looked back.
They were heading for a greasy spoon by the station. They went in and sat down. The guys they joined were older. There were three of them, wearing white shirts and chinos, and sporting beards.
Two of the men looked to be in good shape, one had a bit of a paunch. They were quiet, ordinary looking, could have been anything from computer programers to junior school teachers, but they scared James far more than the gangsta bad boys. They slid the key and the map across the table and took the bag pushed towards them. The men hardly acknowledged their presence. They were out in no time.
James ducked his head and examined the grease-spotted menu, but they didn't even glance in his direction as they sped off down the street. Inside the cafe, the man with a paunch folded the map carefully, picked up the key, stared at it for a moment while turning it over and over in his fingers, then he dropped them both into his shirt pocket and went on sipping his tea.
James left them to it. He didn't want to be caught looking in at the window. Besides, he had other things to do.
He took the roll of fivers to Bamp;Q. There, he purchased a number of perfectly harmless substances, each in colour and consistency as close as he could remember to the contents of the chemistry cupboard. Then he took the bus to school. Better to be safe than sorry. He knew exactly what to do. Mission completed, he removed the ladder from the side of the chemistry lab, put it back where he had said to find it and phoned for a cab. He gave the cabbie a fiver and told him to go to the nearest police station. He intended to drop the key off there, along with an explanation of what he thought was going down.
He did not want credit for it. Anyone could have done it. But only James had a crisp pound;5 note, a stepladder, a key to the chemistry cupboard marked "flammable" and a misdirected sense of curiosity .
Celia Rees was an English teacher in Coventry before becoming a full-time writer in 1997. She has written 17 books for young adults, including the award- winning Witch Child and the celebrated Pirates! Her most recent novel, Sovay, is out now
These words launched The TES Magazine's short story competition 2008. Over the summer we are publishing two winning teacher-turned-writers and four high-profile authors. This is the second story, from Celia Rees, the bestselling novelist. Illustrations by Vicki Gausden.