Authors: Keith Mansfield
New York â¢ London
Â© 2009 by Keith Mansfield
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of the same without the permission of the publisher is prohibited.
Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.
Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use or anthology should send inquiries to Permissions c/o Quercus Publishing Inc., 31 West 57
Floor, New York, NY 10019, or to
Distributed in the United States and Canada by Random House Publisher Services
c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
JOHNNY MACKINTOSH: STAR BLAZE
JOHNNY MACKINTOSH: BATTLE FOR EARTH
Available now at
For Luke and Ross, hoping the stars call you both
The twenty-third of April was a very special day in the life of Johnny Mackintoshâit was his thirteenth birthday, although he hadn't told anybody. The last thing he wanted was to be given the bumps by Spencer Mitchell and the rest. And Johnny was even happier than most boys would be on becoming a teenager, having just helped his football team to victory in the semifinals of the Essex Schools Cup. In fact, today was also another anniversary, but one that he'd forgottenâit was exactly eleven years to the day since he'd come to live at Halader House, a children's home located at 33 Barnard Way, Castle Dudbury New Town. But it was none of these things that made the twenty-third of April really specialâthat was because of the flashing green light leaking out from underneath the ill-fitting door to the computer room of Halader House.
As chance would have it, Johnny Mackintosh, carrying a red sports bag over his left shoulder, was walking along a windowless corridor toward this very room. He was covered head to toe in mud, from beneath his pale blond hair, around his dark green eyes (with striking silver flecks), across his once-white football shirt, spattering his black shorts and almost totally obscuring his white socks. Any bits of skin not concealed by mud, which were very few, were so pale they looked almost blue. Lolloping along beside him, leaving muddy paw prints on the beige carpet, was a particularly shaggy gray and white Old
English sheepdog with a long fringe completely masking his eyes.
Johnny walked past the door in question and continued on his way to the shower room. The sheepdog, however, stopped and began sniffing around its base. Then he lifted his head, turned toward Johnny and barked.
“Bentleyâshhhhhh!” hissed Johnny. “Come onâbefore someone sees you inside.”
The dog's only response was to turn his head and point his little black nose toward the gap at the foot of the door and bark again.
“Bentsâwe haven't got time for this.” Johnny shook his head in a manner that suggested he was used to Bentley disobeying his instructions. He stomped back up the corridor toward the dog, knelt down and lifted Bentley's fringe so he could stare straight into the dog's one brown and one blue eye. “Listen, Bents. If you get caught inside again I'm for it.” Bentley didn't want to listen. Instead, he pulled his head away and barked at the door. Only then did Johnny notice the green glow coming from underneath it. He straightened up and tried turning the handle, but the door was locked. By the side of the handle was a reader for magnetic swipe cards. Johnny banged it with frustration and, to his surprise, there was a soft click. He tried the handle again and the door opened. Bentley scampered inside and Johnny followed.
The reason for the green glow was immediately apparent. On each of the eight computer screens positioned around a large central table were the same two words, displayed in blinking green text against a black background. They read:
Johnny sat down at one of the terminals and entered a sequence of numbers and letters. Bentley placed his front legs on the
table, covering the surface in muddy paw prints, and lifted his face up so he, too, could stare at the screen. The display changed. The text was replaced by two green wireframe globes, one of which had the outlines of the continents superimposed on top of it. “It can't be,” Johnny muttered to himself as he stared open-mouthed at the image in front of him. “Kovac,” he said, but before he could continue there was a sharp pain in his left ear as a thumb and forefinger closed around it and he was yanked upward out of the chair.
As a reflex action, Johnny hit the escape button on the keyboard, and the displays of all eight of the computers on the table transformed so that a drawing of a very large, bearded man, wearing a puffed-up white hat, began bouncing around like a rubber ball. To make matters worse, the cartoon face of an Old English sheepdog appeared right in the middle of each screen and opened its mouth. Instead of a bark, out popped a speech bubble with the words “Mr. Wilkins stinks.” At the time it had seemed a laugh to make this the default screensaver on each of the Halader House computers. Now Mr. Wilkins, the bearded Halader House cook, was holding Johnny by his increasingly reddening earlobe, it didn't seem quite so funny. Johnny tried to wriggle free, but only succeeded in burying his face in the folds of the cook's flabby stomach. Mr. Wilkins's tiny, beetle-like eyes were staring at the nearest screen from beneath his curly black hair and his round face was becoming redder and redder, as though about to explode.
“That's the last straw, sonny,” said the cook, thrusting his curly beard right into Johnny's face so it tickled. “We're going to see the Manager. This time she's got to see sense. Oh yes.” The huge man attempted to march Johnny out of the room, but Bentley took hold of the hem of Mr. Wilkins's elasticated blue trousers with his teeth. The Old English sheepdog was dragged along the carpet
behind them toward the door. Mr. Wilkins kicked out his leg, swinging Bentley's head to and fro as the dog growled and something ripped. Both Bentley and a piece of Mr. Wilkins's trousers had become detached. Finally outside, Mr. Wilkins began pushing Johnny down the corridor, keeping a very tight hold on his ear.
With Bentley barking right behind them, Mr. Wilkins stopped, rolled up his trouser leg to reveal a chunky calf and said, “Come on, you filthy horrible little dog.” Johnny knew exactly what the cook was trying to do. Mr. Wilkins had been at Halader House for as long as Johnny could remember and, throughout that time, seemed set on a one-man mission to have Bentley permanently removed from the establishmentâwithout, or preferably with, Johnny. The cook was always reminding Johnny that the special permission to let him keep the dog could be canceled at any moment. And it was sure to be the moment Bentley sank his teeth into Mr. Wilkins's exposed skin.
Luckily, Bentley seemed to sense Johnny's desperation and backed off. He followed, growling, as Mr. Wilkins forced Johnny past the kitchens, up a flight of stairs and all the way along another corridor to a dark wooden door with a brass doorknob and matching brass plate, on which were written the words “Manager's Office.”
The cook rapped excitedly on the door and a woman's voice shouted, “Come in.” As Johnny opened the door, Mr. Wilkins released his earlobe and pushed him inside, closing the door quickly behind them to keep Bentley on the other side. Johnny stumbled forward into the spotless office, showering some dried mud onto the wooden floor. Johnny hated this room. It was where you were sent if you were in trouble and with Johnny that was pretty much all the time. He couldn't help itâthings always seemed to happen around him.
The room was large, lit by a window taking up the entire far
wall and which looked out across a gray tarmac carpark to Castle Dudbury railway station. Near the door stood a little round wood-effect table and four chairs. Around the walls were several framed black and white photographs of scruffy children playing barefoot in run-down terraced streets. In front of the window was a large wood-effect desk, either side of which stood floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jam-packed with large tomes in dusty thick black covers. And behind the desk sat a woman with pointy silver glasses and black and gray streaky hair. She wore an ancient tiger-striped dress, with a pearl necklace and matching earrings, and followed Johnny's progress into the room with round owl-like eyes.