And this is the entirely terrible artwork I painted for the cover of the book.
‘Oh, wow.’ Derrick sighed in rapture. Howard’s garage was, as always, in major disarray. Before them stood about thirty computers, some intact, others scattered about the floor or on metal shelves like the after effects of some localised explosion. But all clicking, whirring or simply flashing morosely in a discordant melody that had come to characterise this strange place. About a dozen monitors, most of which were cracked or patched with old brown tape cast flickering images or just electronic snow, while one had apparently met with an accident leaving tiny shards of smelly grey glass over every horizontal surface.
And at their feet, coiled like multicoloured electronic snakes, hundreds of wires seemed designed and eager to trap any foot unwary or foolish enough to enter. All this crammed into a rank double garage mercifully far away from the local council estate and for Howard and Derrick at least, computer heaven.
Howard could have been anything between twenty and sixty; it was hard to tell between the numerous horizontal folds of pink skin which obscured most of his face. Certainly the red cardigan he always wore could have been the latter of those two ages seeing as how it had no buttons. While the ragged cuffs and waist band had been trailing strands of wool ever since the three had become acquainted with him a few months back, blinking mole-like in the glare of a software exchange shop.
This strange man was a computer geek, or a major anorak as Sad-case observed on their infrequent visits to him. In fact they were only here today because he’d apparently e-mailed Derrick about some new game that he’d been tinkering with. He preferred to email people since he possessed a strange lispy way of speaking which had obviously made him a target of the local children - and Sad-case who’d nearly laughed himself sick the first time he’d encountered him. It might have helped, he’d stuttered later, trying to keep down his lunch, if he didn’t have seventy five obviously false teeth. The only reason that David and Sad-case put up with this always boring interlude was that, as a price for Derrick’s finesse, Howard would always give them some new software that hadn’t hit the streets yet. Or even better, a computer game he’d somehow managed to convert into a version that would run on their games consoles; something that was supposedly impossible, though apparently not for Howard.
‘Hi, ladth.’ Howard welcomed them, so excited that he entirely missed Sad-case wincing after David’s shoe cleverly found his shin. ‘Come in and thee what I’ve got.’ He careered into the gloom of his workshop, arms flapping excitedly but expertly manoeuvring around several tottering shelves full of what could have been computers or just as easily the innards of some immense washing machine.
‘Just get on with it, Nerdo.’ David muttered tiredly after the necessary oohing and ahhing as Derrick marvelled over some totally boring grey box which was apparently a miracle of the first magnitude but which in reality was just a boring grey box. He peered down at his ankles now partially submerged beneath the billowing cables, some twitching malevolently from the lethal current flowing through them. Sad-case cowered in the corner, his feet well away from the floor as he perched on the edge of a desk he’d cleared for himself simply by elbowing it all away, much to Howard’s consternation.
Now safe and keeping his hands carefully to himself, he snorted scornfully as Derrick sat down, his fingers flicking nimbly over the keyboard while strange alien monsters died in spectacularly gruesome splendour. He played happily for a while until finally David began to swing his feet out of sheer boredom before remembering what perils lurked beneath, while Derek’s fingers brought death and destruction to hoards of aliens and, curiously, Nazi storm-troopers at the same time.
As always and with no warning the computer blew itself to pieces after a few minutes of Derrick’s frenetic pounding, sending Howard into the verge of what they all assumed was an imminent stroke. His red billowing face creased even more in alarm as he shooed them out, brushing a podgy hand through the six or so strands of hair that remained on his sweaty head while promising to de-bug it. The whole place could do with de-bugging as far as David was concerned. There were a few dark corners of the garage that looked distinctly sinister.
David’s fingers cruelly pinched the neck of an imaginary foe. That was a Special Forces trick. Apparently it was the Number One strategy amongst trained assassin’s and when he was older and a Sergeant in the SAS he was going to use that on the first enemy insurgent he came across. He wasn’t actually sure what an insurgent really was but he’d heard it on the news in the Iraq war thing and was sure it meant someone bad.
He stopped reading his Commando mag for a moment, enjoying the mental image of himself blowing up a streaking Sidewinder missile with a hand held SAM. He could almost smell the cordite and hear the destruction raining down about his head. He didn’t care that they’d been too late for the pool since his sister was always leaving her bedroom or the bathroom door open, so he’d seen it all before. Once you’d seen fifty pairs of tights littered around the house what more was there to know about girls; or women, which were exactly the same except a bit bigger?
Their headquarters was the inside of a big white van lying in a graveyard for cars in an old council yard. After a few exploratory prods with an iron bar, ready at a moment to flee for their lives, they’d realised that the sign about electrified Dobermans and rabid fences had just been a cheap way of scaring away the local children. And as a result they usually had it all to themselves. They had found it nearly six months before in one of their usual forays for saleable scrap. In surprisingly good condition, it even seemed to have kept its engine and only partly worn tires.
It had been a scorching oven in the summer and was now a freezing icebox in the winter. But it was theirs and, to their knowledge, known only to themselves. It did have a strange habit of being in slightly different positions on some of the occasions times they visited it, which was mildly surprising since those same partly worn tyres were all flat, but that was almost certainly due to seismic anomalies (Derrick’s phrase of the month) so it didn’t matter.
There was another mildly curious incongruity about their hideout. It seemed bigger on the inside than when you saw it from the outside. That was just the Germans, Derrick had assured them blithely. They were good at stuff like that. Thus none of them had ever considered the anomaly again.
Comics littered the rusty bottom along with the debris of several dozen meals of chips, burgers, and sandwiches, the wrappers of which had been kept to provide insulation. While on the wall, covering an old patch of oozing rust was glued a poster of some unidentifiable alien beast tearing another creature of doubtful origin into shreds. A small, battered storm lantern strung from the roof with garden twine was their only illumination. Their, which is to say Derrick’s constant twitching caused it to sway from side to side flicking their shadows about the interior like crazed phantoms. This would have made most people sick, but being well used to Derrick’s eating manners and the ever-present smell of old engine oil, mouldy food and the suspiciously familiar aroma that always seemed to emanated from Sad-case, they were made of sterner stuff and simply ignored it..
‘Did you see the way that computer exploded? It was great. All those sparks and stuff.’ Derrick settled back, content to memorize the image and file it away for future moments of boredom.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Sad-case leaned against the dank metal wall, his eyes closing. He’d only had about three hours sleep the night before. It must have been four o’clock before they’d stopped. The arguments between his parents had become a lot more enthusiastic in the last few months. Why they couldn’t just split up like Derrick’s mum and dad he didn’t know. And besides, he’d seen it on television. Kids always got more presents when one of the parents went on permanent walkabout.
‘So are you going to tell us, then?’ David was dying to know the cause of his friend’s bloodshot eyes since anyone who could do that sort of damage to him was obviously someone to avoid. Sad-case smiled slyly before telling them. It had been worth it. Bob-The-Slob, his trainee jailbird of a brother had caught him trying to disassemble the World War Two Luger he’d won in a poker game but had carelessly neglected to hide.
Unfortunately he’d jammed the pointed bit into the barrel, and that was when El Slobbo had walked in and caught him. By the time his large gnarled knuckles had made contact with Sad’s face for the second time, their father had lumbered upstairs, discovered the previously secret gun and quickly administered some punishment of his own before confiscating it.
At least it had meant their mum didn’t get any more grief that night.
‘It was the sear.’ David informed him knowledgeably. He’d never actually seen a real gun, but could strip down (if only in his head) any and every currently used weapon carried by the entire British army. His stock of Guns and War, Soldier of Fortune, and Battlefield wounds (special colour edition) were the envy of the school. So much so, in fact, that some of the older boys had indicated their intention to tear off some of his more personal bits if he didn’t soon make them available for their collective perusal
‘Bout time he got a good smack.’ Where Sad’s extraordinarily large brother was concerned, they were in total agreement. He made the swimming pool’s enormous and energetically vengeful janitor seem like a feeble girl in comparison.
‘Injubily.’ Derrick confirmed.
A companionable silence lasting almost ten minutes; a long time in the life of such normally energetic debaters, was broken by Derrick. He was interested in the star, and wanted to know more.
‘So are you going to tell us about it then? Your very own, actual star.’
There wasn’t much to tell. His mum had seen the 'ad' on the back page of one of those weird magazines. The ones where you could buy ‘X’ ray specs, or buy shrimps that looked like real people, or look at colour photo’s of what happened after your fiftieth face-lift.
She’d filled in the form, bought a postal order, and sent it off. The photo had arrived first and the certificate was promised within two weeks.
‘So what’s it called?’
‘Anything I want to call it.’
‘So, like, David’s Star? Sad-case suggested helpfully.
Derrick was appalled at the very prospect. As a keen astronomer and used to grand names like Ursa Majoris, or Canis Minoris, a star called David would be an immense intellectual let down. ‘What about Davidus Majoris?’ That at least came close to satisfying his moral outrage.
‘Or Bigus Plonkus.’ Sad-case added.
‘Or Wettus Beddus.’ Derrick smirked.
David took the only opportunity available to shut them up; he was embarrassed enough as it was.
BOOM BOOM BOOM
This had been something mutually agreed upon months before. None of them would thump the steel sides of the van because the resulting noise was almost enough to make their fillings jump out. Or make him fill his strides, Sad-case had rather more graphically explained.
‘Just shut up about it okay?’
The others subsided with knowing winks after rolling about the floor screaming, hands clasped theatrically over their heads to prevent their brains from spurting out of their ears. There was fodder here for at least a week’s annoyance. It would keep for another time.
‘Come on let’s go to the slaughter house.’ Derrick grinned. The thought of all that blood sloshing down the drain was always enough to make them want to hurl chunks, but was also something they could never stop going to see.
They ran off, Derrick’s earlier digital mastery forgotten, even by himself. But it would soon prove very useful, and in ways none of them could ever have imagined.