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Just like Bubba, Mark Fingerman wasn’t what he seemed either. Yes, he wore a lot of camouflage, but that was to keep the zombies from seeing him.
Mark believed in all paranormal creatures. Even the tooth fairy.
Again, don’t ask.
Mark could try the patience of Gandhi.
Only a handful of years older than Nick, Mark was Bubba’s sidekick. With shaggy brown hair and bright eyes, Mark stood in the store with a mop and bucket. Currently, he was choking said mop and kicking the bucket so much, it sloshed water onto the floor.
Nick scowled at them. “What’s going on?”
Mark came forward to hand him the mop he so obviously hated. “Clean up, my friend. Welcome to the party. I’m so glad you could make it.”
Groaning, Nick took the mop. He’d argue, but Bubba might shoot him—as he’d done the last four computers that had irritated him. The guts of the most recent one were still spread out over Bubba’s worktable in back.
“Look.” Mark held up his hands for Nick’s inspection. “They’re all pruny and wet. I’ll never have my soft sweet hands again.”
Nick snorted. “You’re not right, are you?”
“Oh, please. If I were right in the head, do you think I’d be working for Bubba? Especially given what the cheap bastard pays. How hard did you hit your noggin last night?”
Nick dodged Mark’s hand as he tried to touch his hair. “Dude, don’t do that.” He glanced over to Grim, who rolled his eyes.
“I know this clown,” Grim said in an evil tone. “He keeps teasing me with these near death experiences. One day, I’m going to take his butt down even when I’m not supposed to. You can’t keep knocking on my door and then slamming it in my face. It’s just not right.”
“Nick?” Bubba called. “Why don’t you clean the front of the store while Mark and I pick up back here?”
“All right.” As he left the back room and headed to the store area, he realized how much the two of them had already done. All the debris was picked up and most of the shattered glass. They must have been cleaning for hours.
For a full minute, Nick saw the events of last night play through his head. It’d been horrible. But the one good thing had been the fact that they’d accidentally found a way to fix the human zombies and return them to normal.
The other kind …
Those had just been gross and nasty to take out.
Grim wandered around looking at the shelves of computers and laptops, as well as peripherals and accessories that were set in the middle of the floor. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with one of the largest gun selections in the Southeast. Glass cases separated the guns from anyone who might wander in and pick one up.
Bubba’s first rule.
No one handles a gun in my store without direct supervision.
Nick’s gaze involuntarily went to the picture of Bubba’s mama that hung on the wall. A portrait that had a huge gunshot in it, right between her eyes. His stomach slid to his feet. Yeah, that had been a close call.
“So what are you going to teach me?” he asked Grim in an effort to avoid thinking about how he’d shot Bubba’s mama in the head. He was lucky he was still breathing after that.
“How to open your mind and pay attention. The universe is always speaking to us. Sometimes the signs are in our faces, and other times, they’re very, very subtle.”
Grim pointed to the picture of Bubba’s mama. “Let’s use that for an example. When you look at that, you see nothing but a hole in a painting. When I look at it, I can tell exactly when and how you’re going to die, and I don’t mean Bubba coming after you in anger over defacing his mother’s image. It shows an integral part of your future … and its end.”
Nick’s throat tightened as he walked to the picture that hung about three feet over his head on the wall. He stared at the powder burn marks and hole. While there was a Rorschach-esque quality to it, it didn’t look like much. Tilting his head, he squinted and treated it like a Where’s Waldo? puzzle.
That showed the date of his death? Forget meth was death. Death was on meth. It just looked like a big mess to him.
He scowled at Grim. “You’re pulling at me, right?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. You’ll have to play with me for a while to see.”
Nick wasn’t sure he liked the way Grim phrased that. “Why is it when you say things like that, I feel like I’m gambling with my life?”
“Probably because you are. I never gamble for anything less.”
Now, that just made him feel all warm and fluffy inside. “Oh, goody.”
“Did you say something?” Mark stuck his head through the curtain that separated the front of the store from the back room.
“Uh, yeah. I said, ‘Oh, goody.’ As in I get to clean this mess up.”
Mark gave an evil laugh. “I had that same reaction. I even tried to quit when I showed up this morning, but Bubba wouldn’t let me. Told me if I tried to leave, he’d shoot my butt full of buckshot. He’s the only SOB I know who’s crazy enough to actually do that. So here I am. Ticked off, but alive. It’s a good day.” He vanished behind the curtain to return to whatever he and Bubba were working on.
Nick went back to Grim. “Don’t you have any friends you could hang with?”
“I do. But the problem is when I hang out with my friends, it usually gets ugly for the rest of you. Especially when we’re bored. Nothing entertains us more than plagues, famine, war, and bloody massacres.”
“You play D&D, too, huh? Who’s your DM?”
Grim tsked at him. “The difference between my group and yours … our toys are real.” All of a sudden, the horse ran out of his pocket and up his arm to rest on his shoulder.
Neat trick. Creepy, but neat.
“So … that’s like your pet monkey?”
The tiny horse snorted flames and whinnied at him.
“Easy, girl.” Grim stroked her mane to calm her down. “You’d do well to show her respect. She can understand you, and she doesn’t take well to insults.”
“Sorry, Flicka. Didn’t mean to rattle your bridle.” Nick started straightening.
Grim dogged his steps. “The key to what I have to teach is that the universe and its beings speak to you constantly. But much like the little book you received last night, they seldom speak overtly. You have to figure it out on your own and hopefully before it’s too late. The power of divination is a way for you to listen to the warnings the universe gives.”
Nick stiffened as a chill went down his spine. “How do you know about my grimoire?”
Grim snapped his fingers, and the book appeared in his hand. Small and black with a funky red symbol on the front that was supposed to be Nick’s personal emblem, it contained riddles that had helped Nick survive the attacks from the night before. All he had to do was ask it a question and release three drops of blood on it—something he still thought was gross, but … His blood would circle and move to form words and pictures on the page and give him clues.
That being said, the book was a snarky little slug. It didn’t like answering questions anymore than Nick did, and it answered them with a venom Nick wished he could get away with and not stay grounded for life.
Narrowing his eyes on the book, Nick slapped at his back pockets to see if the book in Grim’s hand was a duplicate.
His pants were empty.…
Well, wait a minute, they weren’t empty, ’cause that would imply something that definitely wasn’t the case, but his pockets were. That was definitely his book, and Death was tainting it. He glared at Grim for the theft.
Normally he’d reclaim it, but snatching something out of Death’s grasp didn’t seem particularly intelligent.
Unless it was your own life.
Oblivious of and impervious to Nick’s anger, Grim tapped the book with his fingertip. “Let me get back to the fact that the universe speaks to us constantly. And this little puppy barks loudly.” He shoved it against Nick’s chest. “Guard this with your life because in the right hands, it is your life and your death. You’ve bled in this book, and it is the most personal of possessions you’ll ever have. A master wizard, witch, upper-level demon, or any number of other entities can use it to control or destroy you. In fact, guard every possession you have. Every stray hair. Every particle of skin and clothing. Let no one near anything you have ever owned or will own. You’re special, kid. In ways you can’t conceive, and you will have to guard your back every second you want to keep breathing.”
He definitely didn’t like the sound of that. “Aren’t you just Mary Sunshine?”
“There’s a reason they call me Grim.”
Yeah, no kidding. Nick returned his book to his back pocket. “So how does this divination junk work, anyway?”
“Think of it as the cold chill you get down your spine whenever someone walks on your grave. That niggling sensation that tells you not to do something, and when you disregard it, you wish you hadn’t.”
“Kind of like getting out of bed this morning.”
Grim rolled his eyes. “Frik. Frak,” he snapped at his two skulking minions. “Get started cleaning this place while Nick and I work.”
Without a word or hesitation, Pain took the mop from Nick. Suffering moved to pick up glass.
“Wow. Where have you two been all my life?”
Pain quirked an eyebrow as he mopped the floor. “Walking hand in hand with you. Haven’t you noticed?”
Nick fell silent as he realized the truth of that statement. He had walked hand in hand with Pain and Suffering since the hour of his birth. Bitter poverty and the worst sort of bullying. Heck, he’d even been shot by one of his best friends, who’d intended to kill him dead in the gutter.
Yeah, they’d definitely been his constant companions.
He looked back at Grim. “Come to think of it, can we leave them behind?”
Grim appeared offended by his question. “No. They’re my best friends.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to be in pain, and I definitely don’t want to suffer.”
“Well … The only way to avoid them is to die.” Grim gave him a hopeful smile.
That chilled him all the way to his soul. “Okay, let’s change the topic now.” He pointed to the wall behind Grim. “Oh, look! A chicken.”
Grim made a sound of extreme frustration. “Fine. Let’s begin with something even you can’t screw up.”
“Way to build up my crappy confidence there. You should volunteer for the suicide hotline.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
Nick screwed his face up. “Ah man, that’s wrong on so many levels.”
“Je suis ce que je suis.”
Nick took a step back. Last night had taught him to be wary of any foreign words. “Is that a spell?”
Grim shook his head. “It’s French, Nick. Means ‘I am what I am.’ Sheez, kid. Get educated. Read a book. I promise you it’s not painful.”
“I would definitely argue that. Have you seen my summer reading list? It’s nothing but girl books about them getting body parts and girl things I don’t want to discuss in class with my female English teacher. Maybe in the boys’ locker room and maybe with a coach, but not with a woman teacher in front of other girls who already won’t go out with me. Or worse, they’re about how bad all of us men reek and how we need to be taken out and shot ’cause we’re an affront to all social and natural orders. Again—thanks, Teach. Give the girls even more reason to kick us down when we talk to one. Not like it’s not hard enough to get up the nerve to ask one out. Can you say inappropriate content? And then they tell me my manga’s bad. Riiight … Is it too much to ask that we have one book, just one, on the required reading list that says, ‘Hey, girls. Guys are fun and we’re okay. Really. We’re not all mean psycho-killing, bloodsucking animals. Most of us are pretty darn decent, and if you’ll just give us a chance, you’ll find out we’re not so bad.”
Grim let out a bored sigh. “Are you through ranting?”
Grim slapped him on the back so hard, he stumbled. “Puberty is embarrassing. That’s the point of it. Get used to it. And look on the bright side: Once you survive the teen horrors and degradations, adulthood is easy.”
Great. Just great.
Nick scoffed. “And for the record, I do read. Lots of things, which is how I know it can be painful. Very, very painful.”