The trick is not to flinch. He’s used to people flinching. After all, his job is to catch people by surprise. If the bony bastard could smile, then I’d bet that he has a permanent grin on his face. Or he would if he hadn’t tangled with the wrong person.
But, I’d twigged that he was following me. It isn’t that he cares too much about stealth. After all, he can only be seen by the person he’s going to meet. But, I would bet anything that he enjoys the thrill of surprising people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really that much research data to go on. People don’t exactly submit reports. Still, when I saw a reflection of a scythe in the window and heard rustling robes in the crowd behind me, I knew that the Grim Reaper was near.
Instinctively, I ducked into a tiled alleyway. It was more out of embarrassment than anything else. Sure, the kind of people who still go to run-down semi-abandoned shopping centres are probably used to seeing random people having conversations with people they cannot see, but I didn’t want to test that theory. Not only that, I wanted him to think that I was running.
After walking past a few abandoned cardboard boxes, I ducked behind a spindly plant and waited. For a minute or so, I wondered if I was imagining the whole thing. Strange as it sounds, that scared me more than the idea that I was being hounded by the oldest being in the universe. Sure, no-one would have known. I was careful about that. But, it would just be embarrassing.
So, when I heard a quiet rattling sound behind me and a solemn voice saying: ‘Over here.‘ I actually let out a sigh of relief. Nothing but silence greeted me in reply.
Remembering not to flinch, I slowly got up and turned around. He was taller than I’d expected. Don’t ask me why, but I’d expected a hunched sack of bones. He stood at least six foot tall and, if there had been any meat on those bones, I’d have said that he’d been working out. Then again, people probably run all of the time. It’s probably a good workout.
Nonchalantly, I said: ‘Hey there.‘
Silently, he stretched a bony hand towards me. Putting a businesslike smile on my face, I shook it firmly. Surprisingly, it was warm. The emotionless hollows in his skull just stared at me. Keeping the smile on my face, I said: ‘So, are you up for a game of chess?‘
A rattling rasp of derision filled the alleyway. ‘Chess. It is always chess. Years ago, people asked me to play so many different games. But everyone I meet these days wants to play this… chess. If I ever meet the soul that invented that infernal game….‘
‘Ah, I’ve got just the thing for you. Follow me.‘ Keeping a stiff upper lip, I walked out of the alleyway and into the crowd. As I heard the tapping footsteps behind me, I looked at the people around me. All of them seemed to be going about their everyday lives, oblivious to the monster in their midst. I felt nothing but jealousy. In that moment, I’d gladly swap places with even the roughest hooligans or the most miserable suits that passed me by.
Finally, the sound of bleeping, trilling and tingling filled the air. A riot of neon and screens flashed at me. We’d reached the amusement arcade. Taking a deep breath, I strode over to the “HOUSE OF THE UNDEAD” machine. Normally, I’d be annoyed by the skiving schoolboys who were hogging the machine, but I was glad for the delay.
With cheers and shouts, they pointed the red plastic guns at the screen and blasted away at the 3D monsters and zombies with practiced ease. I’d expected Grim to be patient. After all, he has all of the time in the world.
But, a second later, his dark robes swept past me and he stood in front of the screen. He must have made himself visible, because the two players suddenly froze with fright. In a low voice, he hissed: ‘Shouldn’t you be sss…studying?‘
They fled in terror. I almost collapsed with laughter. I hadn’t planned to, but it was just a reflex. Once I caught my breath, I rifled through my pockets and muttered: ‘Damn it. You haven’t got any 20p coins, have you?‘
‘I saw a… coin machine… over there.‘ He levelled a bony finger at a squat little machine opposite us. Grumbling to myself, I wandered over to it and fed a few quid into it. When I returned with a paper cup full of coins, Grim rubbed his hands with glee. Sighing, I fed a couple into the machine and picked up the plastic gun.
He was better at it than I’d expected. Ok, he hadn’t realised that if one player wins a co-operative game then both players win – but, he was a natural. As the polygonal zombies lurched towards the screen, he got perfect headshot after perfect headshot. Meanwhile, I was reduced to firing at them wildly.
Then, as we turned the corner of some grotty sewer, a scaly green sea monster leapt out of the water and lurched towards us. Cartoon blood spattered the screen. Grim flinched. I missed. A second later, the screen read “GAME OVER. CONTINUE 10…9…8…”
Hissing at the screen, Grim said ‘That wasn’t…. fair. We didn’t even have a chance. No matter what I did, I couldn’t have won. This game is rigged.‘
I shrugged: ‘Now you know how everyone you meet feels.‘
His jaw dropped open. He still held the plastic gun. His teeth chattered nervously. He stared at me with haunted, empty eyes. I smiled. It turns out that it was possible for one person to win a co-operative game.