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Chapter 1

Grim

Grim.

It’s not the kind of name you hear every day.

Unless, of course, your name is Grim.

Grímner Hallbjörn Hafnarfjörður Magnússon, to be precise, which isn’t so much a name as it is the sort of mythological, genealogical, and geographical mash-up you end up with when your father is a Distinguished Professor of Scandinavian Studies.

Grim’s mother, who lovingly indulged her husband’s academic enthusiasms, had initially agreed to the rather unorthodox naming scheme. But when Grímner Hallbjörn Hafnarfjörður Magnússon arrived six weeks early and she held the delicate, four-pound infant in her arms, it seemed like far too hefty a name to bestow on a such tiny creature. Fearing, perhaps, that the next day’s newspaper might bear the headline, “Infant Crushed by Weight of Own Name,” she had called him Grim from the moment he was born. As if by pruning his name to a single syllable she would be lightening the load a little.

But she needn’t have worried. Despite his scrawny beginnings, Grim had grown into his name quite nicely. Now 17 years old (barely), he was a lean, muscular 6’1″, with his father’s dark hair and olive complexion…although he’d always been a little envious of his younger brothers, Thór and Njáll, who had inherited their mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. When he looked in the mirror the only thing he had to remind him of his mother was half of his eye color. At least, that’s how he liked to think of it. When he was younger, he’d always imagined that they’d simply mixed his father’s brown eyes with his mother’s blue eyes to come up with his green.

At that moment, those green eyes were closed as Grim stood in the middle of the expansive west lawn — shirt off, arms outstretched, head back — waiting.

“Five, four, three, two…”

And there it was, one second ahead of schedule, the gurgling sound of water flooding underground pipes followed by the angry, sputtering hiss of awakening sprinkler heads. In the sweltering late afternoon heat, Grim desperately needed to cool off and the vigorous, round spray of the west lawn’s #18 fixed-pattern orbital nozzles should have done that quite nicely, but after a few seconds he realized that the only thing being cooled off quite nicely was his left shin.

He opened his eyes and looked down to find that instead of a vigorous, round spray, the nearest sprinkler head was spitting limply on his left leg. He looked around, spotted two other sprinklers with similar problems, and started making the rounds. He loved doing sprinkler work when the weather was hot. After you reach adolescence, most people think you’re too old to run through the sprinklers on a hot summer day, but if you pick up a wrench and walk through the sprinklers, you get to call it “irrigation maintenance.”

Within a few minutes, he’d taken care of the three misbehaving sprinklers and was standing back on the sidewalk, dripping water onto the hot cement where it evaporated almost as fast as it hit the ground. It was only the third week of May, but the afternoon temperatures had been hovering in the mid-90s all week. It felt like it was going to be a very long, very hot Idaho summer and Grim was almost thankful that he wasn’t going to be there to experience it.

As he stood dripping on the sidewalk, he heard the squeak of a screen door behind him, followed by the clicking of heels on cement, and he knew what was coming.

“Mr. Magnusson,” said Florence Peterson, looking down from the expansive cement patio as a queen might look down on her subjects. “Is it not bad enough that you are abandoning me for the entire summer to go traipsing around the English countryside? Apparently not, because you now seem intent on giving people the impression that I hire male strippers to do my yard work. Would you kindly put your shirt back on before one of my nosy neighbors sees you and starts another round of vicious rumor-mongering.”

Grim glanced down the hill at Agnes Johansson’s house on the valley floor below. The 98-year-old Mrs. Johansson was the only neighbor, nosy or otherwise, in a one-mile radius. And while he didn’t doubt Mrs. Johansson’s ability to lead a crack surveillance operation, he did doubt her eyesight. She’d been legally blind for the past 12 years and had to position her chair two feet from the screen if she wanted to watch TV.

“My shirt’s in the car,” he said, hitching a thumb at the small Toyota station wagon parked at the bottom of the driveway, “but I’d be happy to go get it.”

“Don’t bother,” she sniffed. “If you scratched yourself reaching into that rust bucket you’d probably get tetanus and sue me for millions. I certainly hope that when you return in the fall it will not be in a vehicle from which you’ve had to evict chickens.”

“Oh, I didn’t evict them,” Grim said with a slight grin. “I agreed that they could live in the way, way back if they helped with the car payment.”

“Has ‘ToxicTurf’ arrived?” asked Mrs. Peterson, changing the subject.

“Not yet. They won’t be here for another half hour or so. And I want to reassure you once again that I’ve talked to Mr. Nelson and he won’t be doing any spraying while I’m gone.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any chances!” she declared, turning and clicking back across the patio and disappearing into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.

Grim spent the half hour or so taking one last walk through the grounds. He’d spent all spring getting things to the point where they should be able to coast through the summer, but he still worried about what condition the grounds would be in when he returned in September. It’s not that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise… OK, it was that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise, but he didn’t have much choice in the matter. ChemoGrass was the only other horticultural game in town.

ChemoGrass was a father and son concern, with Mr. Nelson handling all of the HazMat work (fertilizers, insecticides, etc) and his 14-year-old son, Michael, doing the mowing. Unfortunately, Michael was an avid comic book fan who liked to pass the tedious hours on the riding mower by reading, an activity which rendered him more like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners that travels in a straight line until it runs into an obstacle, then turns in a random direction and continues on its way until it eventually covers the entire floor. Granted, he’d been a little more careful since the incident with Mrs. Knudsen’s cat, but you’d still often see Kevin ricocheting across lawns, steering with his left hand while absorbed in the graphic novel clutched in his right.

As for Mr. Nelson, he was a firm believer in ChemoGrass’ unspoken motto: “There’s no garden problem that a heavy application of petrochemicals can’t solve.” But Grim had been even more firm when he’d talked to Mr. Nelson about taking over the groundskeeping duties for the summer: There was to be no spraying. Period. It was a bitter organic pill for Mr. Nelson to swallow, but in the end he’d agreed.

Grim made a final pass through the small orchard, checking the apricot trees for any sign of the previous fall’s powdery mildew. (None, thank goodness.) He tied up a few errant canes on the climbing roses, pulled some nascent weeds from the flower beds, and was turning the compost pile one last time when he heard the diesel engine of the ChemoGrass truck sputtering its way up the hill. Grim got to the top of the driveway just as the vehicle lurched to a stop, the ChemoGrass mystery liquid sloshing back and forth in its large translucent tank.

Mr. Nelson hopped down from the cab. Michael remained slumped in the passenger seat, glued to his graphic novel, which, if the cover was to be believed, pitted an army of mechanized samurai against half a dozen Japanese schoolgirls who were apparently too busy saving the world to buy new school uniforms to replace the one’s that they’d obviously outgrown.

“Hello, Mr. Nelson. How are you today?” Grim said, shaking Mr. Nelson’s hand.

“Well,” Mr. Nelson said quietly, glancing anxiously at the house. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about meeting Mrs. Peterson.”

“Why is that?” Grim asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.

“Well, my wife met her once and she said it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life. So, I asked her if she had any advice and all she said was, ‘Be confident. She can smell fear.'”

Just then, they heard the screen door squeak open and turned to see Mrs. Peterson emerge from the house wearing a World War II-era gas mask.

Grim stifled a laugh, but he could hear Mr. Nelson chanting under his breath, “Be confident. She can smell fear. Be confident. She can smell fear…”

Grim gave him a supportive pat on the back and said, “Don’t worry. With that gas mask on, she probably can’t smell a thing.”