Three years ago the world up and quit on us.

People got sick. Then they got real sick. Then they died.

This disease, or virus, or whatever it was, killed over fifty percent of the world’s population in the first two weeks. That’s the best guess, anyway. Most of our scientists and doctors and such died within those first weeks, being the curious types and all. They were doing what they do, trying their best to figure out what the world was dealing with, and most needed to get up close and personal with it. Well, you can’t get close to this, it’ll bite you every time, and I mean that the very real and literal sense.

Reporters and other media types went out pretty much the same way. Once they were gone it didn’t take long before most of us didn’t know anything other than what we could witness firsthand.

The sickness and the dying was just the start of it all, however. Those who died didn’t stay dead long. They rose up, attacked, and then fed on the survivors. Now, far be it from me to state what should be fairly obvious, but that really freaked most of us out.

It was after the dead started getting back up and eating people that a whole bunch of other folks died. Then they rose up and started feeding on people, then they died and rose up, and over and over and over. It was a vicious cycle that landed us right where we are now.

About a year and a half ago things slowed down. Those of us that had managed to stay alive found places of safety away from the undead. We made homes, created walled communities, and rebuilt society the best we could.

I’d made a home behind the walls of Eudora, Kansas. It’s a good home too. I’m a Scavenger, meaning I’m a part of one of many small groups that go out beyond the walls to find supplies. We call it ‘creeping’. I lead my own team and we’ve had creeps as far east as Kansas City and as far west as Topeka. It wasn’t an easy job, any time you went out, especially to a more populated city, you’d have hundreds of shufflers to try and avoid. But it sure made life interesting.

But then a few months back a great mob of zombies had moved through the area, heading south, hundreds of thousands of them. We’d all stayed inside the walls of Eudora and kept quiet as they’d shuffled by. It took nearly three days for the entire group to pass through, but since then things had been rather silent when it came to the happenings of the undead. There were still some around, but not in the number they used to be. No one knows for sure where the group had gone, or if they’d be back — one theory is that they had gone south for the winter, but they hadn’t done that the previous winter so the theory hasn’t gained much traction — but we quickly took advantage of the break and began sending out Scavenger and scouting teams as far out as Nebraska.

Regardless of the increasing sense of safety brought about by the absence of the zombies, I’d begun to get a bit bored. I’d started going out on creeps alone just to mix things up a bit. My first time out I took an old motor bike east into Overland Park. I wasn’t looking for food or any of the other supplies we normally go after on a creep. No, I was looking for entertainment of a specific variety. And I found it at a comic book store on Quivira near 119th Street. The doors had been closed, yet unlocked, so I let myself in. There hadn’t been any activity in the area for weeks, neither of the undead or living kind, so I’d spent most of the day there rummaging through the back issue bins. Soon I had a large stack of books and sat down there on the floor and got to reading.

As the sun had arched its way toward the horizon and the light retreated from the day, I’d sat there thinking how much I’d like to be able to take what I’d not yet read back home with me. But the stack was enough to fill most of a long box, and I knew I wasn’t getting all that on my bike. I took what I could carry and headed for home.

Two days later I was with a group out raiding country houses west of Desoto. That’s when I found the Winnebago.

The next day the Winnebago and I were back in Overland Park and I was on my way to creating my mobile man cave, complete with comics, DVDs, music, and books.

That gave me more of a purpose, going out and adding to my collection.

Last week, during a group creep west of Eudora in neighboring Lawrence, we’d run across this poor bastard fighting off two shufflers in a convenience store on the outskirts of town. We’d taken the biters out only to find that the guy — his name was Tom — had been bitten. By that point a person has an hour at most before he turns. Once they turn then they’re gonna come after you. That is if you’re dumb enough to stick around. Some folks like to shoot a fella before they turn. Me, I prefer to let the guy turn before I put a bullet in him. I’d rather kill a shuffler than one of us any day of the week.

So I’d told the rest of the group to stick close but find what they could, and I waited with Tom. He and I got to talking and he told me an interesting tale before he kicked off. The conversation, like they all do nowadays, began with the past.

“I ran a comic shop,” he told me. The fever hadn’t kicked in quite yet so the two of us sat on the counter inside the store and drank water from a pair of bottles I’d brought along. I’d given him is own so that I didn’t have to drink from the same bottle. You can’t be turned that way, but I don’t like to take chances . . . Except when I do.

“You know,” he continued. “Before all this started. What about you?”

“I was a cop,” I said. “Where was your shop? I’m a huge comic geek, maybe I’d been in? You know, back before.”

He’d been the proprietor of the Comic Market. The shop had just opened when people started to die.

“We were in the middle of our Grand Opening celebration when it all really hit the fan,” he said. Sweat beaded on his brow and he absently swiped at his face. “We’d set up a mini convention in the shop with local creators. I’d had just enough time to get everyone out and lock up when the swarms came.”

We talked comics for almost thirty minutes before he’d needed to lie down. At that point, the talk always switches to regrets.

“I only wish I’d been able to get that one book out,” his voice had been no more than a rasp by that point. “It was sheer dumb luck that I’d found it in the first place. The prize of my collection.”

He coughed, his breath was coming in wheezes.

“I was looking forward to showing it off at the Grand Opening,” he said. “But I didn’t even get the chance to get it out of the safe. Coulda retired on that book, but there was no way I was getting rid of it. I was hoping to one day leave it to my kids. Never had any though. Now it’s just going to sit there in the shop forever. Doesn’t seem fair.”

I’d not given the talk much thought. While there have always been a few prized books like Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman; and Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, getting a hold of one of those books would have been about as easy as licking the original Declaration of Independence. I’d found that when most folks talked about ‘prized issues’, the one issue they could retire on, they just didn’t know any better. See, a lot of people bought any old first issue to any crap comic that came out and thought they were investing in a rich future. These are the people that don’t understand what a collectible really is. I mean, Action Comics and Amazing Fantasy were worth a mint back then because there were (still are) so few copies of them left in existence. But all the first issues that have been produced over the last ten years were printed in the hundreds of thousands. They ain’t hard to find, even now.

So while I figured the guy was talking nonsense I had to admit that I was a bit curious to know just what he had locked up in that shop.

“Fourteen, thirty-eight, fourteen,” Tom said, a little more strength in his voice. He tried to sit up. “The year the two creators were born, and the year the book came out. Fourteen, thirty-eight, fourteen.”

That was when the light fell out his eyes and he passed on. I had to wait fifteen additional minutes before he sat up with dead eyes and biting teeth. I put one shot into his head, met up with the rest of the group, and carried on with my day.

It wasn’t until days later that what Tom had said came back to me. I’d returned from a solo creep with a bar of gold I’d found in someone’s basement out in this old farm house south of Eudora. I was in the Winny and was opening the small safe I’d procured, spinning the numbers on the dial when it hit me.

Fourteen, thirty-eight, fourteen.

Could that have been a combination?

Had Tom given me the combination to his safe?

The year the creators were born, and the year the book was published.

Something tickled in the back of my head, a memory, a fact, a bit of trivia once remembered but difficult to recall. I poked through a box under the table and found the book I was looking for. It was on the history of comics. I flipped through the pages and there it was.

Jerome "Jerry" Siegel, born October 17, 1914.

Joseph "Joe" Shuster, born July 10, 1914.

The two men credited for the creation of Superman, first published in Action Comics #1, June 1938.

Fourteen, thirty-eight, fourteen.

“Holy crap.” I couldn’t help but say it out loud.

Which is how I find myself at The Malls Shopping Center with three shufflers standing between me and the Holy Grail of comic books.

To be continued . . .

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