I'd had to stop myself from immediately responding that I wasn't going to help him sell weed. I sure as fuck didn't want to be a drug dealer. That hadn't been on my list this morning when I left my uncle's house.
Manny and I drove in silence. His driving started off reckless and fast and gradually returned to his previous sober, safe style as his anger faded.
His face was a slab of stone, expressionless and his eyes were hidden behind the black sunglasses. He wasn't speaking to me, leaving me to my own thoughts.
My initial impulse had been to straight up refuse to help him sell the weed. Maybe I could help some other way. Security or packaging or whatever other kind of support a weed dealer needed.
None of that seemed right. A few times I brought up my debt screen and stared at it. That wasn't just his name on that debt, it was both of ours. If Manny failed to pay Lee, we'd both suffer. On the other hand, it wasn't all downside. The debt was ours, but the weed was ours as well. It represented a lot of money if we could move it. I had no idea how much, since I didn't know what the retail price of weed was. Maybe a 50% markup? I just didn't know. Even if it was only 50% then that weed represented three grand of profit split between us. I could pay my rent and have a bunch of money left over. That was assuming we could sell it all before we had paid any interest which seemed a little far-fetched. Where was my laptop and a spreadsheet when I needed it?
What finally pushed me over the edge was the sheer improbability of me being in this Regal at this moment, in this situation. It seemed clear I was meant to be here, or at least that some higher power wanted me to be. It felt foolish to think this way, but I knew that DMs hated it when you tried to get off their railroad. Did the DM really want me to be are a drug dealer? Unknown. I'd sure got a lot of pretty clear hints that they did.
"Manny, I'm sorry. I'll help you sell."
His stone face collapsed and the tension in his shoulders disappeared as he exhaled. "Thank fuck. I knew I could count on you, Bro. You had me worried there. Trust me, selling's not a big deal. Any dumbass can sell weed in this town."
"I guess. Like I said, I don't know how to do it. Can you show me the ropes?" I asked.
"Damn right. We can start tonight. Most of my time is going to be at night. I'll tell Mom I'm out tutoring. I can't ditch all the time. Since you're not in school you can take the day shifts."
I thought of the job that I had applied for at JMC's. Not taking that crap job didn't seem like a big loss. JMC probably wouldn't even offer it to me, and if they did, I could just refuse it. Once I had some cash I'd go in there and try to get Mindy's number. Or hell, maybe I'd be too busy with the hordes of gangster bimbos. It was a nice daydream.
"That works. I don't know what I'll tell my uncle. He's kind of a hard ass."
"Just tell him you got a job. It pays cash and you need to be out all day. What does he care what you're doing as long as you're paying rent?"
I knew it wasn't a simple as that. I'd have to hide my daytime activities from Martin. He thought that walking in shadow was for criminals, and in this case, he'd be entirely right. In any case, it wasn't something I had to worry about right then.
"So now what?" I asked. "We just go find a place, set up shop and start selling this stuff?"
"Not yet. I gotta go home and weigh it out and get it packaged into dimes and eighths. Mostly dimes, I think. Depends on where we're selling. Anyway, it's gotta be weighed out. I'll do that at my house. I've got the scales and everything there. It'll take at least an hour to get it all sorted. You want to come?"
"Actually, I kinda want to do some research. Can you drop me off at the library? I want to use one of their computers and get on the Internet."
"The what now? I don't know what kind of library you've been to, but the San Tadeo public library doesn't have any computers. Have you seen those things? They're enormous. Where would they put it? And what would they use it for? Nah, Bro. Lots of books though. Still want to go?"
I swallowed my disappointment. Not just no smart phones, but also no computers and no Internet. Whatever research I had to do; it would be the old-fashioned way. Books, newspapers and the card catalog.
"Yep, still need to go."
"Sure thing, Bro."
I turned to look at the library. It was a long, low brick building. The front was covered in some kind of creeping green vine, almost obscuring the Public Library sign.
The sun was high in the sky and it was about as hot as it got during a California spring, so the cool, shady interior of the library felt great. I walked in and the smell of books greeted me. I'd spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores when I was growing up. It was like coming home after spending the day in a strange land.
I wandered in, quickly locating the science fiction and fantasy section. That was my automatic go to. It wasn't my first stop on this visit, though. I needed to know more about the world. I made my way toward the periodical section, passing close to an older librarian sorting books onto a book cart.
She had been facing me but straightened up and turned my way as I got close. I automatically identified her when she made eye contact.
|Helen Barton, Junior Librarian (E2)|
If I had to guess she was in her mid-30s. For all I knew she was a lot younger, but simply chose to dress like her grandmother. There was no gray in her brown hair, but she had what I thought of as grandma glasses perched on her nose, highlighting her bright blue eyes. She looked me over briefly before holding out her right hand to stop my progress toward the sprawling periodical section just ahead of me.
"Hold on, young man. Are you aware of the rules of our library?" She asked.
"Uh. Be quiet?"
"Yes, that is one of our oldest rules. However, you must think of the spirit of that rule and what base principal it derives from. Can you tell me what that base principal is, young man?"
It had been sometime since I got into a dialogue like this with a librarian. It was obvious I was doing something wrong, but I didn't know what it was. Was it the fact that I was in shadow? I didn't see any other way to find out than to simply ask.
"Is it because I'm in shadow?" I asked.
"No, of course not. The right to walk in shadow is the First Amendment for good reason."
She paused a moment, and I moved reading the constitution up on my priority list a couple notches. New world, new constitution it seemed.
"The base of that rule is a simple one. Don't disturb the other patrons. Whether that's making noise, taking up too much space, or being disruptive in some other way such as an excessively offensive smell."
She emphasized that last one, looking me directly in the eyes. I admired how polite she was. If it had been me, I might've just yelled at the guy that smelled like a well-used outhouse that someone had dumped their marijuana into and then left to bake in the sun for a few days.
She, however, was much classier than that and left it there.
"Oh, sorry. I forgot about the smell."
"The human brain is an engine of adaptation. Eventually even the worst sensory overload can be filtered. However, none of the rest of us have your experience. Please, deal with it. Elsewhere."
"I will, ma'am. Sorry."
I reversed course, headed back toward the front of the library. There were restrooms there and I knew they'd have what I wanted.
I entered the men's and quickly went to the long line of sinks in front of the stalls. I took the jersey off, folded it up and tossed it in the farthest wastebasket.
Sufficiently distanced, I tried to reset my nose and determine whether I still smelled. Eventually, I was pretty sure that I was okay. Whatever foul substance had made that smell in the jersey hadn't rubbed off. To make sure, I used a bit of the library's hand soap to give myself a little bath in the sink. The library patrons that walked in and out while I was doing this didn't even bat an eye. Some of them cursed when they got to close to the waste can, but otherwise left me alone.
Once I dried my hands, I left the bathroom and returned to the periodical section. I passed by Helen the librarian again and this time she only nodded.
The next three hours flew by. I quickly gathered a stack of periodicals, all with unfamiliar names. It wasn't like I had read a lot of newspapers back in LA. Who did that? I had websites, and YouTube. Doing the research this way felt like historical reenactment.
What I learned in those three hours was that the world was much the same as mine had been, but with some large differences. There were no computers, no smart phones and none of the technology that came along with it. In fact, it seemed like the world's technology level had been stagnating since 1990. Maybe it hadn't, and back in my world in 1990 things had been different. In any case, 2020 in this world was roughly equivalent to 1990 in my world.
That was good and bad. I couldn't imagine how a system like the mirror, Light and Shadow, could exist with the Internet and ubiquitous cameras. Not unless the magic was powerful enough to extend to video. Hell, maybe it was.
The other thing I discovered was what I had expected. San Tadeo was Los Angeles. It had never been called that, but the layouts were identical with some minor changes here and there.
It felt like I was in one of those alternate history novels that I'd read on occasion. You know the kind, what would today look like if Hitler had never been born or had died early? That kind of thing.
Unlike those novels I had no idea what the branching point was. I simply didn't know enough history. Sure, I took the classes in school. Everyone did. I even got decent grades, solid Bs. That just wasn't enough. I had no clue when the two worlds had diverged. Maybe it was something I could figure out, but honestly, I just wasn't that interested. I was here, and that was that. I was still pretty convinced this world was a game anyway, so the DM could have just waved his hand and made it happen. I know that Jeremy would often improvise campaign settings if we caught him before he'd finished preparing. Sometimes the improvised stuff was better than the stuff he spent months planning.
I gave a wistful glance at the science-fiction and fantasy shelves before giving in and taking a walk through. I found literally none of the authors I knew and loved. Sure, some familiar names popped up but when I picked the books out, they weren't any books those authors had ever written. Without the Internet to check, I wasn't even sure that they were the same people. Some authors names are quite common.
I looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was just before five. Time had flown by and my stomach was starting to eat the rest of my body. I'd had breakfast twice and then nothing since. I wouldn't die, but it was time to get back to Martin's and check in.
I headed toward the entrance of the library and ducked into the bathroom. Someone had changed the garbage, but a tiny hint of the smell still lingered in the air. I felt sorry for everyone I had inflicted that on today.
I ducked into a stall and closed the door. It was one of those floor-to-ceiling jobs, offering complete privacy. I took the chain off my neck and tucked it into my left front pocket, away from the bus pass and Manny's card. Once it was off it took me a few seconds to get into the right headspace and will myself out of the shadows and back into the light. I felt the shadow that had been cloaking me all day recede as I entered the light.
Like nervously picking a scab, I brought up my debts screen and saw that it was the same on both sides of the mirror. I wondered if I took out a loan from the bank, or had a credit card would the balance show up here? That'd be pretty cool.
I left the bathroom and headed outside.
A group of four people was headed inside as I headed out. They were a motley crew. The most visible was a big burly tank of a man, towering at least 6'5". He looked like a bodybuilder that had given up and let most of his muscles go to fat. The big fellow, a woman in her 40s and a skinny young guy all followed an older man with long gray hair and a thick beard. He was speaking to them all and they were paying close attention.
All four of them had the same mismatched clothes. It was a look I'd come to recognize from the homeless in LA. When you lived on the street it was often easier to simply replace your clothes when they got dirty, and you'd take whatever you could get out of the bins at the shelters and the churches. What really interested me though was what they were talking about. I caught a snippet of their conversation
"If you make your build right, Duke, you'll be able to parry almost any attack that comes your way. You'll still be vulnerable to elemental damage, but with the right perks a pure fighter build is a powerhouse."
The big man, apparently Duke, was nodding along as they talked.
I looked back over my shoulder and projected my intent, trying to identify the man with the long gray beard. I got nothing back but a feeling of shadow.
The man didn't miss a beat but looked over at me and made eye contact briefly. Had he sensed that? Was that a thing? So many questions.
The group of them, and I had to assume it was a group since they seem to be talking about a role-playing game, passed into the library and I could no longer hear the conversation. I really, really wanted to follow them in and see if they were playing. I didn't know why but bringing that kind of normalcy back into a life which had suddenly turned absolutely insane felt very appealing. There was no way though, not that night. I had about an hour to get back to my uncle's and that wasn't going to be easy.
LA public transit sucks. If you know anything about LA, this should not be surprising to you. It's an enormous city and only the very poorest need to use public transit. That means it gets no money and no love from the government. Shit, maybe it does. Maybe everyone involved is just so corrupt it doesn't matter how much money you throw at the problem. In any case, it sucks. San Tadeo public transit? Exactly the same.
It didn't take me long to figure out how to get back to my uncle's. I had to take a bus, transfer to another bus and then a short walk. The first bus took twenty minutes to arrive and was nearly full. I stood the entire way, swaying as the bus slowly made its way from stop to stop.
I transferred onto the second bus and got a seat, but there was no AC and as I waited there at the transfer point the bus filled up until I was sandwiched against the window by a very large woman who needed a lot more of that bench than I did. I spent the ride gazing out the window at the people passing by in their cars, listening to music and enjoying the luxury of personal space. Maybe if things went well with our weed business, I'd be able to afford a car. Sure, those people out there weren't moving much faster than the bus, but still.
Fifty minutes later I was at my stop. I was already late, but I jumped off and began to power walk toward Martin's house. It was 6:30 when I made it to the front door. I hopped up three front steps and rang the doorbell. Twenty seconds later the inside door opened, and Martin was looking at me through the barred outer door.
"You're late. Come around to the side door, we don't use this door."
I left the front steps and went around to the side. Martin had left it ajar for me. I closed it behind me and entered the kitchen. There was a faint smell of pork and spice hanging in the air, and a covered pan on the stove.
"Sorry, Martin. I was at the library and the bus took much longer than I thought to get back here."
"I expect you'll try to do better next time. Grab a plate. I left some food for you."
I opened cupboards until I found the one that had the plates in it and took one. There was a serving spoon beside the pan, and I lifted the lid to see what he'd made for us. Stir fried rice and pork, with a selection of vegetables. It looked and smelled great.
Martin was standing in the doorway watching me dish up. "I don't like that you are late, but you did well today. I can overlook tardiness when the mission gets accomplished."
I literally had no idea what he was talking about. What mission had I accomplished today? Getting deeply in debt to a Chinese gangster? If so, mission accomplished.
It must have been obvious that I was completely confused because he elaborated.
"José's Mexican Chicken called while you were out, and I spoke with a nice young lady named Mindy. She said that you had the job and you should report for work at 0800 tomorrow morning. Well done. You're well on your way to making a man of yourself, Frank."
That job at JMC wasn't going to happen. For at least the next few weeks I was gonna be a full-time drug dealer, after all. Until we sold all that weed. It would make a great cover, however. As far as Martin was concerned, I'd be working at JMC full time.
"Yeah, that's great news."
I stuffed another forkful of rice and pork into my mouth to avoid having to speak again.
"I'll make sure you're awake at 0700 so you can shit, shower, shave and be on your way," Martin said.
I rubbed my jaw and felt a bit of stubble there. Shaving wasn't something I did every day. I hadn't been planning on doing it to work at a chicken restaurant.
Martin laughed when he saw what I did. "It's just a turn of phrase, son. I don't expect you'll be spending a lot of time on the shaving part. Finish your feed and then you're on your own time until lights out at 2100 hrs."
He turned and entered the living room. There was a click as a TV came on and I heard the sounds of the evening news.
I finished eating my plate and then finished the rest of it in the pan. After I was done, I washed the dishes and left them to dry in the dish rack. It didn't take long, and I'd rather remain on Martin's good side.
The TV was loud in the living room, but I till tried to be quiet as I picked up the phone and dialed Manny's number. He answered on the first ring.
"Yo," he said. I could hear music playing in the background.
"Manny, it's Mack."
I heard a loud click as someone else picked up. A heavily accented woman's voice spoke. "Hello?"
"Mom, I've got it," Manny said.
"Minh? Who is it?" Manny's mom asked.
"It's my friend Frank, Mom."
"Hello, Frank. Don't forget your homework, Minh."
"I won't, Mom."
We waited until there was a click and Manny's mom had left the line.
"Hey, sorry about that. I got it weighed out and divvied up. You ready to go, Bro?"
"Yeah. Meet me at the corner of Florence and Mountain View, okay?"
I didn't want Martin seeing Manny or his car. He might get the right idea.
"Got it. I'll see you there in twenty, Bro."
The line clicked as he hung up. I gently replaced the receiver and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was just after seven. If I was going to respect Martin's lights out, I didn't have a lot of time.
"Hey, Uncle Martin, I'm going out for a while. Can I have those keys you promised me?"
"They're on a ring by the side door with your name on it. Be back by lights out."
They were right where he'd said they were. Two newly cut keys and a tag on the ring that said Frank. I took them off the hook, pocketed them and left to meet Manny.
Manny knew his way around San Tadeo really well and made his way to the library closest to my Uncle's house. Near on a California scale. Which meant it was miles away.
He pulled up front, stopping let me out.
"You want me to pick you up back here?"
"No, that's cool. I gotta be back in my uncle's at six to report in. After that? Can you come get me at his place?" I asked.
"Cool, Bro. Just give me a call."
Manny reached into his front pocket and pulled out a ragged, white business card. The front was just Manny in large black letters with a bright green marijuana leaf in the top right corner. Along the bottom edge was a nine-digit phone number.
"That's the number of my house. If my mom answers just leave a message and she'll give it to me. I've been meaning to get one of those beepers they're selling now. People can send you their numbers to call them back, and they can even leave a message. It's cool shit."
I nodded, cool shit indeed. One day soon he'd be singing the praises of fax machines to me.
I tucked Manny's business card in my front pocket with the bus pass and the hundred-dollar bill. I really needed a wallet.
"Later, Manny," I said.
He waved jauntily and pulled away. With a squeal of its complaining fan belt the Regal left me behind.
I'm a tech consultant and a part time author (full time during this plague).
I have five books currently on Amazon, my Land of Dreams series and my new sci-fi series The Last Enclave. They're both gamelit/litrpg.
Capo is an experiment to see if I can make gangster a legit subgenre of Gamelit/LitRPG. I hope I can pull it off.