I was standing on the sidewalk in front of JMC moments later, trying to decide my next destination. Should I go next door to Skinny Tony’s and put in an application there? Sure, Mindy had said I probably had the job, but it wasn’t a hundred percent sure thing. Being flat broke really sucked. Would my uncle be pissed I came back tonight if I came back that night and had applied to a grand total of one job opening?
My reverie was broken by the sound of loud gangster rap coming from cheap speakers being pushed to their limits. I could hear the distortion, and almost feel the tortured groaning of the cars strained amplifiers.
I looked over and saw an older, boxy convertible with brown paint and no hubcaps pull into the parking lot. This car I actually recognized. It was a Buick Regal, one of the few convertibles that almost anyone could afford. I’d looked at quite a few of them just before I hit 16 when I’d been vainly dreaming that my dad might buy me a car, or with some miracle I’d come into enough money to buy one. When you’re a 16-year-old kid in California any convertible was better than a normal car.
The guy driving a car was singing along with the lyrics, enthusiastically. He had a black ball cap with CREAM written across the top, a bright blue jersey and black wraparound sunglasses. Around his neck, a thick silvery-gold chain with a comically large glittering dollar sign hung. He looked like a caricature of a gangster.
The Regal rattled to a stop, brakes squealing in protest. The driver turned it off and hopped out, pocketing the keys in his baggy, sagging shorts. He walked around to the sidewalk, and when he saw me, he stopped in his tracks.
He smiled and pulled his sunglasses off to make direct eye contact. He had dark brown or black eyes and I could see now that he was clearly Asian, but I didn’t recognize him. He seemed to know me, though.
“Holy shit, Frank. It’s good to see you, brother,” he said, and strode over to me.
He extended his right hand for an obvious Bro-hug, and after a brief hesitation I accepted, and we embraced. The Bro-hug wasn’t something I had done with my other friends, but I’d seen it done often enough that I knew how it went. I caught the distinct odor of marijuana, strong and recent. When he pulled back, I could see his eyes were a little pink.
That was no big deal, lots of people in LA smoked up. Hell, it was even legal, now. Mostly. In any case it wasn’t like there was any social stigma to marijuana anymore. I didn’t smoke it myself. It seemed to make people dumber.
I reflexively identified him as he pulled back. Nothing appeared in the air, only that feeling of shadow again.
“I’m sorry, man. What’s your name again?” I asked.
I didn’t see any other way to go. He was in shadow and I didn’t know his name. There was no way I was going to do that sitcom thing where I tried to talk to him without knowing who he was.
“You’re fucking with me, Frank. You know me, it’s Manny, Bro.”
Manny. What were the chances? I’ve got a bare character sheet, except that I owe one favor to a guy named Manny. I go out on my first morning in this new world, and who do I meet in the largest city in California? Manny.
So, to answer the question my own question about the chances? The chances are: none. There’s no way that just happened randomly. As a long-time tabletop gamer, this had the stink of a DM on it. Something ran this world. Whether it was a god, a DM, aliens or, hell, even my own subconscious. Whatever it was, it was trying to push us together. I wasn’t sure that was a good idea, but I also knew most DMs didn’t particularly like you leaving the rails.
“Hey, Manny. What’s up?”
“Getting my feed on, Bro! I had a late night chasing the ladies and I’ve got some stuff to do today but I need to eat. Wanna join?”
“No, sorry man. I’m flat broke.”
“I got you, Homes. Let’s eat.”
Hell, if Manny was going to buy me some chicken, I definitely wasn’t going to say no. I followed him back into the JMC and we went to the counter. Mindy took our order, looking curiously at Manny as we stood together and ordered. I saw the question in her eyes, but I didn’t have an answer for her. There was so much I didn’t know about this world. Was there a social stigma about hanging out with people that were in shadow? Or was it just like someone choosing to be anonymous? My uncle surely didn’t see it that way, but was his view a common one?
Manny ordered one of the breakfast combos and I followed suit. Nothing like chicken strips and fries for breakfast.
I filled my drink cup with a brown, sugary liquid from a tap sporting a logo I didn’t recognize. Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything I’d drank back in Los Angeles. It still tasted pretty familiar. Some kind of cola.
Manny led me to the farthest booth and sat in the corner with windows at his back and right side. I slid in after him.
The chicken was delicious, spicy and crunchy at the same time. It definitely had a bit of a Mexican flavor to it but also tasted a lot like the southern fried chicken I was used to. The french fries were nothing special, but the chicken disappeared quickly from both our trays. Once that was done Manny leaned back and looked at me from across the table.
“I’m so glad I ran into you this morning, Bro. When was the last time I saw you, anyway?”
That one was a landmine. I had no idea, so I tried to obfuscate.
“I don’t know Manny. I’ve been having a rough couple days. My dad just died.”
“Oh shit, Homes. Now I remember your dad was sick. He got worse, huh? I guess that’s why I haven’t seen you in school. I thought you were just ditching. They got you on compassionate leave?”
“No, I’m out for the rest of the year, at least. Gotta get a job and pay rent to my uncle.”
“That’s harsh, Bro. That works out though, since I can help you earn a little scratch today. You up for it?”
My first instinct was to tell him “Hell, no”.
Whatever Manny was doing, I didn’t want any part of it. He was dressed like a clown pretending to be a gangster and walking in shadow. Whatever he was doing, he didn’t want anyone to know who he was. I tempered my answer a bit instead.
“I don’t know, man.”
“Seriously, just come back me up, Bro. I don’t want to go to this meet alone. I want somebody watching my back. And who better, huh? The boys roll again, Bro. You help me out, and like I said I’ll hook you up.”
He pulled out a roll of cash from his front pocket and peeled off the a hundred. He laid it on the table and put the roll away but not before I saw that the next bill was a twenty.
“Help me out today, I’ll give you a Benji. Sound good?”
It did sound good, actually. Going from lint to a hundred bucks in my pocket sounded really good. But whatever Manny wanted to do sounded shady as fuck. He wanted back up at a ‘meet.’ Screw that.
“Sorry, Manny. I don’t want to get mixed up in anything.”
“Shit, Bro. I thought you had my back. Boys forever, right? I need you man. I gotta call in my favor, if you won’t come.”
Text appeared in the air in front of me, shrouded in shadow.
“Manny” is calling in his small favor.
“Manny” will now state his terms and judgment on fairness will be rendered.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this, Bro,” Manny muttered and then spoke more clearly. “Here’s what I want: You to come with me to the meet and have my back. It’s not going to get violent; I just need you there to boost my rep. I need to show that I’ve got boys and I’m not just some chump all by himself. After the meet’s done, we’ll call it good.”
The display in front of me changed. Manny clearly saw the same text as I did, as he grimaced in frustration.
Repayment proposal of small favor to “Manny” is deemed imbalanced.
Imbalanced in favor of: “Manny”
Degree of imbalance: moderate
“Damnit. Fine. That, and I’ll give you the hundred bucks. We good?”
The display in front of me changed once again and Manny relaxed, looking up at me.
small favor repayment terms are judged balanced.
Accept these repayment terms?
NOTE: Declining reasonable repayment of favors will have consequences.
I grimaced and read the prompt again. The universe had deemed Manny’s terms to be balanced, somehow. How it could possibly determine that escaped me. I was still tempted to say no. The warning was just vague enough that it worried me.
Manny saw my hesitation. “Come on, Bro, you can see this is fair. What are you going to do, take the penalty? Help me with this and we’re even.”
With a bit of trepidation, I projected my will and the accept button in front of me depressed and locked into place. The display changed before fading out moments later. I took the hundred-dollar bill and tucked it into my pocket.
Repayment of small favor to “Manny” is in progress.
Favor will be considered resolved after a good faith effort, or when “Manny” declares repayment complete.
The gamer in me cringed when I read that. Even in games with a DM watching over the players a “good faith” effort was a high bar. It was so abusable. If I wanted to screw Manny over, I could just do something stupid, deliberately. Who was to say it wasn’t just an error of judgment and not me breaking faith? In this case, it seemed the universe was the arbiter. Maybe whatever it was could read minds and tell when people were being deceptive. I wasn’t planning on screwing Manny over, but I resolved to find out what the limits of this system were.
Manny and I left JMC’s a few minutes later, dumping the trash on our trays in the bins near the exit on the way out. Manny held onto his drink, noisily sipping it and rattling the ice around.
We approached his car which squatted inelegantly in the bright California sunshine just outside.
“Alright, as soon as you’re ready, Bro, we’ll roll,” Manny said, and sat on the hood of his car.
“I’m ready now, I guess.”
“Shit, Bro. You can’t go to this meet in the Light. Like I told you, there’s not a lot of risk, but you don’t want these guys knowing your real name.”
That wasn’t promising. We were going to meet with guys who we didn’t want to know our real names. Great. The more pressing concern I had was what I could do about it.
“I’ve never walked in shadow before, Manny,” I said.
Manny’s eyebrows raised, an almost comical expression of surprise on his face.
“No shit, Homey? You’ve never ever done it? Come on, Bro. You gotta express those constitutional rights. Every American has a right to walk in shadow, you know that. It’s one of the reasons the terrorists hate us so much, Bro.”
“Yeah, sure. It’s just, I don’t know how. Like I said, I’ve never done it.”
“Shit, Bro. Did you miss that health class? I skipped it—my cousin showed me how to do it when I was ten. My mom didn’t want me to know how, but good luck with that.”
“Yeah, I must have ditched that one. So, how do I do it?”
Manny stood up, setting his drink on the hood of the Regal. “I got you. Hold on.”
He stepped down from the sidewalk and walked to the rear of his car, using his keys to open the trunk. He reached in and pulled and after rummaging around for a while, pulled two items free and slammed the trunk. He came back to me holding them. It was another jersey, a blue one, for a different team than the one he was already wearing. The other item was a thick, gold rope chain.
I took them both and looked them over. The first thing that I noticed was that the jersey stank, a lot. The smell was incredibly potent, a mix of eau de marijuana and a sewer. I recoiled, thrusting the jersey away from me as my eyes watered.
“Yeah, my bad Bro. I used that one to clean up a bit of spilled bong water and the smell hasn’t come out yet. Don’t worry once we’re on the road the wind will take that smell right out.”
I doubted that. “I can just wear the shirt I’m wearing, can’t I?” I asked
“Shit no, Bro. You gotta look the part. Anyway, the chain is what you really need. Check it out.”
I pulled the chain up, identifying it.
Decorative Chain of the Mirror (Shadow Focus)
+1 to Street Cred
A shadow item. Martin had mentioned that. I clearly remembered him saying how if he ever found one, I was done in his house. The real surprising thing however was the stat that it added.
“What the hell is Street Cred?” I asked.
“Come on, you’re definitely fucking with me now. Every kid knows what Street Cred is. It’s the mirror stat of Respectability. Light and Dark, Karmic Mirror, that whole thing.”
I didn’t but didn’t want to press for more answers. Maybe it would be obvious once I was actually walking in shadow.
“What, so I just put the shirt and chain on here, and I’m good?” I asked.
“Hell no, Homey. Get in that booth. First rule, never enter or exit the shadows where somebody can see you. If you do that, you’ll break the mirror for anybody who sees you. Believe me, most the time you don’t want that. With us, it’s cool. We’re bros. Other people though? No, no way. It makes you way too vulnerable. Protect those First Amendment rights, Bro.”
I added “break the mirror” to the list of things I needed to know. Whatever it was, it sounded bad and I’d avoid it. There was one last bit I was unclear on.
“So, I go in the booth, put the shirt and the chain on, and then job done, right?”
“No. You need the chain, but you’ve gotta want to go into the Shadows. Just like you gotta want to walk in the Light when you’re done. Without that, nothing’s gonna happen. Just like if you take off the chain later without the want you’ll still be in the shadows.”
“So even if I lose this chain, I’ll still be protected?”
“Yeah, Bro. What use would the shadows be if all somebody had to do to drag you back into the light was just take off your chain? That wouldn’t make sense.”
That filled in a large hole in my understanding. Once you entered the shadows you were there until you wanted to leave. If it weren’t for that, think of how easy the cops would have it. They’d just have to arrest you, strip search you, and bam—they’d know who you were in the Light.
So many more questions flooded my mind and I swallowed them down. If Manny was going to be my tutorial, my intro to this world, I had to play it cool. He wasn’t just some dumb AI I could fire questions at rapid fire. I had to stay in character, because there was no way I wanted to explain to him that his high school friend that he trusted was some stranger from another world that just happened to look exactly the same and have the same name.
“I’ll go try it.”
Manny nodded and sat back down on the hood of his car.
I walked back to the phone booth I had checked out earlier. At some point the layer of prostitute cards on the floor had been refreshed with new ones added to the top. Otherwise, everything was the same. I entered and shut the door behind me. The light came on, and I looked at the two items in my hands. The smell of the shirt in the tight space was almost overwhelming. I held my breath as I pulled it on over top of my other shirt, hoping I wouldn’t cook in the sun with two layers. I really didn’t want this stinky thing to touch my bare skin. Hell, I’d probably have to destroy the shirt I was already wearing afterward.
Once it was on, I pulled the chain over my head. At least it wasn’t incredibly gaudy like the one Manny was wearing. If the one that he’d been storing his trunk was +1 to a stat, then the one he was actually wearing must have more bonuses. That was standard gamer wisdom. You don’t wear gear with inferior stats. Especially not when it looked so ridiculous. There was no upper limit to how ridiculous a true gamer would look for superior stats.
I put the chain around my neck, and after a moment managed to find the right intent. Shadows seem to gather around me, and text appeared in front of me.
Welcome to the shadows!
Choose a name to represent your mirrored self.
WARNING: This name is not easily changeable.
It didn’t make seem to make sense. Why would I need to give a name when people couldn’t see it? My identify skill didn’t show Manny’s name. It showed nothing at all, just that feeling of shadows. In any case, the prompt sat there, waiting. I thought briefly about just using Frank, but that didn’t seem like a good idea.
“Mack,” I said, out loud. Mack was one of my favorite D&D character names, a short version of my last name.
After I said that, it appeared in front of me, properly spelled and everything. I was surprised, but not much. The system was clearly very good.
Name chosen: “Mack”
Confirm, or choose another name.
I took a deep breath, then projected my desire to confirm. The shadows that had gathered around me seemed to retreat slightly, but although nothing was visible, I still could feel them. It was an odd sensation, the cool darkness of deep shadow on a summer’s day despite the near oppressive heat inside the blacked-out phone booth. I realized that I would always be able to tell when I was walking in the shadows.
With a thought I pulled up my character sheet.
|“Mack” (Walking in the Shadows)||Job:||None|
The whole sheet had that shadowed feel, and my name had changed. Respectability had changed to Street Cred. I was curious if that was the only change and started opening up the sub screens. It wasn’t, of course.
|Fame – Frank McLean|
|San Tadeo||Unknown (0)|
|Infamy – “Mack”|
|San Tadeo||Unknown (0)|
|Reputation – Frank McLean|
|No reputation entries|
|Reputation – “Mack”|
|No reputation entries|
Now that I’d entered the shadows for the first time, I was seeing values for my new shadow-self, “Mack”, in my Fame and Reputation screens as well.
Dismissing the character sheet, I stepped out of the phone booth’s oppressive heat and stench. Out in the open air things improved marginally, but I pitied anyone that had to be near me.
Manny was still sitting on the hood of his car, taking small sips from his drink and looking around. His eyes skipped right over me as I exited. I felt incredibly conspicuous in the jersey and fake gold chain, even with no one looking.
I stopped in front of Manny and he finally looked up and met my gaze. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but his expression wasn’t friendly. He seemed a little nervous, even.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m ready. Let’s go,” I said.
Manny stood up and set down the nearly empty drink on the hood.
“I don’t want no trouble, Bro. I don’t know you, Mack. We got beef?”
I was stunned. Did he really not know who I was, or was he just fucking with me? I instinctively tried to identify him despite it not having worked the previous times. This time was different.
It was just his name, and it still had the shadowed feel. Now that I was in the shadows as well, I could see it. Did that mean that no one on the light side could see any info on people walking in the shadows?
Manny was standing like he was ready to either throw down or take off running, depending on what happened in the next seconds. I didn’t know him that well, but there was no way he was that much of an actor. He honestly didn’t know who I was.
“Manny, it’s me,” I said.
I glanced around to make sure no one could overhear and then lowered my voice anyway.
You have relinquished the protection of the shadows.
Manny will now be able to associate your Light and Shadow selves.
Manny’s posture immediately relaxed, and he dropped the sunglasses off his eyes to look me over.
“Homes, you scared the shit out of me,” he said, and pulled me into a hug.
A moment later he pushed me away. “Holy shit, you stink. We’ve really gotta get you a different shirt. Remind me, would ya?”
“How the hell did you not know it was me, Manny? You gave me this damn shirt and chain, and you saw me go into that phone booth and come out. Who else could I possibly be?”
“Ditched that one too, did you? Shadow’s like that, Bro. Fucks with your head. Now that you broke the mirror with me, I’ll know it’s you from now on. To be honest, I thought we’d already done that. I could’ve sworn, actually. Maybe I was too high that day. Sorry, Bro. If I’d known I would have warned you. My bad.”
Whatever this world was, it was turning out stranger than I thought. There was some kind of magical or psionic protection of your true identity when you were in shadow. Wild. If this were like a typical game, I’d expect that a skill existed that could breach that protection. A rare one, or maybe an item. Yet another thing to ask about. Later.
Manny was moving around to the driver side door and waved me to the passenger side.
“Come on, let’s go. It’s a bit of a drive, and traffic’s gonna be a bitch.”
I opened the passenger side door and got in, but Manny just jumped in Dukes of Hazard style. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he chuckled.
“Door doesn’t work. Been meaning to get it fixed, but you know mechanics. They’re expensive as fuck. Besides, I’m saving my capital. I need every dime for expansion. You’ll see.”
He started up the car with some difficulty. The engine turned over a few times before wheezing to life. A fan belt squealed in protest. The sweet sound of American muscle it wasn’t. As the engine roared to life, the gangster rap that had been playing started back up. The sound hurt my ears now that I was inside the car. I didn’t recognize the song but wasn’t sure if that was because it was music from another world or if it was just my near-complete ignorance of the genre. I reached out and turned the volume knob almost all the way down. Manny looked over at me and raised his right eyebrow but didn’t protest.
The engine settled into a smooth, loping rhythm after the initial complaints and without hesitating, Manny use the shifter on his steering column to put the car into reverse and backed out quickly. The drink that he’d forgotten on his hood tumbled off, hitting the asphalt and spraying ice and a small amount of drink. Without giving it a glance, he pulled us out onto Florence and merged with the steady traffic.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“We’re going to see my connect. He’s a guy goes by Brass Lee.”
“Yeah, it’s dumb. But he’s Chinese and I think he’s into martial arts or something. It’s kind of a pun. He’s in the Brass Dragon Tong, you see. He’s one of their lieutenants.”
“A tong? Like the Chinese mafia?” I asked.
“Kind of. Not quite the same, but yeah, they’re organized. I’ve got an in, and I need to reup. I bought some dope from him last week and it’s all gone. I got a good customer base and they’re desperate for my product.”
“If you’ve done business with this guy before, why do you need me?” I asked.
“I’m just the smallest of fishes here, Bro. I need to make a good impression. Like, that I’m scaling up. You know, growing. These Tong guys are sharp. Real capitalist sharks. If I look like I’m too little of a fish and that I’m never going to get bigger they’re just gonna eat me. I need be just big enough for them to not to not feel like they’re wasting their time.”
I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but the thought of us going to see somebody in the Chinese mafia didn’t sit well. I’d known, intellectually, that LA had been full of gangs of all sorts. The wonderful rainbow of diversity that was organized crime in California. Even with that knowledge, I’ve never met any of them. That I knew of. I’d never wanted to, either. Those people were dangerous. And now, I was traveling with my wannabe gangster buddy to buy dope. Great.