A Friend in Shadow

Zzz, Zzz. Zzz. Zzz.

Greta squinted her sleepy eyes against the filtered morning light and reached for her phone. The smell of eggs greeted her, and her stomach growled as she sat up.

She looked groggily around her room. The desk, books, and Hannibal poster remained exactly as she remembered them. The thought confused her for a moment, but she shook her head irritably and unlocked her phone.

She read the messages from Katelyn and immediately got dressed and started downstairs.

“Hey, Greta, we’re almost ready for breakfast. You want some?” asked Selkie as Greta entered the kitchen. Her housemate’s partner, Kelly, sat at the table, reading a novel. “I just need to get the whites firm and they’ll be good to go.”

Greta paused, looking at Kelly. “She stayed the night?” she asked. Selkie nodded, and Greta looked out the window. Sure enough, Kelly’s pickup truck had double-parked her hatchback again.

“How’d you sleep?” asked Selkie, watching the frying pan. “It’s been nice to have clear weather for once—”

“Look, I’m sorry, but I need the truck moved,” Greta said as she crossed to the kitchen cabinet and grabbed an apple. A half-remembered thought gnawed at her, but the urgent text message had pushed all else to the background. “I’ve got to get going.”

“Why? Classes aren’t until tomorrow,” asked Selkie as Kelly distractedly muttered under her breath. She tossed the keys to Greta with barely a glance, then directed her attention back to her book.

Greta caught them and headed to the door. “Seems like I’ve got an appointment with the police. Well, not me, I just— look, I just need to go help Katelyn out, that’s all, I can’t explain it right now.” She put her shoes on and headed out. “I’ll have your keys back in a sec, Kelly.”

The police took Stefan into custody; they’re saying he stole a bunch of ketamine!? Can you meet me at the jail or help watch the kids?

“No, no Katelyn has come through yet, miss. Are you family?”

The desk clerk didn’t even look at her from behind the scratched plexiglass. Greta watched the woman take another sip of coffee and stare at her monitor as she gritted her teeth in frustration.

“Okay, so she’s not here yet, but it’s not like he’s going anywhere, is he? Can you please let me in?” she asked.

The clerk barely nodded. “Sure, just sign in here,” she said, pushing a clipboard toward her. “The guard at the door will let you in.”

She signed her name with only a moment’s hesitation. Surprised by the ease with which they let her enter, she approached the duty guard and was immediately escorted to the cell block. The guard stopped them outside a cell with two men inside, one sleeping, the other leaping up with pleasure the moment he caught sight of her.

“Greta, oh thank goodness! Is Katelyn here too? Is she okay?” He gripped the bars as he spoke. “I don’t understand what’s going on here at all. I told them it was a mistake, I was just on my way to work, and they arrested me for drugs and burglary! Can you believe that? I said that they’re mistaking me for someone else, but no one’s listening to me.”

His face radiated honest frustration and wounded innocence. Greta had just drawn breath to reply when a voice bellowed, “What is she doing here?! Get her back to the waiting area, she doesn’t have clearance to be here.”

The guard immediately ushered her away. She glanced over her shoulder to at least give Stefan some assurance but only heard him call after her, “Just let Katelyn and the kids know I’m going to be alright. My lawyer will be here any time. We’ll get the misunderstanding sorted out soon, and I’ll be free and clear before you know it.”

The guard deposited Greta back into the lobby, where Katelyn was in frantic conversation with the desk clerk. Greta walked up and put a hand on her shoulder. “Katelyn, what’s been going on here?”

Katelyn turned and gave her a hug. “Oh, thanks so much for coming by! I don’t know, I’ve been really worried.” She broke off the hug but didn’t let go right away. “I really don’t know what’s going on here, but Stefan hasn’t been himself lately. I’m really concerned for him.” She sighed heavily. “I need to head to the bank to post bail, but I could really use some company. Would you join me?”

Greta nodded. “Sure, I will.” Katelyn gave her a relieved smile, and they walked out together.

She accompanied Katelyn there and back, then said goodbye outside the station and headed to Bankrupt Books. They’re not going to be happy to hear about this, she thought.

Bankrupt Books wasn’t much more than a repository warehouse, but it carried a veneer of at least pretending to be a walk-in bookstore at the front. Greta walked past the token storefront shelving and entered the den of stacked boxes and employees walking along narrow pathways lined with two-foot book piles, trying to sort and package orders without knocking anything over. She found a teen girl entering data on a laptop with the intensely bored expression of repetitive task fatigue.

“You see Kris anywhere?” Greta asked.

The girl thumbed behind her, further into the back. Greta nodded, then left her to her work.

Kris’s right ear glinted, backlit, as Greta approached. The shaved sides of her head showed off her multiple earrings and the flush of her skin as she struggled with a load of books packed precariously into bags and boxes.

“Can I give you a hand?”

Kris turned her head slightly and nearly lost her grip on one bag. “Yeah, get this one before I drop it,” she replied tensely.

Greta caught the errant bag and started repacking the books into a more structurally stable order. Kris called out general instructions as she did, and within about ten minutes everything had been put away.

Kris took a deep breath. “Right, that’s done. Now, who’re you? Looking for work?”

Greta gave a wry grin. “Not exactly. I’m a friend of Stefan’s, and he’s . . . he’s having some difficulties. He won’t make it in today.”

“Again? Jesus, what a flake.” Kris almost snorted in frustration. “I only had another hour to go, too. You replacing him, or am I stuck on overtime again? We’ve got another weird estate sale to inventory by tomorrow.”

“I guess it means overtime, sorry. I could give you a hand though, I don’t have anything really going on until the afternoon.”

Kris nodded and directed her to where she could begin. Greta got started transporting piles to more convenient locations.

“You called him a flake,” said Greta, “like this has been happening a while. Anything been going on with him here?”

Kris typed a few more book titles into her computer before turning. “Well, it started about a month ago,” she said. “Before that he was great to work with, got stuff done. He hired me, you know, a couple years back. The transition to online sales was a strain to get sorted out, especially since the owner refused to transition to online marketplaces, but Stefan got things working and never seemed overly bothered when issues cropped up.”

She frowned. “Then, around a month ago, he’d start to go on rants about stupid shit. Don’t get me wrong,” she said, holding up her hands, “it’s not like I think everything we sell is great literature, but he’d start venting on us about the books we got in being trash not worth the paper they’re printed on, about how we’d do better to sell them as firelighters. It really didn’t help morale.” Her frown deepened to a scowl. “Then I started catching him ogling the girls who work here. Even some of the underage ones. They didn’t talk to me about it when I asked them, and Stefan’s been here long enough that I doubt the owner would listen if I reported him without more concrete evidence or an actual complaint. Besides, he’s got a family, kids, that can be tough. But we’ve all been getting a lot more tense when he’s around. Which, as I say, he hasn’t been as much.”

She got up and started pacing. “Which is frustrating as well because his absence means more work for the rest of us. I don’t know, maybe he and Katelyn are going through a rough patch or something, but I just want him to stop being an ass and help share the load.”

Greta, still recording inventory on the pile next to her, asked, “Any other changed behavior?”

Kris sat back down and started her own filing again. “I don’t know . . . he’d taken an interest in some old diaries that came through here in an earlier lot, took a handful of them home.” She looked at Greta. “One of the best perks of this place, really. I’ve done that with loads of books coming through here. Everyone’s got their reserve queue.” She turned back to the screen.

Greta had just finished an inventory section when her phone rang. “Hey, Katelyn,” she answered.

“Hi, Greta. I just want to thank you again for coming by. I’ve got Stefan home now and he’s a bit shaken, but he’s mostly alright, just confused. What’s your schedule look like around five o’clock?”

“I'm totally open as far as I know.” Not like my dissertation is getting done now, she added to herself.

“Thanks, see you then,” said Katelyn, and hung up.

Greta paused, then shrugged and put her phone away. It was time to get going anyway. She looked over at Kris, and a thought struck her. “What did the diaries contain?”

Kris didn’t look away from the screen. “I didn’t read them, and Stefan got creepy about it, so I didn’t ask again. The estate sale was about a month and a half ago, from Arkham Independent Realty. They just dump stuff on us when they’re turning over houses that haven’t been cleared, and we loan them shit books with nice-looking covers to decorate the homes for showing off.” She glanced at Greta and nodded. “I appreciate your help. That’ll likely get me out of here earlier.”

“Don’t mention it,” Greta said.

Katelyn opened her door, her eyes rimmed red with crying. Behind her, Stefan gave Greta a sheepish grin from the kitchen table.

Katelyn waved her in. “I’m just going to, to make some tea. Would you like some?” she asked hesitantly. Greta nodded, and Katelyn walked past the hallway plants to the kitchen.

“Thanks for your help today. I really appreciate it,” said Stefan as she sat down at the table. He looked perfectly relaxed but for his face, which had an uncharacteristic tightness to it.

Greta gave a slightly stiff nod. “It’s no problem. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

A moment of uncomfortable silence stretched on for too long, and then Katelyn brought the tea to the table. Greta thanked her and turned back to Stefan.

“So, how’re you feeling now?”

“Oh, I’m doing really well, yeah. You know, just being back home is a huge relief. That cell, let me tell you, not that comfortable. They could do with a new chair.”

Greta gave a polite nod. “I bet their budget doesn’t allow for cellmate comforts like that these days.”

“Well, they should add it to the list of police station reforms. Might go a long way to make people less unwilling to be arrested if they knew they’d have a good chair to sit in.”

Katelyn just listened, eyes lost in her mug. Greta looked at her questioningly but couldn’t catch her eye.

“I did some work at your bookstore a bit today. Seems like there’s some interesting stuff that comes through there,” Greta said amiably.

His eyes stared into nothing for a moment and then snapped back to reality. “There is, there really is, some jewels come through there, it’s true.” He stared distractedly to the side.

A pause swelled into a void. “What kind of thing—” Greta began.

“Excuse me a moment, I just remembered I need to see about something.” Stefan got up abruptly and headed downstairs. Katelyn looked closed off, and Greta held space quietly until the silence was interrupted by returning footsteps.

Stefan poured himself a cup of tea, sipped, and grimaced. He turned to Katelyn. “How fucking hard is it to seal the tea container? You're useless sometimes, you know that?”

A teardrop splashed on the table near her clenched hands. Katelyn wordlessly got up and marched off. A moment later, a door slammed.

“What a bitch, right?” said Stefan, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. He shook one out and offered the pack to Greta. “You want one?”

Greta shook her head, stunned. I’ve never known him to smoke, or to speak to Katelyn like that, she thought. He shrugged and slouched off to the porch.

Greta heard muffled weeping through the wood of the bedroom door. She knocked gently. “Katelyn, are you okay?”

There was silence, then footsteps approached. The door opened to show Katelyn red with rage. “If that's how he's going to treat me after all this, he can take it somewhere else, or I can call the cops back and he can cool off in a cell.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Help me get some of his shit from the basement. I don’t want it in this house.”

Katelyn made straight for the stairs. “He thinks I don’t know about his stash, but I found it some time ago.”

She showed Greta the recently disturbed boxes pushed back amid the Christmas decorations and old clothing boxes. Greta moved over to them and opened the first.

“Are . . . are these from the bookstore?” she asked.

“The books, I assume. The cigarettes and pills, I have no idea.”

They each picked up a box and carefully climbed upstairs to the garage. Stefan hadn’t come back in.

Katelyn whispered to Greta as they walked, “I thought maybe it was medication, that he was ashamed to admit to needing it. I hoped it was a prescription, treatment for something. . . .” She burst into tears again, silently sobbing as they put the boxes down near the trash can. She mastered herself and turned to Greta fully. “Can you go grab the other box? I need to make a phone call.”

Greta quickly got the third box and placed it beside the others in the garage. But before she went back inside, she paused, unsure.

I should see what’s in these, she thought. She summarily dismissed the small warning voice in her head as she opened the first box.

The revelations were underwhelming. It held a handful of westerns and Reader’s Digest hardcover abridged novel anthologies. The second wasn’t much more interesting, other than a receipt made out to a Phyllis Gagne for some coffee table books of beautiful photos from Paris, the Amazon, and Borneo.

The third was a cluttered mess, but one book had been placed inside spine downwards. She pulled it out.

The large volume was bound in burgundy-colored leather, the silver-gilded text block reading My Life. The pages were thick, the ink dark brown, and the text written in a bold, handwritten cursive.

Greta checked to see if she was still alone, then read the first page.

Alarm fought hard, but curiosity won out as she turned a few more pages. This Portman character seemed like a fascinating figure, a stunning, Jay Gatsby–style success story.

Caution eventually caught up to her, and she slipped the book under her jacket and went back in to find Katelyn.

But the hallway was wrong. The plants in the halls had grown larger, more obstructive. The air had grown thick with humidity, and she broke out in sweat. A grinding of gears behind a wall made her wince, and a mirror in the hallway shimmered as she passed.

Greta began to run, yelling, “Katelyn? Katelyn!” But she couldn’t find the end of the house. The hallway curved, stretched out in front of her, and then snapped straight. An armored figure blocked the left-hand path at a fork ahead of her, so she quickly turned right and—

Entered her room. Not Greta’s room. Her room. She remembered now.

Winstead looked around. The room was largely empty; the old mattress still lay on the floor. The mirror on the wall showed a dingy reflection of the stacked boxes on the opposite side of the room. The wall near the outside door was bare brick, and another door stood opposite it. But her copy of Crime and Punishment was gone.

Footprints and scuff marks told her people had been through here recently, but everything else seemed the same. They might still be here, she thought, and she flung open the inner door to find them.

Alchemist: The PC gains knowledge, or insight into a complex problem. An NPC ally has information or understanding that can be of great use.

Failed observation roll.

Rolls a zero. Becomes cursed, but is not aware of it yet. Failed test against the cursed book; but Stuart Portman is too disoriented by the shift to Indigo. Portman's essence is warded in the pages, semi-sentient. May summon a dimensional shambler that will take the book away.

Perception, rolled a 9.