The year is 1929 and the city is Providence — but this is our world through a glass darkly, a place where magic and monsters hold sway in the night and the visions of Lovecraft are not portents of madness, but searing and horrible truths.
The next night, Karl checks in at Shipton’s Books. A string of little brass bells hanging near the door tinklingly announces his arrival. Travis Shipton, the local purveyor of rare and magical tomes, fusses behind a long, wooden counter. When he sees the dour necromancer, the rail-thin thaumaturge grows as pale as the ruffled bit of lace at his throat.
“Ah, um, Karl. It is Karl, isn’t it?” Shipton asks, his words clipped with a dated British accent. The book vendor straightens his brocade waistcoat. Born some time in the middle seventeen hundreds, the city’s lone Tremere had never adapted to modern fashion.
“Cut the crap, Shipton. You know who I am,” Karl responds. His wraith, Julie, makes a face at him, but her antics serve only to annoy. Karl waves her off. The anachronistic Tremere is oblivious to her presence, and just as well.
Shipton purses his thin lips. “I haven’t done anything,” he says, with the air of someone fearful of being caught.
“Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you won’t mind giving me a little information,” Karl prods.
Shipton maneuvers slightly so a large stack of books sits between them on the counter. He eyes the Giovanni necromancer warily, the briny blue of his irises glimmering with a faint sheen of power. Karl scowls when he sees it.
“You don’t need to use Auspex to see if I’m lying,” Karl barks. “Play nice and I’ll be out of here quickly.” He slams a list of names down onto the counter. Shipton jumps back as if expecting the list to explode like a pipe bomb. Karl says, “I want you to tell me what books any of these people bought in the past month. See? Simple.”
Shipton takes the list gingerly, pulling an old pair of pince-nez from his vest pocket and perching them on his nose. He squints at Karl’s handwriting, which wasn’t amazing on the best of days, and he’d written the list in a hurry.
“Ah, yes,” Shipton says, tapping a particular name. “I know this group. My ghoul Liza calls them the Blue Shirts. That’s all they wear, you see. Blue shirt, navy slacks for the gentlemen. Blue shirt, long navy skirt for the ladies. There’s been rather a lot of them of late.”
“I know,” Karl growls with more ferocity than is strictly necessary. Shipton nearly drops the list.
“You don’t have to be so cross with me. I’m not your enemy,” the Tremere objects.
“Yeah? You’re not my friend, either,” Karl retorts. “You’re selling books to these people, and they’re causing trouble for my family in this city.”
Shipton takes off his ridiculous antique spectacles, tapping them absently against the creased bit of paper. His eyes dart around the over-laden shelves that reach to the rafters, searching for something. He frowns, saying, “This book store existed before your family came to this town, and I have no intention of shutting my doors for the convenience of a few short-tempered Italians.”
Karl starts to hurl an excoriating response at the old Tremere, but Shipton stands his ground for once. No power is exchanged between them, but something in Travis’s eyes gives Karl pause.
Snippily, the Tremere says, “Before you threaten to tear off my head with your customary brutish zeal, let me remind you that I’ve been nothing but helpful to you and your people when events in this city have gotten … ” Shipton falters in his search for a fitting word, finally uttering, “Complicated.” He tosses the list back onto the counter, making no effort to hide his irritation. “And none of these people have bought anything I would class as a dangerous book. I’d have mentioned something to Luciano at the Occult Council if they had.”
Karl glares at Shipton, balling his fists so tight the leather of his gloves creaks in protest. Shipton knows better than to stare back directly into Beck’s eyes, but he squares his shoulders and gives a haughty little lift to his cleft chin as he fixes his eyes unwavering at a point to the left of Karl’s head. Beside her master, Julie the wraith whispers soothingly. She doesn’t see anything amiss in the store.
“If anything changes, you tell me,” Karl says at length.
“Not Luciano?” Shipton inquires.
“Cousin Luci is not to be bothered. You come to me,” Karl reiterates, drilling his meaning into each individual word. “We clear, Shipton?”
“As a gypsy’s glass,” Shipton says with a disdainful sniff. “Now buy something or get out. This is a place of business, after all.”
Karl leaves, slamming the door behind him so hard, the little string of brass bells crashes noisily to the floor.