In this digital universe, players control exotic avatars with the power of thought. They succumb to many hungers in a lawless sauna of jealousies, lust, and murder.
It’s not virtual anything.
Amid gritty realities of 2029 America, Logan Fischer struggles to free herself from cyber addiction. While the ultra-rich owner of Halcyon Dreamworlds undertakes the death of privacy, Logan must battle free of that alluring Xanadu and accept the challenge to win back a world’s future.
The Ultras will detest that.
Chapter 1 – Attention Joy-Mart Shoppers
If there were an iconic image of a woman’s impending ruin, it would be seen in Logan Fischer’s posture of defeat as she stares at the pinwheel of death on her laptop screen. The Garden Center’s laptop is down again and she’s forced to use her personal one, which store policy forbids. As laughter and conversation bubble around her in the employee breakroom, she fumes in exasperation, dreading the day this old machine won’t go at all, taking with it her entire world. Her photos, her email, her secret fantasy life. She forces herself to breathe deep as the thing freezes.
“Hey, sexy!” A work friend joins her table, proudly bearing the latest store gossip. The woman has a mischievous smirk. “The produce manager asked about you.”
Logan curls her lip. “That’ll be a frosty day in the lettuce patch.”
“I know you guys, there’s a kind of war between you two. I’m sure you’ve got that old itch to scratch.”
Fiercely private, Logan guards her inner wants, such as which gender interests her at the moment. Serene violet eyes on her friend, she says, “I’m sure his scratching would only make it worse.”
“Oh-ho,” the woman says. “Maybe you prefer your avatar boyfriends.”
Logan’s eyes rove the busy lunchroom, where everyone wears the uniform of buff slacks and blue Joy-Mart vests. She suspects that others here spend their evenings in online play, and she’s finally accepted her oddball life as ‘normal.’ Garden Center Manager for this sprawling monument to America’s junk culture, Logan’s employee file shows her as 41, sixteen years of marriage, five of divorce.
Her gaze clicks onto a wheelchair dude maneuvering through the lunchroom’s crowded aisles, a black man with an industrial-grade welding helmet perched atop his head. A smile spreads across the ebony face as he stops at her table.
“Hey, Cyber Girl.”
“Hey, Hero,” Logan says with the barest smile. His name’s really Jamal and he’s her dead ex-husband’s war buddy. And though his remark was in fun, the comment stirs her unease. She’s apprehensive around work friends who know of her Internet fantasy life. They gab too much.
“Starship Troopers at your service Ma’am.” He flips the welding helmet down over his face. It’s a white molded faceplate in a contoured gray surround that would be at home in a B-grade space opera. Logan has a moment to study her reflection in the purplish-pink eye filter. Lifting the helmet, he gestures at her computer.
“Hey, girl, they don’t dig private lappys on company Wi-Fi.”
“The store one’s cooked,” she says defensively.” My sales summary is due.” She’s heard rumors that Corporate keeps tabs on employee online activities, though she thinks it too sophisticated for Joy-Mart. As her computer struggles with the calculations, Hero rolls in close and points at the Dreamworlds icon on her desktop. His voice carries a ribald tone as he whispers, “Ooo, Baby take me there.”
If she were 16 instead of 41 she would slug him right here. But they both know it’s true, just one click on that colored icon, and her online life would be all over the screen, her secret identity outed to the room’s leering eyes. And then begins that breathless countdown toward the moment she’ll melt into her sensual dream-self, and gritty, soulless Joy-Mart will cease to exist. Poof.
With a playful wink, Hero cruises away, not seeing Logan’s angry glare. Her friend’s eyes follow the retreating wheelchair.
“War vet. Fixes the pipes.” Logan tries to sound bored about it.
“Mmm. I bet he gives good widow.”
Logan sends her a dark look. “Just friends,” she easily lies. She’s certain that the past long buried between them is a blank to anyone here. She’s not saying that Jamal’s a computer consultant who only visits Joy Mart to say hi.
“Oh,” the woman says. “S’posed to give you this.” She holds out an envelope.
Logan’s heart does a belly flop at the pinkness of it. An Official Department of Human Services notification, same color as the company’s sep-slip. Reading the printed notice, she senses the question in her friend’s eyes.
“Annual review,” Logan says with a deep exhale. “Next Monday, my day off. Naturally.”
“My daughter got a new job,” the friend says brightly.
Logan struggles to change gears. “She got promoted?”
Proud shake of the woman’s head. “Nope. Quit.”
“She left? What’d she get?”
“New York TV station. Field reporter.”
“That’s wonderful!” Logan, trying to sound happy for the girl she recalls vaguely, fights to mask her envy. It’s the kind of gig that once could have been hers, should have been, all the work she put into her A average years ago. She realizes anew that nursery department manager at a big-box conglomerate is a poor fit for her aging degree in Journalism and New Media. She had three good years with a Newark PR firm before her first miscarriage and the extended sick leave. Later she tried for investigative reporting. She was pleased to land one interview with a big news organization, but was informed her politics were ‘skewed’ after remarking that a corporation should not be a person under the law.
Wanting to seem interested, Logan asks, “When does she start?”
“In a month. She and her honey-man are off to Barbados. She thinks he might pop the question!”
Logan glares at her screen, trying to ignore the forlorn hollow in her chest. Garden Center Manager was never her career plan, but neither was a childless divorce. Her failed marriage and an unpayable mortgage trickled her down to the Neptune City Joy-Mart, where they were willing to start her as assistant manager at $18 an hour, no benefits. Logan sends out her resume still, although she lives with her childhood notion that it’s futile because everyone is out to screw her. This wisdom is courtesy of her dad, who did.
But she believes, if she keeps trying, that someday she’ll get everything in her life absolutely right. Her career. Her happiness. A child. Of her family, only a faraway uncle remains to cheer her fading success.
Her laptop dings, proud to report that it’s coughed up her sales summary. And again, halfway through her 10-hour shift, she feels the pull of that safe online existence, her easy and reliable fantasy life within Halcyon Dreamworlds. She hates to think it makes her an addict, but it’s so soothing to drift in those exotic places as a Beautiful One. So very at peace and perfect.
The afternoon ends, as all things must, and Logan is home with her laptop in the small townhome she rents in Neptune City. Calming relief glides over her as on the screen an array of inviting worlds takes form. She has in the last few minutes rushed in from the bus, grabbed a snack and a drink, had a quick shower and slipped into a light cotton kimono. It’s hot again in New Jersey and her bedroom has no air conditioning. Her kimono hangs unfastened.
Among the exotic fantasy worlds on display, one sparks her interest, the Cougar Gurlz dance lounge, where older lez and bi females go to meet younger lez and bi females. The world’s occupant list shows familiar avatar names and Logan’s pulse quickens. She avoids the flagrant ones, such as Pirates and Vixens, Hostages of Gor, and Be My Fantasy, although she likes that one’s artwork. She hovers over Komedy Klub, a stand-up joint that’s fun when she’s up for laughs. No, it’s totally Cougar Gurlz tonight. She’s been lucky there before.
Deciding on the look she’s after, she selects for her glamorous avatar a form-hugging cocktail dress and Christian Louboutin black pumps that flash red lacquered soles with her every step. She plays with hairstyles until one feels right, her natural straw blonde but in a messy-stylish runway model look. The right makeup, some special jewelry, and there on the screen stands Logan’s Dreamworlds persona, the entrancing star-girl, Yuri. If she had the power, Logan would give everything to take Yuri’s place in this beguiling fantasy.
She scarcely thinks about what she’s doing as she prepares to board this magic carpet of the ego, heart racing toward the moment when her Internet connection and a few distant simpaticos will transform the way her life feels. She doesn’t remember the days before she played in these enchanting places, before she realized how easily those hearts at home could be crushed. She’d quit the Dreamworlds once from sheer emotional exhaustion, and signing up anew, had vowed to not get wrapped up. That time, she spent months online caring for an unemployed pipefitter on the other side of the country, whose buffed male avatar kept up a constant murmur of ‘Let’s Skype, baby, let’s make it real,’ which repelled her.
Because suicide is easy for an avatar, Logan deleted that one too, and left the Dreamworlds for all time. But soon she was back with a new account, chagrined that Forever had lasted eleven days and distantly aware that staring at her laptop all night with a glass of wine could feel totally normal. In the Dreamworlds she’s Yuri, an alluring sugar drop that does everything beautiful. Logan admits it’s her deepest addiction, but rationalizes that anyone so driven down would gladly masquerade as a teenager with an unlimited wardrobe and divine lovers. Yuri is Logan’s sublime personal ego-doll, a wondrous, transforming garment that glides into her pores and which over seven years has so entwined its way into her life she cannot live without it.
Logan clicks the Go button to place her perfect feminine doll in the Cougar Gurlz dance club. She can’t hold back a shiver of excitement as the exotic pavilion forms on her screen. Logan kicks aside the whimpers of self-pity from her damaged past and sinks gratefully into the sheltering dream of being Yuri. In her mind she repeats the defiant mantra, I can cut it out whenever I want.
Chapter 2 – On the Threshold of a Dream
At the polished executive desk in his Koa-paneled top floor office, David Verkrag scans computer monitors, avidly following trend lines, spreadsheets and rumors of his worldwide financial orbit. New York City skyline at his back, he’s on his phones, conversing rapidly in Harvard Japanese, absently stroking the desk where blinking lights mark waiting calls of investors, power brokers and politicians across the globe. Impatience tugs at him. His eyes flicker to the velvet-curtained alcove where his exotic virtual life awaits. And that damned fantasy girl.
She’s there, inside his head, ripping at his attention. Even now he feels himself holding her, vivid memories of their one fantastic night. And he’s sure his mind has split in two, amoeba-like. A real part, and a fantasy part. He strains to stay focused on the real part. It’s elusive now, because to find out if the magic worked or not he had to see for himself. That wasn’t when he felt helpless fear. It was when he could not stop going back.
Five Hold lights flash monotonous reminders, his head of security waits outside the double doors, a dozen vital details whirl in his brain. What he wants to put on hold right now is his real life, so he can once more glide into his enveloping fantasy. He’s always looked down on the needle pilots, crack heads and pill poppers, believing them unworthy of their next breath. But he knows now, with a few lousy mouse clicks and an electronic mind-meld he’s become one like them. Not on the outside where it shows, but deep down, where it eats at him in the night. And although he’s certain it will give him more global clout than a dozen Saudi megafields, Verkrag feels a weight of regret for his takeover of that fantasy universe. Even the damn name gives him sick terrors, for the way it owns him. Halcyon Dreamworlds.
He completes his call and presses the door remote. Two men enter the lavish office. Verkrag stiffens to see Richard Lyon walk in ahead of his security chief.
“Nathaniel,” Verkrag says, ignoring Lyon’s presence. “My 10 o’clock is due shortly. Show her Dreamworlds. Use my system in here.” Verkrag tilts his head at the curtained alcove. “I want her in for five billion. Today. Be convincing.”
“What investor,” Lyon scoffs, “will put five bigs on what we’ve got now?”
Verkrag curls his lip. He can guess the little man is only here to nag him, the self-elected bearer of bad news from the stuffy farts that stuck to his takeover deal. He reminds himself to be cautious. The directors must not know his true intentions.
“Who’s your fish?” Lyon prods, 50-ish and tanned, dressed for the tennis court. “Your mystery Beijing CEO?”
Verkrag stands, all six foot four of him, trim for 51, armored in Armani. From old-school formality, he steps around the desk and shakes Lyon’s hand, but purposely too hard.
“My fish, as you so eloquently put it, will be disclosed to the board when we have something they can comprehend.” Verkrag looms over the smaller man with the most implacable buzzard-stare in the history of Wall Street.
Lyon turns to Verkrag’s security chief with the gaze of a man who measures people quickly. “What do you do?”
“Nathaniel Craig. Head of Security for the residence.” He’s mid-30s and about Verkrag’s height, looking fit in his knife-edged black tuxedo, head shaved glossy bald and a moustache so crisp it could pass for a tattoo. He looks evenly at Lyon.
“So you babysit the kids online.” Lyon grins to show how clever he is. “You’re Harvard Business School, I suppose?”
Nathaniel permits the corner of a smile. He never lets Verkrag’s ultra-rich associates ruffle him. “My resume mentions a degree in computational sociology from MIT.” He stops as though that’s all there is. Social sciences, officially, but he doesn’t mention that it’s a PhD augmented by coding skills gained from convicted hackers.
Lyon faces Verkrag. “The reason I stopped by, David, is a friendly heads-up. Members want an engineering update. In particular, when do we launch sensory reality?”
“Don’t ever call it that.”
“What, then? What are we calling it?”
“Threshold? There’s nothing in a damn name. Tell me!”
Verkrag assumes a look of waning patience. “It’s a direct brain interface. Players control their avatars with their thoughts. People experience dangerous realities without getting hurt.” Verkrag says this with a certain relish, still proud that he spotted such a game-changer as Halcyon Dreamworlds languishing on the NASDAQ.
“I’m responsible for making the numbers,” Lyon shoots back, not seeing the look that flashes between Verkrag and Nathaniel. “You could be...”
“Richard, you must allow our vision to develop. Dreamworlds is more than a dating site, much more. Quadriplegics immersed in those worlds can live lives as whole people. Surgeons can visit distant patients, perform delicate surgeries. Separated families can reunite in perfect replicas of their rec rooms, and kids find new friends everywhere. It’s more than fun games and parties and cute little avatars. It’s engrossing enough that opting out will never enter their tiny minds.”
“That’s right,” Nathaniel puts in. “Dreamworlds will be the most sought-after source of personal relationships and ego fulfillment on the planet.”
Lyon turns to the man in the black tux. “Well, that’s a vision the board will buy into.”
“That’s why I’ve put Nathaniel in charge of player allegiance,” Verkrag says flatly.
Lyon’s mouth shuts with a soft pop. The man looks oxygen-deprived. “Player allegiance? You took my program? That was my idea from the first!”
“You did well to a point, Richard. Nathaniel works better with the engineering team.”
“Wait,” Lyon says, scrambling for level ground. “Fill me in about Threshold.”
Verkrag shakes his head, making a flourish of consulting his Piaget Antiplano. He believes from Nathaniel’s confident explanations that Threshold has a deeper capability, one that can scoop up every player’s private data, personal contacts, feelings and dreams, compile that and pump it out onto the world feed in trade for lifetime loyalty. Boom. But privately, for him, Halcyon Dreamworlds has a single, overarching mission. Emperor Verkrag.
Tracking his employer with calculating eyes, Nathaniel sees he’s a little off, and does not perceive the deepest dark of his new toy. The man is a step behind, as Nathaniel firmly intends.
Verkrag gestures toward the exit. “Now do excuse us, Richard. We’ve a full day.”
“David, this is outrageous! The board… Two million daily sessions from sixty million accounts looks like dog-doo.”
“You’re right,” Verkrag says icily. “As does your intrusion.”
Lyon straightens to his full height. “Alright, David. I meant this as a friendly visit, but in view of your attitude, I’ll leave you with this. The board is empowered to depose you and confiscate all of your work if it means corporate survival. It’s in your takeover documents. The board meets next Monday. You’ll be facing a no-confidence vote.”
When the door closes at Lyon’s back, Verkrag allows one measured blink, as though to press a mental reset button. To Nathaniel he says, “I need a few minutes before your demo.” His gaze veers to the velvet curtain that conceals his Dreamworlds alcove. “Show her the gallery first. I’ll buzz you.”
“Standard newbie intro?”
“Correct. Take her through a Threshold session. And give her the training package for primary Arabic. You have some Arabic, don’t you? Chat with her in Arabic, before she forgets how. And do something to calm Lyon down.”
The man turns away. Even before Nathaniel reaches the gallery doors, Verkrag disappears into his curtained alcove.
When Nathaniel strides from the elevator on the main floor, he nearly collides with Lyon. “Thought we could talk,” Lyon says, keeping pace through the glass doors out front. Stepping among uniformed and armed valets beneath the awning, Nathaniel eyes the bedraggled free-speech-zone protestors massed across the parkway, held in check by Verkrag’s armored security detail. Lyon moves away from the canopied entrance until Nathaniel stops him.
Lyon whirls. “How in hell did you get my allegiance program away from me? You must have done something underhanded.” The shorter Lyon’s stance conjures a street fighter.
Nathaniel offers an easy smile. “Richard, that was entirely Verkrag’s decision.”
Lyon’s face hardens. “When did this happen?”
“I’ve been on it a few weeks.”
“It’s been my program for two years!” Lyon practically sputters. “What are you doing?”
“I’ve subsumed player allegiance beneath user experience.”
“How completely daft! Players like new features and special offers, not touchy-feely crap.”
Nathaniel shakes his head. “When we update your board on Threshold, you’ll have another opinion.”
Lyon snorts, eyes boring into Nathaniel’s. “And what about our metrics? We’re seeing addiction-like behavior in minor segments.”
Nathaniel raises a hard palm. “Never say addiction, Richard. Verkrag’s lawyers have sued over that word. It’s allegiance.”
“Fine,” Lyon sneers. “But give me something I can use.”
“I can do that,” Nathaniel says, “if you hold off your challenge.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Keep the board off our backs for three weeks. We’ll toast you at the launch party.”
Lyon and Nathaniel on that city sidewalk lock gazes, each staring fixedly at the other. Everything slows, the dark limousines, scraps of paper whirled on the breeze. If Nathaniel has the look of a man who knows what he’s talking about, it’s because he made the kids in Engineering dig in, those useful nuisances who think they’re life hackers but are only entitled teenagers who can code. Nathaniel and a war vet programmer had socialized those spoiled egos and guided them to construct a nirvana machine.
Lyon breaks first. “What’s he doing?”
Nathaniel compresses his lips, reaching a decision. “Meet me in ninety minutes. Serendipity, East 60th. Come quiet and come alone.” He turns for the building’s entryway.
“Threshold, then what?” Lyon shouts at his back.
Nathaniel swings around, steps in close. No one must hear. “Richard, it’s not about what we can make people buy. This is about the death of privacy.”
Chapter 3 – Eternity Goes Dark
An Arizona mobile home park shimmers in late summer heat. Among tall boulders the scent of sagebrush, rattle of cicadas in the cottonwoods. Three dusty Sheriff’s vehicles wait silent near the manufactured home in space 56B, overlooking a manmade lake near the back of the property. The air breathes with moisture as billowy thunderheads mount a distant horizon.
Homicide Detective Edwin Scharples stands on the low porch of the singlewide’s entryway, studying the interior. Three uniformed deputies and the park’s maintenance guy crowd his back.
“Enlighten me about who got here first,” Scharples says in a flat tone. “Who located the deceased? Who touched what?”
“I was first on scene,” says a deputy behind him. “Neighbors reported a loud alarm. No one could raise the occupant, so they called it in. Kevin Marsh, age 67, a single male. His ID’s on the desk. We stepped in with the maintenance man. I felt for pulse, looked at his eyes. Open and unresponsive. Then we called you.”
“Who touched what in here?”
Silence stretches as the deputies eyeball each other. Scharples doesn’t turn. His squinted gray eyes note every detail in the small living room. Out in the dry wash the cicadas rise up, a film score heavy with castanets.
“I touched his neck,” the first deputy says.
“What was your time on scene?”
“Two forty-seven, p.m.”
“Alright. I need one of you to string tape and keep people back. Take names. Everyone else can go.”
Scharples steps through, leaving the others to sort themselves out. The most obvious feature inside the manufactured home is a curving 8-foot video display suspended above a swoopy desk. On the wide screen, a detailed image of a forested world with tall cliffs, where high-soaring birds circle a misted waterfall. The interior is nice enough, typically creaky floor, kitchen and dinette off the living room, bedroom and bathroom in the back. Scent of lemon oil. To Scharples, the room looks like a deluxe video gaming booth for one person. With its sparse furnishings, it’s no place for socializing, or for love.
The departed Mr. Marsh reclines comfortably in an upholstered La-Z-Boy, tilted back as though for liftoff, his slack gaze centered on the large screen. Marsh is in jeans and a shirt that says Maui on it, with pink rubber flip-flops. Across the lap, a computer keyboard. Studying the dead man head to toe, the detective tilts his head, tugging at a memory.
Near the corpse on a side table is a canned soft drink, a cell phone, a copy of Wired Magazine. It makes Scharples think of those up-all-night online shooter games he played in college.
And that’s when the detective sees it, looking down on the dead man’s scalp. Gripping the skin through Marsh’s sparse gray hair is a spidery form of seven arms that radiate outward from the crown of his skull. Scharples leans closer, studying the dusty-pink starburst. With a careful finger, he traces a spider arm. The rubber is pliant and slightly uneven. The detective takes out his phone and photographs the spider cap, the face, the full corpse, making voice notations with each image. He launches an app, holds the phone’s light before Marsh’s staring eyes. There is no pupil contraction. Another of the phone’s apps searches for changes in facial coloration that would reveal a pulse. In flashing italics the device reports, Pulse Zero. Armpit body temperature, measured likewise, is below 96 degrees.
The dead man’s face is relaxed though not yet slack. And what gets to the detective is the expression. A single word surfaces: beatific. Scharples has seen this look only a handful of times in his 18 fun-filled years with homicide. The old boy’s face radiates sublime joy.
Scharples pokes in the small closets, sees everything tidy. No golf clubs. No booze. No tossed dressers, everything’s neat. He thumb-types notes into the phone, the only modern touch he’s adopted as a cop. Up to last year it was a little black notebook. He scratches his jawline. Distant cicadas rattle, dry as bones.
Scharples locates the computer, a dark block with flickering LEDs neatly racked in a fancy entertainment unit. Standing behind the still form, the detective considers the view the man had from his big chair. The video screen takes up half the wall, and from this vantage point, Mr. Marsh would be immersed in the colorful animated scene.
Studying the computer chassis, Scharples notices that all six USB ports are full. He supposes they’re for wireless gadgets in the room, but doesn’t know what to look for. He does know who to ask, a savvy computer geek in the form of his son, Quentin. He punches his phone, gets his son’s away message.
“Hey Q, need answers from a computer over here. Dells View Park, space 56B. Quick like a bunny.”
Next call he makes is to the Yavapai County Medical Examiner’s office. He asks for a body pickup, then calls Sheriff’s homicide for a forensics tech. He peers outside, where a uniformed deputy talks to a cluster of park residents, making notes on a glowing tablet.
Quentin gets there first, carrying his bulky leather equipment case. When the lanky 19-year-old steps inside the trailer, he studies the wrap-around screen, the dead man, the cluster of wireless antennas in the computer chassis. He checks out the spider cap on Marsh’s head, stands gazing at the elaborate forest panorama on the wide screen.
“Wicked setup, Dad. Major online chatroom.”
“People use 3D avatars and meet in a fancy scene. Thing I would do is take an image of the drive. I can pick away at it in my lab.”
“You’re asking me? Get it done. Team’s on the way. I’d like them to not see you.”
“I’ll be a ghost,” Quentin says. He opens his kit and snaps on latex gloves, reaching for electronic probes and cables. Father and son work silently amid the heavy stillness of death. The detective steps out to question the maintenance guy, away from a cluster of curious park residents.
“How did you discover Mr. Marsh?”
“We heard an alarm in there. He wouldn’t open the door, didn’t answer his phone.”
“What can you tell me about him, his habits?”
“Keeps to himself,” the man tells him. “Always cooperative.”
“Anyone know what he does with his time? Golf? Fishing?”
The man shakes his head. “Never invites anyone in. You could sit on his porch and drink a beer, but he hasn’t let me inside for two years. Fixes stuff himself. What happened? Heart attack?”
“Any idea how Mr. Marsh supports himself?”
“No idea. Lived here seven years, before my time. Retired now. There would be a credit app in the office.”
Scharples tilts his head at the group of onlookers. “Anybody out here know him, what he does?”
The maintenance guy starts with an answer, but Scharples sees Quentin signal from the trailer’s porch, and turns away.
“Dad, I’ve got the drive image. He was doing email, reading investment sites, and logged into a fancy chat. Give ya more later.”
“What’s that doo-dad on his head?” Scharples feels a faint tug of memory.
“Never saw one before.”
“At least it beats a tinfoil hat.”
“Something weird. Lots of wireless antennas in his computer,” Quentin says. “One’s blown. Never saw that before.”
“Check it out. What’s chat?”
“Online chat society, simulated 3D worlds. People assemble their own avatars, make virtual friends, wear virtual clothes. I’ll send you the link.”
The detective faces the exotic world on the wide screen. “This is a chatroom? How come no one’s in it?”
“Some are private. Or everybody left when your guy stopped twitching.”
“Could he have been gambling?”
Thoughtful shake of Quentin’s head. “Chat’s supposed to be just for fun.”
“You ever play this, Q?”
“Dad. I’ve been everywhere there is to go in cyberspace.”
His worst fears again confirmed about his son’s warped upbringing, Scharples takes comfort in how present and fit his kid looks. Nearing 20, he’s a boy no more, an omnivorous reader who explains his clerk gig at Best Buy as a way to meet girls while he decides which university to finish at.
Scharples flips pages on his phone. He reads quickly. “Something like this came across last week,” he says. “Dead woman with a thing on her head.”
Father and son regard each other with identical raised eyebrows.
“Send me what ya got,” Quentin says. “I’ll check it out.”
Watching his son stride to his camo Jeep, Edwin Scharples sorts through the paltry facts. An old guy dies alone, possibly natural. No sign of forced entry, nothing disturbed. But the deceased wears a high-tech doily on his noggin, and there’s the otherworldly expression on the quiet face. Damn little to work with.
From the porch, Scharples gazes around the lot. It’s a quiet spot among the rocks, pleasant view of the artificial lake. He’s thinking that in the end he’ll likely put this down as an unattended death. But the similar case bugs him, with its nagging hint of serial homicide.
Chapter 4 – Test Drive
Even before his office door closes at Nathaniel’s back, Verkrag is inside his draped alcove, reclining in padded leather beneath the wall-sized Dreamworlds screen. He places upon the crown of his head a golden spider form of seven delicate arms. His face takes on a pleased expression as on the screen appears his tattooed avatar, SincerelySatan. Eyes narrowed in focused concentration, Verkrag with his thoughts alone guides the avatar through a bright doorway into a sensual evening waterworld.
The scene dazzles him, a nighttime lake of giant lily pads, sparkling fireflies, an oversized moon. On the far horizon, a kingdom of clouds, sunset-tinted. Verkrag’s breathing slows as the exotic world gathers form. But he’s disappointed that his muscled avatar stands alone, eyes probing shadows for the enchanting female. Three weeks gone since their time together, he hungers for the feminine mystery still. He’s certain she enjoyed their lengthy cybersex in the abandoned movie house, and tormented by thoughts of her with other hyper-male avatars. He groans his anguish that her passions now forsake him.
Casting his eyes around the dreamlike world, Verkrag brings to mind other feminine avatars, but something deep hidden affects him about this one. He’s disgusted to see himself as a stalker, but all reason escapes him when he thinks of her. His mind clings to the moment he’d spun the violet-eyed goddess away from the lights. Her face a blazing aurora in his mind, he cannot let her go.
OutOfRange wants to chat with SincerelySatan
The invite panel appears on Verkrag’s screen, covering his view of the lake. His son. With a wry grin, Verkrag clicks the Accept button. SincerelySatan appears in a second Dreamworlds window, a boy’s fantasy skateboard park with high and treacherous curving ramps. His son’s avatar materializes there.
“‘Sup, dude?” The gravelly voice sounds in Verkrag’s speakers, and he chuckles at Alan’s latest online persona. OutOfRange is a snout-nosed little demon, eyes as glowing coals in a face of melted tar. Wicked claws lash a Frisbee his way. SincerelySatan catches the hissing disk and sends it back hard above the grass. Watching the airfoil cross the scene, Verkrag sees in young Alan a witty and inventive twin to his own younger self. He knows this territory, the kid’s frustrations with boring teachers and lame friends from that stuffy private school.
“Where are you, son?”
“Beach house with a couple ‘tards,” says the sticky-faced monster, returning the Frisbee with a deft flick. Verkrag in his curtained alcove takes a quick peek in the girl’s nighttime lake world. She has not come.
When he flips back to Alan’s skateboard park, he is irritated that he’s missed a catch. The dark little goblin performs maniacal backflips as SincerelySatan chases the rolling disk.
Verkrag supposes that if Alan knew of his online infatuation, he would not see it as his father’s infidelity to his stepmom. He would merely dismiss the girl as an ‘ant.’ The kid calls everyone ants these days. The servants and valets, kitchen staff, drivers, security agents and special tutors. Verkrag is not concerned, the connection obviously sprang from the boy’s wall-sized ant farm.
Verkrag checks his Piaget, takes one last look in the sultry waterworld. He grates at wasting valuable time in this illusion, seeking the impossibly beguiling girl.
“Son, I must sign off. Are you keeping up with your homework?” The words echo from SincerelySatan on the screen.
“All over it, dude.”
“How is the new tutor working out?”
“Dude rips ass. I’m building killer gear.” The snout-nosed black demon performs a few backflips before vanishing from the scene with a fiery skyrocket effect.
Verkrag shuts down his session and pulls the golden spider from his head. The 7-branched form in his palm appears innocuous, but he well understands the immense control it will bring him, if Nathaniel can deflect the board’s scrutiny. Stretching, Verkrag yawns big. Tracking the girl night after night has cost him sleep.