Virtually Deadby Peter May
Crime-scene photographer Michael Kapinsky is a man whose first life is in a mess. But his second life is about to get a whole lot messier. Staggering under the financial burden left by his recently deceased wife, Michael struggles to come to terms with her death - until his psychologist persuades him to enter a virtual world called Second Life to participate in a
Crime-scene photographer Michael Kapinsky is a man whose first life is in a mess. But his second life is about to get a whole lot messier. Staggering under the financial burden left by his recently deceased wife, Michael struggles to come to terms with her death - until his psychologist persuades him to enter a virtual world called Second Life to participate in a new kind of group therapy. Once there, his persona, Chas Chesnokov, discovers that victims whose crime scenes Michael has attended in the wealthy Southern California resort of Newport Beach have had their avatars clinically executed in the virtual world. Co-opted into the Twist of Fate Detective Agency, Chas embarks on an investigation with an exotic dancer and escort girl. They uncover a series of killings and a financial scam that is netting the murderer millions of dollars. And when Michael is tempted by money that mysteriously appears in Chas’s Second Life account, both his real and his virtual lives are in danger.
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By Peter May
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Peter May
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis was Hell. Tombstones canted at odd angles. A Celtic cross with a skull at its centre. A huge, moss-covered tomb with an evolving message. Evil lies ahead. You might die.
Max could hear distant screams. A veil of cobwebs barred his way, a giant spider lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce. A pervasive, ambient sound filled this world, a sound which eventually penetrated the soul, so that if ever it were to be muted the sense of silence would be almost overpowering.
He wasn't quite sure why he was afraid, after all what could harm him here? But there had been something in the cryptic IM that spooked him. Knowledge of the account that no one should have had. And the attached Landmark to a rendezvous at the Devil's Labyrinth did not bode well.
Now that he was here, he found himself gripped by a strange, inexplicable sense of apprehension—in the dark, with the sound of water dripping close by, and those voices crying in the far distance. Chilling.
Ancient stone was barely visible in the gloom. A family portrait on the castle wall morphed from a face to a skull. He bumped into the wall in front of him, and a message appeared on his screen. Evil wall says touch me. Max touched it, and in an instant was transported to a room where walls and ceiling were stone carved into skulls. In the centre of the room a real skull lay on the floor. It implored him, Touch me to return. He did as he was bid, and instantly found himself looking down into a river of molten lava. Or was it blood? It was hard to tell. Apart from its dark, red glow, the only light came from a series of flaming torches raised at intervals along the wall. Behind him stood an ancient, arched wooden door. He clicked on it. It dropped like a drawbridge, and he went through the arch into a dark square in which jagged stone pillars pierced the ink black of the starry sky overhead.
He heard a scraping sound and turned to see a shadow moving between gothic arches. He caught the merest glimpse of a pale face. He looked for a tag above it, so that he might identify his stalker. But there was none. And he began to feel more than uncomfortable. He set to Run, and turned and hurried back the way he had come. The sound of footsteps followed in his wake, but he didn't turn around. A parapet ran above the path of the red river below, and he followed it. Foreboding had now been replaced by fear. Inexplicably, he felt threatened, and knew he should not have come. He stopped and glanced back. There was no one there. And he felt an immediate sense of relief. This was crazy. It was time to leave.
He opened his Inventory, selected The Island in his Landmark folder, double-clicked and was teleported home.
His island rezzed around him. Palm trees swayed gently in the warm breeze, the air filled with the sound of tropical seas washing up on silver sand. Seagulls wheeled overhead and, on the rocky outcrop five hundred yards offshore, seals basked and barked in the midday sunshine. He had moved from one time zone to another, and derived comfort and a sense of security from the daylight and familiarity.
Max loved this island that he had painstakingly created over the last couple of weeks. He loved the sweep of the steeply pitched roof of his Asian house, the red-sailed yachts berthed at the decks and landing stages he had built around his little piece of tropical paradise. Pink and blue balls stood together in couplets, scattered throughout the garden, poseballs for dance animations that he had placed so carefully, even though he had no idea with whom he might dance. He felt utterly at home here. Safe.
He clicked on the door to his house and passed from the terrace to its interior. Large windows on either side looked out on sea views. He had yet to furnish it, and he was looking forward to that with an unexpected relish. He had not anticipated that he would enjoy this world quite so much. It had an addictive quality that had taken him by surprise.
Max was portly, bald, with a small, greying goatee. It was not a look most people would have cultivated for this alternative existence. But Max had wanted to look like himself. A certain vanity, a sense of his own individuality.
A sprinkle of sparkling light around his door told him that someone outside was trying to get in. Someone not on the pass list. And he froze, his brief sense of comfort evaporating like early morning mist to be replaced once more by the foreboding that had stalked him in Hell. He called out.
Maximillian: Who's there?
There was no response, even although he could almost feel the presence on the other side of the door. He was secure inside. Without a Landmark the intruder could not enter.
Then, to his astonishment, he saw a blue poseball rez in the middle of the floor. He heard a sound like a rattlesnake, and then a figure appeared, latched on to the poseball in a strange squatting position, before standing up and turning toward him. For a moment his heart stopped, and then recognition brought an animated smile to his face, and relief surged through him.
Maximillian: Oh, it's you. How on earth did you get in?
But his visitor did not reply, simply standing staring at him, arms folded, an animated sway that seemed almost hypnotic.
And then, in a single, swift movement one of those folded arms became extended, a gun held pointed at Max's chest.
And suddenly Max knew that this was no game. That he was in danger, that somehow there was real harm in this. He panicked and tried to teleport out. But instead, he hit the Fly button and began flying around the interior of his house, crashing against the walls and the roof. Bump, bump sound-effects thundered from his speakers. The gun followed him. He knew his assailant was now in Mouselook, targeting him. He tried to find a Landmark that would get him out of here, but he wasn't thinking straight and seemed to have lost all control, like some damned newbie. He brought up a teleport window, but missed it and double-clicked on the floor, somehow bringing up the Edit window. The house started heaving and lifting all round him. The floor canted at an odd angle. A wall detached itself from the roof and swung outwards. Whole sections of the building buckled and twisted, before finally he hit the Stop Flying button and crashed to the ground, sliding down the angle of the floor. He turned around and found the gun still pointed at him.
He heard the sharp report of it firing. Once. Twice. Three times. He saw gaping holes appear in his body. Blood. So much blood. Where in God's name was it coming from? How was it possible?
He looked up and saw his attacker, gun holstered, watching him. An animated smile, like a grimace, stretched lips across white, even teeth.
And his screen went black.
Chapter TwoMichael had been at home when the call came in, sitting on the terrace with a beer watching the moonlight shattering into a million fragments on the rippled surface of the ocean. He had been lost in his usual fog of depression, not thinking much about anything. It was a murder, they said, and he welcomed the interruption, the chance to focus his mind away from himself, even if it took another man's death to do it.
The southern California air was still warm, blood temperature, barely registering on the skin. Michael wore a simple pair of dark pants and a grey polo shirt with its Newport Beach CSI logo. He parked in the street below the house, which stood on the hill behind the coast highway, with a view out over the marina toward the peninsula. It was a big house, set on an outcrop of bedrock. Tall palms around it shifted gently in the breeze coming off the ocean. He heard the crackle of police radios. A uniformed officer stood by the open door of one of the patrol cars, and nodded as Michael hefted his tripod over his shoulder and swung his camera bag out of the trunk. "Nice night," he said, untroubled by the presence of death. He had seen it all before.
"Sure." Michael returned the nod, and loped past the white transport van that would take the body back to the Orange County Coroner's Office for autopsy. It was pulled in behind a dark blue Ford Crown Victoria and what Michael recognised as the Deputy Coroner's car.
His colleagues' white Forensic Science Services van was parked a little further up the hill.
Michael climbed the steps to the front door, stopping for a moment to take in the view. The lights of Newport arced round the bay below, the arm of the peninsula crooked protectively around the harbour and the islands that dotted its dark waters. Moonlight caught the peaks of the distant Catalina Island on this clearest of spring nights, the air infused with the heady scents of bougainvillea and honeysuckle. The view was almost as good, Michael thought, as the one that Mora had bequeathed him. The officer at the door felt compelled to comment. "I guess it takes a lot of money to buy a view like this."
Michael nodded. "It does." He stooped to pull on plastic shoe covers and snap on a pair of latex gloves. "How is it in there?"
He was not exaggerating. Michael followed his directions down the hall to a large study room with French windows that slid open on to a terrace that looked out on the view. Two burly gentlemen in suits, with gloved hands and a folded gurney, stood just outside the door waiting to take the body away. A large, corpulent man lay half on his side, propped in a semi-seated position by the debris of a chair that had shattered beneath his falling weight. His bald head was tipped back at a peculiar angle, eyes wide and staring into eternity. His goateed jaw hung slack, mouth open, tongue protruding slightly. There were three small bullet wounds in his chest, and three large exit wounds in his back, blood spattered in random patterns over the wall behind him, like some avant garde fresco. It had drained from his upper body through the open wounds, soaked the back of his white shirt and the cream sheepskin rug beneath him.
Michael immediately smelled the peppermint of the candies that habitually rattled around the mouth of the Deputy Coroner when he was working. Nothing had changed in Michael's three years away. Just one week back, and it felt to him like he'd never been gone. The DC had always claimed that sucking on a mint helped his concentration. And the saliva generated by the candy now slurred his words as he looked up from where he was crouched over the body. He waved a driver's licence that he had carefully extracted from the back pocket of the dead man's pants. "Photo ID matches. It's our man alright."
"Our man being who, exactly?" All the faces in the room turned toward Michael. There were a couple of homicide detectives dressed like extras from Central Casting. Ricky Schultz was fat and balding. Luis Angeloz, sometimes known as LA, was tall, thin, and pinched. Together they were known to everyone in the department as Laurel and Hardy. Then there was Janey Amat, with her straight, blue slacks and plastic covered sneakers and a flimsy black Newport Beach CSI issue jacket over a white tee-shirt. Her brown hair was pulled back in a hastily gathered ponytail, a white surgical mask hiding the lower half of a pale face devoid of make-up, tortoiseshell glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. She could hardly have made herself less attractive. Michael knew that she had all but given up in that department.
Her face lit up when she saw him. "Hey, Mike. Sorry for the home call. Jimmy's off sick." She turned back toward the dead man's desk, where she was tape-lifting a set of prints from its polished mahogany surface.
"His name is Arnold Smitts," the DC said, answering Michael's question. "Owner of the property." He was still crouched over him, leaning one hand on his gun belt, as if he thought the dead man might rise up any minute to attack him.
"An accountant." Hardy scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"Expensive pad for an accountant." Michael looked around the room. Everything about it spoke of money, from the leather-tooled writing desk to the ox-blood captain's chair and the mahogany shelves that groaned under the weight of a collector's fortune in first-edition early twentieth-century law books. Three thousand dollars worth of eight-cores standard Mac Pro computer stood on the desktop, next to a thirty-inch Apple cinema screen. The monitor displayed a landscape of rolling green fields with scattered trees sloping down to a tranquil ocean and the unfamiliar logo of a pale green open-palmed hand.
"No ordinary accountant." Laurel was expanding on his partner's cryptic description of the victim's status. "A real high flyer, Smitts. Known to us. Suspected of having connections to the mob."
Hardy said, "And you can bet your life the feds'll have a file yea thick on him." He looked at Michael. "Didn't interrupt your dinner, did we? Lobster and champagne up in Corona del Mar?"
"I don't drink champagne." Michael turned away to take his Nikon from its case.
"You're all cash and no class, Mike. Don't tell me you wash down your caviar with beer."
"Give it a rest, fat boy." Janey gave the detective a look that would have turned milk sour. "Judging from your waistline the only thing you wash down with your beer is more beer."
Hardy grinned. "Women like something to put their arms around."
"Yeh, well my preference would be an arm tight around your throat."
Laurel chuckled. "He said women, Janey. You don't qualify."
"Hey, guys, can we focus here, please?" The DC removed a blood-stained wallet from the shirt pocket and opened it carefully. Inside, a photograph behind a plastic window revealed two teenage girls smiling for the camera. "His kids, I guess. Do we know if he's still married?"
"Divorced," Laurel said. "Ten years ago. His girlfriend said she'd been with him for the last three."
The DC looked up. "She still here?"
"She was nauseous. Shock. Sat alone with the body for fifteen minutes before the patrol car arrived. Incoherent by the time we got here. They've taken her off somewhere to sedate her. There was no point in even trying to take a statement right now." Michael attached a flash strobe to the hotshoe on his camera and pulled on a surgical mask before stepping into the room to start photographing the body. He moved methodically around it, first taking wide shots, then moving in tighter for detailed close-ups of the wounds, front and back, the face, the blood on
the carpet, the blood spatter on the walls. And then the room itself, officers stepping out of the way to clear his shots.
When he had finished, the DC called the two sombre employees of the body transport company waiting in the hall, and they stepped in to manoeuvre the corpse into a white zippered body bag and lift it onto their gurney.
Michael leaned on the bookcase and watched Janey dusting for prints. "Anything interesting, Miss Amat?"
She shrugged. "Nah. No weapon. No obvious calling cards. We'll have to bag the rug and a few bits and pieces. Plenty of prints, but they're probably mostly his and hers. We'll do an inch-by-inch once we've cleared the room." She glanced at him, and held him fondly in her gaze for a moment. "Howya doing, Mike?"
"Better for seeing you, Janey."
She grinned. "Yeh, that'll be right. The only time guys are happy to see me is when I'm heading out the door."
"That's just cos you've got such a cute ass."
"Hah! Mid-thirties and sagging. I don't think so, Mike."
"Hey, any guy would be glad to get his hands on your butt."
"Yeh? So how come I haven't met any of them?" She grinned and cocked a provocative eyebrow in his direction. "Unless, of course, you're offering."
He grinned. "I'm more of a tit man myself."
"Damn! And I don't have much in that department." She cupped what little she had in each hand, pulled a face and turned back to her dusting. "Speaking of large breasts, what's happening with that girl from Huntington Beach who was after your body?"
Excerpted from Virtually Dead by Peter May Copyright © 2010 by Peter May . Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter May won the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year Award at the age of 21, and had his first novel published at 26. He then left journalism and became one of Scotland's most successful and prolific television dramatists. Returning now to novels, his outstanding China Thrillers series of books are winning critical acclaim. To research the series, Peter May makes annual trips to China. As a mark of their respect for his work, The Chinese Crime Writers' Association made him an honorary member of their Beijing Chapter. He is the only Westerner to receive such an honour. Peter May is married to writer Janice Hally and lives in France.
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In California, Orange County Forensic Science Service photographer Michael Kapinsky cannot cope with the crippling depression he feels ever since his wife Mora died from cancer. Her medical care ran him into steep debt that he despondently feels he can never climb out of. Michael agrees to try an experimental online group therapy session as suggested by his shrink. As Chas Chesnokov he joins Second Life with its fourteen million members. Orange County crime scene investigator Janey Amat is a member too; managing the Twist of Fate Detective Agency. Janey is elated to have Michael sign on to SL and join her as her detective partner. Chas also enjoys the company of escort dancer Doobie Littlething. However, Chas soon fears that an online stalker is killing people on SL and in real life as Chas recognizes crime scenes online that match some he has been to as Michael. This is a terrific thriller that contains strong SL and RL whodunits that link the virtual with the real. However, what makes the tale is the deep look at the psychological uplift of becoming part of a social online network as Peter May takes the audience deep inside the new way we relate and will relate virtually. With a strong investigative mystery and a deep look at a modern day network nation of fourteen million netizens that find the virtual intoxicating, Peter May provides a fascinating exciting thriller; if you have not read this author you are missing one of the best. Harriet Klausner