The ebook edition is also available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo & AllRomanceEbooks.
In the virtual world of Simulnet, no one knows who you really are, making it the perfect playground for the imagination… and for a serial killer.
Shaun’s world turns upside down when a police detective asks for his help finding a murderer somewhere in the cyberspace sex clubs, ramen shops, and massage parlors of Simulnet. His partner on the case will be a prickly and enigmatic programmer known only as Lore. But as they search for the killer, Shaun finds himself wanting to know more and more about his partner. Ultimately the questions Shaun will need to answer most are the ones he asks himself, deep in his heart.
Combining romance, mystery, and cyberpunk, Rian Darcy creates a world for the reader every bit as engrossing and heart-stopping as Simulnet itself. Simulacrum is the latest book in the Clasp Editions imprint of sf/f erotic romances from Circlet Press.
About the Author:
Rian Darcy is the real life alter-ego of fan fiction author Nishizono Shinji. Once upon a time, she wanted to be an archaeologist (or an astronaut, or a librarian, or a dinosaur), but writing has always been her one true love. She likes coffee, Sherlock Holmes, and things that make her laugh until she cries. Rian’s work has appeared in Spellbinding: Tales from the Magic University, published by Ravenous Romance, and she is editing an anthology of gay fairy tales for Circlet Press entitled Charming.
Look under the cut for a hot excerpt!
Normal people didn’t get excited about murder. Of course, normal people didn’t get phone calls in the middle of the night from the city’s chief homicide detective, either, but even if they did, Shaun was pretty sure they wouldn’t be smiling about it.
The thing was, after two years as a desk jockey in the Cybercrimes Division of the LAPD, Shaun was itching for a chance to do some fieldwork. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his job–he was good at what he did, and he’d always liked computers–but he was trapped in a world where an exciting day at the office consisted of stumbling across a new email scam. Tonight, though, that was going to change.
Or so he thought.
Shaun looked up at the building where he was supposed to be meeting Detective Hudson and wondered if he was about to be the ass-end of a joke. He’d never worked a homicide case before, but he’d always imagined that a real life crime scene would look a lot like they did in the movies, complete with coroner’s vans and news crews. The real thing wasn’t that glamorous. The building itself was a typical Los Angeles apartment block: crumbling stucco, a red tile roof, and a shopping cart parked on the scraggly front lawn. An AC unit was buzzing away in a third floor window, trying to combat the August heat, while a couple of teenagers shared a cigarette on the balcony, watching Shaun and muttering to each other in Spanish. The building was otherwise quiet. There wasn’t even a patrol unit outside, just Hudson’s retired police cruiser.
Shaun checked his t-shirt to make sure he hadn’t spilled any coffee on it while driving, then ran his fingers through his short brown hair and braced himself for whatever was waiting inside.
The entry door had been propped open with a cinder block. Shaun toed it out of the way before stepping into the lobby and easing the door shut behind him. A television blared away in one of the downstairs apartments, and the laugh track seemed to follow him as he made his way upstairs. He still wondered if someone was fucking with him, but when he spotted the yellow crime scene tape stretched over a door at the end of the hall, he heaved a sigh of relief. The door was unlocked, so he opened it and ducked beneath the tape to step into a sparsely furnished living room.
“Mason?” Hudson shouted from elsewhere in the apartment. “If that’s you, get your ass in here.”
Shaun found her in one of the bedrooms, which had been turned into a home office with a desk, two bookshelves, and a Simulated Reality tank. The tank was empty except for the Epsom Salt solution that would keep a user afloat, but the interior lights were still on, and the touchscreen on the side of the tank displayed the ‘Ready For Use’ message. If it wasn’t for the numbered marker the coroner’s office had left on the floor beside the tank, Shaun would never have guessed that someone had died there.
As sick as it was, the sight of that little plastic number gave him a glimmer of hope. There had been five Simulnet-related deaths in L.A. County over the last six months. According to the equipment that monitored a user’s vital signs when they were in the tank, all of the victims had suffered massive seizures. Shaun’s gut had been telling him that there was more to the deaths than equipment malfunctions (and judging by some of the conversations he’d overheard at work, he wasn’t the only one who felt that way), but since there had been no evidence of foul play, the coroner’s office had ruled the deaths accidental. After all, no one had ever been murdered through Simulnet before. The fact that Hudson was at the scene, though, meant that Homicide had finally been called in. Shaun just couldn’t figure out why the place was so empty.
“Hey, am I late to the party or something?” Shaun asked. “Where is everyone?”
Hudson didn’t reply right away; she was busy frowning at her mobile phone. Shaun knew better than to interrupt, so he just stood there and watched her. She must have been pretty when she was younger, he thought, before smoking, middle age, and her job had taken their toll on her looks. After a few minutes of typing, Hudson switched her phone off and tucked it into the pocket of her blazer. Then she narrowed her eyes at Shaun and announced, “I’m about to ask you to do something illegal.”
Shaun’s eyes widened. Hudson had a reputation for pushing boundaries, but she also had a reputation for being a good cop. She’d put in eighteen years with the FBI before signing on with the LAPD. No one knew for sure why she’d decided to make the switch, but everyone assumed it had something to do with the medal in the display case behind her desk. Shaun couldn’t imagine her asking someone to do something illegal. “Is this some kind of test?” he asked.
“No, Mason, it’s not a test.” Hudson flashed him a wry half-smile. “That’s why I need you to promise me that even if you say no to what I’m about to ask, this conversation stays between us.”
“Okay.” Shaun drew the word out. He couldn’t shake the fear that this was a pop quiz he was doomed to fail.
“Here’s the deal: forensics finally found something we can use.” Hudson gestured to the tank. “Someone set up a data trap on the victim’s Simulnet line. It logged the addresses of all the places she’d been visiting and kept tabs on network activity. The logs show a huge spike in data transfer right before she died.”
“And that’s probable cause to open an investigation?”
Hudson shrugged. “It’s close enough. We’re not sure what caused the surge, but since the data was coming from an outside source and not the tank itself, that should at least keep the damn coroner’s office from calling this another accident. It’ll be manslaughter at best.”
While Hudson talked, Shaun wandered over to the desk and sorted through the papers strewn across it–bills mostly, and a few receipts, but the thing that caught his eye was a grade report from the local university. Shaun pointed to the name at the top. “Sarah Poulson? Is that her?”
Shaun scanned the list of classes–Women’s Studies, Gender Issues in Economics, and Biochemistry–then the list of grades. From the looks of it, Sarah had been a straight ‘A’ student. She would have gotten along with his sister.
Hudson’s phone rang while Shaun was going through the other paperwork on the desk. She answered it with a curt greeting, then scowled, flapped her hand at Shaun, and disappeared into the living room.
Shaun took that as permission to keep poking around.
Nothing on the desk struck him as being out of the ordinary, though he did notice that a few of the bills were addressed to someone named Keith Larson. The bookshelves were overflowing with college textbooks and paperback thrillers, but nothing overtly personal, so Shaun turned and left the room. On his way out, he spotted Hudson in the kitchen, pacing and muttering into her phone, but he didn’t stick around to listen to what she was saying.
The master bedroom was tidy in the bland sort of way that results from two people with differing tastes trying to find a compromise. A man’s watch was lying on one nightstand, and the other nightstand was cluttered with photographs. One snapshot in particular caught Shaun’s eye: a photo of a young, blonde woman, sitting on a picnic blanket and smiling up at the camera. She looked happy.
The photo reminded Shaun so much of a similar photograph on his shelf back home that he had to look away. He tried to busy himself with sifting through the contents of the nightstand drawer: a half-empty tube of lip balm, a few hair elastics, another paperback novel, and a band-aid still in its wrapper. Something rattled near the back of the drawer. It turned out to be a brown pill bottle with Sarah’s name on it. The label was for an antidepressant prescribed by a Dr. R. Greene, and the bottle was half empty.
Shaun jerked and almost dropped the pill bottle, which he stuffed back into the nightstand drawer before calling, “In here!”
Hudson came into the room looking harried and annoyed. She darted a glance at the open drawer but didn’t mention it. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I hate taking calls in the middle of meetings, but it was important.”
“Everything okay?” Shaun asked.
Hudson pressed her lips together in a tight line. “Just dealing with someone hellbent on being uncooperative. Don’t worry about it.”
“You still haven’t told me what you want me to do.”
“Your job.” Hudson sighed and pushed her hair back from her forehead. “Look, I can already tell you that this case is going to turn into a bureaucratic nightmare. The Chief’s office has been on the phone with the feds all night, squabbling over who has jurisdiction. Until they get that settled, I’ve got an office full of Homicide detectives sitting around, twiddling their thumbs.”
Shaun understood the problem. Simulated Reality was still a new technology, and there had been a lot of back-and-forth over who, if anyone, should enforce the handful of laws that existed for it. Simulnet was technically an extension of the Internet, so the feds argued that it should fall under their jurisdiction. Unlike the Internet, however, which existed as a worldwide network, Simulnet was split into regional clusters. A basic monthly fee allowed users to access their local clusters–the Los Angeles County cluster, for example–but if they wanted to access other regions, they were charged an additional rate. Because of the way Simulnet was divided, local law enforcement wanted to claim jurisdiction over their regional clusters. The debate had been raging for almost two years.
“While these morons are busy fighting over who gets to play in the sandbox, people like Sarah Poulson are dying,” Hudson said. “I need you to go in under the radar and get a head start. The sooner we find the person responsible for this shit, the better.”
Shaun nodded and scratched at the back of his neck for a moment while he thought. Although he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time, nothing was turning out the way he thought it would. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem helping out, but I’m not sure how much I can do. I don’t have a ton of field experience, and I’ve got even less experience investigating things I’m not supposed to be investigating.”
“Oh, I doubt that. As I hear it, you made quite a name for yourself at Cal Tech.”
Shaun flushed. By some stroke of luck, he’d managed to keep himself out of prison long enough to get into college–not that he was a bad kid, just curious, bright, and easily bored, which, as it turned out, was a dangerous combination. By the end of his freshman year at Cal Tech, he’d discovered the thrill of joyriding through faculty email accounts, and by his sophomore year, his fellow students were paying him a hundred bucks a pop to snag copies of upcoming tests off the university’s FTP server. He’d never officially been caught.
“Don’t look so surprised, Mason; it’s in your file. Or did you think we just hire people off the streets without doing background checks?” Hudson said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter if you’re a little wet behind the ears. You’re not likely to get spotted where I’m sending you.” She paused for a second and stared at him, like she was trying to decide whether or not she could really trust him. Then she pulled a small, portable hard drive out of her pocket and held it up so he could see it. “This is a copy of all the logs from Sarah Poulson’s line–all the addresses she visited, all the data fluctuations, everything. As far as anyone outside this apartment is concerned, this doesn’t exist, got it?”
Shaun nodded and took the drive. It felt heavy in his palm, despite being smaller than his thumb. “I’m happy to have a look, but I’m pretty sure I won’t find anything on here that forensics wouldn’t catch.”
“You’re not analyzing the drive, you’re using the addresses in those log files to start an investigation inside Simulnet.”
Shaun’s heart lodged itself in his throat. “Inside Simulnet?”
“You can say no,” Hudson told him.
Shaun stared at the drive in his hand. “Y’know, having me ask around on the streets is one thing–at least we’d be able to pretend we had jurisdiction–but you’re asking me to dive straight into contested territory. Do you have any idea what would happen to me if I got caught?”
“At the very least, I’d disavow all knowledge of your independent investigation and suspend you for a month. Depending on how this turf war with the FBI ends, it’s possible you’d be interfering with a federal investigation too, so you’d be looking at a couple years in prison for that. Then there are all the lawsuits you’d probably face from privacy advocacy groups…”
“Lawsuits? Count me in.” Shaun flashed her a quick, nervous smile and pocketed the drive. That was how he made most of his decisions: split-second before he could talk himself into backing down. His ex-girlfriend had hated that about him–which was probably one of the reasons she was his ex, he thought–but he knew that if he tried to make his choices any other way, he’d never get anything done. Committing to something this important made him feel jittery, so he took up pacing beside the bed. “Anything else you can tell me before I get started? Was she connected to any of the other victims?”
“None so far. The killer doesn’t seem to be targeting his victims based on who they are in the real world,” Hudson said. “I’ve been doing some research in my downtime, and the only link I’ve been able to find between them is that they were all regular Simulnet users.”
“So you’re thinking they might be connected inside Simulnet?”
“People aren’t always the same in Simulnet as they are in real life,” Hudson pointed out.
Shaun knew exactly what she meant. Despite the fact that he worked with computers for a living, he didn’t log in to Simulnet very often–he’d always preferred the real world–but whenever he did log in, he was always amazed by the number of beautiful people roaming the streets (not to mention the scores of dragons, elves, and goblins who could be found strolling through the park on Sunday afternoons). By contrast, Shaun’s avatar was an exact replica of his real world self; he didn’t have the money or inclination to create anything more impressive.
“I’ll need you to take a leave of absence while you’re working on this; I don’t care what kind of excuse you use as long as your story is solid,” Hudson said. “According to your file, you’ve got five days of sick time and two weeks of vacation time. I hate to make you use them this way, but I need you focused on this investigation, not getting distracted by shit at the office.”
“Fine by me,” Shaun said. “I have to be honest, though: for a tech guy, I haven’t exactly spent a lot of time in Simulnet. I mean, I log in once or twice a week, but I usually stick to the entertainment districts.”
Hudson’s lips tightened and she glanced away, like she was suddenly uncomfortable meeting Shaun’s gaze. “That’s why you’re going to have a guide.”
“You’re giving me a partner?” Shaun asked with a frown.
“Something like that.” Hudson took out her phone and pressed a few keys. Shaun’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and Hudson explained, “I just sent you the address of a cafe in Stackston. I need you to log in and meet him there at nine.”
Shaun checked the string of numbers in the text message, then tucked his phone away and asked, “How will I recognize him?”
“You won’t, he’ll find you. He’s good at that.” Hudson sighed and checked her wristwatch. “You should go home and get some more shut-eye before your meeting.”
Shaun wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep, but he nodded anyway. “Should I call you later with an update?”
“No, it’s better if we only talk about this when we absolutely have to. I only want to hear from you if you’re in trouble or if you’ve found a major lead. And I’m not just looking out for my own ass, here; the cleaner I keep myself in all this, the easier it will be for me to help you if you get caught.”
“Got it,” Shaun replied. He hoped he sounded less nervous than he felt. The idea of diving into the investigation without backup was as terrifying as it was exciting.
Shaun turned to leave, but he paused at the door and glanced over his shoulder. Hudson had already turned her attention back to her phone. Part of him knew he should just be grateful for the chance to finally do something worthwhile, even if was unofficial, but curiosity won over common sense and he asked, “Hey, why did you call me? I mean, of all the people in my department, why the new guy?”
Hudson glanced up from her phone and eyed him for a second, then said, “You know, believe it or not, you didn’t end up on the LAPD’s payroll by accident. It’s not like someone left you on our doorstep in the middle of the night and we took pity on you. You’ve been looking for a chance to prove yourself, so go do it instead of standing around, wasting my time with stupid questions.”
Shaun grinned. “Yes ma’am.”
* * * *
Shaun left Sarah’s apartment feeling jittery, but lack of sleep caught up to him on the drive home, and he barely managed to crawl into bed before he was sound asleep. A few hours later, he was startled awake by the sound of his mobile phone buzzing its way across his nightstand. He reached for it without opening his eyes and answered with a bleary, “Yeah?”
“Shaun? Are you still in bed?”
“Kim?” Shaun mumbled, then sat straight up and blurted, “Shit, what time is it?”
The sound of his sister’s laughter made his heart constrict. Sometimes he forgot how much he missed her. They were fraternal twins, and although they’d had their share of arguments, they’d been inseparable for most of their childhood. Now, though, they hadn’t seen each other in person for almost two years. Kim was finishing her graduate work in France, and even though they met on Simulnet whenever she had the time and he had the money, it just wasn’t the same.
“It should be eight o’clock there, unless I screwed up the time difference again,” Kim said. “Why are you still in bed, you slacker? Don’t tell me you had another late night.”
Shaun hesitated. No matter what answer he gave, it was going to be the wrong one. If he said no, she would know he was lying. If he said yes and didn’t offer an explanation, she would assume he’d been out partying. Finally, he settled for telling the truth. “Just up late working on a new project–you know, the usual boring stuff.”
“Another project, Shaun?” Kim sighed. “Didn’t you just finish working on that virus tracker or whatever?”
“Yeah, well, you know how it goes. I’m still the new kid, so when they ask me to do something…”
“You know, I wish you’d take the rest of your life even half as seriously as you took your job.”
Shaun sighed. They’d been having this argument since high school. It was amazing, he thought, that they could be alike in so many ways, yet so different went it came to what they wanted out of life. Kim liked stability and predictability; her main goals at the moment were to finish school, buy a house, and settle into a lifetime career of teaching at UCLA. Meanwhile, Shaun’s plans for the future included hanging a towel rack in the bathroom and tackling the pile of laundry in his closet, and he liked it that way. Kim lived her life in the someday, and Shaun lived his in the now.
“You know I only nag you because I love you, right?”
“God help the poor guy you end up marrying.”
“Don’t be a dick,” Kim replied, but she was laughing.
Shaun smiled, relieved to have wormed his way out of getting lectured. “Anyway, what about you? Anything exciting happening out there? Have you cloned any giant, dinosaur-eating ferns yet?”
“You really believe I work in Jurassic Park, don’t you?” Kim replied with a snort.
“Just remember you promised to name that fern after me,” Shaun replied as he flopped back among his pillows and yawned. There was a long silence, and he frowned. Uncomfortable silences usually meant Kim was trying to find a way to broach the real reason for the phone call.
And sure enough, a few seconds later, she said, “So, Julie called the other day.”
Shaun groaned and stuffed a pillow over his face. So much for dodging lectures.
“She asked about you,” Kim went on, oblivious to Shaun’s misery. “She didn’t come right out and say it, but she hinted that she’s not seeing anyone.”
“You should have asked her out, then.”
“Don’t be an asshole. You know she’d give you another shot if you stopped being such a stubborn prick and called her.”
Shaun heaved a sigh and shoved the pillow away. “Kim, nothing’s changed since we broke up. I’m not gonna see her and suddenly want to get married.”
“It’s not like she’s going to expect you to propose the first time you have drinks together.”
Actually, Shaun wouldn’t have been surprised if that was exactly what Julie expected. During the last three months of their relationship, every time they’d gone out together and the evening had ended without a marriage proposal, she had gone home angry. Shaun had tried to psych himself up and convince himself that after four years of dating, getting married was the logical next step, but he just couldn’t do it. Eventually, Julie had given him an ultimatum: propose or leave. Shaun left.
“Look, at least think about giving it a try. It’s been what? Six months? Maybe all you guys needed was some time apart to cool off.”
Shaun sighed. “If I promise to call her, will you promise to stop bugging me about it?”
“Only if you actually call her.”
Shaun rolled his eyes.
“Look, I’m really not trying to be a pain, it’s just that Julie was really good for you. You seemed so–” Kim was interrupted by a man’s voice, rattling something off in French. She sighed. “Damn it. Hey, look, I actually have to go. We’re headed out to the field tomorrow and Professor Rigel wants to have a meeting before dinner so we can plan for the morning.”
“That’s okay, I should get my ass outta bed and get going anyway.”
“I won’t have reception out there, but I’ll call you when I get back to town, okay?”
After making Kim promise to call as soon as she got back, Shaun hung up and covered his face with his hands. He felt anxious, the way he always did whenever he knew Kim would be unreachable. It wasn’t just his protective brotherly instincts that made him worry; he relied, more than he liked to admit, on knowing his sister was just a phone call away if he needed her.
Shaun sighed and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, then glanced at the framed photo on his nightstand. It had been taken from above, just like the picture of Sarah, but the girl in this photograph was much younger–twelve, to be exact–with dark hair and a shy smile. She was wearing light blue pajamas and kneeling in a sea of crumpled wrapping paper. Shaun reached over to touch the frame before crawling out of bed.
After downing two cups of instant coffee, Shaun ambled into his living room, made sure the front door was locked, and booted up his SR tank. The tank’s interior lights flickered on, and the on-board computer whirred as it ran through its self-check routines. While Shaun waited, he plugged the drive Hudson had given him into one of the tank’s ports so that the files would be accessible from inside Simulnet. The float solution inside the tank was fresh–he changed it once a week whether he’d used the tank or not–and after a few minutes of being warmed by the climate control system, it was was exactly 98.6 degrees. When the tank’s control screen gave him the ‘System Ready’ message, Shaun shed his clothes and climbed inside.
The interior lights went dark when Shaun closed the hatch, and the inside of the tank was lit only by the bluish glow of the secondary control screen. Shaun selected the address of his apartment in Simulnet, then fitted the transmitter unit over his head. The transmitter worked by manipulating brain waves with sonic pulses, but it looked so much like the cap from an electric chair that Shaun always imagined he could feel a shock when the metal made contact with his body. Once everything had been adjusted and calibrated, Shaun reached up and tapped the login button on the control panel, then lay back and closed his eyes.
* * * *
When Shaun opened his eyes again, he was lying on the futon in his Simulnet apartment, in exactly the same position he’d been in when he logged out. He stayed where he was for a few minutes while he waited for his body to adjust. Slipping into an avatar made his skin feel tight, like the full-body equivalent of squeezing his foot into a shoe that was half a size too small.
Eventually, the disorientation passed and he sat up. Unlike his real world apartment, a spacious one bedroom in North Hollywood, his Simulnet apartment consisted only of a tiny living room, a walk-in closet, and a transport chamber that had been programmed to look like an elevator. It was an absurdly simple living space, especially in Simulnet where even the poorest of users could own mansions, but Shaun didn’t spend much time there, so he didn’t see a point in making a ton of improvements. The apartment served its purpose: a quiet place for him to go when he wanted to log off.
“Welcome home, Sir.”
Shaun smiled. Winston was one of the only additions he’d bothered with: an artificial intelligence program responsible for keeping the apartment secure and managing Shaun’s messages while he was offline. Having a butler, even an artificial one, made him feel a little like Bruce Wayne.
“You have no messages,” Winston informed him. “May I be of any assistance?”
“Not right now, but thanks,” Shaun replied as he pushed to his feet.
“Very well, Sir.”
Shaun stretched, then went to change out of the suit he’d been wearing. The last time he’d logged in had been for a blind date with one of Kim’s friends from college. She’d been nice enough, but it turned out that Kim was the only thing they had in common, and Shaun wasn’t comfortable basing a relationship off of his sister–actually, he wasn’t sure he wanted a relationship at all.
After changing into jeans and a T-shirt, Shaun tucked his phone into his pocket, then made his way over to the transport chamber. The control panel came to life at his touch, and he entered the address of the cafe where he was supposed to be meeting his new partner. The doors of the chamber slid open, and Shaun stepped inside. Technically, the chambers weren’t necessary since avatars could be teleported from one location to another, but the human brain wasn’t wired to accept instant shifts in reality. True teleportation triggered all sorts of nasty side effects, ranging from vertigo and nausea to full-blown psychotic breaks, so the chambers had been designed to give the illusion of travel.
The doors opened again a few seconds later, and Shaun stepped out of the chamber into a Moroccan-themed coffeehouse full of low couches, layered rugs, and piles of overstuffed cushions. The only other customer was a blue-skinned woman who didn’t look up from the book she was reading, so Shaun ordered a coffee from the perky elven girl behind the counter and then wandered outside to sit at one of the tables on the sidewalk. The warmth from the coffee soothed his nerves, and since he had a few minutes to kill, he busied himself with examining the scenery.
It was early afternoon in Stackston, and cooler than it had been in the real world. The hosting company that managed the neighborhood had pre-programmed its weather and streets, but the buildings had been designed by users in a hodgepodge of different styles, ranging from classic to outright absurd. The restaurant next door to the Moroccan cafe looked like a scale replica of the Parthenon, and across the street, a giant white cube with no windows had been plopped down beside a thatched cottage. The clashing styles gave the city a surreal, bewildering quality.
Someone bumped into Shaun’s chair and startled him out of his thoughts. He looked up just in time to see a winged cyborg levitate past his table, followed by a petite blond girl with a mechanical spine. Shaun watched them go and wondered if he’d ever get used to being in a world where there was such a thin line between man and machine. Sometimes it appealed to the little kid inside him, the fledgling computer geek who’d had a poster of The Terminator above his bed and spent hours drawing robots, but then he remembered that those things could only happen online and his excitement ebbed. Simulnet made a million things possible, but none of it was real.
Shaun sighed and took his phone out to check the time. It was ten minutes past nine, and his partner still hadn’t arrived. He peered through the window of the cafe, but it was still empty except for the blue-skinned woman who’d been there when he arrived. Shaun sighed and drummed his fingers on the table.
Five minutes later, he took his phone out again and scrolled through his address book until he found Hudson’s name. Just as he was about to press ‘call’, however, a softly accented voice said, “Me being late doesn’t qualify as an emergency.”
Shaun jerked in surprise and almost dropped his phone.
A dark-haired man seemed to have simply appeared in the chair across from him, already slouched in his seat with his head bowed over a clunky old laptop. His bony, ring-adorned fingers were flying over the keyboard, and the toe of his boot was tapping out a restless beat against the sidewalk. There was a row of silver earrings in his ear and a tattoo in what looked like Chinese on the back of his wrist. He wore a black tweed jacket and a layer of scarves wrapped around his neck.
The man didn’t look up, but his fingers paused over the keyboard. “You’re staring.”
Shaun was taken aback. That was hardly the greeting he’d been expecting–not that he really knew what he’d been expecting–and for a second, he didn’t know how to respond. Finally, he cleared his throat and replied, “Sorry, it’s just, you startled me. I didn’t even see you sit down.”
“Oh,” Shaun said. They hadn’t even been talking for ten whole seconds, and he could already feel the conversation slipping out of his control. After another uncomfortable pause, he prompted, “Uhm, are you the one who’s supposed to be meeting me?”
“Okay.” Shaun drew the word out, then squinted and said, “Sorry, I don’t think I caught your name.”
The man finally looked up from his laptop. There was something odd about his face, like each of his features had been borrowed from a different race. He looked like he hadn’t slept or eaten properly in weeks; there were dark circles under his eyes, his cheeks were hollow, and his skin was pale. When he focused his unnaturally blue eyes on Shaun’s face, the intensity of his gaze made Shaun want to physically recoil. After a long silence, the man said, “Lore.”
“Lore?” Shaun repeated.
“Oh! Sure, sorry.” Shaun tried to break the tension between them by offering a sheepish grin, but when Lore didn’t react, he felt a twinge of annoyance. Normally, he had no problem getting along with people, even the disagreeable ones, but so far this conversation had been one strikeout after another. He didn’t get the impression that Lore was purposely trying to be difficult, but the effect was the same. Still, he managed to keep a polite smile on his face as he said “So, Lore, huh? I’m guessing that’s not your real name.”
Lore didn’t reply; he just sat there, looking at Shaun. It was unnerving to have his full attention and have no idea what to do with it.
“Right. Well, nice to meet you. I’m Shaun Mason.” Shaun stuck his hand across the table for Lore to shake.
Lore just stared at Shaun’s hand before turning his attention back to the laptop. “I know.”
“I see.” Shaun gritted his teeth. “So you’re my new partner, then?”
“I don’t like rhetorical questions.”
Shaun finally ran out of patience. “Look, man, what’s your problem?”
“My problem?” Lore quirked an eyebrow.
“You’ve known me two minutes and you’re already being a dick,” Shaun replied. “Are you always like this, or did I manage to do something to piss you off sometime between when you sat down and when I noticed you?”
Lore stared at him for a moment, as if considering, then sighed almost politely and said, “We need to be clear on one thing from the start: I’m not here to socialize. I don’t like you or dislike you. I don’t engage in small talk because it’s a waste of time. I’m here to do my job and to help you do yours. Everything else is superfluous.” He held Shaun’s gaze for what seemed like a few seconds too long, then turned back to his laptop.
It was the look that did it. There was a flash of wariness in Lore’s otherwise neutral expression that made Shaun back down. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but Shaun recognized it immediately; he’d seen it before, on the faces of victims who’d been hurt so badly it was either shut down or break apart. Shaun wondered what Lore’s story was.
“I need the log files,” Lore murmured. He seemed to be talking to himself, but when Shaun didn’t say anything, he glanced up and arched an eyebrow.
“Oh, shit, yeah, hold on.” Shaun fumbled with his phone and then flicked through the menus until he found the files from the drive Hudson had given him. “What address should I send them to?”
Lore stopped typing long enough to give Shaun an email address, then went back to whatever he’d been doing.
Shaun sent the files on their way, then set his phone aside and folded his arms on the table. In a hesitant tone, the verbal equivalent of approaching a dangerous animal, he said, “Okay, so, I know you’re not big on chit-chat, but I figure if we’re gonna be working together, we should know something about each other.”
“Your name is Shaun Mason. You spent most of your academic career earning high scores on all of your standardized tests but average grades in all of your classes. You graduated from UCLA with dual Bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science and Criminal Justice. You applied for a job with the LAPD two years later, after repeatedly and unsuccessfully applying with the FBI. You have a twin sister called Kim and an ex-girlfriend called Julie.” Lore looked up and stared straight into Shaun’s eyes. “I already know more about you than I care to know about most people.”
For a moment, Shaun was uncharacteristically speechless. It wasn’t until Lore looked down at the laptop again that he was able to mentally shake himself and reply, “Okay, I’m impressed. Did Hudson tell you all that, or did you dig it up on your own?”
“I research people before I agree to work with them. You should do the same.”
“I didn’t even know your name until just a few minutes ago. I figure if Hudson is cool with you–”
“Then you already know everything you need to know about me,” Lore interrupted.
“Have I insulted you?” Lore asked. He didn’t sound apologetic, but it didn’t seem like he was trying to pick an argument, either. If anything, he sounded curious.
Shaun considered the question. Lore was prickly and aloof, but Shaun couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to him than he let on. And since Shaun loved both challenges and puzzles, he flashed Lore his most irritating grin and replied, “Nah, we’re good.”
Lore eyed him for a moment, then nodded and turned his laptop around so Shaun could see the screen. “I ran reverse look-ups on the addresses in the log files. Two are private addresses, but I found names for the other four.”
Shaun was taken aback by the abrupt change of subject, but he just went with it and leaned in to read the list of names: “Platinum, Der Kampf, Anguish Arts, Oubliette–they sound like S&M clubs or something.”
“Most of them are.” Lore spun the laptop back around and resumed typing. “They’re all in the Okui District. Sarah may have been a regular in the neighborhood.”
“Y’know, I didn’t know her or anything, but she doesn’t strike me as the type who’d be into that sort of thing.”
“Everyone is different in Simulnet.” Lore peered at Shaun over the edge of the laptop screen. “That’s a side effect of anonymity.”
“So what are you like in real life?”
Lore stared at Shaun for a moment more before standing abruptly and snapping his laptop closed. “Meet me at Oubliette in twenty minutes.”
“Sure, but I need the–” Shaun broke off when his phone buzzed. It was a text message from an unknown number, containing the Simulnet address for Oubliette.
“Twenty minutes,” Lore said. He picked up his laptop, then turned and strode into the cafe. Shaun watched him through the window as he went to the transport chamber and stepped inside. Their eyes met when he turned around again, and Shaun waved. Lore didn’t return the sentiment.
Once the doors had shut, Shaun sighed and shook his head, then took a sip of coffee that he promptly spit back out again. Amazing, he thought, that almost anything was possible inside Simulnet, yet his coffee had still gone cold.
Shaun went back into the cafe to have the barista reheat his coffee, then leaned on the counter while he waited and looked around the coffeehouse. When his gaze landed on the chair where the blue-skinned woman had been sitting earlier, he frowned. She’d left her book. Once the barista had come back with his coffee, he went over and picked the book up, and arched an eyebrow at the title: ‘Simulacrum and Simulation’ by Jean Baudrillard. Curious, he flipped the book open to the first page, only to find it blank–as was the page after that, and the page after that. Shaun put his coffee down on the table and used both hands to flip through the pages. They were all blank, right up until very end where someone had scrawled a message on the inside of the back cover: ‘Don’t believe everything you see.’
“What the fuck?” Shaun said out loud.
“Is there a problem, Sir?”
“Huh?” Shaun looked up to find the barista watching him. He offered her a reassuring smile and replied, “No, sorry. There’s no problem.” Then he turned his attention back to the book, frowned, and muttered under his breath, “I don’t think so, anyway.”
The address Lore had given Shaun was for a public transport chamber across the street from Oubliette. As soon as Shaun stepped out of the mock phone booth and saw the line of people waiting to get into the club, he understood why Lore hadn’t sent him straight inside: his jeans and T-shirt would have been a flashing neon sign that he didn’t belong. Oubliette’s customers used the same mix of avatars as everyone else–everything from scantily-dressed model types to satyrs with ocular implants–but even though the neighborhood looked like it had just survived a war, the people milling around outside the club may as well have been the patrons of a five star restaurant. Shaun was surprised; he’d toyed with bondage before, but S&M clubs had always conjured images of leather chaps and bull whips, not three piece suits and little black dresses.
Shaun scanned the crowd. When he didn’t see Lore anywhere, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned against the transport chamber. The longer he waited, the more jittery he felt. He was equal parts nervous and excited, like a little kid about to go off to summer camp and spend two blissful months away from the watchful eyes of his parents. This was hardly his first time at a nightclub–he’d been sneaking into bars with fake IDs since he was fifteen–but an S&M club on Simulnet was a far cry from the trendy Hollywood spots he usually frequented.
Someone cleared their throat next to him, and Shaun wheeled around to find Lore standing there. Shaun pressed a hand to his chest and let out an embarrassed chuckle. “Jesus, that’s the second time today. You’re like a ninja or something.”
Lore thrust a paper-wrapped package in Shaun’s direction. “You’ll need to change.”
Shaun was too surprised to react for a moment, but then he took the package and said, “You know, you could have just told me there was a dress code. I’m pretty good at dressing myself these days.” He eyed Lore, who was wearing a smart black suit with a blue tie. He’d done away with his mantle of scarves, and Shaun spotted another tattoo peeking out from underneath his collar.
“You’re staring again.”
Shaun snapped to attention, then offered a sheepish grin and a muttered apology. He’d never met anyone so adept at throwing him off his guard, but he actually sort of liked it. Being around someone who could surprise him was a nice change of pace.
There was a narrow alley directly behind where they were standing, and Shaun jerked his head toward it. “Hey, want to keep a lookout for me while I duck in there and get dressed?”
Lore followed and stood at the entrance of the alley with his back to Shaun. The bluish glow from a nearby streetlight made his hair look more purple than black, and the light glinted off the earrings in his ear. His arms were crossed, and he was drumming his fingers against his elbow, but it seemed more fidgety than impatient. Shaun wondered if he was always like this.
While Shaun wriggled out of his jeans, Lore glanced over his shoulder and said, “There’s an ID patch built into the coat. It should mask your user ID if anyone tries to scan you.”
“Doesn’t that violate terms of service?”
“Oh good, first day on the case and I’m already breaking rules.” Shaun tried to sound annoyed, but he had a feeling the effect was ruined by the smile on his face. There was nothing quite like the thrill of doing something you weren’t supposed to, and it had been a long time. Once he’d finished changing into the suit, he said, “Okay, you can turn around now. How do I look? A little bit Tony Stark, a little bit James Bond?”
Lore gave Shaun a once-over, then turned and headed back toward the club without a word. Shaun hurried to catch up and wondered why Lore’s stride seemed so much longer than his despite the fact that they were almost the same height.
“Hey, who am I supposed to be, anyway?” Shaun asked. “The name on the ID patch, I mean.”
“Better than John Doe, I guess.”
As soon as they’d taken their place at the end of the line, Lore’s posture changed like someone had flipped a switch that forced all of the tension out of his body: he tucked his hands into his pockets and slouched a little, then tipped his head ever-so-slightly to the side. Even his expression seemed to relax, and he actually smiled at a group of girls who giggled their way past him.
Shaun knew he was staring again, but he couldn’t help it; he’d never seen anyone snap into character so quickly before.
They made it through security without a problem and stepped through the front doors into a cozy lobby area. The room had been decorated with black walls, plush red couches, and a gleaming oak bar. Well-dressed club-goers were milling around, sipping cocktails and chatting with one another.
“Are you sure this is an S&M club?” Shaun muttered. So far, Oubliette reminded him more of an upscale bar in Hollywood.
Lore nodded toward another set of double doors. “Through there.”
The main room was decorated in the same style as the lobby, but it left no doubt as to what the club was really about. Sex was everywhere: sprawled over couches, kneeling in chairs, tied up on the floor, and even hovering in midair. There was no music, just the background noise of conversation and laughter, and the sound of riding crops on bare skin. Only a handful of people were fully dressed. Shaun was hardly a virgin, but the sight of all those naked bodies made him feel like an enthusiastic teenager all over again; he couldn’t decide where to look first.
“This way.” Lore seemed completely unfazed by what was happening around them.
Shaun followed Lore to the bar, where a group of men were sipping their drinks and watching the room. They were in their late forties or early fifties, and attractive enough to be movie stars. Shaun couldn’t stop staring. When Lore handed him a glass, he took a sip without looking and almost spit it back out again. “Jesus, what is this?”
“Club soda. Given your inexperience with anything stronger…”
“Inexperience? I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen.” Shaun made a face and took another sip. It made his nose wrinkle. “God, this shit is vile.”
“Then don’t drink it.” Lore set his drink down on the bar. “Wait here.”
“What? Where are you–?” Shaun began, but Lore was already weaving his way across the room, back toward the lobby. Shaun cursed under his breath, then surveyed the crowd while he tried to decide whether he should stay where he was or try to mingle. He sighed and lifted his glass, then remembered what was in it and plunked it back down onto the bar.
The group of men at the other end of the bar had dispersed. Only one of them, a tall man in a khaki suit, had lagged behind to talk to a younger man with slicked-back hair and sharp cheekbones. They were standing close together, with their heads bowed and their arms touching. Neither of them seemed to have noticed Shaun, so Shaun edged closer to see if he could overhear their conversation.
“…can’t tell my wife anything anymore,” the older man was complaining. “She’d cut my balls off if she knew I came to places like this.”
The younger man stroked his arm. “That’s a shame, but plenty of people come here to explore fantasies they can’t talk about with their significant others. Why don’t you tell me one of your favorites–Paul, was it? Tell me something you’d never be able to tell your wife.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I didn’t really come here to meet anyone.”
“Don’t get coy.” The younger man let his hand glide down Paul’s chest to his stomach. “I’ve seen you here before, and I’ve seen what you do. Now, why don’t you tell me what you want so we can have a nice time?”
Paul’s smile was predatory as he leaned in to whisper something into the younger man’s ear. When the younger man pulled away a minute later, he was blushing, and he kept his gaze on Paul’s face as he sank to his knees. Paul leaned back against the bar and reached down to card his fingers through the younger man’s hair.
Shaun knew he should probably look away, but he was fascinated. He’d experimented with other men before, during his freshman year of college, but even though he’d enjoyed the sex and the guys had been nice enough, he’d never been able to form emotional attachments to any of them. Only a handful of men had caught his interest since then, but his crushes were mostly sexual and always fleeting, so if anyone bothered to ask, he always said he was straight. That didn’t stop him from being curious about what was happening next to him, though.
The younger man had unfastened Paul’s trousers and freed his cock, and was lapping at the tip while Paul tugged on his hair. Shaun swallowed and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and when Paul murmured, “put it in your mouth,” he felt his cheeks turn red. What Paul and his partner were doing was tame compared to some of the other things happening around them, but for some reason it was affecting Shaun more than he would have imagined. Maybe Kim was right, he thought; maybe he just really needed to get laid.
Thinking of his sister put a damper on Shaun’s libido, and he finally looked away to stare at the rows of bottles behind the bar. Paul was whispering something, but Shaun did his best to ignore it. He was so distracted that he didn’t even notice someone had slid up to the bar beside him until the person’s elbow brushed his. The contact startled him, but he tried to play it cool as he glanced over to find a man his own age smiling at him.
“Does this drink belong to someone, or are you here alone?”
“Ah, no, it’s my friend’s.”
“What a pity.”
Shaun didn’t reply.
The man’s smile faltered. “You’re new here, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I’d remember seeing you around before.”
To read the rest, download the ebook today!
In Simulnet, no one knows who you are: the perfect playground for the imagination... or a serial killer. The police ask Shaun to partner with an enigmatic programmer to hunt a murderer in the sex clubs and ramen shops of cyberspace. But as they investigate, Shaun finds himself wanting to know more about his partner. Ultimately the questions Shaun needs to answer are the ones deep in his heart.
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