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KILL DASH NINE

By Johnny Batch

Chapter 0

Teddy had taken the same route home for months and had never once been stabbed and left to die. Until now. There was nothing unusual about the night. It was a typically warm, early summer evening in the City of Trees. Teddy always walked back to his car through Freak Alley. His friend Melina had painted her masterpiece on the alley walls and he loved to stare at it as he passed by to the nearby lot where he parked his car. Despite some of the ghoulish apparitions adorning the backs of buildings in the alley, he never felt unsafe during his walk. This was Boise after all, one of the safest capital cities in the country.

But this night was different than all the others. For one thing, he was pretty nearly drunk which was unusual for him because he rarely drank on gaming nights. Pete had made a new lager and Teddy had tilted back one too many of them as the night wore on. It had affected his game play towards the end, resulting in him getting killed by a horde of raging, four armed bugs. Those fucking bugs swarmed like ants and he didn’t have a chance after falling down. None of his fellow clan members could reach him before he was overwhelmed.

Dizzy from the beer and feeling jaded by the game, he left Mashers and headed out into the night for his usual homeward trek through the heart of the city. Teddy was a big man and he was no where near being too drunk to drive, at least that what he convinced himself. The others knew when he’d had too much to drink and they didn’t even try to stop him from leaving.

Maybe that beer was more toxic than Steve had admitted. He found his feet getting heavier and heavier as he stomped through the puddles in the alley. He stopped before Melina’s painting and waited patiently for it to stop moving as if it were animated. Could you animate a wall painting? A song echoed down the alley as if booming from a portable speaker. It was Roy Orbison's In Dreams. Teddy watched the colorful clowns dance around for a while and then realized he really was more shit-faced than he thought. He felt as if he were tripping on more than just beer.

Teddy lingered in the alley and check out more of the paintings to see how they looked in motion. His large frame lumbered along a few more steps before something tripped him and he fell flat onto his belly. The pavement smacked his face as his head bounced off of it. He felt something sharp enter his neck and realized too late that there was someone on top of him. The alcohol delayed his senses just long enough to make him wonder where all the blood was coming from. He realized that he could taste it now with his mouth pressed against the ground. More sharp stings around his waist convinced him he was under attack. Trying to roll his frame over he was kicked in the head and nearly passed out.

The last thing he heard were wet footsteps running down the alley. His vision faded like one of those old black and white movies that Trip was always making him watch. Teddy slowly lost consciousness and faded out, forever.

Chapter 1

Detective Bill Plait was well into REM sleep when his cell phone went off on the nightstand beside the bed. First it vibrated on the wooden surface and then it started buzzing and finally, before he could reach for it, the thing started ringing with the sound of an old fashioned rotary phone. His arm slapped at the clock radio for a moment until he realized it was not the alarm but the department phone. Bringing the smart phone to his ear he groggily said, “Plait.”

The dispatcher ran through a list of department jargon that ended with homicide and an address. Plait sat up and looked back over at the sleeping form of his wife. Francine didn’t appear to be awake. She was a pretty deep sleeper and rarely stirred when his phone went off at all hours of the night. He got up and padded into the bathroom, closing the door before clicking on the light. Asking for the address again, he acknowledged the call and hung up. It was two AM in the morning on a Saturday. Plait relieved himself and then brushed his hair and teeth before throwing on Friday’s pants and shirt. He didn’t want to wake his wife by opening drawers and digging in his closet to find clean clothes.

After grabbing his badge and pistol he made his way through a dark home to the front door and unlocked it to leave. What he wanted most was a hot coffee, but at this time of night, Starbucks wasn’t serving. The nerve of them.

He unlocked his department sedan, sat down behind the wheel and sighed. Then he remembered bringing home a thermos of coffee on Friday night and leaving it in the car. He patted the passenger seat until he found the thermos and opened it up. There were a few lukewarm swallows left and he polished it off. His phone buzzed with a chat message and he brought the screen up to his face. It was Francine, telling him to be safe out there and that she loved him. He smiled and typed out a reply that he loved her back. Then he started the car and headed into Boise.

// ----------------------- //

Freak Alley was located in downtown Boise and had undergone a creative awakening of late with local artists decorating the back sides of area businesses with colorful paintings. Walking tours now regularly included the alley to show off the urban hipness. Plait could not recall ever having a murder there before, so that was new.

There were two squad cars parked at angles to block through traffic into the alley. Blue lights flashed off the freakish paintings adding to the eerie feeling Plait got as he stepped out of his car and flashed his badge. The beat cop’s name was Davis and Plait only dimly recalled seeing him before. He pointed to an area near a dumpster and Plait walked over to the scene.

A crime scene photographer was snapping off images with his digital camera and flash. A large male, dressed as if he were in his twenties laid face down in a puddle of blood. Plait waited for the photographer to step aside and then moved in to examine the body while pulling on plastic gloves he had taken from his glove box.

“Nice night for a stabbing, eh Detective?” the photographer said with a degree of irony that all first responders seemed to wear like a badge of honor.

“I’d rather be asleep,” Plait responded.

The Photographer started putting his gear into a shoulder bag. “I got what I need, he’s all yours, Plait.”

Plait nodded and moved in to remove the victim’s wallet. It was a leather one not unlike his own. Driver’s license prominently displayed in the plastic window, about sixteen dollars in bills and a few miscellaneous receipts folded in with the cash. The usual assortment of credit cards and insurance cards. He found a set of keys in the kid’s front right jeans pocket.

His name was Theodore J. Buttle, born in 1995 and lived on the East side of town. Plait handed the wallet to another officer who held out an evidence bag. Then he went about examining what the kid wore. Typical for men his age he wore an old concert t-shirt and faded blue jeans with black Converse All Starts. He was not a small man. Plait guesstimated he was close to three hundred pounds and probably stood over six foot five. Bearded with dark brown hair.

Plait took out his mini flashlight and shined it on the dead man’s face. His eyes were still open and looked to be dark brown in color. What a waste. He looked like he had probably been a nice kid. Nothing about his dress set off any warning signs for gangs, nothing on his body pointed to a harsh life of drug use. The fact that he still had his wallet indicated it could have been a random murder or perhaps he just witnessed something he shouldn’t have. Been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Hey Sarge, any signs of a robbery in this alley or nearby?”

The ranking beat cop shook her head. “I saw the body on a regular patrol of the area. Flashed my light down the alley and called it in.”

Plait nodded. “Hey, you have any coffee?”

She grinned at him and headed back to her car to get a thermos. Plait forgot to look at her name tag and the whole time she was gone he tried to think what her damn name was. He really needed some caffeine. His phone went off, startling him.

“Plait,”

“I’m almost there,” said the voice of Robert Simms, the Medical Examiner. There was only one qualified ME in the county and he lived way out beyond the airport.

“Looks like a stabbing. No weapon though and he didn’t put up much of a fight.”

“Okay, I’m there in five.”

The phone hung up and Plait slid it into his pants pocket as the sergeant returned with a Styrofoam cup and poured him some hot coffee. He looked at her badge. McReed. Shit, how do I forget an Irish name on a red head?

“Thanks, sergeant. You’re a life saver.”

She looked down at the dead man on the street. “Wish I’d been by a few minutes sooner, maybe I could have stopped this.”

Plait shook his head. “Don’t think about it too much, we do what we can when we can, but we can’t save everyone.”

She nodded while putting the lid on her thermos.

Plait worked on his coffee while examining the kid’s wallet closer. He found the insurance card and had Sergeant McReed search area lots for a 1992 gray Ford Taurus. She was relieved to have something else to do. As her squad car pulled away, Simms’ car took her place in the alley.

Simms was a thin man with a bushy, graying mustache on his gaunt face. He went through his routine of ensuring the kid was dead and started counting stab wounds.

“Stabbed nine times. That’s pretty particular.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The first cut looks like it was across his jugular. That alone would have killed him. All the other wounds were just for effect or spite. Neither of them appear to be to a vital area. I’ll know more when I get him back to the lab.”

Plait considered the new information as he finished his coffee. An ambulance pulled into the alley and squeezed past Plait’s car to pull up beside the body. Plait let them take care of the victim as he went back to his car. The radio sputtered with a call from Sergeant McReed.

“Did you find it?”

“Yes, sir. Right over here to your left.”

Plait looked out his side window across the street to a lot near the Ten Barrel Brewery building. He waved and started his car to head over.

The kid’s Ford had sun faded paint, worn tires and the upholstery was ripped from in places from heavy use. There were lots of fast food wrappers and bags on the floor of the passenger seat, but nothing of obvious value visible from outside.

“Okay, call it in and have it towed back to the station. Let’s rLindskoogun it and see what we get.”

Sergeant McReed nodded and keyed the mic of her radio from where it was clipped to her collar as they headed back to her cruiser to run the plates. Computers in squad cars always seemed to impress Plait more than it should. A child of the late seventies, he well remembered his dad’s squad car having nothing but a two way radio inside. Cell phones? Not even a pipe dream. His dad had a cigarette tray full of quarters for making calls.

The search came up clean. No warrants, no tickets and no parking violations. The kid was pretty damn clean. Plait took out a notepad and a pencil and wrote down the address where Mister Buttle lived. This seemed to amuse the sergeant. She held up her iPad and shook it at him with a smile.

“When are you going to enter the 21st Century, Plait?”

Plait shrugged and got out of the car. “I’m heading out to his home. I could use a backup.”

“I’ll call it in,” she replied, keying her radio again to inform dispatch.

// ----------------------- //

Buttle lived in a single story house on the North End of Boise, popular with young professionals and artsy liberals. Plait parked in the street and had Sergeant McReed circle around towards the back alley and keep her eyes open. Just in case anyone tried to duck out the back after Plait ID’d himself at the front door.

Standing at the simple brownstone there didn’t seem anything odd about the house from the outside. The grass was in need of watering and the paint was not as new as many of the neighbors. He was starting to get the picture that Buttle either lived with his parents or didn’t care much about housekeeping.

He rang the doorbell and waited for a light to come on or for someone to come to the door. Nothing. He rang it again, twice for emphasis. Finally he started to hear someone stirring inside. The porch light flicked on and a woman in a nightgown with rollers in her hair opened the wooden door.

“Yes?”

She sounded annoyed at being awakened, yet unsure who the stranger in a dark suit was. Plait showed her his badge. “Detective Bill Plait, Boise PD. May I come in ma’am?”

She nodded and opened the screen door for him. As he stepped in she tied up her robe and shut the door behind them. “Is this about Teddy?”

Plait’s solemn expression spoke volumes. The woman put her hands to her face in fear of what he would surely say next.

“Is Theodore Buttle your son, ma’am?”

She nodded and started to cry like she knew he was not there to deliver good news.

“I’m sorry to inform you that he was found stabbed to death in the city tonight.”

She broke down in tears and he helped her to a couch in the living room that faced the street. He let her cry for a moment until she started to collect herself.

“What happened?” she finally asked through tears.

“A patrol car found his body in Freak Alley about an hour and a half ago. I know this is difficult, Mrs Buttle, but I need to ask you a few questions.” She nodded through more tears.

“Was your son into drugs or did he have any debts?”

She shook her head and let out an amused laugh. “God no. Everybody loved Teddy.”

Plait had heard that line more than once. Parents were often the last to know their kids were doing drugs or owed large sums of money to bad people. Especially adult children.

“Did your son live here, with you?”

She nodded. “He rents the basement.” She looked away from him as tears continued down her cheeks. She looked to be in her late sixties, silver hair and matronly.

“Do you know where he was tonight, ma’am?” She looked back at him and he could almost feel the pain in her tired eyes. He hated this part of his job. In twenty years on the force he’d never gotten comfortable delivering bad news to parents. “He was at Mashers, down by the high school.”

Chapter 2

Mashers was located in an old white clapboard home on a residential street behind Boise High School. The first floor of the house was converted into an arcade using game consoles and large panel displays. They only served energy drinks and French Fries to the mostly teenage clientel. The name didn’t refer to the potato spuds, but to the control mashing that gamers did while playing first person shooters. It was only a happy coincidence that they served piping hot baskets of salty fries to the gamers.

Mashers was owned and operated by Nate, a hip young man in is late twenties with stringy long brown hair and a thin, wiry body. Nate inherited the house from his dad who passed away ten years before. It used to be a hamburger joint and a popular after school hangout for local kids. Nate hated flipping burgers and dealing with all the aspects of running a restaurant, so he closed it down and used what money his dad had saved to remodel the main floor into a gamer’s paradise.

There were ten individual cubicles each with a 27 inch flat panel display and an over-cranked PC with a cheap keyboard and mouse and the best controllers money could buy. The only rule of the house was that if you wanted to eat, you had to leave the cubical. There was a massive, round table in the center of the room with some cheap plastic seats that he got from the school.

There were several spotlights above the table but the cubicles were dark spaces painted black with Turkish carpets on the floors. The second house rule was no shoes in the gamer cubicals. To preserve the carpets and add a bit of quirkiness to the place, Nate was only a stickler for those two rules. A “No Drugs” sign on the front door with a red crossed circle over a silhouette of a marijuana plant was not enforced. Especially by Nate who was often rolling joints in the kitchen out of sight from kids. He never sold or handed out what he smoked, but he didn’t run to the cops if someone was toking up in between levels either.

Most nights after he closed Nate transformed the arcade into an adults only play room for his friends and his gamer clan. Last night the clan had played a new space shooter into the early morning hours and everyone got smashed on some home brewed micro beer that Pete brought over. Pete wasn’t the best player but he could brew some damn fine beer and the others insisted he test his latest batch on them. As a result, many times more than one of them would crash at Mashers to sleep off their hangovers.

When the doorbell rang at some ungodly early hour before noon, only Trip managed to wake up enough to answer it. Joshua and Dancia were still snuggled under a blanket in one of the cubes and Trip had fallen asleep on the back couch. Nate was nowhere to be found, probably upstairs in his own bed. The front windows were painted black so that the arcade was always darker than the inside of a cow. Trip bumped into a chair and waved his hands in front of him until he made it to the front door. He turned the handle and pulled the door but it was blocked by a chain. After fumbling with the chain while looking through squinting eyes he finally managed to open the door.

A well dressed man stood there holding up a badge. It was a freaking cop! Trip’s eyes widened and he slammed shut the door. That noise woke the others.

“Who is it?” asked Dancia.

Trip stepped away from the door. “It’s that detective dude that worked on the Taggert case.”

“What?” Joshua said, getting to his feet and tucking in his shirt.

Trip looked back at him with a worried expression. “Did Nate hide his,” He indicated taking a hit on a joint by squeezing his thumb and forefinger together and sucking.

Joshua looked back at the kitchen and then nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay. Let him in.”

Trip went back to the door and opened it. His smile was loose and overly casual.

“Sorry, Detective. You just scared the shit of me.”

Plait shook his head and slid his wallet back into his pants. Trip just stood there, looking at Plait’s waist, expecting to catch a glimpse of his gun.

“I get that a lot. No worries.”

Joshua came to the door and reached out to shake Plait’s hand. “Good to see you again, detective. Is there a problem we can help you with?” He stepped back into the darkened house as the Plait cautiously entered.

“Do either of you know a Mister, Theodore Buttle?”

Joshua and Trip exchanged wide eyed looks. “What happed to Teddy?” Dancia asked, coming out into the open. She was wearing a wrinkled hounds tooth skirt and white blouse with her dark hair tied into a tail.

Plait nodded to her, recalling their case from a few years before which ended in a cabin up in McCall, if his memory served.

“He was found dead in Freak Alley this morning.”

Dancia’s hands went to her mouth as she gasped. “Oh, no!”

She didn’t break down but Plait could tell she was on the verge. Joshua helped her back to the table in the center of the room. “Trip, go get Nate.”

Trip nodded and headed back to the staircase shaking his head.

“Nate’s the owner. He lives upstairs,” Joshua explained.

Plait looked around the room and took in the dark cubicals and the black painted walls and ceiling. There were busted game controllers and computer parts nailed to the walls for decoration. The place smelled vaguely of teen body oder and weed. Plait took out his note pad and pulled out a chair at the round table.

“What can you tell me about last night in regards to, Teddy.”

Joshua locked eyes with Dancia before continuing. She didn’t seem to indicate anything was wrong. “We were playing a game,” he indicated the consoles behind him, “on these systems until, man. At least one or one thirty in the morning. That’s when Steve offered to give Teddy a ride home and he turned him down. Some of us had been drinking and I think Teddy figured a nice walk would clear his head a bit.”

Dance nodded agreement as Plait studied both of them for a moment. “Had Steve been drinking?”

“No, he was our DD.”

Trip came stumbling down the stairs with Nate behind him. Plait got to his feet and pulled out his badge again to show it to Nate. Nate nodded and looked around at the others.

“Trip said something happened to Teddy?”

Plait nodded curtly. “I’m Detective Bill Plait, Boise PD. You’re friend Teddy was found dead in Freak Alley this morning by a beat cop.”

Nate’s face appeared to flush as his tired eyes widened. “The fuck?”

Trip patted Nate’s shoulder as they all took a seat at the round table.

“How? I mean how did he die?”

Plait retold the facts as he understood them, carefully watching everyone’s sickened reaction to the news. When he was done there was a long moment of silence.

“Were there any other participants at your party last night? Where can I find this, Steve?”

Joshua pulled out his phone. “I’ll get Steve over here,” he said, placing a call.

Dancia took out her phone, “I’m calling Van, Trip can you call Pete?”

Trip reached into his jacket to pull out his iPhone, “On it.”

Plait was jotting down names in his notepad. “I have Joshua, Dancia, Trip, Nate, Steve and Pete. Was there anyone else here that night?”

Nate looked up and said, “Chris.”

Dancia touched Nate’s hand, “Can you see if he can come over?”

Nate got up and padded over to the old land line phone on the wall in the kitchen.

Plait listened to their conversations as he asked what everyone’s last name was for his notes. There didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary in how they spoke to their friends and urged them to return to Mashers. Nate offered to put on some coffee. Dancia got up and helped him in the kitchen. Nobody said much and Plait simply observed until Joshua spoke to him. “I never thought I’d be seeing you again, Detective.”

Plait agreed. “Did anyone in your, what did you call this group again?” He was showing his age in not knowing a damn thing about gaming.

“A gamer’s clan. Just a bunch of friends who play as a team,” Joshua explained.

“What game were you playing?”

“It’s a FPS, some new skiffy shooter. Nate, what was that game called?”

“Betweos,” Nate replied from the kitchen.

Trip got up and brought the game case over and handed it to Plait. The box art had space suited soldiers shooting four armed bugs in combat. Plait wrote down the game’s name and the company selling it. “What’s a FPS?”

Trip and Joshua exchanged odd looks. “First Person Shooter. You know, like Halo.”

Plait acted like he knew what Halo was but failed to pull it off.

“Was this game on-line?”

Trip answered, “Yeah, but we were just playing the AI.”

“AI?”

“Artificial Intelligence. We were playing against the game, not other people.”

Plait nodded. That he understood.

The other members of the clan started arriving and each one was introduced to Plait and told that Teddy had died. Details were withheld until after they were all present.

Joshua looked around the room and counted by pointing to everyone present. “Yup, that’s everyone. Eight, minus Teddy.”

Plait stood up and looked at the gloomy faces gathered around the table. They all looked like twenty-somethings and none of them acted odd or looked suspicious in any way. This one was not going to be easy to solve.

“Your friend was found by a beat cop lying face down in a pool of his own blood. The Medical Examiner said he was stabbed multiple times. I don’t have to tell you that this kind of death is up close and personal. Whoever killed him, wanted to make it personal. Did Teddy have any enemies or a nemesis that he was always fighting with?”

Everyone shook their heads no. Teddy was by all their accounts the nicest guy any of them knew. Always got along with everyone he met. A few of them wanted to know who the killer was and if they could help the police find him. Plait had to politely refuse their help. But he told them to keep their eyes open and to be expecting to come down to the station for further questioning later in the day.

Plait looked down at the game box and it dawned on him that it was a pretty violent game. Even had a Mature rating.

“From what you all say, Teddy seemed like a gentle giant. Was he any good at these kinds of games? These FPS games?”

This time he got mixed reactions from the group. Some of them admitted that he wasn’t really good at gaming and others said they kept him on the team more for his sense of humor and his ability to calm down the more excitable among them in a firefight.

“Why are there nine players in this clan?” Plait asked.

“So, combat games are played very similar to how the military operates. We could have three teams of three with nine players. Any more than that and it becomes too hard to know where everyone is and what their status are,” Joshua replied.

Plait nodded and jotted down more notes. Then he flipped over to a new page and handed the pad and pencil to Joshua. “Please write down your addresses and a phone number where you can be reached.”

As he waited for the pad to go around the room, Plait examined one of the gaming cubicals. Trip followed him, pointing out the various system pieces and explaining what games the kids were playing on them. They were high powered gaming PC’s running Windows and the games were mostly a mix of FPS and full immersion, RTS or Real Time Strategy games with a few Role Playing Games or RPG’s.

The controllers and keyboards looked well worn and abused. Trip joked that some of the controllers had to be replaced every few months due to over-zealous players banging them up when they lost. The wooden desks had the black paint worn off along the edges from legs and feet reclining on them.

Plait took out his smart phone and snapped a few pictures of the cubes and the overall room, trying not to make it look like he was taking pictures of the people in the room when in fact, that’s just what he was doing. He wasn’t sure if the killer was in this room, but in case he was, it was good practice to have some record of those he interviewed.

When everyone had finished and the notebook made back into his hands he thanked them for their patience and told them he was sorry for their loss. Then he took out a money clip full of business cards and tossed them onto the table.

“Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or notice anything or anyone who might be suspicious.”

Then he left them and headed back out to his car. The neighborhood was walking distance to Boise High School, back a street from the running track. Morning sunlight was coming up over the tree lined streets and in another hour or so the day would be warming up to the mid-nineties.

Chapter 3

Dancia collected her purse and headed for the door after the detective had left. Joshua walked outside with her as she slid onto her coral green Vespa scooter.

“I have to tell Melina about Teddy. I owe it to her to do it in person.”

Her face soured with grief as she slid on her helmet and then her Wayfarer sunglasses.

Joshua gave her a quick kiss and stepped back as she started the scooter.

“Come by tonight,” he said. She nodded before taking off down the street.

Joshua stood in the shade of the front yard of Mashers and looked up at the sunlight filtering down through the big old oak tree that dominated the front yard. He was going to miss Teddy. Miss his shy smile and his dopey jokes. He thought about how Plait had said he’d been killed and a shiver ran down his back. What were the odds of someone he knew being killed by stabbing in downtown Boise? Pretty high, Joshua reckoned.

Boise was far safer than most state capitals and didn’t have that much crime of any kind. It seemed strange to him that anyone would be a victim of a random violent crime, much less a friend of his.

Steve came out and walked over. He was wearing one of those tattered and subdued American flag t-shirts and some kind of tactical shorts. Always the gun nut, Steve.

“Look, I know this might seem crass right now, but we need to fill Teddy’s spot on the team. We have another tournament tomorrow afternoon.”

Joshua looked at him oddly. That had never even entered his mind.

“I’m sure we’ll find someone. If not, Dancia and I will take a pass and you guys can play a six team.”

Steve shook his head dismissively and pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose. “I’ll see if I can find someone. We can’t afford to be without Eniram.”

Joshua took the insult to his gaming prowess in stride as Steve clapped his shoulder and headed for the black four wheel drive truck he drove. Dancia was a former Marine, of course she was better at shooting combat guns than he was. Hell, she was a better shot than any of the dudes on the team. Which is why he didn’t even attempt to argue with Steve.

Van came out next, dressed in a pinstripe collared shirt and tan Dockers. The man had more taste than anyone else in the clan. Lawyers. He clapped hands with Joshua and pulled him into a bro-hug for just a moment.

“Gonna miss him, man.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Van seemed to recall something and a smile came to his lips. “Remember when Teddy first tried out for the clan?”

Joshua thought back to several years before when they only have five members and couldn’t get into any tournaments. Teddy showed up driving that piece of shit Ford of his that spewed blue smoke and backfired long after he shut it off. On that day they were standing in this very spot in front of Mashers when Teddy rolled up. He made it across the lawn in his usual, unassuming shuffle and reached out to wave when the car backfired.

The sudden shot caused Steve to throw himself on the ground and pull out his concealed pistol like some kind of undercover cop. Everyone else just jumped out of their skin except for Teddy. He just smiled broadly as if he had just farted.

“Nobody’s ever gotten Steve that good,” Joshua said, as they both laughed about it for a while. Van pulled his keys out and started for his Prius. “What time’s the game tomorrow?” he asked.

“Be here at noon, I think we start at one.”

Van waved and got into his car. Joshua waved back and then noticed Pete and Chris coming out. Pete slid on his gray, hipster fedora and walked down the stairs like he owned the place. Dressed in black, even in the dead of summer, Pete was the consummate Jazz musician. Behind him was Chris, scraggy ginger beard, unkempt hair. They couldn’t have been any different in just about every way. Yet they were both good friends and great gamers.

Pete reached out to shake Joshua’s hand and then grabbed him in a bear hug instead. Joshua felt his shoulders pinned tight as he looked startled at Chris. Chris just shrugged and then threw his arms around both of them.

“Okay, group hug over,” Pete pleaded as they broke apart.

Pete straightened himself with a snap of his shirt and headed over to his matte black Stingray vette. Chris smiled at Joshua and fist bumped him. Then his childlike face suddenly looked serious.

“Gonna miss him bro. Teddy was our gentle giant.”

“Me too, Chris.”

Chris wiped the corner of his eye and tried to pretend he hadn’t just shed a tear. Joshua nodded knowingly as his friend backed away and headed to his Yeti mountain bike. Chris didn’t own a car, just his bike. Like a teenager who never grew up he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. Wearing a faded red t-shirt and pocketed shorts, Chris took off down the sidewalk towards the school as Pete backed up and revved his throaty big block Chevy. Joshua waved as Pete pulled away and walked up the stairs to go back inside. Neighborhood kids would be showing up to play games soon and he wanted to make sure Nate and Trip had things ready to open.

Inside, Trip was underneath one of the cubicles, switching out a cable while Nate fired up the fry cookers. Joshua started booting up the PCs and turning on the monitors. He didn’t have anything to do today, so figured he’d hang around and help get Mashers opened.

Nate opened a drawer and pulled out a large kitchen knife to rip open a bag of locally made fries. Joshua watched him for a moment, trying not to think of what Teddy must have felt in that alley. Fucking horrible, he thought.

// ----------------------- //

Dancia pulled up to the old stone apartment building off of 5th Street and turned off her scooter. She unsnapped the chinstrap of her helmet and pulled it off, looking up at her friend Melina’s apartment. Melina and Teddy were as close as any two people could have been without being lovers. Melina was queer of course and Teddy, well, Teddy was just Teddy. He loved everyone, didn’t matter who they were. That was part of why he was so loved by those around him. Especially Melina.

She pulled out her phone and texted Melina to buzz her in. Her friend replied just about instantly, meaning she was at least awake. Dancia texted again telling her she was outside on her scooter. A few seconds later Melina came to her window and waved down at her to come up.

Dancia took tucked her helmet under an arm and walked up the stone walkway to the apartment's front door. A buzzer sounded and she swung the door open and came inside. After climbing a flight of stairs to the second floor Dancia wrapped her knuckles on Melina’s door.

“Come on in, it’s open,”

Melina’s place was a studio apartment with one, narrow room. She had a mattress on the floor in the back, opposite the bath and one love seat that faced a wall with a big screen Samsung TV. There were stacks of charcoal drawings and paintings all around the apartment and three easels over by the single window. There was a nook with a tiny kitchenette that was inadequate for cooking anything more than single serve meals. Which was fine by Melina because she wasn’t much of a cook.

She was standing at one of her easels holding a piece of charcoal as she sketched on a large pad of paper. Her fingers were black from the dust and she had a few smudges on her face where she wiped at her nose. She wore a dark gray shift and her black hair was strewn about her face without care.

“Hey, can you come over here for a second,” Dancia asked.

She hated talking to someone who was working. Melina picked up on her tone right away and set her charcoal down to come over to the love seat to sit with Dancia.

“What’s wrong, buddy?”

“Teddy’s died.”

Melina blinked once and then her eyes grew big as she could tell Dancia was not joking with her. Dancia never joked about serious topics and nothing was more serious than death.

“What?”

“The cops found him in Freak Alley last night.” Dancia paused. The words were hard for her to say. “They said he’d been stabbed and left for dead. They don’t know who did it.”

Tears started to fall down Melina’s cheeks, causing the charcoal dust to smear. Dancia pulled her friend close in a hug as she began to sob and then flat out bawl. Before long they were both crying.

“It’s not fair, Teddy was perfect,” Melina finally said as they parted. Dancia got up and found a Kleenex box and they both wiped their eyes and blew their noses. “It must have been a random crime, nobody hated him.”

The two of them sat there sobbing for a while on the couch. Finally Melina sniffed and said, “What was he doing in the alley at night?”

Dancia looked down. “We had finished a tournament at Mashers and Steve dropped him off downtown where Teddy had left his car.”

She looked back up at Melina. “You know how much he loved walking down there looking at your painting.”

She nodded and started to softly cry again.

“He was probably thinking about you when he,” Dancia didn’t finish the thought.

“It was such a wonderful morning.”

“Sorry.”

Dancia got up again and went over to the kitchenette and poured both of them some water. There was a dorm fridge with a single ice tray but it was empty. Melina couldn’t even make ice. She brought her friend the water and walked over to see what she had been working on while she sipped her own water.

It was a woman wearing a sun dress and riding a long board. She was hunched over the board with her dress hiked up so that it didn’t drag on the ground. The woman’s face looked familiar but only because she had been a common subject for Melina.

“Did you see your mystery woman again? Girl, this is good.”

Melina nodded and wiped her nose with a bunched up facial tissue. “I think she lives around here somewhere. I mean how far can you ride a skateboard?” “Right.”

Dancia downed her water and looked back at Melina on the love seat. She was hunched over and looked incredibly depressed. She had to do something to cheer her up but what the hell can you do when her childhood friend has died?

Dancia had been best friends with Melina since grade school, but she and Teddy had been friends since pre-school. A song started playing in her head. It was Tachycardia by Conor Oberst, one of Teddy’s favorite singers. She pulled out her phone, called up Spotify and turned on the song. She sat down with Melina and they two of them listened to the melancholy song about death and lost love.

Chapter 4

Nate lounged on the big leather chair in the front room of Mashers reading a well-used green and yellow paperback Steig Larsson novel. He was blissfully unaware of the button mashing, cursing and laughing coming from the gamer cubes. There were five cubes occupied with teenage males all playing different games while several girls worked on homework assignments spread out over the big round table in the middle of the room. Not many girls were serious gamers but they didn’t seem to mind the boys who were, especially if they were cute.

Trip was leaning back on a school chair in the kitchen area, watching a movie on his phone with white ear buds hanging from his ears. The last batch of French fries were going cold in the friar basket and he had already turned off the hot oil. Cleaning the friar was the dirtiest and least loved chore for anyone working at Mashers. Trip didn’t seem to mind it though and when he wasn’t gaming, he often volunteered as the cook at Mashers.

A pimple faced kid with red hair approached Trip and waved to get his attention. Trip paused the movie and pulled a bud out.

“Can I have a Bull, dude?”

He waved a dollar at Trip who looked at the kid as if he were being incredibly inconvenienced.

“You interrupted Citizen Kane for a freaking Red Bull?”

The kid nodded, not knowing what the famous movie was and not caring one bit if he had interrupted it.

Trip tipped the chair down, reached into the fridge and pulled out the requested drink. He took the bill and tossed it into an open money box and then went back to his movie. The kid popped the drink and ignored the house rule by taking it back to his cube to drink it.

Joshua stood with his back to the room, slapping the buttons of an old-school stand alone arcade game. Five white buttons, all well-worn and faded to a pale yellow color were mashed with equal force as he fought to keep a rotating spaceship icon from being pulverized by line art asteroids. The game was older than he was but it was still an absolute blast to play and he was seconds from beating Nate’s record score.

“Almost there, Nate. You’re score’s going down!”

Nate ignored him, completely absorbed in his book. The door opened and flooded the room with bright, warm sunlight. A girl stood there in the doorway, looking around. Nate looked up and held his book to shield the sun like some kind of pale vampire. He checked his watch and saw they were close to closing.

“We close in ten.”

The girl tapped her long board and picked it up as she strode inside, door slamming shut behind her. Nate tried to return to his book but his eyes were too dilated from the sunlight to read. He watched the girl strut by wearing torn blue jean shorts and a t-shirt tight enough to see her nipples popping under the cool air conditioning. She wasn’t a kid and she eyed him as she passed by. Nate nodded to her and then fumbled with his book trying to get back into his story.

The girl walked past the table with the teenagers who stared at her like they were straight up looking at the bitch who would flat steal their boyfriends away from them. The girl ignored them and stood behind Joshua, watching him play.

Joshua was too absorbed by his game to look back at her but he soon saw her reflection in the screen and that was enough to cause him to take his fingers off the buttons and turn around. The girl stood about five foot four with straight, bleached blonde hair and a smattering of freckles over her tanned face. Two crystal blue eyes stared back at him, imploring him to stand aside. He did.

She set her long board against the game cabinet trucks up and assumed a gamer stance with her fingers caressing the keys. Joshua slid a coin token into the slot for her and the game cycled through its start routine and she began playing with laser focus.

Joshua watched her play for a moment before looking down at her bare feet. Who rode a skateboard barefoot? Her carefree, beach-babe style was not lost on him and soon even Trip had noticed her from the kitchen. Joshua saw him staring at the new girl with that look he always had when he was completely locked on to someone. She was indeed a looker and she played Asteroids like a boss.

“You’ve played this game before,” Joshua intoned.

She didn’t look away from the screen. “No shit. What do I get for top score?”

Joshua looked over at Trip who had put his phone down and was standing on the other side of the girl. Trip looked over at Nate who was still ignoring everything but his book.

“You beat the high score and you can be in our clan,” Trip said.

Joshua looked exasperated. Trip shrugged.

The game let out a burst of progressively faster beat music as another level went down. She was shredding asteroids like nobody’s business. Her tiny, triangular spaceship was zipping around the black and white screen like crazy, blasting UFO’s and big asteroids into smaller asteroids. By now some of the kids had abandoned their PC games and were loitering around the old arcade game. They were watching her body twist and gyrate as much as the digital slaughter on the screen. Two of the girls at the table got up and left in a huff and soon all the teenage boys were whistling and hollering as the hot blonde chick climbed closer and closer to the top of the list.

Nate continued to ignore the commotion as he got up to flip the open sign over to closed and locked the door. He returned to his chair, still reading the book.

The girl slapped the final shot and the game tilted. She entered one letter and one number as her initial. JØ now held the new highest score in Asteroids. She stood there looking at her score and then slowly looked over at Joshua.

“You’re Jay Zero, the game architect?”

She nodded, her eyes remaining level. Joshua raised an eyebrow. JØ was the gamer name of the most talented programmer he’d ever heard of and up until now, someone he had never seen a picture of and assumed was a guy.

Joshua smiled appreciably at her as Trip started shooing the teenagers out of the place. There were cries of injustice and pleas to stay and watch the gamer chick play. Trip drove them away with a foam Minecraft sword he pulled off the wall. It was an eight bit rendering of a sword and it looked about as threatening as a cartoon. He waved it back and forth at them, batting a few and stabbing others who died dramatically before picking themselves up and brushing past Nate and out the front door.

When the last one had left, he turned around and stared at the blonde chick who had beaten his all time winning score. She smiled at him disarmingly. “GG,” Nate said. It was gamer shorthand for Good Game.

She shrugged like it was nothing and then headed into the nearest gamer cube and turned the chair around backwards, threw a leg over it and sat down. She turned on the PC and flexed her fingers as the computer booted up.

“What do you guys play?”

Trip was the first to respond, pretending to sheath his sword. “We’re on a new FPS space shooter called, Betweos.”

The girl shrugged, “Never heard of it. Something like Halo?”

Joshua leaned over the cube wall and looked down at you. “I’m Joshua, he’s Trip. What’s your name?”

She found the Betweos shortcut on the desktop and double clicked it. After a quick glance at Trip and she said, “Jo.”

“Clan’s name is Devil Dogs,” Trip replied with his best I’m totally into you smile. Jo gave him a sly smile and turned back to the screen.

Trip and Joshua exchanged approving nods while Nate set about shutting down the other cubes. Jo watched the game boot up with that same focus she had for Asteroids. She breezed through the setup and skipped the tutorial.

“How many members?”

Joshua stepped back and started helping Nate close up the place while Trip hung over the cube wall and talked to his new heartbreak.

“Seems a bit soon to be replacing Teddy,” Nate offered. Joshua’s dark eyebrows narrowed. It didn’t feel right to him either.

“We’ll poll the team tomorrow. In the meantime, can’t hurt to see what she can do.”

Nate nodded, looking over at Jo and Trip. “I’m heading upstairs. You kids lock the door on your way out.”

He handed Joshua the broom and got a drink from the fridge before grabbing the money box and starting up the stairs.

Joshua looked at his watch. It was getting close to seven and he needed to get back home in case Dancia swung by.

“Trip, I’m heading out. Have her run through some levels and see how she does. Jo, good to meet you. Our next tournament is right here, tomorrow at noon.”

Jo sat back and waved to Joshua as he left. “I’ll be here.”

Trip grabbed a chair and scooted it closer to Jo. She turned to face him and he got a good look at her sultry eyes. “I’m starving. Got anything to eat in this man cave?”

Trip laughed. “I can order a pizza or something.”

Jo smiled playfully. “Pizza would be awesome.”

Then she turned back to the game and all but ignored him as she started fragging four armed bug soldiers. Trip pulled out his iPhone and called the local pizzeria. The night was suddenly looking very interesting.

// ----------------------- //

Joshua’s place was anything but normal for someone of his age. It was an upper level studio in the Aspen Lofts condominiums on Front street. When his parents died in a tragic car accident, he inherited an abnormally large estate that included several corporations and a mansion in the foothills. He liquidated the company assets, sold the family home and bought the Lofts condo. When all was said and done, kept the family cabin in McCall and his father’s classic car and airplane. Some things held more sentimental value for him than others.

He took a job at RegTech one of the largest high tech firms in the Treasure Valley and managed to keep busy in his spare time with random software projects he collaborated on with other programmers from all over the world. His latest project was winding down and he started tinkering with the idea of building his own VR game. Which his how he knew who Jo was when she entered her hacker handle initials on the Asteroids console.

Jay Zero was her full written handle which is why he always thought she was a guy. In fact, looking back over his chat sessions he realized that he had even spoken with her about some esoteric Java language quirk months ago. He thought about what she looked like and shook his head as he sat back in his high-back swivel chair at his home computer.

The condo basically had no walls that didn’t share a glass wall that looked out onto the city and the surrounding foothills. It was narrow but the views were pretty awesome year round. Joshua’s bedroom had a desk that faced the Front street with wrap around duel monitors and that were placed lower than usual so that he could look out at ridiculously expensive view.

The setting sun was behind his building and the magic hour light bathed the brown foothills and the sandstone capital dome in soft orange hues. Windows on the homes nestled in the foothills reflected the setting sun as the city lights began to wink on below. Joshua stared at the view and thought about his friend Teddy.

He’d never had a friend that he knew in person die before. It left an empty space inside that was hard to not notice. Dancia’s best friend, Melina, had known Teddy since they were in grade school. She must have been devastated, which probably explained why Dancia hadn’t shown up yet after nine in the evening.

Joshua heard his stomach growling and decided to get up and do something about it. He stood up and stretched. A tiny chat window popped up on his screen with a knocking sound. It was Trip.

Hey man, that new chick is a baller.

She designs games, man. How many levels did she play?

Five, in like an thirty minutes.

You guys still at Mashers?

Nope. She just left, I’m back home. She didn’t let me drive her home. Just took off on her board towards the school. Joshua sat back and steepled his fingers, elbows on his armrests.

She didn’t mention where she lived?

Nope. Dude, I was putting out the vibes and she wasn’t buying it. I didn’t want to push it, you know?

Joshua smiled. Trip was always falling for girls out of his league. This one was probably out of everyone’s league.

Just back off for a while, she’ll come around. ;-)

There was a long pause and Joshua started to get back up again.

I’m missing Teddy, man. Shit ain’t right.

Joshua sat down on the edge of this chair and started typing on his Corsair mechanical keyboard. The click-clack of the keys were the only sound in the room.

I miss him too. See you tomorrow.

He waited for a moment to see if Trip was going to keep typing. A buzzer sounded, startling him by breaking the silence like a plane of glass shattering. Joshua got up and headed to his intercom to let Dancia in.

// ----------------------- //

Dancia looked as tired and drained as he felt when she came through the breezeway and into his condo. She wrapped her arms around him and they stood in a hug for a long while. Then she kissed him and moved to the fridge. Joshua’s kitchen was along one of the inner walls opposite the glass windows. Dancia dug around until she found a container of cottage cheese and a can of peaches.

Joshua watched her fix herself a bowl after she offered him some and he refused. He wasn’t hungry. “Melina was pretty crushed by the news.”

“I can imagine. Didn’t they know each other back to grade school or something?”

“Yup. He was like a brother to her,” Dancia said, putting away the containers and taking her glass bowl to the windows that looked out on the city and Front street. She ate the cottage cheese and watched the cars go by below.

Joshua sat down on the black leather couch and stretched out in a yawn.

“Oh, I think we may have a new clan member for tomorrow’s game.”

Dancia looked over at him as she chewed. “Seems a bit soon, doesn’t it?” Joshua shrugged. “You’ll never guess who it is.”

Dancia rolled her eyes and looked back out the window past her own reflection.

“Are you familiar with the hacker alias – JayZero?”

Dancia took a bite of peaches and thought about it for a moment. Joshua was about to say something when she turned to him and pointed her spoon. “Wait, he’s that dude who makes his own games, right?”

Joshua nodded. “Except he’s not a dude, he’s a girl.”

Dancia was intrigued. She came back to the couch to hear more.

“JayZero is short for Jo, as in Josephine, I’m guessing. Anyway, she showed up at Mashers last night and flat beat Nate’s score on Asteroids.”

Dancia stopped chewing for a moment. “No one’s ever gotten close to his score?”

“I know right? She did it in like fifteen minutes. I stood there and watched her do it. She’s a button mashing freak.”

It was obvious he was impressed with the girl. Dancia immediately felt a tinge of jealousy. “This Jo chick was a some kind of wall flower, right? I mean, glasses and a pocket protector?”

Joshua laughed. “Actually, she’s pretty hot. Trip’s already been after her. Although in typical form, he was soundly rejected.”

Dancia scraped around the bowl with her spoon, finishing every last curd. She handed him her dirty bowl. “I’ll have to meet her. I can’t have you nerds drooling over anyone but me in this clan.” She smiled back at him as he took the bowl from her.

Chapter 5

Game day.

Mashers was closed on Sundays, so anyone coming for the game entered the house through the side door. The door is kept locked, so you have to buzz to be let in. Dancia and Joshua arrived early in his silver Porsche 356 convertible. Steve’s big black Dodge, Pete’s vette and Chris’s bike were already parked in the long driveway that extended into the backyard. Dancia wore a black t-shirt with the Atari logo on it and black jeans with slip ons. Joshua sported a Star Wars T-shirt and distressed jeans. Both wore dark shades to shield their eyes from the glaring midday sun. It was important to be comfortable while gaming in a tournament and consequently nobody dressed up for the event.

Dancia pushed the door bell and waited. She held a homemade salad in a plastic box because pizza wasn’t her thing and had her laptop in a messenger bag around her neck. Joshua lifted his shades and looked around the yard as they waited for someone to let them in. The neighborhood was typically quiet as most people were either still in church or still in bed. Nate’s VW micro bus was parked across the street with it’s faded blue sides and white roof. It was an early model with split windows and baggage rack across the roof.

Nate opened the door and through out his arms to hug Danica. She obliged him and let herself in. Joshua held out his arm for a hug and Nate just winked at him and left him hanging. Joshua shrugged and shut the door behind him. Inside, Depeche Mode was pumping too loud to hear anyone talking unless you were inches from their faces. Dancia came into the kitchen area and put her salad in the fridge. Pete came into the narrow area and frowned at her. This caused Dancia to wrap her arms around his neck and hug him. “How’s Melina doing?” Pete asked. Dancia let go of him and frowned out of the side of her mouth. “Not so good.”

Pete tried to cheer her up by pretending he was playing the song with an air guitar. Dancia patted him on the shoulder and moved to the round table. Laptops were already plugged in to a power strip strewn out in the center of the table. She looked around for Steve and didn’t see him. “Where’s SUMAT?” she asked with a clearly snobby tone.

Nate came back through the main room, gliding to the music. “He’s in the can, man.”

Right on cue there was a flush from the only bathroom and Steve came out adjusting his pants under his protruding belly. Dancia nodded at him and he nodded back before taking a seat in his favorite cube. Of all the guys in the clan, he was the only one she really didn’t get along with. They clashed on just about everything from politics to game play. Steve was a straight up jerk to women. His gamer name was SUMAT (Shut Up Men Are Talking). Which really said it all in Dancia’s opinion. He was the only member who voted against adding her to the clan and she never forgot it.

Joshua set his shades on the table where Dancia was setting up her System76 laptop. She leaned over to talk in his ear. “Does Steve know about Jo?” Joshua smiled and shook his head as he sat down and got ready for the fireworks to start.

The front door buzzer rang and somehow, Nate could hear it over the bass line of the music. He went to the door and undid the latch to open it a crack. It was Jo, wearing a sun dress and no shoes, long board in her hand. Nate didn’t recognize her and said, “Sorry kid, we’re closed Sunday.”

He shut the door and started to walk away before Jo pounded solidly on the door. He turned around, opened the door and looked down at her again. She took off her aviator shades and gave him an evil eye He fained surprise and then opened the door. “Sorry, didn’t recognize you.” He pointed at her and paused a moment then said, “Jo, right?”

Jo walked past him and in to the dark arcade, sunlight filtering through her dress.

Every guy in the room looked and dropped their jaws. It was clear she wasn’t wearing anything under the white dress. Nate shut the door and the affect was over before anyone could recover.

“What’s up nerds? I’m Jo.”

Joshua looked back to Dancia who’s mouth was agape too. She closed her mouth and raised an eyebrow. Steve turned around to look at Trip who was standing in front of his regular cube. Trip smiled, overtly pleased to see Jo again.

Steve cleared his throat. “Who the hell is that?”

Trip scooted past ignoring him completely. Joshua and Dancia exchanged knowing looks. Here it comes. Steve looked back to Nate who was ignoring the Trip/Jo reunion.

Pete slid back to the sound mixing controls near the kitchen and turned down the music right when Steve loudly declared, “Who the hell is she?”

Jo and Trip both turned to face Steve who didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by the shout. “Steve, cool you jets, man. This is Jo, she joined yesterday. She’s taking Teddy’s spot today.”

Steve threw up his hands and stood up.

“Don’t we get voting rights for new fucking members anymore?”

Nate moved silently behind Trip and Jo like he was trying to tip toe out of site.

Trip held up his hands in an effort to passively defuse the situation.

“Dude, she beat Nate’s Asteroid record and then proceeded to level up to five against the Betweos AI last night. I think that earns her the right to play today.”

Steve was already starting to sweat from his forehead. He looked down at Joshua who held up his hands innocently. “It’s true about Nate’s score. I saw her do it.”

Steve glared at Dancia who’s eyes started to grow in self defense.

“I’ve never met her, don’t even look at me,” Dancia stated.

Steve pointed over at Pete who stayed at the back of the room as if he were too afraid to come closer. “What the fuck, man?”

Trip glanced quickly at Joshua who shrugged then he looked back at Steve.

“She beat Nate’s score, I say that earns her the right to try out, man.” Trip said.

Steve was not backing down. You could see the veins on his forehead growing as his blood pressure rose.

Finally Joshua stepped in to back up Trip. “Give her a shot, Steve. Who knows, she might be better than any of us.”

Steve shook his head and looked around at everyone in the room. “Let’s hope she’s better than Teddy.”

It was a dick move and Dancia’s icy stare let him know it. Joshua put his hand on her arm to keep her from saying or doing anything more.

The side door buzzer rang and Nate slid out to answer it. It was Van and Chris, both of them toting laptops the size of suitcases. Nate put a finger to his lips and told them to watch out, Steve was raging inside. Chris smiled devilishly. He loved fucking with Steve. But Van seemed almost scared as he followed the other two into the house. Van was the most button down guy in the clan. He was actually a small claims attorney and he usually wore a collared shirt and khaki’s to the games. Chris meanwhile, reveled in his sloppy shorts and wrinkled Weezer t-shirt and black Cons.

The main room was still quiet as a tomb as Chris set his laptop next to Dancia’s and noticed the hot blonde beside Trip. He immediately went around the table to introduce himself.

“Hey, I’m Chris.”

Jo shook his hand. “Jo.”

Chris looked over at Steve who was still plenty red in the face with anger. “What’s up Stevie? You look like a woman pissed in your Wheaties.”

Dancia couldn’t help herself, she burst out in laughter. Jo and her locked eyes with her and there was a silent Girl Power moment between them.

“Shut the fuck up, Chris. Trip’s trying to let this chippy play for Teddy?”

Chris looked back at Jo who shrugged innocently. “Nice!”

“So what’s the dealio, big guy? You afraid she’s going to out play you?”

Steve knew Chris was messing with him and he took a deep breath to calm himself down. Chris looked around the room. “Let’s vote on it then. All in favor of letting Jo here join the clan, raise your hand.”

Steve silently fumed as everyone’s hand raised.

“Okay then, welcome to the clan,” Chris said and hands went back down.

Chris went back to the kitchen as everyone started to slowly gather around the main table for a pre-game strategy session. The door bell rang again and Nate scooted over to answer it.

“Ah, just in time for food,” Van said to nobody in particular as he edged around to introduce himself to Jo.

“Hi, I’m Van. Nice to meet you.”

Jo shook his clammy hand. “Nice to meet you Van, I’m an ogre, apparently.” Van shook his head, “No, not at all. That actually went better than the last time a girl joined our team.”

Jo looked at Dancia who stood up to shake her hand next.

“He’s right, Steve damn near shot me when I joined.”

Jo tilted her head in surprise, not entirely sure Dancia was being straight with her.

“Oh, I’m just kidding. He’s not allowed to pack at games anymore. Right, SUMAT?”

Steve had sat back down with his back to the table. He flipped her a bird. “So, Joshua says you’re a game designer,” Dancia offered.

Jo sat down with Trip on the other side of Joshua. “Yeah, I do a little coding on the side.”

Joshua shook his head. “Don’t let her fool you, she’s a freaking boss coder.”

Jo demurred. Steve turned around and looked right at Jo. “Wait, you’re Jay Zero?”

She raised a tentative hand, “Guilty.”

Steve lifted a dark eyebrow above his black framed glasses. Then he regained his composure and turned a shoulder away from her.

Dancia smiled approvingly. It took her weeks of games to get that kind of respect from Steve. “So who do you work for?” she asked Jo.

“I’m actually more of free lancer now. I house sit in the off season, when I do the most work.”

Dancia continued to be intrigued. “So I take it you work remotely then?”

Jo nodded and pulled back her straight blonde hair. Dancia noticed she was wearing an old Casio calculator watch and no ear rings. Her make-up seemed light if she even wore anything at all.

“Have we played any games you designed?” Van asked.

“Probably. Death Squad Four, Devil’s Realm and Salty Dog.”

Everyone had played Salty Dog a pirate FPS. The game had gone under the radar a few years back but the code was released as Open Source on line and then it became a hit. Especially after coders from all over made their own levels and characters.

“That game’s one of my favorites. I even made my own Jack Black character,” Joshua admitted.

“So you’re a coder then?” Jo asked.

Joshua nodded. “I work for RegTech. Mostly Java and some web stuff.”

Jo seemed impressed but was also keenly aware that Dancia was looking concerned so she asked Trip to get her a soda. Pizza was opened all around and paper plates circulated along with red Solo cups filled with energy drinks or Mountain Dew. Nate tosses a fresh bag of Doritos on the table and that was a hit.

The music was brought up in volume but not blaring this time. Pete pulled out a well used dry erase board and started scribbling objectives on it. Discussion ensued about how to best handle the highest levels of Betweos in order to defeat the bug enemy. Jo mostly just listened and didn’t offer any suggestions. Dancia interrupted only once when they decided to do something she knew was going to get them killed. Her former life in the military often came in handy for gaming. Especially when none of the team members had ever served except for her. Van thanked her for the tip, using her gamer handle of Eniram.

“How long were you in the Corps?” Jo asked.

Dancia looked impressed that she had guessed which branch she had served. Not that it wasn’t too big of secret if you could spell backwards, but most people never thought to do that.

“Just one enlistment. They couldn’t guarantee me a job in Cyber Command so I told them to stick it and went back to school.”

“What’s your major?”

“It was Comp Sci. I dabble in database design on the side.”

“She’s a horrible Admin,” Steve butted in.

Dancia just frowned and continued. “PostgreSQL and when pressed, MySQL.”

Jo seemed interested but Nate changed the topic. “Okay, no more techy talk. What team is Jo going to be on?”

The team was divided into three squads of three for a total of nine players. Alpha Squad consisted of Joshua, Dancia and Trip; Bravo Squad was Nate, Van and Teddy; Charlie Squad with Steve, Chris and Pete.

“I say she can play in Ruxpin’s place. He mostly sucked so that team needs more help,” Steve offered. He had turned around to face the table to eat his all meat pizza.

Jo smiled upon hearing Teddy’s gamer name for the first time. Teddy Ruxpin was a well known animatronic toy bear that read kid’s books. It was also creepy as hell for kids and even some adults.

“I’m cool with anywhere you put me, guys,” Jo said.

Steve looked at her and almost told her to shut up, but stuffed pizza in his mouth instead. He chewed loudly, smacking his lips because he just didn’t care about manners.

Everyone else agreed that Jo could take Teddy’s spot. They finished up eating and started moving into their gaming positions. There were only six cubicles available so a few of them played on beefed up laptops with headphones and mice attached. Joshua used a MacBook Pro with a high end headset. Dancia ran a Windows 10 VM on her beast-mode lappy with Ubuntu. Nate was the only other one on a laptop and his was an HP gamer model running Windows 10. Everyone else was in a cubical on Windows 10 machines.

Most high end games ran on PC’s with beefed up graphics cards and over-clocked CPU’s. The gamer cube’s had liquid cooling and high end specs that the average gamer couldn’t afford. There was some advantages to owning an arcade business and being able to afford six amazing gaming rigs was one of them. Just about all the profits from Mashers went back into the machines. He was staffed by volunteers and he had very little overhead, save for enormous power and high speed Internet bills.

Nate dimmed the lights and turned the music down. He switched it to techno with no lyrics. The steady, rhythmic beats helped maintain background ambiance that brought a level of urgency to the game play while not being invasive. They had to keep it low so that everyone could hear each other in the game. Keyboards glowed, monitors flickered and the music drove on as the players all logged onto Betweos.

They never used their real names while playing other groups on-line. Joshua’s gamer name was Cap after the Marvel do-gooder, Captain America and he was the team captain. Dancia’s was Eniram, Trip’s was Krzysztof after his favorite Polish director.

Bravo Squad consisted of Nate – Chul, after his favorite Korean Starcraft gamer, Jang “MC” Min Chul, Van’s was Helsing, and Jo’s became JayZero. Charlie Squad was Steve – SUMAT, Pete was Dead Vette and Chris’s name was taken from the bike he always rode – Yeti.

Their team name was Niner. Not that creative, but then they were mostly just friends who liked to game together. Not all of them were tech geeks and they never played in tournaments for money. It was just a fun hobby to most of them with the possible exception of Steve who seemed to take each loss more personally than anyone else. That was just Steve being Steve.

Chapter 6

The players materialized in a lunar gray trench somewhere on Betwi-One, the first moon where they battle the enemy bug soldiers known as the Acheron Army. The players all belonged to the human forces in the game known as the Elysian Army. They wore gray and light blue colored armored battle suit.

Betwi-One was modeled after the Earth’s moon and everyone's armor was quickly covered in the fine gray regolith dust of the moon’s surface. Each player carried a plasma rifle and six grenades. The squad leaders all carried something bigger, that Eniram refereed to as a SAW or Squad Automatic Weapon. It was essentially a more powerful plasma cannon and it made minced meat out of the enemy.

The team leads were Joshua, Nate and Steve. Each time they generated in a new level, the leads launched into a pre-planned series of maneuvers designed to spread them out and penetrate the bug army’s defenses. The game was a futuristic version of trench warfare from WWI. Players had to form raiding parties and launch over the top of the trench walls to attack the enemy bugs being controlled by the game’s AI.

Attrition was high just getting out of the trenches. Nate’s team was selected to go first, because both Van and Jo were newbs and would probably be killed. True to form, Van went down and then Jo before Charlie Squad could climb over them and press their attack across open ground. Steve’s squad was obliterated too but Joshua’s Alpha squad managed to get Dancia and Trip into the enemy trench. There they too died under a massive swarm of enemy bugs. End of Round One. Acheron Army nine, Elysian Army Zero.

The game regenerated them in the trench where they died after a short animated intermission in which the Acheron Army gloated about how puny the human soldiers were. Hands were quickly wiped on pant legs and knuckled cracked before gripping their controllers for the next round.

The Acheron bug soldiers had four arms and clamshell heads covered with sensors and weapons. It took a typical Elysian soldier many tries to just take one of the bugs down. The team had played this game enough times now to have devised some rudimentary game play tactics. The lead and the number two team member both laid down fire at a single enemy solider while the third squad member covered them. It usually took about ten seconds of constant firing to kill a bug and move on.

Nate dictated who they fired at with his huge SAW. Van backed him up as the number two man and Jo stood over them and protecting them and warning of new attacks. Joshua’s squad easily took down two enemy bugs before Nate’s team got one. Behind them, Steve’s squad advanced, concentrating their fire on the next line of bugs. This time they all managed to live long enough to kill their way down the trench and enter a subterranean tunnel.

No enemy awaited them there and the squads gathered around, looking at their player avatars breathing heavy. Joshua directed them down a tunnel he hoped lead to a boss cave but when his squad entered the cavernous room, they were hit by a series of devastating blasts that took them out of the game. Joshua and Dancia immediately stood up and got over the shoulders of Van and Jo. Trip did the same to Steve who didn’t protest like he usually did.

The action seemed to intensify as Nate’s team ran down the dark corridors, blasting away at a new stream of advancing bug soldiers.

“Nate, go right. Nobody’s tried that yet,” Joshua hinted.

“Got it,” Nate replied.

His squad headed down a dim corridor with no enemy bugs pursuing them. Meanwhile, back in the main tunnel, Steve’s squad started to get decimated. Angry at Nate for leaving the group, Steve started swearing as Chris and Pete were quickly killed and after a long death scream, Steve’s avatar was blown away into smaller bloody chunks.

Steve ripped off his headset and turned to look at Jo’s screen as Nate’s team was the only ones left alive. “Dammit Nate, you better not Leeroy this!”

Nate laughed maniacally as his team rounded a corner into a larger area, filled to the brim with bug soldiers. Jo screamed, “Leeeeeroy, Jenkins!” as her character shot a steady stream into the cavern. They all opened up and managed to kill half a dozen bugs before they were all killed off, ending the round for everyone expect for Van.

His character had fallen forward and had made it’s way under the dead carcases of several bugs. Van was still alive! The others gathered around Van’s screen, vying for a chance to see what he saw. Van wiggled his way up through the bodies until he could see around the room. Bug soldiers were walking around with their laser guns at the ready, looking for survivors. “Holy shit, they don’t see him!” Steve exclaimed.

“Dude, you may have found a glitch. Stay there, see if the AI’s notice you,” Joshua said.

Van shrugged and just looked round. He tried to raise his weapon but Dancia stopped his hand on the control. “Wait, they’re bugging out.”

Van grinned at the unintended pun, “Nice one.”

A door opened and they all filed out of the room. Soon he was the only one left. Van climbed on top of the bodies and scanned the room.

“This is how you level up. Van, see if you can get through that door,” Trip suggested.

Van’s avatar ran into the door and it didn’t move. He slapped at the controls and nothing happened.

“Take an arm from one of the bodies and use it,” Jo suggested. Dancia, Trip and Nate all looked at Jo with raised brows.

“Do it,” Nate said.

Van took a bug arm and slapped the control with its hand and the door opened. Jo and Trip slapped high fives behind Van. Steve leaned in over Van’s shoulder and said in a low voice, “Lock and load.”

Van nodded and recharged his laser canon before moving into the new room. He made it a few paces before one of the bug soldiers across the room noticed him and started shooting. Panicking, Van started running around the room shooting blindly, his finger tapping the trigger button with vigor. But it was no use. He was quickly taken down and the round came to an end.

The game level ended and everyone’s console flashed, “GAME OVER”.

The room was silent but everyone turned to look at Van. He had discovered a way to the next level and then died in a panic like some kind of newb. Van shrunk in his chair under the icy glares.

The game usually lasted much longer than that, but they had been playing in a tournament and if they all died before making it to the next level, they were out. Game, set and match.

“What a buzz-kill man,” Nate said out loud.

Steve got up and started collecting his things, tossing around his bag like a petulant child. The others didn’t disguise their anger with having been booted out of the tournament. Everyone started packing up their things and leaving. Van just sat there, staring at his laptop.

Dancia patted his back, the only one who showed Van any compassion at all. Jo pulled out her cellphone and started typing away on it with her thumbs, walking away from the group for some privacy. Trip seemed to keep his eye on her as he cleaned up the pizza boxes and paper plates. When she put her phone down he moved over to her.

“Got any plans this afternoon?”

Jo squinted and shook her head. “I’ve got some work to do, sport.”

Trip nodded and tried to act like that was cool, he was busy anyway.

Jo approached Dancia as she was folding down her laptop.

“Busy?”

Dancia shrugged.

“I want to show you a game I’ve been working on. Beat the crap out of this,” she indicated the game still up on Van’s laptop.

Dancia seemed intrigued as she looked the blue-eyed beauty in the eye.

Joshua had said Jo was some kind of game designer, so this was a chance to check out her work. Dancia smiled politely. “Okay.”

// ----------------------- //

Joshua took her laptop back to his place and Dancia walked beside Jo down the shady street past Boise High. Jo seemed completely at ease on her long board as the wheels tapped the cracks of the sidewalk.

“Where do you live?” Dancia asked, after they turned away from the school and into the old residential areas of the North End.

“I live in other people’s homes during the summer. House sitting.”

“Ah, you’re a cuckoo bird,” Dancia said.

Jo stopped skating and looked at Dancia curiously. “You’ve read Cliff Stoll?”

Dancia waved her hand, “One of Joshua’s favorite reads. He made me read it when we first started going out. It was really a love story cloaked in tech shit.”

“Right?”

Jo started moving again. “Do you code?”

“Only if I have to. I’m a DBA girl.”

Jo didn’t seem that impressed, but then not most people weren't. Database admins were a breed among themselves in the tech world. Good ones were worth their weight in gold, but most developers didn’t think they were quite as valuable because every dev knew how to write database calls. They walked in silence for a while until Jo spoke again.

“How long have you and Joshua been an item?"

“A few years. I’m not sure if he’s the one yet, but we seem to be pretty comfortable for the moment.”

“Where does he work?”

“Reg-Tech, over on Chinden. He doesn’t actually have to work, he’s pretty loaded. But I think he’d go crazy if he didn’t do something with his time. Rough life, huh?”

Jo laughed. “Shit, I’m a ski instructor in the winter months and house sit in the off season. Everything I own can fit in my FJ.”

Dancia got the feeling Jo was a bit of a minimalist in just about everything. They finally came to a decent looking home in the North End with a rusted out blue Toyota FJ in the driveway looking out of place. Jo walked bare foot up to the front door and entered the code that opened the door. Dancia noticed a surveillance camera above them as they entered the home.

“Take your shoes off here, I like to make sure the house isn’t disturbed while I’m in it. Less I have to clean it before the owners return.” Dancia slipped out of her Cons and followed Jo up a winding staircase to the second floor. Lights seemed to pop on as they entered the master bedroom. There was a card table set up facing a picture window that looked out at the backyard. Sheer curtains were pulled back and Dancia could see a lap pool in the modest sized backyard.

Jo sat down on a simple folded chair at her computer. It was a laptop plugged into a dock and attached to a thirty-seven inch HP curved flat panel screen. She had one of those noisy hacker keyboards that lit up in different colors and a trackball mouse. Her laptop was a MacBook Pro of some kind. But she was clearly not running Mac OS. It looked like some Linux variant that Dancia had never seen with a dark theme.

There were so many distros of Linux, nobody could know them all these days. Dancia used a flavor of Ubuntu on her System76 laptop called Pop OS while Joshua was still on Ubuntu.

“What distro are you using?”

“Arch.”

Jo had all kinds of windows open all over the expansive screen. Most of them were terminals or editors. Dancia recognized some familiar Open Source apps that she and Joshua used; GitKraken, Atom and Eclipse. Developer tools that average computer users were totally clueless of.

“I’ve been working on this for a few years but it’s only just been what I’d consider playable,” Jo said as she tapped on the keyboard.

“Do you play it on a computer?”

Jo shook her head. “Nope, you’re phone. Here, install this app.”

She pointed to a browser window that was set to a page with a link to a Android app. Dancia looked at it, noticed it was an secure server but there was no real branding on it. It looked pretty shady to her.

Jo noticed her hesitation. “It’s okay, I’m not asking to collect any data on you. The app is just a client so you can play the game.”

She pulled out her own Android phone and showed it to Dancia. Her app was called VirtuaGamer and it looked pretty boring with no graphics or logos. Just like something a developer would make who didn’t have any design foo. Dancia typed in the URL to her phone and clicked the link. It loaded through the Play Store just like any Android app. The download took a while.

“It’s a big file, lots of graphics drivers and libs. You can delete it afterwards if you want.”

Danica nodded. She looked around the room. The bed was a king size version with beautiful wooden frame. All the furniture was high end and nicely maintained. One side of the bed was undone where Jo probably slept, the rest was untouched. She certainly didn’t like to leave much of a footprint. Her card table was clean too, no papers or devices other than the laptop, the monitor and a phone charger.

The app came up and opened to a staging area. Jo got up and went to a backpack on the floor and pulled out two cardboard phone holders like Google used to give away. They let any phone become a virtual reality screen that you could strap to our head. She put Dancia’s phone inside one and then fitted it to her head. Dancia could read the tiny screen easily. Jo took both of her hands and held them firmly.

“Okay, I want you to sit down. If you log in standing up, you’ll just fall over the first time you turn your head.”

“It’s that immersive?”

“You’ll see.”

Dancia could hear Jo putting on her own phone headgear as she waited.

“Okay, reach up to the top and push your off button on the side of the phone. That will start the game.”

Dancia did as she was told and then watched the loading bar zip across the screen like a giant green arrow. The screen went black and then faded in to a moderately high resolution virtual rendering of the exact bedroom they were in. She could see the table and chair and as she turned to look in Jo’s direction, she saw Jo sitting there crossed legged, wearing her sun dress and no head device.

The avatar looked amazingly real, like a cutaway scene from an old PC game. Dancia held up her arms and they did not look exactly like her arms, but they were female and Caucasian. She slowly panned around the room, looking up at the expensive wooden dresser and vanity across the room. Even the carpet was reasonably realistic. She reached down and patted the floor and her avatar’s hands did the same. Looking down at her lap she saw that she was wearing a red dress.

“A nod to The Matrix. You like it?”

Dancia was a little stunned by the experience. How the hell did she render the room to be exactly like where they were? This was no game, this was some kind of virtual rendering of a real-time environment. Freaking amazing. “How in the fuck did you do this? Is this a real-time rendering?”

Jo’s avatar nodded and smiled. When she spoke, her voice was a half second behind her lip movement.

“It’s better when you have a headset in and you can’t hear my voice in real time, only through the game.”

Dancia started to get up and immediately experienced what used to be known as Doom Motion Sickness. Her inner ear played tricks with her mind and she started to waiver a bit and Jo’s avatar steadied her with a hand on her shoulder which she felt in real life.

“This is fucking trippy, girl.”

“Right?”

Dancia looked across at the mirror and saw herself reflected as a pretty fair version of the blonde girl in the red dress from The Matrix movie. When she smiled, the avatar smiled. Wait, how the hell was that even possible? Nothing is scanning my actual face.

“How is the program recording my movements, my god damn smile, even?”

Jo’s avatar pointed across the room to a tiny device stuck to the wall. Dancia hadn’t noticed it before. “There are sensors around the room and they are looking at us and relaying information about what we look like and what we are doing. Blink twice.”

Dancia did as she was told and a menu appeared to her right. It had two options, a Red pill and a blue pill. Jo was taking that Matrix nod a bit far.

“Look at the blue pill and blink once.”

Nothing changed until she looked back over at the mirror. Her avatar looked exactly like her. Not just the same hair color and style, but it looked enough like her personally to seriously creep Dancia out. She looked back at Jo’s avatar, mouth agape.

“How does it know what I even look like?”

“I’ve been passively recording you since you came into this room. All that information is being rendered in real time to your avatar. It’s like a skin, of your own skin.”

“That’s sick,” Dancia said more in awe than in disgust.

“We can’t leave the bedroom for now. But anywhere we go in this room can be rendered by the program. I can even change the environment to look like just about anywhere.”

Dancia stared at Jo’s avatar and then slowly slipped off her headset. Her eyes took a second to focus on Jo who had taken off hers too. “Dude, this is like freaking Star Trek or something.”

Jo smiled. She got up and typed some commands into a terminal. Then she turned around with a sly grin. “Put the headset back on now.”

Dancia did and the room was gone, replaced by the bridge of the Enterprise from the Next Generation TV show. “Get out of here,” Dancia nearly screamed. She was a huge Star Trek nerd and standing on the bridge was a fantasy she had harbored for years.

She took a step forward to where the dresser was in reality and in the simulation it was the Security Station where Commander Whorf would have stood. She turned her head and looked at the main view screen. It showed a star field sliding by at warp speed. Jo was not in the simulation and the bridge was empty of everyone but her. She reluctantly pulled the headset off again to speak.

“Was that a 3D rendering?”

“Yes. A friend of mine worked on a Star Trek game and gave me the file.” Dancia shook her head and looked over at Jo’s monitor. “So, you must do all your work in the cloud then.”

“Yup, containers are my friends.”

“I didn’t see you’re avatar on the bridge, why was that?”

“That was just a test using my game engine and someone else’s skin, if you will. If I were able to go to the actual set and place my scanners around it, it would be more like the room simulation.”

Dancia popped out her phone and handed the headset back to Jo. She set it on the card table and pointed to the GitKraken window that showed a graphic representation of her game’s code repository. There were more people contributing to the program than just her, represented in the program by tiny icons of their faces.

“How many contributors do you have?”

“Less than five, but I’m the only one working on the engine.”

Dancia stared appreciably at her for a moment. “I’ve never met a female coding genius before.”

Jo replied with zero irony, “Neither have I.”

Chapter 7

The white Prius pulled silently into the driveway and shut down. Van slowly got out and shuffled to his front door. He was still pretty bummed about losing the game and the beers he had consumed at the Ram had left him a little light headed. He unlocked his front door to go inside. An unusual, rustling in the trees off to his left made him look that way. But he didn't see anything odd and quickly went inside and locked the door. Walking through his condo he set his briefcase down on the table and stood looking out the back sliding glass doors that offered a view of the slow moving Boise river. He waited patiently for a riverside unit and now absolutely loved living literally on the Green Belt trail, riverside. If he opened his windows at night, he could even hear the river when it was fast moving in the Spring.

Something that sounded like a vicious cat fight was going on in the thicket across the bike and jogging trail. There were frequently wild animals passing through along the river on the public sidewalk. He wondered if it were just domestic cats tangling. He undid the block of wood that blocked his door from sliding, unlocked it, slid aside the glass and screen doors and stepped out onto his wooden porch. Peering into the dim moonlight, he couldn't see anything and the noise he made coming outside was not enough to stop the fight.

He twisted on the tiny pocket light from his key chain and walked across the dimly lit jogging trail. The sound seemed to get louder as he approached and he started thinking maybe he shouldn't try and break it up. But he had to try, he was too much of an animal lover to let nature run it's course.

The thickets rattled back and forth as the cats traded blows with their claws and screamed like banshees. The fight stopped suddenly and then Van heard music drifting down the Green Belt as if from someone's phone speaker. It was an old Elvis song, he recognized the drum beat and bass strums as it got louder - Devil In Disguise.

Van stopped and listened as the music got louder. He thought he heard footsteps approaching. Pushing his glasses onto his nose he turned around squinting to see up the dark trail. That's when the knife appeared, a glistening silver streak by the blue tinted glow of his flashlight. He felt the blade cut into his neck and the hot blood flow down onto his white dress shirt. Thoughts about how to remove the stains mixed with fear and then dread as he fell to the damp grass clutching his throat. The light and his keys hit the pavement with a clatter.

A figure lingered over him but all he could see was the kitchen knife stabbing him over and over until his life faded away into the dark night.

// ----------------------- //

A black patrol car eased to a stop at the end of the street like a prowling panther. Two Boise PD officers got out and activated their Mag flashlights. There didn't seem to be any signs of foul play from the front of the condo. A thin man dressed in jogging shorts and a sweat stained tank top came through the weeds in the direction of the Green Belt behind the condominium. His hands were up and he looked peeked.

"Over here, officers. I'm the one who called."

Sergeant McReed shined her light over the man and then behind, where he had come. She nodded to her partner, a young, wide eyed kid named Givens. It was his first week on the night shift and only something like his first month in uniform. McReed followed the jogger to the pedestrian trail popular with fitness minded citizens.

"I was just on my normal nightly jog and I damn near tripped on him," the man said, pointing to the body on the ground near the tree line on the river side of the trail.

"Givens, take the gentleman's statement over there. I'll handle this."

Givens looked over at the body and swallowed hard. He took out his notebook and guided the jogger over under a street light nearby. As he was about to ask his first question he noticed the back sliding door was open in the last condo of the street. "Hey, Sarge. Back door is open over there. Could be where the victim lived."

She waved her acknowledgement and keyed her radio to report the death. The body was on it's back and covered with blood. Keys and a still burning flashlight were on the pavement nearby. She kept her distance as she spoke on the radio. Crime scenes needed to be blocked off, not messed with. She took out a roll of yellow crime scene tape to block off the trail to keep other people from running through the scene. Who the hell would be jogging after midnight on a Sunday, she thought. Obviously, at least one fitness nut.

// ----------------------- //

Detective Plait arrived on the scene about ten minutes later. By that time another patrol car with flashing lights was parked in the dead end and the place was crawling with crime scene investigators. Plait made his way to the Green Belt and was met by Sergeant McReed. "Good morning, Detective. Deja-view, eh?"

Plait nodded politely but didn't say anything, moving past her to the body, now covered with a tarp. The Medical Examiner was on his way to the scene but Plait had to see the wounds for himself. He pulled up the tarp and shined his pocket light on the victim. He was a young professional looked to be in his mid to late twenties with his throat slit open and multiple stab wounds in his upper body. Just like that kid on Friday night in Freak Alley.

Plait checked the man's back pockets and found a wallet. He pulled it out and flipped it open to the driver's license. Van Ledderman, address the same as the end condo unit. Plait took out his notepad and checked the list of names from the gamers at Mashers. Yup, he was one of them. Shit, we got a serial.

Plait shined his light down the trail and the darkness suffocated the LED light. He took off down the trail a bit after ducking under the yellow tape that McReed had set up around the body. The Green Belt trail curved to the right after passing by a dirt parking area. Plait glanced back to the body at the far edge of the condo units. He learned early on in his career to think like a criminal when trying to evaluate crime scenes.

If the murderer was waiting to kill the victim in this dark stretch of the Greenbelt, he could have parked at the MK Nature Center parking lot or further down. Plait called over Sergeant McReed.

"I'm going for a short walk down the trail, let me know when the Medical Examiner arrives," Plait said, his arm patting her on the back. She nodded, looking down the darkened path. "I'll have dispatch call your cell."

Plait smiled, "Perfect."

Then he headed off down the Greenbelt alone, his flashlight skipping all around ahead and to the side as he walked. There was an entrance to the MK Nature Center just off the trail and further down, a path to the Walnut Street parking lot. Plait knew this area pretty good from attending field trips with his son's elementary school. He wandered further down the trail, keeping an eye on his watch to understand how long it would take to walk the trail from where the victim was found.

Just a short ways further was another road, this one dirt . They were the only two entrances to Kristin Armstrong Park. If the killer was trying not to be seen, he might have parked in the dirt lot and not been seen by anyone from the park or in nearby houses. Plait stepped off the trail and stood in the dirt parking lot, fumbling with his pants pocket to pull out an empty sandwich bag. He got to his knees and scooped up some dirt into the bag.

His cell phone went off in vibrate mode and he pulled it out. It was Dispatch alerting him to the arrival of the Medical Examiner and an ambulance to the scene.

Chapter 8

Joshua tossed and turned in his bed his skin moist with perspiration. Subconsciously he kicked off his sheets as he waked with a start from the horrible nightmare. The sky above the city was an eerie blue-green color. It was never completely dark in his room and he was okay with that. A feature of his apartment in his eyes. Even his computer monitor was on with a screen saver spinning lines of code inside and out in colorful fonts.

His nightmares were never very far away and often left him awake at odd hours of the night. Once awake, he usually couldn’t get back to sleep and just sat at his computer reading Reddit or Twitter.

He hadn’t gotten out of bed yet before the front door buzzer went off. Despite being awake, it still startled him. The only one who came to his apartment at odd hours of the night was Dancia, but that was back when she pulled night shifts. She had a regular day job now and rarely came over unannounced.

He got up and padded to the front door, scratching the butt of his black compression underwear. He could see a male figure standing in the outer entrance and didn’t recognize him.

“Who is it?” he asked groggily.

“Detective Plait. There’s been another murder.”

Joshua pushed the release and opened his door as Plait came inside. He looked as tired as Joshua felt.

“Sorry to disturb you, but the victim’s another member of your gamer group.” Joshua shut the door and motioned to the main room for Plait to have a seat. Then he pointed back to his room. “Excuse me, I’ll just grab some clothes.”

Plait nodded and plopped down onto a leather couch to look out at the city while he waited. Joshua came back wearing black jeans and a plain black t-shirt. He looked at Plait with dread and anticipation as he sat down in a chair opposite the detective. "Who was it?" Joshua cautiously asked.

“A one Mr. Van Ledderman was found dead outside his condo about an hour ago.”

Joshua shook his head and swore. “Damn, this is insane!”

Plait agreed, flipping over his notepad. “Cause of death was multiple stab wounds from a kitchen knife.”

“Just like Teddy,” Joshua added. Plait nodded.

“When was the last time you saw Van?”

Joshua grabbed his hair with his hands and pulled it back over his head. It was still damp from sweat. “He was at Mashers with us, playing a game.”

“Did anyone do or say anything during the game that could be disparaging or hurtful to him?”

Joshua laughed uneasily. “You’ve never gamed before, have you?”

Plait shook his head slowly.

“That’s all we do when we play games. If you so much as miss a shot or cause someone else to get fragged, everyone rags on you relentlessly. It’s like trading insults on a basketball court, just part of the fun.”

Plait nodded thoughtfully. “So nothing happened to cause anyone to disparage Van more than anyone else?”

Joshua understood Plait was looking for a motive and the only thing that he could think about was that it meant the killer was someone in the group. He couldn’t believe one of them was capable of murder.

“Actually, now that I think about it. Van was the only one of us who made it to the next level of the game. But then he got stupidly killed before anyone could re-spawn which caused us to be kicked from the tournament. Yeah, nobody was very happy with him after that.”

Plait wrote something in his notebook and then stopped and looked over at Joshua. “Was anyone more upset than the others?”

Joshua honestly couldn’t remember. Everyone was pretty sore with him in the moment, but nobody carried a grudge that he could tell.

“Look, Detective. This is a gamer group. We swear at each other, holler at each other and make all kinds of obscene insults in the heat of battle. But it’s all done in good fun. Nobody truly hates anyone in the group. I mean, we’ve been gaming with the same group of people for years and nobody’s ever gotten so pissed that they started killing fellow members before.”

Plate looked over at him with a deadly serious expression on his tired face. “Until now.”

Joshua had no response for that. It certainly looked as if someone in the group had gone off the deep end and was killing them. But who? Who could be that heartless and cruel?

“I’ve known everyone in this group for years except for one.”

Plait leaned in, interested.

“The new girl, Jo.”

Plait’s dark eyes narrowed a bit and then he opened his notepad and jotted something down. “Jo? Have I met this woman? What’s her last name?”

“No. She joined the team just yesterday in place of Teddy. I honestly don’t even know her last name.” After saying that he realized immediately how bad it sounded.

Plat sat back and stared at Joshua for a moment. Both men were probably thinking the same thing. She was an obvious suspect. Maybe a bit too obvious.

“Had anyone ever heard of her before Teddy was killed? Was she recommended by anyone in the group?”

Joshua shook his head slowly. “She just showed up late Saturday afternoon and started playing Asteroids. When she beat the high score, she gathered some interest from Trip and I. Turned out she was a game designer who I for one, had heard of.”

“Explain.”

“I frequent all kinds of coding forums on line. It’s how I keep up with who’s who and what is being done in the business. Anyway, I’ve read about this crack coder named JayZero who wrote some of the best most innovative FPS’s ever made. But I though he was a guy.”

Plait winced and then sat up in the leather chair more to stay awake than anything. He motioned for Joshua to continue.

“When she entered her initials into the game, she typed a J and the number zero. That was the handle, JayZero used and it triggered me to ask if she was The JayZero the game designer. When she said she was, I was floored. I mean, I just assumed he was a guy, you know?”

Plait nodded.

“Did she show you some form of ID? I mean, she could have been lying about being this coder person.”

Joshua shook his head in embarrassment. “That never occurred to me.” Plait rolled his eyes. “Are all programmers this trusting?”

“You mean naive? No, just me, I guess.”

Plait jotted something down again as Joshua looked out to the city lights. He wanted to kick himself for being so damn foolish. It could have cost Van his life. Then he remembered that Dancia had followed Jo back home to see something she was working on.

“Oh, shit! Dancia went back to Jo’s house after the game. I haven’t heard anything from her since.”

Joshua pulled out his phone and slid his finger across the screen to open it. He punched her number up and waited for her to answer. It was just past three in the morning. The phone rang a few times before she answered.

“Hey, it’s me.”

“I know, what do you want? It’s the middle of the night.”

Joshua suddenly felt stupid again. Plait waved at him. “Ask her where Jo lives?”

“Um, didn’t you go to Jo’s place after the game?”

Dancia breathed heavily into the phone and for a moment Joshua though she had fallen back asleep on him. “Yeah,” Dancia said.

“Do you remember where it was, I mean could you find it again?”

“Why?” This time her voice sounded suspicious and less groggy.

Joshua muted his phone. “She wants to know why, I don’t want to tell her about Van in the middle of the night?”

Plait was not sympathetic. “Hand me the phone.”

“Hello, Miss Rivers? This is Detective Bill Plait, Boise PD. Jo is a person of interest in my case and I need to speak to her.”

Dancia stammered a moment before saying, “I, I don’t recall her exact address but I can describe the house. She’s house sitting for someone on Vine street about a block North of Third Avenue. It was a two story Cape Cod about ten times bigger than anything else on the street.”

“Okay, I think I can find it. Sorry to have woke you.”

He handed Joshua back the phone and tried not to listen as he settled her down and hung up. Plait stood up to leave.

“Are you going to her house now?”

Plait shrugged. “I can’t discuss Police business. You understand?”

Joshua nodded but he got the distinct feeling that Plait was either heading straight there or he intended to stake out her place and contact her in the morning. He let Plait out and went back into his bedroom. His mind was going all different directions and he would never be able to get back to sleep now. Someone had killed Van and it looked like that someone was a mysterious five foot tall blonde woman whom nobody really knew anything about. Except for Dancia.

// ----------------------- //

It took Dancia less than ten minutes to get to his place and by then he already had a pot of coffee going and was deep into a multi-tab Google search for anything he could find out about JayZero. There were tracks and trails spattered all around the net for a JayZero user name if you knew where to look. Fortunately, Joshua was well versed in the nerdy corners of the net and was able to find ample evidence of her existence.

She had a private code repository at GitHub and she had an Amazon EC2 account which was a web service for hosting cloud based servers. He knew this because she posted to their forums and just briefly skimming her posts told him she was using lots of computer power for something she was building.

She also had a Spotify account and even had a few public play lists. Joshua fired off one called coding and was pleasantly surprised by the rhythmic techno tracks. She was on Twitter but not on FaceBook or Instagram. Smart girl.

Joshua opened a new browser window but this one was not Firefox or Chrome. It was a Tor browser, designed to mask your movements around the net and make it hard for anyone to track you. Joshua used it for diving into the uncharted waters of the darkest corners of the web. He searched for JayZero and every iteration of the name at known hacker sites and black hat forums.

He also used it to search the local police arrest records in Idaho and all the surrounding western states. He was not just looking for bad white collar deeds but also real world unsolved murders. If Jo were killing his friends, he’d surly find some kind of an arrest record. But his every search came up empty. It was damn near impossible to find someone when you didn’t even know a person’s last name.

Dancia had an RFID key that let her into Joshua’s apartment. She entered unannounced and snagged a large mug of black coffee on her way to his bedroom.

“What’s going on? Where’s Plait?”

Joshua put an arm around her and pulled her to his side. She was wearing a white and pink Hello Kitty sleep shirt with fuzzy pink slippers. Not exactly dressed for public, but then she had half of his closet filled with her own attire so probably figured it was pointless to get dressed. Joshua turned to look up at her. "Do you know Jo's last name?"

Dancia read his screen and could see that he was doing searches for her all over the dark web. She looked down at him, the pale saffron light of the monitor made her fair skin glow. "No."

"There's been another murder."

Dancia stared down at him, her eyes dilated. "Who?"

"Van. Stabbed like Teddy only he was outside his home."

Dancia shed a tear as she put her arms around Joshua. He held onto her as she cried. They had known Van for over four years. He had just wandered into Mashers one afternoon and started playing games with the teenagers. Life as a patent attorney was boring and he loved to escape reality in games.

Dancia rested her head against Joshua's and started reading his browser tabs. "Do you think Jo is the killer?"

Joshua didn't say anything right away and she pulled away enough to look down at him.

"She didn't show up until we lost Teddy and now Van. I mean, we don't really know anything about her."

Dancia stood up and moved towards the full length window. She looked down at the empty street below and leaned against the glass, completely at ease with heights.

"I don't think she's a killer. I spent some time with her yesterday and I find it hard to believe she would kill anyone. Besides, she's come kind of genius or something. She's created her own VR game that allows you to interact with the real world and the game world at the same time. It's pretty freaking amazing."

"Some psychotics are pretty high functioning individuals."

Dancia shook her head. "Whatever. That girl's got mad coding skilz, but she's not a psycho."

Joshua shrugged. "Someone in our group is a killer. If we don't figure out who and soon, one of us could be next."

Chapter 9

Plait pulled along the street and parked in front of the house matching Dancia's description. It was dark and a single vehicle was parked in the driveway. He ran the license plate number on his computer and it came up clean and registered to Josephine E. Thomas and the mailing address was a PO Box. That in itself could be a ding against her.

He got out and walked across the street and into the driveway. The car was an older model blue colored Toyota FJ. He took out his flashlight and shined it on the tires. They were well worn and still had light colored dust on them. He bent down and took out a second sandwich bag, this one had Fritos chip crumbs in it. He used a pocket knife to scrape off the dust from the tire into the bag. He'd let forensics separate the dirt from the chips.

He put away his knife and flashlight and brushed his hand over the hood as he walked quietly up the path to the front door. The engine was slightly warm meaning the car was probably driven in the last hour or two, which definitely coincided with when the murder took place. Not direct evidence, but also not a point in her favor.

There didn't seem to be anything abnormal about the front yard or the door. He considered whether it was prudent to confront the girl at four in the morning but if she were the murderer the time of day wouldn't prevent her from running from a detective.

Sergeant McReed was one street over and behind the house in her Dodge patrol car. She had become his go-to backup person on mid-shift. Plait trusted her to have his back and appreciated her extensive experience as a beat cop.

He pushed the door bell button three times giving each push a good three seconds. The chime was loud enough to be heard outside. Plait stepped back, took out his badge and put his right hand on the grip of his Sig P320 RX, tucked in the holster at the small of his back.

A short female approached the door and flipped on the porch light. Plait winced slightly as his night vision was compromised. The heavy wooden door opened pretty wide to reveal the woman, dressed in a short, bathrobe that she hastily pulled closed. Her eyes were squinting as she looked at him. She sure as hell didn't look like she had been awake long enough to murder someone. One point in her favor.

"Detective Plait, Boise PD. Sorry to disturb you ma'am, but there's been a murder and you're wanted for questioning."

"What? Who was murdered?"

Plait recited the name that from the victim's wallet. "Van Ledderman."

She stared at him like she had no idea who that was. He studied her for a moment before continuing. She was maybe five foot four, dirty blonde hair just past her rounded shoulders. Freckles around the bridge of her nose the only blemish on her sun tanned skin. She didn't seem big enough to have taken down either victim but Plait knew size was rarely a reliable measure when murder was the crime. He's seen small guys take down big guys and plenty of women straight up wreck men twice their size.

"I have two witnesses that place you at Mashers yesterday afternoon."

She continued looking at him like he were crazy. "So?"

"The victim was at that game. I was informed by a mister Joshua Jones that you are new to the gamer team. You were the only person there he didn't know personally so he couldn't vouch for you."

She shook her head. "So that makes me the killer? You better do better than that, Colombo."

Plait motioned to the driveway. "You're car is warm, have you been somewhere this evening?"

Jo looked at him funny and then out to her car. "What? I haven't used it in days. " She opened the door further and stepped outside to walk barefoot over to her car. It was open and she looked inside for a moment before turning to Plait.

"Nothing seems to be missing, but I don't normally keep anything in it."

Plait took out his pocket flashlight and walked around the vehicle looking it over carefully. It had the usual signs of wear that most used cars sported, but nothing seemed out of place or suspicious. "Do you always keep it unlocked?"

Jo nodded sheepishly. "There's nothing in it to steal."

"I suggest you lock it or keep it inside the garage."

"The garage is full of the owner's cars. I'm just house sitting."

"Does anyone else have a key to your car, ma'am?"

Jo shook her head. "No, but it's not too hard to start him if you know what you're doing."

Plait did his best to ignore the comment and took out a business card and handed it to her. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you at this hour, Ms Thomas. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I may be in touch with further questions at a later date."

Jo took the card and gave him a weak smile before heading back inside. Plait waited for her to go inside and listened for the door being locked before heading back to his car. It was going to be a long day ahead. He had to run a background check on everyone in that game and see what connections he could find between the players. This young woman didn't seem to be a cold blooded killer but that certainly didn't rule her out as a suspect. At lease not yet.

// ----------------------- //

Joshua sent an email to his office that he was taking some time off due to a the death of a friend. He followed Dancia back to her place so she could get to work on time and then he took a drive uptown to find where Jo was staying. He wanted to talk with her and see for himself what she was coding and maybe get to know her a bit. A part of him was weary of seeing her, but not because he thought she was dangerous. He was more afraid of being alone with her in general. She was just about the hottest woman that had ever stepped bare foot into Mashers. He hoped he would be strong willed enough to be able to ward off an advance from her. Maybe he was too full of himself, but he had noticed how interested she had been, even knowing Dancia and him were an item. Add to that the possibility that she could go all Glenn Close on him and he really didn't want to see her alone at all.

The house was just as Dancia had described it to Detective Plait. Joshua sat in his Porsche 356 for a few minutes parked across the street from the house. It looked pretty normal, if not a bit high rent for the area. He chatted up Trip on his phone.

Hey, I'm going to talk to Jo for a while. If I don't come back, come and check on me. Here's my location.

He pressed the location button that pinned him to a map and pressed send. After a few moments Trip responded.

You dog you. Don't do anything I would do.

Joshua smiled and pocketed his phone. He got out of the car and scanned the street for any signs of life. It was dead this early in the morning. Dressed in a t-shirt and shorts with loafers he cruised across the empty, shaded street and went through the iron gate. As he got closer to the door he could hear the heavy base thumping of Daft Punk's Get Lucky.

The front door was open and he could see into the front living room as he peered through the screen door. A bare leg spun around and then out of view. A moment later Jo danced into his view, naked and facing away from him. He backed away from the door and took a step back. Damn, this is not good.

He turned around and started to leave but stopped when he heard her voice.

"Hey, man. Door's open."

He turned back around hoping she had covered up but she stood there, gyrating to the beat, completely naked. Joshua smiled weakly and entered. Jo's long board was up against the wall just inside. He moved cautiously into the living room as she had faced the stereo cabinet to turn down the music.

"I'm sorry to drop by unannounced. I can come back another time," he said, turning again to leave. She put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face her. Her skin glistened with sweat as she grabbed his hand and lead him deeper into the house.

"Come on, I'm going for a dip in the pool. You can join me."

Joshua gulped. He was living in a damn Playboy magazine hot letter's section! She moved so divinely and her body was tight and just muscular enough to let anyone watching know she was an athlete.

"I talked with Dancia yesterday, did she tell you?"

"Huh? Oh, yea. She mentioned something about a game you were working on."

Jo turned to look back at him and smiled suggestively. "I can show you that later after my swim."

They walked out back to the pool and Jo took a few steps towards the pool and then turned around. "You can join me if you like."

"Ah, no thanks. I better stay over here, on land."

Her body cleaved the water like a knife as she dove in and swam under water half way to the other end. Joshua looked around and noticed the yard was surrounded by a tall privacy fence and was well stocked with various sized plants and trees. It was a pretty secluded yard but he still felt like he was being watched. He sat down on a patio chair and tried not to gawk at her as she swam back across the water in a perfect front crawl.

She swam about five laps back and forth and then stopped at the edge facing him and hung her arms over the edge of the pool to steady herself.

"Why did you come here?"

Joshua was starting to wonder that himself. He certainly didn't come expecting to watch her strut around naked.

"Dancia said you were working on some kind of VR game that really impressed her. I wanted to see if for myself. I tried to contact you online but we didn't have your email or phone number."

"Some detective sure as hell found me this morning. Apparently one of your gamers was killed last night? I think he thought I was somehow involved because I played that game with you guys yesterday."

Joshua stared back at her for a moment. She didn't exactly sound like a stone hardened killer, more like she had no idea why Plait would have shown up at her door. He wondered if she were naked then too? He caught himself and redirected his thoughts. "The reason we had an opening on the team was because another member was killed."

Jo's face lightened as a cloud passed and the oppressive heat of the sun fell across the backyard. "So you guys thought I was the one who killed him?"

"I could see where the police might think that. I mean we all hardly know you and after Van was killed,"

Jo shook her head and her wet hair slapped across her bare shoulders. "I sure picked the wrong damn arcade to drop in on."

"Look, we're all a little rattled right now and we don't understand why two of our members have been brutally killed. It might be best if you stayed away for a while, at least until the police can nab the killer."

Jo looked disappointed as she tilted her head back to wet her hair in the pool. Joshua felt bad for coming again and stood up to leave.

"Look, I'm sorry I came over unannounced. I'll check out your game another time," he said, heading back inside.

Jo let him go and didn't get out of the pool to follow him.

Chapter 10

Detective Plait was on his second large coffee as he sat at his office desk and stared at his computer. He hated researching things on the internet but in today's connected world, there was no way around it. He had started with ordering the arrest records of everyone on the team. That resulted in no criminal records beyond traffic violations. He didn't care about those, everyone ran a red light or had a speeding ticket at some point in their lives. What he was more interested in was more serious infractions that might have resulted in felony crimes.

The owner of the Mashers was Nate Chambers. He didn't have a criminal record, but his father did. Well, not exactly a criminal record but his father, Jim Chambers died under mysterious circumstances about a decade ago. Reading through police records it appeared that Jim was the victim of random street crime. Nate was twenty-one at the time of his father's murder and was awarded his father's estate by the courts as his mother had died when he was a teenager.

Plait read that last piece and immediately became suspicious of how his mother had died. Turned out she had a fatal heart condition that was undiagnosed and died of natural causes. Another dead end.

While running Jo's full name through his usual databases he found something odd. Her last name was Connor and Plait couldn't find anything on her parents. He even checked birth announcements for three surrounding states and came up empty on her. Either she was not originally from around here, or she was not from the US. Recalling her face from this morning she didn't look European to him. Her accent was distinctly Western American.

He broadened the search to include all states and US territories. Perhaps her parents were in the military and she was born over seas. That search came back empty. It was starting to look like she was his number one suspect but he didn't have a motive. He put her information in a Word document of its own and continued searching on the next member of the group. This one was Dancia Rivers, whom Plait had met a few years back when she was being hunted on-line by a former employee of RegTech who was after Joshua. That man was Lawrence Taggert and he was killed in self defense by Dancia up in a cabin inn McCall, Idaho.

Plait remembered that incident pretty clearly and wondered if somehow this string of murders was related. The only common denominator was Dancia and Joshua. Neither one of them had a criminal record or anything suspicious in their past, as far as Plait knew. He ran their names through his system anyway, you never knew when the computer search algorithm would find some damn odd connection. Again, he came up empty.

It was getting on noon and he was starting to feel his stomach grinding for food. He ignored it for a bit longer and ran another name through the system. This time Tripp Thomas, Joshua's good friend. As he entered the name into the data field he realized the surname was the same as Josephine. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he hit enter.

The search took longer to complete than the others. Plait picked up his Dutch Bros coffee cup and tipped it back. It was empty. Dammit. He stared at the screen while putting the blue and white cup down. The results suddenly streamed by in a blur and then stopped. Tripp and Josephine Thomas had the same father, Greg Thomas of Boise. But the mother was not listed. Records showed Greg Thomas married to Sheryl Thomas, formally Sheryl Conner of Moscow, Idaho.

That was intriguing. Plait considered calling Joshua to ask him if he knew Tripp had any siblings. He didn't want to question Tripp and find out he wasn't told for a reason. The next step would be to talk with his father, Greg. Records showed he worked for RegTech as a software engineer. Both children of Greg Thomas were the same age, near as Plait could figure from what little data he could find on Jo.

He pulled out his cell and dialed Joshua Jones.

"This is Detective Plait, Boise PD."

The voice on the other end sounded distracted and he could hear wind blowing as if he were in a convertible.

"Hello. Please don't tell me someone else has been murdered."

"No. I have a question about your friend Tripp Thomas."

"Oh, go ahead."

"Does he know he has a sibling?"

There was dead air for a moment and Plait thought maybe the connection had dropped. But then he heard the wind blowing again. "I didn't know he had any brothers or sisters and I've known Tripp his whole life."

"I'm going to need to speak with his father, Greg Thomas. "

"Greg's a retired banker. I can get you his number. Tripp's gonna freak when I tell him he has a brother or sister."

"Can you please not speak to him about this until after I've talked with his father? We want to keep family matters private."

"Oh, sure. Not a problem."

Joshua gave him Greg Thomas's phone number from memory. The man had been like a second father to him after Joshua's parents died when he was a teenager. "Thanks. I'll be in touch with you," Plait finished and hung up.

He leaned back in his cheap office chair and dialed the number Joshua had given him. An older gentleman answered somewhat tentatively. "Hello?"

"Mr. Greg Thomas?"

"Speaking."

"This is Detective Bill Plait, Boise Police Department. I'd like to have a word with you about Josephine."

There was a nervous hesitation in his voice before he answered. "I'm at the Nampa airport, Tower Grill. We'd better speak in person."

// ----------------------- //

Twenty minutes later, Plait pulled up to the Fixed Base Operator office at the end of Municipal Drive. He hadn't been out this far in some time and didn't realize there was now a thriving local grill above the FBO. His stomach was growling pretty good and he could sure use a fresh shot of caffeine, either a soda or a coffee.

An older gentleman was standing on the balcony looking down at him when he walked up. The man waved to him. Plait waved back. He was the right age to be Greg Thomas. By the time he made it to the balcony on the stairs he clasped hands with the man. "Greg Thomas," the man said as a greeting.

Plait picked up on the guarded tone to his voice. "Bill Plait, thanks for meeting with me on such short notice."

Greg guided him over to the door that led into the air conditioned restaurant. "I have a table inside, where it's cool."

The Tower Grill was owned by a tall, thin man with a full, trimmed beard and a crew cut named Nate Lindskoog. He served classic American food with a homemade flare that the locals loved and pilots flocked to eat from all over Idaho. There were various authentic airplane inspired art and propellers hanging from the walls around hand strewn wood tables. Plait immediately felt at home there, despite not really being that interested in flying. He'd taken his family to the air museum at the other end of the road a few times over the years. His youngest loved airplanes and wanted to be a pilot someday.

"Sorry if I startled you on the phone, but I thought it best that we talk in private," Plait said after they ordered burgers and cokes.

"So what has she done to get the attention of the police?"

Plait looked around before responding, keeping his voice appropriately low. "She's in a gaming group or clan or whatever they call them. We suspect someone in the group is murdering the other members."

Greg's expression changed from amused something short of horrified. "Is Jo a suspect?"

"No. But she is a person of interest until I can catch the killer. Two members of the group were stabbed to death in the last three days."

Greg swore softly as he shook his head slowly. "I don't really know my daughter very well. We've not been close for some time now. But I don't think you need to worry about her as a suspect."

"Why is that?"

This time Greg looked around before speaking in a noticeably lower voice. "I can't talk much about this, I hope you'll understand. But she was part of a secret government project that left her, shall we say, enhanced. She's probably the smartest person alive right now. Her IQ is off the charts."

Plait nodded. "Intelligence is not indicator for someone's predilection to kill. Plenty of really smart people have committed murder, Mr. Thomas."

"Perhaps. How did you find out I was her father? If you don't mind me asking?"

Plait didn't mind. "I was investigating other members of this gamer group and your son, Tripp and her had the same last name."

"Tripp? Does he even know who she is?"

"Unknown. But I suspect neither one of them know each other, am I correct in that assertion?"

Greg nodded. "Tripp was not a part of the project. I had him with my wife and no, they've never met."

"You still haven't said how you found me?"

"Through Tripp's friend, Joshua Jones. Also in the group."

Greg shook his head again as Nate delivered their plates. Nate and Greg seemed to know each other pretty well and Nate sensed it wasn't a good time for chit chat and left them to eat.

"Trouble seems to always find that kid. His dad was a part of our secret project and it got him and his wife killed when Joshua was still a teenager. My wife and I took him in and raised him as our own."

Plait dug in on his P-38 burger with bacon and BBQ sauce. It was damn good and he savored every bite. Greg nibbled on his plain 172 burger, named after the ubiquitous pilot maker from Cessna.

"Well, it looks like three of the members of this group are yours," Plait offered.

"You can probably rule them out, detective, but I understand if you can't take me on my word on them."

Plait wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a long sip from his Coke. "You must be a pilot."

Greg nodded. "I have a Cherokee 140 but I park it over in Caldwell. Tripp never had an interest in flying, but Joshua's been a pilot like his dad, since he was 16. He owns his father's old Cessna 120. Beautiful bird. You like flying?"

"Nope. But my youngest loves it. So he'll probably want to get his license before long."

Greg smiled knowingly. "It's a great skill to have. When he's ready, have him contact me. I know lots of area instructors."

Plait glanced to his left and looked out over the refueling area where a white, fours seat low wing aircraft was parked. Greg noticed where he was looking. "That's my bird. Getting a bit long in the tooth, but then, so am I."

"Mr. Thomas," Plait started.

"Greg."

"Greg, does Josephine know you are her father?"

Greg stared back at him with steady gray eyes. "No. I'd like to keep it that way, if you don't mind."

Plait sensed something was a bit off in his tone but nodded anyway. "Will do."

Chapter 11

Back at his desk before the late afternoon traffic got bad, Plait sketched a relationship chart on a legal pad. He liked to doodle with his pen on paper to collect his thoughts. So far the relationship between three of the gamers was the most interesting thing he found. His database searches on the remaining members came up empty. He checked his watch and wondered if the murderer would strike again tonight.

Friday night and then Sunday night suggested an every other night pattern, but he wasn't so sure it was a pattern yet. He needed some lab results and nothing had come down yet. Picking up his land line receiver he punched in the number for forensics. Doctor Smiley answered and Plait tried not to grin at his name.

"Smiley," the man said in a gruff voice, hoarse from smoking too many cigarettes.

"Hey Stew, this is Bill. Got anything dirt for me?" The pun wasn't very good but he knew it would annoy Stew, so it was worth saying.

"Funny. Both samples, minus the Fritos are from the same location. In fact, they match better than any two samples I've ever ran. You sure you're not fucking with me?"

"No, I'm not. Thanks, buddy," Plait said, hanging up before Stew sucked him into a boring conversation about all the different varieties of sandstone.

Next he called the Medical Examiner to see if the knife wounds were identical on both victims.

"Bob, it's Bill. What can you tell me about the murder weapon on the second body?"

Bob rustled some papers and twisted around in a squeaky chair. "Well, it was a kitchen knife, probably a twelve inch one, thin blade. "

"So same as the kid in the alley."

Bob snorted and then said, "Yup. Even the stab pattern is similar. First a blow to the jugular and then nine stabs for good measure."

Plait knew stabbings were one of the most intimate and brutal ways to kill a person. Soldiers were trained to use a bayonet on their enemies and even then some refused to engage when literally face to face with the enemy. Only an incredibly angry person bent on revenge could do it. Or a psychopath. His mind lingered on the last possibility as Bob breathed on the other end of the phone.

"Thanks, Bob," Plait finally said, putting the phone down.

Whenever faced with a serial killer people tended to think it was a wacko of some kind. Normal people didn't kill, thankfully. That leaves the wronged and the mentally disturbed. Plait knew everyone had a reason to not be happy with Van after he ended the game. Based on his interviews with the team after the first kid was killed, everybody loved seemed to love the guy, so it didn't seem anger or hate was a factor.

Plait looked back at the list of gamers. Steve Lancy was his next target to take a closer look at. The guy was a member of several gun rights groups and seemed to be all over Facebook and Twitter with typical Right Wing conspiracy bullshit. Nothing illegal about having those views, especially in Idaho. During an employer search, he found out Dancia worked under Steve for about a year. Plait jotted that down in his notebook. You just never knew what would turn out to be a clue later on and the more odd connections he found like that, increased his odds of finding the killer.

Dancia Rivers now worked for a start-up company located in downtown Boise, as a Database Administrator. No incidents there and no connections to any of the other members, deceased or living. She had finished school at Boise State and graduated near the top of her class. Smart girl.

Next up was Chris Boyd a grocery checker who worked for the Boise Co-Op. Nothing scary in his past work record, mostly low paying service jobs. Chris lived a few blocks north of the Co-Op in a tiny house that was willed to him after his mother passed away. Kid never ventured far from home, apparently. He had no arrest record and nothing more than a Facebook account on-line. Plait wondered if he should try and get a search warrant to check everyone's ISP logs but at the moment, he had no real suspect or motive.

The last member of the group was a bit older than the rest of them. His name was Pete Kasinovich and he worked as a bartender at the Neurolux lounge over on eleventh street. A couple of minor arrests for disturbing the peace and a DUI when he was in his twenties. Been clean for over a decade with no recent arrests. Plays electric guitar for a Jazz band that sometimes played at the lounge. Plait raised his eyebrow at that last item. He enjoyed Jazz music and wondered if the dude was any good.

There were no other connections either in work history or arrest records for Chris and Pete. At the end of the day, Plait had no real leads other than the weird connection between Trip, Joshua and Jo. He decided to contact Joshua Jones and arrange to meet with him to ask a few more questions.

// ----------------------- //

Joshua pulled his silver Porsche 356 convertible into an open spot at the Boise Police Department offices off of Emerald. It was a nondescript office park that nobody would mistake for city police station. Plait was loitering in the front lobby waiting for him.

"Thanks for coming out," Plait said, shaking hands with Joshua.

Joshua followed Plait outside and around to a shaded area with park benches. They sat down and Plait spoke in his best friendly cop manner. "I did some searching today on the members of your gaming group and I found something curious."

Joshua was all ears as he leaned in to hear better over the sound of air conditioners grinding away nearby.

"Apparently your father and Tripp's father were both involved in some kind of super secret government project around the time you both were born. Do you know what that might be about?"

Joshua felt a headache coming on. He used to get really bad migraines regularly but in the past year they had occurred much less frequently. He also didn't normally get them until late at night. Maybe he was jut reacting to what the detective was asking.

"My parents died in that car crash when I was a teenager. Taggert told me he had rigged the car to crash, but you left me the Police report on the brakes. It said there was nothing wrong with the brakes. I don't know what to make of that anymore. But I don't know anything about Tripp's dad or my dad being involved in anything together."

Plait studied the kid's face for a moment before continuing. His brow was creased like someone who had a headache. "Jo and Tripp are fraternal twins. Different mothers, same father. Greg Thomas was involved with some kind of hush, hush government project but I have no idea what was it was about. I suspect that your father might be involved. If I were you, I'd ask Greg what he knows. I think it could help you rest a little easier about how your parents died."

Joshua sat back and put a hand on his forehead. He looked back at Plait with confusion. Plait seemed like he didn't have anything else to say. It was like finding out your dad was a secret agent or Indiana Jones or something. Joshua just couldn't process any of it. He stood up and started to excuse himself.

"I promised Greg I wouldn't let Jo know he was her father. Can you please keep that between the two of us?"

Joshua nodded absently as he walked away back to his car. Plait watching him get in and back out before going back inside to press on with his research. He wasn't sure he had done the right thing but he felt the kid deserved to know the truth about his parents. No matter how insane that truth might turn out to be.

Chapter 12

Joshua parked his car and walked to entrance of his condo, still in thinking about what Plait had told him about his dad. He just wanted to be alone for a while to think about it but standing in front of the breezeway was the last person he wanted to see right now.

"Hey, " Jo said as he approached.

He knew better than to ask her how she found him, she was definitely not internet challenged. She was wearing a t-shirt, torn blue jean shorts and no shoes. A small purse with a spaghetti strap rested loosely off her shoulder.

"I wanted to talk, if you don't mind."

Joshua ran his card past the reader and opened the door for her. She walked inside the entrance and waited for him to unlock his door. The light was dim in the entrance hall but he could see the way she was looking at him and he knew something was wrong.

Jo walked across the living room of his condo and stood before the floor to ceiling window that faced north. Back lit, from the bright daylight her blonde hair glowed. Joshua plopped down in one of his leather chairs and waited for her to say something.

"I'm sorry if my nudity intimidated you before. I've always been a bit of a free spirit."

"It was your home, and I did drop by unexpected. No worries."

She turned to look back at him and smiled coyly. He relaxed a bit feeling the tension between them ease.

"Look, I'm not a killer. I don't know anyone in your gamer group and Saturday was the first day I had ever been to that arcade. I just didn't want you and Dancia thinking I was some kind of wacko."

Joshua shook his head. "We don't think you're the killer, promise."

He smiled at her and she pulled out several devices from her purse that looked like Go-Pro's on tiny tripods. She put one against the wall on the kitchen counter and the other one across the room on a window sill. Each device seemed to have a lens that scanned the room with a blinking red LED.

"What are those?"

"I call them posts, as in fence posts. They're passive, trust me."

Then she pulled a small device he thought was her phone from the waistband of her jean shorts. It was thicker than most phones and she pulled out a portable keyboard and snapped the device into it and placed it on the kitchen counter that faced the living room. She started typing on the keyboard and he came over to see what she was doing.

"This is my portable Pi. Full Raspbian OS, tiny form factor, WiFi of course."

Joshua was intrigued. He knew the Raspberry Pi's were tiny Linux computers, but had never seen one so small before. She told him to take out his phone and go to a short URL. He pulled out his Samsung and complied. An app started to download on his phone. "Hey, ah."

"Relax, tiger. I'm not a hacker. It's the client to my VR game."

Joshua let the client load and then turned it on. Jo pulled out a cardboard device from her back pocket, unfolded it and stuck his phone inside. Then she handed him the old Google inspired headset. He put it on and was astonished to see a virtual version of his condo. He turned his head around and saw the entire room. Putting up his hand, he saw it replicated by a much simpler avatar hand. There was a white flash beside him and he saw green text appear that said, "Player Two: JayZero, has entered the room."

Joshua turned his head towards where Jo was standing and saw her avatar. It was like a low-rez version of her, even dressed in the same clothes. Her avatar smiled at him. "What do you think?" She said. He shook his head.

"This is insane."

"That's what Dancia said," Jo laughed.

"How do you render my condo in real-time?"

Her avatar motioned to the posts she had planted. They were even in the virtual version of the room. "They scan the room, render it using the game engine and then watch us for when we move. Whenever you move, it records you and translates it to the avatar."

"That's dope."

"I can change the virtual environment but right now it's running over my phone's connection, so it's kinds slow."

Joshua moved across the room, touched the back of the couch and grabbed a pillow. It stuck in his virtual hand just like his real hand. He tossed it to the leather chair and the virtual pillow hit the chair and bounced off of it to land on the floor. The lag was about a half second from the real event. Impressive as hell.

"This shit is amazing, Jo. Did you develop it yourself?"

He looked back at her avatar that shrugged. Joshua pulled off his headset and stared at her. She wasn't wearing a headset, just looked at him expectantly.

"The graphics are modest, but the real-time interaction is amazing. Especially the reality mapping feature."

"It looks better over a faster connection, but there's still some lag. I mean it takes some time to recreate what you're doing on the fly."

Joshua came back to the counter and set his phone down. He motioned to the Pi device. "You're not running it on that thing, are you?"

"Oh, hell no. It's just running a secure shell into my servers in the cloud."

Joshua looked back at her with a new respect in his blue eyes. "Did you design the game engine?"

Jo shook her head. "It's basically the old Doom engine, modified. I didn't have time to recreate the whole thing, so I used the open source base and just extended it with my own features."

"I can't think of any real world applications, though," Joshua said.

She made a pout face, "Any room you place two posts in, becomes a room in the game and everything in the room is an object in the game."

Joshua's mind started reeling with the possibilities. "I'm starting to get it now."

She winked slyly at him. "I have it attached to a dildo at home and now I can screw anyone I scan. That alone is worth a fortune on Pornhub, don't you think?"

Joshua wondered if she would now use his image and was both excited and creeped out all at once. He shook his head to clear his impure thoughts. "Have you contacted any companies about this yet?"

She shook her head once and started retrieving her posts. "I'm not ready to sell it yet. But I do need to test it with more players. Do you think the group would be interested in helping me?"

"Phsshh, yeah."

In all the excitement he had forgotten that two of his friends were dead. When that thought returned he succumbed to the moribund feeling he'd had inside ever since Teddy had died. His headache started to pound again, no doubt because of the VR program.

"Can you play it on a PC or do you have to wear the headset?"

She looked at him blankly. "It's a VR program."

"Right."

"Do you have an Apple client, or only Android."

She got that sublime look on her face again. "Apple?"

Joshua's respect for her increased in that moment. There has always been a schism between programmers, since the dawn of time. You either accepted closed source code and platforms, or you rebelled against them. There was no in-between ground. Jo was definitely a rebel in the software wars.

"We could play this at Mashers, maybe use Nate's upstairs apartment as more levels. But what would the game be? I mean some kind of mystery or a quest for a hidden object? Maybe we could hide something and you have to find it wearing your phone?"

Jo was tracking him and she held up a finger. "That detective thinks someone in your gamer group is the killer. Maybe we make it a real-time game of Clue?"

Joshua got another jolt of excitement that left the hairs on his arms standing up and his headache faded into the background of his mind. He imagined everyone walking around Nate's apartment, asking questions and confronting each other like amateur Sherlock's. That might not go over so well and what would stop the real killer from attacking someone again? After a moment or two of thinking it through, he had all but ruled it out.

"What if the killer felt pressure to lash out? Then someone else might get hurt or killed. Seems like a bad idea."

Jo agreed with him as she logged out of her tiny computer and returned it to her purse. "I can make the virtual room look like anything we want. I mean, we could change the setting to be the Enterprise or wherever."

"Really? But then when you picked up an object it would still be just a pillow in the game, right?"

Jo considered the question for a moment. He could almost see her looping over the options in her head. "It would take some effort, but I could use stock images to convert a pillow into a tricorder or a phaser."

Both of them laughed at the absurdity of holding a pillow and making pew, pew noises with it at someone. The idea was solid, it just seemed silly to them.

"I like the quest idea. I could hide a digital only object somewhere in the game levels and you could only find it virtually. That way you have to keep your phone visor on."

"But wouldn't they walk into walls, walking around with their eyes covered?"

She tapped the side of her head with a finger. "Real-time imagery, dude. The posts are pretty accurate and can alert you to doorways and stairs. Although walking up stairs might be kinda trippy," she said with a smile at her own pun.

Joshua tapped the counter top. "I like it. Let's do it. Can you have it ready to go tonight?"

"Sure. I'll bring enough posts to cover his whole apartment and the Mashers. We could even do the yard around the house. I have like twenty of those things already made."

Joshua felt his anxiety lifting as he smiled at Jo's crystal blue eyes. He'd never been all that attracted to girls with blue eyes before, probably because he saw them everyday in the mirror. But she was undeniably hot and at that moment, completely attractive to him in her t-shirt and torn shorts.

"Well, I better get back home and get to work. What time do you want to have everyone meet at Mashers?"

Joshua didn't really hear her. He was looking at the freckles across the bridge of her nose and remembering what she looked like naked. She waved her hand in front of his face and he snapped out of it.

"What time?"

"Oh, ah. Let's make it nine."

She smiled at him and headed back to his front door. He watched her walk with that classic female sway to her hips. Damn. She's Tripp's sister, man. Stop eye balling her!

He walked her back out to the parking garage and waved goodbye as she climbed into her blue Cruiser. Then he went back inside and started contacting everyone in the group.

Chapter 13

Detective Plait leaned into his monitor and focused on the old police report. It was the summary conclusion from the death of Nate's mother. She was initially stabbed in the parking lot of the Rite Aid on State street. But she managed to get away from her attacker and walked across State and into an alley between Rainbow Books and DK Donuts before collapsing and dieing. There was no video surveillance at the Rite Aid parking lot, but a clerk remembered seeing her leave there minutes before her alleged attacker struck.

She drove down State and pulled into a paved area between the bookstore and the donut shop and stopped. Her car door was left open and her body was found on 13th Street less than five hundred feet away in the grassy front yard of a house behind the donut shop. The detective in charge noted that it had all the earmarks of a botched assault and the fact that she even managed to get to where she was before passing out from loss of blood was impressive to him.

Plait backed his way through the report and then skipped to the associated Coroner's report. His mother's body was stabbed multiple times by a large kitchen knife, not a pocket knife. It was the opinion of the County Coroner that she was stabbed at least three times at the Rite Aid and then stabbed six more times in the alley or at some point between her car and where she was found.

It sounded like she was hunted down and purposely killed, not the random victim of a petty criminal looking for cash or credit cards. The entire crime was brutal and merciless. A crime of passion.

Plait sat back and circled Nate Richard's name on his list. The only other name on his list that was circled was Jo's.

// ----------------------- //

Dancia stopped by Melina's apartment on her way home from work to check on her friend. Melina seemed normal, hands covered in artist's chalk again from one of her drawings. There was a black smudge across her nose where she no doubt rubbed it while she was drawing. Her hair was pinned up messily and she was wearing black tights and a black tank top.

The windows were open and a light breeze filtered in from the street below. She was listening to an old Black Keys CD on her stereo.

"Hey kiddo, thought I'd stop by and see how you were doing," Dancia said.

Melina's face didn't have her usual brightness about it but she didn't look like she was depressed or anything. "I'm fine, just working on some doodles."

She walked back to her easel and picked up a piece of black chalk, flipped it around in her hand and then started sketching. Dancia followed her over to see what she was drawing. It was a woman with shoulder length hair bent over her skateboard, wearing torn jean shorts. Dancia stared at it for a moment, wondering who it was. She looked similar to the woman that Melina had been drawing over and over on a skateboard. Something about the board or the woman's hair nagged at Dancia's brain.

She turned around and looked at the wall where Melina had hung up her favorite sketches. Many of them were this same woman, but none of them showed her face in any detail. Except for one. An older one from a few years before that Dancia had seen many times before. It was a portrait done in pencil, not chalk. The woman's face was striking and suddenly Dancia realize who it was.

"Jo."

"What?" Melina asked, turning to see what Dancia was looking at.

"That's Jo," Dancia said, pointing at the woman with freckles across the bridge of her beautiful face.

"You know her?"

"Yeah, we just met this weekend. She's a game developer."

Melina put down her chalk and grabbed Dancia by her shoulders to spin her around. "You have to introduce me to her. She's my muse!"

Dancia smiled hesitantly. "I don't think she's, you know."

"Gay."

Dancia nodded sheepishly but it didn't seem to damper Melina's enthusiasm. "What's her last name?"

"I, I don't know. She's taken Teddy's place on our team." Dancia squinted after blurting out that last bit. But once again, it didn't seem to bother her friend.

"So she's a coding nerd, like you?" Melina asked.

"Actually, she's more like some kind of programming genius."

Melina grabbed Dancia's hand and pulled to to the couch to talk. "Genius, huh. Do tell."

Dancia was still hesitant to say much else, afraid that Melina had already suffered a hard crush and didn't need encouragement. "She's invented this freaking cool VR game. Actually, we're getting together tonight at Mashers to play it tonight."

"Can I come? I just want to meet her. Maybe get her to sign a release so I can show off my drawings of her. Oh God, what if she won't sign it?"

Dancia shook her head, "I think she'd give you permission, they're gorgeous likenesses."

"Thanks, girlfriend. Is she as pretty up close as she looks from across a room? Damn, she's fine."

"Yes. She's very pretty. Annoyingly so, actually. I couldn't even tell that she was wearing any makeup. You know how some women just look naturally stunning?"

Melina's eyes rolled and she almost squealed with glee. Then she looked back at Dancia suspiciously. "You're just fucking with me, aren't you?"

Dancia laughed. "Maybe a little."

"Bitch!" Melina said jokingly, slapping Dancia's knee as she got up and headed for the kitchenette.

"Ice tea?"

"Sure. Thanks."

Dancia looked back at the drawing on the wall and wondered how Jo was going to handle Melina's enthusiastic and heart felt affection. A part of her knew that it might not work out so well for her friend.

// ----------------------- //

Joshua was unable to raise Pete on his cell and decided to swing by his apartment complex to ask him he wanted to join them. Just as he was pulling up to the CW Moore building a flat black 1975 Corvette slid out and stopped as their cars met. Pete had his windows down and the t-bars off and his car idled like a Harley Davidson. It was louder than Joshua's Porsche but not loud enough to annoy non-car people.

"Hey, we have a game tonight at Mashers. You available?" Joshua asked.

"Just heading out for a gig. Sorry, man."

"Where you playing tonight?"

Pete caressed the short brim of his gray hipster hat out of habit. "Neurolux."

Joshua nodded. "Cool. Catch you later, man."

Pete reached out and fist bumped Joshua as he pulled away out onto the street. Joshua backed out and then started thinking he should tell Detective Plait about the game, just to see if he wanted to watch or something. He pulled his 356 into a street parking spot and dialed the Boise PD.

"Hi, this is Joshua Jones. I thought you should know the team's getting together for a game tonight at Mashers. We start at nine."

"Is everyone attending?" Plait asked.

"Everyone except Pete. He's got a gig at the Neurolux."

Plait didn't respond right away and Joshua started to think the connection was dropped. When he did speak he sounded bored or uninterested. "Okay, thanks for keeping me in the loop. Goodbye."

Joshua tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and pulled into traffic heading to Dancia's apartment.

// ----------------------- //

(Plait arranges to stake out Mashers that night. He thinks the killer might strike as folks are going home and intends to have everyone followed by beat cops.)

Chapter 14

Dancia lived in a stone apartment on the lower east side of Boise. Joshua climbed the steps to the second story and knocked on her door. Melina answered and laughed as Joshua seemed surprised to see her. She had cleaned up and was wearing an off the shoulder top and jean shorts, her hair braided in two tails .

"Hey, Jones. Do you mind if I attend the game tonight?" Melina asked as she let him inside.

Joshua slid past her and nodded his consent. "Sure, but you don't like video games."

"She's not there to game," Dancia said from her bedroom. Joshua's face scrunched as he turned to Melina.

"I'm there to meet Jo," Melina said, her face beaming.

"Ah, I'm not to sure she's," his voice trailed off.

"I don't care if she's a breeder. I just want to meet my muse." She pointed to one of her drawings that Dancia had framed on the wall. It was a charcoal sketch of a woman that could have been Jo or any other gorgeous blonde on a skateboard.

Joshua nodded and mustered a smile as Dancia came into the room and immediately hugged and kissed him. Melina made a gag face and went into the kitchen area to grab a water bottle.

"So Pete has a gig tonight, he won't be there."

Dancia pouted. "Damn. I'll miss him."

"Does this mean you'll be short a player?" Melina asked.

"We're not playing a regular tournament. We're going to be playing Jo's VR game," Joshua replied. Dancia's eyes got big. "No, way!"

"Way. Don't forget your cells."

// ----------------------- //

Joshua texted Plait about Melina but also said he didn't consider her a threat. Plait's one word reply was a canned response that his phone offered him. Joshua could tell that the detective was not very comfortable with modern technologies. The few times he had seen the man on his cell texting he used one finger and made many typos. Digitally native folks used their thumbs and just naturally seemed to go faster with fewer mistakes.

People started arriving at Mashers some time after eight that evening. Cars were parked around the corner and up the driveway to the residence. Melina and Dancia took Melina's Mini. Dancia had to agree to get a ride home with her man, if for some reason Melina had to ditch early or in her words, "got lucky". Wishful thinking, Dancia thought.

Steve's big black GMC truck took most of the narrow driveway and Tripp's Honda CRV, Joshua's Porsche and an older blue Toyota FJ with a white top were parked in the street. There were fewer cars than normal largely due to Teddy and Van being gone. Chris's bike was parked on the wrap around porch and tied to a pillar with a bike chain. He usually brought it inside with him, but for some reason hadn't done that this time.

Nate's multicolored rust bucket bus was not in the driveway but on the corner street. He probably had to run out for food or something last minute and didn't want to block the drive. The girls piled out of the Mini and took turns looking each other over to make sure the car ride hadn't altered their appearances any. It had not.

"I'm suddenly really nervous, like when we were in High School," Melina said, her voice low and shakey.

"Relax, girl. You look fine. Just don't come on too strong. Play it cool. You don't want to frighten her off."

Melina nodded her head as they walked up the path to the front porch. Mashers had two front entrances, one was for the paying customers and one was for the residence above the arcade. It was a beautiful old stone home with a slightly Gothic upper floor complete with pointed roof and natural wood siding. The window and gutter trim were all painted black which when combined with the older style of the home lent it a slightly scary feeling, especially in the fall when the trees had no leaves. In the middle of summer though, it looked perfectly quint and interesting.

There was a small wooden sign on the first floor that read Mashers Arcade in a black, 1970's era arcade font. Dancia always thought the sign was too inconspicuous and totally failed to market the place. But Nate didn't want it to be an eye sore and he was happy to exist on word of mouth from the local High Schoolers. As they knocked on the door, Dancia noticed someone had defaced the sign by adding Est 2006 with what looked like a black Sharpie. The hand writing was Nate's which seemed appropriate.

"Hey girls, come on in!" It was Chris, his bearded face accented by a friendly smile. He was holding a partially folded VR headset.

"We the last to show?" Dancia asked, looking around the dark main room. People were mostly gathered around the table, cell phones out like ante's for a card game. Jo was at the far end of the table, folding visors for everyone's phone.

"I think so, Nate's upstairs. Have you met Jo? She's the hot blonde back there making VR headsets."

Dancia smiled politely and pointed Melina to the table. She was fixated on Jo as they walked, already entranced with her beauty. Jo was wearing a simple t-shirt and a jean skirt and no shoes. All the guys were trying to get her to help them fold the simple design, just to be near her. Except for Steve. He had his own VR visor and was intently reading something on his laptop. Probably work related, knowing him. Dancia used to work with Steve at a small internet provider a few years ago. He was always doing work from home and at all hours of the night. He had no life then, and that probably hadn't changed today. She really didn't like the man and was happy to stop thinking about him before he got into her head like he always managed to do.

Joshua had already folded two headsets and got up from the table to Dancia and Melina theirs. "Here, I've spared you the agony of having to wait for Jo to fold one for you."

Dancia took one of them and made a face at Joshua. He looked puzzled until she pointed to Melina and then swing her head in Jo's direction. "I'll take one and you can use the other. Melina, why don't you get in line for one."

Melina had already moved to the table as Dancia whispered what was going on to Joshua. He shrugged innocently, playing dumb in the way he always did in socially awkward situations.

"If everyone could find a seat around the table with your phone and the headgear, we'll get started," Jo said to the group.

Melina waited behind Chris for her turn as Nate came down the stairs with two folding chairs. Nate smiled at her as he passed. She returned the smile briefly before regaining her focus on Jo. He popped them open and handed them to Joshua who found a spot for Melina and Dancia to sit at the table.

"What's she doing here, she's not on the team?" Nate asked Joshua.

"I think she just wanted to meet Jo," Joshua replied, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

"Yes, she's quite the popular one tonight. Let's hope her game is worth it. I have things to do tomorrow before I open."

"Dude, it's totally worth it. I've seen a demo. You'll love it."

Nate seemed unimpressed, but then he wasn't a nerd and didn't understand any of the technology involved. Joshua knew enough to realize that Jo's toy had some real potential. He was even scheming about what it would take to create a startup to market it. Hopefully after the demo he could ask her if she was even interested in monetizing it.

Melina stuck her hand out awkwardly and said, "Hi, I'm Melina. Friend of Dancia's. Can I get one of those cardboard doohickeys, too?"

Jo looked at her strangely for a second, not sure if Melina was completely basic or not. The girl seemed really into her though and she found that a bit disarming. She shook her hand politely and said, "Sure. You a gamer?"

Melina cleared her throat. "No, actually. I'm an artist. I've seen you around town. I hope you don't mind, but I think I've even drawn you a few times."

Jo started folding up a headset and looked back at Melina. "Is that so?"

"I'm not stalking you or anything, I just found you a very fun subject to sketch."

Melina could tell she was probably weirding her out so she held up her iPhone and showed her a sketch she had done of her on her skate board. Jo looked at it closely for a second and then back to Melina. "You're pretty good."

Melina shrugged as she took the headset form Jo. "Helps to have an enchanting subject."

Jo smiled and looked across the room at Dancia who looked as if she had released a shark into a tank of minnows. Dancia turned away, talking to Joshua and Jo handed Melina back her headset. "Here you go, just slide your phone into there when we're ready to go."

Melina took the device and thanked Jo as she moved away, holding her look until Jo turned to face the table. "Okay folks. I need you to go to this url and download the client app to play. If you have an iPhone, chose the Apple logo, if you have Android, click on the green robot. Jayzero.org"

"What if you're running Ubuntu?" Nate asked, a bit snidely.

Jo was quick to respond, "Then you can't play."

Nate acted like she had shot him and fell back dead in his chair. Everyone laughed as they downloaded the app and installed it on their phones. Jo walked around the table and made sure everyone found the link okay. Trip claimed he couldn't find the link, causing Jo to come lean over his shoulder affording him a clear shot of her boobs from her loose fitting top. He wasn't so dumb and winked over at Joshua after catching a peek. Joshua rolled his eyes, knowing his friend was checking out his own sister. He had to talk to Tripp soon, to keep him off of her.

Joshua left his seat and his phone on the table and pulled Tripp away as Jo passed on to the next helpless victim, this time Melina. Joshua pulled Tripp back into the main room out of earshot from the table. Tripp shook him off and straightened his shirt. "What gives, man. I had a straight view of heaven back there."

Joshua shook his head in disgust causing Tripp to look at him funny. "Don't man. Trust me, you don't want to chase her."

"Why, what's wrong?"

"She's not into guys," Joshua lied. It was the only thing that he could say that would cause Tripp to back off. Other than telling him the truth.

Tripp looked at him funny then looked back at Jo who was doing the same lean over with Melina who was taking in the view herself and smiling like a kid in a candy shop. "Awe fuck, man. You're serious."

Joshua nodded as he patted his friend softly on his shoulder as they walked back to the group.

Jo moved back to her phone and then proceeded to show the group how to activate the app and then slide their phones into the cardboard holders. This process didn't take long and after a few simple questions, they all were plugged in and ready to experience the VR environment.

Joshua sat down beside Dancia and jacked into the VR environment. It was much like it had been at Jo's home. He was sitting at the same round table that existed in Mashers. In fact, they were all in the digitalized version of Mashers. Joshua had helped Jo set up and turn on all the posts around the room and Nate helped her set a few up stairs. A few of the others had witnessed what they were doing, but most of the players had no idea how the room they were sitting in was being reproduced inside the VR game.

"Hey, we're in Mashers!" Chris exclaimed with a childish awe that only he could pull off.

"That's different," Steve commented with his usual irony.

Jo stood up. Her avatar was dressed the same as she was in real life and her face even vaguely looked like herself. "Everyone please stay seated for a few minutes until you get used to the lag. Okay, hold out your hands in front of you and pick up one of the pens or pencils in front of you."

Joshua hadn't even noticed that Jo put out the writing implements. He reached out an picked up the yellow #2 pencil with his right hand and brought it closer to his face. It was a Ticonderoga, the World's Best Pencil, or so it read along the barrel. He ran his thumb along the rubber eraser and watched his virtual thumb do the same. Freaking weird. And freaking cool.

"Okay, pick it up, manipulate it and study it. As you can see, what you see in the VR screen is what you are feeling in real life. I haven't worked out all the technical words to explain what all this means, so you'll have to put up with my layman's explanation. Objects in the room are scanned by optical and infrared posts situated all around the room. So any object that you set out in front of a post, will be reproduced by the program as best it can."

"That's pretty cool, Jo. It's like a real-time virtual environment," Tripp said.

"Thanks. Someone pull out their wallet and hold it up above the table."

Steve pulled out his carbon fiber wallet capable of blocking RFI signals. It was reproduced fairly well as he held it up and turned it around. "Impressive," he grudgingly admitted.

"That's worth fifty respect points, girl. Nothing impresses Steve much," Dancia encouraged.

Melina raised her hand and everyone looked at her for a moment as Jo pointed to her. "Go ahead."

"Have you ever tried to draw a picture using the headset?"

Jo tilted her head and then slowly shook it. "No. why don't you give it a shot. The lag should be similar to early tablets."

Melina nodded and started doodling on a piece of paper that Dancia had dug out of her purse. It was an old receipt from lunch. Melina's pencil moved around on the paper, fast then slow then fast again as her eyes and hand got used to the lag. She smiled as she finished and held up the drawing. It was a pretty good rendering of Jo standing at the table wearing her headset, her hand raised with a pencil in it.

Everyone clapped at the parlor game and Melina took a bow from her waist.

"Okay, that was cool. Who's ready for more?"

Everyone groaned and a Nate hooted.

Jo reached out before her and started tapping buttons that magically appeared before her like in the movies. Joshua smiled under his headset. She was doing things exactly like he would. It was like the Their environment changed after a flicker and now they were all aboard some kind of starship. Not the sleek, comfortable kind of ships from Star Trek, but a dirty, grungy looking ship straight out of Alien.

This drew excited cheers from just about everyone. It was like they were in a real world version of Halo. The table looked like it was from Firefly, wooden and beat to hell with a few computer terminals in the center. Joshua was again surprised at how freaking awesome the environment was. This could make game playing fun again for everyone.

"We are on the Shooting Star, an old freighter heading for a mining colony light years away from the inhabited sectors of the galaxy. The hyperdrive has been deactivated. Someone has sabotaged the ship. You must either work as a team or individually to find out what was done to the ship. The ship looks suspiciously like Mashers in layout. We are on the bridge. The upstairs is the captain's quarters and the basement is Engineering. There are clues at every location to help you activate the hyperdrive. Oh, and you better do it quickly, as the ship's falling into the gravity well of a singularity."

"What's a singularity?" Melina asked. Science was not her forte.

Jo turned to her and said, "A black hole."

"Ah, okay."

"Are there any more questions?"

Steve stood up and backed out of his chair. He managed to do it without wavering. "Let's do this, people!" He clapped his hands together and then rubbed them gleefully.

Chapter 15

Trooper Davis parked her cruiser across the street from the Neurolux nightclub and surveyed the scene. People were filing in, laughing and smiling as bass sounds reverberated out into the street. She didn't like jazz and didn't have any idea what they were playing. She sighed and secured her vehicle before crossing the street.

"I'd like to speak to the manager please," she told the brawny doorman. He nodded with a smile and motioned to someone inside the club. Davis smiled politely to the folks showing their ID's to the doorman. She felt a little awkward standing there watching him do his job, as if he were somehow not doing it right. She stepped back and pretended to scan the streets for malfeasance or something.

"Officer, I'm the manager, Brian Sanders."

She turned to see the man dressed in a pressed shirt and tie with pleated pants. His hair was slicked back and short, almost like he had stepped out of a forties night club. "There's no problem, sir. I was just told to verify that Pete Kasinovich was playing here tonight in the band."

The manager looked at her oddly. "Of course he is. They are playing right now."

"Do you mind if I verify? I won't be but a moment and I'm gone."

Sanders looked around for a moment as if it were a huge incontinence. Trooper Davis was about to get mad if he didn't let her in. No night club wanted to upset the police, it tended to be bad for business.

"Can you come in the back way? I don't want to make a scene inside. You can see him play from back stage."

Davis nodded. "That'll work."

"I'll meet you out back, officer," he said, pointing to her right.

Sanders went back inside and Davis tipped her hat to the doorman and started around the side of the club. She called in to dispatch what she was doing, just to be safe. The back alley was well lit and only a few cars were parked nearby. One of them was a black vette that she recognized as being Pete's car. The plates matched what she was told.

The old metal door popped open and Sanders let her enter. The music was much louder inside as he guided her to the side of the stage. She looked out into the red bathed stage and saw Pete Kasinovich playing his saxophone. He was dressed in a black suit with a gray, short brimmed fedora. Sanders looked back at her and Trooper Davis gave him a thumbs up. She was back in the alley not a minute later.

Easiest job of the night, she thought as she made her way back to her cruiser.

// ----------------------- //

Detective Plait sat in his car about half a block from Mashers. He was parked in a dark spot, so his car was not lit up under a street light. On the passenger seat was the remains of a Subway sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke. He picked up his binoculars and swept them over Mashers. Everything looked normal. He noted that in a notebook and put down the heavily insulated 10x50 Steiner Marines.

His police radio squawked and he turned it down a notch before answering the call. It was Trooper Davis informing him that she had eyes on Pete Kasinovich at the Neturolux night club. He told her to swing by every thirty to verify the black Corvette was still in the back. It was not a guarantee that he was still in the club, but since he was not a primary suspect, it was good enough for Plait.

Plait picked up the Steiners again and scanned the porch and then the back side of Mashers. All was quiet. It was going to be a long night. He couldn't leave the car running without causing concern from well-meaning North Enders concerned for the environment, not to mention it was a dead giveaway that he was there. So he had the windows rolled down and his head was on a swivel, looking for pedestrians. Boise was not a very violent city and so far had been largely immune from cop killing wackos. But you couldn't be too careful, even if you were in an unmarked car and not in uniform.

Sgt McReed was one street over and down almost a block. She was in uniform and in her cruiser. He knew she was looking around all the time and he didn't envy her position. He'd have gotten another detective to help on his stake out but Norm was on vacation at Disneyland with his family. Scrub. Plait switched channels to simplex and called her on his radio. She answered quick enough to convince him she was awake and alert. "Go, sir."

"Keep your guard up, Sergeant. I don't expect any trouble until later. Even then, it might be nothing."

"I understand, sir."

"I'll check in every thirty. Plait, out."

Plait picked up the binoculars again and scanned the house. Nothing. He looked at his watch, an old Elgin manual wound model that had belonged to his father. It survived a thirty year career as a beat cop's watch and was handed down to him five years before his father passed away. The metal was tarnished and the crystal was scratched up, but he loved the damn thing. Something about watching that seconds hand sweep smoothly along its way around the dial that never ceased to please him. Simple. Steady. Timeless. Also, it reminded him of his dad. Which was probably the real reason he still used it instead of some new fangled quartz job the size of Kansas.

Plait turned his head around at the sound of someone approaching. It was just a kid on a bike. His first thought was why the hell was a kid out this late at night until he realized it was only ten and still bright enough to see without streetlights. The kid rode by staring at him like he was a stranger. Plait returned his stare just to discourage the kid from stopping to chat with him. He peddled past without saying a word and Plait watched him cross the empty street and head down away from Mashers.

The neighborhood returned to being a quiet as a graveyard.

Chapter 16

The others got up from their chairs with their phones over their eyes. Most were a little less successfull at it than Steve. Dancia took a step back and scooted her butt into the chair until he slid away behind her. Joshua helped steady her. Tripp waved his arms around like he was going to fall and then stopped himself. His avatar went from big eyes to slits as he regained his cool.

"There's a flashing light on the desk controls," Joshua noticed. He reached out and tapped it and a hologram of a man appeared, spinning slowly. "Captain's log, Engineering reports the main hyperdrive has been deactivated. They are trying to bring it back on line, but it's been an hour and we don't have anymore time to wait. I need all hands on deck to figure out what has happened or we're all gonna be a lot thinner."

Tripp laughed, "Star Wars lines, I love it!"

Jo took a slight bow and her avatar did the same. "I didn't have much time to improvise this adventure, so some objects in the game will not exactly look like they do in real life. My the best gamer, win."

Joshua and Tripp looked for some time at the gaming cubes where they knew computer keyboards and screens were located. In the game world these were instrument clusters on the starship. Tripp sat down at one and started randomly pressing keys. Nothing significant seemed to happen, but he kept at it for a while, with Joshua doing the same at the next cube over. Nothing happened for him either.

Dancia and Melina hooked up and started walking around the main floor. The kitchen area was another collection of instruments and pipes that could have been engine stuff for all they knew. They picked up various kitchen appliances that looked like mechanical devices attached to the starship.

"This is pretty cool. I mean, how long did it take you to create this level and all these skins?"

"That part was easier than hooking them into the game engine," Jo replied, standing back away from the area and slowly turning around to see what everyone else was doing. She was watching them all equally, something Dancia picked up on but kept to herself. She was like a Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons, guiding the adventure and providing responses to what each player did.

Steve and Nate were walking around the room beside each other, but neither one had fully committed to helping the other. Both were pretty much loners when it came to gaming. Chris meanwhile, seemed to be fascinated by the look and the interaction he had with the imaginary ship. He sat down in the big easy chair that Nate often used to read in and looked around. The armrests had buttons on them and the seat in general looked like the Captain's chair. He pushed a green button and it glowed. "Warning, venting will proceed in fifteen seconds," Said a computerized female voice that sounded something like the main computer in Star Trek. The one voiced by Roddenberry's wife in the TV series. Teddy noticed it right off.

"She sounds like Nurse Chapel, that's pretty cool."

"Hey, who's venting?" Steve asked. He had stopped at a closet door in the back of the room.

"Sorry, I was just punching buttons on this chair," Chris said.

Steve tapped a button in the location of the door handle. Nothing happened but a light flashed that said turn handle. He wrapped his pudgy fingers around the real world door knob and opened the closet. Inside, the virtual ship looked like a bunch of burning and fused wires. "Yo, bitches. I found the damaged engine."

Nate came over and peered into the closet. He knew there was just a mop and bucket in there and a vacuum cleaner. "Fascinating. The broom handle looks like a pipe. Maybe we should mop the floors and that will fix the engine."

Steve's avatar gave him a head shake as he closed the closet door.

"You now have forty-five minutes to repair the hyper drive, before the ship gets sucked into the black hole," Jo said.

Chris clicked the green button again. "Venting closed."

He sat up and started walking towards the staircase that led upstairs. "Hey guys, I'm going upstairs."

"Wait for me, dude. I gotta make sure it looks presentable up there," Nate said, heading to the stairs.

"Dude, we're not going to see your dirty laundry. It's all a game level skin," Dancia said with a laugh.

Nate pushed past Chris and rushed up the stairs. Chris climbed up after him, knowing full well there was nothing out of place up there, he was just upstairs earlier with Nate clocking the WiFi speeds on his router. Nate recently upgraded to a business level plan and they wanted to test it before everyone came over. So far anyway, the VR game hadn't experienced any undue lag. That jarring slowdown that often killed gamers as they shot bad guys or moved across the game's battlefield.

Nate ducked into his bedroom and sat down at his PC. By the time Chris came by, Nate was coming out of the room holding something that looked like a Nerf rifle only painted black and chrome and looking totally bad ass. "Hey, is that your Nerf gun?" Nate's avatar nodded with a wicked smile on his face.

Chris stepped back but Nate was not interested in shooting him. They heard someone coming up the stairs and knew by the heavy steps that it was Steve. Nate's avatar put a finger to his mouth. Chris smiled and backed out into the main room as Steve arrived out of breath.

"Hey, welcome to level two of the ship. We haven't found anything amiss yet," Chris said.

Steve scanned the apartment looking for clues. It just looked like another level of the imaginary starship. Nothing was smoking or flashing or out of order in any way. "Shit, I should have gone down to the basement."

"Nate's over in the laundry room. You see anything, dude?" Chris feigned.

Steve followed Chris and was shot with a laser blast from Nate's Nerf gun. Steve's avatar wavered and then exploded in a puff of red dust. He was no longer in the game, but he still stood there looking at Nate and Chris. "You idiots!"

"If you had found it, we'd be dead," Nate said, pulling up his goggles to look at Steve. The real Nerf gun had shot him in the belly with a soft round disc that was now on the carpet. Steve shook his head with a smirk. "Damn straight I would have. I'm heading down stairs and taking a Dew on the house. "

Nate Watched Steve head back to the stairs. Then he slowly pulled his goggles back down. Steve disappeared as the game world replaced reality. Nate stood there for a moment, not moving. Chris patted his shoulder, snapping him out of his reverie.

"Hey, let's go down and blast some more before he tells them what happened to him."

Nate's avatar seemed dazed. He handed Chris the Nerf/laser gun. You can have some fun, I'm going back downstairs. I think you were on to something at the Captain's chair. Chris's avatar had the same childish smile he sported in real life. Chris racked the Nerf rifle and looked around for imaginary aliens before following Nate.

Tripp and Joshua had busted into the storage bin and retrieved two single shot Nerf guns. They looked like deadly laser blasters which totally pumped them up as they pointed the pistols around the room. Tripp shot the wall and it produced a red beam that exploded the wall in animated sparks. Both of them started hooting with joy as Steve came around the corner and saw them standing there in real life with two Nerf guns. "Already found one upstairs. Nate killed me with it, I'm out."

Steve went past the girls and grabbed a Mountain Dew from the fridge. Twisting the cap he took a long drink and sat down at the round table beside Jo. He opened his laptop and went to the game's URL. He was able to watch the game like a movie in which he was no longer a star.