Though it would turn out that I was not the only guy dancing with Cassandra Corvette at Frederick’s, neither was she the only girl dancing with me. I was logged in twice at the jazz and swing nightclub, initially taking up both the middle bar stool and the spot at the railing three feet from the door, where hopefuls lounge in their best tuxedos and not-that-bothered poses. Meanwhile, I was logged in a third time back at my office, where Honeycomb Crumbled was finishing off a story she could have summarised in a tenth of the time it actually took her. Clients just love to think they’re unusual.
“Mr Luck,” she said from the seat on the other side of my desk, the leather worn from the outpourings of her many, many predecessors, “are you going to take my case?”
“Let me get this straight,” I said, pausing to whisper in Cassandra’s ear a sweet nothing about the route being taken by my fingers over her shoulder blades. “You think some of the visitors to your club are employed by a competitor to pick people up and take them there instead?”
“Frederick’s used to be the most popular Friday night destination on the grid,” Honeycomb said. “The last few weeks, my numbers have dropped and dropped. Meanwhile, Dominoe’s visitors – for example – have been growing at about the same rate. I can quite assure you that I’m doing nothing different. The same popular DJs and live artists perform. The same standards of dress and behaviour that established our reputation are enforced.”
“Well maybe that’s your problem, sugar,” I pointed out, quickly typing in a comment about the neckline of my second dance partner, Burnished Oak, and how if it plunged any lower my zipper might get itself confused as her navel piercing (the dress code at Frederick’s really wasn’t that exacting). “People get fed up with same old same old. Had it ever crossed your mind that maybe Dominoe’s is just offering something new that the punters want to check out?”
“But that’s just it,” she replied. “There’s nothing whatsoever remarkable about that place at all. The music’s piped in from an easy listening internet radio station. There’s no dress code. The build is a heap of badly scaled and misaligned textures, and the place is crawling with advertisements. If my guests are going there of their own accord, Mr Luck, then I am utterly at a loss as to why.”
Burnished Oak wrote back that my zipper was only an obstacle to what her navel actually wanted to feel pressing against it. Meanwhile, Cassandra Corvette mentioned goosebumps rising across the skin on her back. Neither of them had made any suggestion yet about a change of location, but we’d only so far been dancing for a couple of songs. Halfway through Honeycomb’s lengthy introduction, I’d decided to set the meter running and check the joint out before anything became ‘official’. Cassandra and Burnished were the only two unoccupied avatars when I’d got there, but that wasn’t to say any member of the four already dancing couples hadn’t snagged their partner earlier and weren’t at this very moment whispering about alternate venues.
And right then is when it happened: as though by mutual private agreement with each other, bothof my dancing partners asked both of my representatives if we’d like to relocate to “somewhere a little livelier”. Thirty seconds later, my alts where in a different place, waiting for the greys to colour in.
But only one of them was Dominoe’s.
I of course have – as would any good metaverse detective – a veritable army of alts. I have to use an Excel spreadsheet just to keep track of them: in addition to all the IDs and passwords, there’s their gender, sexuality, appearance, age, attractiveness, species and identifiable personality traits to record. Then there’s the places they hung out in on previous cases and the names of key people they met (with one asterisk to denote if I they might be inclined to try to kill me if they ever met me in RL and two if I had sex with them). I try not to take them where they might be recognised.
Whilst Trigger Masilovi materialised in Dominoes with Cassandra Corvette, then, Gutter Watkins found he’d been teleported by Burnished Oak to a skybox at four thousand metres, one of those New York industrial-style apartments with fake sunlight painted onto the floorboards. Whilst she pressed herself up against me in front of the window, removing her clothing a piece at a time to reveal black lace underwear, she asked me if I was dominant or submissive. I consulted my spreadsheet. “Switch,” I replied.
Back in the office, Honeycomb Crumbled was answering by herself some of the questions my primary hadn’t yet got around to asking, like if she’d actually verified that some of the dancers at Dominoes were previously her guests at Frederick’s. It was no longer an important question, since Cassandra and Trigger were now locked in slow dance number three across black and white tiles whilst an ad for Cialis played over the music stream. Burnished, I decided, was a dead end – or would be after a half hour or so. Whilst she arranged pose balls that required a standing position from me for the next few minutes, I asked Cassandra what was so good about our new venue in a way I hoped made it looked like I was calculating the probability of the move being a step closer to fucking her. After a fashion, she replied just that there were more people there. I put it to Honeycomb that sometimes all it took was just one or two people in the right moment to check some other place out – maybe a sim crash had occurred at Frederick’s one evening and a couple had relocated simply out of impatience – and the subsequent movement of the masses was no more a conspiracy than the flocking of dots in those computer simulations of traffic flow.
“I see I haven’t yet convinced you of the malice in all of this, Mr Luck,” she replied. “Very well. Then I will tell you how I came to know it. I’d hoped not to have to tell you this yet; I would have preferred you discover it independently so you wouldn’t think me paranoid or a drama queen. The fact of the matter is, I’m the victim of a shake down. There’s a group going round extorting money from venues in the metaverse. You pay them monthly and they ensure your reputation ‘remains intact’. I was approached a couple of months ago by one of their representatives. And I refused to pay, Mr Luck.”
Metaverse extortion. Suddenly, this case was altogether more interesting.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked Honeycomb. “What do you mean by you thought I’d think you a drama queen?”
“You know how things work in the metaverse, Mr Luck,” she said to me. “I start talking about my customers leaving due to an extortion racket and the next thing you know the blogosphere is lit up with talk of the paranoid rationalisations of a failing manager. Gossip is the true currency of the virtual world.
“This group is very secretive,” she continued. “It of course does not officially exist. The guy who visited me was a one day old newbie and the very next day his account was deleted. He told me I’d be visited on the third day of every month by another newbie – a different one every time – with the characters 4 and 7 somewhere in their name. I was to pay them without any conversation, and within five minutes of them entering the venue.”
“And you told him you wouldn’t pay?” I asked her, grateful for the long remark because it gave me time to express my appreciation of Burnished’s lip work.
“I told him to fuck off,” she replied after a pause, during which time Cassandra ran her fingers down the front of my shirt at Dominoe’s and Burnished just removed my shirt altogether. “He was asking for 25% of my takings.”
“Do you have a log of this conversation?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “The conversation was conducted entirely in voice. He told me at first he’d broken both his wrists in a fall in RL and couldn’t type, and then asked if we could go into a private call so he could ask me something.”
“Not so newbie that he didn’t know how to operate voice, then,” I commented.
“So tell me, honey,” I said, quickly switching viewers to type some repeated ms into both of my other windows, “what exactly do you want from me out of all of this?”
“Proof that these people exist!” she exclaimed. “Proof that they’re ruining my business! Then I can go to the authorities and not fear being laughed at for inventing conspiracy stories to hide poor management skills. This is my reputation in the metaverse, we’re talking about, Mr Luck. I’ve invested too much in my identity here to see some wannabe mafia group destroy me.”
“My fingers find the hook and clasp of your bra strap,” I typed into Burnished’s box whilst Honeycomb wrote all that out. To Cassandra, I typed, “My fingers gently trace the contour of your jaw.” A busy night for fingers.
“This is likely to be a long case,” I told Honeycomb. “I should warn you, I don’t come cheap. It might be more cost effective to accept their terms. I’m just saying.”
“Over a year?” she replied after a moment. “Over ten years? After they put their demand up to 50%? In any case, I don’t care. If this brings those bastards down, it’ll be money well spent.”
But I wasn’t paying attention to what she’d written. Instead, I was preoccupied with what Cassandra had just written: “Go ahead and unhook my bra, baby.”
Cassandra. Not Burnished. An accidental crosspost. Cassandra and Burnished were the same person.
And that was mistake number two.
I told Honeycomb I’d take the case, but could make no promises; she agreed and left. Cassandra apologised for the crosspost – making out it was meant to be to her boyfriend who’d just come online for the first time in a week, but she’d felt bad about abandoning me – and excused herself quickly to take care of him. And then Burnished typed in, “Take my bra off, baby. Take it off now.” Which was, of course, mistake number three.
In my game, there are no absolutes; there are only hints and suggestions. I didn’t know for an absolute fact that Burnished and Cassandra were the same person, but the timing and specific wording of the crosspost was highly suggestive of that. Similarly, I didn’t know for certain that the human behind them had changed the wording of her response to my bra entree between avatars because she was aware that both her companions were the same guy, but the circumstances warranted an exploration of this possibility. Why, I asked myself, had she not just typed in the same response she’d previously accidentally crossposted? Why change “Go ahead and unhook my bra, baby” to “Take my bra off, baby. Take it off now”? The only reason that made sense to me was that she suspected Trigger Masilovi and Gutter Watkins to be the same guy, and by typing something different in Burnished’s window, possibly I might decide Cassandra’s crosspost was just a coincidence. Changing the text was her attempt at concealing that both her avatars were the same person. But if it was concealment, that meant she knew or suspected both my avatars were the same person too.
But how could she possibly suspect that?
There were metaverse devices that could read the IP address of an avatar’s computer – I had one myself installed under the desk in my office. Two avatars with the same IP address would be highly suggestive of them being one and the same person (sure, one guy could live next door to the other, be jumping on his unprotected wireless connection and just so happen to be in the same metaverse location at the same time as him, but the chances of that were about as likely as my expense claims being met). So far as I knew, you had to have land rights to install such machinery. Cassandra and Burnished weren’t even staff at Frederick’s, let alone management. Had someone invented a new device that could be worn and carried around?
Assuming that Cassandra/Burnished did suspect Trigger and Gutter to be the same person, why had she taken one to Dominoe’s and one to a private residence? Had she come to suspect the deception before or after we’d left Frederick’s? What would have happened if she hadn’t suspected a thing?
And what, if anything, did any of this have to do with Honeycomb’s extortion racket?
But you don’t go ten years in the business without learning when to recognise the smell of a lead. Whatever their role was, they were connected somehow. The question was, what did they suspect me of and what, therefore, were they trying to get me to believe?
I logged Trigger out and brought on another of my alts – Baggage Cardigan, last used eight months previously to obtain pictures of a notable metaverse celebrity in a not uncompromising predicament. But, before I brought him on, I checked I could still connect my laptop to the next door neighbour’s wireless. It worked, but only if I put it on the other side of the room.
Good enough. Now we’d see what happened when someone unsuspected turned up at Frederick’s. I parked Baggage on the end bar stool with a cigarette in his mouth and a glass of bourbon at his hand. And waited.
It was a little bit frantic for a while, what with all the back and forth trips across my lounge to attend to Burnished’s increasingly short and urgent typings and the status of Baggage at the bar. Within five minutes he was approached by – wait for it – Cassandra, mysteriously returned from her boyfriend love-in, but now wearing a different outfit (perhaps to give her a few extra seconds of non-recognition time in case Trigger should show up again). She picked me up with the exact same line she’d used on me before, further reinforcing my theory that the (presumed) rewording earlier implied the (presumed) dual driver’s suspicion. This time, however, she couldn’t possibly know I was the same guy. I accepted her offer and let her lead me out onto the dance floor.
All the while I turned over in my head what impression it was this person was trying to give me if my theory was correct. It seemed a paradox. If s/he was connected to the extortion racket and if they in any way suspected me to be collecting information about this (I had to assume the worst), why had they not gone out of their way to convince me there was nothing going on? Why had they both taken me away from Frederick’s, thereby lending credence to Honeycomb’s accusations? But only Cassandra had actually taken me to and promoted Dominoe’s. Burnished, by taking me back to her place, had effectively only reinforced as a behaviour my coming to Frederick’s. So I wondered if this was a much more subtle ploy: in addition to the gradual transportation of Honeycomb’s clientele to other venues, also take people away who’d later return; people who could deny, if they were asked, that they’d been encouraged to go elsewhere by the avatars they’d left with. A clever strategy, sure; but it still didn’t explain why Cassandra/Burnished had executed it if they suspected me to be onto them. Unless…
Within another five minutes of dance, during which time Burnished and Gutter completed their matter arising and commenced on their post-coital cigarettes, Cassandra had complained about the dullness of the venue and relocated us once more. But not to Dominoe’s. I supposed that she was worried Trigger might still be hanging around. So we materialised instead at a rave dive in a basement in an urban decay sim, prim rats scuttling around on the floor between the dancers and fake vomit. Cassandra took a moment to change her outfit, her red gown with its carefree left-side slit down the entire length of her body blurring into a yellow piece of fabric about ten per cent of its predecessor’s surface area.
“What’s so great about this place?” I asked her, keen to push for some sort of rationale. “The music is terrible.”
“It ain’t about the music, honey,” she replied after a fashion (Burnished was busy typing in a smoke ring aimed at my penis), “it’s about the people. I love the people here. That lot at Frederick’s are like cardboard cut-outs. I’m through with that place. This is where you want to bring yourself if you actually want to meet people and have a good time with them. Trust me on this.”
With that, I decided that my night’s work was done. I told Cassandra I had a migraine to avoid and left before she got a chance to reply. And I planted a lingering kiss on Burnished’s lips and told her I had to get up early in the morning.
Which I did. For the next day was the third of the month. I planned on spending it at Frederick’s.
I got there at six, which is four hours earlier than I usually like to reacquaint myself with the world of consciousness. I guess Honeycomb took the exact same view of mornings; the proprietor of Frederick’s turned up at quarter past nine, by which time I’d casually chatted with all eight of the regulars and greeter staff who rezzed by.
“Mr Luck,” she said. “I’m surprised you turned up so… obviously. Don’t you have an alt you can use for your snooping?”
“Hardened private detectives like to go dancing too, sugar,” I replied. “Deep down, we’re just as soft and fluffy as anyone else.”
“Really, Mr Luck?”
“Not even remotely,” I said. “But it makes a great pickup line.”
“I’d rather hoped that you were at least here to work on my case,” she said, her use of the past perfect injecting somehow that air of professional disappointment, “not just looking to remove yet another of my guests from the premises.”
“Calm yourself, honey,” I told her. “I’m just waiting for newbie 47 to show up.”
“You think I’ll get a visit?” she asked. “I told him rather unambiguously not to return to this place.”
“That was before you lost half your customers,” I reminded her. “He might think you’ve warmed to the idea since then.”
“I’ll never pay, Mr Luck. Never. He can run me into the ground for all I care.”
“All I ask is you keep him here long enough for me to get a fix on his IP.” I rezzed a new pair of sunglasses and pointed them out to her. “Picked up these babies last night after our conversation. A friend of mine just invented them. Portable IP detection. When I say ‘friend’, of course, I mean associate. When I say ‘associate’ I mean someone who really wants what I know about his love-life to stay locked up in this cynical head of mine.”
“Portable IP detection?” she repeated. “I never knew such a thing was possible.”
“I didn’t know myself until last night,” I told her. “Only the cutting edge when you hire me, sweetheart.”
“So you can tell what my IP is?” she asked. I read her off the numbers. “That’s amazing. You’re quite correct.”
“Just remember to promote me to all your friends,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t.
“Well in any case,” she commented, “I don’t think he’ll show up. Hang around as much as you like, but I think it’ll just be time wasted. Why don’t you go over to Dominoe’s and make some enquiries there?”
“Already on it, sugar,” I replied. I had one of my oldest alts perched on the piano stool there, making conversation with a camper who’d ‘cleaned’ at the joint for nearly a year. “Honey?” he was saying. “Yeah, we see her from time to time. Her and the boss have been at war over punters for as long as I can remember. Between you and me, pal, I think they’re more interested in destroying each other than getting any actual custom. The word is things aren’t so good for her place right now. Rico must be laughing himself sick.”
“But I think you might be surprised,” I told Honeycomb. “Few extortionists expect the first meeting to go well. Demonstrating the effectiveness of their product is fairly standard practice.
“Look by the door,” I told her, before she had a chance to reply. And it was a case of perfect timing.
A day old newbie was entering the establishment. His name was Alton74.
Honeycomb was suddenly silent. I ran through the workings out she’d be going through in her head, wondering how quick she’d be. After about a minute, I asked her, “You still there, sugar?”
“It looks like you were right, Mr Luck,” she said finally. If my hunch was correct and she was bright, there was only one conclusion she could come to (other than it actually just being some innocent newbie with the right numbers in his name): I’d recruited someone to pose as Alton74. Always assuming, of course, I was the first private detective she’d come to with this case.
“Get me out of here,” she said suddenly. “Please. I’m scared. Take me back to your office.” I teleported us directly to my desk and within two minutes we’d swept it clear and the distraction sex had commenced, her power suit vanished, but only from the waist down. Meanwhile, on my laptop across the room, Cassandra Corvette appeared from nowhere, approached Alton74 and asked him what he wanted. Mistake number four, but people don’t think clearly when they’re under pressure.
“I want to dance with you,” I typed as Alton. “But not here. I know this great new place that people are flocking to. Come with me and I’ll tell you something you don’t know about the owner of this club.”
Of course, she couldn’t resist. I sent her a teleport from the builder’s platform I’d erected a hundred metres above the office in which Honeycomb and I were fucking. She took it without checking the co-ordinates and appeared in front of me. Ten seconds later, she realised her (fifth) mistake and disappeared, but a second was all the gadget under my desk required.
She worked it out for herself. Honeycomb/Cassandra/Burnished stood up and re-rezzed her skirt. “There’s no such thing as a portable IP detection device, is there, Mr Luck?” she said.
“I’m afraid not, sugar,” I replied. “Just my little invention to dissuade you from attempting to bring on your own newbie 47, but it also confirmed to me that you had an IP device installed at your club – how else would you know your own IP so readily?”
“How did you know it?” she asked.
“Wrote it down when you were here last night,” I replied. “I have my own device installed right here.”
“You’re very clever, Mr Luck,” she said.
“And lucky,” I said. “You took on too much last night. All those pauses from you whilst your alts were typing: that was your first mistake. But I wouldn’t have realised it were it not for the Burnished/Cassandra crosspost and the way you then reworded it. Everything was just the two of us, all along. What a double act we made.
“I realise that Rico – Dominoe’s owner – probably actually was stealing your customers. Only thing is, you didn’t just want to win against him; you wanted him destroyed. It’s amazing what you can dig up on other people’s old blog posts. I found some very pretty pictures of the two of you getting married a couple of years ago.”
“He betrayed me,” she said. “And then he had the gall to make out it was me who’d been unfaithful to him.”
“So you cooked up the idea of a protection racket,” I said. “Run your own business into the ground and put word out it was the work of an all-powerful extortion group, then approach Rico with the same deal you tell everyone you refused. Getting me to poke my nose in was just for added authenticity. If Rico knew you’d been destroyed despite a good fight, he’d be more likely to take the threat seriously.”
“And he would have agreed,” she said. “I know him. He’d have paid through the nose to avoid being grouped in the same category as me, and he’d never have known I had him right in the palm of my hand.”
I’d like to say it was a surprise to me that all her previous investment in Frederick’s amounted to nothing, but bitterness is my business and there’s little it can do to surprise me anymore. I gave Honeycomb the conditions for my silence and she agreed. And she teleported away from my office and back to her empty club; and I, once again, was grateful to have demanded my first week’s fees up front.