A new Avatar Dining Club mystery.
A light dusting of snow covered the path on my walk from the car park to the eighth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club at L’Albero Verde. These monthly meetings had become a social highlight for me, but on this occasion I was not especially looking forward to the meal. In the intervening weeks, the guest I’d brought to the previous meeting, Deadly Number – an old school friend who I happened to know also in the metaverse – had hooked up with one of the regular members of our group, Rainy September. Rainy was a woman I had taken a mild disliking to right up to the point when she started showing an interest in Deadly. It dismays me frequently that my romantic inclinations are about as sophisticated as a two year old who doesn’t want to touch his carrots until the moment they are taken away from him.
My brown study was interrupted by a snowball landing squarely across the left lapel of my overcoat. I looked up in annoyance, ready to unleash upon whatever nearby urchin had dared disturb my indulgent moment of self-pity the full extent of my verbal outrage and spotted the youngest member of our dining club, Raw Concrete, grinning at me from across the road.
“Cheer up, Leonard!” he called out to me, as he sauntered over. ”It might never happen!” Raw will never know how fortunate he is that I like him, since that particular salutation is one that I consider a well-aimed snowball (even one to the face) vastly preferable to. I resisted my natural urge to land him on his rear end and instead forced a unconvincing smile across my face. “Hello Raw,” I said.
“Quite the turn up, eh?” the virtual world builder remarked. “Rainy and Deadly! Who’d have thought?!” To anyone with one or more eyes in their head, Rainy’s advances on Deadly at our last meal had been blindingly obvious.
“It feels like a breach of club rules to me,” I said stiffly. “We’re not supposed to meet up with each other inworld.”
“As I recall,” he replied, “that was more of a recommendation than a hard-and-fast rule. In any case, it doesn’t apply to guests – who by definition know at least one of us in there.”
“Except, as I understand it,” I said, ”Rainy now wants Deadly to become a full member of the club.”
“Well it turns out he only lives around the corner. I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Leonard, what with him being your friend and everything.”
“I did know that!” I cried. “I didn’t announce it because I was following the ‘no real life information’ rule!”
“I wonder what Edward will say,” Raw mused. “He’s had to tell off Rainy once already about the real world thing.” He kicked up little sprays of snow as we walked.
“I’m certain he’ll be unhappy about it,” I replied. “For one thing, where are we going to put the laptop for the virtual guest if all eight seats are occupied?”
“We’re going to have to ask for a bigger table!” Edward declared.
“Is that a yes?” asked Rainy, beaming.
“Let’s not be too hasty here,” I commented.
“Communities have to evolve, Leonard,” our founder told me. “Nothing stays the same forever.”
“The restaurant might not be happy with us having a larger table,” I pointed out.
“It will be our pleasure, Sir,” our waiter, Enrico, told me. “That’s really good of you,” I told him quietly.
“Could it be that you’re jealous, Leonard?” Indigo Williams asked, playfully.
“Most certainly not!” I declared, perhaps a little too forcefully.
“I think it will be nice to have another member,” Jennifer Bit commented. “Plus it enlarges the pool of guests we can invite.”
“My thoughts precisely,” Edward agreed. “After Mary-Anne’s guest tonight, each of the original members will have brought someone to a meeting. Do you think Deadly might find someone for our meeting next month, Rainy?”
“I’ll ask him when I get home tonight,” she replied. “We have an online game of snakes and ladders scheduled.” Deadly was a board games maker in the virtual world.
“Is that a metaphor for something?” Indigo asked.
Meanwhile, Raw was helping Mary-Anne Middlemarch to set up her laptop at the end of the table. We were meeting a couple of hours later than our usual time since her guest lived on the East Coat of the US and couldn’t get home from work any earlier. The quietest member of our group, Mary-Anne had apologised profusely to each of us as we’d arrived for this departure from the norm. “My dear Mary-Anne,” Edward had told her reassuringly, “a metaversian gathering such as ours – with its global reach – cannot help but bump up against time zones from time to time.”
“I still find timezones hard to get my head around,” Raw said, as he plugged in the very long network cable we’d been given permission to use (the restaurant had no Wi-Fi, a characteristic which a couple of years ago might have been seen as a minus, but which was now marketed as a feature: a big sign on the window declared it a ‘Wi-Fi Free Zone’). “I have a friend in India – did you know they’re five and a half hours ahead of us? Who decides these things?!”
“I can go one weirder than that,” I said. “New Zealand’s Chatham Islands are thirteen hours and forty-five minutes ahead of us.”
Finally the connection was made and a middle-aged man with straw coloured hair and a rather straggly looking beard appeared on the laptop screen. Mary-Anne took a deep breath and introduced Twenty-six Bournemouth. “Actually,” she added, blushing, “Twenty-six is my boyfriend… as of a week ago!”
“Oh!” cried Indigo, Jennifer and Edward, shortly followed by Rainy (who looked ever-so-slightly as though her thunder had been stolen). “We might as well rename ourselves ‘The Avatar Dating Club,’” I mumbled quietly to Raw as he returned to his seat to my left.
“Welcome, dear fellow,” Edward announced. “I trust you have something to eat with us – and that Mary-Anne has outlined the rules of our little get-togethers.”
“Sure thing, Edward,” Twenty-six replied, holding up a burger for us all to see. “I stopped for takeout on my way home. And no real-life information. Gotcha!”
“Twenty lives in New York!” Mary-Anne said, excitedly. Then she caught Edward’s stern look in her direction. “Oh right. Sorry. It just popped out.”
“Definitely a pop-worthy fact,” Indigo remarked, winking across the table at her.
“Don’t worry about it, Edward,” Twenty-six said from the laptop. “A New Yorker is never ashamed to be called a New Yorker.”
“Be that as it may,” our white-haired host said gruffly, “I would greatly appreciate it if the RL revelations end there.”
We each introduced ourselves properly. “So how did you two meet?” Jennifer asked, leaning to one side slightly as Enrico placed her Saltimbocca in front of her.
“Oh that was back in November,” Twenty-six said. “I’d not long broken up with my ex and I’d decided it was time to get myself back out there. We met at a virtual Thanksgiving party.”
“Rebound!” declared Raw.
“Not a rebound,” Mary-Anne said quickly. “As I just told you, we only got together a week ago. We were friends first.”
“For a whole… six weeks?” Indigo queried, deadpan.
“Six weeks is a long time in the metaverse.”
“Absolutely,” Rainy said. “Like Deadly and I have been together now for just three weeks, but it feels like I’ve known him my entire life.”
“Whereas I have actually known him almost my entire life,” I commented.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “He mentioned you two went to school together.”
“Leonard! Rainy!” Edward barked. He was starting to look genuinely cross.
“I wanted to be absolutely certain that Twenty was over Bardo before we started our relationship,” Mary-Anne said quickly.
“How does ‘Twenty’ work as a nickname?” Raw asked, actually lifting his first slice of pizza before the descending plate had made physical contact with the table. “It’s like a whole different name. It’s like calling a Robert ‘Jim’.”
“You have a strange mind,” Indigo told him.
“Mary-Anne was a saviour to me,” Twenty-six told us. “I was still a bit shell-shocked by the break-up. She really helped me to process it. You Brits are great listeners.”
“What was so shocking about the break-up?” Rainy asked him.
“Just that it didn’t make sense!” he replied immediately, with unexpected passion.
“But we’re done talking about that now,” Mary-Anne said sharply. “You’ve moved on.”
“Sounds like a mystery to me,” Raw mused. “Maybe we can solve it!”
“You mean maybe you can come up with some highly improbable set of contrived possibilities and then Edward can solve it,” Indigo said to him. Raw stuck his tongue out at her.
“Not a mystery at all,” Mary-Anne told them. “A misunderstanding, nothing more.”
“She thought I was having an affair!” Twenty-six exclaimed. “And I wasn’t!”
“Ok,” muttered Mary-Anne, “so apparently we’re not done talking about it.”
“The more I tell her I wasn’t seeing anyone behind her back, the more angry she gets with me for ‘not being man enough’ to own up to it.”
“The more you told her,” Mary-Anne corrected him.
“Right, yes,” Twenty-six said. “Told.”
Edward intervened. “Why don’t you tell us a bit about what you do in the virtual world?” he suggested.
Our guest waved his hand dismissively. “I make shoes,” he told us.
“Shoes?” said Rainy and Indigo in stereo.
“Wait,” Jennifer said. “You’re Bournemouth Shoes?”
“Yep,” he replied. “The number one brand. Ten years old in March.”
“Oh well done, Mary-Anne,” said Indigo. I think she had tears in her eyes.
“Is that good?” Raw asked.
“It sure beats board games,” she told him. Rainy cast a glare in her direction.
“Making shoes is his full-time job!” Mary-Anne practically squealed. “He earns a fortune!”
Jennifer cleared her throat. “I, um, don’t suppose you’re looking for new bloggers?”
Twenty-six rolled his eyes. “Man, if I had a dime for every time someone asked me that.”
“If anyone’s getting that piece of the action it’s me!” Marry-Anne told her, indignantly.
“Actually,” Twenty-six told us, “Bardo is still my official blogger… for the time being.”
Rainy half choked on her wine at this news. “What?! Why?!”
Twenty-six avoided looking in Mary-Anne’s direction as he told us, “Well.. she, um, takes the best pictures of shoes.”
“Shoes are difficult to photograph dramatically,” Jennifer commented. “Zoom in too much and it’s just a pair of shoes at the end of two legs. Zoom out too much and all the attention ends up on the model.”
“Riiiiiight,” Rainy said. “Nothing to do with keeping that door ajar then.”
Twenty-six blushed. “I suppose there is an additional motive,” he said, “but it’s not that! She thinks I had an affair and I didn’t! I don’t want to do anything that plays into her version of events.”
“You think that if you fired her then she’d see that as evidence you wanted her out of your life,” I said.
“Exactly!” he cried. “Finally someone who gets it!”
“Except,” said Mary-Anne, firmly, “we’ve agreed that sometimes you just have to accept that someone holds a negative view of you and let go of it. And move on.”
“Yes yes,” he muttered quietly. “I suppose.”
“In any case, it won’t work,” Indigo stated. “She’ll just decide you’re only interested in her for the publicity she gets you. She’s probably already decided that’s the only reason you stayed with her in the first place. All you’re going to do is build her resentment.”
“Exactly!” Mary-Anne said. She glared at the screen as she added, “Finally someone who gets what I’m saying.”
“Then what am I supposed to do to prove that she was wrong?” our guest asked us.
“What was it you did that gave her the impression you were seeing someone in the first place?” Jennifer asked.
“But that’s just it,” he cried, “I didn’t do anything! There was a Halloween party we decided to go to together. I teleported over at the time we agreed and she wasn’t there. I waited for nearly an hour and in the end I logged off, assuming something had happened in real life. The next day, when she finally messaged me, she went ballistic on me for standing her up! But I was there!”
“She dumped you over that?!” Indigo asked, incredulously. “She sounds crazy. You should fire her ass and be glad you got away.”
“My thoughts precisely,” Mary-Anne said. “Let’s change the subject.”
“In fairness to Bardo,” Twenty-six continued, “I had missed a couple of dates before that.”
“How soon before that?” Rainy asked.
“The week before that.”
“You missed three dates in a week?!”
“I missed two dates,” he clarified. “The third I didn’t miss.”
“What were your excuses for the first two?”
“The first one I plain forgot about. My shoemaking requires a lot of time. I can spend hours in one go sometimes with messages turned off; I just get so absorbed in my work I completely lose track of time. The second date I missed because something came up in real life.”
Rainy asked, “And how did she respond to those missed dates?” I heard Mary-Anne sigh quietly beside me.
“She wasn’t happy about them!” Twenty-six replied. “Bardo’s a bit insecure and she knows women flirt with me sometimes because of my profile. I promised I’d make it up to her and so I was especially careful to make sure I turned up on time for the Halloween party.”
“If you don’t mind me saying, my dear fellow,” Edward said, kindly, “it’s perhaps something of a stretch to say that Bardo ending the relationship makes no sense. Justified though it might not be, there is a clear logic of sorts to her perception of events. As Mary-Anne says, sometimes we just have to chalk these things up to the unfairness of the universe and get on with being alive.”
“Please don’t get me wrong,” Twenty-six told him, “the bit that’s inexplicable to me isn’t the paranoid narrative she’s concocted: what I just don’t get is how she’s so certain I wasn’t at the party when it was her who wasn’t there.”
“The system that tells you who’s online at any given moment in the metaverse is always glitching,” Raw said. “I often see people as offline when in fact they’re inworld.”
“Yeah, but that’s just because they’re hiding from you,” Indigo told him.
“Ha. Ha,” the young man retorted. “Well I say that she was there and the system was busted – telling each of you that the other was offline when you weren’t. Is that too ‘contrived’ for you?”
“Makes sense to me,” Rainy said.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me at all!” Twenty-six said, forcefully. “Never mind what the system was saying, if she’d been there I would have seen her there.”
“Does she say she actually attended the party?” Indigo asked. “Perhaps she was at her home waiting for you to come online.”
“According to her, she was at the party at the exact same time that I was.”
“Was it a busy event?” Raw asked him.
“Oh yes. It was held at one of the virtual world’s top clubs. There were at least forty or fifty people present.”
“Then it’s simple. She was there but the lag created by that many people meant she didn’t get rendered. She was there but she was invisible to you. And you were invisible to her. Happens all the time.”
“You’re forgetting the list of people nearby,” Twenty-six countered. “Do you really think it never crossed my mind that her avatar might not have rendered? It’s not like I’ve never been to busy places before. I was checking that list every five minutes just in case she was really there and I couldn’t see her.”
“Is it possible that she just went to a different event?” Jennifer asked. “There are lots of parties going on at Halloween – maybe you thought she’d agreed to party A and she thought you’d agreed to party B.”
“We never discussed any other parties,” he replied. “In fact, the plan began with the club. I told her there was a party scheduled at Roxy’s – the fact that it was a Halloween party was an entirely secondary issue.”
“Then maybe she’s just lying,” Indigo proposed. “Maybe she wanted to dump you anyway and do it in a way that made out it was your fault. Maybe she wasn’t there but she assumed you wouldn’t be either because you’d missed the two previous dates. Or maybe she just wants to mess with your mind.”
“If that’s what she wanted to do,” Mary-Anne muttered, “she for sure succeeded.”
“There’s no doubt at all that Bardo’s temperamental and paranoid,” Twenty-six said, “but I just don’t think she’s capable of something like that. I’m absolutely certain she believes she’s right. How can that be possible?!”
Edward cleared his throat. “I wonder if I might be able to shed some light on this so that we can put this conversation to bed. I rather think poor Mary-Anne has had enough of it.”
“Indeed I have,” she muttered.
Twenty-six looked momentarily shame-faced. “I’m sorry, Mary-Anne. Go right ahead, Edward. Nothing would please me more than to finally get some closure on this – though I don’t know what you can possibly add that hasn’t been thought of.”
“You just wait and see,” said Indigo.
“Well, it’s just an idea,” Edward said, softly. “Would I be right in thinking Bardo lives in Europe?” he asked.
“Yes,” Twenty-six said. “She’s a Brit too. I didn’t mention that, did I? How did you know?”
“Just a hunch, dear fellow. We were talking about time zones earlier and I wondered if perhaps a confusion might have arisen from the two of you living by different clocks.”
“If you’re going to suggest that one of us turned up at the wrong time because we forgot we were in different time zones,” Twenty-six told him, “I can assure you we were well accustomed to the hours difference between us. We’d been together for five months by the time of the party.”
“Except that that hours difference is not always constant,” Edward pointed out. “In the autumn our clocks go back one week before yours and in the spring your clocks go forward two weeks before ours. During these three weeks, the time zone difference between the UK and New York is decreased from five hours to just four. It’s entirely possible that a person from the UK might not be aware of this and turn up to an event at the time they think is the right time because that hour always equates to that time ordinarily, when in fact they are sixty minutes late – and their partner, by that time, has logged off.”
Twenty-six stared at Edward, then threw his hands up. “Why didn’t I think of that?!” he cried.
“And I suppose you’re going to tell us that Halloween last year fell during that Autumn week,” Indigo said, grinning.
“I’m afraid it did, my dear,” Edward replied. “I’m afraid it did.”
“You solved it again, Edward!” she declared.
“I merely cleared the way for a more productive conversation,” our host replied. “Now then, Twenty-six: why don’t you entertain us with some surprising revelations about the virtual shoe industry?”