A brand new Avatar Dining Club story.
Mary-Anne Middlemarch, ordinarily the quietest member of the Avatar Dining Club, seemed positively brimming with excitement as we all took our places at the table in L’Albero Verde, the venue for our monthly meal and meet-up. As Raw Concrete, our youngest member, set up the laptop at the far end, she made a proud announcement about our remote guest for the evening. “Everyone,” she said, a little breathlessly, “I have metaverse royalty for us tonight!”
Indigo Williams commented dryly, as she poured out a glass of water, “The last time anyone made an announcement like that it was Raw, with his revenge-seeking infiltrator.”
“I missed a revenge-seeking infiltrator?!” Vanilla Sharp exclaimed.
“Someone from Edward’s secret past,” I told her, and patted her hand.
Our white-haired host looked at me and smiled. “Let’s not over-dramatise, Leonard,” he said. “I shouldn’t want to end up in one of your stories. It was just an old acquaintance with something of a chip on his shoulder.”
“Boy did you make that guy mad,” Jennifer Bit said, chuckling at the memory.
“I miss one meeting to get my head together and you get a guy seeking revenge on Edward,” said Vanilla, who had previously been known to us as Rainy September. “Not fair!”
“The headline,” I told her, “was ‘never underestimate Edward’.”
“In that case, meh,” she said, dismissively. “That’s old news.”
“Dammit!” Raw cried suddenly. “That’s the second time this week Windows has done this to me!” He waved his fist at the laptop.
“What seems to be the problem, dear boy?” Edward asked, leaning forward.
“I click in the password box, look down at the keyboard and start typing, and when I look up Windows has opened up some other thing and the text goes into that instead.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I hate it when that happens. I was typing a taunt at one of my Fortnite buddies just the other day, and when I looked down at the keyboard to write it, a whole new window just opened up with a direct message from my line manager. If I hadn’t looked up before I hit the enter key I’d have told her she’d improve our team’s efficiency just by pointing a gun at her own head and pulling the trigger.”
“You… play Fortnite?” Vanilla asked me, slowly extracting her hand from underneath mine.
“Wait,” I said, “Did I just say that out loud?”
“Guys!” Mary-Anne exclaimed. “You haven’t asked me who my guest is!”
“If this is someone actually famous then I’m becoming more and more interested in you and the circles you mix in, Mary-Anne,” said Indigo. “I mean, last time you brought the Bournemouth Shoes guy! That will be a hard one to top.”
“We have someone actually famous right here!” Raw declared, as he made his way back to the seat to my left, and then added, when everyone looked at him blank-faced, “Leonard!”
“I think we’ve previously spent enough time establishing the esteem this table holds my books in, Raw,” I muttered, whilst secretly pleased that Raw had evidently upgraded his own estimation of my fame status.
Indigo said to Vanilla, “I guess now that you two are an item you’re obliged to read those books of his, huh?”
“I read a few pages every night when I go to bed,” replied Vanilla. “It helps me to sleep.”
“I don’t think it was ever in dispute that they have that quality,” Indigo said.
“Guys!” Mary-Anne exclaimed again in despair. We all apologised, quietened and looked at her expectantly. “I have arranged for us to be joined tonight by… Emilia Checkpoint!”
Without a doubt, that was genuinely impressive. Emilia Checkpoint was one of the best known names in the metaverse. Owner of one of the longest running and most popular furniture and houseware brands, ‘PeachChina,’ her sales figures suggested that on average every single avatar in the metaverse had bought at least three items from her at some point. But that was only the starting point of her fame. For the past five years, she’d been running her own YouTube channel on metaverse destinations, events and products, and she was now at just over half a million subscribers – a huge figure given the still relatively small outreach of the metaverse into mainstream activity. It was reported in fact that at least twenty percent of new registrations to the virtual world over the last year had come about as a result of her channel. This fame and status had resulted in invitations to the most exclusive metaverse events, and on a couple of occasions she had even fronted events for Basswood themselves, the makers of the metaverse.
“Wow,” we all said in unison.
“This isn’t going to be for one of her episodes, is it?” Raw said, nervously examining his teeth in the back of a spoon. “Is she going to be filming us?” At this suggestion, everyone started fiddling discreetly with their hair and smoothing out their clothing.
“Relax, everybody,” Mary-Anne reassured us. “Emilia is just as keen as we are that this be off the record. As a matter of fact, she insisted on it.”
“Didn’t I read the other day that she’s thinking of selling PeachChina?” Indigo asked. There was a big story about it on one of the blogs I follow.”
“Yes, I read that too,” said Jennifer. “It’s created quite a stir.”
“Oh I didn’t hear about that,” said Mary-Anne, as she quickly entered in a message on her phone to let Emilia know that we were ready. Meanwhile Enrico, our tireless waiter, brought us the menus.
“I guess the YouTube work is her main focus now,” commented Vanilla. “I expect she has no time these days for design work.”
“Except people have been buying things from her for years knowing that they can expect a high level of quality from her brand,” said Jennifer. “Now it’ll just be a word.”
“Which is how it’s always been in the real world when any company gets sold,” I countered. “Buy a successful brand that people want and then outsource the manufacture to a country where the labour is cheap.”
“Just because it’s happened many times before doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment,” said Jennifer. “I must admit, I expected better from her.”
“I agree,” said Raw. “She’s sold out, plain and simple.”
“Why should anyone have to keep doing something they don’t want to do any more?” Vanilla asked them. “If either of you wanted to change your career in real life and had the opportunity to do so, would it be fair to criticise you on the grounds that someone different now had to do your old job? Can’t we just be grateful for all the great work she did previously?”
“Seconded,” said Indigo. “Let someone new in. Better someone fresh and passionate for the job than her continuing with her heart only half in it.”
“Can we quit judging the guest before she’s even here to defend herself?” Mary-Anne pleaded, with uncharacteristic assertiveness. As if on cue, the view we had of ourselves on the laptop screen shrank to one of two windows and Emilia’s name appeared across one of them in big, white lettering.
“Can someone remind me again why we’re using this ‘Zoom’ thing instead of Skype?” Mary-Anne asked, as she leaned across to maximise Emilia’s window. Raw had instructed her on this earlier.
“Because Zoom’s the future,” said Raw. “You mark my words.”
“Hi everyone!” came Emilia’s voice. And then she appeared, looking just as fresh and energised as she always did on her videos. “Emilia Checkpoint here! OMG did I really just say that? I’m so sorry! Force of habit force of habit.” We all laughed (a little nervously). I suddenly realised how intimidated I felt by her presence.
Edward cleared his throat to deliver his customary greeting. “You are most welcome here, Emilia,” he announced. “I’d just like to check first that you understand the main rule we keep in this group: no real life information to be shared.”
“Dude, I’ve been safeguarding my RL ID for the past five years now,” Emilia said, laughing (I noticed everyone stiffening slightly at her calling Edward a ‘dude’). “Have no fear, I’m all over that.”
“In that case,” Edward said, smiling warmly, “you may consider my fears duly allayed.”
“Hiya Emilia,” said Mary-Anne, and she asked us each to introduce ourselves. Emilia was using a fake background image of her dining room in the metaverse (decorated almost entirely, I will add, with PeachChina products). I’d seen her use that same background in a number of her videos.
“I hope you guys realise the rumours circulating about you,” Emilia told us. “You’re like this secret society that it’s become fashionable to have heard of. I feel so privileged to be here!”
“I fear,” said Edward, “that we will probably disappoint any expectations generated from the circulation of unfounded rumours.”
“Rumours are currency, Edward,” Emilia replied. “Listen. I wanted to check out with you all if it’s ok for me to mention that I’ve met with you in my next video. Don’t worry – I won’t be giving any actual details like any names or what it was we talked about – now that would be unfashionable – but it will get people talking if they know I’ve had contact with you. And people talking about me means more likes, subscribers and views.”
“And more likes, subscribers and views means more money,” I commented.
“A girl’s gotta make a living!” she replied, not put out by this comment in the slightest.
“I suppose a mere mention shouldn’t be in and of itself be reason for concern,” said Edward, thoughtfully, “though of course the decision is hardly mine to make alone.”
“It’s fine by me!” Raw declared, eagerly. “I love that people think we’re some sort of mysterious group.”
“Pretty much any rumour is an improvement in status for you,” Indigo remarked to him. “It’s ok with me too,” she added. “Like you say, Emilia, rumours are currency.” One by one, everyone else gave their consent and then the conversation took a momentary pause as Enrico reappeared to take our orders.
“So Emilia,” Indigo said, a few minutes later, “Talking about rumours, is it true you want to sell off PeachChina?”
“Or how about, ‘Why don’t you tell us a bit about being a famous YouTuber?'” Mary-Anne suggested, politely.
“Nah, it’s ok, Mary-Anne,” Emilia said. “Pretty much everywhere I’ve been these last few days that’s what everyone keeps asking me. I’m resigned to it now. And, like I said, rumours are currency. Though I will admit I wasn’t best pleased about this one leaking out. Yeah, it’s true. I’m gonna let it go. I wasn’t spending all that much time on it anyway lately, at least in creating new stuff – which is why I started doing it in the first place. The thing is with a product range that big you spend most of your time just dealing with customer messages. I do have someone who’s s’posed to deal with all that, but half my customers never bother to read the bit in my profile that tells them to contact her instead of me, and the other half she basically forwards me their question. I was thinking about replacing her – and dreading that conversation, TBH – when I suddenly realised my heart just wasn’t in it any more.”
“Sounds fair to me,” commented Vanilla.
“I can rely on your discretion on that bit about my assistant, right?” Emilia added, looking suddenly concerned that she might have spoken unwisely. Edward assured her that we would treat everything she told us in confidence.
“Leaking out?” Raw asked, not breaking the hard stare he was giving the kitchen on the other side of the room that suggested he was trying to will his pizza to get to him more quickly. “Who squealed on you?”
“That’s the thing that guts me most about it,” Emilia replied. “I trusted one person with this news – one person – and the very next day it’s all over the blogosphere. I really thought I could trust Henna. It’s sickening to think the tiny bit of attention she got out of blabbing was worth more to her than our friendship.”
“I guess that’s the price of fame,” Vanilla commented. “You find out who your friends really are.”
“And she won’t even own it. She keeps telling me I never even told her in the first place! I don’t know how she has the cheek to say that to me!”
“But you must log your messages, right?” Indigo said to her. “Just show her the message.”
“Yeah, you’d think,” Emilia replied and sighed. “That’s where the universe – well, the metaverse, at least – has screwed me over. The message isn’t there in my log.”
Raw said, “Well that’s impossible. If you sent her a message then it must be there.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Emilia said. “I’d say the exact same thing if anyone told me the same story. But there you go. I know I sent her the message. And the message isn’t there.”
“A mystery for us to solve!” Jennifer declared, and a chuckle went around the table.
“Yeah, I heard you guys like to solve stuff,” Emilia said. “I didn’t come here to tell you about that, though. I mean, it’s not a mystery, right? It just happened. I’m assuming it was a glitch of some sort.”
“Definitely it’s that,” I remarked, fairly certain I understood what had happened. “I’ve many times had problems like this in the past. I’m typing stuff away in my message box – sometimes several lines – and I start wondering why I’m getting no response-“
“If it’s the storyline for your next novel you’re typing about,” Indigo interjected, “then the reason for that isn’t a technical glitch.”
“-and seconds later I crash,” I continued, ignoring the remark. “The other person never received my message because I was already offline to them. By any chance did you crash soon after sending the message?”
“Yes actually I did,” Emilia said. “About five seconds later, in fact. The whole region I was in at the time went down and everyone got booted out.” She paused to take a sip of wine. It was enough time for a rather smug smile to stretch itself across my face. “But that can’t have been what it was, right?” she continued.
“Of course it can’t,” Raw said testily, now trying desperately to catch Enrico’s eye. “If that’s what happened then the message wouldn’t have reached Henna, but it would still be in Emilia’s log.”
“Exactly!” Emilia replied, and I tried to make my smug smile look like a random exercising of my facial muscles.
“You must have just sent the message to the wrong person,” Raw stated, and then his eyes lit up as Enrico approached with our dishes.
“Dude,” said Emilia, forcefully, “when you’re sending a message like that you make 100% sure it’s to the right person.”
“Although if you crashed just five seconds later,” Jennifer said, “did you actually have time to check you wrote it in the right window?”
“I didn’t need to check that because it was a new message window,” Emilia replied. “I scrolled down my friends list, right clicked on Henna’s name, selected ‘message’ from the menu, typed in the message and then I hit enter.”
“Can you tell us what the message was?” Mary-Anne asked. “Perhaps it wasn’t obvious to Henna that what you were telling her was a secret.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. “We tend to type things out in lines, one part at a time – we often don’t put down everything in one go.”
“I said something like, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I’m selling PeachChina.’ Call me old fashioned, but I would have thought the ‘don’t tell anyone’ part kinda communicated the secretive status of the ‘I’m selling PeachChina’ part.”
“And that still wouldn’t explain why the message is missing from her log,” Jennifer added.
“But you were going to add more to the message than that, right?” asked Indigo, leaning to one side slightly so that Enrico could place her salad in front of her. “If you hadn’t crashed, I mean?”
“Well yeah, of course,” Emilia replied. “And I would have when I got back in, but that took a little time – I got one of those ‘please try again in a few minutes’ messages – and by then Henna had logged off.”
“Could it be a missing message?” I wondered, and got several blank looks from around the table.
“I think our present discussion already assumes that the message went missing, Leonard,” Indigo said, deadpan.
“I mean one of those messages that for some reason never reaches the other person. Instead it gets delivered to their email address as an offline message – except those often get shunted automatically into the ‘promotional’ folder in your email so you end up missing them completely.”
“Still doesn’t explain why it wasn’t in Emilia’s log,” Jennifer said.
“We’re trying to find one explanation for two separate things going wrong,” I continued. “One – Henna didn’t get the message. Two – it’s vanished from Emilia’s log. What if each of those things happened for a different reason?”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit coincidental, honey?” Vanilla asked me gently.
“Of course it is,” I replied. “But coincidences don’t never happen – they’re just rare.”
“Leonard might have a point,” Raw said, already halfway through his second slice of pizza. “Something could have been happening on Emilia’s computer that delayed her message being added to her log file. A virus scan, for example, can slow down disk writing to a crawl. It would have gotten to it eventually, but then she crashed a few seconds after she sent it and the task got terminated. And the missing message theory would explain why Henna never got it.”
“Wait,” said Indigo. “Are we really not going to address the fact that Vanilla just called Leonard, ‘honey?'”
“Ok fine,” Emilia said. “I guess that does all sound sort of possibly plausible. But what it doesn’t explain is how the secret then got leaked. If Henna didn’t blab then who did?!”
“You didn’t tell anyone else?” Mary-Anne asked.
“But presumably you’d talked to at least one buyer,” I said, a growing excitement within me that I just might have cracked this one. “After all, you said ‘I’m selling PeachChina’ – not ‘I’m putting it up for sale.’ So your buyer knew. And, like you said, rumours are currency.”
Emilia hesitated, her mouth open. She thought it all through. Finally, she said, “I guess you must be right. Goddamn. Yes – Ricardo always has been a hopeless attention-seeker. This actually makes sense. What a jerk! How could I have missed this?! Well I’m almost tempted to call the whole sale off just to spite him. Leonard, you’re a genius!”
“Ah well,” I said, failing completely at keeping the smug smile from its triumphant return to my face (and it was all the wider for the slightly shocked expressions on the faces of everyone on the other side of the table from me), “you mustn’t be hard on yourself Emilia. These things are rarely self-evident. And I wouldn’t have seen the solution had it not been for the very systematic questioning of my fellow dining clu-“
Edward cleared his throat.
“There is,” he said, “another possibility.”
I turned to our white-haired host, a fixed smile on my face. “Then of course,” I said, “we must explore it.”
“Don’t you go looking at Edward like that,” Indigo told me. “Your theory got Raw’s approval – that alone should have been a red flag for you.”
“I’m sorry Leonard, dear fellow,” Edward said, “you might conceivably be right, of course, but actually your theory relies on four things happening – not two: the non-delivery of the message, yes, and the vanished message from the log, indeed, but also the buyer being untrustworthy and the crash a few seconds later. That combination moves it from unlikely to highly improbable, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would say, ” I replied, still doing my best to smile, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In the unlikely event that I was actually right, I reckoned my use of that quote would have elevated my status to a whole new level of respectability.
Edward smiled at me. “Very good, Leonard, if you have eliminated the impossible.”
“Don’t hold back, Edward,” Indigo said, smiling sweetly across the table at me. “Kill him good.”
“Well it is only a possibility,” he said, putting far more emphasis on that last word than I thought was reasonable. “I’m assuming, Emilia, that you have quite a number of friends on your friends list?”
“Oh God,” Emilia said, “too many! I never unfriend people – I just don’t have it within me.”
“So at any given moment you must see a lot of them coming and going as they log in and log out?”
“Constantly!” she replied.
“Raw and Leonard were talking earlier of their irritation when Windows gives a different program the keyboard focus right before they start typing something. These things happen, of course, because computers have no idea what it is we’re about to do – even if it is only a split second before we start doing it.”
“I’m not really following you, Edward,” Emilia told him.
“You said earlier that you scrolled down your friends list, found Henna’s name and then right clicked on it to get the menu up.”
“That’s right,” she replied. “That’s exactly what happened.”
“I don’t know about you, but actions like that have become so automatic for me now that my gaze tends to shift automatically to where I expect the menu to appear even before I’ve right-clicked the name on the list. Now, what would happen if one of your friends logged on or off during that split second between hovering your mouse over that name and performing the right-click?”
“The name would move up or down one position on the list!” Jennifer declared.
“OMG!” Emilia cried. “And I would have opened a message box with the wrong person!”
“Which she then wouldn’t have realised because she crashed a few seconds later,” I said, sighing resignedly. “Two things happened.”
“Your line of reasoning was very helpful, dear fellow,” Edward said to me gently. “I just didn’t quite agree with where you took it.”
Emilia went straight to her message logs. After a minute or so of clicking, she let out a cry of exasperation. “It was Henry! I’m gonna kill him! I’m actually going to kill him!”
“Edward, you never cease to amaze me,” Indigo said, chuckling.
“Better luck next time, dear,” Vanilla said to me, patting my hand consolingly.